Your assurance of salvation rests on two cornerstones. The first cornerstone of assurance is the evidence that you have truly believed. This was treated at some length in the last lesson. The evidence comes from the four tests of salvation.
The second cornerstone of assurance is the reliability of God's promise to save all who believe. This is affirmed by the doctrine known as "eternal security" or "the perseverance of the saints." The reliability of this promise is a corollary of the power, love, and truthfulness of God.
Churches in the Wesleyan tradition, as well as others including Pentecostal churches, deny eternal security. They believe you can lose your salvation. But churches in the Reformed tradition, as well as others including most Baptist churches, do not agree. They view this doctrine as a key truth.
The Power of God
To comfort His disciples lest they fear for their eternal security, Jesus taught them that they are held firmly in His hand (John 10:28-29). The disciples He addressed clearly represent all who believe, including ourselves. His power is greater than the power of anyone who might seek to rob us of our salvation. "Man" is italicized because it is not in the original. Our chief enemy is not a man but Satan, and the verse teaches that we are safe even from Satan's power. "Neither shall any [including Satan] pluck them out of my hand."
Then Jesus assured us that we are not only in His hand, but also in the Father's (John 10:29). How is that possible? Jesus' answer is, "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). In other words, they are one God. The persons of the Trinity, each being infinite in power and knowledge, cannot do otherwise than work together in perfect cooperation. Thus, we are held jointly by the Father and the Son. The wording suggests that when the Father gave us to the Son, He Himself did not let go of us. We are in the hands of both.
Jude 24 also directs us to see the power of God, not His power against our enemies so much as His power against our own weakness and frailty. The writer assures those he calls "you" that God will keep them from falling. To whom is Jude speaking? In verse 1, Jude addresses "them that are sanctified." "Sanctified" means set apart unto holiness through the work of the Holy Spirit at salvation. In verse 3, he emphasizes that salvation is what he and his readers have in common. So, the promise of security from falling that we find in verse 24 applies to all who are presently saved. Verse 1 reinforces this conclusion by treating preservation as the natural, inevitable consequence of sanctification.
From Jude we therefore gain a fuller understanding of John 10:27-29. Jesus declared that once we are in the hand of God, no one can take us away. The potential threats He considered must have included the believer himself, for Jude teaches that we cannot remove ourselves from God's hand. We are not strong enough to get out. Thus, we cannot lose our salvation even if we sin.
The Love of God
If we could lose our salvation, God would be a poor father even by human standards. We as human parents do not disown our children should they happen to disobey us. If we did, the streets would be full of homeless urchins. Instead, we persist as long as possible in every measure that might help our children do right.
What we can do for our children is limited, however. What God can do for His children is unlimited. There is no sin that a wayward child of God can commit that his infinite, all-powerful Father cannot correct and eliminate by means of chastisement. Thus, since God our Father is perfect in love (Ps. 103:13; Heb. 12:6), He will, if we do wrong, chasten us rather than eject us from His family. We cannot do anything foolish or sinful enough to forfeit our salvation.
I can testify how effective God’s chastening can be. As a young man, I lived for the Lord, but in the course of my education I turned against Him. Then I spent many years under His chastening hand, and eventually He brought me to the place of admitting that my thinking and my way of life were foolish. By measures of determination or intellectual self-assurance, I am a strong person. If God could break me, he can break anybody.
That the love of God guarantees our eternal security is taught also in Philippians (Phil. 1:6). In other words, God does not stop His projects when they are half-finished. When He is done fashioning us to His liking, we will all be images of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). Will we then be all exactly alike? No, that would be a rather dull prospect. Christ is infinite God. Therefore, within Himself He is the fulfillment of all the shades and types of human potential. It follows that we can be like Christ and still be different from each other. Look at the wonderful diversity in creation—at the many bizarre kinds of animals and flying beasts. God loves variety.
The Truthfulness of God
Our eternal security is guaranteed not only by the power and love of God, but also by His perfect truthfulness. The impossibility that God would ever renege on a promise is stressed in the many texts (2 Tim. 1:12; 1 Pet. 4:19; Heb. 6:10-12, 17-19; Heb. 10:23).
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between God and Satan is that God is Truth, whereas Satan is a liar. Jesus said of Satan, "He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44). The way Satan drew Adam and Eve into sin was by telling them lies, including the greatest of all lies, that God is a liar. Doubting God is the beginning of sin and rebellion. That is why God puts such a high premium on faith. Faith is just believing God. We cannot obtain salvation except by faith (Eph. 2:8), we cannot walk daily with God and receive His blessings except by faith (Gal. 3:11), and we cannot do the work of God except by faith (Matt. 17:20).
To believe God is hardly unreasonable. How could an infinite, all-powerful God be otherwise than truthful? Lying always proceeds from a position of weakness. Weakness uses lying to accomplish purposes that it cannot achieve more directly. For example, to win the support and love of Adam and Eve, Satan told them lies undermining their respect for God. Why did he adopt this strategy to gain worship? Because he was powerless to make creatures of his own who would by nature love him. But God is different. There is no purpose that He can accomplish only through deceit. Therefore, it is foolish not to believe Him.
