Can a true Christian lose his or her salvation? Most Christians have asked this question at one time or another in their lives, and it is an enormously important question. Our answer to it is intimately connected to everything we believe about the redemptive work of God. Our answer to it will also largely determine whether we have assurance of our salvation. There could hardly be a better illustration of the practical relevance of sound theology.
The Reformed churches usually speak of this doctrine in terms of the “perseverance of the saints.” We have to be careful with this phrase, however, because it could be read by some to mean that perseverance to the end is something that the Christian accomplishes in his own strength. The Reformed confessions and the best Reformed theologians do not say this, but the phrase can be misheard and misunderstood. As we will see, it is God alone who keeps us from falling completely away from grace.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is well-grounded in Scripture. In the gospel of John, for example, we repeatedly read that believers have “eternal life.” Not temporary life, but eternal life.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
John 6:35–40: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”
John 6:47: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
John 10:27–29: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.”
The Apostle Paul teaches the same doctrine in his epistles:
Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 8:29–30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Romans 8:35–39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:7–9: “So that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Ephesians 1:5, 13, 14: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. . . . In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints was lost in the medieval era because of the semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic doctrines that had developed over time. The early Reformers challenged this error and reasserted the doctrine of perseverance, which also allowed them to reassert the biblical doctrine of assurance.
Even the Reformed churches, however, were not immune to the kind of semi-Pelagian thinking that had plagued the church for a thousand years. In the Netherlands, the Reformed doctrine of perseverance was challenged by the Remonstrants (better known today as Arminians). They argued that “true believers are capable by their own fault of falling into flagrant crimes and atrocious wickedness, to persevere and die in them, and therefore finally to fall away and to perish” (The Opinion of the Remonstrants, vol. 4).
The Reformed churches responded to the Arminians ecclesiastically at the Synod of Dort (1618–19). The synod published The Canons and Decrees of the Synod of Dort in order to respond point by point to the errors of the Remonstrants. The fifth point of doctrine they discuss is the perseverance of the saints. It is beyond the scope of this brief article to comment on every one of the fifteen positive articles and nine errors that are rejected under this fifth main point of doctrine, but we must discuss a few essential points.
Article 1 begins by explaining that the Reformed church understands that regenerate believers can and do sin. Article 2 explains that the sins of believers should cause them to humble themselves and flee to Christ. Article 3 notes that if believers were left to themselves, they could not remain standing, but God graciously preserves them to the end. Article 4 observes that true believers, such as David and Peter, can and do sometimes fall into serious sins, and Article 5 explains that these sins deserve death. Article 6 notes, however, that God intervenes for His children and that He does not remove His Holy Spirit from them completely. Instead, as Article 7 notes, God renews them to repentance.
Article 9 then explains:
So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since His plan cannot be changed, His promise cannot fail, the calling according to His purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as His interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out.
The remaining articles focus on the question of assurance, but the main point to be observed is that the biblical doctrine of perseverance found in the Canons of Dort acknowledges the fact of sin, but it places it in the larger context of what God is doing in the lives of His children. The Westminster Confession of Faith, written almost thirty years after the Synod of Dort, provides a concise statement of the doctrine:
- They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally, nor finally, fall away from the state of grace: but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
- This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
- Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
Reading the Reformed confessions helps us see the difference between the biblical doctrine of perseverance and the modern evangelical doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” This modern doctrine, while it can be understood in a biblical sense, is often expressed in an unorthodox manner. It is sometimes taught that once a person walks an aisle, prays the sinner’s prayer, or is baptized, that person can live a completely unrepentant sinful life, and he or she will still be with the Lord in eternity. That is not what the Bible teaches, and it is not what the Reformed church teaches.
This antinomian doctrine makes clear that the doctrine of perseverance is not an isolated doctrine. To understand it in a biblical and orthodox sense requires understanding God’s entire work of redemption in a biblical sense. We have to understand such doctrines as election and atonement, regeneration and faith, justification and sanctification, and many more. Theology is not merely for pastors. Any Christian who is asking whether true Christians can fall away is asking a theological question, and theological questions are interrelated. Begin by studying what it is that our Reformed churches teach. Study the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons and Decrees of Dort). Study the Westminster Standards. Search the Scriptures.
So, can a true Christian lose his or her salvation? No. God never loses His children.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 27, 2020.