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The Sad Truth About Ed Dingess
Can salvation be lost? My interest in the matter can be traced to
confrontations with persons here remaining unnamed who
have at some past point professed Christ, but have now, so it
seems, trampled the pearls of salvation underfoot. Most of you,
however, are probably more concerned about matters of assurance,
and the idea that something that one has done, some sin perhaps,
contributes to the loss of salvation.
This is of course a question
incapable of proof in the scientific sense, so we will ask the question from the
point of view: What does Scripture say on the matter?
I have delineated two separate questions above in terms of
whether salvation can be lost, and the latter can be answered first
and quite simply: NO. While there is a clear teaching regarding a
lack of rewards for the Christian who sins (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11-15), it
is also quite clear that there is no sin that can erase salvation,
with one possible exception, that of disbelief, which we shall deal
with in a moment.
But in terms of other behavior leading to
loss of salvation, there is no such possibility: If the
blood of Christ, as one who is part of God's divine identity, is in payment, what sin has it not
covered, other than the sin of disbelief in the efficacy of his payment by
Which leads to the second option: Can apostasy -- and by this I
mean, a clear, heartfelt repudiation of belief -- cause not
loss of salvation, but more appropriately, can it cause
salvation to be irretrievably thrown away?
Here I do not
think the answer is as clear. My study indicates that the
possibility cannot be absolutely ruled out, although I know of few
who might have qualified. I have
also found that this is a subject where even the most careful and
dedicated writers have marginalized the Scriptural data to avoid adverse
conclusions (As we shall see, causing two major evangelical names
to offer wildly different interpretations of key passages.) and
where the sin of apostasy and disbelief (which I reckon elsewhere to be the true meaning of
the "unpardonable sin" of blaspheming the Holy Spirit) is dismissed
as a case of people who never believed in Christ in the first place
merely showing their true colors at last. (This sort of person is clearly described in 1 John 2:18-21, which does not address any possible issue of one who did truly believe, but apostasized.)
Can I dispute this
conclusion? It isn't possible, since we have no measuring device
for the heart, and no "Holy Spirit Detector" to wave over supposed
converts. Maybe even if such a reading of Scripture is possible,
there has never been a true "de-conversion" and all who profess to
have once followed the faith are either lying or never really knew
themselves. That is just another thing that will have to be sorted
out as we approach the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and for this
reason, I will not offer speculation as to who (past or present)
might have been an apostate of this sort (Judas Iscariot is a
common suggestion, as are Alexander and Hymenaeus -- and there is
not enough data on any of these to make a determination).
In the meantime, for those who are mostly
concerned with the former aspect of the issue, I advise you not to
worry about your eternal security...but you may wish to think about
how you'll look back on your life.
An interesting argument by Stanley, related to the above, tries
to explain the "unpardonable sin" by claiming the unbelief is
not a sin, but a state. [Stan.ESC, 132-3] Stanley is clearly
trying to split hairs with this argument. Belief is an act of the
will; isn't willing or wanting to remain in an unbelieving state a
An observation on the two issues, loss of salvation by sin and
by apostasy: In some cases I have found that a writer has argued
effectively against the first issue, making it quite clear (using
the same argument I have, in a nutshell) that salvation cannot be
lost by behavior, but has then somehow assumed that their proof
also applies to the second issue, apostasy. It does not, of course,
but nevertheless some parties confuse the two, probably
Charles Stanley, for example, offers this
excellent insight [Stan.ESC, 4; see also Kend.OSAS, 19]: "If I must
do or not do something to keep from losing my salvation, salvation
would be by faith and works." (Emphasis in original.)
enough, and a perfect rebuttal to the idea that salvation can be
lost. But does this prove that apostasy cannot lead to the
throwing away of salvation? Absolutely not, though Stanley
seems to think at times that it does.
As we have pointed out elsewhere,
belief and faith are not "works" by the definition of the Bible. Moreover, if we understand the definition of faith as it is reckoned in the Bible -- in terms of the Greco-Roman or Mediterranean client/patron relationship -- it is clear that "faith" is something very easily broken.
Therefore, Stanley's objection cannot work against loss of
salvation by apostasy, although he does not make any
differentiation between the two issues in the blanket statement.
When discussing this issue of "loss" of salvation overall, it is a
necessary precaution to keep these two sub-issues completely
separate; hence I have here been careful to make a differentiation
between "loss" of salvation and throwing it away. Some commentators
are not careful about doing so.
Making the Case From the Book: Scriptural Cites at Issue
We shall endeavor to make our presentation through a systematic
presentation of Scriptural cites used on both sides of the debate.
