By: The John Ankerberg Show
The Importance of Eternal Security
The biblical doctrine of salvation is one of the many special aspects of Christian faith and serves to illustrate the uniqueness of the Christian religion compared to all other religions. The great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, was correct when he wrote that, in the end, there are only two religions in the world: the religion of grace and the religion of works. In essence, all non-Christian religions in the world, large and small, are religions of works. Only biblical Christianity teaches that salvation is a free gift resulting solely from God’s grace. This makes Christianity unlike any other religion that has ever existed, past or present. For reasons we cannot discuss here, this is also one of the great proofs that the Bible alone is a divine revelation. Were it not, it would teach the same approach to salvation found in every other religion devised by men or inspired by spirits.
But if Christian salvation is unique, it is also not without controversy, even within the church. Different interpretations exist, for example, on the meaning of the doctrine of election and whether or not Christians can lose their salvation. It is this latter subject we wish to examine here.
We do not think it necessary to belabor the importance of an issue when eternal outcomes are at stake. If salvation can be lost, it is vital that Christians not be given a false sense of security. If salvation is secure, it is vital Christians not anguish over a non-existent possibility.
If salvation is by grace, we think there can be only one possible resolution to the issue (See Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:24; 4:16; 11:5-6; Gal. 2:21; Eph. 2:5-6; 2 Tim. 1:9- 10; Heb. 6:13-20; 1 Pet. 1:3-6; 1 Jn. 2:25; 5:9-13).
What Is Eternal Security and Why Is This Doctrine Important?
Eternal security is the present possession of eternal life. From the point of salvation, it is the irrevocable and unfailing condition of eternal life guaranteed the true believer in Christ in both time and eternity.
Few issues are more important in the Christian life than whether or not a true believer can lose his salvation. Indeed, given the grand scope of eternity, one would expect this single topic would be of paramount importance to every Christian. Yet
how many have ever really attempted to study this doctrine in a thorough and systematic manner? Most Christians, unfortunately, neglect the systematic study of Bible doctrine. This is to their loss and the subject matter of this article illustrates the consequences.
Why is this doctrine of such vital importance? Because apart from an understanding of this teaching, it is literally impossible for any Christian to be assured of eternal glory with God. Granted, as Christians we have the knowledge of the greatness of God’s love for us demonstrated at the cross, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to us of God’s love for us. This itself brings a measure of security. But how can we be certain of our eternal fate unless this issue is finally resolved scripturally? In other words, how can we know we are secure unless salvation is eternal from the point of saving faith?
Conversely, what if we are not convinced that the Scriptures teach eternal security and therefore believe we have no guarantee of being in heaven? Can we ever be certain that at some future point God will not become our adversary? No Christian who thinks seriously about the consequences of the loss of salvation—in light of his own failings and sinfulness—can enjoy God to the fullest realizing that, in the end, keeping his salvation depends to some degree, large or small, upon his own performance.
For the Christian, the single most important endeavor in life is to glorify God. We are convinced that God can be trusted, loved, enjoyed and served to the fullest if we are aware that from the point of salvation a place in heaven has been guaranteed us forever. In other words, we believe the doctrine of eternal security glorifies God— i.e., inspires love and obedience to God—far more than the logical outworking of the doctrine that a Christian can lose his/her salvation. Both our trust in and our love for God are logically based upon our knowledge that our relationship with Him is secure. Thus, the Bible tells us we can “greatly rejoice” that our inheritance of salvation “can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3-5). But if our relationship can become insecure at any point, then our trust in God’s love for us must suffer to some degree because “No one can rest while in terror of eternal damnation,…” Indeed,
- How can I go on my way rejoicing if there be doubts in my mind whether God will continue to deal graciously with me and complete that work He has begun in my soul? How can I sincerely thank God for having delivered me from the wrath to come if it is quite possible I may yet be cast into hell?… This, then, is no trivial doctrine we are now concerned with, for the most momentous considerations are inseparably connected with it.
There are, of course, those who have an assurance of their salvation and yet reject the doctrine of eternal security. But on what logical basis can they have an assurance of salvation when they know it is possible that it can be lost? Can any person know with full assurance what the future holds? How can we be certain of our own ability to escape the lures and deceptions of the world or to resist sin, or to stand up under the attacks of the devil? Are we truly certain we can bear up under the constant assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil—no mean adversaries to be sure?
