The past Sunday, one of our PlantED interns, Sam Wright, answered the ‘tough question’ ‘Can a Christian lose their salvation?’. Following that, Sam addressed an objection to his answer of that question, that a Christian indeed cannot be lost, because God never loses one of His own. The objection arises however: what about the passages in Scripture that warn us against falling away?
The question of whether a Christian can lose their salvation is both simple and complicated. It is simple in that Jesus explicitly promises that none can be snatched out of his hand (John 10:26–30). It is immediately complicated by the presence of warning passages which seem to put Christian salvation at stake.
There are passages which demand perseverance to the end:
“Now I would remind you brothers, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:1–2)
Salvation is granted ’if’ we hold fast. If we don’t hold fast our original belief is in vain.
In the context of persecution Jesus said that it is “the one who endures to the end [who] will be saved” (Mark 13:13). To believing Jews Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31). True disciples will abide.
In addition to persevering warnings, there are holiness warnings also. In passages such as Galatians 5:19–21; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Ephesians 5:3–5, Paul addresses the church and lays out a list of sins and promises to whom the kingdom of God is not fit for.
So herein lies the problem. How can the unwavering promises of God not be contradictory to these and the many other warning passages?
How can the unwavering promises of God not be contradictory to the many other warning passages?
To resolve this tension we can find help in the narrative of Acts 27.
The Apostle Paul is a prisoner on a ship which becomes embroiled in an epic storm. After three days we are told that all hope of salvation was abandoned. But then Paul stands up and makes a stirring speech,
“Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.”
That is the unwavering promise of God’s protection.
As the story continues some of the soldiers panic and attempt to escape from the ship and Paul gives them a warning, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
So we have both a promise and a warning.
Now imagine Paul and the soldiers sitting safe around a fire later on the island, and they begin reflecting on what has happened. And finally one of the soldiers pipes up and says to Paul, “Paul you need to explain something to me, I don’t quite understand what happened out there—didn’t you promise that we would all be saved? But then how could you warn us that we won’t be saved unless we stay on the boat? Which one is true Paul? The promise or the warning?” To which Paul might respond, “Both. Both the promise and the warning were true. In fact they worked together. The purpose of the warning was to accomplish the promise. The warning was a means by which the promise would be fulfilled. You are alive here now aren’t you?” “Yes.” “And you heeded the warning didn’t you?” “Yes.” “And so you see the warning helped keep the promise.”
The purpose of the warning was to accomplish the promise. The warning was a means by which the promise would be fulfilled.
God’s warnings do not contradict God’s promises. They are means by which the promise is fulfilled. God promises to keep us but He doesn’t do it in a vacuum; He uses means and one of those means are dreadful warnings not to fall away.
In reality the warnings work on true Christians, and true Christians are kept in the faith by them. Others who are not true believers fall away and so the warnings become reality. These are not empty threats.
The great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon put it like this, “God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces... So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’”
We all need to hear the warnings. Christians need to hear in order to persevere. Unbelievers need to hear in order to come to Jesus.