Once Saved Always Saved? — Answering the Best Arguments
A couple of people wrote me recently in response to my article Once Saved Always Saved? to defend the popular idea that it is impossible for believers to lose their salvation, even if they walk in sin for years or decades with no concern to repent. This doctrine is known as unconditional eternal security. Since the arguments these people shared with me pretty much represent the best defenses for this position, I’m going to devote an entire article to responding to their arguments and claims, which are cited in red italics below.
Before addressing these arguments it’s necessary to emphasize a number of things, starting with this: The Bible definitely supports the doctrine of eternal security 100%. John 10:28-29 verifies this; however, the Bible clearly does NOT support the doctrine of unconditional eternal security; and this is proven by numerous passages.
I’m very familiar with the topic and my original article wasn’t written rashly. I have zero bias on the issue and am simply going by what the Scriptures teach based on an honest and balanced study. Whatever the truth is, there can be no loopholes; all the “pieces” have to fit. If someone comes up with an argument that ignores multiple biblical passages then that position is obviously wrong. Their theology is askew somehow.
I realize that there are loads of believers out there who are fervent about their belief in unconditional eternal security, even stubborn; off the top of my head I can think of several people who have either written me or spoken with me seriously on the topic in an attempt to correct. In none of these cases were they able to explain clear passages where the biblical writers warn believers of the “deceptiveness of sin” and the dire consequences of an unrepentant sinful lifestyle and the ensuing falling away, such as Paul (Galatians 5:19-21 & 6:7-8), Peter (2 Peter 2:20-21), Christ (Luke 13:1-9 & 8:13) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:25-27). Please look up these passages and reflect on them in your study time; they’re unmistakable. There are several other New Testament passages that illustrate the same, but this is enough for here.
Jesus said it’s the truth that will set us free as we continually pursue it, honestly and thoroughly (John 8:31-32); and I’ve been set free on this issue. I’m totally at peace and there’s no temptation for me to go into “attack mode” with people who advocate unconditional eternal security. Nor do I separate from brothers or sisters over the issue, although some might separate from me, but that’s their prerogative. My only concern is what the Scriptures say on the topic and therefore arguments rooted in emotion cannot and will not sway me. You’ll observe that a couple of the arguments below are rooted in emotion rather than what the Scriptures teach. Those who embrace unconditional eternal security have to address the pertinent passages, including the ones noted above. The fact that they won’t testifies against their doctrine.
Why are Advocates of Unconditional Eternal Security So Fervent and Stubborn about It?
Let’s consider an important question: Why are believers fervent and stubborn on this issue? There are a few obvious reasons that I can think of:
- Someone they love who’s a confessing believer is living in known sin.
- They themselves are living in sin and are convicted about it.
- Unconditional eternal security is what they were taught in their developing years as a Christian and they’re now rigid on the issue, regardless of the myriad clear passages that contradict what they’ve been taught. Incidentally, Christians who accept or defend doctrines for this reason are decidedly STAGE TWO because they put what their pastor/church/sect advocates above what God’s Word plainly teaches.*
*If you’re not familiar with the Four Stages of spiritual growth go here for details.
Concerning #2, I’ve seen the bad fruit of the doctrine of unconditional eternal security: It naturally cultivates a pompous attitude where believers think they can do whatever fleshly activity they want with zero concern to repent and they’ll never have to answer for it. Or, even if they think they might lose some eternal rewards, their salvation from the second death will never be revoked, even if they live a lifestyle of sin year after year, decade after decade, with zero concern to repent. Frankly, this is an arrogant attitude and God literally opposes the proud (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5). I’ve come across believers who embrace this theology and, without a second thought, will rip-off people hundreds of dollars or more without blinking an eye with no intention of ever making things right.
Or how about the August, 2009, case of George Sodini who walked into a women’s aerobics class near Pittsburgh, turned out the lights, and started shooting into the darkness, firing fifty rounds. Within seconds, he killed three women and wounded nine others. Then he shot and killed himself.
It turned out that he had been planning the killings and his suicide for months in advance. The previous December, he wrote in a blog of the evangelical church he had been attending for thirteen years, saying of the pastor, “This guy teaches (and convinced me) that you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.” Just one day before his murder spree and suicide, he wrote:
Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus. At least that is what I was told. Eternal life does NOT depend on works. If it did, we will all be in hell. Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid. People judge, but that does not matter. I was reading the Bible and (the book) The Integrity of God beginning yesterday, because soon I will see them.
