Eternal Security/Part 1
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2001|
|The topic of the eternal security of the believer has troubled many Christians. During the next few months we’ll take an in depth look at the Scriptural passages related to this teaching.|
Eternal Security—Part One
The biblical doctrine of salvation is one of the many special aspects of Christian faith and serves to illustrate the uniqueness of the Christian religion compared to all other religions. The great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, was correct when he wrote that, in the end, there are only two religions in the world: the religion of grace and the religion of works. In essence, all non-Christian religions in the world, large and small, are religions of works. Only biblical Christianity teaches that salvation is a free gift resulting solely from God’s grace. This makes Christianity unlike any other religion that has ever existed, past or present. For reasons we cannot discuss here, this is also one of the great proofs that the Bible alone is a divine revelation. Were it not, it would teach the same approach to salvation found in every other religion devised by men or inspired by spirits.
But if Christian salvation is unique, it is also not without controversy, even within the church. Different interpretations exist, for example, on the meaning of the doctrine of election and whether or not Christians can lose their salvation. It is this latter subject we wish to examine here.
We do not think it necessary to belabor the importance of an issue when eternal outcomes are at stake. If salvation can be lost, it is vital that Christians not be given a false sense of security. If salvation is secure, it is vital Christians not anguish over a non-existent possibility.
If salvation is by grace, we think there can be only one possible resolution to the issue (See Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:24; 4:16; 11:5-6; Gal. 2:21; Eph. 2:5-6; 2 Tim. 1:9-10; Heb. 6:13- 20; 1 Pet. 1:3-6; 1 Jn. 2:25; 5:9-13).
What is eternal security and why is this doctrine important?
Eternal security is the present possession of eternal life. >From the point of salvation, it is the irrevocable and unfailing condition of eternal life guaranteed the true believer in Christ in both time and eternity.
Few issues are more important in the Christian life than whether or not a true believer can lose his salvation. Indeed, given the grand scope of eternity, one would expect this single topic would be of paramount importance to every Christian. Yet how many have ever really attempted to study this doctrine in a thorough and systematic manner? Most Christians, unfortunately, neglect the systematic study of Bible doctrine. This is to their loss and the subject matter of this article illustrates the consequences.
Why is this doctrine of such vital importance? Because apart from an understanding of this teaching, it is literally impossible for any Christian to be assured of eternal glory with God. Granted, as Christians we have the knowledge of the greatness of God’s love for us demonstrated at the cross, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to us of God’s love for us. This itself brings a measure of security. But how can we be certain of our eternal fate unless this issue is finally resolved Scripturally? In other words, how can we know we are secure unless salvation is eternal from the point of saving faith?
Conversely, what if we are not convinced that the Scriptures teach eternal security and therefore believe we have no guarantee of being in heaven? Can we ever be certain that at some future point God will not become our adversary? No Christian who thinks seriously about the consequences of the loss of salvation—in light of his own failings and sinfulness—can enjoy God to the fullest realizing that, in the end, keeping his salvation depends to some degree, large or small, upon his own performance.
For the Christian, the single most important endeavor in life is to glorify God. We are convinced that God can be trusted, loved, enjoyed and served to the fullest if we are aware that from the point of salvation a place in heaven has been guaranteed us forever. In other words, we believe the doctrine of eternal security glorifies God—i.e., inspires love and obedience to God—far more than the logical outworking of the doctrine that a Christian can lose his/her salvation. Both our trust in and our love for God are logically based upon our knowledge that our relationship with Him is secure. Thus, the Bible tells us we can “greatly rejoice” that our inheritance of salvation “can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3-5). But if our relationship can become insecure at any point, then our trust in God’s love for us must suffer to some degree because “No one can rest while in terror of eternal damnation,…” Indeed, “How can I go on my way rejoicing if there be doubts in my mind whether God will continue to deal graciously with me and complete that work He has begun in my soul? How can I sincerely thank God for having delivered me from the wrath to come if it is quite possible I may yet be cast into hell?… This, then, is no trivial doctrine we are now concerned with, for the most momentous considerations are inseparably connected with it.”
There are, of course, those who have an assurance of their salvation and yet reject the doctrine of eternal security. But on what logical basis can they have an assurance of salvation when they know it is possible that it can be lost? Can any person know with full assurance what the future holds? How can we be certain of our own ability to escape the lures and deceptions of the world or to resist sin, or to stand up under the attacks of the devil? Are we truly certain we can bear up under the constant assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil—no mean adversaries to be sure?
Of course, those who deny eternal security say that a person who has lost their salvation may be saved again—and again, and again, and again. But is this doctrine ever taught or even hinted at anywhere in Scripture?
Why is this doctrine so controversial and if it’s really true, why do many Christians reject it?
There are several reasons why some beliefs are controversial, mostly because some people don’t like them. Hell is certainly controversial and so is the creation-evolution issue, but that does not mean that these controversial issues have no resolution. Further, being a Christian is no guarantee one will have correct beliefs on everything, especially if one never personally studies biblical doctrine or controversial issues in a systematic manner.
Some people reject the teaching of eternal security out of simple bias; they just don’t like it. The issue is not what the Scripture says but what one wishes to believe. No amount of Scripture, logic, or common sense will convince a person against his/her will. Again, the doctrine of eternal punishment is disbelieved by most today, even some Christians, not because the Bible does not teach it but because people wish not to believe it. In all such cases, the Scriptures which support a given doctrine are either ignored or reinterpreted into conformity with what one prefers to believe. The problem is never with any doctrine that is truly biblical, but only with those who refuse to accept it for whatever reason.
