There are many Christians that understand “being saved” as a one-time event. A moment comes when a person repents of their sins and accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior” – a phrase which is never used in Scripture, oddly enough. This once-in-a-lifetime conversion event removes all penalties for past sins and is a guarantee that no matter what happens afterward, the new believer is destined for heaven – nothing whatsoever can undo salvation. Some adherents to absolute assurance describe it in the slogan, “once saved, always saved.”
Those who think that believers have an absolute assurance of salvation cite two key passages to support their view:
1 John 5:13 – “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
John 10:27-29 – “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
At first glance, these passages seem to make the point that believers cannot lose their salvation. However, when viewed in the context of the rest of the New Testament, this assurance needs to be understood as a moral assurance, not an absolute one.
In writing “you have eternal life,” John is stating that every Christian can have an assurance of salvation. John also explains that no other person or external force can snatch a believer out of Christ’s hand. However, individual believers can sever that relationship on their own. In 1 John 5:16-17, John explains mortal sin. Anyone who dies unrepentant in that state will have lost their salvation because they will have, in a sense, jumped out of Christ’s hand of their own volition. Other parts of the Bible emphasize that remaining in a “saved” state is conditional on our continued belief and fidelity to the Lord:
Romans 11:20-22 – They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.
Hebrews 10:26-31 – For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries…. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
2 Peter 2:20-21 – For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
These passages explain that if a believer returns to a life of serious sin, they lose their salvation. Paul also writes of this in 2 Timothy 2:11-13: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.”
Christ also speaks of believers falling away:
Matthew 18:21-35 – In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus told that although the merciful king forgave his debt, the unforgiving servant proceeded to mistreat a fellow servant. When the king discovered this, he reinstated his debt and threw him into prison! Jesus stated, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Matthew 7:21 – “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
John 15:5-6 – “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”
Knowing that our infidelity to Christ can sever our relationship to him, Christians ought to remain faithful to our Lord and take comfort in his words: “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).