The book he mentioned, The Integrity of God, was written by an author who advocates that believers cannot forfeit their salvation no matter how much they sin without care of repentance. Apparently the author and the murderer didn’t read Galatians 6:7-8 or Revelation 22:14-15.
This is the wicked fruit of the doctrine of unconditional eternal security. Not only will this man be held thoroughly accountable for his heinous murders, and likely cast into Gehenna (1 John 3:15 settles this), but the false teachers who erroneously indoctrinated him will be held accountable as well (2 Corinthians 5:10-11 & 1 Corinthians 3:5-17). Whether or not the latter will also suffer the second death is for God to determine, not me, but it’s a definite possibility in light of 1 Corinthians 3:5-17, which concerns God’s appraisal of the works of ministers. Consider, in particular, the last two verses (which are inextricably linked to the preceding verses):
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (17) If anyone destroys God’s temple [i.e. the Christian], God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
This is a sobering warning for all Christians, particularly ministers. Paul makes it clear that every believer is “God’s temple;” every Christian is a sacred temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Verse 17 solemnly declares that God will destroy any person who destroys this temple. The context is referring to pastors and teachers who destroy Christians with their “wood, hay and straw,” which, represent unbiblical doctrine and fleshly or abusive actions. Many have used verse 17 to preach against smoking and alcohol abuse but the context is plainly referring to ministers whose teachings and actions cause people to fall away from God, in effect destroying God’s temple.
We all know what Paul’s talking about here: A supposed Christian minister whose work ultimately destroys naïve believers and, as such, his (or her) work could be categorized as “wood, hay and straw.” The pastors & teachers who misled George Sodini are an excellent example. Jim Jones and David Koresh are more infamous examples. There are no doubt less extreme cases in your local area.
Notice what verse 17 plainly states God will do to such a pastor or teacher whose work destroys people: “God will destroy him.” This means that God will cut the abusive, hypocritical minister off from salvation and cast him into the lake of fire where he will “destroy both soul and body” (Matthew 10:28).
Speaking of these false teachers, they were around in the first century as well. Jude said: “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). Since Jude says that these false grace teachers “secretly slipped in among” the believers we know that they weren’t publicly and verbally denying the Lord, but rather denying Him through their actions and teachings, which corresponds to what Paul taught when he said “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him” (Titus 1:16) and Christ as well (Mark 7:6).
Answering the Best Arguments
Okay, let’s address the arguments and claims that have been thrown at me:
I often see Galatians 5:19-21 used to show that “those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (ESV).
But isn’t that what it says? The version of the Bible quoted is the ESV. The NIV renders verse 21 like so: “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The NASB is even more accurate, being a word-for-word translation: “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The passage is talking about those who practice sin AS A LIFESTYLE WITHOUT CARE OF REPENTANCE. We know this because 1 John 1:8-9 shows that all genuine believers miss it, but their sins are forgiven as they confess to God; that is, repent.
Is it the fact that they are practicing any the sins listed the reason that they are not inheriting the kingdom?
Again, it’s because they are practicing works of the flesh with no concern to repent and “the wages of sin is death.” Put another way, the eventual outcome of sin if one doesn’t turn from it is death. This explains why John instructed people to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance”? (Matthew & Luke 3:8)
Or is it the fact that they are not saved to begin with, and as a result, act the way they do?
While there are “goats” in every congregation (i.e. counterfeits), like Judas as a member of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Paul was addressing BELIEVERS in the region of Galatia. If Paul was addressing unbelievers masquerading as believers then he would’ve qualified his words like so: “Now for those of you who say you’re saved, but are actually unbelievers…”
Think about it: nobody goes to hell based on what they do or do not do
By “hell” you’re of course referring to the lake of fire where damned souls experience the “second death” (Revelation 20:11-15). Why do people have to suffer this “second death”? Because, again, that’s what the wages of sin is – DEATH (Romans 6:23). Moreover, whether people care to admit it or not, there are conditions for receiving God’s gifts of reconciliation and eternal life: (1.) REPENTANCE and (2.) FAITH. Acts 20:21 verifies this. This explains why repentance and faith are the first two basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2).* So being cast into the lake of fire and suffering the second death has everything to do with what people do or don’t do.
*For more on the six basic doctrines go here.
for salvation is not by works.
