Many Christians believe in a doctrine that asserts, “Once saved, always saved,” which means that a Christian can never forfeit or otherwise lose their eternal salvation.
Before continuing, we want to clarify what we mean when we use the term Christian. We define a Christian as someone who, at some time in their life, contritely (i.e., with an attitude of repentance) confessed their sins to God and sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. We believe that nothing else is necessary to become a Christian. Therefore, a person is not a Christian because they were born into a Christian family, because they are a church member, or even because they live by high moral standards. We are not insinuating that God does not care if a person is a church member or if they don’t have high moral standards. The Bible clearly indicates that God wants everyone to lead a holy life. [For a discussion of this matter, clink on “Can Anyone Except God Be Holy?”]
Note that we are using the term forfeit, rather than the term lose, with regard to the possibility that God may not allow some people to continue to have eternal salvation, even though these people were true Christians at one time in their life. Our reason for this distinction is that we think the term forfeit is somewhat more likely than the term lose to be associated specifically with deliberate sin, which is the basis for the belief that Christians can forfeit their salvation, particularly when they consciously divorce themselves from Jesus Christ as their Savior.
We also want to make it clear that many of the quotations we include from various sources are condensed versions of what these sources state with regard to the scriptures we are discussing. Our reason for condensing these quotations is to minimize commentary that is not pertinent in our attempt to answer the primary question posed by this article.
With only one exception, the sources we checked with regard to each of the six scripture passages discussed in the main text of this article are in agreement that Christians who do not faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation. In Appendix A that follows the main text, there is less agreement as to whether or not five other scripture passages indicate that Christians who do not faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
First Three Scripture Passages
Matthew 10:22b: [Jesus Christ said to His disciples,] “But he who endures to the end will be saved.”
Matthew 24:13: [Jesus Christ said to His disciples,] “But he who endures to the end shall be saved.”
Mark 13:13b: [Jesus Christ said to His disciples,] “But he who endures to the end shall be saved.”
[Note: Since the three preceding verses are virtually identical, what is stated about one is applicable to the other two also.]
Strong’s Concordance indicates that in many instances where the term “saved” is used in the Bible, it refers to temporal, rather than eternal, deliverance from danger, suffering, etc. However, all the following sources indicate that the three preceding scriptures attest that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation.
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says, “He that bears . . . unspeakable sufferings, and who does not shrink and apostatize, will give decisive evidence of attachment to me, and shall enter into heaven.” [Note: Apostasy is an abandoning of what one has believed in, as a faith.] Thus, Barnes infers that anyone who apostatizes will not have eternal salvation (i.e., not have eternal life).
Adam Clarke Commentary has a similar opinion, but does not explain what is meant by “hold fast faith and a good conscience.” Clarke says, “[T]hey who do not hold fast faith and a good conscience till death have no room to hope for an admission into the kingdom of God.”
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible likewise infers that Christians who don’t “stand fast in the [profession of their] faith” will not have eternal salvation, as indicated by the following comments:
But he that endureth to the end, shall be saved – [S]uch persons are happy, who patiently endure the hatred of men, and all manner of persecution, for Christ’s sake; who are not moved by the afflictions they suffer, but stand fast in the faith, hold fast the profession of it, go on in their Christian course, and hold out to the end; for such shall be saved, not only with a temporal salvation, as the Christians were at the destruction of Jerusalem, but with an eternal one.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible emphasizes that although Christians may sometimes not have an ardent faith, they must not “remain cold” lest they forfeit their eternal salvation, but he does not explain what is meant by “remain cold.”. Pett asserts,
[T]hose who would finally be saved must persevere. Endurance is required of [Jesus Christ’s] followers. This does not mean that all who grow cold are lost, for at times all, even the best, grow cold. It is those who remain cold because the work of the Spirit is not taking place within their hearts . . . who will be lost.
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible also indicates that Christians need to persevere in order to have eternal salvation, but fails to explain what this entails. Poole declares,
There shall be an end of these sufferings, if they end not in your lifetime they will end with your lives, and if you continue to the end you shall be saved. It is neither true patience, nor will it be profitable, if it holdeth not out to the end.
The Pulpit Commentaries similarly states, “[There is both] the absolute necessity of endurance and the certainty of blessing to him who shows it. . . ,” but does not indicate what is required to demonstrate endurance.
In our opinion, the first three scripture verses are sufficiently clear that Jesus Christ was stating that Christians will have eternal life only if endure in their faith (i.e., their trust in Him) until their earthly death.
Fourth Scripture Passage
Matthew 10:33: [Jesus Christ said to His disciples] “[W]hoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”
With regard to this scripture, all the following commentaries indicate that people who deny Jesus Christ (i.e., do not associate themselves with Him and His teachings) will not be regarded by Him as His faithful followers and, as a result, He will deny them (i.e., not be their Savior and Mediator) before God the Father. This implies that the sins of those who deny Christ will not be forgiven and, as a result, they will not receive eternal salvation. Three of these commentaries postulate that, unlike the behavior of Peter, whose denial of Christ was only temporary, the behavior of the people addressed in this scripture is ongoing.
In regard to Matthew 10:33, Barnes declares,
We must be ashamed neither of the person, the character, the doctrines, nor the requirements of Christ. If we are; if we deny him in these things before people; if we are unwilling to express our attachment to him in every way possible, then it is right that he should “disown all connection with us,” or deny us before God, and he will do it.
Gill offers the following comments in regard to the same scripture:
But whosoever shall deny me before men,…. Deny that he is a disciple of Christ, and that Christ is his Lord and master, act contrary to him. . . .
Some regard may be had here to Peter’s after denial of Christ; and this proviso be supposed, “except he repent”, as he did. Moreover, to deny Christ, is to drop, or oppose any of those truths which regard his person, office, and grace; or to hide and conceal them from men, through fear, shame, or cowardice of mind: and even not to confess him, through fear of men, is interpreted, by Christ, a denial of him; and such who deny him in any form and shape, either by words or deeds. . . .
will I also deny before my Father which is heaven; he will deny them to be disciples, or that they belong to him; he will deny that he ever knew them, loved or approved of them; he will declare in the presence of his Father, his disapprobation of them, his indignation against them, that they are workers of iniquity; yea, he will do more, he will banish them from his presence, and send them into everlasting burnings.
Henry, in reference to Matthew 10:33,, asserts,
It is a dangerous thing for any to deny and disown Christ before men for they who so do will be disowned by him in the great day, when they have most need of him: he will not own them for his servants who would not own him for their master. . . .
With regard to the same scripture, Poole declares,
Christ requireth of us not only a believing on him, but an external profession: nor that only, but a confession of him, which signifieth a profession of him and his gospel in the face of opposition and enemies (see Romans 10:10; 2 Timothy 2:12). It is dangerous, either through shame or fear, to withhold our public owning and acknowledgment of Christ, and his truths, when we are called to it; much more to deny them; but the guilt is greater when it is through shame, for where fear is the cause the temptation is more high [sic]. This text must be understood of those who persist in such denial, for Peter denied his Master, yet was graciously upon his repentance received by him.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says in reference to Matthew 10:33, “The Greek tense . . . refers not to one moment of denial (e.g., Peter’s), but to the life in its entirety, which Christ is capable of assessing precisely.”
