Can you lose your salvation?
It was a question that haunted me. Tormented me. Sent me into an existential panic. Not only did I struggle to find assurance of salvation, I was also terrified of losing it.
And it didn’t help that I grew up in the 90’s evangelical world, where every youth conference contained at least one opportunity to “rededicate” your life to Christ.
Music would be playing softly and the speaker would be earnestly pleading with all the “backsliders”, inviting them to be on fire for Jesus again (there was a lot of fire in the 90’s). Tears would be shed, hands would be raised, and kids would stream to the front for prayer (and usually some sort of group hug).
To top it all off, there are passages in scripture that seem to indicate that a Christian can lose their salvation. What was I supposed to make of these spiritually terrifying words?
Maybe you can relate to this. Or maybe you know someone who struggles like I did.
So what does scripture really say? Can a genuine Christian lose their salvation?
God Will Preserve His People
Again and again, God makes it very clear that he will keep and preserve every true believer. In John 6:39-40, Jesus speaks these sweet words of comfort:
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.
God has given believers to Jesus. I belong to him, he owns me, and he is very possessive of me. Jesus himself has promised that on that final day, when he returns in staggering glory, I will be raised up to eternal life. Nothing can stop Jesus from fulfilling that promise.
Notice that this passage is all about what God will do. It’s not about my ability to persevere or hold fast to Jesus. It’s not like a spiritual Hunger Games, with Jesus saying, “Only the strong will make it to the end.”
Jesus will hold me fast in his invincible grip until the final day.
In Philippians 1:6, Paul says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
There was more dysfunction in Paul’s churches than most reality television shows. The Corinthians were getting pasted at the Lord’s Supper, the Galatians were on the verge of abandoning the gospel, the Colossians were tempted to worship angels, and two women were duking it out in the Philippian church.
How could Paul be confident that any of these people would persevere until Christ’s return?
Because God was the one who started the work of salvation and God would be the one who would complete it.
This gives me an incredible amount of peace. If my final salvation were up to me, I wouldn’t make it. I’m sure of that. I’m no spiritual Superman or hero (to paraphrase Dave Matthews). Without God holding me fast, I would be prone to wander and eventually fall away.
But God is the one who is working in me. He caused me to be born again and he will continue to work in me until that final day, when I’m fully conformed to the image of Christ.
This is the glory of the new covenant in Christ. Israel was unable to consistently follow God. They constantly wandered into idolatry and wickedness, fundamentally lacking the power to keep God’s law. They could, and often did, “lose” the salvation God offered.
And so God promised to do something new and revolutionary: to write his law on the hearts of his people. In Jeremiah 31:33-34, the Lord speaks these breathtaking words:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
In answer to the question, “Can you lose your salvation?” this passage (and others like it) give me great peace. One of the central promises of the New Covenant is that God writes his law on my heart.
God the Father ordained my salvation in eternity past.
God the Son purchased my salvation through his life, death, and resurrection.
And God the Spirit now dwells within me, convicting me of sin and compelling me to follow Christ.
From beginning to end, my salvation (and yours) is all of God.
If you fear losing your salvation, these passages are your peace. Your comfort. Your rest.
What About The Warnings Regarding Losing Salvation?
Of course, this does raise a rather sticky question: what about the passages of scripture that seem to warn against falling away?
For example, Hebrews 6:4-6 says:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance…
That sure makes it seems like I can fall away from Christ after being saved. What am I supposed to make of these passages?
First, I have to acknowledge that there is a real tension between these warnings and the promises noted above. I need to avoid the common mistake of rounding off the sharp edges of the passage and I need to feel the full weight of its meaning.
So how am I to interpret these passages? They are passages of severe warning meant to push me to persevere in Christ.
This is where the mystery of God’s providence and my responsibility collide. Does God promise that he will keep me to the end? Yes. Does he assure me that nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ? Absolutely.
Does God also call me to put aside every sin and to run hard after him? Yes. Does he warn me against the danger of rejecting Christ and embracing sin? Absolutely.
Do I have to reconcile these things so that they fit perfectly together? Nope.
I like how Ardel Caneday says it:
The preacher [in Hebrews 6] expects us to take to heart both the urgent warning against a final departing from Christ (6:4–8) and the admonition to assured confidence in God’s promise (6:9–20) without any whisper of contradiction. He doesn’t admonish us to doubt the inheritance that God assures us by his sworn oath and promise. God regularly uses warnings and consolations or threats and promises together to secure us in the way of salvation.
In other words, I’m called to heed the warning of Hebrews 6 without doubting that God will also keep me to the end. Additionally, the warning passages themselves function as a means of God helping me to persevere to the end.
I don’t have to somehow make everything fit together. If I do that, I’ll end up minimizing either the promises of perseverance or the warnings against falling away. Instead, I need to embrace both and let the tension exist.
He Will Hold Me Fast
Are we called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Yes. But can you lose your salvation? No.
That’s such sweet news to me, because if I could lose it, I already would have.
Charles Spurgeon puts it this way: