Eternal Security Debate
Do the Gospels Teach that Salvation Can Be Lost?
Affirmative Opening Essay
Among the various heresies that arose at the time of the Reformation, one of the most notable was the doctrine of “Eternal Security” - the teaching that the Christian cannot lose his salvation. Since this debate is focused only on whether the Four Gospels teach salvation can be lost, the historicity or other Scriptural testimony of the doctrine will not be considered.
Before delving into the evidence, it is important to be aware of the theological framework from which each side is speaking, because this is the key to understanding the foundation from which each side is building their argument from. In the Protestant view, to say that an individual is “saved” means the moment he puts his faith in Christ, he is legally entitled to enter Heaven, and that nothing can take this away from him. In the Catholic view, man's salvation comes in two phases, first becoming adopted, and second persevering in that adoption to eventually inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. By analogy, the difference is akin to getting a paycheck the moment one is hired, and getting hired in order to eventually become worthy of a paycheck. Since I believe the Catholic framework is the truly biblical one means that the Protestant view doesn't actually exist.
The following passages will demonstrate why the Biblical evidence comes down very conclusively in favor of the Catholic view. This case will be made on two fronts: (1) the believer is never actually “saved” in the Protestant sense to begin with, since entering Heaven depends on whether the believer lived a Christian lifestyle or not; and (2) the potential existing for the believer to lose his salvation.
-Matthew 5:13. Jesus calls his listeners “the salt of the earth” (also “the light of the world”), which could only apply to Christians, yet He immediately adds: “if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled.” This indicates Believers can fall away by turning to sin.
-Matthew 5:20. A Christian cannot enter Heaven unless certain conditions are met, namely practicing genuine acts of righteousness in contradistinction to the hypocritical showy righteousness of the pharisees (as the rest of the Sermon on the Mount goes to explain in detail). Thus, Heaven is not presently secured.
-Matthew 5:12,14,15 (cf Mk10:25). “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This means that sin can still harm the believer’s relationship with God, and if the believer wont forgive others, God won’t forgive them. Clearly, an unforgiven individual cannot enter Heaven.
-Matthew 7:13f. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” This states that to enter Heaven, one must persevere on the “narrow” and “hard” road. This indicates Salvation is not secured until one perseveres and thus falling away is possible.
-Matthew 10:28,33,39 (cf Mark 8:34-38). Jesus says: “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” and “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven,” and “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Here, Jesus is speaking to the disciples He was sending out to preach the Gospel and face persecution. The point here is that it’s better to suffer human persecution than deny Christ and end up enduring God’s wrath. This warning makes no sense if Salvation is secured.
-Matthew 12:36f. Jesus says, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” This indicates we will face a final judgment, and based on this we will be either justified or condemned. Thus, Salvation is not yet attained until after one passes the judgment.
-Matthew 18:23-35. This is the parable of the unmerciful servant who is forgiven but wont forgive others, and as a result is forced to suffer what is in effect eternal torments in hell. Jesus concludes this parable by telling His Apostles the same thing will happen to them if they don't forgive.
-Matthew 24:12-13. Jesus teaches that as the world becomes more wicked “the love of most will grow cold,” while those who persevere will be saved. The “love” here is agape love, the highest form and only available to Christians by God's saving grace. Yet here it states it will grow cold for many of them, and thus they will fall away and not be saved.
-Matthew 25:1-13. The parable of 10 Virgins with lighted lamps waiting for their Bridegroom is a parable about Christians being alert while awaiting Christ’s return. Those who turn their focus away from Christ will be caught off guard and not be Saved. This parable echos all the passages of Jesus warning Christians to stay alert (e.g. Mt 24:44), a warning which makes no sense if falling away is impossible.
-Matthew 25:14-30. The Parable of the Talents teaches that Jesus expects His followers to be pro-active in their Faith, and judges each person in proportion to the gifts Jesus entrusted them. Clearly, the man with one talent was damned for not doing his Christian duty.
-Matthew 25:31-46. This is the famous prophecy of the Final Judgment, where men end up entering into Heaven based on their good works or Hell based on their sins. The basis for the judicial declaration for them to enter Heaven is not faith nor Christ (though those are important), but rather the individual’s own actions. Clearly, Heaven is not secure until one is found worthy by God the Judge at the end of their life (cf John 5:28f).