Of course, those who deny eternal security say that a person who has lost their salvation may be saved again—and again, and again, and again. But is this doctrine ever taught or even hinted at anywhere in Scripture?
Why Is This Doctrine so Controversial and If It’s Really True, Why Do Many Christians Reject It?
There are several reasons why some beliefs are controversial, mostly because some people don’t like them. Hell is certainly controversial and so is the creation-evolution issue, but that does not mean that these controversial issues have no resolution. Further, being a Christian is no guarantee one will have correct beliefs on everything, especially if one never personally studies biblical doctrine or controversial issues in a systematic manner.
Some people reject the teaching of eternal security out of simple bias; they just don’t like it. The issue is not what the Scripture says but what one wishes to believe. No amount of Scripture, logic, or common sense will convince a person against his/ her will. Again, the doctrine of eternal punishment is disbelieved by most today, even some Christians, not because the Bible does not teach it but because people wish not to believe it. In all such cases, the Scriptures which support a given doctrine are either ignored or reinterpreted into conformity with what one prefers to believe. The problem is never with any doctrine that is truly biblical, but only with those who refuse to accept it for whatever reason.
Another reason some reject this teaching is a natural tendency toward self-sufficiency or pride. If we must keep ourselves saved in order to not be lost, the simple conclusion is that we have something to boast about concerning the quality of our performance in comparison to those who never kept themselves saved. Salvation is ultimately dependent upon us for, in the end, even God cannot save us unless we allow it. But in effect, isn’t this is a form of earning our salvation by our own righteousness? Isn’t such a teaching thoroughly rejected in Scripture? We stress that the difficulty with such a belief is that it denies the doctrine that salvation is entirely by grace. God tells us that boasting is excluded if salvation is by grace through faith: “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, on that of faith” (Rom. 3:27, cf., v. 24). (See Rom. 3:22-27, cf., Gal. 1:6-8; chs. 2-3; Rom. chs. 3-4, 9-10; Eph. 2:8-9.) Granted, most Christians who believe that salvation can be lost do not think in these terms, but if they are trusting in their own performance to keep themselves saved, isn’t this the logical conclusion?
If God has provided the atonement of Christ merely as a means for us to potentially save ourselves, as cults like Mormonism teach, then the death of Christ did not actually procure salvation for the believer. Why? Because an additional element foreign to grace is introduced which determines whether or not that salvation ever occurs: individual performance.
If a person’s works, obedience and continuing faithfulness determine that person’s salvation, then salvation is not entirely of God but of both God and man. God may even do 95%, but unless that 5% is there, even the 95% is useless. But again, doesn’t this take us back to the false beliefs of Mormonism, Roman Catholicism and other religions that, although they claim salvation is by grace, also stress the necessity of individual performance for achieving salvation? All this is why God emphasize that salvation is by grace because, “if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). If any teaching of the Bible is crystal clear, it is that salvation is by grace through faith alone and that works of merit do not enter the picture one iota:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3:28)
However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works. (Rom. 4:5-6)
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:1)
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:22-24)
…he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)
… and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Phil. 3:9)
What do all these Scriptures mean? Only this:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom 5:9)
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him. (Rom. 4:8)
Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Heb. 7:25)
The apostle Paul further says that salvation is of faith so that it might be by grace so that the promise of salvation might be certain (See Rom. 4:13-16; Heb. 6:16-20). In other words, if God agreed to do 99% of the work of salvation but we were required to do 1%, we could have no certainty that we had accomplished our part of the bargain so that God could do His 99%. We would never really know we had done our 1% until after we had died—at which point it would be too late if we had failed.
This is why joining salvation to works of righteousness can never be justified. To compromise on this is to let Christianity slip into the error of salvation by human merit. At that point it becomes indistinguishable from every other religion. In essence, salvation cannot be part by law and part by grace and still be Christian. But notice also that we are not denying the importance of good works. Indeed, the believer is saved “to do good works” (Eph. 2:10), but the believer is never saved by good works.