There is, however, an entire class of Scriptural cites that are
used to argue for eternal security that may be dealt with in one
blow: These are cites that describe salvation as "eternal".
argument goes that if salvation is described as eternal, then there
is no way it can be lost; or, as Demarest puts it, "A new life that
could be forfeited or terminated would not be eternal." [Dema.CS,
The problem with this sort of citation -- and it is used even by
exegetes whose work I respect highly -- is that they are in no way
addressing the issue of apostasy. In many cases we will see that
qualifiers are added saying that "those who believe" are in view;
what of those who no longer believe, then?
other places it is simply not credible to argue that apostasy is in
view, for it is simply assumed that it must be in view: Are we to
expect divergences from the main points of the passages in order to
clarify possible exceptions? In a high-context document like the NT, we definitely should not; such exceptions would be assumed to be known, if they exist.
Such passages must be read in light of
others that we will argue may (or may not) specify apostasy as
equating with the throwing away of salvation; but it seems too
often that exegetes favoring unconditional security are trying to
interpret the latter in view of the former -- in other words,
interpreting the more specific in view of the much less specific,
when they should be doing the opposite. We shall collect all such
cites under our first heading below rather than deal with them
separately, although certain special comments may be reserved for
No Apostates Here
The following verses are regularly used as a basis for eternal
security, but do not, as I have noted above, specifically have
apostates in view -- and therefore I must view their use as
fallacious. If these verses are silent about the issue of apostasy,
then they should be interpreted in view of the verses that are not
-- and those we shall deal with further on.
Matt. 18:12-14 What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
This passage is argued by some to demonstrate recovery of the
"lost sheep" -- allegedly apostates. But the sheep here are clearly
identified with the "little children" of Matt. 18. These are not
apostates, and these verses should not be used as an analogy, even
if the general principle being suggested does turn out to be
Furthermore, note that the search parameter is
conditional: "IF" the lost sheep would be found. Does this not
allow that some may try to hide from God, and that He will not
force them out of hiding?
John 5:24 -- I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
This verse is said to indicate that "Eternal life is a present
possession; there is no reverting to one's pre-regenerate
condition..." [Dema.CS, 445] The latter phrase is said to indicate
a sort of permanence indicating the one has burned one's bridges
This is strong assurance for the believing Christian, but I am
not so sure that it is so for apostates. Once again, the same
"condition" of belief is set. What of those who no longer believe?
They are not in view here, and it should
not be assumed that they are (or even that they are not).
even if bridges are burned, isn't there something left that the
bridge once crossed -- usually, a fatal drop? We see what can
happen when we try to end up pressing an analogy or an allegory too
far: It might prove more than we would like.
John 6:39-40 -- And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
The same may be said of this passage, although here is where the
Calvinist vs. Arminian debate comes to the fore. The
former would interpret this verse to say that those that have been
given to Christ by the Father include all who have ever believed,
and thus can never be lost; the Arminian views this (as I do) as a
case of having in view all of those who finally believe, so
that those who turn apostate are not "lost" for the ultimate upshot
is that they were known to be of the group that would drop out
anyway (cf. also Eph. 1:3-5).
While this will not help us here in
determining how this verse should be applied, it does
give a perfect demonstration of how one's view on this matter
determines their view on eternal security.
John 10:28 -- I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.
This is a favorite security verse, along with several others
that refer to being "kept" or "preserved". But I ask this question:
We cannot be plucked out, and no enemy can keep us from salvation;
but can we jump out of Christ's hand of our own choice?
to the issue of whether God will honor our free will in this matter
as it is supposed He does in other avenues. Demarest argues that
the Holy Spirit [Dema.CS, 448] "works in a multitude of ways to
keep true believers in the path of faith, godliness, and security",
as indeed do all three members of the Godhead. This may be granted,
but if in spite of this a believer decides of their own free will
to apostatize, what then? One would suspect that God would honor
their free will decision, since to do otherwise would suggest a
compromise in God's character and nature -- and as we show here, if this is understood in light of client-patron language, God would indeed honor such a decision.
On this argument, a concerned letter-writer made this point:
The concept that eternal security violates free will is erroneous. Free
will isn't about choosing the consequences of our actions. If eternal
salvation is a consequence of trusting in Christ, why would we have to be
able to eliminate that consequence in order to have free will? Even those who
deny eternal security acknowledge that those who get to Heaven will forever
remain with the Lord thereafter. Does that mean that free will is being
violated? No, it doesn't.
I would not necessarily count myself in that batch who agree on the part about "once we get to heaven"; but I do consider it unlikely that anyone in a glorified body would consider rebellion -- it is even less likely than that someone would do it now. The combination of the indwelling Spirit AND our experience in our life on earth suggests to me a "one-two punch" that would mean we would never choose rebellion again.
Some will respond to the argument above about John by saying that the "no one" includes the
saved person himself, who therefore cannot jump out of God's hand.
But this fails to allow for the distinction between "plucking" -- the word
here is harpazo; it carries the connotation of force --
and jumping out and/or demanding to be dropped. No one
can pluck themselves out of anything any more than one can
actually lift one's self up by the boots.