-Matthew 26:33f. This is the prophecy that Peter would deny Christ, which he did thrice. Denying Christ is a cardinal sin, and surely indicates loss of Peter’s salvation (until he repented).
-Mark 9:43-47 (Mat 18:8-9). Jesus warns disciples us that it is better to remove temptations in your life and enter into Heaven having “missed out” on those things rather than indulging in them and being damned. This can only be talking about Christians, else there is no real warning.
-Mark 10:17-33 (Matthew 19:16-30). In this event, a Rich Young Man asks Jesus what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” This indicates Salvation is not Secured until the very end.
-Mark 13:3-6. Jesus and the Apostles are speaking privately, and Jesus warns, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.” This warning doesn’t make sense unless it’s really possible for Christians to be led astray and fall away.
-Luke 8:13 In the parable of the sower, one type of Christian is those who “believe for a while” but later falls away due to temptation and sin. The person was a believer, and yet fell away.
-Luke 12:41-46. This is the parable of the Faithful Steward, where Jesus entrusts men with care of His property, and expects to find things in good order when He Returns. Jesus warns that if the steward becomes complacent and engages in various sins, he will be cast off and damned. Clearly, Salvation is not secure.
-Luke 15:11-32. The parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that Jesus will always take us back if we repent. The prodigal son (a Christian who falls into sin) is separated from his father (God), and in a real sense is considered “dead” and “lost” (verses 24,32) in sin. This can only indicate loss of salvation, and repenting to recover it.
-John 12:42-43. As John concludes Jesus’ public ministry, he informs us that there were Pharisees who did believe in Jesus, but because they feared persecution they would not publicly affirm their faith. Thus, they failed to persevere and fell away.
-John 13:8. At the Last Supper Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet. Jesus tells Peter that if He doesn't wash him, Peter will have “no part” with Jesus. Jesus put Peter's salvation on the line, indicating that salvation can be lost, otherwise it was a false threat (a lie in fact).
-John 15:1-10. Jesus is speaking to His Apostles, giving them the analogy of the Vine and Branches. As part of His lesson, He says, “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” He explains one “abides in” Him when they keep His commandments, and thus failure to keep them can cause a branch to be cut-off the Vine and wither, and even burned. The Christian being cut off from Christ clearly indicates a loss of salvation.
The classical Protestant “objections” to many of these texts is that the warning or punishment involved is not talking about believers but rather about people who were “never saved to begin with.” Though there are accounts of people who pretend to be Christians but never actually believed, this objection fails for many reasons, most notably the fact that the teachings are stated in such a way that they cannot be talking about anybody except a believer.
In my experience, few passages, if any, come anywhere close to suggesting Eternal Security. The two most common passages quoted in support of Eternal Security are John 6:37-40 and John 10:27-28. Given that a strong case has already been made for the possibility of losing salvation, we would not expect these two texts to overturn all that.
An important detail that is often overlooked when approaching these two texts is that some of the key verbs are in the Present-Tense in the Greek, meaning the action is being done continuously. In English, this isn’t always easy to convey, and can come out sounding as a past-tesnse-completed action. Take John 6:40 as an example: “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” This might sound as if the “looking” and “believing” are one time acts that happen(ed) in the past, but that’s not accurate. In actuality, these (and other such) verbs are in the Present-Tense, which means they are continuous actions. Thus, John 6:40 should be actually understood as: ‘everyone who continues-to-look upon the Son and continues-to-believe in him should continue-to-have eternal life.’ This is the case for the other verbs in John 6:37-40 and 10:27-29. With that in mind, what emerges is a theme of Security-by-Perseverance and not one of single-moment-in-time Eternal Security.
Two final points on those texts: (a) the use of the term “eternal life” in John’s writings is not used to mean “legally worthy of entering Heaven,” but rather being in a current relationship with the Trinity - in other words, God’s life dwelling in your soul presently (see John 17:3 and 4:14, cf 1 Jn 3:15) - thus John is never saying “believe and eternally saved”; (b) the comments about “not losing” those who come to Christ is to be taken in the sense of external forces, like Satan, not being able to over-power Christ and snatch His Sheep away - such comments are not speaking of the Christian turning to sin and falling away, which the Gospels clearly and repeatedly warn against (e.g. in John 6:70f and 17:12, Judas is said to be “chosen” by and “given” to Christ, yet he fell away due to personal sin).
Thus, in the end, those two texts from John don’t support the Protestant doctrine at all, and actually fit nicely with the Biblical (Catholic) position.