Written by Paul J. Bucknell on December, 15, 2018
The Security of Salvation: Can a Believer Lose His Salvation?
Verses to Search if a Believer Can Lose His/Her Salvation?
2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
There is a divided belief in Christendom. A group of Christians believe once the sinner is saved from his past sins, he is forever saved and can’t lose his salvation. They call it Eternal Security, citing scriptures as John 10:27-28, etc.
Other believers believe that after we are saved from our past sins, we are therefore to remain faithful unto death, lest we sin and fall, so as to lose our salvation, citing 1 Cor 9:24-27. What does the scriptures say in this conflicting doctrine?
The Pre-Discussion on Eternal Security
Some Christians get very involved in heated discussions about salvation and eternal security. I, personally, also like to discuss such issues with others but not in debate form. Through the years I have come to recognize that there is more to a discussion than the issue.
This question is a very large question that touches on various aspects of theology and hermeneutics debating the meaning of many scriptures. Perhaps, this will be the first part of a larger answer, but our first task will show how to properly approach this kind of question. Let me state two particular deeper issues that disturb rather than help such discussions, and therefore, make it difficult to establish a solid answer.
In any case, there is not much profit from such discussions though there could be. Good discussions need to revolve around God’s Word not just the issue. God’s Word is holy and we must insist on a process of meditating on God’s Word to influence our opinion rather than simply to justify our opinion. In this way, we can honestly see what a passage teaches and adjust what we believe. If the passage does not support our opinion, then we can wrestle with it by asking, “Why do I believe this truth is so important though this passage seems to counter it?” Once we step into a position of a debater, we step out from being a humble disciple under the leadership of the Holy Spirit—without respect to our position even if we are a pastor or teacher.
- Our pursuit in such debates often focuses on the analysis of scripture rather than being changed by it. I wonder how many of these individuals who wrestle with the scriptures do it respectfully and understand that God is the teacher who seeks to transform our lives through these verses. I have yet seen such a debate end in prayer for the Word of Truth to touch their lives.
- The debate often becomes a place for a person to justify his or her perspective rather than to seek God for His truth. Pride develops because we take the posture that we know the answer apart from God’s gracious enlightenment. I recognize each supports their arguments with God’s Word, but they are presenting contrary opinions rather than together seeking God in His Word for His one answer. Once a debate is entered, sides take form—person against person rather than a schoolroom where His disciples humbly gather together to seek God’s wisdom.
I would describe myself as a Biblical theologian rather than a systematic theologian. I place more emphasis on the meaning of each passage and slowly acquiring a master understanding. I am in no hurry and treasure the learning periods, including the areas where I am ignorant.
So, I introduce my answer in this manner. I take a passage and allow the words speak to me about what God is trying to communicate. Because you have mentioned several passages, then I will also address them in light of this passage. This passage (2 Thes 2:13-14) is only one of many but since I recently read it, I choose to elaborate upon it. We need to sit humbly before the Lord with each passage set before us so we can savor the glory of God’s truths.
Again, we can be in the right and argue with others but that can result in wrongly presenting God’s Word. It is important that we see ourselves on the same team humbly learning from the Lord’s Word. We can study several Bible passages around a certain topic, carefully noting what each passage affirms about the topic in concern, for example, “being chosen.” When counter passages arise which seem to conflict with what we have learned, we can also accept these words. God in time will give understanding as we seek Him, but I have found this process might take 10-15 years!
I will, for this reason, focus on one passage rather than justifying “my” position (which is meaningless and who cares what I believe anyway). We want the glory of God’s Word to enter our souls so that we can properly respond to the Lord as we seek Him in His Word.
An Introduction to Eternal Security
There are numerous Scripture teachings that are connected to this discussion as to whether a believer can lose her or her salvation. It is, for this reason some favor certain passages and ignore others. They see no resolve for this problem—at least for some believers. The straightforward answer sustained from the many sets of verses like the one we will look at below clearly demonstrate that a believer cannot lose her or her salvation, but there are many good questions that pop up that need, in time, to be resolved.
There are many good questions underneath this one question on eternal security. That is fine. We are in no hurry to assert that we have the one dogmatic answer but instead want to focus on relishing the Word of Truth and the presented truths from which we can obtain summary statements from the Truth on topics like eternal security.
