Seven years ago, I began a journey that has filled my spirit with both wonderment and heartbreak: the life of a Bible college student and theologian. Throughout the years I have seen many come to know Christ, but I have sadly seen many others walk away from their faith. At times these people were very devout and sincere Christians, heavily involved in church ministry (including as pastors) and with brilliant testimonies. This strange occurrence has resulted in a certain theological topic permeating my thoughts. I think most of you who have known me in theological contexts for a while probably know what it is. The question is: Is it possible to lose your salvation?
Well, currently, I still do not have a definite answer. However, I can tell you about where some of my research has been leading me. Of course, I recognize that different people will have different thoughts on this topic and I suppose in the end of the day, most of it is simply mere conjecture since the only One who knows for sure what the case is is Christ Himself. But I am happy to engage with others… I feel I need a bit more theological background in this area.
1) No. I do not believe it is possible to LOSE your Salvation per say. For example, in Revelation 3:5 we read that once our names are written in the book of life, it is impossible for them to be blotted out (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Rev.+3%3A5&version=ESV). That’s good news. It means that no matter how much you mess up (because we all sin, no one is perfect Romans 3:10: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A10&version=ESV ), there is nothing you could ever do that would totally and utterly distance you from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A38&version=ESV). Of course, if you are a Christian, your chief aim would be pleasing God – you wouldn’t want to willingly do what you know would break His heart. But the truth remains, that we do hurt God, constantly. But God is forgiving and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103%3A8&version=ESV).
2) That being said, I don’t think it is so cut-and-dry to say that if someone willingly walks away from Christ they were therefore never truly a Christian to begin with. There are a few major thoughts on this topic:
*Many Calvinists would say either you are a Christian or you’re not one. If someone has tasted and seen the Lord’s glory, why would they reject it (1 Peter 2:3: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Peter+2%3A3&version=ESV)?
(Those who object to this view would likely cite the Charles Templeton example as a tragic case of a supposedly-sincere Christian who led many to Christ only to renounce his faith years later).
Let me answer this question to the best of my ability: WHY WOULD SOMEONE WHO KNEW CHRIST (and possibly was even passionate) WALK AWAY FROM HIM? The Bible gives us a few ideas:
A) When they heard the Word of God at first they were enthusiastic. They accepted it with great joy. BUT they didn’t realize how hard it would be. They didn’t realize the cost of discipleship. The moment it got hard, they called it quits. (The Parable of the Sower: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+13). Maybe they WERE sincere and excited when they first heard the message, but they lacked the discipline or they failed to have an adequate person mentor and disciple them in the beginning stages of the process.
B) They back-slid. This is quite common in people who make a personal decision to follow Christ at a young age. They might have been very sincere at 4 or 7, but now they are 17 – they are facing peer pressure. Their friends think it is ludicrous to believe in God. They want to fit in, so they give in to the cultural pressures of the day (like drinking, sex, drugs, parties, or whatever else teens and young adults do). They may feel confused. They may still feel the Holy Spirit nagging them to stop, but they also want to be “cool.” There is both good news and bad news with this one. The bad news is that it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit to the point that you numb out anything He is telling you (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+4%3A30&version=ESV). At first you might feel guilty, but if you keep doing what you are doing, soon you can no longer hear His voice. You have hardened your heart and are unwilling to be moved. The GOOD news is that I have seen many, many people turn around. Yes, they might have gone through a “phase” for a few years, but lots of them once they get married and have their own kids do come back to the church because having a kid adds responsibility and they start thinking more seriously about how that child should be raised. Many of them are now super involved and reaching out in various ways. They recognize what they did in their teen years as wilfully going against Christ, but now they are completely willing to change that.
C) They sincerely accepted the Truth, but whoever taught them the Truth only gave them half the answer. Sadly, I have been to a few churches which teach a false Gospel message. These groups do have converts, but those converts are often exposed to extreme prosperity theology (not Biblical prosperity which is a different topic for another day). They might be told that being a Christian means being rich or that they will never face sickness, financial difficulties, or hardships. So when hard times arise (and this is inevitable) they lose their faith. They start questioning how God can be real and allow this to happen. They haven’t properly learned that even (and sometimes especially) Christians do face discouragement and difficulties, but that the answer to all of our problems lies in Christ.
