Originally published in Enrichment Journal (Fall 2008), pages 122–128.
In a previously published article, the doctrinal position called “Perseverance of the Saints,” “Eternal Security,” or more popularly, “Once Saved, Always Saved” was briefly discussed as one of many defective views on the way and nature of salvation (Defective Views of Salvation). Here, however, it will be addressed more completely because it not only fundamentally alters the biblical view of salvation; it also negatively impacts discipleship, personal holiness, and evangelism.
To restate the problem, this doctrine teaches that once a person experiences salvation, there is nothing that person can think, believe, say, do or not do that would cause him/her to lose that status. Like Limited Atonement, the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints was also popularized by Augustine in the fifth century AD. His teaching on this subject was eventually adopted as official doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church and was the commonly accepted position on the matter at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Along with a number of other doctrines and practices, it was also accepted and promoted by some of the leaders of the Reformation such as John Calvin, and in this way, it has come down into the doctrinal systems of many modern Protestant denominations.
The Arminian/Wesleyan/Holiness tradition and the Assemblies of God which grew out of it have both historically rejected this version of salvation as biblically defective. The official A/G website states, “The Assemblies of God has taken a strong stand against the teaching that God’s sovereign will completely overrides man’s free will to accept and serve Him. In view of this we believe it is possible for a person once saved to turn from God and be lost again.” Our spiritual forefathers resisted the temptation to follow the majority of Protestants because they perceived the Scriptures to be going in exactly opposite direction. They were also wise enough to see the detrimental effect it had had on the witness of the individual and the church, as well as the processes of daily discipleship and personal sanctification.
Irrespective of the strong and unequivocal official position taken by the Assemblies of God, however, little is heard about this doctrine or our position on the issue in our pulpits today. It appears to have suffered from the same lack of emphasis all doctrinal preaching and teaching has experienced for the last twenty to thirty years, despite the fact that the Pastoral Epistles are replete with injunctions commanding pastors to preach and teach sound doctrine (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6, 16; 2 Tim. 2:2, 23–26; 3:13-17; 4:2–5; Titus 1:9-14; 2:1, 7–8, 15). It comes as no surprise, then, that the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints/Eternal Security (PS/ES) is as prevalent as ever and is still having the same negative impact on witness, discipleship, and personal holiness in many mainline denominations. What has changed over the last generation is that these undesirable elements are now as evident in AG and other Classical Pentecostal and Charismatic churches as they are in mainline denominations. No doubt, this is largely due to our failure to address this faulty teaching directly and to our inability or unwillingness to convincingly articulate our own position. It is therefore important for leaders to be aware of the arguments used by proponents of PS/ES, the appropriate responses to their assertions, and the biblical basis for our position that believers can voluntarily forfeit their salvation by persisting in constant mutiny against the lordship of Christ.
Scriptures used to support the PS/ES position and their proper interpretation.
Those who espouse the PS/ES view of salvation make use of many scriptures to support their position. Here, only the most frequently used and most “convincing” passages will be considered. One such text is John 5:24, “He who hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Proponents understand this verse as saying that once you have passed from death to life, you eternally have life. On closer scrutiny, however, the grammatical context of Scripture makes clear that the word “eternal” is not an adverb modifying the verb as if to say one “eternally has life.” Instead, it is part of a compound noun. Therefore, it is the life that is eternal, not one’s possession of it.
Another set of scriptures is used to argue that once united with God, that bond can never be broken. Appeal is made to John 6:37, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out,” but this text cannot be said to rule out the possibility that one can leave of his own accord (cf. John 17:12). Another favorite of PS/ES proponents is John 10:27–28, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.” To this we could add that Paul makes the same point in Romans 8:35–39, but in fairness to the biblical authors, they are both saying that external forces are incapable of separating us from God. Neither rule out the possibility that the individual can exercise free will and choose to depart. In fact, this is presented as a very real possibility by the same speaker (Jesus) in the same book by the same author (John). The entire fifteenth chapter is a direct warning against apostasy. The word translated “abide” throughout chapter 15 is meno, meaning literally “to remain, continue, stay.” Therefore, Jesus says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away…If anyone does not remain/continue/stay in me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:2, 6). As if not enough, the next section begins with Jesus declaring, “I have said all this to keep you from falling away” (John 16:1). If apostasy were not a distinct possibility, Jesus would not have addressed it at such length.
