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 blood?
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 [link 1 below] 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 sin?
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 unintentionally.
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.)
True 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 (link 2 below) -- 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".
The 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, 444-5]
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?
In 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 each.
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.
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 correct.
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?
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 behind them.
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).
Moreover, 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.
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.
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?
This leads 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 in link 3 below, 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.
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 thing.
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.
A counter 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.
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 at link 4 below.)
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:
- One could not trust a God who would "unadopt" you. This gains a point against loss of salvation, but does not address throwing it away -- a case in which you are, so to speak, suing for your independence and implementing the "unadoption" procedure.
- In introducing the concept of adoption, if salvation can be
thrown away, Stanley argues that it would have been better "just to
describe salvation in terms of a conditional legal contract between
God and man".
And of course we have seen that there is a condition: Belief. Likewise the adoptee must trust in his adopted parents, or there is no actual relationship. In fact salvation is described in terms of what was a conditional contract: The client-patron relationship.
- Finally, Stanley appeals to the parable of the prodigal son as an example of the workings of God's forgiveness [ibid., 49ff] -- and so it is. But as before, how can we argue that apostasy is of necessity covered here? Would the story have gone differently had the prodigal sometime thereafter spit in the father's face and left again?
My letter writer also pointed to this verse, and here I refer to my item on unconditional election (link 5 below) -- the meaning of "predestination" would not exclude the possibility of apostasy.
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.
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.
Well, 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.
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 claim.
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.
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 (verse 9).
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.
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 view.
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 away" salvation.
- 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 saved?
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 counter-thoughts.
First of all, the Pastorals are more likely attributable to Luke (see link 6 below), so that the constraints of Pauline usage can not be held as strictly.
Second, it is not God who is said to be faithful here, but Christ.
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 Baptist.
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.
Christ is 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 at link 7 below 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 "excited".
- "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."
This 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 their end.
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?
Nor 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 Jacob's.
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.
- "These aren't Christians."
- 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 to note:
- 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. passage differently.
- 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 sanctified."
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."
Hodges' 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 physical process.
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.
I 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 thing.
- 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: http://www.angelfire.com/hi2/graphic1designer/anker1.php
- Dema.CS - Demarest, Bruce. The Cross and Salvation. Crossway, 1997.
- Hodg.AF - Hodges, Zane. Absolutely Free! Zondervan: Academie, 1989.
- Hurt.H68 - Hurtado, Art. "Are the Persons Described in Hebrews 6:4-6 Christians?" Found at: http://www.leaderu.com/isot/docs/heb2.php
- 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, 1983.
- 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.