He demands that we love Him. Moreover, He demands truth in us, because our professions of love mean nothing if we are liars. The first work of grace in our hearts even before we are saved is to give us a measure of truthfulness (Luke 8:4-15). The good ground represents those who are truly saved by the gospel. But notice that they differ from the others even before the seed falls. This does not mean that they are saved by having a good heart. Nor does it mean that God chooses them for salvation because they have a good heart. Rather, it means that God prepares them for salvation by giving them a capacity for truthfulness, so that a profession of faith will tell the truth. It will be a sincere and lasting commitment rather than the glib and empty and soon-forgotten words of a liar. This preparatory work is called prevenient grace.
When I look back over the years and compare the converts who went on for Christ with those who soon fell by the wayside, I indeed see a difference even at the beginning. The difference is not that the unfaithful had fallen deeper into sin. Yes, anyone carrying a heap of sin baggage will find that adjusting to the Christian life is difficult. But the power of God will carry them through the adjustment so long as they are truly saved to begin with. Many great sinners have become great saints by the power of God. What then is the basic difference between true converts and false ones? The difference is this: regardless of what sins he has committed, the true convert is capable of telling the truth. He is capable of being sincere. He is capable of holding to his word from one day to the next. In other words, he has the good and honest heart Jesus is talking about, and he has it because of the grace of God.
I am not suggesting that we should judge people’s hearts when they get saved. No, we should give every convert as much love and prayer and practical support as we can. It generally takes time to prove who is really truthful and who is not. Nevertheless, if a new convert repeatedly fails to keep his word or repeatedly goes back on his commitments, there comes a time when it is better to shift our attention to other people with more promise. I have certainly wasted much time on people who never amounted to anything, as it seems, although I hope God is not done with them. That time would have been better spent in building real Christians.
The Promises of God
Exactly what has God promised us? A precious statement of His intentions is John 3:16. The verb "have" in the phrase "have everlasting life" is present subjunctive. It indicates that eternal life is the present possession of anyone who meets the condition of believing. In other words, if we believe in Jesus, we have eternal life now. The same promise appears in other presentations of the gospel (1 John 5:11-13; John 3:36; 6:47). But it could not be truly said that we have eternal life now if we could lose it in the future. If we could ever cross over some boundary of permissible sin into impermissible sin, causing us to forfeit our salvation, then all the benefits we enjoy now, including new life in Christ, might be of temporary duration. They could not be described as eternal. But since our life now is nothing other than eternal, we know that our salvation is secure forever. We have eternal security.
Another promise in John is even more explicit (John 5:24). Jesus explains what it means to have eternal life now. The result is safety from any possibility of falling later into condemnation. Therefore, salvation, which means salvation from condemnation, must be a permanent benefit of believing. There is no danger of losing salvation at some dark moment in the near or distant future. Jesus goes on in the same text to explain why belief yields imperishable life. The reason is that the person who believes passes with absolute finality from death. Death has been hanging on him like a leach, because he has given God nothing but sin in return for the gift of life, and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). But upon repenting of his sin and accepting Christ, he instantly travels from death to life along a one-way street. There is no going back, because the life he receives is of such a heavenly quality that it is incapable of dying.
Lest we allow fears to breed doubt of our eternal security, Jesus assures us that we are safe from three distinct threats, which together exhaust the possibilities.
- As we have already seen, we cannot lose our salvation as a result of someone maliciously pulling us away from our place in Christ (John 10:28-29). He is fully capable of warding off every attacker, whether man or angel. We are safe from every angel including Satan. And we are safe from every man including ourselves, for just as all others are too weak to pluck us from Christ's hand, so we are too weak to escape. In other words, we cannot commit any sin so grievous that Christ would disown us, provided we truly belonged to Him in the first place.
- We cannot lose our salvation as a result of Jesus Himself casting us away from His grace and love (John 6:37).
- Nor can we lose our salvation by some error in heavenly accounting (John 6:39). Jesus seems to be saying in this text that on the day when He raises all the saints to life in immortal bodies, none will be overlooked, although the whole group will number in the millions. The soul of no saint will languish in oblivion while his body remains in the grave. Every single saint who has lived in this world will come forth at the grand moment of resurrection. In heaven there are no bureaucratic goof-ups, no lost files, no forgotten names.
You see then, both in a broad view of Scriptural principles and in a narrower view of Scriptural promises, that your standing as God's redeemed child is secure. You need not fear that someday the wonderful salvation you now enjoy will be taken away. No, it is your precious possession forever. Thank God every day for it, and show your gratitude by sharing with others the good news of God's love and grace.