Although some people may argue that Matthew 10:33 pertains to people who never were true Christians, this scripture does not support such a point of view. In fact, the previous verse states, “[W]hoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven,” which suggests that Jesus Christ was referring to Christians in general and explaining that they needed to continue to be faithful if they wanted to be sure that they would have eternal salvation.
Fifth Scripture Passage
Colossians 1:21-23a: And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight – if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard. . . .
With only one exception, all of the following sources indicate that Colossians 1:21-23a attests that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation.
Barnes says it is impossible for Christians to be saved if they don’t remain faithful to the gospel, but does not provide an explanation of what is necessary to “lead lives becoming the gospel.” According to Barnes,
If ye continue in the faith – In the belief of the gospel, and in holy living. If this were done, they would be presented unblameable [sic] before God; if not, they would not be. The meaning is, that it will be impossible to be saved unless we continue to lead lives becoming the gospel.
Likewise, John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible does not explain what is required to persevere “in the purity of the gospel” so that a Christian will not forfeit eternal salvation. Calvin states,
If ye continue. Here we have an exhortation to perseverance, by which he admonishes [the Colossians] that all the grace that had been conferred upon them hitherto would be vain, unless they persevered in the purity of the gospel. . . . Now he paints in lively colors assurance of faith when he bids the Colossians be grounded and settled in it. . . . He afterwards takes notice also of a relationship which subsists between faith and the gospel, when he says that the Colossians will be settled in the faith only in the event of their not falling back from the hope of the gospel; that is, the hope which shines forth upon us through means of the gospel, for where the gospel is, there is the hope of everlasting salvation.
Clarke’s takes the position that continuing faith, rather than continuing good deeds, is necessary for Christians (“those who already believed in Christ Jesus”) to have eternal salvation. Clarke says,
None can enjoy heaven who have not been reconciled to God here, and shown forth the fruits of that reconciliation in being made holy and unblamable [sic], that, when they come to be judged, they may be found unreprovable [sic].
This will be the case if you, who have already believed in Christ Jesus, continue in that faith, grounded in the knowledge and love of God, and settled – made firm and perseveringly steadfast, in that state of salvation.
Gill agrees with Clarke, as indicated by the following:
If ye continue in the faith – In the doctrine of faith which they had received and embraced; and in the grace of faith, and the exercise of it which was implanted in them; and in the profession of faith which they had made: not that the virtue and efficacy of Christ’s blood, sufferings, and death, and reconciliation of their persons to God thereby, depended upon their faith, and abiding in it; but that faith and continuance in it were necessary means of their presentation in unblemished holiness and righteousness; for if they had not faith, or did not abide in it or if the good work of grace was not wrought upon their souls, and that performed until the day of Christ, they could not be presented holy and blameless: this shows the necessity of the saints’ final perseverance in faith and holiness. . . .
David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible also emphasizes the necessity of continuing faith for Christians to have eternal salvation. Guzik declares,
Those truly reconciled must truly persevere. . . . It is important for Christians to continue in godly conduct, but we are not saved by our godly conduct. So it is even more important for Christians to continue in the truth of the gospel because we are saved by grace through faith.
Poole is another source that asserts that Christians (“believers”) must persevere in their faith in order to have eternal salvation. According to Poole,
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settle – [T]his if doth not import the believers’ continuance in faith to depend merely upon their own free-will, or a carnal doubting of being kept to salvation, . . . but infers that they are then reconciled to God when they do indeed persevere in the faith; implying that by reason of the seducers amongst them all and every one might not really have that sound faith they would be thought to have.
And, on page 4 of a pamphlet entitled “Falling from Grace,” James M. Tolle also believes that continued faith is necessary for Christians to have eternal salvation. Tolle argues,
For the Christian to be presented as finally approved of God, Paul states that it depends upon his continuing in the faith. If, however, it is impossible for a child of God to lose his faith, then the foregoing exhortation is needless, even ridiculous. But the apostle exhorts us to continue in the faith because it is entirely possible for us to give up the faith.
In contrast to all of the previous sources, Pett indicates that Colossians 1:21-23a does not apply to genuine Christians. According to Pett,
Final perseverance is the test of the genuineness of faith and the resultant salvation. . . . [T]heir assurance rests on two things. It rests on their faith in the reliability of the Saviour, and on the evidence of their continuation in ‘the faith’, the truth as revealed in Jesus, firmly grounded, and faithful and steadfast. Those who move away from ‘the hope’ of the Gospel, the expectation of their final presentation in unreproachable perfection, and cease to live lives approved unto God, only prove thereby that they had never truly believed.
In our opinion, Pett is unrealistic in his thinking. Even people who were at one time in their life true Christians may, for one or more reasons, turn away from their former Christian beliefs.
As with the first three verses of scripture, we believe Colossians 1:21-23a is sufficiently clear that the apostle Paul was stating that Christians will have eternal life only if endure in their faith (i.e., their trust in Him) until their earthly death.
Sixth Scripture Passage
Hebrews 10:26-27: For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
The subsequent sources all indicate this scripture passage attests that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation.
The following lengthy explanation by Barnes states clearly that Hebrews 10:26-27 indicates that formerly “true Christians” who deliberately abandon their religion (i.e., apostatize) can forfeit their eternal salvation:
For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth – If after we are converted and become true Christians we should apostatize, it would be impossible to be recovered again, for there would be no other sacrifice for sin; no way by which we could be saved. This passage, however, like Hebrews 6:4-6, has given rise to much difference of opinion. But that the above is the correct interpretation, seems evident . . . from the following considerations:
It is the natural and obvious interpretation . . . .
It accords with the scope of the Epistle, which is, to keep those whom the [writer of Hebrews] addressed from returning again to the Jewish religion, under the trials to which they were subjected.
It is in accordance with the fair meaning of the language – the words “after that we have received the knowledge of the truth,” referring more naturally to true conversion than to any other state of mind.
The sentiment would not be correct if it referred to any but real Christians. It would not be true that one who had been somewhat enlightened, and who then sinned “wilfully,” [sic] must look on fearfully to the judgment without a possibility of being saved. . . .
It is true . . . that if a sincere Christian should apostatize he could never be converted again. . . . The reasons are obvious. He would have tried the only plan of salvation, and it would have failed. He would have embraced the Saviour, and there would not have been efficacy enough in his blood to keep him, and there would be no more powerful Saviour and no more efficacious blood of atonement. He would have renounced the Holy Spirit, and would have shown that his influences were not effectual to keep him, and there would be no other agent of greater power to renew and save him after he had apostatized. For these reasons it seems clear . . . that this passage refers to true Christians, and that the doctrine here taught is, that if such a one should apostatize, he must look forward only to the terrors of the judgment, and to final condemnation.
Whether this in fact ever occurs, is quite another question. . . . The word rendered “wilfully” [sic] . . . properly means, “willingly, voluntarily, of our own accord.” . . . It is not to be construed here strictly, or metaphysically, for all sin is voluntary, or is committed willingly, but must refer to a deliberate act, where a man means to abandon his religion, and to turn away from God. If it were to be taken with metaphysical exactness, it would demonstrate that every Christian who ever does anything wrong, no matter how small, would be lost.
But this cannot, from the nature of the case, be the meaning. The [writer of Hebrews] well knew that Christians do commit such sins. . . . [He] here . . . means to speak of a decided and deliberate purpose to break away from the restraints and obligations of the Christian religion.
There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins – Should a man do this, there is no sacrifice for sins which could save him. He would have rejected deliberately the only atonement made for sin, and there will be no other made. . . .