Before leaving this discussion of John 10:27–28, it should also be noted that the present tense in the Greek language denotes continuous action. Therefore, this verse is literally to be translated, “My sheep continue in hearing my voice, and I continue to know them, and they keep on following me and I keep on giving them eternal life…” Functionally, this means that our not perishing is contingent upon our continuing to hear and follow Jesus, a theme which will be seen to echo throughout Scripture. Quite the opposite of supporting PS/ES, this text actually supports the possibility that a believer can voluntarily walk away from God by refusing to “continue” in obedience to Christ, choosing instead a life of rebellion and mutiny against the Master.
1 Corinthians 3:15 is among the more popular Pauline passages used to support PS/ES, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Proponents of PS/ES interpret this to mean that those in rebellion against God lose not their salvation but only their heavenly rewards. A quick reading of the larger context, however, indicates that this passage (which begins in v. 1) has to do solely with the building up of the church by preaching sound doctrine. At the Judgment Day, people trusting in a false doctrine or gospel (anything other than the “foundation of Jesus,” v. 11; cf. also the next section) will be burned up, and the one who preached will grieve (“suffer loss”) at their demise. This cannot refer to the loss of such heavenly rewards as peace, righteousness, perfection, joy, wholeness, safety, contentment, and life in the presence of God. If these things are taken away in this life, there is nothing left of salvation; take them away in eternity and heaven becomes an ugly joke. The only Christians singled out for specific rewards in the New Testament are the martyrs, and the rewards they receive are symbolic and temporary. The sacrifice of rewards to retain salvation sounds far too much like a salvation accomplished by works and far too much like the works of those who try to gain heaven by balancing their evil deeds with good ones (the Doctrine of Merits). This in turn takes away the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice as the only means of purchasing our salvation. As popular as this belief in the loss of rewards is, there should be much more biblical evidence to support such an extraordinary claim. The fact is that the one verse used to support this belief, when viewed in its proper context, actually supports the opposite position.
Some adherents of PS/ES point to Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6 for support, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” In reading the entire passage (vv. 3–11), however, it becomes clear that what Paul was “sure” of was the Philippians’ desire to press on into maturity, which is the believer’s only real security. This reading is supported by Paul’s later admonition to the same audience that they “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). Further, after noting that even his eternal destiny is not yet written in stone (3:12–13) and to ensure his eternal life he is pressing on to greater maturity and obedience (3:14), he exhorts the Christians at Philippi to follow his example and avoid following the example of those whose end is destruction (3:17–19).
Appeal is sometimes made to Hebrews 7:25a, “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Advocates of this view of salvation understand the phrase “for all time” to refer to those being saved. However, immediate context and the overarching message of the book of Hebrews require that the phrase be understood as referring to Jesus and the length of time that He is able to function as High Priest and provide an atonement that makes salvation possible (cf. also vv. 3, 17, 21, 24, 25b; and 5:6; 6:20), not to some perceived eternal grip that all believers have on salvation.
A final favorite text of those who embrace PS/ES is 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all were not of us.” This passage is used as a springboard to the position that those who cease following Christ were really never saved.
