Thursday, December 2, 2010

Eternal Salvation

One of the most difficult subjects addressed within the Christian community is that of "Eternal Salvation", sometimes referred to as "Once Save Always Saved Doctrine".  On one side of the debate we have those that say Christians can never lose their salvation once they truly become a Christian.  On the other hand we have those that assert one can later choose to turn away from God and follow their own desires, as our free will is never taken away from us just because we become a Christian.  The reason it is controversial is that people on both sides of the debate can produce several places in scripture to support their viewpoint.

Those that claim we can never lose our salvation most often cite the following passages (though there are other verses that may be used too):
  • “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) 
  • “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.” (John 10:28-29)

Those that say salvation can be lost would say that, while nothing outside of us can take away salvation, it does not mean we ourselves could not choose to live sinful lives and turn away from God (Hebrews 3:12).  The other suggestion that one could lose their salvation appears in Hebrews 3:14, where we read, "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."

Perhaps the strongest scriptural evidence that supports one can lose their salvation can be found in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23).  The parable is explained towards the end of the passage, where we read, "The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.  When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away." (Matthew 13:20-21)  Those that support eternal salvation suggest those that received the word upon a rocky place were not actually true Christians to begin with, and so the debate goes on.

As I attempt to address this issue further, I think it's important that we try and understand a fundamental issue: which is, "Why do people ask about eternal salvation to begin with?"  Perhaps the least common reason is for academic pursuit, where there is no personal motive behind the question except that one has an intellectual curiosity, or perhaps they are trying to learn about the subject to help others.  Indeed that is the primary reason this writer has accepted the task, as it is a question that I am asked from time to time.  That leaves two primary reasons people ask the question:

  1. They are concerned about someone they love (either currently living or that has died) that is/was exhibiting acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-21) rather than bearing fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).   Yet that person, at least at one time, says they had accepted Christ as their Lord and savior and claimed to be a Christian.
  2. They are concerned about their own salvation and are not sure that they will go to heaven when they die.

Addressing the first concern, I believe we must tread very carefully, for only God can judge a person's heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  Indeed if anyone had witnessed the Apostle Paul sinning when he proclaimed, "what a wretched man am I" in one of the most articulate expressions we have in scripture concerning our struggle with the sinful nature (Romans 7:15-25); they may have concluded Paul was not a Christian and was destined to hell rather than heaven.  Yet there can be no doubt Paul had one of the most miraculous conversions of anyone and certainly was filled with the Holy Spirit.

James 3:2 also tells us, “We all stumble in many ways.”  Those words explain to us that we will sometimes stumble in our walk with the Lord, just as we sometimes stumble when we physically walk.  Consequently we must be careful making a judgment based upon isolated acts or someone's imperfection.

Romans chapter 14 also explains we must be careful not to judge others over trivial matters.  Still, other places in scripture explain we do have responsibility to sincerely evaluate (1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1); correct and rebuke one another in love and humility (Luke 17:3); and, as needed, exercise church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:12-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14; 1 Timothy 5:20-21; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:2). 

Ultimately, as we consider whether someone is saved or not, we can only leave the matter to God, knowing that He is absolutely righteous and fair when dealing with any of us.  Therefore, while a loving concern about someone else's salvation is certainly justified, ultimately it is up to the Lord to judge and no amount of worrying about it will change that.  Yet, as I'll explain further below, if someone is blatantly sinning and continually doing so, then there is cause for concern regardless of whether they claim(ed) to be a Christian or not.  If that was your loved one that passed away, I can only say that it was between them and God and I know that, without a doubt, God was fair and just about the matter.  If that is about someone you know that is still alive, then I would recommend you refer them to this article and ask that the Holy Spirit speak to their heart.

Speaking of the Lords' judgment, we must recognize that Christ's judgment of us is not based merely on us citing a prayer or performing some other act such as baptism.  The Bible tells us that there are not any works we can do to gain salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Yet, Christ’s messages to the seven churches (and Christians are "The Church") in Revelation 2-3 reveal we are most certainly held to righteous standards.