But a certain fearful looking for of judgment – The word “certain” here does not mean “fixed, sure, inevitable,” as our translation would seem to imply.. . . The idea is, that if there was voluntary apostasy after having embraced the Christian religion, there could be nothing but an expectation of the judgment to come. There could be no other hope but that through the gospel, and as this would have been renounced, it would follow that the soul must perish.
Calvin takes the position that the scripture verse in question pertains specifically to apostate Christians. According to Calvin,
Those who sin . . . are not such as offend in any way, but such as forsake the Church, and wholly alienate themselves from Christ. . . . [T]here is a vast difference between particular fallings and a complete defection of this kind, by which we entirely fall away from the grace of Christ. And as this cannot be the case with anyone except he has been already enlightened, he says, If we sin willfully, after that we have received the knowledge of the truth; as though he had said, “If we knowingly and willingly renounce the grace which we had obtained.”
And that the [writer of Hebrews] here refers only to apostates is clear from the whole passage; for what he treats of is this, that those who had been once received into the Church ought not to forsake it, as some were wont to do. He now declares that there remained for such no sacrifice for sin, because they had willfully sinned after having received the knowledge of the truth. But as to sinners who fall in any other way, Christ offers himself daily to them, so that they are to seek no other sacrifice for expiating their sins. He denies, then, that any sacrifice remains for them who renounce the death of Christ, which is not done by any offense except by a total renunciation of the faith.
God invites to daily reconciliation those who abide in Christ; they are daily washed by the blood of Christ, their sins are daily expiated by his perpetual sacrifice. As salvation is not to be sought except in him, there is no need to wonder that all those who willfully forsake him are deprived of every hope of pardon. . . . But Christ’s sacrifice is efficacious to the godly even to death, though they often sin; nay, it retains ever its efficacy, for this very reason, because they cannot be free from sin as long as they dwell in the flesh.
Hereby is also confirmed . . . that the [writer of Hebrews] speaks not of particular sins, but of the entire denial of Christ; for the Law did not punish all kinds of transgressions with death, but apostasy, that is, when any one wholly renounced religion. . . .
Clarke emphasizes that the passage refers to Christians who have “utterly rejected Jesus Christ and his atonement” after having been “convinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah,” and has “nothing to do with backsliders.” Clark says,
If we deliberately, for fear of persecution or from any other motive, renounce the profession of the Gospel and the Author of that Gospel, after having received the knowledge of the truth so as to be convinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah; . . . for such there remaineth no sacrifice for sins; . . . Jesus being now the only sacrifice which God will accept, those who reject him have none other; therefore their case must be utterly without remedy. . . . [T]he case is that of a deliberate apostate – one who has utterly rejected Jesus Christ and his atonement, and renounced the whole Gospel system. It has nothing to do with backsliders in our common use of that term. A man may be overtaken in a fault, or he may deliberately go into sin, and yet neither renounce the Gospel, nor deny the Lord that bought him. His case is dreary and dangerous, but it is not hopeless; no case is hopeless but that of the deliberate apostate, who rejects the whole Gospel system, after having been saved by grace, or convinced of the truth of the Gospel.
Gill expresses the belief that the Christians to whom this passage refers are those who after having “embraced and professed the truths of the Gospel,” resolutely and obstinately not only engage in voluntary sins, but also reach the point where they stubbornly deny that Jesus Christ is the only Savior. Gill explains,
For if we sin willfully – Which is not to be understood of a single act of sin, but rather of a course of sinning; nor of sins of infirmity through temptation, or even of grosser acts of sin, but of voluntary ones; and not of all voluntary ones, or in which the will is engaged and concerned, but of such which are done on set purpose, resolutely and obstinately; and not of immoral practices, but of corrupt principles, and acting according to them; it intends a total apostasy from the truth, against light and evidence, joined with obstinacy.
There remaineth no more sacrifice for sin – [M]eaning, not typical sacrifice; . . . but the sacrifice of Christ, which will never be repeated; . . . there will be no other Saviour; there is no salvation in any other, nor any other name whereby we must be saved. . . .[T]he true sense of the whole is this, that after men have embraced and professed the truths of the Gospel, and particularly this great truth of it, that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of men by his blood and sacrifice; and yet after this, against all evidence, all the light and convictions of their own consciences, they wilfully [sic] deny this truth, and obstinately persist in the denial of it; seeing there is no more, no other sacrifice for sin, no other Saviour, nor any salvation in any other way. . . .
Guzik similarly states that “a knowing deliberate rejection” of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, not backsliding, is the reason why Christians can forfeit their eternal salvation. According to Guzik,
For if we sin willfully: To sin willfully is defined in Hebrews 10:29. It speaks of someone who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace. It is a knowing, deliberate rejection of Jesus’ great work for us on the cross.
It has nothing to do with backsliders in our common use of that term. A man may be overtaken in a fault, or he may deliberately go into sin, and yet neither renounce the Gospel, nor deny the Lord that bought him.
There no longer remains a sacrifice for sins: If Jesus’ sacrifice for sin is rejected, there remains no other sacrifice that can cleanse.
The perspective of Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible regarding what causes Christians to forfeit their eternal salvation is similar to that of Gill, as indicated by the following:
From the description [the writer of Hebrews] gives of the sin of apostasy. It is sinning willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, sinning willfully against that truth of which we have had convincing evidence. . . . The sin here mentioned is a total and final apostasy, when men with a full and fixed will and resolution despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour — despise and resist the Spirit, the only sanctifier — and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life and all this after they have known, owned, and professed, the Christian religion, and continue to do so obstinately and maliciously.
From the dreadful doom of such apostates. (1.) There remains no more sacrifice for such sins, no other Christ to come to save such sinners they sin against the last resort and remedy. . . . [T]hose under the gospel who will not accept of Christ, that they may be saved by him, have no other refuge left them. (2.) There remains for them only a certain fearful looking for of judgment. . . .
The following comments by Pett emphasize that the sin that results in forfeiting eternal salvation is deliberate and continual:
‘If we are those who sin willfully.’ The verb means to do something willingly, without constraint. . . .
[S]uch sin is nowhere else called ‘willful sin’ and the verses that follow do seem to suggest a sinning which is of unusual severity. Furthermore the opposite of willful . . . sin, which is . . . sin done unwittingly or in error. . . . But finally the meaning of the phrase is surely made clear by the following verses, it means deliberately with considered forethought setting Christ at naught by continual, open rejection (Hebrews 10:28-29). It is a rejection after receiving the full knowledge of the truth.
The present tense indicates a continual state. Such people have chosen this way of sin in which they are found and are intent on persevering in it.
‘After that we have received the knowledge of the truth.’ The emphasis here is on the fact that the sin is in full knowledge or possibly a philosophical knowledge . . . of the truth . . . It is not a sin done in ignorance or in a moment of weakness, or while in absolute darkness, it is a deliberate turning of the back on ‘the truth.’. . . It is a considered rejection of what it once professed.
Poole indicates that Christians who renounce their previous profession of the truth of the gospel will forfeit their eternal salvation, stating,
If we sin willfully – [I]f we by a free and spontaneous desertion of Christ, and his ordinances, . . . and this after we had professedly in our judgments, wills, and affections, with faith and reverence, acknowledged a love and subjection to the true gospel doctrine. . . which was made known to them by Christ and his apostles. . . .
