Many Christians are troubled by verses in the Bible which appear to suggest that believers could fall from grace and lose their salvation. What does the Bible teach on this subject and what should we make of the "problem verses"? Can a sinner be saved and lost? Space will not allow us to have an in-depth study of the subject, but the following is written as a brief help for those who are troubled by the issue and for those who are teaching others.
We shall consider three Scriptural aspects of salvation and show that in each case personal salvation cannot possibly be lost. The three aspects are justification, redemption, and new birth.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes mankind as sinful, guilty and condemned. The verdict for the whole world is "guilty before God" (Rom 3.19). Paul goes on to tell us how the Lord Jesus, who is holy and just, submitted to the judgment of God on our behalf so that guilty sinners might be made right with God. The Bible term for this transaction is justification. Paul writes that God is just, "and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom 3.26). The moment a sinner turns to Christ for forgiveness, God reckons the death of Christ to that person. In judicial terms, the sinner is declared righteous because the Just has died for the unjust.
Could a saint, who has been justified by God, find himself back in the dock recharged with his old sins? Is it possible that Gods original declaration of righteousness for that believer could be deemed unsound? The suggestion is both shocking and impossible! Does Paul entertain the thought that anything could separate the believer from Christ? Paul assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, neither tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things future, height, depth nor anything else in all creation "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (see Rom 8.35-39).
Judicially, the believer has been justified, i.e. declared righteous by God, and so is absolutely safe and secure. This can never be annulled. To suggest otherwise would be to undermine and deconstruct what God has accomplished in Christ.
Salvation is also spoken of in terms of redemption. Just as a man who has been sold into slavery can only be redeemed by the payment of a ransom price, so the sinner who is sold under sin needs to be redeemed. The sinner who believes comes into the good of the redemption price paid by Christ, "Who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2.6). The believer has "redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1.14).
If we have been redeemed by Christ and freed from the bondage of sin, is it possible that we could find ourselves once again lost to God and sold under sin? Could the Redeemer lose the possession that He had redeemed with His own precious blood? Again, this suggestion is both shocking and impossible.
Every Christian is familiar with the Old Testament story of how Israel as a nation was redeemed out of Egypt. The blood of the Passover lamb had been applied to the door posts and lintel of each Hebrew home. When the children of Israel finally stood on the shore of the Red Sea and saw the dead bodies of the Egyptian soldiers, they realised that they were free of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. God had redeemed Israel out of Egypt and they could now head for the Promised Land.
Could Israel find itself back under the bondage of Egypt? The answer is given by the Lord through Moses when warning that any future king of Israel must not go down to Egypt: "forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way" (Deut 17.16).
This helps us to determine whether or not a redeemed sinner could lose his redemption and be disowned by his Redeemer. Sir Robert Anderson writes: "But what if the redeemed sinner fall by the way? Will not sin thrust him back again under Egyptian bondage, and create the need for a new redemption? Most emphatically, No. Sin might bring Israel to Babylon; but a return to Egypt was for ever barred".1
We do not claim that New Testaments doctrines can be proven from Old Testament types, but we hold that the types can be powerful illustrations of the doctrines. We submit that the Biblical teaching of redemption through the blood of Christ allows no possibility of a redeemed sinner ever becoming "unredeemed".
The New Birth
When the sinner turns to Christ for salvation, he is born of the Spirit into the family of God. The Lord Jesus explained to Nicodemus: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn 3.5). At the moment the sinner trusts Christ he is born of God, sealed and indwelt by the Spirit, and given by the Father to the Son; he becomes a member of Gods family.
Is it possible for a believer, who has been born of the Spirit, to be unsealed and abandoned by the Spirit? Can a child of God be orphaned, disowned and disinherited from the family of God? The Lord Jesus gives us the answer in His assertion to the Jews at Solomons Porch: "And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Fathers hand. I and my Father are one" (Jn 10.28-30).
These words prove that it is utterly unthinkable and impossible for anyone to be born of the Spirit into the family of God, only to be later expelled and disowned by God.
What about the difficult verses?
Most of the difficulties are associated with the five warning passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews.2 We quote one of them at length:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned (Heb 6.4-8).
Is this passage referring to true believers or to people who were still uncommitted and in danger of returning to Judaism? If they are not true believers, in what sense can it be said that they had been enlightened, been made partakers of the Holy Ghost, tasted both the good word of God and the powers of the world to come? The question can only be answered when the Jewish context of the warning is understood. The nation of Israel had rejected its King and had crucified the Son of God. Nevertheless, in the days following the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, the nation witnessed extraordinary signs and events. Many had their eyes opened as to the person of Christ and had made a nominal profession of faith, having seen the mighty works of the Spirit done through the apostles at Jerusalem. They had tasted something of millennial and Messianic conditions.3 To turn back from such understanding and to return to Judaism was to say that the nation had been right to crucify the Son of God. This was apostasy - and for such there was no return. They were unbelieving Christ-rejecters. This is the key to understanding the warning passages. Those who turned away from Christ were not genuine believers.
The believers salvation is not conditional on his own efforts. On the contrary, the believers salvation is absolutely and eternally secure because of the finished work of Christ. God Himself is the underwriter. If God were to lose a single believer, heaven would grow dark! The believer has been justified by God, redeemed by Christ, and begotten of the Spirit. The Christian can rejoice in the eternal security of his justification, redemption, and new birth. It is impossible to be saved and lost.
1 Sir Robert Anderson: Redemption Truths.
2 Heb 2.1-4; 3.7-4.11; 6.4-8; 10.26-31; 12.25-29.
3 Acts 2.43; 3.8-9; 4.16; 5.12-16.