WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS ABOUT ETERNAL SECURITY
By Ralph Sorter
Soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, centers on the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Its theme spans both the Old and New Testament. It’s all about God reconciling sinful man to Himself, to restore the broken relationship that sin produced. With the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, redemption was accomplished. The result is that we are in God’s eyes a new creation; the old is passed away and all things are new.
There are a variety of views concerning salvation – all the way from a works-based approach and law keeping, to extreme predestination, where man has to do absolutely nothing. In the doctrine of salvation (as with any important doctrine of the Bible) one must apply the rules of hermeneutic interpretation. Without these guidelines, one can come up with any sort doctrine by just making the scriptures say what you want them to say. It is these rules of biblical interpretation that guided us away from false doctrine and into the safety of the truth of the Word of God. Therefore, I will review some of the rules of hermeneutic exegesis; that is, proper biblical interpretation.
- A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or their readers.
- Who is the passage written to? Is the command, promise, warning, etc, written to a select group, or to all?
- Under which covenant was it written? The Christian is obligated only to that which Christ, the Apostles, or any New Testament writer brings from the Old into the New, or what they wrote.
- Interpret scriptures in light of their context. Look at the verses before and after (sometimes you need to scan previous chapters) to gain the context of the verse in question. Never take a verse out of its literary context.
- Your interpretation of one verse must never contradict or conflict with another verse of like subject. If it does not agree with other verses on the same or similar subject, you have not finished your homework of hermeneutical interpretation.
- When interpreting parables/stories, always stick to the original interpretation as explained by the speaker or author of the text.
- Passages must be understood and interpreted in light of the historical particularity in which the author wrote. Never take a verse out of its historical context. Pay attention to historical, social and cultural contexts.
- Find the meaning of the words in the original languages. Meaning is sometimes lost or confused during the process of interpretation. If you do not know how to interpret the original languages, use the most accurate English translation available; such as the New American Standard or the Revised Standard Version. Do not depend on a functional equivalent or paraphrase version for proper exegesis. (The version used in this article is the New American Standard, one of the most literal English versions on the market. Go to: http://www.thomasnelson.com/consumer/dept.asp?dept_id=1117932&TopLevel_id=100000)
The Source of Our Salvation
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:11-14)
Our salvation is provided by the loving, gracious act of God in giving up His Son in our place to atone for our sin. Grace sets us free from the necessity of trying to enter heaven by any law code. Under grace we break the commandments, but because of God’s grace and our faith, we escape the penalty. This is called the vicarious or substitutionary atonement. In other words, Christ suffered and died for our sins in our place. Rom. 3:23-26; Mk. 10:45
The doctrine of salvation is unique in Christianity in that outside of the Bible, the way to salvation is always by works, merit or achievement. This is why, in part, so many avoid conversations about salvation; and it’s because they don’t want to add a list of do’s and don’ts to their already busy list.
The basis of salvation by grace is rooted in what God does in justification. Justification means that we are made right in the eyes of God, not on the basis of what we have done, but on the basis of what He did…He sent His Son to die in our place. Rom. 5:1-2, 9-11, 17-19
Connected to justification is imputed righteousness. Impute means to credit, to attribute God’s own righteousness to the sinner’s account. 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8-9 Justification is our state declared by God and He credits His own righteousness to our account; but that does not mean we are free of our responsibility to personal righteousness. Our own personal righteousness does not earn our salvation, but we have a responsibility to live to the standard Christ has put us when He imputed His righteousness upon us. See Phil. 3:12-16; Col. 3:1-2; 3:4-5. When we are born again in Christ, we are a new creature. Our sins are gone and the old man died with Christ at the cross. The trouble is that our old nature keeps resurrecting itself because we have a memory. Therefore our old memories have to die a little bit every day – where we choose to walk a closer to the example of Christ. This is the battle of walking in the Spirit vs. walking in the flesh. To illustrate, when we are sick and go to the doctor and get an injection, flowing through our blood is the cure. But it takes time for the antibodies to find their target and destroy the bug that made us sick. Likewise, the Spirit is present in our soul and as we say “yes” to His prompting and conviction, the bug of sin is destroyed one decision after another.
This process of matching our righteousness with the righteousness of God is not a process we are left to achieve on our own. God is at work in assisting us in walking the talk…matching the practice with the position. This process is called regeneration and sanctification. Upon salvation, there is an inner change affected towards sin’s tempting pull. Jesus changes the desire in us, puts to death our desire to sin, and puts a new desire in our heart to want to please God. He puts the Holy Spirit in our heart to alert us to the lie of temptation and give us the power to resist. Rom. 6:6-22; Gal. 5:16-18
A Proper Understanding of Eternal Security
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10 27-28, Jesus is speaking.)
