Once saved, always saved?

Q. About salvation, I have always believed, “once saved, always saved.” In other words, we cannot lose our salvation. What do you think about this?

This question is generally considered to be one about which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, can legitimately differ. However, individual churches and denominations may consider the issue important enough to their doctrine and practice to say that only one thing may be taught about it under their auspices, and that seems reasonable to me.

As for me personally, let me say that this is an issue that we often feel most strongly in the context of experience. We know someone who seems to make a heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus, but then at some point down the road they seem to abandon that commitment. What happened? Did they lose their salvation?

I would observe, based on the teachings of Jesus, that there are two further possibilities, two alternatives to that. The person may still be in fellowship with the Lord, just not living that out in a way that allows anyone to recognize it. Or, they may never really have made a commitment in the first place.

Consider, for example, the parable of the sower. Jesus talks about four kinds of soil that seed may fall into. Jesus explains that “the seed is the word of God,” so these soils represent four different responses that a person can make to the gospel message.

One response is for a person not to receive it because their heart is not open to it. That is like the hard-packed soil on the path. A person who responds that way is not saved, and they never appear to be saved.

The opposite response, corresponding to the “good soil,” is to hear the word with “a noble and good heart,” to “retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” A person who responds that way is saved, and they appear to be, right from the start and all along.

But the responses represented by the other two kinds of soil correspond to people who appear to be saved but who then seem to lose their salvation. Jesus also speaks of people whom he compares to shallow soil, who “hear the word and at once receive it with joy,” but who “quickly fall away when trouble or persecution comes.” Jesus says that they do this “because they have no root.” I take this to mean that these people were not really saved, although they appeared to be.

The fourth kind of soil, the thorny soil, represents those who “hear the word, but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” I take this to mean that these people really are saved, but after a point this is no longer evident, because other things are taking precedence.

So, without saying that the belief that a person can lose their salvation is an unbiblical idea, I would want to say that there are these two other alternatives. A person might have appeared to be saved, but they actually were not, or a person might appear no longer to be saved, but they actually are. But whether these two alternatives account for all situations where a person appears to lose their salvation is, as I said at the beginning, a matter on which Christians of good will can legitimately differ.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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