Another reason this doctrine is controversial is from lack of information. Christians may become confused because, on its surface, the issue seems too complex to sort out. But the Scripture admonishes the believer to study doctrine in order to be careful to handle the Word of God accurately (2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Tim. 4:6). The truth is that this doctrine can be proven scripturally. On the other hand, if we don’t know Scripture well, if we have never studied doctrine, if we don’t know the character of God, it is not surprising that we might suspect the doctrine of eternal security. It’s only natural to suspect something that good.
There are also Bible teachers and theologians well-versed in Scripture who do not believe in the doctrine of security. But some of these individuals are often biased against the idea for non-scriptural reasons. If so, they are not going to be handling the Scripture accurately, but in accordance with their own preferences. Many others do not believe the doctrine is scriptural because of the existence of problem passages. Biblically, this is easily resolved. Why? Because only one teaching can be true. Either a Christian can lose his salvation or he cannot. Both teachings can’t be true. If God does not contradict Himself (and Scripture is clear on this), then God is not going to teach both positions simultaneously because “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Cor. 14:33). Thus, if one teaching can be proven, then any Scripture which would seem to deny that position must be interpreted in light of the truth that is already established.
We reason this way with other doctrines, such as the deity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity and even salvation by grace through faith alone. Some passages might seem to contradict these doctrines (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:5; Jas. 2:24) but once Scripture has been carefully interpreted to begin with and a truth is known, we do not use other Scriptures that merely seem to present a problem to deny the truths that have already been clearly established. We discover that, with careful study, these additional Scriptures have completely satisfactory explanations that harmonize with the established doctrine. Thus, once the doctrine of the Trinity has been established, we do not proceed to teach that there are three Gods merely because the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each called God. Once we have established from Scripture that Christ is God, we do not proceed to deny this truth merely because the Scripture also refers to Him as, e.g., “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And in both cases, we accept things that we cannot fully comprehend, that God is three persons in one God and that Christ is full deity and full humanity in one person. Likewise, those verses which seem to teach salvation by works when taken out of context (e.g., Jas. 2:24), when properly interpreted, actually do not and cannot, as we demonstrated in detail in chapter 3 of our Protestants and Catholics: Do They Now Agree? (1995).
It is the same with eternal security. If this doctrine can be established, then it is wrong to deny it merely because some Scriptures seem to contradict it. If the doctrine is true, no Scripture can possibly contradict it for this would mean that God has contradicted Himself and that the Scriptures were untrustworthy. In other words, this subject also involves the character and integrity of God.
Another reason for the controversy is because some people approach Scripture from certain assumptions relating to human experience or human reason. For example, an individual with a poor self-image who has feelings of unworthiness may simply conclude “I am too unworthy to be the recipient of a guaranteed salvation.” Another person can look around him and see that as human beings we may abandon our friends, our family and our children; we may go back on our promises, we may cease to love someone, we may change our mind about important issues, etc. Then they reason that God is probably like this as well. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sinful human behavior and experience say nothing about the infinite perfections of divine character and behavior (Num. 23:19; Isa. 55:8-9; Mal. 3:6). When God promises something, He keeps His promises. And He never abandons His children or changes His mind concerning the objects of His love.
Others think that the doctrine of security is “unreasonable.” But why is it unreasonable? One would think just the opposite. It is perfectly reasonable that God should secure the eternal salvation of those He truly loves. If Christ Himself died for us when we were yet His enemies, and went through the unspeakable torments of the cross to save those He loved, it is far more logical to think He would be all the more certain to secure their salvation. This is the argument of Scripture itself (Rom. 5:1-10).
Others say that this issue is too divisive, or because it has never been resolved in the past, it is better left undiscussed. In other words, don’t stir up problems that have no solution and only cause division in the body of Christ.
But since when has God’s Word not stirred up controversy? And which of the doctrines of Scripture are not potentially divisive? Isn’t even the Gospel message itself offensive (1 Cor. 1:23)? The doctrines of the Trinity, eternal judgment, divine election, divine creation, Christ as the only way of salvation, etc.—are not such doctrines offensive or embarrassing even to some Christians? We shouldn’t ask whether or not a doctrine will cause division, but whether or not it is scriptural. If it is scriptural, then it must be presented as the truth.