True, it’s not by works; salvation comes through accepting the message of Christ—the gospel—through REPENTANCE and FAITH, which takes humility because arrogant people refuse to admit error and turn from it (i.e. repent); moreover, their arrogance won’t allow them to submit to God’s will. This is why the Bible says three times verbatim that God RESISTS or OPPOSES the proud but gives His FAVOR to the humble (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5 and Proverbs 3:34).
Like others who argue that believers can live in unrepentant sin for decades and still be a genuine believer, this man quotes Ephesians 2:8-9 without balancing it out with other pertinent passages. For instance, the very next verse—verse 10—says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus TO DO GOOD WORKS, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” And then, of course, there’s the long passage from James 2:14-26 where the Holy Spirit says (through James): “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead… As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Paul added an important detail when he said that believers are to please God by “bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10). He was obviously talking about fruit of the spirit, the main fruit being agape love (Galatians 5:22-23).
What can we conclude from this biblical data? People are saved from the wages of sin—eternal death—by accepting the gospel through humble repentance and faith, not works. However, genuine faith will produce both fruit and works whereas false faith—dead faith—produces neither.
If anyone is going to hell it is because they have not accepted Jesus and have had eternal life imparted to their spirits.
This is obviously true, but why do they refuse to accept Jesus Christ and receive eternal life? BECAUSE THEY REFUSE TO REPENT. They don’t want to give up this or that sin and submit to the Lord usually because they erroneously think that they will find happiness through their sin, which is impossible. All they’ll find is fleshly satisfaction; underneath is death.
Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Notice it doesn’t say “The wages of not accepting Jesus Christ is death,” which—while absolutely true (people who reject Christ as Lord will indeed suffer the second death)—it’s not what the passage says. It’s an important point if you reflect on it.
The Bible says that no man shall see the Lord without holiness; but that holiness is provided by Jesus in the new birth and not by our actions.
True, holiness is provided for believers via the new birth. Ephesians 4:22-24 says that our “new self (is) created to be LIKE GOD in true righteousness and holiness.” The passage is referring to the believer’s new nature. However, believers won’t walk in the righteousness and holiness of this new nature UNLESS—as the passage says—we “PUT OFF the old self (the flesh), which is corrupted by deceitful desires and… PUT ON the new self.” So our new nature is indeed created to be like God in true holiness, but we won’t walk in this holiness UNLESS we “put off” the flesh and “put on” the new nature. It’s talking about walking in the spirit, which is what Galatians 5:19-23 is all about.
Paul, by the Holy Spirit, is saying that believers who stubbornly refuse to put off the flesh—i.e. repent of it as necessary—and put on the new self—i.e. live out of their new nature with the help of the Holy Spirit—will be flesh-ruled rather than spirit-ruled and will therefore produce the works of the flesh on a continuing basis. The problem with this is that “those who LIVE LIKE THIS will not inherit the kingdom of God” (verse 21). Why? Because death is the wages of unrepentant sin.
To “live like this” means to walk in sin without care of repentance — i.e. as an ongoing lifestyle. This is why the Bible instructs us to “keep with repentance,” meaning to ‘fess up when we miss it, which releases God to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (Matthew & Luke 3:8 and 1 John 1:8-9). If we stubbornly refuse to ‘fess up when we miss it — i.e. repent — then God doesn’t forgive that sin and we’re not cleansed of the corresponding unrighteousness.
Which one of us could ever act holy enough in and of ourselves to merit eternal life?
Holiness comes through spiritual rebirth, but practical holiness comes by learning to put off the flesh and put on the new nature and thus being spirit-controlled. Only then will we bear forth the fruit of the spirit.
And when we start to quantify and measure holiness by our actions legalism is always the result.
As previously noted, the believer is already holy in his or her spirit (which is the only reason the HOLY Spirit can indwell us), but we won’t walk in PRACTICAL HOLINESS unless we “keep in repentance” of the flesh and put on the new self, which is “created to be like God in true righteousness and HOLINESS.”
Can a Christian be carnal and still be saved? The answer is “yes.” To say otherwise violates all of the prohibitions that Paul laid out in his epistles.