The problems with this interpretation are multiple. First, the text does not explicitly state what they assert it says (that separation means their salvation experience was not real). Here, John is speaking from a point after the defection and noting that their desertion was proof that they no longer belonged to the Community of the Redeemed. He is comparing them to those who have resisted false teaching, continued to embrace the truth, and persisted in “abiding” in Christ (v. 24). Second, the contrasting responses of “going out” and “abiding/remaining” recalls Jesus’ own teaching in John 15, which describes members of the Body of Christ who fail to “abide”, do not continue to bear fruit, dry up, and are eventually cut off (cf. the discussion of this text above). Third, both Testaments are replete with examples of individuals and groups who were at one point clearly in right standing with God but who later repudiated His lordship (Gen. 4:3–16 [cf. Jude 11]; Ex. 32:32-33; Num. 3:2–4; 4:15–20; 16:1–33; 22:8, 12, 19, 20, 32–35; 24:1–2, 13; 31:7–8; 1 Sam 10:1–7, 9-11; 13:8-15; 16:14; 31; John 6:66 [and cf. v. 67]; 1 Cor. 5:1–13; 1 Tim 1:19–20; 2 Tim 1:15; 2:17–19; 4:10; Titus 1:12–16; Heb. 12:15–17; 2 Ptr. 2:1; Rev. 2:6, 15 [cf. Acts 6:5; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.29], etc.).
Arguments in favor of the possibility of apostasy
In the past, we have been guilty of poorly articulating our own doctrinal position by using the phrase “lose your salvation,” as though such an act could be accidental, unintentional, and due to a momentary slip-up or inattentiveness. Detractors have rightly attacked this definition as an inaccurate reflection of the teaching of Scripture. Therefore, in addition to rediscovering how to refute interpretations of passages used to support PS/ES such as those discussed above, we must also re-familiarize ourselves with passages which support our doctrine and then articulate it in a way that properly reflects the teaching of God’s Word. Some of the most important passages that support our position are discussed below.
Arminian/Wesleyan/Holiness/Pentecostal teaching maintains that believers retain their free will even after salvation. In fact, contrary to PS/ES which assumes that at reception of salvation the believer forfeits the right to voluntarily to walk away from a relationship with Jesus, Scripture teaches that those who trust in and obey Jesus are even more free after salvation than before (John 8:36; Gal. 5:1, 13a, etc.). Our doctrine is referred to by the biblical phrases “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4), “fall away” (Heb. 3:12), and “commit apostasy” (Heb. 6:6), whereas the phrases “security of the believer,” “eternal security,” and “once saved, always saved” never appear in Scripture. The English word “apostasy” is merely a transliteration of the New Testament Greek word apostasia. Authoritative reference works note that it and its verbal form include these nuances: to take a stand apart from, to commit political defection or treason, to separate from, to be drawn off or away, to induce revolt, to withdraw, to depart, to fall away, to cease from having any interaction with, to desert, and to put away (as in divorce). None of these phrases suggest a loss of covenantal relationship as the result of an accidental or temporary breech of established standards of holiness. Rather, they all imply forethought, intent, and a persistent state of rebellion against the mastery of Jesus over one’s life.
Old Testament Revelation
The Old Testament tells us that at Creation, God created man in His own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). In part, this means that even as God thinks, plans, reasons, and decides, so also does man. Although the image of God stamped on mankind at Creation was partially effaced, these attributes certainly were not. In addition, God will not invade or violate the free will that He has purposely created within man, whether saved or unsaved. When God began to interact with man by way of “covenant” relationships, “conditional covenants” (“If…then…”) were the norm—covenants which placed obligations on parties on each side of the agreement. If either side failed live up to its obligations, the covenant could be voided (cf. Gen. 2:15-17; 6:11-19; 9:1-17 ; Ex. 12:15, 19; 20:1–24:18, esp. 24:7–8; 30:33–38; 32:33; Num. 19:13; Lev. 17:10; 20:2–6, 17; 22:3; 26:1–46; Deut. 11:1–28; 28:1, 9, etc.). In fact, throughout all of God’s covenant dealings with the nation of Israel, no other form of relationship existed except the “conditional covenant.” Because Israel consistently failed to live up to their covenantal obligations, statements appear throughout the Old Testament that such behavior would nullify their relationship with God (cf. Ex. 32:33; Lev. 22:3; Num. 15:30–31; Deut. 29:18-21; 1 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 17:22–23; 24:19–20; 1 Chron. 28:9; 2 Chron. 7:19-22; 15:2; 24:20; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 1:2–4; 59:2; Jer. 8:12; 15:1, 6–7; 16:5; Ezek. 3:20; 18:24; 33:12–13, 18, etc.). Despite appeals to Ezekiel 18:4, 18, 20, 24, 26, etc., by proponents of PS/ES who argue that God will physically kill people before they cross the line into apostasy, there are many passages that provide other options (Ex. 32:33; Lev. 22:3; Deut. 29:18–28; 1 Kgs. 9:7; 2 Kgs. 17:22–23; 24:20; 1 Chr. 28:9; 2 Chr. 7:19–22; 15:2; 24:20; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 59:2; Jer. 8:12; 15:1; 16:5; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 John 5:16, etc.).
