When I was a young Christian and didn’t yet understand much about my faith in Christ, I asked a friend who was in prison ministry, “Can a Christian lose his salvation?” He responded rather wisely with another question. He asked, “What do you want to get away with?”
I have found that when someone asks this question it’s often because they are holding onto something sinful that they don’t want to part with, or they are looking to do something they know is wrong.
To answer this question properly, it’s important that we understand what salvation is, how we acquire it, and how we keep it.
What is salvation?
The Hebrew term for salvation (yeshuʿah) literally means, “Rescue.” The question is, rescue from what?
Israel’s early understanding of salvation was based on their Exodus experience. “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again” (Exodus 14:13). Beyond this, the Israelites had several experiences with oppressive foreign government and ultimately, the exiles into foreign lands as God punished them for their sins. So, through their history, Israel’s understanding of salvation, or rescue, was a political one, and in some instances, a racial one.
Isaiah the prophet spoke of a future salvation that was broader than being saved from Egypt or exile. “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
If salvation goes to the ends of the earth, then its more than political or national deliverance. Since it encompasses the earth, there must be something common to everyone on earth that requires rescue. That something is sin. We all need rescue from sin and from the punishment of sin.
In the Old Testament, especially in Judges, the people could do nothing to save themselves from their enemies. They had to rely on God’s rescue plan for their deliverance. This prefigures our salvation today. We contribute nothing to our salvation. Jesus did all of the work. Our only role is to receive it.
Salvation, as we have come to understand, is primarily being saved from our sin, then being saved from the punishment of our sin. Because we are saved from sin, we no longer need to obey its temptations. “You too must count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
We need to be saved from our sin because sin keeps us from knowing and experiencing God. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18).
How we acquire salvation.
We receive Christ by grace through faith. Grace is receiving what we do not deserve. Mercy is not receiving what we deserve. We deserve death, mercy spares us. We deserve punishment. Grace gives us eternal life.
Faith is to trust God for our salvation. We have faith that he exists and loves us and desires to save us from our sin. Yet, notice the language used. Not only is grace a gift from God, but the very faith we exercise is also a gift. We don’t come upon it on our own. Look at Ephesians 2:8-9.
“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). Both grace and faith are gifts.
Salvation is a simple offer. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with your heart you believe and are justified, and with your mouth you confess and are saved” (Romans 10:9-10).
In a nutshell, there are four things we need for salvation: belief, repentance, confession, and receive.
- Belief, we must believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again.
- We must repent of our sin. There is no salvation without repentance.
- We must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
- Receive Christ.
We must also obey Jesus’ commands. Obedience doesn’t bring salvation, but it is one evidence that our faith in Jesus is genuine. God works our obedience through the Holy Spirit. Notice has Paul puts this in Philippians. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Notice that in the process we think we are working it out on our own, but in fact, “It is God who works in you.” So, grace and faith are God’s gifts. We don’t produce them, God does.
The evidence of our salvation.
So, what is the evidence of our salvation? In two words, Spiritual fruit. Notice the contract scripture makes between what is called the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and sorcery; hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:19-23).
A truly saved person lives the fruit of the Spirit. Ultimately, the natural behavior of a saved person is love. Jesus said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
There are other traits of a person who is saved, who is growing in love for the Lord.
- We talk about the Lord. Deuteronomy 6:7. “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
- Surround myself with things of the Lord. “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9).
- Love the scripture. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word…whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23-24).
- Bring my thoughts under the control of the Holy Spirit. “Take every thought captive to obey Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5).
- We want others to love the Lord. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The changing of our character is God’s work. And we must remember that the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit “of the Spirit.” IE, it comes from the Spirit, not from you.
God’s role in giving salvation.
God initiates the salvific relationship by drawing the sinner to himself. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
The scripture seems to state that no one initiates a salvific relationship with God, but that God must draw us first. “…both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:9-11).
So, anytime you see a person who is searching for God, or who expresses an interest in spiritual things, you can assume the Holy Spirit is trying to draw that person to Christ. When he draws us, the scripture says he convicts us of, “Sin, righteousness, and judgment to come” (John 16:8). By recognizing these things in our lives, we become convicted of our sin and the need for rescue.
Upon confession of Christ, the new Christian is sealed with the Holy Spirit. “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).
My role in receiving salvation.
Your role in salvation is simple: believe, repent, confess, receive.
Because there is nothing you can do to be saved, our role is limited. We do not work for salvation. No matter how good we think we are, we cannot earn it. So horrendous is sin in God’s sight that even if we were to die for another person that would not be enough to earn salvation. Salvation is a free gift given upon belief, repentance, confession, and receiving.
What is being saved?
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have been saved from our sin and from the eternal punishment for our sin. However, it’s important to know what is being saved and what does it look like to be in the process of salvation.