Verses of similar nature include Rom. 8:35ff; 1 John 5:18; 1 Peter
1:4-5; Jude 1 and 24. None of these have apostasy in mind, but do express God's power over His creation.
John 11:25-6 -- Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
This verse is cited as an "unconditional promise" [Dema.CS, 445]
-- but I see what may be a condition sticking out like a sore
thumb: "he that believes". This refutes any idea that a
believing Christian can lose their salvation by sinning, but
actually offers indirect support for the idea that an apostate --
as we are concerned, one who did believe at one time, but no longer
does -- can throw away their salvation.
Note that I am not here
arguing, as some have, that the present tense of "believes" proves
absolutely that a believer can throw away salvation; it is merely
that this and other similar verses in no way exclude such a
John 17:20-21 -- "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The argument from this passage argues -- in a way that seems
irresistible -- that Christ always prays for that which is in the
will of the Father, and so this prayer, that none will be lost, is
in the will of the Father, and so none will be lost.
points out that divisions in the church [both in the first century
and today] indicate that Christ's prayer was not "answered" in the
sense of being completely fulfilled, but whether this is meant to
apply to everything, rather than just basic points of faith,
is doubtful; otherwise we would be automatons.
Commentators often speak at this point of the possibility of
discarding salvation "thwarting" the will of God, making God a
loser or putting Him out of the drivers' seat, etc. -- but they
are looking at this outside of the client-patron background in which the free rejection of a patron's offer brought shame only on the client, not on the patron. No one would ever have spoken of a patron as a loser or as being "thwarted" because a client refused his grace. The patron was honored regardless of reactions, merely because he had extended his grace.
A concerned writer gave me this note:
You didn't address what I consider to be some of the most conclusive
passages in favor of eternal security. For example, we read in Romans that
believers have peace in the PRESENT (Romans 5:1) and assurance of avoiding
wrath in the FUTURE (Romans 5:9) because of a justification through faith
that occurred in the PAST. The question of whether salvation can be lost
through loss of faith is just another way of asking, "Can a person be saved
today because of a PAST faith?"
And the answer is "yes", as we see in Romans
5. If we have peace in the present (Romans 5:1) and assurance of the future
(Romans 5:9) because of a past justification, how can that be anything other
than eternal security? You may object that Paul only said these things
because he knew that these specific people still had faith. But why does Paul
say that they have peace in the present because of having been justified
through faith in the PAST? And why is he sure of their FUTURE? The context of
these chapters in Romans is how all people are saved, all of Abraham's
children (Romans 4:16), so I don't think that Paul is addressing exceptions
to a rule here, but rather the rule itself.
Truthfully I do not see any relevance here for these verses. Because we are chronological creatures, any saving event must necessarily occur in the past, and all acts of faith must eventually become past (though by definition -- see link above -- faith is not just a "past act" at all, but a continuing one), then there is really no other way to express what Paul is expressing, and the argument above effectively hems in any possible way for Paul to allow for the possibility of apostasy. And here also there applies a general rule of not diverging from the main point to delineate exceptions, a matter I will look a shortly.
Rom. 8:15-16 -- For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.
I have chosen this verse as an example of several (including
Gal. 4:4-5, Eph. 1:3-5) that speak of "adoption" into the family of
God, and argue from thence that one cannot be "unadopted" -- so
that there can be no loss of salvation under any circumstances. As
Stanley [Stan.ESC, 41, 63] puts it:
To lose one's salvation, one would have to be unadopted. Within
that system there must also be provision for readoption. The very
idea sounds ludicrous.
It is hard to see the logic of Stanley's argument that "there
must also be provision for readoption", or his caricature of the
position, that "Whatever it is that sends a person to hell can be
done and undone repeatedly" -- why is this so? Stanley asserts
without justification that "adoption is forever" [ibid., 45] and
Kendall adds an anecdote of a case of a United States judge who
told a couple adopting a child that his decision was irrevocable.
Of course, Kendall did write his book before we had the tragedy of
children suing to be divorced from their parents. These arguments
would have been far more convincing had Stanley and Kendall
presented an argument that adoption in Jewish or Greco-Roman
society was an irreversible procedure -- and given authoritarian control over the family by Greco-Roman fathers, as well as the reversibility of patronage, it is not. (For more, see comments to a thoughtful Calvinist here.)
In fairness to Stanley, he may be using this argument because it
forms part of the traditional Arminian position (a part which I do
not share). Kendall [Kend.OSAS, 176] wryly notes that even
Arminians who believe that salvation can be lost will keep urging
apostates to return to the faith. There is a very good reason for
that, of course: We have no way of telling who has actually
undergone a complete repudiation. And if someone isn't over the
edge yet, then we do them a service by encouraging them to come
back to the truth.