Further, who says the doctrine has never been resolved? If it is biblical, it was resolved the very moment the canon of Scripture was complete. Only if Scripture is truly unclear on a subject is it legitimate to say that an issue is irresolvable in this life. This may indeed be true for some aspects of eschatology and a few other doctrines. But if the Scriptures clearly teach the doctrine of security, then the only reason it is divisive and controversial is because people either don’t know the Scriptures or won’t believe them.
The last reason this doctrine is controversial is because of legitimate concerns or particular misunderstandings people have. If we understand what the doctrine of security does and does not teach, the chance of rejecting the doctrine from misinformation is reduced. One of these concerns is that eternal security may be taught to merely professing Christians rather than true Christians. Obviously, the doctrine of security must be taught only to genuine children of God lest those who wrongly think they are Christians become deceived as to their true status before God.
Another misunderstanding is that it denies the balance between human will and freedom. If our salvation is absolutely certain, does not this nullify human responsibility? And is it not logical that if my belief resulted in salvation that my unbelief or loss of faith must result in my loss of salvation—lest my own freedom and responsibility be denied?
But the doctrine of security does not deny our human will or freedom. First of all, human freedom, while real, is by definition also subject to God’s sovereignty. This argument ignores the purposes of God to save His own children. Second, belief alone did not result in anyone’s salvation, God’s purposes did (Acts 13:48). Our faith resulted from God’s purposes in salvation. This is why Scripture says we are saved by grace—God’s unmerited favor—but that salvation is through faith. Faith is the instrument of salvation, while God is the cause of salvation. If God is the cause, then salvation ultimately rests in His purposes, not our faith. While no one can possibly be saved apart from faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God, faith is never the procuring cause of salvation.
Others argue that this doctrine is a license to sin—if a person knows they are eternally secure they will go out and sin all the more because nothing can ever cause them to lose their salvation. Horrors! Nothing could be further from the truth. In truth, this doctrine will make a person love and obey God more because of what it teaches. In the end, those who believe this doctrine will actually be less likely to commit sin. Why? Because it can only increase their love for God—and the essence of loving God is obedience to Him as the Apostle John repeatedly points out in his first epistle (e.g., 1 Jn. 2:3-6; 5:3). If we understand how much God loves us, then we will love God all the more (Lk. 7:36-47) and we will not want to sin against Him. Ethical misuse of the teaching of security would easily indicate the absence of salvation.
Thus, properly understood, this doctrine cannot be used to teach a lax attitude toward Christian living (See Rom. 6:1-2). Nor does it deny our responsibility to accept the Gospel and live consistently with its precepts. Any doctrine can be abused, however abuse of a doctrine is no reason to reject it. It is all the more reason to make certain that it is taught properly. Essentially, the doctrine of eternal security is no more a license to sin than the doctrine of God’s omniscience is a license not to pray or the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation is a license not to witness to non-Christians.
In the end, if a doctrine causes us to love God more, then by definition it will decrease our sin. But on the other hand, if we fear God in an unhealthy or unscriptural manner because we fear we may lose our salvation, this may discourage us and prevent us from loving God and actually tend to increase our sin.
In conclusion, the doctrine of eternal security is controversial, but this does notmean it is irresolvable, untrue or unimportant. Controversial issues are usually more emotive and require more time and patience to sort out. Contemporary examples also illustrate this: abortion, homosexuality and evolution.
Whether abortion and homosexuality are morally right or wrong, and whether creation is true are controversial issues to be sure. Able proponents exist on all sides that can marshal social, scientific and/or philosophical arguments. But the real issue is how valid the arguments are. Arguments may seem persuasive, but does not make them valid, especially if the one arguing has wrong assumptions, false information or personal biases? Nor can anyone deny the emotional content to these issues. Nevertheless, when they are examined biblically, there is only one answer to them. Homosexuality and abortion are wrong, and evolution is false.
It is the same with eternal security. The issue is controversial and emotional, but there is a clear biblical answer. Eternal security is one of those outstanding glories of the Christian gospel. No one should miss it.
How Can We Know This Controversial Issue Can Be Resolved?
