Apostasy: Can You "Lose" Salvation?
Is it possible for someone to lose their salvation?
I don’t like the question. It’s a yes or no, but either answer may be misleading and neither is very helpful practically. Still, it’s a worthwhile question and arises for two good reasons.
First, it’s clear that there are believers who seem perfectly sincere in their faith, but then abandon it, perhaps never to return. What do we make of the former Christian life of such people? So the question arises from experience.
Second, there’s an exegetical and theological issue, because there are texts in the Bible that appear to go both ways. The tension can exist even within the same book. Is there a sense in which Jesus will lose none of those who the Father has given to him? There must be, since this is what Jesus claims in John 6:37-39 and 10:28. But in the very same gospel, Jesus seems to qualify this statement—explicitly so with reference to Judas (John 17:12), and more generally in the image of the vine, where branches that “belong to” Christ might fail to “abide in” him and finally be “thrown away and burned” (John 15:1-6).
This issue is the issue of apostasy, abandoning the faith, and what we are to think of such a person’s relationship with Christ. Was it ever real? If so, how real? Can “real” salvation be lost?
I think it’s best to consider the answer to these questions as a matter of perspective: From from a divine, eternal, all-encompassing viewpoint, salvation cannot be lost. But considered from a human, time-bound, immediate, and practical viewpoint, it can be.
THE WILDERNESS AS THE PROPER FRAMEWORK
It helps to put the question in its proper context, which is the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness.
Hebrews 3:12 warns: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away [ἀποστῆναι] from the living God.” The word “fall away” is the Greek verb that gives us the word “apostasy.” It refers to departing, leaving, or abandoning. What is envisioned is someone who had some kind of connection or attachment to Christ, and over time slides into such a pattern of rebellion or hard-hearted unfaithfulness that they fall away. The author of Hebrews writes this warning while developing an argument that his readers are in the same position as the wilderness generation (Hebrews 3:7-4:13). The Israelites were saved from Egypt, but then fell in the wilderness because of unbelieving rebellion. The author warns his readers that they also might “fall by the same pattern of disobedience” (4:11). When Hebrews looks at apostasy, it looks to the wilderness.
Paul does the same in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. The “fathers” all passed through the sea, they were “baptized into Moses”; they all “ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink,” sharing in Christ in some sense (v. 4).1 So they were “saved”—But most of them ended up overthrown in the wilderness for idolatry (v. 7), sexual immorality (v. 8), and faithless grumbling (v. 10). These things took place as “examples” (τύποι, “types” or “models”) for the Corinthians, a pattern Paul warns them to shun.
So the Israelites’ wilderness experience is a good starting place in considering apostasy and “losing” salvation. The wilderness pattern suggests a few important points to keep in mind as a general framework for understanding.
First, it speaks of a saved community. Israel was brought out of Egypt as a nation, and the Corinthians were an assembly, a church. Of course, personal faithfulness is ultimately an individual matter—Hebrews 3:13 and 4:1 clearly personalize the warning. But God saves a people, a covenant community that shares many blessings in common. When the New Testament gives warning about apostasy, it addresses those within the church, members of a body, who may be spoken of as Christians in their basic identity, and are believers in that sociological sense. Christians are warned against apostatizing. I think we are often too quick to draw lines between (and even to speak in terms of) “genuine” vs. “nominal” Christians. Those who are objectively members of the covenant community should be regarded and spoken of accordingly.
Second, the blessings experienced by all those baptized into Christ are real. The Israelites who fell in the wilderness had been saved from Egypt (even if Egypt was still in their hearts, Acts 7:39). They really ate supernatural (“spiritual”) food. They drank from Christ. They possessed adoption, the glory of God’s presence, and the covenant promises (cf. Romans 9:4-5). So Paul can give the warning he gives in 1 Corinthians 10 despite having addressed the Corinthians (in 1:2) as “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” and in 1:4-7 as having received grace in Christ and not lacking among them any spiritual gift. I think this, by the way, points to the proper way to understand Hebrews 6:4-6. Being “enlightened” (φωτισθέντας), having “tasted (γευσαμένους) the heavenly gift,” having “shared (μετόχους γενηθέντας) in the Holy Spirit,” and having “tasted (γευσαμένους) the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” are experiences that one may have without finally inheriting eternal life (cf. Hebrews 6:9).
Third, the warnings are real. Some have tried to argue that the warnings against apostasy are basically hypothetical, that no “true” Christian ever actually falls away. But this begs the question of what “true” Christian means. Most of those who were saved from Egypt did actually fall in the wilderness. There is a kind of salvation that, while real, is not finally saving. So we have to make distinctions, and I think we can make some that help us address apostasy, pastorally, as a matter of perspective.
SAVING VS. NON-SAVING FAITH
If there is a kind of “salvation” that is not ultimately saving, there is also a kind of faith that is not saving. So in Jesus’ parable of the soils, he warns about being one who hears the word of God and receives it with joy, but only “endures for a while” (Matthew 13:21). And Hebrews also speaks of “brothers” who may yet fall away because of unbelief (3:12). It’s worth looking at this section of Hebrews more closely to see how the author of Hebrews actually speaks, because this helps us distinguish saving faith from a kind that might look real but doesn’t last.