Furthermore, it is also possible for a well-meaning and sincere Christian teacher who hasn’t properly been trained and discipled in the Word to lead others astray. Often-times this is quite unintentional. For example in Acts 18:24-28 we read about Apollos – an early church apostle who was an eloquent speaker, an able scholar, and a tad charismatic. Apollos was on fire for God and wanted to tell the masses all about Him, but unfortunately, He only knew half the truth (even though he had been well-schooled). Thankfully, Priscilla and Aquila – two more mature believers, took him aside and properly discipled and mentored him. Once he was on the right track, he continued preaching, but with an even greater awareness of how to reach those around him (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+18%3A24-28&version=ESV). This is the same today. Sometimes pastors haven’t had the opportunity to learn from Godly leaders or maybe they went to a seminary that didn’t accurately explain the Gospel – but when we meet these types of leaders, we need to encourage them in their enthusiasm, while also allowing them opportunities to come to know Christ in a deeper way.
D) Yes, it’s possible that they were never truly Christians to begin with. For whatever reason, some people want to pay lip-service to Christ without His love ever fully penetrating the deepest recesses of their hearts. The Bible repeatedly warns against false teachers (including a few incredible ones who even appeared to have supernatural powers and to perform miracles Matthew 7:21-23 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%207:21-23). Yet, although these people knew Christ with their lips, they didn’t know Him with their hearts (Matthew 15:8: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+15%3A8&version=ESV). In Revelation 3 we see the contrast of two different churches (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+3&version=ESV). The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but in reality was dead (v.1) – people looked at this church and thought “WOW!” Maybe you know a church like this. One that might be heavily involved in the community, might have good music, might have lots of people coming to it – but their teaching is so weak that it’s obvious Christ’s Spirit left that place decades ago. Now contrast this with the church in Philadelphia. Although this church “had little strength,” they firmly held on to the Word and were unwavering in their presentation of the Gospel (v.8). Maybe you’ve also seen a church like this: on the outside they might be small, maybe they have a declining or ageing congregation… but they are MIGHTY! You walk in and you can automatically feel how real and tangible the Holy Spirit is in that place. It’s an incredible feeling!
These are just a few of the scenarios I have come up with, there likely are several more versions this could take. Ultimately, it is not for us to be the Gatekeepers to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not for us to choose who gets to be in and who doesn’t. We shouldn’t walk around thinking that only Christians who look and talk exactly like us are welcomed, while anyone else is forbidden entrance. In Philippians 2:12 we are told to “work out your OWN salvation with fear and trembling.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+2%3A12&version=ESV) In other words, we are to mind our own business. To think about our own lives – if the way we are living is pleasing to God (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+4%3A11&version=ESV). Not worry about anyone else’s. Not be busybodies with a checklist always comparing ourselves to the people around us (because that can very easily lead to pride). It is entirely God’s choice who is sincere and who is not.
However, after all my research, here is my final conclusion (which I borrowed from my friend David):
It is impossible to LOSE your salvation, however it is entirely possible to WALK AWAY from your salvation.
Salvation is not a zero-sum win/lose type of activity. It is a constant and growing relationship with Christ. We are told in the Gospels that people will know us by our fruits – by our actions, by how we love (Matthew 7:16: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A16&version=ESV). In 1 John 4:20 it states that “anyone who says he loves God, but hates a brother or sister is a liar and God’s truth is not in him.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+john+4%3A20&version=ESV) Salvation isn’t just about a one-off, emotional appeal to the Father, but about daily learning what pleases him – which definitely includes having a right and positive regard for those around us as well.
So, is it possible to lose your salvation? No. But if you aren’t walking around with the love of Christ in your heart, engaging with the “least of these” and showing compassion and grace to others around you – then you need to ask yourself: am I really, truly a Christian? And if your answer is yes, then you need to follow it up with one other question: why am I more concerned with mere theology and words than with putting it into practice? Because ultimately, you can say whatever you want to say, you can identify however you want to identify – but your lifestyle is your public display to the world and it will be the measure by which people are either drawn closer to Christ or else repelled by Him.