This article was written to accompany the ‘Union With Christ‘ hangout.
- To what extent do you think the phrase ‘Once saved, always saved’ is a helpful summary of Biblical teaching?
Forever in Christ
Some relationships are made to last.
The relationships that form the Trinity are the ultimate example of this. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have existed in perfect, loving, other-focussed, glorifying relationships for all eternity past and will do so for all eternity to come.
To think that there will be a day when the Son and the Spirit go their separate ways is ludicrous. The idea of the Father ceasing to love his Son is unthinkable. God is, was and forever will be Father, Son and Spirit in perfect relationships.
Another relationship made to last is that of Christ with believers. Christians are described as ‘in Christ’ and it is on this basis that we receive every spiritual blessing that is found in the gospel. It is in Christ that we are blessed, chosen, adopted, redeemed, and sealed (see Ephesians 1:3-14). It is in Christ that we are a new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). We have died with Christ and we have risen again with him.
On numerous occasions, Jesus likens his union with us to the relationships found in the Trinity. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me.” (John 17:22-23) The Trinity is our model for union with Christ, and as it would be unthinkable for the Father to cast aside his Son, so it would be equally untenable for Christ to cast aside any who are found in him.
Jesus emphatically affirms this truth as he talks about the ‘sheep’ that he has been given by the Father. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will 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 the out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:28-30) The unity of relationship between the Father and the Son provides security for believers. There is no weak link in the chain and nothing can snatch us away from either the Father or the Son. Our relationships with Father, Son and Spirit are just as eternally secure as the relationships within the Trinity itself.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What things might be considered threats to the eternal security of those in Christ?
Romans 8 is one of the great chapters in the Bible on the theme of the eternal security of believers. In this chapter, Paul outlines a process that is at work in believers, with a sense of inevitability moving from one step to the next, beginning with God foreknowing us in eternity past and ending with our glorification. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)
Paul goes on to discuss potential threats that could de-rail this process, but concludes that there is nothing that can snatch us from God’s hand. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 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. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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 8:31-38)
Nothing can separate us from the love that is found in Christ.
As well as being explicitly stated in its own right, this is the necessary conclusion to be drawn from a number of other theological truths clearly taught in the Bible.
Salvation by grace alone – God’s grace in salvation is explained this way in the book of Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). If it is by grace and without reference to our works that somebody is saved, then it would follow that perseverance is on the same basis. Works do accompany faith, but they do so as evidence of God’s grace at work and of our union with Christ, not as a pre-requisite for continuing in grace.
Predestination – If God has elected people before the creation of the world to be saved in Christ, then he will not only bring those people into Christ but will also keep them in him.
The Sealing of the Spirit – Again, it is written in Ephesians, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14). In Christ, we receive the Spirit and the Spirit is (amongst other things) a guarantee of our eternal inheritance. As we receive the Holy Spirit this gives us an assurance that God will keep us eternally secure in Christ.
The Intercession of Christ – As we have seen in Romans 8, Christ is at the right hand of the Father interceding for all those who are in him. With Christ interceding, it is unthinkable for any of those who are in him to be lost.
In addition to these doctrines, we could consider the scope of Biblical meaning that is attached to the word salvation. We often use the term to mean the moment that we first became a Christian, which is in important aspect of it, but in the Bible salvation is referred to in in past, present and future tenses.
THINK IT THROUGH
Look up these verses about salvation. Jot down when ‘salvation’ occurs in each case, and what it is referring to.
- Ephesians 2:5
- 1 Peter 1:8-9
- Philippians 2:12
- Romans 5:9-10
- Romans 13:11
- 1 Corinthians 3:15
- 1 Corinthians 5:5
Because ‘salvation’ is a past, present and future reality, it is perhaps the wrong question to ask whether a Christian can ‘lose their salvation’. Rather, salvation is in Christ, and as we are secure in Christ we can be confident that we have been saved, we are being saved, and that we will be saved in him.
This eternal flavour certainly comes through in verses such as, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30) and, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” (Jude 24)
In Christ, Out of Christ?
- John 10 teaches that it is impossible for a sheep to be snatched from Jesus’ hand. Do you think it is possible for a sheep to leave his hand of its own volition? Why/why not?
If nothing in creation can separate someone who is in Christ from his love, then surely this includes the person themselves. In Christ, that person is brand new. They have a new heart and a new Spirit and are a new creation. They are part of the true vine and they bear fruit. Somebody who has been truly saved and renewed and brought into Christ becomes a disciple and a worshipper, and at the thought of leaving Christ, their heart echoes the words of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69).
