We’ve been going through Revelation in church recently and this question seems to crop up a bit. There are various points at which it might appear as though the text is saying you might lose your salvation under certain circumstances. I’ll give you one example – just because it is the most recent that we looked at – but there are a number of others. Revelation 18:4: ‘”Come out of her, my people,” so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.’ That might read as though it is saying there are circumstances under which you might share in the judgement of the world as a believer.
Of course, the more commonly cited passages regarding this question come in the book of Hebrews. Hebrews 2:1-4 and Hebrews 6:4-8 are probably the two most obvious. But even in that book there are other examples. Then there are the likes of 1 John 2:19, in which it may appear that people who once believed the gospel have since walked away from it and lost their faith. And then, of course, there are the endless stories of deconversion. People who have a testimony and an understanding of the gospel that we hear about, or even know personally, who seemed to be godly believers who later simply upped and walked away from the faith, never to return. Much of it looks like people losing their salvation.
That view, however, is a hard one to square with lots of other passages of the Bible. Jesus said, for example, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28). Paul is pretty emphatic about this too:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:31-39
Jesus also says:
37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.John 6:37-40
That is not to mention to various Bible verses dealing with the election of God’s people (cf. Eph 1:3-14, et al). So, how do we square the former with the latter?
Let’s start with this: God is sovereign. In his sovereignty God determined to save a people for himself. A God who is unable to save a people for himself is impotent. God, therefore, is able to save whomever he wills. Nothing can thwart his plans as sovereign over the universe and, therefore, nothing can stop him saving whom he intends to save nor fulfilling his plan of salvation in Christ.
If we accept that God had a plan of salvation at all, he must have been able to carry it out. If we accept that God is sovereign over all things, that must also include the hearts of men. Exodus 9:12, Acts 2:23 and Revelation 17:16-17 all say it is so. This means God is both sovereign over the means of bringing his plan about – the crucifixion of Jesus – as well as over the hearts of those who would carry it out. He is simultaneously sovereign over the hearts of those who will accept Christ and, therefore, those who will reject him too. He has an elect (John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Romans 9:15-16; Ephesians 1:4-5; etc) whom he has actively chosen to save, with all others whom he has chosen not to save. It is for this reason that I am supralapsarian (and if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it). I believe God has a sovereign plan to glorify himself through saving a people and works all things to that end, including the very creation of the world itself.
Here’s why any of this matters. We either have a God who is capable of making a plan and fulfilling it, or we have an impotent God who cannot achieve any of his plans. We either have a God who has a specific people he intends to save, and then saves them, or we have a weak God who intends to save everyone and fails. God either saves everyone whom he intends to save, and then makes good on his plans and promises, or he merely offers salvation to all and watches powerlessly on as he sees his greatest desire fail again and again and again. Which of those is the God presented in our Bibles? I believe it is clearly the sovereign, saving God who fulfils all his plans and purposes.
If that is true, then how can it be possible for us to lose our salvation? If we truly belong to Jesus, nothing can take us away from him. Paul was pretty emphatic about that in Romans 8 – not even angels or demons ‘nor anything else in all creation‘. That means, not even Satan himself can take you away from Christ because he is a created being. Nor, therefore, can you take yourself away from the love of God in Christ Jesus because you are a created being too. The only being who can put people in or out of Christ is God himself. That means, necessarily, that if God has chosen to save you, then you will be saved. If you belong to Jesus, then you cannot lose your salvation because God always keeps his promises, fulfils his plans and never changes.
If all that is true, what do we do with those other passages that seem to suggest people might fall away? In my view, they do not exist to tell us that we can lose our salvation. Instead, they are one of the means God uses to keep genuine believers walking faithfully with him. True believers in Jesus will hear those warning passages and be caused to press on with Christ. They are not there to say you will lose your salvation but as a spur to God’s people to press on in the holiness to which they were called. They are saying, in effect, if you hypothetically walk away, this is the end of that decision but the elect will hear this and will not walk away, but will press on.
So, what of those who did appear to believe but later walked away? Those people insist that they were genuine but came to reject it. Jesus told us this would happen. In the parable of the sower, he outlined four different kinds of people who hear the word of the gospel. At least two kinds of people hear the word, receive it gladly, but either fall away altogether or they grow up never to produce any fruit. In either case, Jesus insists they were never truly saved to begin with. Jesus elsewhere makes clear that it is ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (Matthew 24:13). He never makes any bones about that. As James put it, ‘Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him’ (James 1:12). Other New Testament writers affirm the same.
Jesus knows who are his, his sheep hear his voice (that is, they listen to him and do what he says), and nobody can take them away from him. Those who truly belong to him will persevere until the end for him. God, who is sovereign, has an elect people whom he has chosen to save. As a God who cannot welch on his promises and will always do as he says, he cannot fail to save a single person he intends to save. The truest and most sure evidence that we belong to Christ is that we persevere until the end, those who do not do so show that they were not of his fold.