For most sinful activity, God graciously provided covenant Israel with a means by which to receive forgiveness and be restored to right standing with Him and the community. Persistent, premeditated, deliberate rebellion, however, was of such a nature that no atonement was possible and excommunication was the only option (Num. 15:27–31; cf. Matt. 12:32; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14–15; Titus 3:10; 1 John 5:16, and W.E. Nunnally, God Looks at All Sin the Same: Sound Biblical Teaching or Sloppy Bumper-Sticker Theology?). The prophets knew this and often pronounced those who had previously been in right covenantal relationship with God to be “separated” from God (Isa. 1:4; 59:2), “apostate” (Jer. 2:19; 5:6), “”degenerate” (Jer. 2:22), “rejected” (Jer. 2:37), “unpardonable” (Jer. 5:7), “winnowed” (Jer. 15:7), and the like.
Many have argued that a major difference between the Old Testament and New Testament is the presence of grace. It should be noted, however, that grace was also available in the Old Testament (Exod. 34:6–7; Num. 6:25; Jer. 3:12; Ps. 86:15, etc.). Further, grace is God’s enabling power for the overcoming of sin, not an excuse to continue in sin, and not a means by which to lessen the demands of a conditional covenant. If anything, the presence of grace heightens the level of expectation because we now have the ability to overcome what the law could only expose (cf. Luke 12:48; John 1:16–17; Romans 6:1–2; 8:3, 7b-11; cf. also Romans 1:31, “covenant-breakers”).
New Testatment Revelation
Moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament, it should be noted that the teaching of the New Testament is no different with respect to the issues the doctrine of PS/ES raises. The first passage in the New Testament relevant to the current discussion is perfectly in line with every teaching and every example laid down before it in the Old Testament. John the Baptist boldly proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10 and Luke 3:9). Notably, Jesus began His ministry by reiterating this same message (Matt. 7:19).
Jesus also taught that unforgiveness would remove the possibility of our reception of forgiveness from God (Matt. 6:15). It should be observed that in Jesus’ original historical context and in Matthew’s canonical context, this and the following instructions were given to the New Covenant community that was comprised of people who were believers in Jesus. He taught these same believers that only those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 10:22; 24:13) and that if we deny Him before men, He will deny us before His Father (Matt. 10:33). When He said, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:31), He made no distinction between the saved and the unsaved. Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed wherein the seed took root and actually began to bear fruit, but was eventually destroyed by various things (Matt. 13:3–23). In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus commanded that members of the New Covenant community who persist in rebellion and unrepentance be put out of the church and be treated as outsiders to the covenant. He warned that in the last times, false messiahs “will lead many astray” (Matt 24:5) and during persecution, “many will fall away” (Matt. 24:10). Verse 24 records that Jesus taught that false messiahs and false prophets will “lead astray if possible, even the elect.” Those in the PS/ES camp think the “if possible” gives them reason to argue that it is “not possible,” so no one can ever be led astray from the faith. This argument, however, does not do justice to the larger context of the passage (Matt. 24:5, 10) or other texts (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:1–2, etc.) which expressly state that there will be believers in the last days who depart from the faith for various reasons. Luke reports that Jesus taught, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and [continually] looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62). The context makes the meaning of the metaphor eminently clear to all but those who bring to it a theological presupposition that forbids that it be taken seriously. The same can be said for Luke 14:34–35, “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor the dung hill; men throw it away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (for more on the teaching of Jesus, cf. Matt. 7:16–17, 21, 24, 26; 10:38; 12:30; 18:23–35; Luke 9:23ff.; 14:25–33).
