In his book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greear tells the story of an unexpected encounter he had which challenged his understanding of Christian assurance:
“One afternoon I was at a local basketball court and started a pickup game with a guy I’d seen there a few times. He was quite a character – he cursed like a sailor and had so many tattoos on his body I wasn’t sure what the actual color of his skin was. He boasted continually about how many girls he was sleeping with. He wasn’t the kind of guy you’d suspect know his way around the Bible. “
“As we played our game, I began to share my story of how I came to Christ. About three sentences into it, he stopped, grabbed the ball, and said, “Dude, are you trying to witness to me?”
“Surprised he even knew the term witness, I said, “Uhhh…. well yes.”
“He said,” That’s awesome. No one has tried to witness to me in a long time… but don’t worry about me. I went to youth camp when I was thirteen and I asked Jesus to come into my heart. And I was legit. I became a super-Christian. I went to youth group every week, I did the “true love waits” commitment thing, I memorized verses, and I went on mission trips. I even led other friends to Jesus.”
“About two years after that, however, I discovered sex. And I didn’t like the idea of a god telling me who I could have sex with. So I decided to put God on hold for a while, and after a while just quiet believing in Him altogether. I’m a happy atheist now.”
“He then added: “But here’s what’s awesome: the church I grew up in was Southern Baptist, and they taught eternal security – that means ‘once saved, always saved.’ By the way, aren’t you a Baptist?”
*******awkward silence from me*******
“He went on, “That means that my salvation at age thirteen still holds, even if I don’t believe in God anymore. ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’, right? That means that even if you’re right, and God exists and Jesus is the only way, I’m safe!”
It is a good question. Can one who is truly converted or ‘born again’ lose their salvation? Does perseverance in the Christian life matter? What does the Bible say to these eternally important questions?
The Bible makes three affirmations in this regard: 1. Those who are truly born again will persevere to the end. 2. Only those who persevere to the end have been truly born again. 3. Those who do fall away may give many external signs of being born again or converted.
1. All Who Are Truly Born Again Will Persevere to the End
In John 6:38-40, Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me; and this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose none of all that He has given Me, but raise them up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Note the certainty in the language of this passage – Jesus will lose none, or no one, as it were. Jesus makes the emphatic statement that He will raise up Christians on the last day. It is not “He hopes” or “if all goes well.” And it’s not “if they hang in there and don’t lose their salvation.” He says that he will. That’s God making a promise.
Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall 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 my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Again, there is no ambiguity. No one – not other people, not Satan, not even we ourselves – can separate us from God once He has brought us to Himself.
Also, we see further evidence for this doctrine because God has placed His “seal” upon us: “In Him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13-14).
In the words of Romans 8:39 “…nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
2. Only Those Who Persevere to the End Have Been Truly Born Again
While the first point stresses the fact that God’s power will keep the one who has been born again until the end, the second point stresses the fact that the one who is truly saved will persevere until death. We must remember that God guarantees that those who are truly saved will make it. God does preserve the Christian in his faith – so perseverance is really a sign that one is truly a believer.
In John 8:31 Jesus says that, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Again, in Colossians we read that, “[God] has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body…in order to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.”
The point here is that remaining in faith is one of the clear signs that someone is truly in the fold. This idea is not meant to cause true believers fear or anxiety that because they struggle with a certain sin they have fallen away from God’s grace and are not truly saved. If we are saved by God’s grace and that is our basis, then we can be sure that we won’t fall away by our own works! Rather, it’s meant to call to account and warn those who have fallen away and continue in their sin and cease to exhibit the fruit of salvation.
One of the classic objections to the idea of perseverance is from the person who says, “I knew Person X, who was clearly a Christian, and he fell away.” This is a tough issue that I think will be clarified if we go on to briefly tease out another biblical statement about perseverance…
3. Those Who Finally Fall Away May Give Many External Signs of Conversion
In Jesus’ parable about the sower, the seed that was sown actually sprung up in several different places. The seed grew for a time in the rocky soil; it grew for a time in the thorny soil, and it flourished in the good soil. Listen to how Jesus explains those stony-ground and thorny-ground hearers of the gospel: “Some people are like seed sown on rocky places, they hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:15-17).
These are clearly not Christians, despite what might have been an encouraging appearance at the beginning. Whether these people are conscious “false brethren,” as Paul calls some who pretend to be Christians, purposefully being deceitful for whatever reason, or whether they are self-deceived in some way, thinking they are Christians when they’re not, these people can still outwardly look like genuine believers. In either case, though, Jesus is clear as to their fate: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me…” (Matt. 7:21-23)
Notice the language here; it’s not “I knew you and you turned from me,” it’s not “I no longer know you,” it is “I never knew you,” again driving home the idea that there is no such thing biblically as the loss of true salvation.
Back to “Person X” who was referenced earlier. In light of the above evidence, they either are a true Christian, in which case, upon struggling with a certain sin, they will return to the fold, or they were never a Christian to begin with. There are no other biblical alternatives. 1 John 2:19 sums this idea up well, “They went out from us, but they did not did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”