Yes, you can be a carnal Christian who practices sin as a lifestyle, but for how long? Why do you think the first word of John the Baptist’s sermon was “REPENT” (Matthew 3:2) and the same with Jesus’ first sermon (Matthew 4:17)? Why did John instruct people to “produce fruit in KEEPING WITH REPENTANCE”? Why did Paul insist that repentance was integral to receiving eternal salvation (Acts 20:21)? Why did Paul write to believers and tell them that anyone who lives in the flesh as a lifestyle with no concern to repent will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21 & 1 Corinthians 6:9-11)? Why did Paul emphasize putting off the flesh and its deceitful desires and putting on the new nature (Ephesians 4:22-24)? Why did the apostle John encourage believers to ’fess up if they sinned and receive God’s forgiveness (1 John 1:8-9)? Why did Christ insist that a dubious prophetess and those believers who were misled by her at the church in Asia Minor repent of their immorality? See Revelation 2:20-23.
To repent, by the way, literally means “to change one’s mind” for the positive. This doesn’t mean a meaningless mental exercise, but a change of mind with the corresponding actions, like the revolve to fulfill God’s will (Acts 26:20) and turn from that which is opposed to God’s will, i.e. sin (Acts 8:22 & 2 Corinthians 12:21). Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin (see Acts 20:21) and so for repentance to be effective it must be combined with faith, otherwise repentance is just a dead exercise. Is it any wonder that repentance and faith are the first two of the six basic doctrines of Christianity? See Hebrews 6:1-2. It is of the utmost importance to one’s spiritual health to grasp this.
Why tell Christians to ‘not lie to one another’? Or to flee fornication? If it were impossible for a Christian to live habitually in these things then Paul wasted his ink.
Obviously because “the wages of sin is DEATH.” In other words, if they practice such sins as a lifestyle with no concern to repent it would eventually cut them off from salvation altogether. Why else do you think “keeping in repentance” is repeatedly stressed in the New Testament in different ways, as noted above?
All Christians—automatically—would repent after the first time and stop doing anything habitually. The Christian life would take care of itself—automatically.
Spiritual growth is a process as the believer learns to be spirit-controlled rather than flesh-ruled. The confess-and-receive-forgiveness dynamic is a key factor in spiritual growth. It keeps our spiritual arteries clear of the clogging-up of unconfessed sin and keeps God’s grace (favor) flowing into our lives. The LORD’s favor flows to the humble—those who keep in repentance—whereas he opposes the arrogant—those who are too proud to confess and repent.
Let me give you a real-life example from the Bible: Remember the unrepentant fornicator from the Corinth church? Because he was stubborn and refused to repent Paul insisted that they put him out of the church (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) and he only instructed them to receive him back when the man humbly repented (2 Corinthians 2:6-11). God’s favor flows to the humble.
It was through this “producing fruit and keeping with repentance” principle that I got freed up from certain sins. It took a while but I eventually got freed-up. This principle kept God’s favor flowing in my life DESPITE regular relapses. This is an example of struggling with sin and eventually learning to walk free, which is different than STUBBORNLY LIVING IN SIN AS A LIFESTYLE. A believer in the former situation doesn’t want to sin, but falls over and over because he’s in bondage whereas the latter individual regularly sins because he wants to sin and has no concern to repent. The latter is in danger of losing his salvation. Don’t get me wrong, God is merciful and gracious, so there is a generous “grace period,” but those who go on in their sin are foolishly mocking God (Galatians 6:7-8). Paul was talking to believers in this passage where he concluded: “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap DESTRUCTION; whoever sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap ETERNAL LIFE.”
How long is this “generous grace period”? The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree gives an idea: Luke 13:5-9, which we’ll address below.
Those who deny the once-saved-always-saved message, like yourself, are calling out those who preach this message and are warning people that this message is dangerously misleading.
It IS dangerously misleading because it deceives believers into thinking they can live a lifestyle of sin without care of repentance and still maintain their salvation year after year, decade after decade. Moreover, it indirectly encourages believers to sin by convincing them that they’re immune to the consequences of sin, something neither Christ nor Paul nor any other biblical writer would do. In fact they did the express opposite (see Mark 9:43-47 & Romans 6:15). Needless to say, the doctrine of unconditional eternal security is a lie straight from the kingdom of darkness!
But in trying to correct what they see as a major problem, they introduce another major problem: salvation by grace through faith and maintained by your works of holiness.
No, salvation is by faith, which is verified by humble repentance (Acts 20:21), and genuine faith results in fruit and works. Our salvation is “maintained” through repentance and faith. After all, if salvation is received via repentance and faith then a person who no longer repents or has faith is no longer saved. It’s simple.
