Editor’s note: On January 18, 2017, Reformed apologist James White and Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn debated the question “Can Christians lose their salvation?” before an audience of more than 1,000 at the Protestant G3 conference in Atlanta.
The comments herein have been transcribed from an audio recording of the debate and edited for grammar and compiled for readability. Care has been taken to ensure these excerpts are of approximately equal length and fairly represent each debater’s arguments. We encourage you to view the entire debate online at catholic.com.
“A True Christian Can Never Lose His Salvation” — James White
Is salvation the work of God’s kingly freedom, monergism? Does God, and God alone, save, or is it a cooperative effort subject to failure, or synergism? If it is solely God’s work to his own glory, then obviously God will not fail to accomplish all his holy will. Jesus says in John 6:37-39:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one coming to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that of all he has given me I lose none of it, but raise it up on the last day.
Now, please note that Jesus is talking specifically about salvation, and he recognizes that the Father can sovereignly give to him a particular people. The action of the Father’s giving results in all who are thusly given coming to the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are coming to the Lord Jesus Christ in true and saving faith, it is because the Father has given you to the Son.
Jesus says the one coming to me “I will never cast out.” Why? Because he’s come down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Can any Christian ever conceive of the idea that the Son would fail to do the Father’s will? I hope no one can conceive of that concept at all.
The reality of the Son’s perfection as redeemer of his people is prophesied in the very name given to him. Remember what the angel said? “You will call his name Jesus.” Why? Because he will save his people from their sins. Not try to save; he will accomplish this.
This is affirmed with fervor by the author of Hebrews. Notice that in Hebrews 7:25, “Therefore he, Jesus, is able to save either forever or to the uttermost.” But the point is completely, not only temporally but in extent “to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.”
Why would I stand before you and take the crazy position that God does not fail to save his people? Because it’s what the Bible teaches. If you focus upon what it teaches about God and his accomplishment, it is very, very clear what is being said. Hebrews 10: “By his will we have been made holy by the once for all offering of the body of Jesus Christ.”
And I’m sure this evening this is going to come out, this is one of the fundamental differences between us. I do not believe that there can ever be a meaningful basis for “eternal security” in the Roman Catholic system as long as you have the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice that perfects no one. If you can go to Mass over and over again and not be perfected, then it makes sense that there can be no reason to think salvation is an eternal thing that cannot be lost.
As unpopular as it might be, the gospel, my friends, is about God first and foremost. It is about what the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—decree together to do to glorify the Trinity in eternity past. It is about the Father as the fountainhead of grace who elects particular people unto salvation. It’s about the Son in his great condescension who enters into human form to give himself as a sacrifice. The elect people are joined to him and the Holy Spirit, who then comes and at a time appointed by the Father raises to spiritual life takes out that heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh.
It’s all about God; it’s not about me. And that’s why Paul can say if you are in Christ Jesus you have only person to boast in, and that is the Lord. There can be no human boasting. There can be no pride. There can be no arrogance. It is all about what God has done in us, and if it is indeed the intention of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to save God’s elect people, there is no power in heaven or on Earth—including those elect people—that can frustrate the eternal God or the accomplishment of his glory. And that is the only reason to believe in the perseverance of the saints.
“A True Christian Can Lose His Salvation” — Trent Horn
Tonight I am going to be representing the historic view of Christianity. I know a lot of people here may think that salvation cannot be lost, but this is actually the minority view in the Christian community. This view that my opponent represents is rejected by Catholics, Orthodox, and other ancient branches of Christianity, as well as widespread parts of the Protestant community. Martin Luther himself believed it was possible for a Christian to commit apostasy and lose salvation.
So it will do no good to argue justification by faith alone entails eternal security, because many people believe in justification by faith alone but reject eternal security. This is the standard view among Lutherans, many Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants. In fact, this doctrine that my opponent is defending was unknown in the Christian church for the first 1,500 years of the Church’s history.
The Bible teaches that some people with authentic faith who become regenerate members of the body of Christ can later fall away. Jesus says in John 15:2 and 6:
Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away. . . . If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
In Romans 11, Paul describes the Gentiles as branches that were grafted onto the ancient olive tree of Israel. He says, “Behold then the kindness and severity of our God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.”
You can only cut off or take away something that was attached in the first place or, in this case, true believers who later separated themselves from Christ.
Paul told the Galatians that if they forsook Christ and returned to Judaism through circumcision, they were, “severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). What does it mean to “fall from grace”? Martin Luther said:
To fall from grace means to lose the atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the righteousness, liberty, and life which Jesus has merited for us by His death and resurrection. To lose the grace of God means to gain the wrath and judgment of God, death, the bondage of the devil, and everlasting condemnation (Commentary on Galatians, 108).
What do we find in the letter to the Hebrews? He says, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (Heb. 3:14). He also says in Hebrews 10:26-27, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sinsbut a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of fire will consume the adversaries.”
I agree in Hebrews 10:10 and 10:14 that Christ’s sacrifice is once for all, never repeated, and perfect. But notice that, after receiving knowledge of that truth, if a Christian continues to sin, that perfect sacrifice no longer remains.
The author then compares the punishments for those who broke the Old Covenant with the punishments for those who break the New Covenant. He says:
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28-29).
The only punishment worse than physical death is eternal death, so the author of Hebrews is warning his readers that they face eternal death if they fail to “hold fast our confidence firm to the end.”
In closing, let me remind everyone that I do not deny that it is God who saves us. God is the author and finisher of salvation; man is the author of damnation. If we are saved it is because of the grace of God working through us, and so we have no reason to boast. We should take the Bible seriously when it acknowledges the possibility that Christians can—and sometimes do—lose salvation.
