Once saved, always saved (OSAS). A popular tenet of evangelicalism, but is it true? Many books and articles can be found on the subject, but I believe a lay reader of the Bible will find Scriptures and concepts that make ‘once saved, always saved’ doubtful. In my opinion, it is an extreme position and a reaction to another unpalatable extreme position.
‘Once saved, always saved’ maintains you cannot lose your salvation. You cannot undo the work God has done or the seal He has given, even if you want to. At its best, ‘once saved, always saved’ attempts to provide security for believer who wonders if their sins or lack of faith can disqualify them for salvation. At its worse, it claims that those who have made a confession but not followed up or kept the faith are secure. At its best, ‘once saved, always saved’ procures some assurance for the believer; at its worst, it promotes a dogma over Scripture. Many ‘once saved, always saved’ apologists argue that Christianity is different than other religions because it provides this assurance of salvation to the believer; that Christianity or true salvation in some sense demands this assurance. But while I am not for cultish insecurity that ensnares followers, I think this is a made-up apologetic… Nowhere does the Scripture demand that we have assurance, or say we are entitled to it. It says to hold fast to the faith, trust God, and make every effort to make our calling and election sure. So why is this so scary?
In the past, Methodism popularized the caricature of the Christian heading down to the altar every other Sunday to get re-saved. Believers who were otherwise imperfect felt guilty about their sins, like they had to keep earning God’s favor over and over again. This theology lacked grace, and perfect love which casts out fear. While they had a helpful focus on the sanctification process, such Christianity was clearly based on works… not a Protestant foundation. Luther’s main contribution to the still-Catholic world at that time, was that Christian salvation was based on faith and grace alone, not on the works of the believer… good or bad. Bad works would lead to bad fruit, were dishonorable, and should be avoided. But no act or non-act could disqualify one for salvation except for the decision to believe. Luther’s personal life exemplified this quest, this assurance of salvation. And after many years struggling to trust God, he came across this gem as his cornerstone: “I am Yours, save me.” In other words, the believer’s decision to become God’s, was all it took. As long as a believer rested on this foundation, his or her house could not be shaken.
But works theology soon cropped up in new ways, within Protestantism, including in sanctification-oriented churches. The decision or orientation to believe God, and trust in His grace, was compromised by performance. Christians are by nature grieved when they sin, so ‘once saved, always saved’ was developed as a way to assuage insecure believers. Many wonder, what if I have doubts? What if I die while I am not sure about God’s existence, or creation, or other thing? If I backslide for awhile, and I die, will I go to heaven? Scripture certainly makes it clear that we can backslide, and that that is concerning. Scripture also talks about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, being put out of the church to come to repentance, being handed over to Satan, bringing another brother back to the faith, and taking care lest you fall away. And all of this is insecuring for the person who doubts whether they are really saved. But Christianity is not for the faint of heart. We do not need an absolutist dogma to keep us secure in Christ, if for no other reason than this is idolatrous (puts something above Christ himself). It is my experience that usually the people who are most concerned about this topic are precisely the people who don’t need to worry about losing their salvation… how many unbelievers do you know, who are worried about backsliding? or their doubts? The same was true with the works-oriented Methodism: the same people returning to the altar were the people attending church, grieved by their sin, and desirous of the Lord… precisely the people who didn’t need to worry so much.
Thus I gently conclude that ‘once saved, always saved’ as a doctrine, is more for the insecure than it is for the student of the Word. The Bible simply doesn’t teach it; if God wanted to teach ‘once saved, always saved’ , He could have done it far better. In reality, ‘once saved, always saved’ apologists are confined to prooftexting, which means finding supporting Scriptures and ignoring the ones which do not. The true student of the Word will notice this right away, as they will be forced to reinterpret non-fitting Scriptures in ways that stretch common sense. Scriptures such as:
“But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back,
I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” (Hebrews 10:38-9)
“If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-1)
So if Scriptures like these exist, which make it clear that the believer can retreat into non-belief (with condemnation), then how do we prevent ourselves from slipping into the Methodist error? What assurance do we have? Fortunately, the Scripture DOES teach a basically secure, strong view of salvation with lots of passages encouraging us to trust God. It has, relatively, just a couple warnings thrown in about conditionality so we aren’t deceived. It is my conviction that the security and strength of the salvation relationship is analogous to the strength and security of marriage. Most people are secure enough in their marriage to sleep at night even though there is some slim possibility that their spouse could sneak out of the bed and leave. They could be tempted or deceived to leave, or they could purposely desert us for another. But we do not chain our spouses to the house in order to allay our fears. We trust them. Based on our vows at the altar and the mutual love and understanding we work so hard to give each day, we are secure. The freedom to leave—which does exist—does not nullify the security in good marriages. Because both spouses are in the game together, both are equally vested in staying, even when the going is rough. The social contract works, and love covers a multitude of sins. Unless one spouse specifically terminates the relationship, marriage continues into the golden years for good or for ill.