After that we have received the knowledge of the truth – [A]fter all this, to renounce the profession of it, and to forsake the assemblies where it is held forth; this is the spontaneous and willful sinning (see Hebrews 6:6).
There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins – [T]his is unpardonable by the just constitution of God in the gospel, because no sacrifice can atone God for them, without which they cannot be pardoned; and the sacrifice of Christ, which only could do it, they renounce and desert; and so this, nor any other they can bring, can procure pardon for them. . . .
Tolle argues, as follows, on page 16 of his pamphlet that the scripture passage in question describes spiritual death for Christians who apostatize:
The text clearly portrays the results of apostasy: “A fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire,” a “much sorer punishment” than death “without compassion” under the law of Moses. If this is not a description of spiritual death, eternal punishment in hell, what is it?
We do not think Hebrews 10:26-27 is as clear as the previous five scriptures as to whether or not it pertains to Christians, as well as to non-Christians. Although this verse may refer to someone who has only heard and understood the gospel (i.e., not trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation), it could refer to a genuine Christian who continues in willful sin. However, the consensus of the sources we have quoted is that this scripture passaged does pertain to Christians.
Although many Christians cite certain scriptures to support their belief that genuine Christians cannot lose their eternal salvation, we have considered most, if not all, of those scriptures and do not regard them as convincing in support of such a belief. Appendix B provides our brief comments on a number of scriptures that allegedly support the belief that Christians cannot forfeit their eternal salvation.
In our opinion, there is no scripture in the Bible that supports the belief that genuine Christians would not completely lose their faith (i.e., that the loss of faith of a genuine Christian would be only temporary). There are a number of circumstances that could lead to a continuing loss of faith for a genuine Christian, most of which probably would involve anger at God, disappointment with God and/or other Christians, or an inability to understand why God allows certain things to happen, such as the death of someone they dearly love.
We think the scripture passages we have discussed provide compelling reasons to believe that Christians can forfeit their eternal salvation if they completely reject Jesus Christ as their Savior, after having previously been genuine believers. This may not be reflected by a change in their moral behavior, since at least some of these people may seek to live what other people generally regard as a moral life, even after rejecting Jesus Christ.
We believe the most important factor in retaining eternal salvation is whether or not a person who was a Christian completely rejects Jesus Christ as their Savior, rather than whether or not they persistently live a moral life. This is consistent with the following reasoning. The Bible provides no indication as to which types of sins and/or how many sins would cause a Christian to be denied eternal salvation. As a result, there would be no way for a Christian to have assurance of their eternal salvation. This would be contrary to what the Bible teaches in this regard, as discussed in our article entitled “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?” [To read that article, click on its title.]
In contrast, a person who has been a Christian can know if they have completely lost their faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, if a Christian realizes that they are losing their faith, it would be wise for that person to do whatever is necessary to restore their faith.
The Bible indicates that there is only one unpardonable sin, and that sin does not involve temporarily losing faith in Jesus Christ after having previously trusted in Him for eternal salvation. [See our article entitled “What Is the Unpardonable Sin?”] Therefore, a person who only temporarily loses their trust in Christ can be forgiven for committing that sin, if they are truly repentant in that regard.
People who have trusted in Christ, but are concerned about their eternal salvation as a result of what is discussed in this article, should take comfort in the following comments by The Pulpit Commentaries: “[T]he very state of mind of those who entertain such fears is a sign that they are not of those to whom [the biblical text on this matter] applies. They cannot have entirely fallen from grace, if they have the grace to repent and long for pardon.” Likewise, Pett asserts, “To any who fear that they might be in this sad situation we can only say that the very fact that you fear it suggests that you are not in it.”
[For anyone who thinks they need assistance in restoring their Christian faith, several of our other articles under the broad heading of “Biblical Matters” may be helpful.]
Other Scriptures that May Indicate Christians Can Forfeit Their Eternal Salvation
In addition to the six scripture passages that we have already discussed, there are others that are associated with the question of whether or not Christians can forfeit their eternal salvation. However, there is less agreement among the sources that comment on these scriptures as to the conclusion that can be drawn. This Appendix considers several such scriptures.
Romans 2:6-7: [God] “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality. . . . [Note: The quote in this scripture passage is actually a loose paraphrasing of Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12.]
The first five sources mentioned below support the belief that Romans 2:6-7 attests that Christians who do not faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation, but two other sources do not agree.
A footnote in the NIV Bible says, “Paul is not contradicting his continual emphasis in all his writings . . . that people are saved not by what they do but by faith in what Christ has done for them. Paul is referring to “persistence in doing good” as the proof of genuine faith. . . .”
Barnes believes that “none will be saved but those who persevere in a life of holiness,” but he does not explain what constitutes a life of holiness. According to Barnes,
Who will render – That is, [God] will make retribution as a righteous Judge; or who will give to every man as he deserves.
According to his deeds – The word “deeds” . . . denotes everything connected with conduct, including the acts of the mind, the motives, the principles, as well as the mere external act. . . . Christians will be saved on account of the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ, . . . but still the rewards of heaven will be according to their works; that is, they who have labored most, and been most faithful, shall receive the highest reward. . . .
Patient continuance – It means that they who so continue, or persevere, in good works as to evince that they are disposed to obey the Law of God. . . . It is the uniform doctrine of the Bible that none will be saved but those who persevere in a life of holiness. . . . Nor has God ever promised eternal life to people unless they so persevere in a life of holiness. . . .
Clarke states, “[God] will give eternal life to them who, in all the trials and difficulties of the present state, have persevered in well doing . . . ,” but Clarke does not explain what he means by the phrase “persevered in well doing.”
Gill mentions “good works” as necessary, along with belief in Jesus Christ, for a person to inherit eternal salvation, but provides no perspective as to the nature of the good works or their extent. According to Gill,
[T]he judgment will be general to all, it will be special to everyone, and will proceed according to their works; for God will render to wicked men according to the demerit of their sins, the just recompense of reward, eternal damnation; and to good men eternal life, not according to the merit of their good works, which have none in them, but according to the nature of them; such who believe in Christ, and perform good works from a principle of grace, shall receive the reward of the inheritance, which is a reward of grace, and not of debt.
Henry likewise offers no explanation as to what he means when he refers to perseverance and well-doing as being necessary to “win the crown.” Henry asserts,
Those whom the righteous God will reward are, First, Such as fix to themselves the right end, that seek for glory, and honour, and immortality that is, the glory and honour which are immortal-acceptance with God here and for ever. . . . Secondly, Such as, having fixed the right end, adhere to the right way: A patient continuance in well-doing. There must be well-doing, working good. . . . It is not enough to know well, and speak well, and profess well, and promise well, but we must do well: do that which is good, not only for the matter of it, but for the manner of it. We must do it well. A continuance in well-doing. . . . [W]e must endure to the end: it is perseverance that wins the crown. . . . Heaven is life, eternal life, and it is the reward of those that patiently continue in well-doing. . . .
In contrast with the previous five sources, Pett takes the position that no one can always be faithful and that Romans 2:6-7 depicts an ideal person. Pett says,
For God will in that day render to those who by patient endurance in well-doing seek for glory (from God) and honour (in God’s eyes) and incorruption, eternal life. . . . But his picture here is of the ideal man whose whole heart is set on well-doing in the expectation of glory and honour from God, and of final incorruption. Such a man lives only to please God. His whole heart is set on God. He never strays from his course for an instant. His only concern is what is good and true and will please God. Such a one will receive eternal life. We notice, of course, that he is a believer, for only a believer would think in these terms. But he is also a dream of what man ought to be. . . . [T]here is only One Who has ever truly lived like this from the cradle to the grave, only One Who by doing so has deserved eternal life, and that is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Paul is therefore depicting a life which is outside the range of all but One. He is describing the ‘impossible.’
