Many Protestants think that they have an absolute assurance of their salvation, also called the doctrine of “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved”. For them it makes no difference—as far as salvation is concerned—how you live or end your life. You can announce that you’ve accepted Jesus as your personal Savior, and, as long as you really believe it, you’re set. From that point onwards there is nothing you can do, no sin you can commit, no matter how heinous, that will forfeit your salvation. You can’t undo your salvation, even if you wanted to. “To deny the assurance of salvation would be to deny Christ’s perfect redemption,” argues one Protestant theologian who continues by stating that “no wrong act or sinful deed can ever affect the believer’s salvation. The sinner did nothing to merit God’s grace and likewise he can do nothing to demerit grace.” In an extreme case, Martin Luther has instructed another reformer, Philip Melanchthon, to sin boldly!:
God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness…No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.
(Weimar ed. vol. 2, p. 371; Letters I, “Luther’s Works,” American Ed., Vol 48. p. 281- 282)
Such instructions by Luther to sin willfully goes against the Word of God which sets a rule to know if we are abiding in Jesus or not:
Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.
(1 John 3:6-9)
So, is the doctrine of eternal security supported by the Bible?
The simple answer is, no, the Bible doesn’t support eternal security. A believing Christian can lose their salvation.
Many confuse the verses on “salvation” referring to the redemption that Christ accomplished for us objectively with “salvation” in the wider meaning that entails our individual appropriation of Christ’s redemption. The truth is that in one sense we are all redeemed by Christ’s death on the cross—Christians, Jews, Muslims, even animists in the darkest forests (1 Tim. 2:6, 4:10; 1 John 2:2)—but our individual appropriation of what Christ provided is contingent on our response. The entire New Testament teaches that our response to Christ’s redemption by believing in Him, repenting, and having faith that acts with love is essential for our salvation.
Jesus stated that “every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away” (John 15:2). By saying a “branch in me”, He was clearly referring to believers in Him. Afterall, you don’t cut branches that aren’t attached. If a believer doesn’t bear fruit while having the ability to bear fruit, then they will be cast away, meaning that they will perish. Many Protestant theologians try to play mental gymnastics to twist the meaning of “He takes away” to mean that God will expose the unfruitful branch to more light so it can bear fruit. This interpretation, however, is not reasonable for many reasons. First, it hardly leaves any contrast or distinction between a fruitful branch that is pruned with an unfruitful one that is in a way pruned too! It is also a very nuanced interpretation that is not supported by any of the Church fathers, even any theologian before the reformation movement in the 16th century. This interpretation is also not aligned with the contextual understanding of the parable. In the parable of the sower, Jesus also stated that some will “believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13).
St. Paul told St. Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). From this verse we understand that a believer can be worse than an unbeliever if they don’t provide for their families.
St. Paul even went on to say that “it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6). He stressed the same idea when he stated that “if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26–29). St. Peter reiterates the same doctrine “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet. 2:20–22).
The Bible is full of instructions to believers to hold on to their salvation, complete their salvation, and endure till the end. Salvation in the wider sense is not an instant, it’s a journey until death. Jesus said, “he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mattew 24:13; 25:31–46). St. Paul said, “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.” (Rom. 11:22). St. Paul instructed believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). He also stated that our salvation is conditional upon endurance, “by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2). This is not the language of self-confident assurance. Our salvation is something that remains to be worked out. St. Paul was also concerned that some believers in Corinth might turn back to their sinful lives. He warned them to “not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). St. Peter also admonishes the believers to hold onto their faith, “If the righteous one is scarcely saved, Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:18) and “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9). Why would the devil bother to deceive us if we have already been surely saved? St. Peter also encouraged the believers to “be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10). The need for diligence to make our election sure doesn’t align with the understanding that our election is certain and eternally secure.
Finally, if salvation is guaranteed to believers on their first instant of believing, then the rest of Scripture is really irrelevant, or optional at best. In fact, the whole spirit and central message of Jesus’s preaching is to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17), not just believe, get saved, and enjoy the rest of your life regardless of any sins that you commit. Jesus emphasized the necessity of a faith acting in love for salvation as evidenced by the story of the withered fig tree. Jesus approached the tree seeking to find fruits, but it only had leaves, so He cursed it (Matthew 21:18-19).