- Is it unfair that God chooses some and not others?
- I thought salvation depended upon our faith or “my decision.”
- On what basis is my salvation based? Can I lose my salvation?
- Salvation is too cheap if a person so easily gains salvation.
- But what about a person who professes his faith and then departs from that conviction. Is he “once saved, always saved”? How should we handle Scripture passages that appear to give a counter explanation?
- But what about this Bible verse that goes contrary to….?
- How do our works and faith work together?
Below we will first present one overarching passage (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14) that presents the process of salvation. It is not the only statement but briefly provides a framework to understand the questions we are searching answers for. I can use other passages to do the same thing. I am not afraid of how one passage might say something different or present it in a different way for God’s Word does not contradict what is true, though I admit I often cannot see how to reconcile one passage with another, at least not right away. Later in life, now, I find this is chiefly because I do not have a large enough scope to understand the ramifications of God’s glorious plan, and I begin comparing two passages that really are not to be placed against each other, as if they are speaking the same truth to the same people for the same purpose.2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. 14 And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thes 2:13-14)
From the chart below, we can see different aspects of the salvation process introduced in this passage. I will discuss verse 13 phrase by phrase and then summarize how the phrases integrate with each other.
“Brethren beloved by the Lord” (2:13)
It is wonderful to think of ourselves as beloved by the Lord. He does not speak about our loved Him but insists a deeper and residing truth of God’s love for us. I therefore bask in this love. I need His love and want His love. I thank Him for His love because His wonderful and constant favor directed towards my life. Paul takes it a step further by acknowledging God’s deep and affectionate love for every believer and can relish the truth of God’s love for His people. This allows Paul to cherish and bless these people he works with. “If God loves them, then I must love them too.” Any discussion on eternal security must use God’s love as a backdrop for their discussion, and I believe all would accept that to a degree.
“God has chosen you from the beginning” (2:13)
God’s choice of us follows God’s love for us, and indeed all of His people. “From the beginning” refers to eternity. Before time began in eternity, God had already chosen us (Eph 1:4). If one or more arguments, for or against, this concept of God’s choice of us invade our mind, step back and first just delight in the truth of what God states so clearly: “God has chosen you.”
God has chosen every believer for salvation before he or she was born. The Lord does not here state on what basis that choice or His love was founded. Since we were not there in eternity past, and any good we might do comes from His grace (later see this in the Spirit’s work), we should not associate God’s choice of us was dependent on God seeing us do good things or that He foresaw that we would choose Christ. The Lord does not speak at all about our part in the pre-qualifications of being chosen—an issue partly related to the discussion on eternal security—but that we were chosen by Him. This was, undoubtedly, God’s decision and not ours, and until we can rejoice with His choice of us from eternity past, then we cannot rightly grasp the glory of His choice of us for salvation. Paul’s willingness not to state the basis of His choice, except that He made it in eternity, emphasizes other conditions were not factored in, or at least not in a primary way.
God wants us to treasure His love and choice of us from eternity. I draw the simple conclusion, which later needs to be tested by other scriptures, that His decision has nothing to do with all the matters that might come to our mind. God just wants us to greatly delight in the joy of His free choice of us. If God so freely presents His choice of us, it is a matter that we should be able to freely accept rather than allowing this truth to be clouded about by a bunch of issues about God’s character, ability, conflict with freedom of will, which detract from the simple fact of His truth. Just be at peace with His choice and delight that you are His from eternity past. We need to allow the “Why?” and “How?” step behind our delight in His eternal love.
“God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation” (2:13)
God’s choice of us has everything with receiving salvation. The focus is on how God’s choice leads us to salvation. There is no query whether His choice 25%, 60% or 90% of the time works. This is not the issue or discussion. God’s choice every time leads to salvation. Yes, I understand that it appears that some people who seem to have been Christians don’t follow the Lord now, but put these issues, I believe, are secondary to God’s revealed redemptive account given here.
God will use other scriptures, as He desires, to show how these backsliders fit into His eternal redemptive plan. But we should not allow related issues cloud the bright and clear truth that God wants to deeply embed in our minds.
Don’t let doubts cause you to despise the truth.
