The Biblical Doctrine of Apostasy -Part 1: The Case for Eternal Security -Sam A. Smith

This is article is Part One of a two part series.

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When a person exercises genuine faith in Christ, the process of sal­vation that is begun is irreversible; it is impossible for a person, once redeemed and regenerated, to ever be lost again. The two views on this subject, the view of di­vine sover­eignty, represented imperfectly in classic Calvinism, and the free will view, represented in Arminianism, see man’s nature and capabilities, and the process of salva­tion in fundamentally different ways; and as one might ex­pect, they hold divergent views regarding the permanence of sal­vation. The view of divine sover­eignty is that God initiates faith and se­cures man’s salva­tion. Arminians believe that man initiates faith by an act of free will enabled by prevenient grace, and thus, man pro­cures his own salvation, but that salvation is only secure as long the person, through his or her free will, continues to exercise faith. Hence, while those who believe in divine sovereignty believe in eternal security (the permanence of salvation), Arminians generally believe in a doctrine called “the security of the believer,” by which they mean that a person is se­cure as long as he or she remains a believer. Obviously these views should not be confused. The Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign in both the initia­tion and con­tinuance of salvation. Such a view is the only view com­patible with total depravity, unconditional elec­tion, and eternal security.

There are a number of reasons why a saved person can never again become lost. Those reasons relate both to the nature of sav­ing faith and to the preserving work of each of the members of the Trinity. It is important to understand that this truth is not in­tended to suggest that believers are free to live unrighteous lives. Rather, an appreciation of this truth should cause us to acknowl­edge a great debt, as we realize that we have not saved our­selves, nor can we by our own efforts add anything to the grace freely given to us. We are saved, now and always, for one reason: because of what God has done (Rom. 9:16). This ought to be a very humbling truth.

The case for eternal security

While much biblical support could be produced in sup­port of eternal security, the following argument is, perhaps, the simplest proof: In order for a saved person to become lost one of two things would need to happen, either the saved person would have to be separated from God by something other than himself, or he would have to separate himself from God. According to Paul in Romans 8:31-39, the first option is not possible. Paul said:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;
We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NASB)

Paul clearly included everything possible in his list of things that can never separate a believer from Christ. He even said that nothing in the present or future could separate us from Christ, and he included things physical, circum­stances, supernatural powers, and even the continuation of life itself. The second op­tion is also impossible because the saved person is himself, or herself, included in the list Paul presents. In other words, when Paul said that nothing is able to separate a believer from Christ, he was excluding everything, including the believer himself. John also addressed this point in 1 John 2:18-19, when he said that those who profess Christ, only to renounce their profession, were never genuinely saved. Had they been saved, they would not have re­turned to a state of unbelief. The logical implication is clear: one of the fundamental qualities of saving faith is that it perse­veres to completion.

Why is it that a saved person cannot lose his or her salva­tion? The answer is that God is at work to bring the believer’s salvation to completion. Note in the following passages how each member of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is involved in preserving the child of God.

