One of the most difficult questions to answer in apologetics and Christian theology is, “Can a person lose his salvation?” For some it’s an issue of semantics. The word ‘lose’ indicates having misplaced something. It is not unusual for me to misplace my keys or the remote control but it is utterly ridiculous to entertain the idea that one might lose (misplace) their salvation. Can you imagine going into work one day and hearing a colleague say, “I’ve misplace my salvation, will you help me find it.” In that sense, of course, salvation cannot be ‘lost’.
We tend to emphasize salvation, or being born again, as a one time, crisis event. There is a sort of “cheap grace” idea that all that is necessary to assure eternity with God is to mentally assent to the idea that Christ is the Messiah and he did die on the cross and was resurrected for the salvation of mankind. If you ‘believe’ this you are in. Those who promote this shallow idea seem to be ignorant of the fact that how one behaves is determined by what one believes. Cheap grace is mental assent without any radical change in behavior. Genuine belief would change behavior. Those who follow this deception love to say, “Christ saved me for all the sins I committed, am committing and will commit. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter what I do, I’m saved.” The Apostle Paul condemned such heresy with strong words, “Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Romans 6:1-2)
Most Christians would agree that God has given man a gift of free will. Our salvation is determined by what God wills (sovereignty) and what man chooses (free will). God’s plan is simple to understand: He wants to save sinners, make them into saints and then populate a new world. It is a sort of reverse creation. The first time he made the world and populated it with people. This time he is making the people to populate a new world. God doesn’t make a saint instantaneously, it is a process. A person can step on the road to salvation in an instant but then he is granted many opportunities to progress along the way.
Many look at salvation as an arbitrary experience God forces upon certain pre-destined souls. Others believe men cooperate with God for salvation by choosing to answer his call. If we are free to enter into salvation why are we not free to leave? This isn’t like Hotel California:
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
’relax,’ said the night man,
We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!
It seems contrary to the nature of God to slam and lock the door once we enter. It may be possible for man to retain the ability to leave but it doesn’t seem probable. Why would anyone choose to leave heaven to live in hell? Why would anyone choose death rather than life, misery rather than serenity?
There are three stages of salvation: Justification is when the soul is set free from the penalty of sin. Sanctification is when the soul is set free from the power of sin and glorification is when the soul is set free from the possibility of sin. Justification is available to any who will confess their sins and abandon a sinful lifestyle. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) We enter the door of sanctification the moment we willingly consecrate our lives to Christ and we submit ourselves to a long, and sometimes tedious, process of becoming more and more like Jesus. “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification.” (John 17:17) Justification and sanctification are pre-requisites for the final stage of salvation called glorification when our salvation is finally complete. This stage comes after the death of the body when the soul is transported beyond the reach of temptation and sin for all of eternity. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him…” (1 John 1:3)
Salvation is not complete until we have been glorified. When one boldly declares he cannot lose his salvation must we not ask, “How can you declare you cannot lose something you have not yet attained?” I am not yet ready to declare “Once saved, always saved” but when I cross the bar or when Christ appears to whisk away his own, in that day I will shout it to from the mountain at the top of my lungs, “I am once saved, always saved.”
I believe that “he who has started a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6) But God, through an act of love, seems to have tempered his own sovereignty by gifting man with free will. Christians are certainly eternally secure but this security is conditional. It could be disrupted by the sovereignty of God or the free will God has given man. Can a man lose his salvation? I don’t think so “for I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God's love.” (Romans 8:38) Paul goes on to list all the things that are incapable of separating us from God’s love. But, Paul does not include ourselves in that list. Can a man choose to become an apostate? The Bible seems to indicate that a man can choose to walk away from God. There are at least 80 passages of scripture in the New Testament that teach that the process of salvation can be interrupted, delayed or stopped altogether.
Jude 21 says, “Keep yourselves in God’s love” and verse 24 says, “He is able to keep you”. Doesn’t this indicate a conditional relationship? He will keep us if we will determine to be kept.
Jesus declared himself to be the true vine. The dead (unfruitful) branches are cut away and destroyed. The fruitful branches are pruned so they will produce even more fruit. “Remain in me and I will remain in you.” (John 15:4)
Christ warns against the prevalent teaching of ‘cheap grace’. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. But a fearful expectation of judgment.” (Hebrews 10:26-17) There is a terrifying judgment for those who received knowledge of the way but broke away and chose to live in continuous, deliberate sin.
Peter says, “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them” (1 Peter 2:20) He is saying that they are worse off who have entered the way and then departed from it. This is contradictory for those who argue that we might continue to live a sinful lifestyle and still be rewarded eternal life. If they received eternal life how are they worse off?
In conclusion, I would question the idea that we cannot walk away from God because it seems to make God inconsistent. Either he has gifted us with free will or he has not. But I would argue strongly that it is very unlikely that a man would choose to walk away from God if he were truly, genuinely saved. Maybe a more accurate statement would be not so much, “Once Saved Always Saved” but “If Saved Always Saved.”