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Once Saved, Always Saved?

On occasion, I receive questions from earnest souls who genuinely want to know the truth. Recently, one such individual reached out:


“Is once-saved-always-saved true? I’m really confused because I’ve been taught that we’re saved by the grace of God and if we believe in him we’re saved and everything else that someone teaches is by works…I just want to know the truth and not be deceived.”


The desire to know the truth is commendable (1 Tim. 2.4). None of us should ever give up on that quest (Jn. 8.32).


However, knowledge of the truth often requires us to unlearn errors, which can be confusing and challenging to our faith. But we mustn’t grow discouraged or despair. Let us instead have “readiness of mind” to “search the Scriptures” to grasp God’s message more accurately (Acts 17.11; cf. Acts 18.26).


Let me break this question down into two parts.


Grace And Works

First, there is the matter of grace and works. 


We are indeed saved by God’s grace (Eph. 2.8). None of us can earn our salvation by any works we do — whether faith, repentance, baptism, prayer, good deeds, etc. (Eph. 2.9). 


However, that does not mean we don’t have any work to do to “access” “this grace” (Rm. 5.2). God has done his part; but as Jesus told Saul of Tarsus, we have things we “must do” to be saved as well (Acts 9.6; see also Acts 16.30).


We can either “receive the grace of God” (2 Cor. 6.1) or “reject it” (Acts 13.46). Only those “few” who graciously accept God’s gift through “doing the will of God” by faith can obtain it (Mt. 7.14, 21-28). 


In short, while we must engage in works of faith to be saved, we can in no way earn our salvation by such works, for salvation is a freely-given “gift of God” (Eph. 2.8). 


I have written more extensively about these matters in the following articles, which provide clarity on this front. Please study them with your Bible (and heart) open: “Salvation: A Free Gift” and “Are We Saved By Works Or Not?"


The Conditional Impossibility of Apostasy

Second, the reader’s confusion can be alleviated by reflecting upon the difference between the unconditional impossibility of apostasy and the conditional impossibility of apostasy. The Bible teaches the latter, not the former. Consider the following:


2 Peter 1

Peter instructs Christians to add various qualities to our faith like “virtue…knowledge…self-control…perseverance…godliness…brotherly kindness and…love” (2 Pt. 1.5-7). These are things for which man must assume responsibility. Then, Peter says: 


"Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 1.10). 


In this passage, Peter teaches that our salvation can be “sure” or secure. However, the security of the believer is conditioned on “if we do these things.” As long as we "keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5.3; Jn. 14.15; 2 Jn. 6) and remain “faithful unto death” (Rev. 2.10), it will be impossible for such a faithful child of God to be lost. 


However, this means if we don’t "do these things,” our “call and election” will no longer be secure. As Jesus put it, if we “put our hand to the plow and look back” to the world, we will not be “fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk. 9.62). 


Hence, we have a role to fulfill in our salvation. If the child of God should stop fulfilling that role, they will forfeit their salvation.


2 Corinthians 6

Likewise, Paul warned the Corinthians they could “receive the grace of God in vain” (i.e., to no avail; 2 Cor. 6.1). In other words, though they were saved by grace, if these children of God should continue with their carnal ways without repentance, they would lose that gift.


Hence, the apostle exhorted them to continue being “workers together with Him” (2 Cor. 6.1), for “now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6.2). This shows that we cannot rely on our past salvation to save us ultimately. We must keep “walking by faith” in him if we want to go to Heaven (2 Cor. 5.7). 


Thus, the impossibility of apostasy is conditioned on our ever-present (“now”) obedience. The notion that our past salvation guarantees our future salvation no matter what we do is as false as can be. Being saved does not necessarily mean we are “always saved.” Even for Christians (saved people), Paul still says “now is the day of salvation” — not yesterday.


The Possibility of Apostasy

Contrary to the doctrine of the unconditional impossibility of apostasy, there are several examples in the NT of people who fell from God’s grace. Study the following cases: 


Demas (2 Tim. 4.10; cf. Col. 4.14; Phile. 24);


Hymenaeus & Alexander (1 Tim. 1.18-20);


The Galatians were in danger of “fall[ing] from grace” and being "estranged from Christ" (Gal. 5.4);


Judas was also “numbered with” the apostles and was a true part of the “ministry” of Christ (Acts 1.16-17); however, he “by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1.25). 


These Christians could only have "fallen from grace" by being in a state of grace (i.e., saved) in the first place.


Indeed, the Bible contains numerous warnings to Christians against the danger of falling away and losing one’s salvation. Paul wrote:


"Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10.12).


He also spoke of “some” who "will depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4.1-3). He thus urges us to “carefully follow” the “good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4.6) instead. 


In Jesus’ Parable of the Tares, the Lord spoke of the final day of judgment. He said:


"The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13.41).


Take note of two points regarding this parable: 


(1) Jesus is not discussing the lost sinners of the world. Rather, he is discussing those who are part of “the kingdom” (Mt. 13.24) — people who have been saved and who belong to God’s family. 


(2) Those who shall be “cast…into the furnace of fire” were gathered “out of His kingdom” — i.e., they were part of his kingdom, yet they shall be removed and burned because they practiced “lawlessness.” 


