Some Protestants believe that once a Christian is saved, he has eternal security—that is, he can’t lose his salvation, whether the cause be sin, apostasy, or anything else.
A passage that’s often used to support eternal security is Romans 8:38-39. Paul writes:
For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Norman Geisler argues this passage “needs little comment, merely contemplation.” That which Geisler thinks we should contemplate is the fact that “there is literally nothing ‘in all creation’ that can separate a believer from Christ.” For Geisler, the creature himself falls into this category and therefore concludes that a Christian cannot lose his salvation.
Is Geisler’s reading of Paul correct? Let’s take a look.
First, notice how Geisler assumes that Paul is speaking of an individual’s salvation, even though the text is actually focused more broadly on God’s love for his people. But even taking the reading that Paul is talking about individual salvation, his interpretation doesn’t follow.
Notice that Paul lists ten things that won’t be able to separate us from Christ’s love. Nine of the ten, excluding for a moment “anything else in all creation,” refer to something external to the believer that the believer has no control over. A believer cannot control, for example, whether he is born or will die (“death . . . life”). Nor can he control what angels and demons do (“angels, principalities”). He’s definitely not in control of time (“things present . . . things to come”) or the cosmos (“powers . . . height . . . depth”).
Just a few verses before, in verse 35, Paul gives a similar teaching and another list of items, all of which are external to and beyond the control of the believer: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
Now, a believer’s sins are not external to and beyond his control. They’re internal inasmuch as they flow from his will. And they’re not beyond his control; otherwise, sin wouldn’t be a free action. Since a believer’s sins don’t belong to Paul’s group of things external to and beyond the control of a believer, a believer’s sins are excluded from things that can’t separate us from the “love of Christ” (v. 35) and the “love of God” (v. 39).
Here’s an analogy that might help flesh this out. Suppose a man says to his fiancée, whose family is trying to stop them from getting married, “I will let no one come between us.” This doesn’t mean, “There’s no possible way for you [the fiancée] to break off the relationship.” The man is promising only that no one external to them as a couple will affect their relationship.
Moreover, if Paul did mean to say, “Even our own sins can’t cut us off from God,” that’s an awfully big thing for him to omit. How did he forget to include that on the list when he remembered to include famine?
A second point is that not only does the text not force Geisler’s interpretation, but the broader context of the epistle to the Romans disproves it. For example, just two chapters earlier in the same letter, Paul warns the Christians in Rome, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness” (6:12-13). It doesn’t make sense that Paul would warn Christians about letting sin “reign” over them if he didn’t think it were possible for Christians to be re-enslaved to sin and return to their former way of life when they weren’t justified.
Paul gives a similar warning to the Christians in Corinth. In the beginning of chapter six of his first letter, he chastises the Corinthians for having lawsuits with fellow Christians (vv. 1-8). Immediately following this chastisement, he writes, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (v. 9).
The flow of Paul’s reasoning suggests that the Corinthians’ unrighteous behavior is endangering their receiving the inheritance of heaven, and they therefore need to be warned. Paul then says, “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 9-10).
That Paul says, “Do not be deceived” suggests that he thinks Christians could be deceived into thinking these sins would not exclude them from the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps Geisler and other eternal security advocates need to heed Paul’s warning here.
A third response, and perhaps stronger that the above appeal to Paul’s other writings, is that the Bible clearly says sin can separate us from Christ’s and God’s love. For example, Jesus says in John 15:9-10:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
That Christ makes keeping his commandments a condition of abiding in his love implies that sin (acts that violate the commandments) can cut us off from his love.
St. John provides evidence relative to God’s love. He writes in his first epistle, “So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (5:16). A few verses later, John identifies at least one sin by which we can forfeit our abiding in that love: hatred of brother. He writes:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also (vv. 20-21).
So, for both Jesus and John, sin can separate us from God’s love, a teaching that directly contradicts Geisler’s interpretation of Romans 8:38-39.
Regardless of which response we take, those who want to use Romans 8:38-39 to support the doctrine of eternal security fail to achieve that goal. There are other passages Protestants have in their repertoire, but we’ll have to consider those some other time.