In considering all this we must recognise [sic] what Paul is doing. He is not outlining the way to eternal life which he expects anyone to strive to achieve, but is building up his case that all men are equally sinful in God’s eyes. On the basis of this, what he is describing is to be seen as in fact impossible.
In regard to the same scripture passage, the following comments by The Pulpit Commentaries indicate that the passage does not pertain to the eternal salvation of Christians, but instead pertains to their rewards:
Who will render to every man according to his works – This assertion is no contradiction of the main portion of the Epistle as it proceeds, as to justification being not of works; the phrase here being, not on account of his works, but according to them. . . . The ground of justification is not here involved. All that is asserted is what is essential to any true conception of God’s justice, viz. that he [i.e., God] has regard to what men are in assigning reward or punishment; it is what is given in Hebrews 11:6 as a first principle of faith about God, “that he is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
Hebrews 6:4-6: For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
Some scholars believe Hebrews 6:4-6 refers to Christians, while other scholars think it refers to non-Christians. The first five of the following sources believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 attests that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation, but the subsequent four sources believe otherwise. And, the last two sources indicate the passage could refer to either Christians or non-Christians.
Barnes makes clear his belief that if a true Christian apostatizes, it would not be possible for that person to regain their eternal salvation. He declares,
[The passage] refers to true Christians; that the object is to keep them from apostasy, and that it teaches that if they should apostatize, it would be impossible to renew them again or to save them. That it refers to true Christians will be apparent from these considerations.
- Unless there were some theory to defend, the great body of readers of the New Testament would consider the expression used here as describing true Christians.
- The apostle was addressing Christians. He was endeavoring to keep them from apostasy. The object was not to keep those who were awakened and enlightened from apostasy, but it was to preserve those who were already in the Church of Christ, from going back to perdition.
- This interpretation accords . . . with the exact meaning of the phrases which the [writer of Hebrews] uses. An examination of those phrases will show that he refers to those who are sincere believers. The phrase “it is impossible” obviously and properly denotes absolute impossibility. It has been contended . . . that it denotes only great difficulty. But the meaning which would at first strike all readers would be that “the thing could not be done;” that it was not merely very difficult, but absolutely impracticable.
These [verses] show that it is not merely a great difficulty to which the [writer of Hebrews] refers, but that he meant to say that the thing was wholly impracticable; that it could not be done. And if this be the meaning, then it proves that if those referred to should fall away, they could never be renewed. Their case was hopeless, and they must perish: that is, if a true Christian should apostatize, or fall from grace, “he never could be renewed again,” and could not be saved.
The word rendered “fall away” means . . . undoubtedly to “apostatize from,” and implies an entire renunciation of Christianity, or a going back to a state of Judaism, paganism, or sin. . . .
Likewise, Calvin states,
[The writer of Hebrews] . . refers to a total defection or falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.
[H]e falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavens or gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God. We now see whom he excluded from the hope of pardon, even the apostates who alienated themselves from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God. . . .
But when any one rises up again after falling, we may hence conclude that he had not been guilty of defection, however grievously he may have sinned.
Clarke similarly believes that the scripture passage in question does not pertain to anyone who continues to profess Christianity, even backsliders, but instead pertains to people who have rejected Christianity. However, Clarke does not make it clear if he thinks that those who have rejected Christianity include people who previously were true Christians. He asserts,
I do not consider [these verses] as having any reference to any person professing Christianity.
- They do not belong, nor are they applicable, to backsliders of any kind.
- They belong to apostates from Christianity; to such as reject the whole Christian system, and its author, the Lord Jesus.
- No man believing in the Lord Jesus as the great sacrifice for sin, and acknowledging Christianity as a Divine revelation, is here intended, though he may have unfortunately backslidden from any degree of the salvation of God.
Poole believes Hebrews 6:4-6 pertains to Christians who have forsaken their “professed Christian state.” According to Poole,
For it is impossible – [N]ot in respect of God’s absolute and almighty power, but in respect of any created power in others or themselves. . . .
For those who were once enlightened – These are such who are instructed in the principles of the Christian religion, and brought out of the darkness and ignorance of Judaism and heathenism. . . .
If they shall fall away – [A] falling away, or apostatizing. . . . They freely forsake their professed Christian state.. . .
To renew them again unto repentance – [T]hey cannot renew and bring themselves to the same state they enjoyed, and from which they fell. . . .
The following comments by The Pulpit Commentaries infer that the scripture passage in question refers to true Christians (i.e., people who enjoyed “the gifts of grace”), but have fallen away (i.e., apostatized):
The process intimated is that of complete apostasy from the faith after real conscious enjoyment of the gifts of grace. . . . [T]hose whom it is impossible to renew unto repentance are supposed not only to have been enlightened, but also to have “tasted of the heavenly gift;”. . . they have had experience as well as knowledge. . . . The falling away . . . after such enlightenment and such experience means . . . total apostasy from the faith. . . . Be it observed next what is said of those who do this—not that no repentance can henceforth avail them, but that even unto repentance it is impossible to renew them. Such falling away after such experience precludes the possibility of repentance. On such persons the powers of grace have been exhausted.
In contrast with the previous five sources, Gleason L. Archer, on page 420 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, asserts,
The believer who receives Jesus as Lord in all sincerity and truth will never sincerely or willingly go back into the practice of sin, will never “trample on the Son of God” . . .; he will never regard His shed blood as unholy or profane . . ., and will never wantonly insult the Holy Spirit. Anyone who can bring himself around to that kind of ungodliness and contempt toward his divine Savior never gave his heart to Him in the first place. Like Judas, he may have thought that he would just “try Jesus” and see how he liked Him, and whether he would obtain from Him the advantages and blessings he craved for himself and for his own sake. Since he never really faced up to the claims of Christ to total lordship over his life, he was a mere counterfeit Christian right from the start.
Likewise, Gill argues that Hebrews 6:4-6 does not pertain to the eternal salvation of Christians who don’t faithfully persevere, but rather to people who have never genuinely repented. According to Gill,
And were made partakers of the Holy Ghost – [A] believer indeed may be without the sensible presence of the Spirit; the graces of the Spirit may be very low, as to their exercise; and they may not enjoy his comforts, gracious influences, and divine assistance; but the Spirit of God never is, in the above sense, in a castaway; where he takes up his dwelling, he never quits it. . . .
If they shall fall away,…. This is not supposed of true believers . . . nor is it to be supposed of them that they may fall totally and finally; they may indeed fall, not only into afflictions and temptations, but into sin; and from a lively and comfortable exercise of grace, and from a degree of steadfastness in the Gospel; but not irrecoverably. . . .
To renew them again unto repentance – [T]o be renewed “again” to repentance does not suppose that persons may have true repentance and lose it; for though truly penitent persons may lose the exercise of this grace for a time, yet the grace itself can never be lost: moreover, these apostates before described had only a show of repentance, a counterfeit one. . . .
Three other sources express the belief that it is uncertain whether or not Hebrews 6:4-6 pertains to Christians who don’t continue to persevere in their faith.