Let His truth, indeed His Words, ring strongly in our souls and the Lord will increasingly reveal how different aspects of His truth work together. The problem is that our debates on such issues often obscure what God has spoken so clearly so that the foundational truths are not firmly laid for our faith. We are to rejoice in His choice for us and deliberate on its ramifications, but sometimes, in the back of our minds while we read of “His choice of us,” we silently say in our mind “because I chose Him.” And so we allow our mindset of freewill override the clear teaching of God’s choice for us.
So instead of getting stubborn about our contribution to God’s choice (“God saw me in eternity choose Him in time”), we simply lay the foundational truth of God’s choice and love for us from eternity past. I can accept this truth without all my questions being answered.
“For salvation through sanctification” (2:13)
This phrase, “for salvation through sanctification” might seem contradictory as we often see salvation as instantaneous and sanctification as a process that follows salvation. The word “through” however, intimates sanctification is part of salvation, that is, the means by which it comes about (Greek en meaning “by” signifying instrumentality). This statement might shake up our concepts of salvation, but it is importantly brought to our attention.
But this is our advantage. If we slow down and accept the truths of God as presented. We will find small variants in passages like this which bring to light a deeper comprehension of a truth from what our minds might otherwise conclude. It is like trying to put a pair of high heels in a regular shoe box. You can try, but it is better to conclude one needs a larger box and look for a larger shoe box. But sometimes we favor certain pet verses rather than learning from each passage before us.
One main point here, then, is that salvation has everything to do with sanctification. Salvation is, so to speak, sanctification. Salvation, rightly understood, includes the declaring and making us holy before God (i.e., justification Rom 3:24) but we also must accept that without sanctification there is no salvation. “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). In practical terms, without holiness, no one shall see God. Salvation has everything to do with our holy transformation and so, this phrase properly leads us to preliminary state that anyone who professes salvation but cares not for God’s holy ways is probably not saved. But we need to be careful not to allow a word or phrase lead us beyond the truth it is clearly possible that we draw a wrong conclusion.
For example, a person might wrongly conclude that our salvation or security depends upon our holiness and the things we do. But Paul is not speaking about how salvation looks from our perspective here—our transformation—but His choice and how he assuredly carries it out, much like Paul does in Romans 8:28-39. We should, however, recognize that when God saves us, God will care also for those things about cleansing, change of heart, forgiveness, etc. Salvation clearly does only refer to the isolated decision to get us to heaven but involves rescuing us from our desperate plight, which can be inferred through the word salvation, including a thorough and adequate transformational process that pleases God (i.e., sanctification). Salvation can be described as a multi-faceted means God makes us holy and acceptable in His sight, starting with His choice and ending up in our faith.
“Through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” (2:13)
The apostle clearly states here that this sanctification occurs through two complementary ways. We should see that each plays an important part. But first, generally, note how the Spirit and the Word of Truth is again presented as a duet doing their powerful work. While the Word is presented as a seed, so the Spirit of God is seen as the water which brings new life to that seed (1 Pet 1:23). They work together, though presented separately. Even if they are differently presented in other parts of the scripture, we should recognize the Spirit of God works with the Word of God as this passage states.
“By the Spirit” highlights how God in His mysterious way works in the lives of His people through the Holy Spirit. So God, Himself, through His Spirit brings specific changes to the lives of His people that ensures sanctification that leads to salvation. There is an obvious inference that “The Spirit” is the Holy Spirit (i.e., commonly referred to as the “Holy Spirit”—92 times in the NASB).
The phrase, “And faith in the truth,” shows how this important truth of God is applied to our lives. Before, people might be concerned about our part in salvation, but here we see our faith in the truth becomes the essential way the Holy Spirit sanctifies us. It is important to understand how a person gains salvation—makes salvation his own. We see this at least partially answered here by the word “faith.” We believe, that is, have faith, and God’s Word is activated. We should not be too quick to assume this is all there is to the process. Other passages, such as in John 3:3-8 speak about how the Holy Spirit generates faith (i.e., born again; Eph 2:8). It is unclear how much God’s Spirit brought forth or had a bearing on our faith, but this verse should have us conclude that people should not call themselves believers until they believe. Faith is crucial to our salvation. We can hope people, perhaps our children, believe, but hoping one believes is not the same as that person believing. They can be part of our families (John 1:12-13) or churches, but without their own faith; the Word of God is not applied to their lives. The Spirit uses God’s Word to bring saving conviction.
