Some 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote:
In that one [Adam], as the apostles says, all have sinned. Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,—in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without. . . . God may by his hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God that he had received (On Rebuke and Grace, ch. 9).
The word if is the most important little word in human discourse. St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (emphasis added). Notice, St. John includes himself in that “we”!
What happens if we refuse to confess our sins? Will God forgive them anyway? Not according to Scripture (see Matthew 5:14, 12:31-32; I John 1:9, etc.). And the Bible is unequivocable that no sin can enter into heaven (see Habrews 1:13, Revelation 21:8-9, 27).
St. John goes on to say:
As for you, let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (I John 2:24, emphasis added).
We are not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our actions. There are “if” and various other forms of contingency clauses throughout the New Testament used in the context of our salvation. Colossians 1:22-23:
And you, whereas you were . . . enemies . . . now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If you continue in the faith, grounded and settled and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard.
I Corinthians 15:1-2:
Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; By which you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.
But did they really know him?
In the discussion of the perseverance of the saints, it is inevitable that the point will be made that whenever the Scripture talks about people falling away from grace and from God, the people “falling away” never really knew Christ to start with. Let’s take a look at two texts that are usually used in this regard.
I John 2:19:
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 be plain that they all are not of us.
“You see?” a Protestant will say. “If they were truly Christians, ‘born again,’ and if they really knew Jesus, they would endure until the end. God will not allow anything else.”
That is certainly going beyond what is actually written here. The text doesn’t say they were never with the Lord. St. John may just be saying these folks who left Christ bodily had already departed from him in their hearts some time before. That would be a more literal rendering of the words of the text.
Not every one 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 will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers."
“You see?” the Protestant will say. “Jesus plainly says; he never knew them! They were never Christians to begin with!”
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that Christ here was saying he never knew the people that these had become, not that he never knew them at all. This is analogous to a woman who leaves her husband after years of marriage and says, “I never knew you!” It is not that she never loved her husband nor is she saying she never had an intimate relationship with her husband. She does not know the man with whom she is parting ways. This is certainly a valid interpretation of this text.
However, my take on this text is different. I like to point out here that Jesus said many people. He did not say all people. The same could be said of I John 2:19 as well. There will be “many people” who will be lost who never even heard of Jesus at all, or those who were indifferent to Christ and certainly never “prophesied in [his] name” or “cast out demons in [his] name.” For the Calvinist, this text at very best tells us only that some people who parade around and proclaim the name of Christ are not true and obedient believers.
The bottom line is this: Scripture may well indicate that many who will be lost will have never known the Lord. That is to be expected. But Scripture also indicates to us that there are at least some who will have known Christ and then fall away from him. II Peter 2:20-22 is an example of this:
For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become worse than the former. . . . For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.
This text hardly needs comment. The Greek word here for “knowledge” is epignosei. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains the importance of this word: “[A]n opinion can be correct [or possess the aleitheia, or “truth”], but only the ginoskon has the certainty that he grasps the aleitheia” (truth). Moreover, “It relates to the knowledge acquired in experiences both good and bad” (vol. 1, 690.).
And when we consider the persons in the text have “escaped the pollutions of the world” through this “experiential knowledge” of Jesus, we would have to conclude that only a personal relationship with the Lord could have the effect that is being described.
And note the image Peter uses in verse 22: the sow that had been washed in water. Water is the symbol St. Peter uses for baptism in I Peter 3:20-21. The connection seems obvious. The sow that was cleansed, representing the person cleansed from sin, returns to the mud as the penitent may return to his sin later in life. His “last state has become worse . . . than the first” (II Peter 2:20).
Moreover, when we back up in the text to II Peter 1:2-4 to establish an even better context, we note how Peter begins his epistle with a description of Christians:
Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge [the Greek word is epignosei, the same word used in 2:20] of God, and of Jesus our Lord . . . that . . . ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped [the Greek word for having escaped is apophugontes, the same word used in 2:20] the corruption that is in the world [Greek: en to kosmo, the same word used in a different form in 2:20] through lust.
The same words used to describe what Christians have been freed from in chapter 1 are used to describe the person in chapter 2 just before he goes back to his old state and ends worse than he was before he ever knew Jesus. I don’t see how St. Peter could be any clearer on this point.
The Bible really is clear
There are literally scores of biblical texts we could use to demonstrate the fallacy of “once saved, always saved.” But for lack of space, I’ll list a dozen.
1. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus tells us “if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your offenses.” I don’t care how “born again” you are or how many experiences you may have had, if you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven, according to the text. And there will be no people in heaven God refuses to forgive (see Revelation 21:27; Hab. 1:13)!
2. Galatians 5:4 says Christians can “fall from grace.” You have to be in a state of grace in order to fall from it.
3. In John 15:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and branches for himself (the vine) and Christians (the branches). And yet, he would then say if a Christian “does not abide” in the vine, he will be “cast forth as a branch . . . gathered, [and] thrown into the fire” (v. 6).
4. Romans 11:18-22 tells us we can be “cut off” from Christ and be lost. Verse 22 says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”
5. Revelation 22:18-19 warns us that God can “take away [our] share in the tree of [eternal] life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
6-10. The sacred text assures us over and over again that if we commit certain sins and we do not repent of them, we will not go to heaven (see Matthew 5:44-45, 10:32-33; Ephesians 5:3-5; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:6-8). It makes no sense, if we are justified by faith alone, that what we do would be so plainly said to be the cause of eternal damnation.
11-12. Hebrews 12:14-16 tells us we can “sell [our] birthright,” or our “inheritance” in the image of Esau. And both Hebrews 12:14 and Romans 8:14-17 teach our “inheritance” to be eternal life.
For a more extensive discussion of this topic, read The Drama of Salvation by Jimmy Akin.