Once saved always saved?

Why threaten Christians with hell?

Thursday 1 December 2016 by Ad Taylor-Weekes

Go Deeper Book Review

When reading through Hebrews as we have been on Sundays, we may, at various points, come up against this question in our minds: can a genuine believer lose their salvation?

For those who have been brought up to believe, “Once saved, always saved,” when they read the Bible warning Christians about hell it can seem incongruous. For those who believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, the idea that our entrance into heaven depends on anything we can do, even our perseverance, can seem heretical. So, what are we to make of verses that seem to imply these things? How do we reconcile them with our thoroughly Biblical view that genuine believers will always make it?

 

Firstly, virtually nothing that I’m about to write is new, or my idea, although I’ve tried to articulate it in my own words. In effect what follows is a summary of the writing of Thomas Schreiner in: The Race Set Before Us (Schreiner and Caneday 2001); Run to win the prize (Schreiner 2009); Warning and assurance: run the race to the end (The Perfect Saviour; ed.  Jonathan Griffiths 2012) and Commentary on Hebrews (Schreiner 2015.) These books are all on my shelf if you'd like to borrow them.

There are several general points that I want to make to outline the position Schreiner holds, and that has influenced my understanding and preaching:

1) Warnings occur throughout the Bible but those found in Hebrews, which concern us here, are: 2:1-4; 3:12-14; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29

2) The warning passages in Hebrews should be read synoptically. That is to say, they are all basically saying the same thing to the same group of people and, therefore, each passage helps us in understanding the others. So, for example, Hebrews 6 is not addressed to a different section of the church or churches than Hebrews 2.

3) There have been several different ways, historically, of understanding these passages. The differences usually centre around i) who is the warning addressed to? ii) what is the sin? iii) what consequence is being threatened if the warning is not heeded? iv) what is the purpose of the warning?

4) At the outset, I prefer the view that answers: i) Christians are addressed ii) apostasy is the sin being warned against – i.e. rejecting the offer of salvation iii) loss of salvation and eternal judgement is the consequence iv) warnings are part of God’s means of saving his people. And the answer to the big question is, “No. Genuine believers won’t lose their salvation because the warnings are always effective in the lives of those chosen by God.”

So yes, the writer warns Christians by threatening them with hell, but genuine believers will always heed the warnings that are part of God’s means of ensuring that his people persevere.

 

 

Next, let me outline some common alternative views using the questions above:

1) Yes. Genuine believers can lose their salvation.

Who is addressed? Believers

What is the sin? Apostasy

What is at stake? Salvation

Purpose: it is possible to fall away (reject Jesus) and suffer loss (of salvation)

 

2) No. Genuine believers can’t lose their salvation but they can lose rewards.

Who is addressed? Believers

What is the sin? Lack of fruitfulness

What is at stake? Rewards

Purpose: it is possible to fall away (be fruitless) and suffer loss (of rewards)

 

3) No. Genuine believers can’t lose their salvation and these warnings are tests of genuineness.

Who is addressed? Almost believers (Hebrews 6) or a mixed congregation

What is the sin? Apostasy

What is at stake? Salvation

Purpose: to encourage self-examination: “Am I really saved?”

 

4) No. Genuine believers can’t lose their salvation. These warnings are hypothetical.

Who is addressed? Believers.

What is the sin? Apostasy (if it could happen)

What is at stake? Salvation (but nothing really)

Purpose: to show how serious apostasy would be (if it were possible)

 

 

 

The trouble is that none of these views seem to take the warning passages at face value, apart from view 1, which then draws unbiblical conclusions about the lack of security of genuine believers. Is there a better way? I think so:

 

5) No. Genuine believers can’t lose their salvation. The warnings are God’s means of ensuring they persevere.

Who is addressed? Believers

What is the sin? Apostasy

What is at stake? Salvation

Purpose: to ensure that genuine believers persevere to the end

 

Let me clarify the following:

1) To say that believers are addressed is not to deny that the congregation was made up of both believers and unbelievers. Nor is it to say that everyone who heard the warning heeded it. It is simply to say that the writer is warning Christians and uses terms that describes Christians. He even includes himself as needing to heed the warning.

2) Apostasy is rejection of salvation. It is not wobbles in our faith; it is not moments of questioning what I believe and why; it is not momentary lapses in holiness. It is a decision to turn our backs on Jesus and the gospel.

3) Salvation is often described in the Bible as being prospective rather than retrospective. The Bible describes believers as having been saved (past), as being saved (present), and as looking forward to one day being saved (future). The final sense is predominant in Hebrews. Therefore, what is at stake is final, eschatological salvation i.e. the warnings are not to work out whether we are saved, but whether we will be saved. And the point is that we will only be saved if we persevere in trusting Jesus.

4) Although on the face of it warning people about a reality that will not happen may seem pointless, just because the overall outcome is secure doesn’t rule out the use of means to get there. Salvation, which is granted by God before the beginning of the world, is still effected through the means of repentance and faith and the cross etc.

5) The effect of reading and hearing the warnings like this, in my view, proves the point. In view 2 or 3, the impact of the warning is lost and it's difficult to see what it achieves. If I’ve made a profession of faith at 7 and been baptised but then end up living my life apart from Christ then I’m going to hear the warnings and think either (in view 2) "Well at least I'll still make it to heaven" or (in view 3) "If I'm truly saved then this won't be true of me." But if I’m in this same situation and I’m faced with the very real prospect that unless I persevere in Christ then, no matter what previous commitments I've made or experiences I've had, I’m headed for hell, then I might just wake up and smell the coffee. As a Christian, reading those warnings through the lens of view 2 or 3, effectively allows me to ignore them in my own life because they don’t apply to me. But through view 5, it actually gives me greater motivation to cling to the cross and the finished work of Christ every day; it increases my desire to be growing in fruitfulness; it gives me greater assurance of my salvation which is only ever based on what Christ has done and not on how fruitful I am today or in the past.

 

Finally, there is a story in the Bible that illustrates this principle. It is found in Acts 27. Paul is being taken as a prisoner by ship to Rome. On the way, a storm hits and the ship is in trouble; the whole crew is facing death. But Paul assures the people in 27:23, “‘…I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” So, keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me...’”

Despite this, however, a bit later we read that some of the crew tried to escape, v30, “In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.’ So, the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.”

The interesting thing from our point of view is this 1) God made a promise to Paul that the lives of all who sailed would be kept safe 2) People tried to save themselves instead 3) Paul threatens them with loss of life if they leave the boat. Why was the warning necessary (given by Paul) if the outcome was already secure (promised by God)? Paul’s warning was God’s means of bringing about what he had promised – certain salvation.

Ad Taylor-Weekes

Ad works most-time for Emmanuel Bath as the Pastor. The rest of the time he is a music leader and a guitar teacher both privately and in a school in Wiltshire. He's husband to Jane and father to four lively children. He grew up in Bath and studied at the Cornhill Training Course from 2003-2005.
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