Again, repentance and faith are the two conditions to receiving eternal salvation (Acts 20:21) and therefore believers are required to “keep with repentance” (Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8 & 1 John 1:8-9) and persevere in faith (Colossians 1:21-23), which explains why repentance and faith are the first two basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2). All we have to do is keep with repentance and persevere in faith and there won’t be any problem; salvation is absolutely guaranteed (John 10:27-30). Those who ignore these conditions are fools and do so to their own peril.
This is a greater problem than the one he deals with in his book. And I most definitely am not in agreement with his viewpoint on this matter.
It’s not a matter of what people agree with or don’t agree with; it’s a matter of what God’s Word thoroughly and clearly teaches.
John 5:24 proves that once people are saved it’s not possible for them to lose their salvation
In other words, John 5:24 is definitive support for unconditional eternal security. Let’s read the passage and see if this is true (Jesus is speaking):
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.“
Jesus was saying that genuine believers who persevere in faith will not be judged at the White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). However, other passages clearly show that all believers must face the Judgment Seat of Christ, also known as the Bema Judgment, which is where “each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10-11 & Romans 14:10). *
*See this article on the Judgment Seat of Christ.
In any case, the Messiah was not saying in John 5:24 that it’s impossible for a believer to fall away because, as already detailed, there are numerous crystal clear passages that show that genuine believers can fall away and lose their salvation if they foolishly continue in sin with no care to repent, like 2 Peter 2:20-21 and Hebrews 10:25-27; not to mention what Christ himself taught (e.g. Luke 8:13). We must always be sure to “correctly handle” God’s Word — “rightly divide” it — by being balanced and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture on any given doctrine, including this one (2 Timothy 2:15).
I realize the doctrine of unconditional eternal security is ‘hip’ in Christendom right now, particularly in the Evangelical community (e.g. Baptists), but as a minister of God I’m obligated to share the “whole counsel of God” on the topic and not teach something just because it’s currently popular. After all, I’m going to be held accountable for what I teach and I want the LORD to say “Well done good and faithful servant” and not “Why did you mislead people with unbiblical and unbalanced teachings?!”
If our eternity isn’t secured and completed for us, then what is the good news? If I can lose my salvation, then the gospel is NOT good news, but terrible news.
Only terrible news for the fool who chooses to develop a “sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12-13). We’ll look at this passage momentarily.
The good news is that we indeed have eternal security in Christ as we “keep with repentance” and continue in faith. As already established, repentance and faith are the conditions for accepting the gospel (Acts 20:21), which — again — correspond to the first two of the six basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2), which you can read about here.
This explains why the Bible stresses “keeping in repentance” (Matthew 3:8, Luke 3:8 & 1 John 1:8-9) and persevering in faith, as Paul pointed out:
He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel
As I pointed out in my other article on this topic: If it takes faith to be saved then it naturally follows that someone can’t be saved if they no longer have faith. The Bible teaches that it’s through faith and perseverance that we inherit what is promised, including eternal salvation, not faith for a little bit and then giving up (Hebrews 6:12 & Luke 8:13).
For anyone who argues that there are no conditions to reconciling with God through the gospel then that would mean that everyone is saved or, at least, will be saved, which is universalism, a blatantly false doctrine, proven here.
The fact that some believers fall away because they refuse to keep in repentance and continue in faith does not negate the good news of the gospel for those who obediently comply with these conditions. As long as the believer keeps in repentance and perseveres in faith their salvation is guaranteed. So what’s the problem? There is no problem unless a person is living a lifestyle of sin with no care to repent. The Holy Spirit will always convict such people and move them toward repentance; unfortunately, some will resist the Spirit’s counsel, hardening their hearts further. These types naturally tend to justify their sinful lifestyles and attack those who preach keeping with repentance.
I believe in a God that is the author AND finisher of my faith, and I trust Him that He would never leave my salvation in mine own hands. Now THAT is the good news!
It’s not an issue of what you or I or anyone else believes, it’s a matter of what the Holy Scriptures clearly teach; and, as detailed, they teach that it’s possible for believers to forfeit their salvation due to the deceptiveness of sin and/or not continuing in faith:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Please notice that he’s talking to “brothers and sisters” in the Lord—believers, not unbelievers—and he warns them to be careful not to develop a “sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God,” which means that it’s possible for believers to develop such a condition. Sin is deceptive. As a person walks in sin it naturally hardens their heart to God and the things of God to the point that they “turn away from the living God.”