Salvation is not simply an event. Salvation is a process. Many people have prayed what is called, “The sinner’s prayer.” I once taught a men’s Bible study on spiritual growth. Suddenly, one of the men interrupted me and said, “Why do I have to learn this stuff? I prayed the prayer, I’m in!” You don’t pray a prayer and then you’re in. On the contrary, there are three parts of each person involved in the process of salvation.
- Our spirit is saved,
“…sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ…” (I Peter 1:2).
- Our mind is being saved, and
“We have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16). We are also commanded to renew our minds (Romans 12:1).
- Our bodies will be saved.
Our spirit is where the Holy Spirit resides. He seals us for salvation. Our spirits will not endure punishment for sin.
Our mind is in the process of being saved. Sometimes we think of sin, or dwell on sinful thoughts. Sometimes we succumb to them. Paul said that we must, “Bring every thought captive to obedience of Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5). He also said we must renew our minds (Romans 12:1).
Our bodies will be saved. Our current bodies are not prepared to enter Heaven. At the resurrection we will receive our bodies back, but they will be changed to look like Jesus’ resurrection body.
“What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:42-44).
The guarantee of my salvation.
I don’t guarantee my salvation, God does.
“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. 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 10:27-29).
Since salvation is a work of God, and since we do not add anything to make salvation possible, it is then guaranteed by God.
What we’ve learned so far is that we did nothing to receive salvation, therefore we can do nothing to lose it. Even if we sin again, and we will, God still forgives because we have given ourselves to Jesus Christ. But this brings up other issues. We all know people who used to claim Christ as theirs, but they seem to have walked away from the faith. What do we say about them?
When someone abandons salvation.
My dear friend Rick, disillusioned with church and some Christians, after 15 years abandoned his faith, and became a Buddhist. Rick mistook his disappointment with some Christians as if the entire church of Christ had failed in its mission. Thus, he blames the church for his disbelief and disobedience. His situation reminded me of Hebrews 6:4-6.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Now, this is not to say that a person can lose their salvation. In the case of my friend, and those like him, it’s more likely that they were involved in church, but didn’t seriously surrender their hearts to Jesus. I’ll deal with that further on. But let me give two examples from scripture.
There is a person in scripture of whom Hebrews 6 describes: Judas. He was enlightened by his time with Jesus. He tasted of the good things that Jesus offered. He traveled with the other disciples and cast out demons (a work of the Spirit). And he experienced the goodness of the word by listening to the teaching of Jesus.
Paul’s companion, Demas, is another such example (II Timothy 4:10). He experienced all these things with Paul, but eventually left him because, scripture says, he loved this present world. IE, Demas wanted to keep his sin.
If someone goes so far in their profession of faith and turns away, then there is little hope left for them.
There’s a similar though very different description of people who turn away after hearing the Gospel, but it is very different.
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-29).
This passage is about someone who rejects Christ after receiving the news about him. It’s not about a person who was saved and then turned away. It’s about someone who heard and rejected Christ rather than receiving him. Notice the phrase, “Receiving the knowledge of the truth.” IE, hearing about Jesus, but not having received him personally. Such a person can only await judgment. This passage is true of every person who hears the Gospel but decided not to follow Christ.
Looking saved but not really being saved.
The previously mentioned passage from Hebrews 6 would seem to describe someone who turns away from Christ after having received him. However, the Apostle John tells us that such a person may not have been saved in the first place.
“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” (I John 2:19).
This is where we need an understanding of what theologians call the visible church and the invisible church. The visible church are those people in the Christian community who appear to follow Christ and are involved with church and Christian things. However, not all who are in the visible church are really saved. There are plenty of pretenders or people visiting church that don’t know the Lord, but they are involved in the church. They are in the visible church.
The invisible church is everyone in Heaven and on Earth who have truly surrendered their lives to Christ whether they are alive with us now or are in Heaven. We can’t always tell if someone is part of the invisible church, so we always give people the benefit of the doubt. But there are many who have the appearance of being saved but may not be saved at all.
Ensuring you are really saved.
Since salvation comes by grace through faith, we should make every effort to ensure that we have surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ. It is not enough to just pray a simple prayer and then go on with life as if nothing has changed.
A truly saved person will be transformed to lead a truly saved life, just like the characteristics we discussed earlier.
If a person doesn’t exhibit the traits of a true believer, then it is likely that that person does not have Christ. The one who doesn’t have Christ doesn’t have the Father and if you don’t have the Father then you don’t have eternal life or forgiveness of your sin.
To clarify one thing, however, spiritual maturity takes time. You may meet someone who claims to be a Christian, but they may be holding on to some things from their old life. We must give them the benefit of the doubt and be patient. Sometimes it takes time to develop the spiritual maturity that a person needs.
Someone you know may need to read this. Please share.