Assurance of salvation

  • Question 148 from Emma, United Kingdom

    Can you lose your salvation? How can we be sure that Jesus won’t turn to us on Judgement Day and say “I never knew you”?

    The short answer is that in almost every branch of Christian theology, there are no guarantees about salvation, unless a person is living a life marked by Christian discipleship.

    In terms of believers losing their salvation, the Bible and later Christian teaching place great store on ‘perseverance’. The Apostle Paul famously described his own quest for perfection when he said: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians chapter 3, verse 12). Similarly Paul encourages Timothy to “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called…” (1Timothy chapter 6, verse 12). Shortly after he writes that he warns Timothy not to follow the example of others who have ‘wandered from the faith’ (verse 21).

    Perseverance is the fifth and final point in classic Calvinism. Although in Calvinism it is not possible for a believer to ‘lose’ their salvation, the life a believer lives is evidence of their salvation. This answers the thorny question of whether a believer who sins or commits apostasy has rejected their salvation. In classic Calvinist thought they have not, because they were never saved to begin with – their ‘apostasy’ is merely evidence that they are unsaved.

    Calvin himself regarded the Church as composed of both the righteous elect and ‘the wicked’ who were doomed to eternal damnation (1), citing among other things the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (weeds) found in Matthew chapter 13, verses 24-30. In this parable, a farmer’s ‘enemy’ sows weeds (the tares) into a wheat field. Both types of plant grow in the field and are only separated out at harvest time by ‘the harvester’, i.e. God. (God’s role in distinguishing between ‘wheat’ and ‘weeds’ is why Calvin argued that sometimes a sinner cannot be booted out of the church and believers just have to put up with having a sinner in their midst).

    Free will and ‘once saved, always saved’
    In contrast to Calvinism, a theological stance that postulates human free will in choosing salvation, usually allows for a person subsequently rejecting salvation. This is the natural counterpoint to asserting that humans make the vital decision over their own salvation. In fact, it would be hard to see how a free will position could be asserted that did not allow people to change their mind.

    A note should also be included about the phrase ‘once saved, always saved’, which is often said in the context of this question regarding the possibility of losing your salvation. As a phrase it seems to imply that assent to faith at any given point results in salvation and that a person’s subsequent actions are irrelevant. While this may be comforting to those who have friends or family members who have ‘fallen away’, it actually seems contrary to the Apostolic teaching in the New Testament (2).

    But, if used in this way, ‘once saved, always saved’ as a phrase is, in fact being misunderstood. This phrase was actually popularised in Calvinism to highlight the unconditional nature of election. Salvation in Calvinist theology is not based on anything a person does and cannot be earned. Once you’re saved, you’re saved. But that’s not a license to do anything. The way a person subsequently lives their life after conversion indicates whether they are saved – the ‘love of righteousness’ and a desire to live a life modelled on Christ are the hallmarks of authentic salvation, according to Calvin (3).

    However, for those who are saved, and who are living lives marked with holiness, both ‘free will’ and Calvinist points of view imply that believers can be assured of their salvation, at least to some measure. The parables which conclude with ‘Christ’ (or the character in the parable interpreted as Christ) saying ‘I never knew you’ to certain people usually highlight the discrepancy between the faith they claim and their subsequent actions (e.g. selfishness, unbelief). (4)

    However, to those who persevere in the faith, there is the added assurance that “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans, chapter 8, verse 16). John Wesley, a proponent of free will, used this verse to as evidence that believers can be sure of their salvation, without having to adopt a theology of predestination.

    Notes and references

    1 – Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, chapter 1, sections 7-8. (Hendrickson edition 2009, pp677-8), and also Book 4, chapter 12, section 11 (ibid. p.818).
    2 – see e.g. Hebrews chapter 10, verse 36: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
    3 – op cit, One Hundred Aphorisms [Calvin’s summary], p.995
    4 – see e.g. The Parable of the Ten Virgins and The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, both found in Matthew chapter 25.

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