Those Who Disobey the Truth
The carnal Christian
The term "carnal Christian" derives from Paul's distinction between the carnal Christian and the spiritual Christian (1 Cor. 3:1-2). But his words leave no doubt that in his mind, a carnal Christian is simply a baby in Christ. That is, he is a new believer who is still so immature in the faith that his spiritual impulses are weak and his spiritual knowledge rudimentary. The only teaching he can stomach is milk. He is called carnal because he is flesh-controlled. Like a baby, he has not yet learned to discipline his natural appetites.
But to suppose, as do the advocates of easy-believism, that all those converts who show little evidence of salvation—who soon forsake the church or who attend occasionally but remain worldly—are "carnal Christians" greatly abuses the Scriptural meaning of the term. When Paul compares new believers to babes, he does not expect us to think of the rare baby who fails to grow much. In his day, any baby with a disorder severely arresting his growth probably did not survive at all. The only nongrowing babies Paul knew were dead babies. We conclude that when he refers to babies metaphorically, he expects us to think of a baby who grows. He is implying that a person truly regenerated by the Spirit of God will in fact grow spiritually. Failure of a convert to exhibit spiritual growth is a clear sign that he has never been regenerated. Therefore, when dealing with a professing convert who has become mired in an unchanged life, we must avoid giving him a false security of salvation. To tell him that he is a carnal Christian may be a dangerous lie.
The idea that churches today are worldly because they are filled with carnal Christians is a figment of easy-believism. They are filled not with carnal Christians, but with pagan pretenders.
An apostate is someone who has turned away from the cardinal truths of Christianity after professing to accept them. Two qualifications must be attached to this definition. (1) When the apostate embraced these truths, he believed them not merely because he chose to believe, but also because he had seen them vindicated by supernatural evidence. (2) When he forsook Biblical Christianity, he perhaps did not turn away from all religion.
In the principal passage dealing with apostasy (Heb. 6:4-9), the writer says clearly that apostasy is an incurable sin—that an apostate cannot be renewed to a second repentance. He is like the thorns and briers that the rain brings forth alongside the desirable plants of the field. Such weeds are good only for burning. This passage and its context support the two qualifications stated above. (1) The person described as a hopeless case is someone who falls away only after he has tasted the powers of the world to come (v. 5). (2) The same person does not necessarily become irreligious. The author is talking about people who have forsaken Christ and returned to Judaism (Heb. 8).
It would be wrong, however, to conclude from Hebrews 6 that a genuine believer can lose his salvation. In verse 9, the writer stresses that the people he has been describing, in verses 4-8, are not the same as the people he is addressing. The latter are set apart by their possession of the "things that accompany ['are connected with'] salvation." We infer that the latter are saved, whereas the former—those who fall away after they have tasted the heavenly gift—were never saved. That is, the apostates never owned a salvation that they could lose.
Moreover, the people the writer is addressing are in no danger of losing their salvation, for among the things in their possession are future benefits, including the resurrection and glorification of their bodies (vv. 18–20). So, their salvation cannot be just temporary.
The apostate is not saved, was never saved, and never can be saved. But the backslider is saved.
How may the fact of backsliding be reconciled with the clear teaching of Scripture that works accompany true faith? The central message of James is that faith without works is a dead faith, worthless for securing salvation (Jas. 2:24, 26). But a backslider is not someone who has exhibited no improvement in his life. Rather, he is someone who has slid back from former spiritual progress. His faith wrought good works in the past, though these are now lacking or diminished.
The central message of 1 John, discussed in our previous lesson, is that sin removes our right to feel sure of our salvation (1 John 3:9). Thus, backsliding necessarily undermines assurance and casts the backslider into agonies of doubt. Since his life is veering toward the lives of the unregenerate, he must consider the possibility that he also is unregenerate.
A backslider's sin will not go unnoticed and unpunished. In many passages, Scripture affirms that God will chasten any child who strays aside from His will. At the very least, He will administer firm and effective correction (Heb. 12:6-13). If the sin is bad enough, He may even take the sinner's life (1 John 5:16).
When we see a professing Christian fall into sin, it is not our place to judge whether he is a hypocrite or a backslider. To call him just a backslider is never appropriate, because any past evidence of salvation may have been an outward show, in conformity to people's expectation.
Also, when we see a professing Christian forsake the church, it is not our place to judge whether he is a backslider or an apostate. To call him an apostate, a term implying that he is unrenewable in true religion, is never appropriate, because he may not have seen the supernatural hand of God. Some who look like apostates may have left the church because they were truly wronged by those responsible to nurture and guide them and serve as their example of Christlikeness. In such cases, God is merciful and longsuffering.
Therefore, we should not view any erring brother as a lost cause. We should go on praying for him. While guarding ourselves from contamination with his sin, we should, if the Lord leads, make efforts to restore him (Jude 22–23).
For a true believer in Christ, the full orb of truth presents both light and shadow. The light is that we are secure in our salvation. The shadow is that we cannot sin without risking grave setbacks in our walk of happiness and peace. Our life in this world might even come to an end. But the shadow as well as the light is the reflection of a divine love that seeks our good, for the worst that may happen to us is meant to make us better children of God, more qualified to enjoy happiness and peace in full measure.