At some point, God’s salvation begins to reveal its work both by our holy living, our inclination towards spiritual things, and our faith in the Gospel truths. I have no plans to work through verse 14 here, but it, in brief, restates the call and the renaming “The Truth” as the Gospel.
We ought to allow God’s Word to speak for itself rather than intercepting the truth with our doubts and narrow perspectives. We are not stating that our questions are invalid but that we need to first delve into God’s Word so that we accept and love God’s Word. Accept the accompanying truths of God’s love, His choice of us, the eternity of His choice, and the wonderful way He uses His Spirit and our faith in His word to sanctify us so that we are thoroughly saved for Him forever and that the glory of Jesus Christ remains in and about us.
So the best way to seek doctrinal accuracy is to love God’s Word and cherish the truth. Don’t just study 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 but all the other wonderful passages that speak deeply to all aspects of salvation. Look for passages like Ephesians 1 or Romans 8 that clearly interconnect the various aspects of the work of salvation. There will be apparent discrepancies as mentioned before, but how they relate to each will develop a grand perspective of salvation over time by the gracious teaching of the Holy Spirit. But your question mentioned two verses, so let us look at them in light of this larger set of verses which clearly speak about the broader salvation plan.
27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)
With 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 in our hearts and minds, then we can better see how other verses fit into the larger context of the whole redemption plan, though this set of verses is quite extensive itself, connecting various truths of salvation with each other.
John 10:27-28, at first glance, doesn’t seem to fit into the 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 at all, but as we begin to understand what is being said here, we begin to see how the two sets of verses might intersect. As we study further verses, our tentative conclusions become firmed up.
What would you say John’s purpose of these verses? Jesus wants us to understand that we belong to Him and that no outside force, no nothing, could threaten our status as His sheep. Jesus is the Shepherd who carefully watches over all of His people.
Here are some possible connection points with our 2 Thessalonians 2 passage. Perhaps, we can link “hear” in John 10:27 with “He called you” in 2 Th 2:14. God calls and we, at some point, hear and respond to His call. Again, we need not be conclusive at this point, but it is good to see how one passage fits with another.
“I know them” (John 10:27) seems to be similar to God’s choice of us from the beginning. Jesus is privy to God’s choice. Who the Father reveals as His chosen is something Jesus also knows. In the following verses, Jesus says the Father has given them to Him.
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 (John 10:29).
Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).
What about the phrase “faith in the truth” (2 Thes 2:13)? Do you see the similarity in Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear My voice.” “Faith in the truth” is similar to “hear My voice” both depicting our recognition and importance of God’s word.
In John 10 Jesus speaks clearly of eternal salvation from which the truth of eternal security can be properly understood. Note the process: Jesus speaks (calls), true sheep listen and follow. Each receives eternal life and a guarantee none will takes this from them. Eternal life is in fact for eternity. Once saved, always saved (though we recognize this does not answer a host of other questions that might arise).
Eternal security is only a small part of the whole redemptive package as seen in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Paul in the end of Romans 8 first articulates God’s eternal salvation plan (8:28-30) and then powerfully focuses on eternal security (8:31-39). Jesus speaks very specifically in John to assure them that hearing His voice is a sign that they are His forever (cf. Ps 23). We see the essential seed of faith by their response to Jesus’ words, His voice, and that sanctifying process taking place as the sheep follow the Shepherd. The whole aspect of salvation known as justification by faith is seen in the “hear.” It is not well-described at all here in John though Jesus does speak clearly about his life as a sacrifice: “Even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 15:10). While 2 Thes 2:13-14 did not address eternal life as clearly as John’s “give eternal life to them,” but we can see they gained faith in the truth which then reveals they are part of God’s eternal redemptive plan which He assuredly carries out.
So we see, in summary, that the passages don’t easily fit together with the same terms but that is only because John 10 works from a picture of the responsibilities of a shepherd but Paul more purposely describes the overarching process in 2 Thes 2:13-14 as well as in other places. Let’s look at the suggested counter truth.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:24-27)
How then does this set of verses in 1 Corinthians work with in parallel with the set of verses like those in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 which give us a framework of God’s eternal salvation plan? In the back of our minds, let us also keep Jesus’ words of eternal security from John 10 in our minds. The person gives 1 Corinthians 9 as a possible passage that appears to counter the teaching of eternal security. We assume the counter message is gathered from the fact that some might lose the race, thinking that we win or lose salvation depends on how we run.