Listen to the verb tenses the author of Hebrews uses.
In Hebrews 3:6, he writes,
“And we are [God’s] house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.”
And a few verses later in Hebrews 3:14,
“For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
In the first verse, we “are” (ἐσμεν, present tense) God’s house “if we hold fast” (κατάσχωμεν) our confidence. It’s as though one’s present status as belonging to God’s house is determined by a track record of perseverance that is yet to play out. Even more explicit in the second verse, our having come to share in Christ (μέτοχοι . . . γεγόναμεν, perfect tense) depends upon holding our original confidence to the end (μέχρι τέλους). We have come to share if we hold fast to the end.
So the question becomes: are you saved right now? The author of Hebrews might answer: Well, are you out of Egypt right now? Have you thrown in with Christ? Are you marked with his name? Have you tasted the heavenly gift and the goodness of the Word of God? Are you part of the assembly of his people? Then you are saved and need not doubt it. But you must persevere, you must press on, you must lay hold of the eternal life that is held out to you. As Jesus told the disciples in John 8:31, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” But then in 15:6, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers.”
Now, the Bible does teach that there are those given to Christ who will never be lost, and we must account for that as well:
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 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” (John 6:37-39).
Paul indicates a similar thought in Romans 8:28-39—those called in Christ are predestined for glory and will never be separated from the love of Christ. We do have to say that from the perspective of God’s election and eternal purpose, salvation in its fulness cannot be lost. Looked at holistically in that sense, a person is either in or out (to put it crudely), and that is so definitively.
As the Westminster Confession of Faith has it (chapter 17.1):
“They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”2
Note that this statement connects “effectual calling” with persevering. It is looking at “genuine” salvation as a whole package, which is fine to do, but the Confession’s chapter on the Perseverance of the Saints is given from this eternal perspective. The perseverance, played out over a lifetime, is how “genuine” salvation is manifested as effectual. The Confession goes on in the next section to emphasize that perseverance itself is based ultimately on God’s eternal decree, and when Jesus speaks of those whom the Father had given him, cited above, it is the eternal decree that is in view.
God’s ultimate electing purpose is one of the secret things that belong the Lord. When it comes to administering the life of the church, and in our finite perspective of others and of ourselves, we are people in the wilderness. That is the covenantal perspective, the things revealed that belong to us and our children forever (Deut. 29:29). So there is a distinction to be made between election and covenant. Peter urges his readers to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:3-11) by their perseverance and growth in grace. Taking heed, pursuing Christ, and mutual exhortation should be our present concern, but we should know that God is faithful and does not abandon those who come to him in faith.
WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE?
At this point a pertinent question arises. What makes the difference between those who persevere in faith and those who don’t? Is there some quality in the faith itself that can be discerned “in the moment,” so to speak, so that one may know right now if one is “really” saved, really elected for eternal glory? After all, perseverance is something that, by its very nature, can only play out over the course of a whole life.
One might consider the object of one’s faith. Is it the person and work of Christ or perceived personal merit, as in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector? One may also introspectively examine one’s own sincerity in holding this faith, the genuine pursuit of holiness in their life, love for the things of God, etc, and of course these are all good things to look for and do indicate real faith. But none of these can be held as an absolute guarantee that you may not one day walk away. And does anyone really possess such objective and clear-sighted self-knowledge that they may not deceive themselves? “Let he who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). We should have confidence in Christ, but that doesn’t imply complacency on our part.
It’s important to emphasize, though, that considerations like these are not intended to give us anxiety or to make us hopeless of having real confidence in our salvation. If you believe in Christ with sincerity, and if you have a sincere desire to follow him, be encouraged, be hopeful, and continue on. God is gracious and will support you.3 The warnings are meant to promote your diligent perseverance, not paralyze you with fear. Peter urges people to make their calling and election sure not by examining the quality of their faith, but by adding to it (2 Peter 1:3-11).
Believers who are falling into persistent sin and are dabbling with unbelief should be warned against losing their salvation, because from a pastoral standpoint, they certainly can lose it. But believers who are morbidly introspective and forever doubting their own salvation because they aren’t sure if it’s genuine enough should be encouraged to persevere in faith and that Christ loses none of his sheep, because he doesn’t. Both these things are true, and we need to know both strands of biblical teaching and apply them with wisdom to specific cases.
It’s notable that despite writing to a largely Gentile audience, Paul speaks of Israel in the wilderness as “our” fathers (οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν).
The Confession goes on:
2. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
God is gracious to those who seek him. At the same time, I do want to note here that Philippians 1:6 is often called on to support the “eternal security” of the believer in a way that I think stretches the text a bit. 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.” This is said in the context of a greeting to the whole church (the second-person pronoun is plural), and what Paul is expressing is his thanksgiving for the church’s partnership with him in the gospel, and his confidence that the grace God has worked “in” them (or “among” them or “by means of” them; the preposition is the notoriously ambiguous ἐν) will find its mature fruit in the day of Christ. There is no clear or direct assertion here of the eternal security of each individual Christian in Philippi or anywhere else.