As we have seen, the mere fact of controversy does not demand that an issue be irresolvable. Only one situation can exist that would cause this issue to be irresolvable, lack of clarity on the subject. Since both positions of security and loss of salvation cannot simultaneously be true, clarity on one position by definition disproves the other. Theologian Robert Glenn Gromacki is correct when he writes, “I recognize that God is one and that His revelation is harmonious with His character. It is absolutely impossible to find within the Bible fifty passages that teach eternal security and fifty others that deny it. The Bible teaches one doctrine, not two contradictory positions. Only one can be correct.”
Again, this means that once this doctrine is established to be true, no other Scripture can possibly contradict it.
Consider the following Scriptures as to whether or not they clearly teach the doctrine of eternal security.
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned;… (Jn. 5:24)
I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. (Jn. 6:47)
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. (Jn. 6:39)
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (Jn. 10:28)
…and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Rom. 5:10)
For those God foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the likeness of his Son,… And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified…. If God is for us, who can be against us?… 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. (Rom. 8:29-31, 38-39)
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you…. (1 Pet. 1:4)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 Jn. 5:13)
These are only some of the scriptures that clearly teach the eternal security of the believer. If eternal life is the present possession of the believer from the moment of salvation, it has to be eternal. If salvation could be lost at any point, we could not simultaneously possess eternal life. If Jesus promised us that we will never perish, what could be clearer?
Does the Character of God Help Resolve the Issue?
Few subjects are so rewarding as the study of the character and attributes of God. Although all God’s attributes support the security of the believer in some way, if we examine just three, we can see that the nature of God and the security of salvation are inseparable. The Bible teaches that God is truth (Jn. 14:6), that He never changes in His essential nature (Mal. 3:6; 1 Sam. 15:29), and that He is all powerful (Job 42:2; Jer.32:27; Gen. 17:1).
If it can be established that God says the believer is eternally secure and that it is God’s purpose to save the believer, then 1) because God is truth the fact of our security must be true; 2) because God is unchanging, He will never go back on His word, and 3) because God is all powerful, He has the ability to keep us saved.
In light of this, consider the following Scriptures.
- First, God is a God of truth: The veracity of God promises us that He “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2) while His immutability asserts that this will always be true.
- Second, God does not go back on His word: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19-20).
- Third, God is all-powerful: “No purpose of thine can be thwarted” (Job 42:2); “Is anything too difficult for thee?” (Jer. 32:27).
A study of God’s attributes in conjunction with the doctrine of salvation carries the strongest possible implications for the security of the believer. If God promised us eternal life, then He cannot lie. But did God specifically promise us eternal life? Yes. Our spiritual rebirth at the point of faith is termed “regeneration,” by theologians. It involves the imparting of eternal life. God did indeed promise us this: “This is the promise which He Himself made to us—eternal life” (1 Jn. 2:25). If God made a promise, can He fail to bring it to pass?
Consider a related line of argument. Is not the security of salvation directly related to God’s purpose and power? The doctrine of election teaches us it is God’s purpose to save us (2 Tim. 1:9). God’s omnipotence declares He has the power to save us and to secure our salvation against any conceivable foe (Job 42:2; Rom. 8:28-38). The doctrine of justification tells us that God has declared us righteous.
If God’s own righteousness, truth and immutability mean anything, how can this situation of the believer’s security ever be reversed? Under what human conditions might this happen? The God who cannot lie and never changes is the same God who purposed to save us, declared us righteous, promised us eternal life, and promised to keep us secure. Is there room for failure? Are the promises of God relative to salvation dependent upon the faith, failures or fallible actions of men? Not according to 2 Timothy 2:13 and Romans 3:3-4: “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot deny Himself” and “What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness? Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: ‘So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.’” Has God made a judgment as to the eternal condition of the believer? Unmistakably, yes. God has judged the believer eternally righteous, a possessor of eternal life and much more.
In conclusion, to examine the Scriptures which teach the security of the believer in light of the promises and attributes of God is to convince oneself of the truth of this doctrine.
- Lewis Sperry Chafer, Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 96-97.
- Arthur Pink, Eternal Security (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1974), p. 16.
- See our “The Facts On” booklets on homosexuality, abortion and evolution (Harvest House).
- Robert Glenn Gromacki, Salvation is Forever (Chicago: Moody, 1973), p. 10.
This article was written for The John Ankerberg Show by: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2005.
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