Once Saved Always Saved?
by French L. Arrington
T

he message of unconditional eternal security-“once saved, always saved”-is appealing because the doctrine is so comforting. To think that if we (or our loved ones) fall into sin, our salvation remains secure has a strong appeal to us. With the growing sense of uneasiness and insecurity in our world, the assurance that nothing—including sinning and unbelief—can separate us from God appeals to the postmodern generation.

We live in a world of the haunting realities of nuclear bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, school shootings, and other crimes against people. Growing out of this is a real need of security at the human level, to say nothing about our need of security in Jesus Christ. God, however, gives us great assurance about our eternal salvation on the condition that we continue to abide in Christ after becoming children of God. Therefore, salvation is conditional, not automatically inevitable. A person is free to “get in” . . . or, as a believer, free to “stay in” or to “get out.”

    Four Major Problems

Let’s consider four major problems in regard to the teaching that it is impossible for Christians to fall away from God and finally be lost.

First is the view that the Christian is guaranteed salvation, regardless of whether he or she lives a godly life.

It is true that from the moment of conversion, the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9), but is this absolute assurance that under no circumstances will the Holy Spirit withdraw His presence from one who has accepted Christ? The biblical warnings against dangers of falling away are not to be taken lightly. These warnings indicate that a believer, an heir of eternal life, is to grow in the Christian graces and resist temptations by trusting in Christ. To do otherwise places one’s relationship with Christ in spiritual jeopardy. The final end of the process of falling away is apostasy—the complete abandonment of faith and surrender to temptation and carnal desires. As a result, the Holy Spirit withdraws His presence from the life of the individual.

The Bible clearly teaches that the security of the believer depends on a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ (John 15:6) and on godly living by the help of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16-26).

A second problem with the idea of unconditional security is that it gives people a false sense of assurance.

The Bible calls our attention to the dangers of turning away from God and, thereby, forfeiting the gift of salvation. The warning of such dangers may appear to be contrary to popular Christian assurance. After all, the Bible repeatedly reminds us of our spiritual rights and possessions in Christ. God’s Word breathes an atmosphere of confidence and promises that God is able to keep us from falling into sin and unbelief (Jude 24-25).

The intent of this article is not to undercut the believer’s assurance of salvation in Christ, but to undercut a false sense of assurance, indeed a presumption that a Christian can live a sinful lifestyle and remain a Christian. The doctrine of unconditional eternal security appears in Genesis 3:4, where the serpent said to Eve, “You surely will not die!” (NASB). As an agent of Satan, the serpent gave Adam and Eve a false sense of security, making them willing to sin. They proved the error of this doctrine when they sinned and forfeited eternal life on the earth.

There is no doubt that Christ gives the assurance of eternal life to those who love and serve Him. The Bible clearly teaches that believers who walk in obedience to Christ are kept eternally safe. He holds them securely. Nevertheless, believers must never think of themselves as absolutely perfect (Phil. 3:12-15). Their security depends on being grounded in the truth and living in obedience to it. “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard . . .” (Col. 1:23 NASB). Genuine faith is seen in steadfast, day-by- day Christian living, but Christians who choose a sinful lifestyle place their salvation in jeopardy.

The third problem with unconditional eternal security is that it fails to agree with the biblical view of salvation.

Scriptures teach that personal salvation is a process—from conversion to glorification—but “once saved, always saved” makes glorification inevitable, regardless of the quality of the character of the believer. This teaching has wide appeal among many Evangelical believers because it offers a false sense of assurance that everyone who has ever trusted in Christ will finally be saved. Salvation, however, does not depend simply on the gift of life we receive at the moment of conversion, but on a continual relationship with God in which we appropriate the blessings of God by faith.

The Christian life is a process, but it is a process that can be ended at any stage before our death or before we are completely transformed at the coming again of Christ. When the result is transformation, also called glorification, it is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit. In short, believers become more Christlike as they respond and cooperate with the grace that God provides through the Holy Spirit. The final out- come is the full realization of salvation.

Final transformation is promised to all Christians, but it is not easily attained. There is a constant need of spiritual disciplines to enhance Christian growth and maturity. “Once in grace, always in grace” not only breeds a false sense of security, but this doctrine also sabotages the responsibility of the believer to make use of the grace God gives for further growth. The culminating feature of God’s grace is that at first sight of Christ, believers “will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2 NASB). The whole of the Christian life is the pressing on to that future goal. Consequently, salvation involves character formation, a dynamic process working itself out in godliness and holiness. Believers put themselves on shaky ground in assuming that security in Christ is unconditional and that by continuing in sin there is no possibility of falling away from the grace of God. Nowhere does the Bible teach that kind of assurance.

A fourth problem created by unconditional security is that it diminishes the importance of discipleship.

Once a person is saved, the perilous doctrine of unconditional security can contribute to moral and spiritual laxity. It casts a shadow on the importance of Christian discipleship and endangers believers’ spiritual welfare, making them think they can live in sin and remain saved. This teaching fits whatever lifestyle a person may wish to live. It may contribute to a person’s thinking there are no ethical demands or requirements to bear the fruit of the Spirit and reach full Christian maturity. Such a doctrine assures all believers they will go to heaven regardless of their lifestyles. Jesus saves us from sin, but not to live in it.

Paul insists that continuing in sin is impossible for the Christian. He raises the rhetorical question: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” To indicate the absurdity of such a practice, he asserts, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom.6:1-2 NIV). Habitual sinning is incompatible with salvation. The two do not mix any better than oil and water.

Therefore, eternal security can be seen as providing a license for careless Christian living; but the nature of saving grace is such that instead of encouraging sin, it breaks sin’s fatal grip so that we may live as Christians. We are to live in accordance to who we are in Christ. That is done as we live in faith and obedience, which is the condition
for our security in Christ. W. T. Purkiser said, “No one objects to the perseverance of saints. It is to the ‘perseverance of sinners’ we oppose.” Christ’s death on the cross is sufficient for our deliverance from sin, but that deliverance requires
an ongoing appropriation of the saving benefits of Christ’s death through faith and discipleship.

    Security in Christ

Christians must be urged to maintain their faith and to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Exhortations through preaching and teaching, and encouragement of one another strengthen believers in their confidence and hope in the life of faith. Meeting together in worship and other spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and the study of God’s Word provide avenues through which the Holy Spirit strengthens believers in their commitment to Christ.