Also notice that a “sinful, unbelieving heart” is the opposite of the two conditions to accepting the gospel—repentance and faith, which (again) correspond to the first two doctrines of basic Christianity.
Obviously believers do have a part to play in their salvation even though Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. If they opt for a “sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” this is to their own folly and shame. Paul said that it’s those who persevere in faith who are counted “worthy of the kingdom” (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5) and Jesus also talked about those “who are worthy of taking part in the age to come” (Luke 20:35).
While this may contradict what false grace teachers preach, it’s in accordance with what the Bible plainly teaches.
Colossians 2:13 says that God “forgave ALL our sins” (past tense), which includes our future sins before we even confess them (and even if we DON’T confess them).
This argument sounds valid on the surface; that is, until you look at other clear Scriptures on the topic. As always, “Scripture interprets Scripture” so it’s imperative that we be balanced.
Forgiveness for all sins has been made readily available for all people via Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection. This is the gospel and explains one of the main reasons why it’s the “good news.” Yet it’s obvious that not everyone has been forgiven by God in light of the fact that multitudes of humanity will be thrown away into the lake of fire to suffer the second death (Revelation 20:11-15). What’s the difference between these people and believers? Simple: Believers procure God’s forgiveness through the conditions of repentance and faith (Acts 20:21), which are the first two basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2).
Since God “forgave all our sins,” as pointed out in Colossians 2:13, does that mean believers don’t have to “keep with repentance” by ‘fessing up when we inevitably miss it? No, because that would render numerous other passages superfluous, like the aforementioned Matthew & Luke 3:8 and 1 John 1:8-9. Let’s read the latter passage again:
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9
When people accept the gospel through repentance and faith they appropriate forgiveness for all their past sins. But this passage clearly shows that forgiveness for future sins cannot be procured until after they are committed and confessed. After all, how can you forgive someone for an offense that he or she hasn’t even committed yet?
You see, the Scriptures teach that God deals with us according to our current condition within the context of time. To understand this obvious principle, consider what the LORD Himself said on the matter:
13 “If I tell a righteous person that they will surely live, but then they trust in their righteousness and do evil, none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered; they will die for the evil they have done. 14 And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right— 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil—that person will surely live; they will not die.” 16 None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live.
As you can see, God holds individuals accountable to their current condition: If a righteous man becomes arrogant and commits evil without care of repentance “none of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered.” By contrast, if a wicked man turns away from evil and does what is just and right “none of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them.”
Someone might respond: “That’s Old Testament, brother.” But we’re talking about relationship with the God and the Lord is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Besides, the same simple relational principle is taught throughout the New Testament — God deals with us according to our current state. This is perfectly exemplified in 1 John 1:8-9 above; and the LORD expects us to do the same with others. Let’s consider a few relevant passages.
Earlier we talked about the unrepentant fornicator from the Corinthian church. Because this man was stubborn and refused to repent Paul insisted that the Corinthian believers expel him from their assembly (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). He only instructed that the man be forgiven and received back into the fellowship when he humbly repented (2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
Likewise, notice what Christ said to do when a brother or sister sins against you:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
You see? The Lord instructs us to deal with fellow believers according to their current state. When they repent we are to forgive them, but not before. This is precisely how God deals with us when we sin, as detailed above, and He expects us to treat others accordingly (Ephesians 4:32 & 5:1; and Colossians 3:13). See this article for more data.
I was just reading a book where a minister who supports the doctrine that a believer’s future sins are already forgiven and so we don’t really need to “keep with repentance” in order for God to forgive us when we miss it. He cited this passage for support:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
What’s audacious about quoting this particular verse to support this false doctrine is that Hebrews 10 goes on to warn believers of the danger of willfully sinning without care of repentance. Notice for yourself:
26 If we [believers] deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
To “deliberately keep on sinning” means to willfully sin as a lifestyle without concern of humbly ‘fessing up and procuring God’s forgiveness.
Needless to say, be quick to ‘fess up when you miss it and God will forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. If the LORD forgives you then please make sure you forgive yourself.
What’s so difficult about this? What’s so hard to understand about it? Nothing. It’s simple as pie: When you morally fail be honest about it with your Lord and repent. ‘Repent’ means to change your mind for the positive. It means making a 180 when you realize you’re going the wrong way. It’s a very positive thing and facilitates closeness in your relationship with God by keeping it honest and preventing your spiritual arteries from the clog-up of unconfessed sin.