Related to this area, Stanley also argues that:
Rom. 8:30 -- And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
My letter writer also pointed to this verse, and here I refer to my item on unconditional election -- the meaning of "predestination" would not exclude the possibility of apostasy.
Rom. 14:4 -- Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Ankerberg and Weldon [Ank.HQ] cite this as one of several verses
that "emphasize the keeping power of God". But -- and this is
rather surprising, coming from Ankerberg -- this verse has nothing
to do with salvation; it deals with moral behavior, as the context
indicates. I must therefore conclude that applying this verse to the topic
of eternal security is fallacious.
2 Cor. 1:21-2 (also Eph. 1:13-14, 4:30) -- Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
These verses are exemplary of those that speak of believers
being "sealed", and which are said to argue for eternal security,
for as Stanley puts it, "What is the significance of a seal that
can be continually removed and reapplied?" (Emphasis in
original.) And Stanley adds, "Only God can break the seal." --
citing Rev. 5:1-3, which has nothing to do with salvation.
one may grant, though, that a seal of this sort -- which protects
from influences on the outside -- cannot be removed from the
outside by any but God; but the analogy breaks down when we ask,
"What about from the inside?" Most items that are sealed do not
have free will to break out -- or in this case, it is appropriate
to say, to ask or demand to be let out.
While a comforting
assurance that "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.", these verses say
nothing in terms of apostasy.
Eph. 2:6-9 -- And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.
This passage is used in two ways.
First, verses 6-7 are used to argue that if throwing away of
salvation by apostasy is possible, then one could be said to be
able to "thwart the purposes of God." But once again it is assumed that Paul should have made a diversion for an unusual case, and in a client-patron context, no one would speak of a patron being "thwarted" by the refusal of a client.
Second, that grace is described as a "gift" is taken to indicate
eternal security, for as Stanley argues: "Once you accept a gift,
you are stuck with it, like it or not." [Stan.ESC, 81] I think we
all know from experience that that is hardly the case, but more
than that, the social context of gift-giving in the Greco-Roman era
provides us with another interpretive clue that defuses Stanley's
Ben Witherington notes [With.PQ, 47-51] that the giving of a gift
in this society was rare, and was usually done with getting something back in
mind (which made the gift of grace even more shocking). But when a gift was refused,
it was considered a shame to the original giver. How, then, if a gift was returned
after being accepted?
Stanley declares that "In the case of salvation God has a strict
no-return policy" -- but he offers no Scriptural cites for this
assertion; all he says is that God's love "would keep Him" from
accepting the return.
One person I have seen uses Rom. 11:29 to
prove this: "God's gifts and his call are irrevocable." All this indicates, however, is that God will not take back the gift -- not that we cannot throw it
back. Once again, this must be understood in light of the client/patron relationship language; a client could indeed throw back gifts, and shame himself in the process.
Phil. 1:6 -- ...being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Demarest [Dema.CS, 447; see also Kend.OSAS, 115-6] notes that
the verb used here, epiteleo, "connotes the idea of bringing
to the intended goal." How, Demarest asks, could this be said if
apostasy could cause forfeit of salvation?
The problem here is that Demarest commits the common exegetical
fallacy of universalizing a particular to the whole of the church.
Paul here is addressing the Philippians only. The "you" in
verse 6 is the same "you" that Paul thanks God for upon remembrance
(v. 3), prays for (v. 4), thinks of (v. 7), etc...obviously not the
church throughout history in mind here.
There is a common and
unfortunate tendency to commit this kind of error in certain
circles arguing for eternal security, and it is easy to spot,
though hard to accept. Unless Paul thought or knew that there were
apostates in the Philippian church -- and from the letter, it seems
likely that there were not -- then this verse cannot be used to
argue for eternal security.
Other cites used in this fashion are Luke 22:32 (said to Peter
only.), 2 Tim. 4:18 (which only has to do with Paul); 1 Cor.
1:8 (which only applies to the Corinthians, and has the same
problem as Phil. 1:6 above); 2 Cor. 1:21 (ditto), Rom. 15:5 (to the
Romans alone) and Col. 3:4 (only to the Colossians and churches to
whom their "circular" letter was delivered).
At this point, I will add an update from a kindly reader who wrote to me in this regard:
You dismissed passages like 1 Corinthians 1:8 on the basis that Paul is
referring to specific, historical individuals, not necessarily all
Christians. But think of how often the Bible uses terms like "we", "our",
"you", etc. I agree that we need to take context into account, since some
passages may have only a specific application rather than a general
application, but I don't think all of the passages you mentioned can be
dismissed in that way. In 1 Corinthians 1, for example, Paul is addressing
specific, historical people, BUT he apparently goes on in verse 9 to explain
WHY he said what he said in verse 8. Why did Paul know that Christ would
confirm these people to the end? Because of a revelation that these specific
people would avoid apostasy? No, but because of the faithfulness of God
1 Corinthians 1:8 doesn't seem to be a passage that only applies
to some individual Corinthians. It seems to be a passage that can be applied
to all Christians. Paul is assuring these believers of a secure future from a
faithful God, which can only be eternal security.
If passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:8, Philippians 1:6, etc. are only
promises made to specific, historical individuals, not to Christians in
general, isn't it strange that such promises appear throughout Paul's
letters? If Paul was sure that so many Christians would go to Heaven, perhaps
he wasn't just referring to some individual exceptions? Perhaps Paul's
assurance was derived from a RULE of eternal security rather than from a
revelation of some exceptions to a different rule?
Beyond the point of how often the Bible uses collective nouns -- a point which is, I fear, too general to mean anything in this context -- I still cannot see that verse 9 here excludes and chance of the convert becoming unfaithful. This does not require a special revelation of future faithfulness on Paul's part; it is enough that he has no reason, in a high-context setting, to divert from the main point and delineate possible failure in the future.
We make many statements that, if we wish to be precise, ought to have innumerable qualifiers; but it is never normal to actually talk that way. If I say "It is going to rain" I never add "unless a sudden wind blows those clouds away" or "unless gravity reverses itself". I grant that Paul is offering an assurance here -- quite necessary in the context of a badly-behaving Corinthian church, and this argues well against loss of salvation. But it remains a silence on the matter of apostasy.
A differentiation must be made, too, in understanding HOW to apply promises made to individuals in an appropriate way. And again, since apostates are not in view, we cannot broadly apply a principle and assume a rule of eternal security unless it appears in the text.
Heb. 7:25 -- Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Demarest [Dema.CS, 447] indicates that the Greek here, eis to
panteles, "may imply" that Jesus has "completely" and "for all
time" given salvation. As he does not say what else might be
implied, it is rather difficult to evaluate his argument. But note
that whatever the meaning is, it refers to those who "come unto
God by Him" -- and in the context of Hebrews 7, this refers to
those who come for repentance of sins. Apostates are again not in
Run Aways: Apostates Here?
We will now examine verses which may (or may not) support
the case for "throwing away" of salvation by apostasy. My
conclusion thus far is that there is indeed an open possibility to
interpret some verses in favor of the possibility of "throwing
- Matt. 10:32-33 (See also below, 2 Tim. 2:12-13.) -- "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.
This saying of Jesus seems to be a major cause for concern. What
is involved in this denial, and does it mean that in denying Christ
one can throw away the kingdom of God?
Allowing for possible rabbinic hyperbole, and also noting that
Peter's denial apparently didn't cost him a place in the Kingdom
(the parallel is not exact, but Peter's denial did involve
association with Christ), it seems that whatever "denying" is done
must be a true repudiation. This may or may not cover any who
recant their testimony under torture -- the early church did have
a certain discussion over this which is worth noting.
But there is
also no way around the clear teaching that denial of Christ -- and
since this is the midst of a dialogue addressed to Jesus'
disciples, we can't say that these are unbelievers or those "never
saved" -- can someone who never believes endure to the end and be
This has a serious consequence: Christ will deny knowledge of
you before the Father. And this is hard to read any other way than
saying, "No salvation."
I have sought other interpretations for this verse, but
strangely enough have found that most eternal security advocates
pointedly avoid it. It is not even listed in their Scripture
indexes, and the commentaries I have consulted thus far avoid it.
The only exception is Kendall [Kend.OSAS, 201], who interprets
verse 22 as indicating "a miraculous deliverance after a most
severe kind of persecution" -- which doesn't cohere well with the
warning that death is one of the expected results of speaking for
Christ [v. 21] and the advice to flee if possible [v. 23].
- John 15:1-2 -- "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
This difficult verse plays another role in the debate over
lordship salvation; our purpose here is to ask whether it has any
application to apostasy. Demarest interprets those mentioned here
as "unregenerate professors" or "professed believers whom Christ
rejects because their relation to him was not genuine."
I think that Demarest is on the wrong track, but even so, we
must ask first what it means to be "taken away". Does this mean
that a believers who bears no fruit will have their life taken from
them -- as perhaps happened with Ananias and Sapphira? Or can it be
related to apostasy? The word is the same used for an anchor being lifted, and so leaves the matter open.
- Gal. 5:4 -- You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
I will say from the outset that this is one verse that should
not be used against eternal security. Plenty of explanations
can be offered, but I offer simply this: Bear in mind the polemical
tone of this, Paul's "defense letter" of his gospel. Note that in
verse 1 he tells the Galatians to "stand fast" in what they
have. This is not a threat of damnation due to portended
apostasy, but an affirmation of the uselessness of returning to the
law for salvation and how it stands directly in opposition to the
"law" of grace.