I believe this is exactly the picture of God and the believer that the Bible portrays. Except that God, as our Bridegroom, is the perfect spouse. The Bible explicitly teaches that the Church is the Bride of Christ. The Bible consistently makes analogies of lovers (i.e. Song of Solomon, Jeremiah) and the Bridegroom coming for the Bride (the parables) to portray our relationship to God. We freely enter the relationship and we are free to leave. Nothing constrains us. Certainly not the unalterable will of God that will keep us in His family, kicking and screaming. However, God pledges never to leave us. And He loves us perfectly. So in essence, it is as though we were married to someone who could always forgive us and do the right thing, who is helping us become a better person. The relationship is even stronger than earthly marriage because only one party–us–can terminate it; in the marriage, there are two players to satisfy. So just as we believe our earthly spouse when they say their vows, we believe our heavenly Father when He offers His covenant. He promises eternal life and we confess with our mouth that He is Lord and risen from the dead. Because the covenant is His to give, He pays for us with the blood of Christ and He seals us for the day of redemption with the Holy Spirit. All of these free gifts to us are sacred, just as marriage is sacred, and they should mean more to us than life itself.
‘Once saved, always saved’ people like to defend their position by pointing out the slippery slope of conditional salvation and making it seem like if we weren’t irrevocably saved, then people would be losing their salvation all the time; they would be tempted out of the fold or wanting to leave all the time. Well, to some extent we are tempted all the time; the world is a spiritual warfare zone. We vie for our lives every day as we set guards over our eyes and ears and hearts. But in the more practical sense, life is very enjoyable from day to day if we train ourselves and walk in trust. It isn’t usually a minefield! And fewer people purposely desert than it may seem; many people stick marriage out even when things are downright horrible. The high divorce rate today is due to many factors, including the debasement of the whole concept of marriage, which has isn’t taught well. It is not unlike the Church where “converts” don’t always become “disciples” because the gift of salvation isn’t presented in its proper context. Christian casualties happen all the time.
But again, the logical possibility of a slippery slope doesn’t mean it has to be that way. The prospect of losing one’s salvation does not have to keep us up at night (or at the altar every other Sunday) even as the prospect of losing one’s marriage does not keep us up at night (or continually renewing our vows). The whole concept of faith is trust, which by definition implies that something could not be, or could be otherwise. We shouldn’t embrace ‘once saved, always saved‘ dogma to avoid the hard truth about faith, that we can walk away from our Marriage. We shouldn’t walk away because we joined the covenant and were bought and sealed. We shouldn’t, because we are in a solemn, give-and-take relationship of perfect love which cancels fear. But nothing in the covenant automatically excludes us from the ability to break it. The covenant is just that GOD HIMSELF will not walk away; we will have to, as Paul says that some have “deserted the truth.”
Maybe this draws too gray of a line, but it is true nonetheless. We must be brave enough to realize that we can leave if we want to. And yet we must be wise enough to realize we don’t cancel our spiritual relationship by any specific work, or doubt–in the same way that we do not cancel our marriage relationship by any specific work or doubt. Is our marriage over if we have doubts it? Or if we do foolish things? When we put conditionality together with God’s initiation and His surpassing love and permanence, we conclude that nullifying our relationship with Him takes some effort. It takes an undoing of our repentance, a re-rejection of His offer. We can be an amazingly inadequate spouse, but that doesn’t doom the marriage. But if lifelong and professed adultery is the pattern, our marriage fails. We nullify our covenant not by our words but by our deeds. Our heart is elsewhere. The same is true with Christ. An imperfect walk is not grounds for cancellation. But lifelong adultery is, when our hearts lust after other gods or other ways. If we do not want God to be our God, He will not force us. He didn’t force us to get into the Kingdom, and He will not force us to stay in. This should not be taken to the extreme level as works-based Christianity has in the past. These theologies are guilt-based, which have every sin possibly being the source of separation from God. But every sin should, in some sense, be taken seriously. And certainly an adulterous heart that is not turning may come close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says is the true Unpardonable Sin. For how can one who is born-again and given the Holy Spirit then turn and live life for evil? It isn’t mistakes or works that condemn us, it is the orientation of the heart.
This idea can be a little disturbing, but the answer is not to turn to another absolutist position in order to feel safe. God is our refuge, and HE is our safety, our security, our strong tower; the Psalms proclaim this over and over. If we are bold enough to believe them, then we can experience even more trust in God than we had before, when we were trusting in a doctrine. We should not be afraid of Him if we’re doubtful, we should run to Him if we are. We should not be afraid of Him if we’re sinful, we should run to Him if we are. We should not run to ‘once saved, always saved’. A doctrine can never be above God Himself.