But it is important to observe that these verses are not speaking about the salvation process at all. There is no mention of faith, the Gospel, salvation, heaven, eternity, hell, judgment or God’s choice—all key elements of salvation. So, at first sight, we should be very careful to apply 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 to the truth of eternal salvation. There is no common terminology, as stated above, and no larger context to help us draw that conclusion.
The larger context instead deals with Paul’s exhortation on how we should work hard in our lives to please God. Paul begins this discussion in 9:1 where he asks, “Am I not an apostle?” “Do we not have a right to eat and drink” (9:4)? So far from describing the security of a believer’s salvation, it distinctly describes the calling to live out a godly life once we are saved.
If we want to find the truth about the security of salvation, John 10 would serve as a more appropriate start. Begin with the clear passages and then, as needed, come to the verses that seem to offer a contrary point. There are other verses that give us an opportunity to question the truth of eternal security but not, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Paul here challenges us with living out our faith, giving his own life as an example. When he says he does “all these things for the sake of the gospel” (9:23), he is not referring to doing them to gain salvation but for the advance of the gospel among the lost.
So Paul, in a final answer, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-17 speaks not about the means of salvation but his earnestness in fulfilling the call of Christ Jesus to make Christ known. Our salvation is not dependent upon how hard we run but has everything to do with the reward in the end. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:11-23 helpfully differentiates Christian judgment from the judgment for unbelievers (ie, Judgment Day).
14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor 3:14-15)
Paul here clearly distinguishes between “be saved” (15) from “man’s work is burned up.” In other words, this discussion of judgment of our works is not about salvation but about rewards given to God’s people in eternity. Our work does not gain us salvation for salvation comes only by faith in Christ’s work for us on the cross and pleading His righteousness for us. Our life’s work, however, will face a judgment that determines the glory of our welfare through eternity. Paul thought much about this and so beat his body into submission (figuratively spoken-“buffet my body and make it my slave”-9:27) so that he may fulfill all the Lord wants for his life. Paul wanted to win the race and so should we!
These verses should not create a concern about our salvation or the security of our salvation because we fail Him in this or that matter. But we should be very concerned that we miss God’s greatest for our lives which is being determined on how we run that race. God sets each of our calling before us as a race. With endurance, a determined mind, and God’s abounding grace in our lives, we will win that race (not against others but compared against God’s calling for us) and gain His full reward for all eternity. Instead of letting fear of hell threaten us and motivate us to work hard serving others, we should work hard to please Him and show in earnest how much we appreciate Christ in our lives, seeking the special prize the Lord wants to award us. Our faithfulness in this age will be revealed forever in the age to come.
Final Summary for Eternal Security
So when we have some of those fundamental redemptive passages that interconnect the different parts of God’s vast eternal redemptive plan, then we will better see how to relate various truths to each other. When I wrote this, I was especially touched by the phrase “beloved by the Lord” (2 Th 2:13). I paused and delighted in His love for me. By doing that, I strengthened my faith in His love for me, recognizing He did all I needed for salvation through sending Jesus, His Son, to be the Savior and so I believed and even now delight in His love for me. Some verses might make me think my works have to do with earning salvation but clearly we see salvation does not depend on our works but upon Christ’s work for us on the cross and His righteousness. This later aspect is spoken clearly in other places (eg. Isaiah 53). Our works results from God’s calling and salvation (Eph 2:8-10), but that does not mean we will not be judged, but the judgment of believers is very different from that of unbelievers. Because of His great love for me, I want to “buffet my body” so that I can fully please Him through doing all that He designed me for.
- Why do Christians argue about the security of salvation?
- What is a better way to approach the differences of opinion on whether one is eternally saved or not? Why is that better?
- List some truths from 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 about the salvation process. Pause and delight in them and what they mean for you.
- List some truths from John 10:24-25 about the security of salvation. Pause and delight in what they mean for you.
- What does Paul want us to do from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27? How do we know if these verses relate to salvation or not?
- Advanced Project: Find five passages that provide an overarching perspective of salvation and show how the terms used compare with those used in the other passages.