Another reason some reject this teaching is a natural tendency toward self-sufficiency or pride. If we must keep ourselves saved in order to not be lost, the simple conclusion is that we have something to boast about concerning the quality of our performance in comparison to those who never kept themselves saved. Salvation is ultimately dependent upon us for, in the end, even God cannot save us unless we allow it. But in effect, isn’t this is a form of earning our salvation by our own righteousness? Isn’t such a teaching thoroughly rejected in Scripture? We stress that the difficulty with such a belief is that it denies the doctrine that salvation is entirely by grace. God tells us that boasting is excluded if salvation is by grace through faith: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, on that of faith” (Rom. 3:27, cf., v. 24). (See Rom. 3:22- 27, cf., Gal. 1:6-8; chs. 2-3; Rom. chs. 3-4, 9-10; Eph. 2:8-9.) Granted, most Christians who believe that salvation can be lost do not think in these terms, but if they are trusting in their own performance to keep themselves saved, isn’t this the logical conclusion?
If God has provided the atonement of Christ merely as a means for us to potentially save ourselves, as cults like Mormonism teach, then the death of Christ did not actually procure salvation for the believer. Why? Because an additional element foreign to grace is introduced which determines whether or not that salvation ever occurs: individual performance.
If a person’s works, obedience and continuing faithfulness determine that person’s salvation, then salvation is not entirely of God but of both God and man. God may even do 95%, but unless that 5% is there, even the 95% is useless. But again, doesn’t this take us back to the false beliefs of Mormonism, Roman Catholicism and other religions that, although they claim salvation is by grace, also stress the necessity of individual performance for achieving salvation? All this is why God emphasize that salvation is by grace because, “if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). If any teaching of the Bible is crystal clear, it is that salvation is by grace through faith alone and that works of merit do not enter the picture one iota:
- For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
- For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3:28)
- However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works. (Rom. 4:5-6)
- Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:1)
- This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:22-24)
- [H]e saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
- … and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil. 3:9)
- What do all these Scriptures mean? Only this:
- Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom 5:9)
- Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him. (Rom. 4:8) Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Heb. 7:25)
The apostle Paul further says that salvation is of faith so that it might be by grace so that the promise of salvation might be certain (See Rom. 4:13-16; Heb. 6:16-20). In other words, if God agreed to do 99% of the work of salvation but we were required to do 1%, we could have no certainty that we had accomplished our part of the bargain so that God could do His 99%. We would never really know we had done our 1% until after we had died—at which point it would be too late if we had failed.
This is why joining salvation to works of righteousness can never be justified. To compromise on this is to let Christianity slip into the error of salvation by human merit. At that point it becomes indistinguishable from every other religion. In essence, salvation cannot be part by law and part by grace and still be Christian. But notice also that we are not denying the importance of good works. Indeed, the believer is saved “to do good works” (Eph. 2:10) but the believer is never saved by good works.
Another reason this doctrine is controversial is from lack of information. Christians may become confused because, on its surface, the issue seems too complex to sort out. But the Scripture admonishes the believer to study doctrine in order to be careful to handle the Word of God accurately (2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Tim. 4:6). The truth is that this doctrine can be proven Scripturally, as we will show. On the other hand, if we don’t know Scripture well, if we have never studied doctrine, if we don’t know the character of God, it is not surprising that we might suspect the doctrine of eternal security. It’s only natural to suspect something that good.
There are also Bible teachers and theologians well-versed in Scripture who do not believe in the doctrine of security. But some of these individuals are often biased against the idea for non-Scriptural reasons. If so, they are not going to be handling the Scripture accurately, but in accordance with their own preferences. Many others do not believe the doctrine is Scriptural because of the existence of problem passages. Biblically, this is easily resolved. Why? Because only one teaching can be true. Either a Christian can lose their salvation or they cannot. Both teachings can’t be true. If God does not contradict Himself (and Scripture is clear on this), then God is not going to teach both positions simultaneously because “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). Thus, if one teaching can be proven, then any Scripture which would seem to deny that position must be interpreted in light of the truth that is already established.
We reason this way with other doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity and even salvation by grace through faith alone. Some passages might seem to contradict these doctrines (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:5; Jas. 2:24) but once Scripture has been carefully interpreted to begin with and a truth is known, we do not use other Scriptures that merely seem to present a problem to deny the truths that have already been clearly established. We discover that, with careful study, these additional Scriptures have completely satisfactory explanations that harmonize with the established doctrine. Thus, once the doctrine of the Trinity has been established, we do not proceed to teach that there are three Gods merely because the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each called God. Once we have established from Scripture that Christ is God, we do not proceed to deny this truth merely because the Scripture also refers to Him as, e.g., “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And in both cases, we accept things that we cannot fully comprehend, that God is three persons in one God and that Christ is full deity and full humanity in one person.
Likewise, those verses which seem to teach salvation by works when taken out of context (e.g., Jas. 2:24), when properly interpreted, actually do not and cannot, as we demonstrated in detail in chapter 3 of our Protestants and Catholics: Do They Now Agree? (1995).
It is the same with eternal security. If this doctrine can be established, then it is wrong to deny it merely because some Scriptures seem to contradict it. If the doctrine is true, no Scripture can possibly contradict it for this would mean that God has contradicted Himself and that the Scriptures were untrustworthy. In other words, this subject also involves the character and integrity of God.
- Lewis Sperry Chafer, Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 96-97.
- Arthur Pink, Eternal Security (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1974), p. 16.