The subject of “eternal salvation” is one of those doctrines that has caused splits among the denominations. The Baptists have long argued for the premise that “once saved, always saved.” On the other hand, there are all those denominations who believe people can “back-slide” their way into hell. So, which is it?
The reality is the Bible has relatively little to say about eternal salvation. Jesus spoke a lot more about the right and wrong use of wealth than he did about going to heaven—I suspect this may be because we think more about dealing with our money than we do about God, salvation, and the Kingdom. Even so, the passages that are written about salvation tend to be fairly dogmatic (this is how it is!), which is not to say that the biblical writers agreed on the subject.
To begin with, let’s look at what the Bible says to support the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Jesus said, “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. 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” (John 10.27-29). Now, according to Jesus, “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand,” and if “no one” can do that, Jesus seems to be teaching that even we are unable to reject the experience of salvation once we’ve tasted it. This coincides with a number of other passages that speak of eternal “protection” (1 Peter 1.5) and state that nothing can separate us from God (Romans 8.38-39). Clearly there is biblical support for eternal security, or “once saved, always saved.”
On the other hand, what of those who teach that we can lose our salvation, that we can “back-slide”? This camp also has good biblical “proof” to support their claim. We read in Hebrews 6.4-6: “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” Here the author is dogmatic that anyone who experiences the enlightenment of salvation and then later rejects it cannot be restored—a clear reference to “losing” one’s salvation. Other verses that support this doctrine include Hebrews 10.26 and 2nd Peter 1.10.
So, which is right? That’s where the forest gets thickest. There appears to be good biblical evidence to support both sides of the argument. Add to that the notion of “election,” the Calvinist teaching (from John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian Church) that God has chosen some and not chosen others to be saved, the waters aren’t just muddy, they’re more like chocolate-fudge pudding.
How do we make sense of it? The reality is that it may well be impossible to know for sure based on biblical teachings. Indeed, just because we “know” something doesn’t make it either a truth or a fact. Less that 1,000 years ago, a short period of time in the scale of things, everyone “knew” the earth was flat. Fifty years ago everyone “knew” it was impossible for a human to run a four-minute mile. “Knowing” something doesn’t make it real, and knowing how God has decided to run the universe doesn’t make it so. To say we do know is simply to say too much.
So, why all the brouhaha and all the church and denominational splits over this doctrine?
At the beginning of this column I mentioned that Jesus spoke more about wealth than about salvation, at least as recorded in scripture. The fact is, Jesus knew what the biggest problems were in his time as well as what they would be in ours (and those problems haven’t changed over the two millennia). It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s not even about “us.” Jesus was about building the Kingdom of God and he went about trying to teach his followers how to build that Kingdom—and the Kingdom is built only by loving others. We so often get hung up about our salvation and our entitlements as “believers.” But Jesus taught that it’s not about what we get, it’s about what we give that counts (no monument has ever been built for one who received much, but for the one who has given much) –cf., Luke 17.7-10.
Eternal salvation is one of those “pie in
the sky, by and by” worries. But if we’ll
take care of today, if we will truly spend the day
showing love for God and for others, then we’ll
find that Jesus was right: the Kingdom of God
isn’t about someday—it’s about