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. There are several go-to passages for those who argue that we can have absolute assurance. Two of them are worthy of note. The first is Romans 8:38-39.
“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.”
The late Protestant apologist Norman Geisler argues this passage “needs little comment, merely contemplation” (“A Moderate Calvinist View” in Four Views of Eternal Security, 73). 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.
Another passage to which Geisler appeals to justify his view of eternal security is John 5:24: “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.” Geisler interprets this passage to mean, “Those who truly believe now can be certain now that they will be in heaven later” (71). This leads him to conclude, “Eternal life is a present possession the moment people believe, and this assures Christians they will never be condemned” (71).
Do these passages support the idea that once we’re saved we’re always saved? We’ll consider each passage in turn, starting with Romans 8:38-39.
External vs. internal
The first point to make is that Geisler assumes that Paul is speaking of an individual’s salvation, even though the text is focused more broadly on God’s love for his people. But even taking the reading that Paul is talking about individual salvation, Geisler’s 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 (“neither death, nor life”). Nor can he control what angels and demons do (“nor angels, nor principalities”). He’s not in control of time (“nor things present, nor things to come”) or the cosmos (“nor powers, nor height, nor 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?”
In contrast, a believer’s sins are not external to him and beyond his control. They’re internal, since 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, they are not 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. Suppose a man says to his fiancée, whose family is trying to keep 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 beyond the two of them 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 but think to include famine?
Why warn believers?
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 to them, he chastises the community 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 inheritance of heaven, and therefore they 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. Geisler and other eternal-security advocates need to heed Paul’s warning here.
Sin separates us from God
A third response, and perhaps stronger that this 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.
Three responses to a go-to passage
As we mentioned above, John 5:24 is was another go-to passage for Geisler when it comes to defending his view of eternal security. There are three responses that we can give.
First, the present possession of eternal life via belief doesn’t mean a person will never be condemned. For a believer never to be condemned, Jesus would have to have said that a person who currently possesses eternal life via belief always remains in possession of this life, which in turn would mean that such a person would always remain in a state of belief. But Jesus doesn’t say that.
And the mere affirmation of the present status of a believer possessing eternal life doesn’t entail this either. It proves only that as long as a person believes, he has eternal life. And having such life when we stand before Christ in judgment at the end of our lives is what excludes us from condemnation.
Moreover, the New Testament teaches that a believer can fall away from faith and thus lose possession of eternal life. For example, in reference to some who “hear the word” and “receive it with joy,” Jesus says, “they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). Since a believer can fall away from faith, it follows that a believer can lose the eternal life that he possesses presently. This being the case, the present possession of eternal life via belief doesn’t mean the believer will never be condemned.
A second response is that the logic embedded in Geisler’s interpretation of John 5:24 proves too much when applied elsewhere. Consider a parallel with John 3:36b:
|John 5:24||John 3:36b|
|“He who believes . . . does not come into judgment.”||“He who does not obey the Son (believes not) . . shall not see eternal life.”|
Notice how the grammar and the syntax are parallel in structure. Each stipulates a condition and a consequence when the condition is met.
Now, on Geisler’s interpretation of John 5:24, once the condition of belief is met, the consequence of not coming into judgment is secure. If we were to follow this line of reasoning when interpreting John 3:36b, we’d have to say that once the condition of not obeying the Son (or not believing) is met, then the consequence of not seeing eternal life is secure.
But this would mean that anyone who currently doesn’t believe can never repent of his unbelief and receive salvation. This contradicts Jesus’ call for repentance: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). It also contradicts the apostolic call for repentance: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Neither John 3:36b nor John 5:24 is addressing the issue of whether the condition of the person involved (believer or non-believer) can change. Rather, as New Testament professor Robert Picirilli points out, the emphasis is on the fulfillment of the promise “to those who persist in the respective state described” (emphasis added).
Since Geisler’s line of reasoning cannot be applied consistently throughout Scripture without leading to conclusions that contradict New Testament teaching, we’re justified in rejecting it and his interpretation of John 5:24.
A third response is one apologist Jimmy Akin uses: the Bible doesn’t speak of eternal life only as something believers possess presently. Rather, it also speaks of it as something believers have not yet achieved. Consider Romans 2:7: “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” Similarly, Paul writes elsewhere, “He who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8).
If there is a not yet dimension to receiving eternal life, then you can’t simply assert that believers are secure in the aspect of eternal life they possess currently. The not yet-ness of eternal life allows for the possibility the it can be lost—that is, if a believer stops believing, stops seeking for glory, honor, and immortality, stops sowing to the Spirit, etc.
Now, a believer in the doctrine of eternal security might counter, “You’re gutting the meaning of eternal in the phrase ‘eternal life.’ Eternal life would not be eternal if we could lose it.”
In response, this counterargument assumes that eternal life is merely a quantity of life, in the sense of living forever. But this can’t be to what Jesus is referring, because he says a few verses later that “those who do evil” will rise “to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:25, 29). If by “eternal life” Jesus meant simply that we will live forever, then “eternal life’ would be said of the damned. But surely, the damned don’t have “eternal life” in the same sense that believers do.
So what does “eternal life” refer to? As Akin concludes, “Eternal life thus deals not just with a quantity but a quality or kind of life” (emphasis added). It is the very life of God that we as believers participate in. This is what Peter means when he says, “We become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
There are other passages Protestants have in their repertoire, but we’ll have to consider those some other time. In the meantime, may we, by God’s grace, always strive to remain partakers of the divine nature, holding “fast to our confession” (Heb. 4:14) so we may have eternal life until the moment of death and beyond, where we will experience it in full.
Even Those in the Flock May Wander Away
There is abundant evidence from Scripture that Christians do in fact fall from a saving relationship with Christ due to sin.
Consider, for example, Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep that the shepherd goes to find (Matt. 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7). Sure, the shepherd finds the sheep (Jesus never stops trying to get us back in his flock), but the point is that the sheep can wander away.
The same motif is found in Jesus’ parable about the wicked servant who thinks his master is delayed and beats the other servants and gets drunk (Matt. 24:45-51). Notice that the servant is a member of the master’s household. But because of his failure to be vigilant in preparing for his master’s return, he was found wanting and was kicked out with the hypocrites where “men will weep and gnash their teeth” (v.51). Similarly, Christians can be members of Christ’s flock and members of his household, but if we don’t persevere in fidelity to him, we will lose our number among the elect.
That Christians can fall out of Christ’s hands due to sin is evident also in Paul’s harsh criticism of the Galatians:
Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. . . . You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:2, 4).
If some of the Galatians were “severed from Christ” and “fallen from grace,” then they were at some point in Christ and in grace. They were counted among the flock, but they later went astray—not because they were snatched away but by their own volition.