- 2 Tim. 2:12-13 -- if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
The key part of this passage, which has the model of an early
hymn, is the third and especially the fourth phrase. Does this
indicate apostasy, and is it thus saying that unlike humans, who
can deny Christ, Christ will remain "faithful" to his own identity?
Or does it mean, as Demarest suggests, that "...God will remain
faithful to his people and bring them to final salvation" --
thereby, as Stanley supposes, "alluding to the union each believer
shares in the body of Christ" [Stan.ESC, 94] and indicating that
"Christ will not deny an unbelieving Christian his or her salvation
because to do so would be to deny Himself"?
At first glance this passage seems to clearly indicate that
denial of Christ, and loss of faith in him, is what is in view, but
not all agree. A major reason cited by Stein [Stei.DPNT, 276-7] for
taking the latter view, that this is a promise of God's
faithfulness, is that elsewhere in Pauline literature, places where
it is said that "God is faithful" (i.e., 1 Cor. 1:9) are positive
promises. This much is true, but there are a couple of
First of all, the Pastorals are more likely
attributable to Luke (see see here), so that the constraints of Pauline usage can not be held
Second, it is not God who is said to be faithful here,
Third, and related to the first, the word "faithful" in
the Pastorals carries a particular meaning, that of "true and
correct" (as in "Faithful is the saying..."), and while of course
it cannot be conclusively asserted that the meaning in our passage
is the same, if it is, then the first interpretation would appear
to be more suitable.
And finally, the fact that this is a clear parallel to Matt. 10:33
above, which seems to be very hard to escape in terms of its implications so far.
- Heb. 6:4-6 -- It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
This is the one you've probably been waiting for. No sense in
waiting around ---how is this reference dealt with?
- "These aren't Christians."
This tack is tried
by MacArthur, who insists of the terms used in this chapter,
"None of the normal (New Testament) terminology for salvation is
used. Thus he says that those "enlightened" are those who have
"intellectual perception of spiritual, biblical truth." They are
"enlightened but not saved." (As a side note, there has been the
idea, derived from the Church Fathers, that "enlightenment" here
refers to baptism, but there is no evidence for this interpretation
prior to the 2nd century, and it does not fit the context of other
uses of the word. - Lane.H18, 141.)
The description of these who
have "tasted" is said to indicate similar sampling: They have only
tasted, not "feasted upon"...they have "sampled...not accepted or
lived, only examined."[Maca.Heb, 142-3] In so doing MacArthur
compares these non-believers to Herod listening to John the
The problem with this explanation is that the terms used do
indeed refer to those who are saved. Believers are described as
"enlightened" or having been given light in Heb. 10:32, 2 Cor. 4:6
and Eph. 1:18; as having "tasted" in 1 Pet. 2:3.
described as having "tasted" death in Heb. 2:9. -- did he just
"sample" it? MacArthur explains this by saying that Christ first
"tasted" death, then "went on to drink it all," but there is
absolutely no indication of such a fine distinction in the text.
Believers are described as being "partakers" in Heb. 3:1 (of the "heavenly calling)",
3:14 (of "Christ" -- this works hard against MacArthur's argument
that the Bible "never speaks of Christians being associated with
the Holy Spirit [but rather] speaks of it being within them")
and 12:8 (of God's chastisement).
To say that these are not true
believers referred to is very much against the evidence, and as
much as I respect MacArthur, I fear he has simply tried to draw
artificial distinctions where none exist.
In support of his explanation, MacArthur notes that "word" in
v. 5 is rhema, "which emphasizes the part rather than the
whole" -- this, versus a use of logos, which would
supposedly indicate a full Christian experience. But Hurtado
[Hurt.H68] offers the counters that:
- rhema and
logos can be used interchangeably to describe the "gospel"
or "Word of God";
- rhema is mostly used in relation to a
specific command or promise -- here, referring to, among other
things, "exhortation and training in Christian living, doctrinal
instruction and promises to the faithful."
I may also add from my study here that rhema in no way can be seen, as MacArthur says, to "emphasize the part rather than the whole." I might also add that
MacArthur's counter-consensus position puts him in the odd position
of describing "renewing again unto repentance" as having a meaning
related to "excitement about the gospel" when it was first heard so
that they were moved "even to repentance". I think MacArthur is
simply too readily reading certain psychological states into the
text. There is no indication that anyone described was merely
- "It is hypothetical."
Some suggest that these
verses are merely a warning made to ensure a secure walk by the
believer [Dema.CS, 460], but what good is a warning if it does not
represent a real possibility? Is God in the habit of making empty
promises or threats?
A second explanation streeses the
"if" found in v. 6 -- but this "if" is not in the original Greek
text. Furthermore, the aorist participle indicates that the persons
in question have already fallen away - Kend.OSAS, 176-7.