Christ Praises Churches/People That:
  • Do not tolerate wicked persons (Revelation 2:2).
  • That test the doctrinal viewpoints, behavior, and claims made by church leaders (Revelation 2:2)
  • Persevere in hardship, suffering, faithfulness, love, witness, service and suffering for Christ (Revelation 2:3, Revelation 2:10, Revelation 2:13, Revelation 2:19, Revelation 2:26)
  • Hate that which God hates (Revelation 2:6)
  • Overcomes sin, Satan and the ungodly world (Revelation 2:7, Revelation 2:11, Revelation 2:17, Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:5, Revelation 3:12, Revelation 3:21)
  • Refuse to conform to immorality in the world and worldliness in the church (Revelation 2:24; Revelation 3:4)
  • Obeys God’s Word (Revelation 3:8, Revelation 3:10).

Christ Condemns Churches/People That:
  • Diminish a personal devotion to God (Revelation 2:4)
  • Tolerate immoral church leaders, teachers or laypersons (Revelation 2:14-15, Revelation 2:20)
  • Become spiritually dead (Revelation 3:17-18). 

I would like to dedicate the remaining part of this article to the last example of people that are asking the question, "Are we assured of eternal salvation?" because they are concerned inwardly.  The response is much more difficult than one may expect.  It is not because God's Word is ambiguous, but because the real issue is the motive behind the question.  For some, it may be that they are truly Christians and, while not perfect, are living according to Christ's standards; yet they have been brought up in a legalistic environment that suggested they are "never good enough".  To those people I can only encourage by saying that you will never be perfect and, as noted previously, we must recognize that even the Apostle Paul admitted he was saved only by the grace of God.

One must understand that God is going to examine your heart when you are judged, and that there is no past sin you have ever committed that stands between you and God, thanks to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for you.  When Satan (or anyone) comes to attack and accuse you, you can claim the blood of the cross for your atonement.  We have these comforting words written by Paul, "Who is he that condemns?  Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us."  (Romans 8:34)

However, I would be remiss to leave it at that, because some people suggest that once someone comes to Christ, that is all that matters; yet, as I'll demonstrate with many specific scriptures below, God's Word says otherwise.  Choosing to believe someone that is "watering down" God's Word over God's actual Word is a very dangerous road to take because it may give you a false sense of security.  In other words, some people suggest that once we become Christians, because of God's grace, we essentially have a "license to sin".  Oh, they may not actually put it in such blatant terms, but the underlying theme is that we should just accept we are sinners and be sure to ask for forgiveness.

That idea allows some people to falsely conclude they can continue to live sinful lifestyles (make frequent and willful choices to sin, rather than occasionally "stumbling" as we read in James).  They then go to church, pray for forgiveness, take the Lord’s Supper, and expect a full pardon — even when they know that after they walk out of church, they will return to the sinful lifestyle they just asked God to forgive them for!  While we can debate whether or not they are (or ever were) true Christians or not, the main point is that living like that will have serious eternal consequences.  Therein should be our real focus...

First, we should understand that when we are tempted, we should make every effort to resist that temptation.  Also, unlike where James explained we all stumble, we must recognize that stumbling is different than falling.  For an examination of falling, we can turn to 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 where we read:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.  (emphasis added)

Notice that when tempted we are always given the opportunity to make a decision not to sin.  Thus, those who are continually living in sin are continually making decisions to yield to temptation and are most definitely on very dangerous ground spiritually.  Being tempted and repeatedly making the wrong decision is quite different from stumbling unexpectedly from time to time.  As noted in God’s Word before, the Holy Spirit always provides a way out.  The battle is one none of us should ever surrender to because God’s Word tells us that consciously making a decision to sin over and over insults the Spirit of grace and results in going to hell  Lest you think this is just my opinion, consider the powerful warning written in Hebrews 10:26-29:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.  Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Emphasis added)

Notice the capitalization of the word “Spirit.”  The verses above mean that one insults the Holy Spirit when he or she deliberately keeps on sinning!  The consequence of that is “only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire”!  Note also that the above is not a discussion of Old Testament law and, as some contend, some “old covenant” law; rather, it is very much a discussion related to the “new covenant,” in full recognition that this is the post-crucifixion blood covenant.