Hence, a child of God can so sin as to be eternally lost. 


Peter spoke of certain children of God who "have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” — i.e., they have been saved. However, if they should become “again entangled in” the "pollutions of the world" and "overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (2 Pt. 2.20). He explains:


"For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pt. 2.21). 


Even children of God can become “disinherited” (Num. 14.12), just as God rejected the children of Israel when they abandoned him (cf. Deut. 32.5; Num. 14.11-12). As Peter put it, children of God — who were once saved — can become “accursed children” (2 Pt. 2.14). 


Hebrews 10.26

The reader also inquired about Hebrews 10.26, which was the springboard of his confusion over once-saved-always-saved. The verse reads:


“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…”


The Hebrews author constantly warns his fellow believers about the danger of apostasy. The recipients of Hebrews were beginning to give up their salvation. Here are some of the ways the author speaks about apostasy in this book: 


First, apostates “drift” from the Lord’s teachings (Heb. 2.1) — pararreo: to float slowly away from the mooring by the currents. In other words, they stop “paying” as much “attention” to the teachings of Christ as they once did.


Second, apostates “cast away [their] confidence” in the faith (Heb. 10.35). Now ignorant of his ways (since they stopped paying attention to them), they start to question them. But instead of restoring their passion and curiosity to find answers, they give up “confidence” that there are answers. Indeed, such an investigation no longer interests them. 


Third, apostates “turn away” from him entirely (Heb. 12.25). They no longer want to hear from him or about him. So they avoid things that remind them of him — church, Christians, Bible, praying, etc. 


Finally, in some cases, apostates will no longer be content merely to avoid Christ; rather, their “heart” will become “hardened” (Heb. 3.12-13) and will seek to “shame” the Christian way "openly" (Heb. 6.6). Such rebellion, if pursued indefinitely, can only lead to “rejection,” “cursing,” and “burning” (Heb. 6.8 ).


This brings us to Hebrews 10.26. The verse indicates that these were children of God. The author says they had already “received the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10.26). They were already saved. But this does not necessarily mean they would be “always saved.” Now, sadly, they are again in spiritual danger.


The phrase “sin willfully” is a present tense form, suggesting a continual state. “Willfully” is translated from the adverb ekousios, which has to do with making a deliberate or defiant choice.


Hence, the author is not talking about the occasional sin we commit out of weakness or ignorance. “We all stumble in many things” (Jm. 3.2). No child of God is without sin (1 Jn. 1.8).


Rather, Hebrews 10.26 is a warning against continuing to sin against God defiantly.


Indeed, the Bible distinguishes between being “overtaken” with a trespass (caught off-guard; Gal. 6.1) — i.e., sinning due to a lack of circumspection — versus sinning with a “high hand” (Num. 15.30 — i.e., deliberately, knowingly, and defiantly or without restraint). Hebrews 10.26 discusses the latter kind of sinning. 


The author of Hebrews repeatedly reassures Christians that when we sin in weakness or by being caught off-guard, we have a high priest who sympathizes and bears with us gently when we stray from the right path (cf. Heb. 2.17-18; 4.15-16; 5.2).


John, writing to those who were already saved, said:


"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1.9).


Hence, though Christians can certainly sin and bring upon themselves God’s displeasure, there is a path back to God if we simply humble ourselves, repent of those sins, and appeal to Heaven’s grace for mercy (see the case of Simon the sorcerer for an example; Acts 8.21-24). 


However, those children of God who continue to defy Christ — who keep sinning without remorse — give up on the only path to salvation (cf. Heb 3.12; 6.4-8).


The “willful” or “defiant” sinners in Hebrews 10.26 were children of God who were starting to reject Jesus as the Messiah — they were “trampling under foot the Son of God” (Heb. 10.29). They were abandoning the Christian way. In so doing, they were defiantly waving their fists against Heaven, thinking another Messiah would deliver them. But there is "no other sacrifice for sins," for no other Messiah is coming (cf. Acts 4.12).


Therefore, the only thing these apostates had to look forward to was a "certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10.27). Indeed, there will be an even “worse punishment” for Christian apostates (Heb. 10.29). 


In that light, the author exhorts us, saying:


"Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Heb. 10.35-36).


This passage teaches that we can “receive the promise” only “after” we have “endured” in “doing the will of God.” And again:


“We are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10.39). 


Consequently, we could be once-saved-always-saved, provided we stay faithful to Christ. But if we defiantly abandon him and go back to the ways of the world without repentance, we will lose our eternal reward and “draw back to perdition” instead. 


Conclusion

No one can earn their salvation by works. But there are still works we “must do” to receive God’s freely-given grace (cf. Jm. 2.24). 


If we “obey the truth,” God will graciously “purify” our souls (1 Pt. 1.22). But once we are saved, we must continue to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2.12), making it impossible for us to be lost. Our salvation will be “sure,” provided we meet the conditions necessary to preserve it.


However, if we give up on our faith, we will surely lose our salvation, and all we shall have ahead of us is a “fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation” (Heb. 10.27). Christians: Take heed!

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