However, though there are fudges on this verse, there is also a
quite valid exegetical option as well:
- "It's 'repentance', not 'salvation."
line of argument hinges on a very important term. Verse 6 says that
these people cannot be renewed to repentance, not
salvation; so, the argument goes, they do not lose their
salvation, but they do lose any ability to repent. This refers only
to a loss of fellowship with God, and these folks will eventually
get to Heaven, though it might be an unpleasant surprise.
[Stan.ESC, 166; Maca.Heb, 142; Kend.OSAS, 177]
This explanation makes a convincing case, but there may be a
different way of looking at the second part of verse 6, and the
parallel in verse 8. Stanley [ibid., 168; also Maca.Heb, 148ff]
interprets verse 6 as meaning that all who revert to Judaism (or
otherwise apostatize - the word behind "fall away" is used in the
LXX in regards to rebellion from divine truth) join in the same
crowd that called for Jesus' execution, and thus, in essence, put
Christ to death again by publicly denying him.
It sounds sensible,
but there is a possibility to be considered: In NT preaching repentance is often the very first instruction to become a believer in Jesus Christ. Jesus' mission statement was a demand
for repentance. (Mark 1:15). When the crowd at Pentecost asked what they should
do, Peter's first instruction was to repent (Acts 2:28). Repentance is an integral and foremost aspect of the salvation process and experience, although it may be argued that it is more of a
necessary aspect of preparation for faith rather than some sort of
set-in-stone prerequisite, as faith in Christ would be. (That has to do with
the "lordship salvation" controversy, a pot I'll decline to stir for now.)
If that is
so, then this passage in Hebrews may be saying, rather, "It
is impossible to start over again." And in that case, the point is
that once you have thrown away the Son of God's offer, there will
not be a second crucifixion for you to have a second opportunity
for salvation. Christ will not suffer the public disgrace of
Crucifixion for you again. (Keep in mind the association of refusal of a gift with
shame that we noted above.)
But this, likewise, is not a set in stone option. Hurtado
[Hurt.H68] is right to say that there is nothing here that
demands an indication of salvation being in view; but then
again, there is nothing that does not demand it. Nor does
the passage following about the different crops settle the issue.
These verses establish that believers are in mind (for only
believers could rightly be said to drink in the rain, bring forth
herbs, and be blessed by God).
Note that no difference in "rate of
absorption" of the rain is made between one and the other -- both
drank in the rain equally. But the latter brought out thorns and
briers. Note that this offers no parallel to Mark 4:7, for while in
the parable of the sower, there is the idea that the thorns were
already there at the time of the sowing, thus fitting in with the
already existent "cares of the world" they represent.
Here it is
the ground (believer) itself that produces the thorns (See
also John 15:2, 6) and was therefore "rejected", is about to be
cursed, and will end up being burned.
Now some may say that this
"burning" is the same as Paul writes of in 1 Cor. 3 [Kend.OSAS,
178, 228], but note that this says that their end, that of
the ground, is burning -- the people Paul refer to get burned when
their "foundation" (not them, actually.) is burned, but that is not
Admittedly, Hurtado argues that in an agrarian culture "burning
the ground" was synonymous with simply burning what grew on it, and
this would fit better with 1 Cor. 3:15. But if that is so, is there
any way to describe the actual burning of the ground itself?
can I agree with Hurtado that this would necessarily imply a
theology of salvation by works: The thorns and thistles would only
be indicated as the visible, tangible result of the apostasy. Thus
far the passage seems to me to remain equivocal on the issue of
throwing away salvation.
Kendall [Kend.OSAS, 177] cites as a parallel the description of
Esau as one who "found no place of repentance" (Heb. 12:17). Esau,
he says, did not lose his salvation.
But framed this way, this is
a highly questionable parallel, one that in fact points to the
opposite of what Kendall wants it to. Eternal salvation was
not even at issue, but a birthright was, and under the rules of the
day, Esau as firstborn had a free and clear way to Isaac's
blessing, which included the right to be part of the covenant made
with Abraham. Esau rejected that birthright, and there was no
way he was going to get it back from Isaac (who by the analogy
would have to represent God here.), and no way he could therefore
enter into the covenant relationship with God again. He ended up
with another agreement with God entirely, one decidedly inferior to
Could this parallel salvation? Or is it merely a parallel
to an inferior life and growth in Christ? That there was a covenant
involved strongly suggests the former over the latter -- but it is
unwise to base too much on an analogy.
I conclude that this passage, often cited as the strongest proof
of throwing away of salvation, does not clearly support that view;
and yet it also does not clearly refute it.
- Heb. 10:22-31 -- let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
I have chosen to feature an extensive part of this chapter in
Hebrews out of exegetical necessity. Some things that are important
- In verse 23 we find something that sounds a great deal like 2
Tim. 2:12-13 above -- perhaps an interesting proof text for anyone
who thinks (as I do) that Luke had some part in the composition of
Hebrews. Moreover, the structure of the passage may suggest that
one reason not to waver is because of Christ's unwavering
faithfulness -- which would mitigate against reading the 2 Tim.