The preserving work of the Father
  1. It is God’s responsibility to bring salvation to the point of completion Paul says in Philippians 1:6: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (NASB).
  2. God will not allow a saved person to reach the point of per­dition (lostness). Again note Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:28-33 and [also 5:5]: “But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (NASB). In the Corinthian Church God took the lives of some believers in order to prevent their complete apostasy. This is both a sober warning and an indication of the length God will go to in order to keep a person saved. Note also Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 5:5 where he said: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Here Paul was speaking of a wayward brother. The interesting point here is that the purpose of Paul’s determination to deliver this man over to death, was the preservation of his soul, i.e., his salvation. Suffice it to say that God will do whatever is necessary to keep his child safe from eternal destruction, which is what the loss of salvation would mean.
The preserving work of the Son
  1. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for all sin, for all time (Heb. 10:14). The unknown writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews 10:14: “For by one offering He [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (NASB, explanation in brackets added). When Christ’s sacrifice becomes effective for an individual (i.e., at the moment they exercise faith), it perfects the believing individual forever, not just until something happens or they change their mind. Some things simply can’t be undone, and some choices can’t be taken back; the Bible indicates that the choice to accept Christ by faith is one of those irrevocable life choices.
  2. Christ’s high priestly ministry ensures forever the salva­tion of those who come to him. Again, the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 7:25: “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (NASB). What does this mean? For one thing it means that if a believer were to lose his, or her, salvation, it would be a failure in Christ’s High Priestly ministry. How likely do you think that is? Salvation, once obtained, isn’t just for a season; it’s forever.
The preserving work of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit places the believer into Christ and seals him, or her, unto the day of redemption (i.e., until their salvation is completed when Christ appears and they are changed into his likeness, cf. Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30). Paul said in Ephesians 1:13-14 (cf. 4:30): “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with [by] the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (NASB, explanation in brackets added). The purpose of sealing is to preserve something unspoiled. Every be­liever is in Christ, and Christ is in the Father (Jn. 10:28-30); the Holy Spirit has sealed them there and all three members of the Godhead are intent on preserving believers until their redemption is finally completed. We can sum this up with a simple question: If a sheep gets lost, whose fault is it, the the sheep, or the shepherd?  One of the major pitfalls in understanding this truth is that we tend to forget who is who, and who has what ability and responsibility. We are just sheep; God is our shepherd. If a child of God were to be lost, it would be God’s fault; which is precisely why it could never happen. It has never happened in the past, and it will never happen in the future. Of course there are many passages in the New Testament that have been misconstrued to imply that such has, or could happen. When we look at those passages in the next installment we’ll see that that simply isn’t the case. Of course, this truth isn’t a license to sin; when correctly understood it should lead one to pro­found humility, thankfulness, worship, and a sincere desire to please the one who has been so gracious to us.

Passages frequently misunderstood

Some New Testament passages have been misun­derstood to imply that a saved person could return to a lost state. While we cannot cover all of the passages in this brief treatment, some representative types are discussed below.

Passages describing personal apostasy are often misunder­stood as ap­plying to believers

Most of the difficulty involves a misunderstanding of per­sonal apostasy; that subject will be discussed in more detail further along. Virtually every New Testament book mentions per­sonal apostasy. The early church, like the present-day church, at­tracted many people who had not genuinely yielded their lives to Christ. These people became part of the local churches, and some even became leaders. In time some of these re­formed, but untransformed individuals turned back from their profes­sion of faith, returning to their previous religion, or going on to the next. They had heard the gospel and known the truth (intellectually), but they had never trusted the Savior. They had come to the full knowledge of who Christ is, even ex­periencing a measure of sanctification through exposure to biblical truth and observing the power of the Holy Spirit working in the midst of the church, but they had never taken the plunge of per­sonal faith. We could describe them as “reformed,” but not “transformed.” Because this was a widespread prob­lem, those in the local churches who professed faith were exhorted to make sure their faith was genuine (2 Cor. 13:5); such warnings to the local churches and exhortations were not intended to create doubts in the minds of believers about whether they were saved; they were intended simply to urge all who profess faith to make sure that they actually do posses it, which of course, is evidenced by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  It is important to understand that apostates were never saved in the first place; they renounce their profession of faith because they never actually pos­sessed genuine, saving faith. When they turn away from their profession, these indi­viduals are doing what is in keeping with their true nature of un­belief. 2 Peter 2:22, one of the principal passages on personal apostasy, uses the illustrations of a dog returning to its vomit, and a pig returning to the mud. A doctrinal problem arises when people read these warnings and mistakenly assume that the indi­viduals in question were once saved. Some of the primary passages describ­ing per­sonal apostasy are: 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Hebrews 3:1-14; 6:4-12; 10:26-31; 12:14-29; John 15:1-6, cf. Mt. 13:1‑43, the parables of the kingdom of Heaven. (Some of these passages will be discussed further along.)

Negotiating grammatical difficulties

There are some passages that are frequently misinterpreted to imply loss of salva­tion because of confusion over the wording of these passages; Colossians 1:21-23 is a good example. The key to the interpre­tation of this passage is the conditional particle (Gr. ei, meaning  “if”), which in the original is in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive mood, and should be translated “since.” When the grammar is cor­rectly understood, the meaning is quite clear. Paul wasn’t suggesting that some of the Colossians might run the risk of losing their salvation; he was confident they actually did possess genuine faith. Far from introducing doubts about their salvation, Paul was actually extolling their faith.

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