BY TIM STAPLES
The Evangelical notion that Christians can’t lose their salvation is unbiblical.
You’re discussing religion with an Evangelical friend. For 20 minutes you’ve responded as best you can to her pointed arguments against Catholic doctrines like Mary’s perpetual virginity, praying to saints, venerating statues, and purgatory. She’s unconvinced. You’re frustrated. It doesn’t look like there’s much of a chance you’ll agree on anything.
Then comes the jackpot question. “Look,” she says earnestly, “we can disagree about many things, but what’s most important is that we know we can be saved by Jesus Christ. Tell me, if you were to die tonight, do you know for sure if you’d go to heaven?”
This is the “all-important” question for Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. Although your friend is completely sincere in asking this question (as she’s been coached to do by her pastor and the anti-Catholic radio preacher she listens to in the afternoon), you realize that if you don’t answer correctly, you’ll walk into a sort of theological ambush.
If you respond that Christians can’t, apart from a special revelation from God, have metaphysical or absolute certainty concerning their salvation, a completely biblical and theologically precise answer, your Evangelical friend will gleefully spring a “trap” on you, based on 1 John 5:13: “These things I write to you, that you may know you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God.”
“See?” she smiles confidently. “The Bible disagrees with you!” She then proceeds to inform you that if you “confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thy heart that God hath raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For, with the heart, we believe unto justice; but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10).
“It’s simple, really. Salvation in Christ is a free gift that God is just waiting to give you, if you’ll open your heart to Jesus and accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior. The Catholic Church can’t promise you an assurance of salvation, but the Bible says you can have that assurance.”
“I appreciate your sincerity, but I have to disagree. You’re taking those verses of Scripture out of context, making them appear to say something they really don’t. Jehovah’s Witnesses are equally as confident Jesus is not God, and they can quote plenty of verses (like 1 Timothy 2:5) which seem to imply that Jesus was only human, not human and divine. And we know that the Witnesses are wrong. Right? That’s why we have to be careful to take Scripture in context, or we’ll fall into the old trap, ‘A text without a context is a pretext.’”
Now demonstrate that your friend has in fact taken Scripture out of context.
Point out that the Greek word in 1 John 5:13 meaning “you may know” is eidete (a derivative of oida). This term does not necessarily imply an absolutely certain knowledge. The same is true in English and other languages. We use the verb “to know” in more than one way. For example, I could say I know I’m going to get an A on my Greek exam tomorrow. Does that mean I have an absolute certainty of this? No. In fact, I could get a B or worse. In this instance, the verb “I know” means I have confidence I’ll get an A on my exam because I have studied the material thoroughly and I know it well. In other words, I have a moral certitude, as opposed to an absolute certitude.
The context of 1 John shows that this broader sense is how eidete is used in chapter 5, verse 13. In the very next verses (14-15), St. John says, “And we have this confidence in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us, and if He hears us we know (Greek: oidamen; a derivative of oida) that what we have asked him for is ours.” Ask your friend if this means she has absolute certainty she’ll receive whatever she asks for when she makes specific requests of God in prayer. Obviously, she can’t have absolute certainty. Also, we must remember that God is our sovereign Lord, and we trust Him to answer our prayers in the way that is best for us. But sometimes (perhaps often) what we just know is best for us is not, in fact, what’s really best for us. God often answers our prayers in a very different way from what we had asked for. So when St. John says, “If we ask anything according to His will He hears us, and if He hears us we know that what we have asked Him for is ours,” He is making clear that our knowing is purely conditional on unforeseen factors, not some sort of absolute assurance that, “what we have asked Him for is ours.”
Next, quote 1 John 3:21-22: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from Him whatever we ask, because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him.” Here St. John speaks of our having “confidence” that we will receive what we pray for. Here again, this is not a confidence equivalent to an absolute assurance. Furthermore, ask your friend if she is certain she’s completely fulfilling the requirements of that verse. Could she have done or be doing things that do not please God? Christ warned that at the Last Judgment, many unrighteous people will be shocked to discover that conduct they thought was acceptable is not, in fact, acceptable to the Lord (Matt. 25:41-46).
The Bible says salvation depends on several things, not just the simple believe/confess formula your friend holds to. Point out that in 1 John, St. John is speaking to Christians (ie. believers who had accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior (cf. chapter 2:12-14), when he says, “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:8-9). Notice that St. John includes himself in this category by using the word “we.” Ask what would happen if she did not confess her sins. What would happen if she confessed with her mouth but wasn’t truly repentant? Would God forgive her anyway? If she says yes, she contradicts the biblical passages that say unrepented sin will not be forgiven and nothing sinful or unclean can enter into heaven (cf. Hab. 1:13; Rev. 21:8- 9, 27).
St. John also says, “Let what you heard from the beginning remain in you. If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, then you remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). This if/then construction shows that there is an alternative to “remaining in the Son and the Father.” That alternative, naturally, is not remaining in them. In other words, these Christians are being told that it’s possible for them to choose not to remain in Him.
St. John makes a distinction between mortal and venial sins in 1 John 5:16-17. He explains that “all wrongdoing is sin,” but that some types of sin are “mortal” (Greek: pros thanaton = unto death), while there are other sins that are “venial” (Greek: me pros thanaton = not unto death). The one who is born of God does not commit mortal sin. If he does, he is “cut off” from the body, as St. Paul describes in Romans 11:22-24 and Galatians 5:4; St. Peter also mentions this in 2 Peter 2:20-22. Christ provided the sacramental means by which a person who commits a grave sin and subsequently repents may be restored to fellowship with God and the Church (cf. John 20:21-23).