Objection 1: Some Protestants might ask: what about Jesus promising that “all that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (Jn. 6:37). Doesn’t that secure our salvation?
Reply: Well, nothing in this verse establishes eternal security. It simply reveals that Jesus promised not to cast anyone who comes to Him, meaning anyone who believes and repents from their sin. Notice that the tense of the verbs in the verse doesn’t say that everyone the father gave me will always come to me. This promise is not for those who don’t truly and continually believe. If they don’t believe, repent and bear fruit, then they are not coming to Jesus, even if they were true believers at one point. They simply fell away. This verse means that we can be certain that Jesus will accept us any time we repent, not just once and for all even if we remain in our sin after we believe in Him.
Objection 2: What about the verse where Jesus said “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.” (John 6:38-39). Doesn’t that mean that we have eternal security?
Reply: Nothing in this verse refers to eternal security or the unconditionality of our salvation. It means that we can be certain of our salvation if we were given to Him by the Father, but only by remaining in Jesus we can know that we were truly given to Him by the Father. Otherwise, how do we know if we are among the ones given to Jesus by the Father? It is only through remaining in Jesus till the end of our lives. Also, the reference to the will of the Father means the will of desire not decree. Jesus wanted Jerusalem to be gathered but they didn’t want out of their free will (Matthew 23:37). Jesus also said in John 17:12 that Judas was given to Him, but Judas was lost. It is also God’s will that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), but that won’t happen.
Objection 3: But Jesus said that “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone 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 My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). Doesn’t that mean that we can be certain of our salvation?
Reply: Yes, we can be certain of our salvation, if we are among His sheep. Being a sheep means continuing to hear, know, and follow Jesus. Also, Jesus never says that He will never let the sheep stray. He promised that the devil can’t take us away from Him, but we can still freely leave Him. It is definitely possible for the sheep to stray as indicated in the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 16).
Objection 4: What about the verse in Hebrews stating: “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).
Reply: The verse doesn’t support eternal security. The promise here applies to “those who come to God through Him,” not those who abandon Him. The context of this verse is contrasting the priesthood of the Old Testament with Jesus’s redemption which is eternal unlike the office of the levitical high priest who was replaced because of death. It means that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient for eternity to redeem any sin that we repent of.
Objection 5: But we got the slea of the Holy Spirit and guaranteed inheritance as St. Paul stated: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14)
Reply: The seal, like a deposit of faith, means that God is committed and able to save us if we remain in Him, not just unconditional inheritance. St. Paul clarified later in the same epistle that “no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 5:5-6). Regarding this verse, Irenaus from the second century commented that “those who disobey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons” (Against Heresies 4.41.3).
Objection 6: Also, some may ask how can we understand that “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13).
Reply: Places where Scripture speaks of our ability to know that we are abiding in grace are important and must be taken seriously. But they do not promise that we will be protected from self-deception on this matter. In fact, the same verse instructs us to “continue to believe” which is far from a single moment of truth that leads to eternal salvation. In other words, if we continue to believe, we can know that we have eternal life in Jesus. This is a rule emphasized by St. John as he wrote that “by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:3-4)
Objection 7: Apostates were not true christians in the first place. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).
Reply: If “true Christians” never fall away, then we can’t know if we are that kind of Christian until death. Merely trying to explain that someone wasn’t really a true believer in retrospect hardly supports eternal security. It still leaves every believer with the possibility of falling away at some point in the future and necessitates enduring until the end of our lives before we can claim that our salvation is secured. Otherwise, any Christian still fall and someone would simply explain that they weren’t really Christian! Also, some apostates were false professors of the faith, but not all of them. Some were genuine believers with genuine faith, but fell away due to temptation or persecution. As Jesus explained, “the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.” (Luke 8:13)
In conclusion, many false doctrines can be supported by Biblical verses taken out of context, not in light of other relevant verses, and not referring to how early Christians, the disciples of the apostles, understood the Bible. As Saint Augustine said: “if you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” Therefore, we can claim that we are already saved by Christ’s redemption (Rom. 8:24, Eph. 2:5–8), but we’re also being saved (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12), and that we have the hope to be saved (Rom. 5:9–10, 1 Cor. 3:12–15). Like the apostle Paul instructed, we are working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), with hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ (Rom. 5:2, 2 Tim. 2:11–13).