How Long Can a Believer Live in Unrepentant Sin Before They’re Cut Off from Salvation?
I want to emphasize that there’s no doubt to God’s great mercy and grace in cases where believers stray into unrepentant sin, particularly in light of Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard (which I’ll address momentarily), but in view of the numerous crystal clear passages cited above why risk walking on thin ice by playing around with sin? Some are deceived into thinking they can flirt with the flesh—the deceptive beast within us all—but before they know it they become captive to it. This is the “deceitfulness of sin” noted in Hebrews 3:12-13 (quoted above). Sin has the power to harden a person’s heart to the point where s/he doesn’t want anything to do with God or the things of God.
Now let’s address the aforementioned Parable of the Vineyard, also known as the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree:
(5) “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
(6) Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. (7) So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
(8) “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. (9) If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
Please note Jesus’ preceding statement to giving the parable in verse 5: “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” There is a condition to not perishing—not suffering eternal death—and that condition is to repent. Also notice that Jesus holds people responsible for adhering to this condition. God doesn’t force anyone to repent. It’s up to the individual person. God does His part, but we are obligated to do our part. Genuine repentance, by the way isn’t just confessing past sins, but also the resolve to no longer sin and to keep with repentance when we do (1 John 1:8-9).
The meaning of the parable is obvious: The owner of the vineyard represents God; the fruitless fig tree represents an individual in covenant with God who’s not bearing fruit; and the caretaker represents Jesus, the mediator between the owner and the fig tree. The owner wants to cut the fig tree down because it hasn’t produced fruit in three years, but the caretaker intercedes and convinces the owner to give the tree one more year wherein the caretaker will do everything he can to get it to be fruitful. If the tree still hasn’t produced fruit by the end of the fourth year the owner and caretaker agree to cut it down and remove it from the vineyard. What we see here is patience, mercy and grace. The owner of the vineyard and the caretaker, who represent the heavenly Father and Jesus, are willing to give the tree a total of four years to be fruitful before ultimately cutting it down, if they must. The story is figurative so we can’t take it strictly literal, i.e. that God will pluck someone out of the kingdom if they’re fruitless for exactly four years. What we can get from it, however, is that God’s patience, mercy and grace are awesome and He will do everything He can to get us to be fruitful by adhering to the conditions of our covenant, i.e. repentance & faith. He’s invested in us greatly and understandably wants us to be productive. Another thing we can get from the parable is that when the Lord’s mercy ends His judgment begins and he’ll cut off when/if necessary. Why be foolish and incur such judgment?
Those who rigidly advocate the “once saved always saved” doctrine argue that, if people fall away from the Lord, they were never really saved in the first place. They contend that such people merely dabbled in Christianity and their faith was never really sincere; consequently, any positive changes in their lifestyles were superficial, the result of practicing some Scriptural principles, but not actually knowing the Lord. Surely this is true, but the numerous passages cited above and many others also show that Christians can abort their salvation if they choose to neglect their faith (here are several passages that clearly support this: Galatians 5:19-21, Hebrews 10:25-27, 2 Peter 2:20-21, Romans 11:19-24, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Hebrews 3:6, 3:12 & 6:4-6, James 5:19-20, Jude 5, Matthew 10:22, Luke 8:13 & 13:5-9 and John 15:1-6). I repeat: If it takes faith to be saved it naturally follows that people cannot be saved if they come to a point where they no longer have faith. That’s simple enough to understand, isn’t it? Let’s not make the issue more complicated than it is.
Suffice to say, don’t play foolish games with God. You can draw whatever conclusion on the matter that gives you peace and helps you sleep at night, just be careful not to play around with “the deceitfulness of sin” or encourage others to do so either. We’re all going to stand before the Lord and give an account one day where “each of us will receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10-11 & Romans 14:10).
The obvious weakness of the “once saved always saved” teaching is that it can create spiritual complacency, whereas the weakness of the opposite extreme—that believers can lose their salvation at any moment—creates anxiety. Both of these positions are extremes and unscriptural. The sensible and balanced middle position is that a believer’s salvation is secure as one walks in faith and trusts God’s Word, avoiding both complacency and insecurity. If you miss it, be quick to repent, and God will forgive you. Then keep moving forward knowing that “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). Such people have eternal security in Christ (John 10:27-30). Eternal security is a biblical doctrine, but unconditional eternal security is not. Do not be deceived (Galatians 6:7-8).
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