Explain that if one can lose his salvation, then salvation cannot be assured absolutely. Remember, we’re not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our remaining in God’s grace. There are “ifs” and contingency clauses all over the New Testament regarding salvation, almost all of them of St. Paul warning Christians. Quote the following verses to make your point.
Romans 11:22: “See, then, the kindness and severity of God: severity towards those who fell (ie. from salvation: 11:11-21), but God’s kindness to you, provided you remain in His kindness, otherwise you too will be cut off.”
Other clear contingency clauses pertaining to salvation are Matthew 10:22-32; Luke 12:41-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Colossians 1:22-23; Hebrews 3:6,14; and Revelation 2:10, 25-26, 3:1-5, 22:18-19.
2 Peter 2:20-22: “For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become unto them worse than the former. For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
Scripture can’t get much clearer than that in explaining that one can lose his salvation. But your friend might respond, “The person spoken of here never really knew the Lord, he only knew about the Lord.” You should respond by pointing out that the Greek word used here for knowledge is epignosei. The root word, gnosei, means knowledge, but a particular kind of knowledge. We mentioned oida above. This term refers to an intellectual knowledge. Gnosei, on the other hand, denotes knowledge that comes from experience. Further, the word here in 2 Peter 2:20 has the prefix epi, meaning “full,” making it epignosei which would translate literally into English as “full experiential knowledge.” This points us toward the fact that the sinner spoken of in this text has “escaped the defilements of the world” through a “full experiential knowledge” of Christ Jesus. Only a saving relationship with Christ can have this effect. Is their any other way to “escape the defilements of the world” except by becoming justified in Christ? No. And merely knowing about Jesus isn’t enough. Notice too, that the image St. Peter uses in verse 22 is a sow that has been washed in water. He speaks of water baptism in 2 Peter 3:20-21 when he says “This [water of the Great Flood] prefigured baptism which now saves you.” The connection between 2 Peter 2:20 and 1 Peter 3:21 is obvious – both passages deal with different elements of salvation.
Ask your friend to read 2 Peter 1:2-4 in order to establish the context for 2 Peter 2:20. Notice that St. Peter begins his letter with a description of believers to whom he is writing: “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge (epignosei = full experiential knowledge), of God, and of Jesus our Lord . . . that . . . you might be partakers of the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” The Greek word apophugentes (“having escaped from”) and the phrase en to kosmo (“in the world”) describe exactly the condition of being a “born again” Christian: one who has been freed by God’s grace from sin and defilement. These are the same words used in 2 Peter 2:20 to describe the one who then goes back to his old sinful state, worse off than before he had accepted Jesus as his savior and was born again. “For they, having escaped (apophugentes) the defilements of the world (tou kosmou) through the knowledge (epignosei) of the Lord Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first.”
Now go to Matthew 6:15, where Jesus warns, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your transgressions.” In other words, the Lord doesn’t care how “born again” you may claim to be or how many spiritual experiences you’ve had. If you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven of your sins. This warning about losing salvation is repeated in Matthew 19:21-35.
The Bible warns Christians that they can “fall from grace” (Gal. 5:1-5), be “cut off” from salvation (Rom. 11:18-22), have their names removed from the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 22:19-19), by committing certain sins and not repenting of them (cf. Eph. 5:3-5; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19; Rev. 21:6-8). In a chilling reminder of the possibility of losing salvation by separating oneself from Christ, St. Paul adds, “I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).
Now it’s time to discuss the meaning of Romans 10:9-10, which your friend used at the outset of the discussion. “The Bible says that if you believe in your heart and confess Jesus with your mouth, you shall be saved!”
“Yes, it does say that, but it doesn’t mean that we confess him one time only. The Greek word used here for confess, homologeitai, entails our continued confession of Christ throughout our lives. In Matthew 10:22-32 our Lord says, ‘You shall be hated by all men for My name’s sake, but he that endures until the end shall be saved; everyone who acknowledges (homologesei) Me before men, him will I acknowledge (homologesei) before My heavenly Father. But whoever denies Me before others, I will deny before My heavenly Father.’ Notice the context is one of holding fast to one’s confession of Christ until death (cf. Heb. 4:14, 10:23-26 and 2 Tim. 2:12).
The Bible is clear that confessing Christ is done not merely by words, but primarily by deeds. Conversely, denying Christ is done primarily by deeds: sins.
1 Timothy 5:8 “Whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:11-12, 15). This means denying Christ by one’s actions.
1 Corinthians 6:9 says, “Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (cf. Eph. 5:3-5; Gal. 5:19; Rev. 21:8-9,27). Scripture nowhere says that “born again” Christians can commit such sins as these, die unrepentant, and still go to heaven anyway.
To salvage her position, your friend might counter with Romans 8:35-37: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Your friend asks, “Doesn’t that verse clearly teach that Christians have eternal security?”
Point out that in his list of things that cannot separate us from Christ, he doesn’t mention adultery, murder, fornication, etc. Why? Because St. Paul tells us that doing these things will separate us from Christ. This list also excludes the Christian himself. Since God loves us and respects our free will, it is still possible for a Christian to be born again and then later, through his own free choice, separate himself from Christ.
A final warning from St. Paul is in order: “These things happened as examples for us (ie. born again Christians), so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not become idolaters, as some of them did . . . let us not indulge in immorality, as some of them did. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall” (1 Cor. 10:6-8, 11-12).