The good news, as Jesus reveals in the parable of the prodigal son, is that no matter what we have done, no matter how far we have strayed from the Father, he will always take us back.
Rebuttal — James White
On my program last week I predicted how the debate would go, and Trent listened and obeyed. Because that’s exactly what I said would take place. I said I will have to spend my rebuttal period explaining the difference between prescriptive and descriptive texts in Scripture.
When we look at texts of Scripture, we can view them prescriptively, or we can view them descriptively. They can prescribe to us things that we must do, things that we must accomplish—“He who endures to the end shall be saved”—and so by your enduring to the end you bring about your salvation.
That’s a prescriptive way of looking at things. The descriptive way allows for the passages I presented to be true and then applies them to the application passages as to how Christians live the Christian life. And so what you then have is, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.” Amen, I agree a thousand percent, but it is not my enduring to the end that brings about my salvation, and God is not helpless unless I somehow work up an enduring faith.
Let me give you an example of some of the passages that were presented and again illustrate the difference between descriptive and prescriptive reading. Think about John 15, it was just presented to us in Trent’s presentation. In John 15, the branches that were cut off—what did they not do? They did not bear fruit. If you abide in Christ you will bring forth fruit. It’s not my abiding in him that brings forth fruit; he’s the one that brings forth the fruit in me. These branches were not the ones in which true salvation had taken place.
You see the consistent reading of the New Testament is not one of prescription that adds to the finished work of Christ but one of description. Consider Galatians 5:4. Who is being addressed there? Those who are seeking to be justified by their keeping of the law, not true believers. His point is real simple, if you understand Paul’s perspective.
There is either perfect obedience to the law, which no one can do, or there is the way of grace. You can’t go down both roads very far. And so if you start down this road you have fallen away from Christ, have been severed from that direction, you better be able to be perfect in your obedience going in this direction, because that is the only way to go.
Keep in mind folks, there’s your issue: prescriptive/descriptive.
Rebuttal — Trent Horn
It doesn’t take a genius to predict your opponent is going to present the strongest evidence against your position.
My opponent implies that Jesus’ sacrifice is imperfect under my view. I would say the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice means there wasn’t just a perfect amount of grace to atone for our sins; there was infinitely more than was necessary for that task. That’s why 1 John 2:2 says, “And he himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world.”
We agree that God must give us grace if we are to be saved. And we also agree that man must respond to that grace, at least by making a saving act of faith. The fact that God can desire to save people who resist his grace, including people who once believed in him, does not prove God’s saving actions are imperfect. It only proves we are imperfect.
What about John 6:38-39? In the Bible, God’s will can express what he decrees will come to pass, or what he desires that may or may not come to pass. For example, 1 Timothy 2:4 says God desires that all men be saved, but Jesus said some men will face everlasting condemnation, so that won’t happen. John 6:38-39 reflects a similar desire God has that won’t necessarily come to pass.
In fact, later in John’s Gospel Jesus admits that some who are given to him will be lost. In John 17:12 Jesus says of the disciples the Father gave him, “I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.”
Mr. White said my evidence could be prescriptive or descriptive. What method did he give you to determine if a passage is prescriptive or descriptive? Did he give you an exegetical technique, a way of reading the text? No. He said, “Well we have to start with our theology of monergism, and if that’s true then obviously these texts are all descriptive, they don’t say, “Do this or you’ll lose your salvation.”
But In Matthew 18, the text doesn’t say, “Because you have been forgiven, forgive.” That would be descriptive. It says if you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven. The passage clearly is prescriptive, and only a theological pre-commitment would deny this meaning.
Closing Statement — James White
I confess to you this evening my friends: if my salvation was dependent upon me working something up within myself rather than what Christ has done for me, I would be lost.
You know what my hope is this evening? I have one who has entered into the holy place. Hebrews 6 says we have this hope, this firm assurance, this anchor for the soul, because Jesus as our forerunner has entered into the holy place. And remember what John saw? What did he see?
The lamb, standing as slain. He’s standing. He’s alive. The lamb, the sacrifice, the completed work. That is the entirety of my hope. I have nothing else beside him. I cannot say, “Oh it’s so good Jesus does 99 percent, but then I needed to do this. And then I ‘ve got the treasury of merit and the merit I get from this saint and that saint.”
Only a perfect righteousness is going to avail before that throne. And that work of righteousness is mine not because God foresaw I would be worthy of it, not because he foresaw that I would faithful, but because he saw I was a wretch! And I needed a Savior who could deliver me from the very pits of hell. Though I deserved his wrath in its fullest, I received his grace in its beauty.
That is why I am the blessed man. That is why I hope and pray you are the blessed man this evening as well. The blessed man, the blessed woman, the followers of Jesus Christ.
Closing Statement — Trent Horn
Here’s some good advice when it comes to interpreting Scripture. My opponent wrote these words in his book Scripture Alone: “If the overall discourse is ignored, an improper interpretation of individual texts can be offered. This is one of the most oft-missed elements of correct exegesis, normally due to the presence of traditions in the reader’s thinking” (87).
Ironically, he has succumbed to that which he warns others against. He’s read a sixteenth-century doctrine of eternal security into first-century texts that don’t teach it. Rather, we should follow what the Bible teaches. Revelation 14:12 says, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”
My opponent said, “You’re a synergist to say you have to remain in Christ!” Well, I guess Jesus was a synergist in John 15:6 when he said, “if you don’t remain in me you will be cast aside and burned.”
Let us also follow what Hebrews 3:12-14 says: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today.’ Don’t be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.”
Let us take care, let us exhort one another, let us do all these things the word of God commands us to do and offer that up to the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.