Does God hold the threat of eternal punishment over born-again believers? Could they lose salvation? These are questions that have long concerned Bible readers and there are many, many Christians today who live in fear of losing their salvation; perhaps an alcoholic drink or saying a swear word would result in God punishing them for ever. Some think God would only do this if the sin was of a very serious type, but He still could. To live in such fear is a desperate plight, and a real one! The Bible leaves no doubt that people who refuse God’s offer of salvation through His Son’s sacrifice for them do indeed face eternal punishment (1). But that is for unbelievers. Must Christians live in the same fear? Several Bible verses might be understood to say eternal life can be lost. We will examine the most difficult ones in a moment. First let us give great emphasis to the Bible truth that salvation is secure, and cannot be lost. It is something we can be fully confident about, here and now (2).
Here are three very good reasons to have such confidence:
1. If our behaviour as Christian believers determines whether we shall remain saved or be lost, that would mean Christ’s death would be somehow insufficient to pay for all our sins. Our salvation, cleansing and eternal security would therefore then instead be dependent on our own supplementary efforts, which is the opposite of New Testament teaching (3).
2. The Lord Jesus Christ said that His sheep (the ones He died for) have eternal life and they will never perish (4). Life that is terminated is not ‘eternal’ life. ‘Never’ perish can only mean they are always secure.
3. Paul explained that every believer is baptized into the church which is called the body of Christ (5). Ephesians 5:23-27 shows clearly that Christ is able to cleanse and preserve the Body, so those forming that Body are secure. Who could possibly un-baptize a member of the Body and extract them from their life in Christ?
One of the reasons given by those who think salvation can be lost is that Christians would disregard holy living if there were no consequences for sinning. This is a real risk, but it is very poor reasoning. First of all, there are indeed consequences if a believer sins, even though they will not be exposed to eternal punishment. Consider, for instance, Ananias and Sapphira, who selfishly lied to God the Holy Spirit (6). Again, the Church of God in Corinth turned Christ’s command to remember Him into a party scene (7). The result was that God sovereignly intervened to cause sickness and death among them. Also, Christians who committed immorality were cut off from their fellow-Christians; the proper objective of Christianity is the perfection of holiness (8) not permissiveness. John makes it very clear that all Christians will indeed sin,9 no matter how we try to avoid it – and try we should! The question before us is not whether we will sin, but do the consequences include loss of eternal life?
It would be poor reasoning to ignore the three points listed above, but it is very good reasoning to still avoid sin at all costs. There are three important factors in this respect:
a. If as a believer I sin, I may well be exposed to suffering, justifiably, as above
b. More than that, I may cause harm or offence to others, so the consequences spread further
c. By far the biggest consequence is the offence to God caused by my action.
Each of these points bears further examination. God may intervene in our earthly lives and even correctly and inscrutably conclude that there is only, on balance, loss to ourselves if He lets us live out a longer permissive life here; so He may take our physical life away. He gave it; He has the right to take it away, as Job once noted. But God evidently desires our lives here to have a positive result that He can reward (10). However, by our actions we can lose the opportunity of eternal reward. Paul, having noted that worthless activities will vanish in the flames of God’s assessment, writes…but he himself will be saved … Perhaps such an outcome is captured in John’s warning about being ashamed before the Lord at His coming (11).
Christ, who promised eternal security, certainly did not promote permissiveness. He gave clear teaching on what must happen if I sin against my fellow Christian (12). And what if a Christian sins and non-Christians notice? Will they not develop a low opinion of Christianity and of Christ because of this? Partly for that reason, a church of God may have no option but to cut off a disciple, especially where the sinner has refused to mend his/her ways and truly repent. This is an awful consequence. But what is the divine objective when sin has occurred? Forgiveness and cleansing; and that is what most of Matthew 18 is about.
