‘Once Saved Always Saved’, or ‘Preservation and Perseverance in Christ’?

one-with-christ-an-evangelical-theology-of-salvation-199x300From time to time I’m asked by one of my students whether or not I think you can lose your salvation. Being that many of them come to me as default Arminians, a few of them are clearly expecting me to dispel the silly notion that ‘once saved, always saved’ no matter what else you do. The idea that you could pray a prayer when you’re five, then go live your life in whatever kind of debauchery appeals to you for the rest of your life, and still be saved is repugnant to them. And rightfully so. Yet, still others, having caught the drift of some of my talks on grace, security in Christ, and so forth, strongly push back that grace is a grace and so it’s all covered. The idea of someone being lost by God is repugnant to them. And rightfully so.

At that point, the challenge is to explain a doctrine of perseverance that gives both the full assurance that those “whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30), as well as the need to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23).

In his excellent new work One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of SalvationMarcus Johnson gives a little summary of the distinction between pop-level “once saved, always saved’ theology and a more classic understand of “preservation and perseverance in Christ” that ought to be helpful for anyone else struggling to explain this key truth. Prudently he begins with the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. 1. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Notice the careful wording of the catechism: the believer is able to express complete confidence that she will never be separated from Christ, but salvation has an ongoing content that includes willingness and readiness to live for Christ. This is why Reformed theology has always insisted that salvation includes “the perseverance of the saints.” This does not mean that believers are saved because they persevere in their faith— as if continually to merit God’s grace— but that they persevere as they are preserved by God’s grace in Christ. The saints indeed stumble in sin, and may sometimes even doubt that they truly belong to Christ, but they will never finally be overcome by sin or lose their assurance of God’s fatherly care. The saints experience in their lives the faithfulness of Christ as they grow into his manifold blessings.

This is why a doctrine of “eternal security” that asserts that believers are eternally saved irrespective of the carnality of their lives, including the act of apostasy, is to be rejected strenuously. Quite simply, this construal fails to take into account that the believer’s eternal security is grounded in his preservation in the living, crucified, resurrected Christ, who will never fail to nourish his body. It is also typically reductionistic in its understanding of salvation, emphasizing that we have been saved to the exclusion of the equally important truth that we are being saved. The content of salvation, according to this view, is reduced to, and is often synonymous with, what is referred to as the “gift of eternal life,” an abstraction that neglects the truth that Christ is himself eternal life. The inevitable result is a doctrine of “eternal security” that vitiates the good news that God continually imparts the very life of Christ to his children. When Christ promises us eternal life, he is promising more than a gift to be redeemed when we die— a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, as it were. He is promising us a life in and with him that begins when we receive him, manifests itself throughout our lives, and necessarily wells up into eternal blessedness (John 4: 14; 15: 1– 8; 1 John 5: 18– 20).

Contrary to the rather crass notion of “ once saved, always saved,” the doctrine of preservation in Christ insists that the one who is united to Christ (is saved) inevitably experiences the manifold benefits of that union (is being saved). Christ gives us himself in salvation, and because he is the crucified, resurrected, living Son of God, salvation means a participation in his death, resurrection, and life. This means we not only receive the benefit of justification through this union, we also receive the benefit of sanctification. Sanctification, as we have seen, means not only that we have been made holy in Christ , but that we are being made holy in him —and this because we have been crucified and resurrected with him. In fact, the very design of our predestination in Christ is that we will “be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8: 29). We are told, further, that we were created in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). God is in the process of sanctifying us “completely. . . . He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5: 23– 24).

–One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Kindle Locations 3548-3578). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

To be clear, it’s unthinkable that someone who has been truly united to Christ, placed in his unbreakable grip, to be lost. Johnson brings out the staggering implications if that were true:

When God joins us to Christ through faith, he is making real in our temporal lives what he has already decreed in his eternal will and accomplished in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. To be severed from the Son would require that the Father rescind what he has already decreed and accomplished. Every benefit that we have received from being united to Christ would have to be undone. Having already justified us in Christ, God would have to re-condemn us and repeal our participation in Christ’s righteousness; having already sanctified us in Christ, God would have to reverse our baptism into Christ’s death, burial, and new resurrection life; having already adopted us in Christ, God would have to make us orphans; having already resurrected us with Christ and raised us in his ascension, God would have to lower us into death and cast us from the heavenly realms; and having already glorified us in Christ, God would have to terminate the end to which he appointed all of his blessings. In sum, having joined us to Christ, God would have to dismember the body of Christ.