Guzik elaborates his uncertainty, as follows:
For it is impossible – The word impossible is put in a position of emphasis. The writer to the Hebrews does not say this is merely difficult, but that it is without possibility.
Who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come – The writer to the Hebrews speaks of people with impressive spiritual experiences. The big debate is whether this is the experience of salvation or the experience of something short of salvation.
If they fall away, to renew them again to repentance – One of the most heated debates over any New Testament passage is focused on this text. The question is simple: Are these people with these impressive spiritual experiences in fact Christians?
Commentators divide on this issue, usually deciding the issue with great certainty but with no agreement.
[E]ternal standing of those written of in Hebrews 6:4-6 is a question with two answers. We may safely say that from a human perspective, they had all appearance of salvation. Nevertheless, from the perspective of God’s perfect wisdom it is impossible to say on this side of eternity.
For it is impossible . . . if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance – Despite their impressive spiritual experience – or at least the appearance of it – these are in grave danger. If they fall away, it is impossible for them to repent.
If these are genuine Christians who “lost their salvation,” the terrible fact is that they can never regain it.
Others explain it by saying that this is all merely a hypothetical warning (in light of the statement in Hebrews 6:9). In this thinking, the writer to the Hebrews never intended to say that his readers were really in danger of damnation. He only used a hypothetical danger to motivate them. However, one must say that there is questionable value in warning someone against something that can’t happen.
Still others think that this penalty deals only with reward, not with salvation itself. They stress the idea that it says repentance is impossible, not salvation. Therefore these are Christians of low commitment and experience who risk a loss of all heavenly reward. . . .
If they fall away – There is a necessary distinction between falling and falling away. Falling away is more than falling into sin; it is actually departing from Jesus Himself. . . . If you depart from Jesus (fall away) there is no hope.
If someone falls away we must understand why he or she can’t repent – it is because they don’t want to. It is not as if God prohibits their repentance. Since repentance itself is a work of God (Romans 2:4), the desire to repent is evidence that he or she has not truly fallen away.
Henry provides the following explanation as to why he does not think there is reason to believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 pertains to the apostasy of true Christians:
[The writer of Hebrews] shows how far persons may go in religion, and. . . perish forever. . . . (1.) They may be enlightened. Some of the ancients understand this of their being baptized but it is rather to be understood of notional knowledge and common illumination, of which persons may have a great deal, and yet come short of heaven. . . . (2.) They may taste of the heavenly gift – feel something of the efficacy of the Holy Spirit in his operations upon their souls, causing them to taste something of religion, and yet be like persons in the market, who taste of what they will not come up to the price of, and so but take a taste, and leave it. . . . (3.) They may be made partakers of the Holy Ghost, that is, of his extraordinary and miraculous gifts . . . and done many . . . mighty works. . . . (4.) They may taste of the good word of God – they may have some relish of gospel doctrines, may hear the word with pleasure, may remember much of it, and talk well of it, and yet never be cast into the form and mould [sic] of it, nor have it dwelling richly in them. (5.) They may have tasted of the powers of the world to come – they may have been under strong impressions concerning heaven, and dread of going to hell. These lengths hypocrites may go, and, after all, turn apostates. Now hence observe, (a) These great things are spoken here of those who may fall away yet it is not here said of them that they were truly converted, or that they were justified. . . . (b) This therefore is no proof of the final apostasy of true saints. These indeed may fall frequently and foully, but yet they will not totally nor finally from God . . . .
The greatness of the sin of apostasy: It is crucifying the Son of God afresh, and putting him to open shame. . . . They pour the greatest contempt upon the Son of God, and therefore upon God himself. . . . This is the nature of apostasy. . . . It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. . . . The sin here mentioned is plainly apostasy both from the truth and the ways of Christ. . . .
Reflecting his uncertainty about the scripture passage, Pett says,
There are few verses which have caused more controversy. The question at issue is as to whether these verses necessarily refer to men who have been true Christians, who are then thought of as repudiating it all and being finally lost, or whether they can refer to outwardly professing Christians who gave all the appearance of being true Christians, and participated fully in God’s activity by His Spirit through the churches, but whose hearts were not truly won, and who were therefore never truly His.
[The writer of Hebrews] speaks of those who were ‘once enlightened’. They were ‘enlightened’ at one particular time in what seemed like a once for all experience as they heard the new teaching, their eyes were in a sense opened. . . . Outwardly at least they turned from their old ways, they had become ‘converted’. Intellectually at least they became aware of the new truth. . . . . [T]he question is, was this necessarily a saving receiving of saving truth?
Men may appreciate Christ and honour Him and be affected by Him and even follow His teaching, and thereby obtain much benefit, without being converted; they may experience the power of the Holy Spirit without being converted.
[W]hile these described here were in some way looked on as ‘partaking (or sharing) in the Holy Spirit’, it may be that their final apostasy revealed that such partaking, such sharing, was mainly external, and had not reached to the heart.
Similarly, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, on page 514 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, do not state their own point of view. Instead, they provide the following perspectives regarding the two viewpoints:
Those who say this refers to unbelievers argue that all of these characteristics could belong to those who merely profess Christianity, but who do not really possess the Holy Spirit. They note that they are not depicted in the normal ways of describing a true Christian, such as, being “born again” . . ., being “in Christ” . . ., or being “sealed by the Holy Spirit”. . . .
There are several problems with taking this to refer to nonbelievers, even for those who hold that a believer can lose his salvation. . . . First, the passage declares emphatically that “it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance”. . . . But few . . . believe that once a person has backslidden it is impossible for him to be saved again. Further, while the description of their spiritual status differs from other ways of expressing it in the NT, some of the phrases are very difficult to take any other way than that the person was saved. For example, (1) those spoken of had experienced “repentance” . . ., which is the condition of salvation . . .; (2) they were “enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift” . . .; (3) they were “partakers of the Holy Spirit” . . .; (4) . . . they had “tasted the good word of God” . . .; and (5) [they] have tasted the “powers of the age to come. . . .
On the other hand, those who hold a Calvinistic point of view . . . point to several facts. First, the word for “fall away” (parapesontas) does not indicate a one-way action. Rather, it is the word for “drift,” indicating that the status of the individuals is not hopeless. Second, the fact is that it is “impossible” for them to repent again indicates the once-for-all nature of repentance. In other words, they don’t need to repent again since they did it once and that is all that is necessary for “eternal redemption”. . . . Third, the text seems to indicate that there is no more need for “drifters” (backsliders) to repent again and get saved all over any more than there is for Christ to die again on the cross. . . . Finally, the writer of Hebrews calls those he is warning “beloved,” a term hardly appropriate for unbelievers.
James 5:19-20: Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
Four of the six sources that address the applicability of James 5:19-20 indicate that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation. The other two sources indicate that the passage is applicable to physical death, not to eternal salvation.
Barnes indicates that the passage pertains to a person who may have been a true Christian, but who currently is regularly engaging in sinful practices. What Barnes does not make clear is whether these practices demonstrate that the type of person to whom he is referring has become apostate. According to Barnes,
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth – Either doctrinally and speculatively, by embracing error; or practically, by falling into sinful practices. Either of these may be called “erring from the truth,” because they are contrary to what the truth teaches and requires.
And one convert him – This does not mean “convert him as a sinner, or regenerate him,” but turn him from the error of his way; bring him back from his wanderings; re-establish him in the truth, and in the practice of virtue and religion. . . . [H]e who had erred from the truth, and who was to be converted, may have been a true Christian before. The word means simply to turn . . . from his way of error.