In reality, only God can secure cleansing from sin; our attempts to stay saved by being blameless would likely fail. So when a sin occurs, God provides a process designed to result in forgiveness in response to repentance, a divine initiative worked out on earth. How sad if God has forgiven the repentant one, but Christian disciples refuse to do so, unable to see a distinction between condoning sin and God cleansing the sinner. But when we sin, we devalue God’s salvation. How dare we offend God our Saviour so! Perhaps this is leads into the difficult passages on our subject, which necessitate viewing things from God’s perspective. Hebrews 6:6 is often quoted as evidence that Christians can become lost again. But that is not what it says. Verses 7 and 8 can be understood with less difficulty in the context of 1 Corinthians 3:15. God is looking for spiritual prosperity in saved lives; ground that He can bless. But if our waywardness removes that possibility, then the field of opportunity will be cleansed by fire; no works for God are left for Him to reward. How sad! In this context, we can better see God’s view of this sinning person: one who regards the shame of the Cross as of no consequence.
Though their fellow-Christians may follow the directions of Matthew 18, there is no repentant response. Repentance needs to be God-given.13 While God is committed to eternally save all true believers, He is not committed to grant repentance to those who go on sinning with a high hand (see Numbers 15:30-31). Perhaps we should note that the extreme case presented in Hebrews 6 describes Jewish Christians turning back to Judaism, taking their side with those who crucified the King. Another potentially difficult passage is 1 John 5:16-17. Some link this to the unforgivable sin of Matthew 12:32. The answer, in context, is that because the Spirit of God is responsible for new birth, then if Christ’s unbelieving hearers were blaspheming by attributing the Spirit’s power in His miracles to the Devil it is never possible to simultaneously receive the miracle of forgiveness through Christ. No one can truly accept Jesus as Lord except by the Spirit. Believers may offend the Spirit (and be forgiven) but to become a believer they they must first submit to the Spirit’s conviction of who Christ is. But what then is in view in John’s statement about a “sin unto death”? How can that be explained?
The text does not address the possibility of forgiveness, but simply focuses on God giving spiritual life to a “brother” who already has eternal life. Believers who have been well-taught about their salvation will know that it can be viewed in three ways:
(1) Salvation from the penalty of sin (which brings eternal life);
(2) Salvation from the power of sin (which enables a Spirit-filled life); and
(3) Salvation from the presence of sin (which occurs when the Lord returns to give immortal bodies to the saints, forevermore free from surrounding sin).
Of these three, does not salvation from the power of sin fit quite understandably in 1 John 5:16? Understanding and applying 1 John 5:16-17 requires spiritual perception, to see things from a divine perspective and order our requests in line with God’s will (15). If we apply ourselves to achieving that practical objective, we will focus on the need for a spiritual life of service, not an unforgivable sin. Other scriptures could be considered in a similar way. In each case we should ask if a statement about eternal punishment of believers is being made, or if the scripture is implicitly speaking about loss of an opportunity to serve God through succumbing to the power of sin (16). The context certainly needs to be considered; some scriptures apply to people who do not get saved before Jesus returns and miss out on the current gospel message of God’s grace (17); in some places the explanation lies not in the promise of eternal security, but the basis for failing to receive it (18).
And we should always be careful to acknowledge that not everyone who says they are saved actually is saved. If a false profession of salvation is made, the person remains as unsaved as ever; their refusal to obey the gospel (19) means they do not have eternal life, so they remain exposed to eternal punishment.
References: (1) 2 Thess.1:7-9 (2) 1 Jn.5:13 (3) Eph.2:8-9; Rom.3:20-23; Jn.6:39-40; 1 Jn.1:9-2:2 (4) Jn.10:11,28-29 (5) 1 Cor.12:13; Jn.1:33 (6) Acts 5:1-10 (7) 1 Cor.11:20-34 (8) 1 Cor.5:9-13; 2 Cor.7:1 (9) 1 Jn.1:8 (10) 1 Cor.3:13-15 (11) 1 Jn.2:28 (12) Matt.18:15-35; 1 Jn.1:6-9 (13) 2 Tim.2:25 (14) 1 Cor.12:3 (15) See Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary on ‘Ask’ Gk. erotao. John’s use in 1 John 5:16 implies we cannot approach God with a proposal that He might be wrong, and ask Him, as though we were His equals, to change His mind! (16) e.g. Gal.6:8,9 and see Rom.6:22 and comparable passages (17) e.g. Matt.25:46 (18) e.g. Rom.2:7-8 (19) Heb.5:9
Bible quotations from NKJV