THINK IT THROUGH
- Should this teaching lead us to conclude that our salvation is secure?
- How should we think about the numerous passages in the New Testament that warn us against falling away?
Warnings Against Falling Away
We should treat the passages that warn against falling away with the utmost seriousness and take them for the warnings that they are.
Below are a few examples of the many passages of this nature.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Mark 9:62)
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world?” (Galatians 4:9)
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12)
Whilst the eternal security of those in Christ is taught in Scripture, it is done so in the stark reality that there are those who fall away from the faith. Various metaphors are employed in these verses, but each point to the same reality – there are some who start on the journey of faith who do not make it to the end.
This was the reality of Jesus’ earthly ministry. There was a season of popularity where many followed him, but when times got hard not many stayed with him. On one occasion, after some particularly unpopular teaching, Jesus experienced a mass desertion. “After this many of the disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66)
As John Piper says,
“We do not breathe easy after a person has prayed to receive Christ, as though we can be assured from our perspective that they are now beyond the reach of the evil one. There is a fight of faith to be fought. We must endure in faith if we are to be saved.” (John Piper)
The framework to understand this is found in Jesus’ parable of the sower. Jesus told a story about a farmer who sowed seed liberally, and the seed landed on four different types of ground: the path, rocky ground, among thorns and good soil. He went on to explain that each of these kinds of ground represent a different response to God’s word. “The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:14-20)
This passage puts forward the familiar categories of those who reject the word and those who accept it, endure and bear much fruit. In addition to this are those who are represented by the ‘rocky ground’ and the ‘thorny ground’.
THINK IT THROUGH
For each type of soil, think through what kind of person is represented, practical examples of what this would look like, and whether such a person could be described as ‘in Christ’. Try to support your answers with Bible verses.
- The path
- The rocky ground
- The thorns
- The good soil
The parable is clear that there are some who will initially receive the word and then fall away. It is equally clear that in the early stages these people respond with the same kind of eagerness and zeal as those represented by the good soil. It is not easy to predict whose faith will be throttled by thorns and whose will endure to the end. It is for this reason that the New Testament gives so many warnings against falling away, and we would do well to heed them. “Let anyone who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
Paul did not take his own perseverance in the faith for granted. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus had made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14). It was only as he drew towards the end of his life that he was able to exclaim with thanksgiving, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
The prime example of someone who initially received the word, but allowed thorns to throttle it is Judas Iscariot. John Macarthur writes the following about Judas,
“For three years he followed the Lord with the other disciples. He appeared to be one of them. Presumably, he thought of himself as a believer, at least at the outset. It is doubtful that he joined Christ’s band with the intention of turning against him. Somewhere along the line he became greedy, but that could hardly have been his motive in the beginning; Jesus and the disciples never had anything of material value (Matthew 8:20). Apparently, Judas initially shared the hope of Christ’s kingdom, and he likely believed that Jesus was the Messiah. After all he had left everything to follow the Lord. In modern terminology, he had ‘accepted’ Jesus…” (John Macarthur)
Yet despite all this, Judas did not endure to the end and was ultimately destroyed (see John 17:12).
- What strategies do you have to ensure that you finish the race?
Holding It Together
THINK IT THROUGH
- How can we reconcile the two ideas that all who are in Christ are secure, and that there is a real danger of falling away from faith?
Whilst it is true that there initially appears to be little outward difference between those who will go on to fall away and those who will endure, this does not mean that significant differences do not exist.
When Jesus warned that not all who call on his name will enter the kingdom, he says that on the last day he will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me.” (Matthew 7:23). It is not that such a person was once in Christ and then was outside of him. He never knew them at all. This is similar to the point made by John as he discusses false teachers that were his former co-workers. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) In a like manner, it is as someone departs from Christ that they demonstrate that they never truly knew him.
True faith is faith that endures. Real union with Christ is unbreakable. Peter points out that part of the joy of suffering is an opportunity to endure and to demonstrate the genuineness of faith. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7). It is by enduring that we show that we have union with Christ. “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14)
Our union with Christ is as unbreakable as the relationships of the Trinity. Once a person is in Christ they are in him for all eternity. Part of the fruit brought about in Christ is endurance to remain in him.
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” (John 6:39)
- How does the tension between security in Christ and warnings against falling away make you feel regarding your own eternal security? What do you think our reaction should be to these truths?
- In light of the truths discussed in this chapter, what would you say to a professing Christian who is backsliding?
- When you think of your own salvation, do you mainly think in the past, the present, or the future tense? In what ways can you take encouragement from all three tenses of salvation?