Shall save a soul from death – The word death here must refer to eternal death, or to future punishment. There is no other death which the soul is in danger of dying. . . .
Clark is apparently more certain than Barnes that the passage pertains specifically to Christians. He states,
Err from the truth – Stray away from the Gospel of Christ; and one convert him – reclaim him from his error, and bring him back to the fold of Christ.
Let him know – Let him duly consider, for his encouragement, that he who is the instrument of converting a sinner shall save a soul from eternal death, and a body from ruin, and shall hide a multitude of sins; for in being the means of his conversion we bring him back to God, who, in his infinite mercy, hides or blots out the numerous sins which he had committed during the time of his backsliding.
Gill similarly declares,
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth – Either from Christ, who is the truth, by departing from him, forsaking his ways, worship, and ordinances; or from the Scriptures of truth, not speaking according to them, and embracing notions that are contrary unto them; or from the Gospel, the word of truth, from the doctrine of faith, and from uprightness of life and conversation, after having made a profession of Christianity; for this is to be understood of one who has embraced the Christian religion, become a member of a church, and has walked in the path of truth and holiness, but now fallen into error, either in principle, or in practice, or both.
And one convert him – [T]urn him from his error, to truth again; for this designs not first conversion, or the turning of a sinner from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, and from the evil of a man’s heart and ways and from a dependence on his own righteousness, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to look to him for righteousness, life, and salvation, which is wholly and entirely God’s work, and not man’s; but conversion after backslidings. . . .
Shall save a soul from death; not efficiently, but instrumentally, as in 1 Timothy 4:16 for otherwise Christ is the only Saviour; and he will be the means of saving “a soul,” . . . and that from death, the second death which lies in the separation of the soul from God. . . .
Guzik only infers that those in question are (or were) Christians. He says,
If anyone among you wanders from the truth – Having introduced the topics of sin and confession, James reminds us of the need to confront those who have wandered from the truth. . . .
He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins – There is a blessing for the one who loves his brother enough to confront him, and who turns him from the error of his way. He has saved that soul from death and covered a multitude of sins.
James concludes with this because this is exactly what he has endeavored to do through this challenging letter – to confront those who have wandered from a living faith, endeavoring to save their souls from death, by demanding that they not only hear the word, but do it, because a living faith will have its proof.
In contrast with the previous four sources, the following comments in a footnote in the NIV Bible indicate that James 5:19-20 pertains to both Christians and non-Christians, but the former will experience only physical death, not the loss of their eternal salvation:
The wanderer is either a professing Christian, whose faith is not genuine . . ., or a sinning Christian, who needs to be restored. For the former, the death spoken of in v. 20 is the “second death;” . . . for the latter, it is physical death.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary also expresses the belief that the passage pertains to physical death, rather than to eternal salvation, but indicates that the passage is applicable to Christians only:
The statement, Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and the two references to bringing him back . . . seem clearly to indicate that the man under discussion is a Christian. . . . Since the NT teaches the security of the believer in Christ, it is best to take the reference to death as physical death. The early church believed and taught that persistence in sin could cause premature physical death. . . .
2 Peter 2:20-21: For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.
Only the first two of the next six sources support the belief that this scripture indicates that Christians who don’t faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation.
The pollutions of the world – Sin in general, and particularly superstition, idolatry, and lasciviousness. These are called . . . things that infect, pollute, and defile. . . . [I]f, after having been healed, and escaped the death to which we were exposed, we get again entangled, . . . enfolded, enveloped with them; then the latter end will be worse than the beginning: forasmuch as we shall have sinned against more light, and the soul, by its conversion to God, having had all its powers and faculties greatly improved, is now, being repolluted [sic]. . . .
For it had been better for them not to have known – [B]ecause they have sinned against more mercy, are capable of more sin, and are liable to greater punishment.
Guzik seems to lean towards the belief that true Christians can lose their eternal salvation, but he makes it clear that Christians in general disagree about this issue. He states,
The latter end is worse for them than the beginning: It is better for a person to have never known a thing about Jesus than to hear some truth, hold to it for a season, and then later reject it. Greater revelation has a greater accountability.
It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness: Peter described a picture that certainly has the appearance of people losing their salvation.
He speaks of those who have escaped the pollutions of the world.
He speaks of those who did this through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
He speaks of those who at one time had known the way of righteousness.
Christians warmly debate the issue of whether or not it is possible for a true Christian to ever lose their status as a true Christian and fall away to damnation. Perhaps the best way of understanding the issue is to say that it is certainly true that those who appear saved – those who fit the description of Peter here – can end up in a place where it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness.
Regarding these, those with a Reformed perspective will say that they were actually never saved; those with an Arminian perspective will say that they were actually saved and lost their salvation.
Both of the two following sources express the believe that 2 Peter 2:20-21 does not pertain to salvation of Christians who do not remain faithful.
Gill’s comments are somewhat ambiguous, but seem to imply that the scripture passage does not refer to true Christians, as indicated by the following:
For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world – The sins of it, the governing vices of it, which the men of the world are addicted to, and immersed in. . . .
[T]hese, men may escape, abstain from, and outwardly reform, with respect unto, and yet be destitute of the grace of God; so that this can be no instance of the final and total apostasy of real saints; . . . persons may be outwardly righteous before men, have a form of godliness and a name to live, and yet be dead in trespasses and sins. . . .
The latter end is worse with them than the beginning — Their beginning, or first estate, was that in which they were born, a state of darkness, ignorance, and sin, and in which they were brought up, and was either the state of Judaism, or of Gentilism; their next estate was an outward deliverance and escape from the error of the one, or of the other, and an embracing and professing the truth of the Christian religion, joined with a becoming external conversation; and this their last estate was an apostasy from the truth of the Gospel they had professed, a reception of error and heresy, and a relapse into sin and immorality, which made their case worse than it was at first; . . . and by their light, knowledge, and profession, their punishment will be more aggravated, and become intolerable.
Not to have known the way of righteousness – [T]he . . . Gospel, which points out the way and method of a sinner’s justification before God, which is not by the works of the law, but by the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, and received by faith; and which teaches men to live soberly, righteously, and godly; and a large, notional, though not an experimental knowledge, these apostates had of the word and doctrine of righteousness, and indeed of the whole of the Christian religion, which may truly go by this name.
Than after they have known it – [O]wned, embraced, and professed it.
Pett is much clearer in his comments, stating,
It would seem that these people had not yet come to saving faith in Christ. They were still learning the rudiments on which their faith would be built. They had been impressed by the lives and attitudes of Christians and had come to learn more.
The remaining two sources take the position that it is uncertain whether or not 2 Peter 2:20-21 pertains to Christians who don’t faithfully persevere.
For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world – This does not necessarily mean that they had been true Christians, and had fallen from grace. People may outwardly reform, and escape from the open corruptions which prevail around them, or which they had themselves practiced, and still have no true grace at heart.
Through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesses Christ – Neither does this imply that they were true Christians, or that they had ever had any saving knowledge of the Redeemer. There is a knowledge of the doctrines and duties of religion which may lead sinners to abandon their outward vices, which has no connection with saving grace. They may profess religion, and may know enough of religion to understand that it requires them to abandon their vicious habits, and still never be true Christians.