Inheriting the Kingdom of God

There are many other verses that support this concept.  Just in case the above verses talking about a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire seem unclear, let’s read Galatians 5:19-20.

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Emphasis added)

While many of the verses discussing the consequences of sin are practically foreign to most Christians, there are many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) who can readily quote verses such as, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7), or “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  However, let’s take a closer look at those verses in their full context.

First, let’s examine the Scripture where Jesus was responding to the Pharisees and saying, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).  Yes, Jesus certainly denounced the pious Pharisees and forgave the woman who was brought before Him, but one also must read Christ’s last words to her: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).  The woman had been engaging in a sin that is a lifestyle choice (in that particular case, adultery), and while Jesus readily forgave her, the expectation from Him was clear: she was not to sin any longer.  (Note that many other sinful lifestyles could just as easily be substituted in that story.)

As for the well-cited verse where the apostle Paul says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” like the previous example, one must read to the end of that chapter to get the whole story, because at the end of it we read: “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?  Not at all!  Rather, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).

The point being made there about everyone having sinned is that we cannot expect to get to heaven by way of not sinning, which is what the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were trying to claim.  However, the chapter also explains that despite the fact that we all are sinners, and despite the fact that we are saved only by our faith in Jesus Christ, the expectation most certainly still is that we must obey God’s law.  Whenever we read about God’s love, mercy, and grace in the Bible, we also must read the sections that tell us we should keep the commandments (which are almost always only a few verses away).

More Verses That State the Consequences of Sin

In addition to the preceding verses that clearly denounce the concept that we can willfully continue to sin and still expect to go to heaven, here are a few other verses that address the subject with equal clarity (emphases added).

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.  He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.  He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.  The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.  No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.  This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.  (1 John 3:7-11)

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them,‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins.  And in him is no sin.  No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him(1 John 3:5-6)

Another interesting passage that discusses the concept of making a decision is Matthew 7:13-14, which says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

While this passage addresses the larger issue of salvation itself, as Michael Wilkins explains in The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, notice there is initially a decision (a gate) that precedes the path one takes.  As a result, one chooses the road that leads to destruction (hell) or the road that leads to life (heaven).  The decision we make and the path we choose is obviously the most important decision we will ever make.  The fact the path is preceded by a gate—where a conscious decision to pass through the gate must be made—is not inconsequential.

In fact, the Bible specifically encourages us to live godly lives while we wait for the Blessed Hope (the Rapture).  We are told that grace teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled lives:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.  (Titus 2:11-14)

Praise God that Hope Still Remains!

If you were previously deceived by the false doctrine that you may continually sin (beyond just  occasionally stumbling) and still go to heaven, please be assured that it is not too late for you to turn away from that deception.  Luke’s words in Acts 3:13 speak to that vividly.  There he was addressing those who had been in the crowd that had told Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus but had later realized their mistake and, thus, were understandably dejected about what they had done.

Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.  But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.  Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out.

The biblical definition of repentance is “to change one’s mind”.  If you previously thought that you could willfully live a sinful lifestyle and still inherit the kingdom of God, hopefully this chapter has helped you “change your mind” about that.  We also read in the Bible that true repentance will result in a change of actions, such as those described in Luke 3:8-14 and Acts 3:19.  A change in actions is also exactly what Jesus said we should do: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Are You Ready?

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1 comment:

  1. you are so right Jeff, I truly enjoyed reading this, thank you for sending this to me, you just put into words from the Scripture the Truth, I guess the one paragragh that really stuck out to me was about watering down the Bible to give us a false security , I sure can't quote scripture like you but I do know that it says woe unto the false teachers, and to me eternal security is false and will lead so many souls astray, the ONLY reason that I commented on the 1 status last night was to try to share with people that, yes, you can backslide, been there done that, it wasn't to argue but to try and let people know that this can happen, God Bless you for this wonderful writing, hopefully it will open the eyes of ones that are led astray