–ibid, (Kindle Locations 3523-3530).

And yet, it’s also similarly unthinkable that someone truly united with Christ, filled with the Spirit and the gifts of justification, sanctification, adoption, and so forth, to turn aside and live in unrepentant sin. In a sense, yes, “once saved, always saved” is true, but what the doctrines of preservation and perseverance make clear is that a more accurate summary is “once saved, inevitably saved.

 Soli Deo Gloria

13 thoughts on “‘Once Saved Always Saved’, or ‘Preservation and Perseverance in Christ’?

  1. How glad I am for this truth… When I had a crisis of faith a few years ago I wasn’t sure of what I believed at all, other than that Christ had changed me in some way. Looking back, I’m sure that if God hadn’t kept a hold on me I wouldn’t have been able to claw my way back to orthodoxy.

  2. IF saved forever saved.
    The person’s appreciation of the grace that has been lavished on them is the surest indication I know that this has taken place.
    May I digress?
    I am firmly of the opinion, though I can’t substantiate it in any other way than the sense of justice that God has put in me and His character that I have experienced, that he does NOT DECIDE who will be saved and who won’t.
    Grace & peace.

  3. Thanks again for this great resource, Derek. I will look into buying this resource on Kindle. I have always felt terrible about how people can have a false assurance of a false salvation, but how true that we CAN rest in Christ if we have truly received His saving grace by faith, a faith that is shown (or manifested) as we live out our lives for Him (See James 2:14-26).

  4. Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry in “Kingdom Through Covenant” talk about how it’s not quite right to label a covenant either completely “unconditional” or “conditional” because each covenant has elements of both. Their way of categorizing the covenants emphasizes both the divine partner and the human party in the covenant. If our salvation is covenantal, which it surely is, then it makes sense that there is both an unconditional aspect to it and a conditional aspect to it. From the divine perspective, God will certainly preserve His elect in Christ. Yet, from our perspective, we are also called to persevere in our faith. We must not blunt either “side.”

  5. This is really good because it helps explain the true nature of salvation. American Evangelicals put so much emphasis on the “sinner’s prayer” – as though that is all salvation involves – that we lose sight of the enduring work of the Holy Spirit continuously as an element of Salvation. Another way to say it, “We are saved by grace alone, but not by a grace that is alone.”

  6. The Lord will save whom He will save.

    He is free to do so.

    And He makes promises to us in Christ Jesus. And we can trust in those promises . Totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    That’s the gospel.

  7. Pingback: In Case You Missed It (9/20/14 – 9/26/14) | The Hardin Crowder Blog
  8. And the fight for our soul are moving on even today too and that be victorious must we trust in Jesus blood and obey the word in love an in help of the Holy Spirit and if we fall to sin we can be lifted up agan by grace and for love of God to win,thanks and bless,keijo sweden

  9. While Calvinists repel from the notion of once saved always saved, they explain away those who fail to persevere and all the warning verses in Scripture by conveniently claiming that those verses apply to those who were never saved to begin with. However the plain reading of the scriptures indicates otherwise. Consider Paul’s somber warning to the brethren living in Rome: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation-but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For IF you live according to the flesh, YOU WILL DIE; but IF by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, YOU WILL LIVE” (Rom 8:12-13). These verses describe the potential death of born-again believers, referred to as the brethren in v. 12. If this death were not a real possibility, the warning would be nonsensical. We also know that this warning pertains to spiritual death – not physical death – because everyone dies physically irrespective of how we live our lives. Moreover, one must have spiritual life in order to be in danger of spiritual death. You cannot threaten a spiritually dead person with spiritual death. Such a person is already dead. Therefore, it must be concluded that these are regenerate brethren who are being warned of dying. Also note that this verse is conditional – not unconditional – as indicated by the word “if.” IF believers walk according to the flesh = they will die. IF believers walk according to the Spirit = they will live.

