Can salvation be lost? (part 1)

When it comes to the subject of the security of the believer, there are almost as many viewpoints as there are denominations:

  • Some believe in what’s commonly referred to as “eternal security” — the absolute permanence of salvation for all those who have put their faith in Christ
  • Others believe that salvation can effectively be “lost”, meaning that salvation is essentially conditional
  • Still others claim that you can’t know if you’re truly numbered among the elect (i.e., “saved”) until God pronounces His verdict

You’d think that Scripture would be crystal clear on something so important, but what makes this question of “losing your salvation” so tricky is that adherents of every position can readily point to a number of texts that ostensibly prove their case. So how are we to know where we stand? Maybe more to the point…can we know at all? Fortunately, we are saved by faith in Christ and not by the depth of our understanding!

Regardless of where you personally stand on this question, though, I submit that this question of security provides Satan with one of the most potent weapons in his arsenal. For if you take the position that your salvation is a “done deal,” it is that much easier to be lulled into a spiritual stupor and feel no sense of urgency to seek God’s will in your life. In other words, your heart might be more inclined to wander because…“After all, you’re already ‘in’…right?” This lack of urgency is the antithesis of Paul’s admonition to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and has the potential to lead the believer into perilous waters. Just consider how the risen Christ reacts to the church in Laodicea. (See Revelation 3:14-22)

If, on the other hand, you believe that you can have no assurance of salvation whatsoever, then Satan will use the resulting doubt and fear to demoralize and discourage you at every turn. With every errant word and deed, he will be right there ready to torment you with suggestions of worthlessness and doubt…“And you call yourself a Christian?” Over time he will steal your joy and paralyze your will, crippling both your faith and your witness.

So what’s the right answer? Are we “eternally secure” or not? Let’s see what Scripture has to say about it.

An Unseen War

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the people in Czechoslovakia and Poland who got caught up in the midst of what became World War II. They didn’t ask to be pawns in Hitler’s plans, yet once Hitler decided to move, it really didn’t matter if they wanted to be entangled in the war or not—like it or not, the fight was on. Their only choice was whether to side with Hitler or to fight him.

You and I find ourselves in a similar predicament at this very moment, having likewise been born into the midst of a war we didn’t start and probably would rather avoid. Unlike any war from our history books, though, this is an unseen, spiritual war that was started in ages past when an angel by the name of Lucifer defied his Creator. It has been raging ever since, and we have simply gotten caught in the middle. Hence, we too are faced with the question of where our allegiance lies, although our answer has eternal consequences: which side are we on?

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12 (NLT)

The book of Daniel gives us a glimpse into this war, Satan himself alludes to it, and Paul clearly attests to its reality. Moreover, Scripture indicates that events on the earth are directly related to this war, even though the relationship is seldom clear until after the fact…and usually not without Divine explanation. Nonetheless, while the connection is usually hidden from our understanding, its horrific imprint upon the physical realm has been unmistakable.

Nowhere is this linkage more apparent than in the Biblical accounts themselves—the theme of warfare is everywhere. Israel fights to gain possession of the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and Joshua; then Samson, Gideon, Deborah, and David all fight to keep it. The kings of Israel and Judah struggle to withstand the rise and fall of ancient empires; then upon returning from exile, Nehemiah and the Israelites rebuild the walls of Jerusalem with one hand holding onto their swords. And ultimately, in the final chapter of this war, Christ will wage one last battle as He destroys both sin and death.

What should become clear is this underlying principle: laying hold of God’s promises has never been easy because we are being actively opposed with every step! Whether it’s a matter of conquering the Promised Land or conquering an addiction, we are going to be tested repeatedly as we strive to walk with God in faith. Why do think Jesus tells us to persevere? He promises life, not that it’s going to come easily! In fact, Jesus guarantees just the opposite:

Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
John 15:20

Doesn’t this coincide with your own experience? Have you ever made a decision to go deeper in your relationship with Christ, only to be revisited by a specter from your past? Have you ever vowed to give more to the work of God’s kingdom, only to be faced with a sudden financial crisis that tested your resolve? Has it ever been easy?

Indeed, once we have declared our allegiance to God, we should expect Satan’s assault on our faith to be relentless. Why? Because the last thing he wants is for our faith to become contagious! Satan works harder than ever to make us stumble when we become Christians, for if he can make us fall and then keep us down, our fruit starts to wither and rot as we wallow in our guilt. And if there’s one thing Satan doesn’t fear, it’s a Christian whose faith isn’t bearing any fruit.

In short, when you give yourself to Christ, get ready for a fight. Because whether we like it or not, we are in the midst of a war where souls are at stake…and both sides play for keeps. Fortunately, though, no matter how much Satan throws at us, Jesus assures us that if we stay close to Him we can never be taken prisoner by our adversary:

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

Neither do we have to fear that Satan will mortally wound us in the battle and thereby separate us from Christ. Why not? He’s simply not able to:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28

Thus, as soldiers in God’s army, the eternal life that we have been given in Christ cannot be taken away from us either now or in the future. Not only that, but there is no way for Satan or anyone else to invalidate the gift which Christ has secured once and for all. So along with Paul, we can affirm:

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

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Satan can’t “snatch” us away from our Father, he can’t undo the work of atonement that Christ has already accomplished, and so it would seem that those who claim the “eternal security of the believer” would have an open-and-shut-case. Right?

If only it were that simple…

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2

This warning to the church at Corinth, also penned by Paul, appears to blatantly contradict his declaration in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God…which effectively brings us back to our original question: just how “permanent” is our standing in Christ? And in Part 2, we’ll continue to wrestle with this question of “losing one’s salvation” as we strive to “correctly handle the Word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

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