The vast majority of Christians recognize the possibility of losing one’s salvation. This is clearly taught in multiple Bible passages. However, in the 1500s, John Calvin proposed a teaching now known as eternal security. Today this teaching takes two forms.
Calvin himself formulated the first version. It holds that, although there are actions that theoretically would cause a person to lose salvation (e.g., apostasy), in practice God prevents true Christians from committing these. He preserves them and causes them to persevere in grace until the end.
This view is often called the perseverance of the saints. It is the last of the “five points of Calvinism” expressed by the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints).
The second version of eternal security, held by some Baptists and Evangelicals, says there are no actions that would cost a Christian salvation. A Christian could lose his faith, become an atheist, commit murder and adultery, die unrepentant, and still be saved. This view is often called “once saved, always saved.”
Here we will respond to arguments for eternal security—and particularly for perseverance of the saints.
God glorifying himself
Advocates of eternal security often argue that God saves people to bring himself glory and say a person losing salvation would represent divine failure.
But what about the case of those who are never saved—people who lived and died without responding to God’s initiative of grace? If one too closely identifies the salvation of souls with God’s glory, then those never saved would also represent cases of divine failure.
The logical alternative is to say that the never-saved also bring glory to God, not by being examples of his mercy upon the repentant but of his justice upon the unrepentant.
But if this is the case, then God brings himself glory even in the case of someone who is not saved; and if that’s true, then God also could bring himself glory through someone who is initially saved and who then loses salvation.
Such a case would serve to illustrate both God’s mercy and his justice—as well as his creative power by giving that person free will.
Ultimately, all of God’s actions bring him glory, and he seems to have chosen to glorify himself by creating and permitting a wide variety of things in the world. He thus may choose to glorify himself by saving some, by allowing some never to be saved, and by allowing some to attain salvation initially and then lose it.
Sometimes advocates of eternal security argue that if God is the perfect savior, if he is omnipotent, then he should be able to save those he chooses. He cannot fail.
This begs the question of whether God intends to bring everyone who experiences initial salvation to final salvation.
If God intends to allow people who experience initial salvation to freely choose to change their mind, to return to sin, and to fall from grace, then such people do not represent divine failure.
It is only if you presuppose that God intends to cause all believers to persevere to the end that their failure to do so would represent divine failure—but that is assuming the thing that needs to be proved.
Theological and exegetical arguments
Neither of the points we’ve discussed thus far has quoted Scripture. They are arguments from theological premises, making them theological rather than exegetical arguments.
Of course, advocates of eternal security do appeal to Bible passages, but it is important to note the degree to which theological reasoning rather than simply exegetical reasoning plays a role in the discussion.
In fact, advocates of eternal security sometimes acknowledge that to prove eternal security you first need to establish certain theological points, like what God’s intention is regarding salvation.
This is a significant admission, because it means the passages they appeal to for eternal security are not clear enough on their own. They can be read other ways.
It’s only when read in light of certain theological premises that they acquire the meaning that eternal advocates want them to have. Without those premises, they are consistent with the view that one can lose salvation.
In particular, Calvinists sometimes acknowledge that the other points of TULIP are needed to prove P. Without T, U, L, and I constraining the way key Bible verses are taken, they are consistent with conditional security.
This reveals a significant weakness, because it means each of the other beliefs must be backed up by Scripture to prove P, and if there are exegetical reasons to doubt any of them then that doubt transfers to P. The Calvinist thus needs to prove his whole set of beliefs to prove perseverance of the saints. It can’t be proved on its own.
This is not the place to argue each point of TULIP, but let’s look at some of the verses used to support P and the ways they are consistent with conditional security. Here we will look at verses from the Gospel of John that are among those most commonly cited to support P.
The one hearing and believing
In John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.”
A less elegant translation of the first part of this would be, “the one hearing my word and believing him who sent me” has eternal life. In this case, the Greek present participles for “hearing” (akouōn) and “believing” (pisteuōn) indicate an ongoing action.
Therefore, if one were to stop hearing Jesus’ word and to stop believing the one who sent him, one would lose eternal life and pass back from life to death.
All that the Father gives me
In John 6:37a, Jesus states: “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”
Commentators note that the Greek phrase translated “all that” (pan ho) is neuter rather than the expected masculine.
They have thus seen the first statement as not simply speaking of individuals but of the whole people that God gives Jesus—i.e., a Church.
Jesus is thus affirming that the whole Church will come to Jesus.
The one coming to me
But what about the individual? This is dealt with in the second half of John 6:37b: “and him who comes to me I will not cast out.”
Translated less elegantly, the statement would read “and the one coming to me I would certainly not cast out.”
Here “the one” (ton) is masculine, indicating the individual, and the present tense participle “coming” (erchomenon) indicates an ongoing action, not a one-time encounter. This is not controversial and is acknowledged by Calvinists.