The Pauline Epistles
The teaching of Paul is no different from that of Jesus. He warns the leaders of the church in Ephesus that “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). He warns the churches in Rome, “For if God did not spare the natural branches [Israel], neither will he spare you [Christians in Rome]. Note the kindness and severity of God; severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you provided that [note the language of conditional covenant] you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (11:21–22). He also challenges them, “If for food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (14:15, emphasis added to demonstrate that the one potentially “ruined” is a Christian, not an unbeliever; cf. also 1 Cor. 8:11, where the same terms appear). In 1 Cor. 5:1–13 (cf. also 2 Thess. 3:6, 14), he challenges the Corinthians to excommunicate individuals who live lives of persistent rebellion (cf. Matt. 18:15–17). He chides libertines in the church at Corinth for allowing their freedom to cause the “destruction” of the weaker “brother for whom Christ died (1 Cor. 8:11, emphasis added; “brother” indicates that all involved are members of the same covenant community). He holds out the possibility that even he could become “disqualified” or a “castaway” from the faith (1 Cor. 9:27). He warns the Christians at Corinth that this could be their lot as well, and that they could end up like the Israelites who were overthrown in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (v. 12). He puts them on notice that belief in a defective version of the good news can endanger their salvation, “I would remind you in what terms I preached the gospel to you, which you received and in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:1–2). A short time later, he challenges them again, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are holding to the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5). This challenge is quite similar to the one he delivers to the Colossian church, namely that Jesus will present us blameless before God, but only “provided that [they] continue in the faith, stable and steadfast…” (Col. 1:21–23), a promise and an exhortation that ring hollow if once a person is “in”, that person can never get “out.”
To the churches in Galatia, Paul exclaims, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). In Galatians 4:1–11, he describes a progression in which the Galatian Christians had gone from slaves, to sons, and then back to slaves again. In the conclusion to this section, Paul says, “I am afraid I have labored in vain!” To those who had been saved by the blood of Jesus but then accepted the “Jesus Plus” gospel of the Judaizers that added circumcision to the Ordo Salutis (Way of Salvation), Paul proclaims, “You are severed [kataergo: cut off, emptied of, annulled from, canceled from, brought to an end, destroyed, annihilated] from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away [ekpipto: to fall from or out of, to forfeit, to lose, to cause to come to an end] from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
To the Philippian church, Paul states that he has suffered the loss of all things “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11). If Paul’s salvation was a “done deal” and there was nothing that could change his status with God, he certainly was not aware of it! He had evidently taken to heart the state of spiritual devastation that had taken place in the lives of some of his closest companions, because in the same context, he tells the church at Philippi about people who used to be well-known believers but who he now laments “live as enemies to the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). It is unfortunate that there are so many believers in so many groups who refuse to heed the warning provided by the shipwrecked lives of people who were once Christians, preferring instead to hide behind biblically empty denials like, “He/She was evidently never a Christian in the first place” (cf. the discussion of 1 John 2:19 above).
When Paul instructs pastors, the message is exactly the same, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith…” (1 Tim. 4:1; cf. 2 Tim. 4:3–4). He tells Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8, emphasis added). Reminiscent of the instructions of Jesus (Matt. 18:15–17), Paul tells Titus, “Have nothing more to do with dissension-makers after two or three warnings, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10–11; cf. also 2 Thess. 3:6, 14). The process described here is excommunication, which denotes public recognition that the individual no longer has the same status with God or the community of faith.