The latter end is worse with them than the beginning – Apostates become worse than they were before their professed conversion. . . . Thus, it is with those who have been addicted to any habits of vice, and who profess to become religious, and then fall away.
And, a footnote in the NIV Bible provides the following comments:
Some [people] point to this passage as clear proof that genuinely saved persons may lose their salvation. They know the Lord; they escape the world’s corruption; they know the way of righteousness. Then they turn away from the message and go back to their old way of life. Their knowledge is said to have been genuine; their change of life was real; and their return to their old way of life was not superficial. Others insist that the knowledge of the Lord and of the way of righteousness could not have been genuine. If such people had been truly regenerated, they would have persevered in their faith.
Revelation 3:5: He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
Of the sources that we checked, there were only five that adequately addressed the matter we are discussing, and two of them did not agree with the other three as to whether Christians who don’t remain faithful will forfeit their eternal salvation.
Guzik believes Revelation 3:5 indicates that Christians who do not faithfully persevere can forfeit their eternal salvation, but he does not explain what is means to be an overcomer. According to Guzik,
He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments – These overcomers would wear white garments, received from Jesus.
And I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life – By this, the overcomers were assured of their heavenly citizenship.
Blot out his name from the Book of Life – Does this mean that someone can lose their salvation? That someone is saved one day – their name is in the Book of Life – and another day, they have fallen away and their name has been blotted out from the Book of Life? We need to first see the context here in Revelation 3:5. The focus is assurance, so we should not think that names are being constantly erased and then rewritten. The focus here is not the idea that Jesus sits in heaven with a busy eraser. At the same time, we should carefully consider what the Word has to say about the Book of Life.
- There is a Book of Life, and it will be opened and referenced on the Day of Judgement.
And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. (Revelation 20:12)
- There is a Book of Life, and it determines if we go to heaven or hell.
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
- There . . . are five different references to people being blotted out of the book. This means that the idea of being blotted out of the Book of Life should be taken seriously. Perhaps it is only a symbol, and that person’s name was never there to begin with. Even if that is the case, the Lord still wants us to take it seriously, because there are some who by every human appearance are saved, yet will not be in heaven.
Henry likewise does not explain what it means to be an overcomer in regard to Revelation 3:5. He states,
I will not blot his name out of the book of life, but will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. Observe, (1.) Christ has his book of life, a register and roll of all who shall inherit eternal life. . . . (2.) Christ will not blot the names of his chosen and faithful ones out of this book of life. [M]en may be enrolled in the registers of the church, as baptized, as making a profession, as having a name to live, and that name may come to be blotted out of the roll, when it appears that it was but a name . . . without spiritual life. . . . [S]uch [men] often lose the very name before they die, they are left of God to blot out their own names by their gross and open wickedness. But the names of those that overcome shall never be blotted out.
And, Tolle, on pages 19-20 of his pamphlet, asserts,
It surely is agreed by all Bible believers that those whose names are written in the book of life are Christians. . . . It is further agreed that those whose names are not found in the book of life will be eternally condemned.
If it is impossible for Christians to fail to overcome and to have their names blotted out of the book of life, then the passage under consideration has no meaning at all. . . .
In contrast with the three preceding sources, the two that follow seem to imply that true Christians cannot lose their eternal salvation. (However, Barnes may be saying he believes that if a person’s name is still in the Book of Life at the time of the final judgment (i.e., it has not previously been blotted out), it will remain there forever.)
He that overcometh shall be clothed in white raiment – Whosoever he may be that shall overcome sin and the temptations of this world, shall be admitted to this glorious reward.
And I will not blot out his name out of the book of life – The book which contains the names of those who are to live with [Jesus Christ] forever. The names of his people are thus represented as enrolled in a book which he keeps – a register of those who are to live forever. . . . The expression “I will not blot out” means, that the names would be found there on the great day of final account, and would be found there forever.
Poole declares in the following commentary that if a person’s name is in the book of life, it cannot ever be blotted out:
He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment – [H]e that overcometh in the spiritual fight, shall be honoured. . . .
And I will not blot out his name out of the book of life – [T]hat is, I will give him everlasting life. . . . The book of life; applied to God, signifieth his eternal predestination, or purpose to bring some to heaven; out of which book, though none can be blotted out whose name is once wrote [sic] in, yet those whose names are in this book may be under some fears and apprehensions to the contrary. Christ assures them to the contrary, that they shall certainly be saved, but lets them know that this assurance depends upon their perseverance. . . .
In any case, although the evidence of true saving faith is perseverance, the lack of perseverance is not evidence that a person has not experienced saving faith.
Scriptures that Allegedly Support Belief that Christians Cannot Forfeit Eternal Salvation
John 6:37-40: [Jesus Christ asserted] “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
There is no logical reason to think that Jesus would ever do anything that might drive a believer away from Him, but He might cast out (or disown) a believer who apostatizes.
John 10:28: [Jesus Christ declared] “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.”
People have free will to become a Christian or not become a Christian, and then to remain or not remain one of Christ’s sheep. No one else can make that decision for them or snatch them away.
Romans 8:38-39: For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
These verses indicate that no external force can separate a Christian from the love of God, but the verses do not provide any valid reason to believe that a Christian cannot choose to apostatize.
1 Corinthians 1:8: [Jesus Christ] will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This statement by Paul seems to be a generalization made with the assumption that although the Corinthian Christians would sin, advertently or otherwise, they would not apostatize.
2 Corinthians 1:22: [Jesus Christ] also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in a Christian’s life is a guarantee of eternal salvation, but only if that person continues to trust in Jesus Christ. If God removes the Holy Spirit from a person because they apostatize, that person no longer has a guarantee of eternal salvation.
Paul is addressing a specific group of Christians and is almost certainly assuming that they will not apostatize.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24: Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.
Paul does not state that God will preserve Christians to be blameless. Instead, Paul expresses hope that they will be blameless. These verses certainly do not indicate that all Christians will persevere in their faithfulness (i.e., not apostatize).
2 Thessalonians 2:13-15: But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
These verses state that the Thessalonian Christians to whom Paul was writing were chosen for salvation, which raises the question as to whether or not God predestines certain people to become Christians, but the verses do not address whether or not these Christians could lose their salvation by becoming apostate.
2 Thessalonians 3:3-4: But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, both that you do and will do the things we command you.
Although Paul indicates that the Lord will protect the Thessalonian Christians from Satan (i.e., the evil one), there is no reason to believe that they and other Christians will not continue to be free to decide what they are willing to believe. There is definitely no indication in these verses that all Christians will persevere in their faithfulness (i.e., not apostatize).
2 Timothy 2:19: [T]he solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.”
Certainly, God knows who is a genuine Christian. But this verse states nothing about apostasy.
Hebrews 3:14: For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. . . .
It is unclear what the meaning of the word “shared” or “partaken” is in this verse. In any case, if people don’t hold firmly in their faith to the end, that does not prove that they were not true Christians. Their faith may just not have been strong enough for them to remain faithful.
1 Peter 1:3-5: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Although the inheritance of Christians is “incorruptible and undefiled,” this does not mean that those who apostate cannot lose their inheritance. Notice the inference that Christians need to maintain their faith for salvation. Furthermore, these verses do not support the belief that that God’s power protects Christians from unbelief.
Jude 24-25: Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever.
These verses indicate that God is able to help Christians to keep them from sinning, they certainly do not imply that Christians will not sin. Furthermore, there is no inference that God will prevent Christians from becoming apostate.