- What is the "sin" in verse 26? Certainly not all sin,
but the sin referred to in context: Wavering in faith. It seems to
me that this, and the warning in v. 29, offer a very serious
warning against apostasy.
- The word here for "knowledge" (v. 26) is epignosis --
meaning "full knowledge, understanding, and discernment."
[Maca.Heb, 272] MacArthur interprets this as people who know the
gospel well and may even make a profession of faith, but are never
actually true believers.
But in harboring this interpretation, he
must engage a bit of circular reasoning regarding verse 29.
MacArthur asserts that the "he" who is sanctified "refers to
Christ". He says further, "It could not refer to the apostate who
is regarding the blood as unclean, because he is hardly
Of course this merely assumes what isn't proven, that an
apostate is not someone who was once sanctified.
Furthermore, the only "he" referred to in this verse
otherwise is the apostate: "he will deserve..."
- Finally, Kendall [Kend.OSAS] argues that because verse 31
refers to "his people," therefore all those referred to, in spite
of apostasy, are still the people of God.
The problem with this is
that it is far from clear that the author of Hebrews intends this
cite as anything more than an affirmation of God's judgment. The
two cites he makes from the OT are used with the
introductory phrase, "We know him that said..." -- indicating that
the point is that God doesn't just let things pass by; this is part
of His character. There is no reason to see any extra meaning.
Some Relevant Non-Scriptural Arguments
Finally, let's look at a few extra-scriptural arguments that
have been used for eternal security generally, courtesy of Stanley.
- "If Christ came to seek and to save which was lost, and yet we
can somehow become unsaved -- and therefore undo what Christ came
to do -- would it not be wise for God to take us on to heaven the
moment we are saved in order to insure we make it? Isn't it
unnecessarily risky to force us to stay here?"
I find this argument (and a parallel one, suggesting eliminating
missions to children so that they don't lose salvation in their
rebellious years.) unreasonable. This is like arguing that we should accept abortion or infanticide (despite the sin involved) because the terminated fetus will be ensured salvation.
- "The authors of the New Testament left us with detailed
explanations of how one becomes a child of God; if that process
could be reversed, doesn't it make sense that at least one of them
would have gone into detail explaining that as well?"
This is like looking at a route laid out on a map showing you
how to get from home to the store and asking why there are no
directions for the route back home. In the case of apostasy, it is
simply common sense that the "process" would simply be a matter of
renouncing what one earlier affirmed.
- Hodges [Hodg.AF, 57], in addition to using some of the
Scripture cites we have noted, mirrors some of the arguments we
have considered by saying that it is "ridiculous" to suppose that
one could "give" salvation back: No more so, he says, could we
"give (our) physical birth back to (our) earthly parents."
analogy is far too loose to be maintained. Although the same
terms may be used ("birth"/"born") two processes of entirely
different nature are in view, and "birth" is more than simply a
Demarest [Dema.CS, 515n] cites Guthrie as saying, "It is
difficult to see how a true disciple, who has been possessed by the
Spirit, could reach a state of mind to declare that Spirit to be
evil, thus reflecting a hardened state." Guthrie may have found it
hard to believe, and so may Demarest, but someone's personal
ability to believe something does not determine the issue.
do agree that it is difficult to understand why anyone would
trade their salvation for a mess of pottage. However, I am unable
to conclusively rule out that Scripture indicates that possibility.
Not that I would worry about most people who have written to me in
the first place. As is often said of the "unforgivable sin", if you
are worried about doing it, you haven't done it, and chances are you
never will. And whether you can throw away your salvation via
apostasy or not, it will certainly be an unhappy course to turn
traitor upon the Christ who died for you. Just take a look at the
works of some we've confronted here who have done that very
- Ank.HQ - Ankerberg, John and John Weldon. "The Hypothetical
Question: Can a 'Real' Christian Lose His or Her Salvation by
Renouncing or Rejecting the Faith?" Found at:
- Dema.CS - Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation.
- Hodg.AF - Hodges, Zane. Absolutely Free! Zondervan:
- Hurt.H68 - Hurtado, Art. "Are the Persons Described in Hebrews 6:4-6 Christians?" Found at: http://www.leaderu.com/isot/docs/heb2.html
- Kend.OSAS - Kendall, R. T. Once Saved, Always Saved.
Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
- Lane.H18 - Lane, William. Hebrews 1-8. Waco: Word, 1991.
- Maca.Heb - MacArthur, John. Hebrews. Chicago: Moody Press,
- Stan.ESC - Stanley, Charles. Eternal Security: Can You Be
Sure? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.
- Stei.PT - Stein, Robert. Difficult Passages in the New
Testament. Baker: 1990.
- With.PQ - Witherington, Ben. The Paul Quest. IVP, 1998.