The General Epistles and the Apocalypse
The remainder of the New Testament is no less clear about the very real possibility that the believer can voluntarily forfeit it by a consistent life of rebellion against God. In the book of Hebrews, we hear some of the clearest warnings against apostasy and urgent exhortations to remain firm to the end contained in the entire Bible—all directed toward Christians. Because of the greater revelation that came with the incarnation of Christ, the author tells Christians, “We must pay closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it” (2:1). In this text, the writer includes himself (and he is clearly a Christian!) in a warning against leaving the way of salvation. In the same context, he raises the rhetorical question, “How shall we escape [judgment, cf. v.2] if we neglect so great a salvation?” (v. 3a). Again, the author includes himself along with his Christian audience. It should be noted that the verb is “neglect”, not “reject”—his readers were neglectful Christians, not rejecting unbelievers. In 3:6, he echoes the same challenge heard from Jesus and Paul, “And we are his house if we hold fast to our confidence and pride in our hope firm to the end,” reiterating later, “We share in Christ only if we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (v. 14). He warns fellow believers, “Take care brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away [apostaenai, “apostasize”] from the living God” (3:12). Believers should “fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any of you be judged to have failed to reach it” (4:1), because even believers can “fall by the same sort of disobedience [that covenant Israel exhibited]” (4:11). In 6:4–6, the author declares, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify again the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.” Reminiscent of Numbers 15:30–31, Hebrews states, “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment…” (10:26–27). He continues, “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified. And has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (10:28–29, emphasis added). The italicized portion provides incontrovertible evidence that the people the author has in mind are Christians. These intentionally, voluntarily, defiantly sinful are described as “throwing away” (not accidentally losing) their salvation (10:35). The writer of Hebrews leaves his Christian audience with exhortation, “See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ [cf. Deut 29:18–21] spring up and cause trouble and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (12:15–17, emphases added).
James tells us that “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, he will have saved the sinner’s soul from death…” (James 5:19–20). Peter writes, “There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Ptr. 2:1). In the same context he continues, “For if after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state is worse than the first. It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment handed to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘The dog turns back to his own vomit,’ and ‘the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire of mud’” (2 Ptr. 2:20–22, emphases added to demonstrate the fact that the author is here describing individuals who had previously been numbered among the redeemed). John describes a sin that is “unto death which cannot be forgiven (1 John 5:16), and the context in the first half of the verse as well as the use of the same terminology elsewhere in same the letter (1 John 3:13–14) make it abundantly clear that this is spiritual death, not physical death. This message is in no way different from his message in the Apocalypse. There, he promises eternal life only to those who overcome and remain faithful until the end (Rev. 2:10, 25–26). On the other hand, he guarantees rejection and loss of life to those who do not (Rev. 2:5; 3:11, 16). To the end of the book (and thus, the New Testament), he continues to warn about the possibility of voluntary forfeiture of one’s salvation (Rev. 22:19).
From this brief survey, it is evident that both Testaments warn of the possibility of voluntary forfeiture of one’s status with God by consistent rebellion against the lordship of Christ. Scripture makes clear in a plethora of passages that the only real “security” is found in consistent obedience to the will of the Master. This reality fits perfectly with the biblical definition of salvation, which is not a one-time crisis event that seals a believer for all eternity, but rather is a process that has past (Rom. 10:9–10; 2 Cor. 5:17), present (Luke 9:23; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 3:18; Phil. 2:12; 3:8–16), and future stages (Rom. 8:19–24; 1 Cor. 15:24–28; 1 Ptr. 1:3-7; Rev. 12:10; 20:1–10; 21:1–22:14). That believers retain the option to continue in obedience and submission to the will of God or to choose a life of continual mutiny against His lordship is evident from the many people and groups mentioned throughout the Bible who chose the latter and suffered eternal separation from God as a result.
Members of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and members of the church in the New Testament regularly heard this teaching articulated by their leaders and as a result lived lives that changed the world forever. Were we to renew our commitment to proclaim this biblical truth, much of the spiritual vitality, power, and witness that characterized the early church would in all likelihood be restored to our midst. If this message again became as consistent a theme in our preaching and teaching as it was with Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and our Pentecostal forefathers, we might also turn our world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Dr. Wave Nunnally
Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins Evangel University, Springfield, MO
Jewish backgrounds, New Testament, Hebrew language and the land of Israel are areas of expertise for Dr Wave Nunnally. He has studied, taught and written in these areas for over… More