    Those who hold to eternal security often point out that there is no condemnation for those in Christ citing Rom 8:1. However in its proper context, v.1 is conditioned by the clause in v.4 which states: “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Thus, “no condemnation” is only promised to those walk by the Spirit which again is coherent with verses 12-13.
    Furthermore, in Rom 8:38-39 Paul is referring to suffering – NOT sinning. He provides needed reassurance to the Christians in Rome (and to us today) that external circumstances, such as hardships, tribulation, persecution, famine, nakedness, sword, etc. – referenced in Rom 8:35 – cannot separate us from God’s love. How true that is! However, Paul does not claim that willful and habitual sin in the life a a believer cannot separate us from God. Otherwise, he would be contradicting what he just wrote in 8:13. We must allow the scripture to interpret themselves.

  10. Here is my story: I grew up fundamentalist Baptist. I repented of all my sins and accepted Jesus Christ into my heart to be my Lord and Savior at age nine…and again in my early teens…just to be sure. In my early 20’s my family moved to another state where we attended a non-denominational, evangelical mega-church (which taught Baptist doctrine) for several years. In my mid to late 20’s I stopped going to church because I didn’t “feel” God inside me and he didn’t seem to listen when I prayed.

    I remained unchurched until I was married in my forties. I started attending liberal churches. When we had children, I started looking again at more conservative/fundamentalist churches, something closer to what I had believed as a child and teenager. We joined a conservative, orthodox Lutheran church. I became very involved in the church. I was happy and content in my orthodox Christian belief system. I read the Bible and prayed regularly.

    One day I was surfing the internet and came across an atheist’s website. He was a former fundamentalist Baptist/evangelical pastor! I was shocked! I started to engage him in conversation, and also tried to bring him back to the Faith, to belief in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

    However, this man pointed out to me some very big assumptions in my Christian belief system which I had never thought of, such as:

    1. Just because there is evidence for a Creator does not mean that the Creator is the Christian God, Yahweh.

    2. Our current Bibles contain thousands of scribe alterations, most of them inconsequential, but a couple of them are shocking. Why did God allow scribes copying the original Scriptures to change, delete, add, or alter his inerrant, Holy, Word?

    3. How do we know that the books of the New Testament are the Word of God? Is there a verse that tells us? Did Jesus give us a list? Did Paul?

    4. Do we really have any verifiable eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection or is it all hearsay and legend?

    5. Modern archaeology proves that the Captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, the forty years in the Sinai, the Conquest of Canaan, and the great kingdoms of David and Solomon are only ancient Hebrew fables.

    At first I fought him tooth and nail. I fought him for four months. At the very end I had to admit that there are no verifiable eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus in the Bible or anywhere else. All we have are four anonymous first century texts full of discrepancies and contradictions. The only thing I had left to attach my faith to was the testimony of the Apostle Paul: why would a devout Jewish rabbi convert to a religion he so hated unless he really saw a resurrected dead man on the Damascus Road?

    But after studying the five Bible passages that discuss Paul’s conversion, I had to admit that Paul never says he saw a resurrected body. All Paul says is that he saw a light…and that this event occurred in a “heavenly vision”. Visions are not reality…not in the 21st century nor in the 1st.

    And as for the improbability that a Jewish rabbi would convert to a hated religion, there is a Muslim cleric in Israel today who not too many years ago was an ardent Zionist Jewish settler and rabbi, intent on ridding the Muslims from Jewish land.

    Strange conversions occur. They do not prove that the new religion is true and inerrant.

    I was broken-hearted, but I saw my Christian Faith was nothing more than an ancient superstition that had been modified in the first century by Jesus, a good man, but a dead man. There is zero evidence that this first century Jew is alive and the Ruler of the Universe.

    • Though I don’t doubt your testimony gary, a survey of basic Christian apologetics would address your questions so they are by no means insurmountable. There is ample internal and external evidence for the veracity and reliability of the Bible. In this age of internet searching there is an abundance of websites that deal with the subject matter. For the sake of brevity, while it is true that Paul only saw a “light” and heard a voice, there were many other eye-witnesses including the other disciples who saw and touched [Peter] the risen Lord. Moreover, Paul refers to himself as being caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2). I find it hard to believe that a highly learned man such as Paul would alter his zeal from persecuting Christians to becoming an apostle of the gospel himself had he any doubts as to Jesus’ existence and message.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s