The second part of the verse thus indicates Jesus will not cast out those who come and keep coming to him. But this does not establish eternal security.
Nobody would argue that Jesus would cast out those who, with repentance and faith, continue to follow him. But, by implication, if a person ceases to turn to Jesus in this way, he would cease to be part of the people that God gives to his Son, and he would be cast out.
The will of my Father
Jesus tells us that he has not come to do his own will but that of his Father (John 6:38). He then says: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:39).
Here the Greek again uses neuter rather than masculine pronouns, pointing to the collective people—the Church—that God gives to Jesus. It is not God’s will that Jesus lose any from the Church, and Jesus will raise up this body on the last day.
We now face the question of how God’s will works, which is subtler than it may first appear.
God sometimes wills things in an irresistible, unfailing way. When he created the universe, the universe did not have a choice about being created. We might refer to this as God’s “efficacious will,” because when he wills something in this way, it is always effective.
But Scripture also tells us that it is not God’s will for people to commit murder or adultery, and sometimes they do. Creatures can make choices that don’t conform to God’s will. We might refer to this as God’s “conditional will,” because he has made what actually happens conditional on the choices of his creatures.
Which kind of will is involved in John 6:39? Does God will that those he has given Jesus remain with him in such a way that it is impossible for them to be lost? Or does he allow them to make choices that would cause them to be lost?
This is clarified in John 17, where Jesus prays concerning the disciples who accompanied him in his earthly ministry. He tells his Father, “you gave them to me” (17:6) and goes on to say, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12).
Though Judas was one of the disciples God gave Jesus, and though Judas came to him and even became an apostle in his Church, God allowed Judas to make choices that caused him to be lost.
God’s desire for none to be lost from the people he gives his Son is thus part of his conditional rather than his efficacious will.
Everyone seeing and believing
Once again, Jesus turns from the collective to the individual and says, “For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
Less elegantly, what he says is that “anyone seeing the Son and believing in him” will have eternal life and be raised on the last day. Again, the text indicates an ongoing relationship with the Son, not a one-time encounter.
Thus, should one turn away from the Son (stop seeing him) and stop believing in him, one would forfeit eternal life.
Unless the Father draws him
In John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
The first part of this is an affirmation that salvation is always based on God’s initiative (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2022).
For this to be a proof text for perseverance of the saints, it would need to mean (1) that individuals who the Father draws to Jesus will always come to him and (2) that they will always remain with him. Only in that way would the person be guaranteed the resurrection of the blessed.
However, Jesus says only that one can’t come to him unless the Father draws him, not that people are incapable of resisting the Father’s grace. And he says nothing at all about people being unable to leave once they come to him.
In fact, the verse leaps over the mechanics of salvation. It doesn’t mention repentance, faith, baptism, or anything else. It treats all of these under the single heading of “coming” to Jesus, and, as we’ve seen, the coming that saves is a continuous, ongoing one, not a one-time event.
From this passage we can infer that no one comes to Jesus without the Father’s action and that those who come and keep coming to Jesus will be raised on the last day. But, unless we press the passage beyond its limits, we cannot infer that all who come to Jesus remain with him.
In John 10:26-28, Jesus tells inquirers: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
He also explains why they can’t be snatched away: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:29).
Once again, the actions of the believer are ongoing. Sheep do not hear the voice of their shepherd only once, and they do not follow him only once. They do so on a continuing basis.
Consequently, to stop listening to Jesus and to stop following him would be to cease to be one of his sheep and to lose the eternal life that he offers.
Advocates of eternal security hold that this inference is blocked by the statement that no one will snatch the sheep out of Jesus’ or the Father’s hand.
The metaphor Jesus is using envisions thieves, wolves, or other predators taking a shepherd’s sheep. However, to remain on the level of the metaphor, this is not the only way a shepherd can lose sheep. They also can leave on their own. They can stray, as Jesus himself noted (see Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7).
Because Jesus does not exclude this possibility in the passage—he does not say “And I will never let them stray”—one cannot appeal to this passage as if it eliminated the possibility of Christians making choices that cost them salvation.
You are the branches
John’s Gospel also contains passages indicating the loss of salvation, and these can’t be ignored.
A notable one occurs when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. . . . I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1, 5).
He states, “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he [the Father] takes away. . . . If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (15:2, 6).
Here the Father himself removes people from Christ, and their fate is to be burned, an obvious reference to hell.
Jesus thus commands the disciples, “Abide in me. . . . Abide in my love” (15:4, 9)—a theme he continues to stress (vv. 5, 7)—and he tells them how to abide: “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” (v. 10).
Keeping God’s commandments thus is essential for remaining in Christ and avoiding the fate of the branches that the Father removes from Christ to be burned.