This is the hallmark verse in regards to eternal security. A proper understanding of it can give us great peace; but that understanding must harmonize with all other verses of the Bible. If your interpretation of it is in opposition with other verses with the Bible, then you haven’t done your exegesis correctly. First of all, let’s look at what the verse does say. It says that those that follow Jesus, He gives eternal life to them. This is key to understanding eternal security and our harmony with other verses. It is in our act of faith of following Jesus that is rewarded with eternal life. This is not salvation by works…for no work of man can secure our salvation; our salvation is wrought by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ alone. But God looks for our faith in Him as evidenced in following Him. It is in our continual following of Jesus that gives us eternal security; but as we shall see below, if we choose to not follow Him, that is, defect from Him, then our salvation is not secure. Secondly in our John passage, Jesus states that not only will they never perish, but no one will snatch them out of His hand. No outside source or power can snatch the follower of Christ out of His hand. But proper exegesis harmonizes this with other passages to understand that it is only outside sources or powers that cannot snatch us from His hand, but we can choose on our own volition to no longer follow Christ; and if we do so, our salvation is no longer secure.
There is another great verse that underscores our eternal security, 1 John 5:11-13. “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
To have the Son (Jesus Christ) as your Savior is to have life. If you do not have the Son, you do not have life. To properly harmonize that verse with other passages, we must understand that that also means letting go of the Son results in losing eternal life.
Often the rebuttal is spoken that if someone deserts Christ, then they never were a true follower in the first place…for if you are a true follower of Christ, you would never desert Him. That statement is not only inconsistent with real life experiences, but it’s also inconsistent with scripture, which I will reveal now.
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)
To understand this verse you must ask, “Who are these that have fallen away, and it is impossible to renew them again to repentance?” The Hebrew writer was very careful in explaining who this might be…and rightly so, for this is crucial to understanding our eternal security. He gives multiple characteristics, “for in the case those…” Those characteristics are:
1. They have once been enlightened.
2. They have tasted of the heavenly gift (which could be the Holy Spirit of our salvation).
3. They have been made a partaker of the Holy Spirit.
4. They have tasted the good word of God.
5. They have experienced the powers of the age to come.
These characteristics of the subject of the sentence (“for in the case those…who have fallen away”) can only describe someone who has become a Christian. None of these characteristics are spoken elsewhere in the Bible as referring to anyone that is not a Christian. But you do find these elsewhere in scripture as characteristics of a follower of Christ. Remember one of our hermeneutic principles at the beginning of this article? It states that you cannot make the scripture say something that it was never meant to say. In this case the meaning of the text is clearly stated. So, if we condense the above 5 characteristics into “a Christian,” then the text would say: “For in the case of those who once have been a Christian, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance…”
Now we must use one of our other hermeneutic principles: find the meaning of the words in the original languages. This is critical in this verse if we are to harmonize this with our view of eternal security. The word in the Greek for “have fallen away” is parapipto. It means “to fall away, to make defection from, to commit apostasy.” It way the word was used in the New Testament days was to refer to a soldier who had defected from the ranks and went over to the side of the enemy. In other words, you once were a soldier in the Lord’s army, but now you have defected and gone over to the other side. You once were a believer, but by your own choosing, you choose to no longer believe. When that happens, the Hebrew writer says that they have fallen away and it’s impossible to renew them to repentance.
There are two more characteristics of the subject of this sentence that the writer describes: “they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” Clearly these are descriptions of someone who has defected to the other side.
Clearly the Calvinist definition of eternal security cannot be reconciled with this passage, and we have stated that an interpretation that does not agree with all other passages about the subject is a wrong conclusion.
Now we can state an early conclusion to our proper understanding of eternal security. A secure believer, with the promise of eternal life, is one who continues to follow Jesus Christ and does not deny (defect) their faith in Him. As we shall see, this is in harmony with other passages on salvation.
Let’s take a look at some other scriptures to further confirm this conclusion.
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:26-29)
Let’s exegete this passage to understand it. First of all, we need to understand who the “we” is in the first sentence, “for if we go on sinning willfully.” The answer to this question is found in verse 19: “Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus.” It’s clear that he is talking to Christians by the term “brethren” and only Christians are covered by the blood of Jesus so that they have permission to enter the holy place.
Second, we need to understand the phrase “go on sinning willfully.” If this is referring to Christians that knowingly, willfully commit occasional sins, then there is no eternal security and we are all in a lot of trouble. But that’s not the case here; we need to examine the verse further. The phrase, harmartano keousios, go on sinning willfully, is in the present perfect tense in the Greek. That means you take the current state (present tense) of sinning willfully, and freeze it there indefinitely (perfect tense). In other words, this is talking about a Christian that knows they are sinning and chooses to stay in that state. This is describing the defector once again that we were talking about in chapter 6 above…someone who once was a Christian and knowingly rebels in sin and chooses to stay there. How do we know they are a defector? Verse 29 describes the characteristics of the defector:
#. They trample under foot the Son of God.
- They regard as unclean the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified.
- They insult the Spirit of grace.
So what is the state of the person who goes on sinning willfully? The Hebrew writer says there is no sacrifice for their sins, but they can expect the opposite – a terrifying judgment.
The Hebrew writer then later offers a warning to the person in that state (thus showing further context of the passage) in verse 35-36 & 38-39: “Therefore, (a statement of conclusion in relation to the preceding verses) do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised… And if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but to those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” The warning is to not throw away your position in Christ, which is secure if you continue to follow Him; so they need to endure the temptation to sin and continue to follow the will of God so that they will receive what was promised.
Does this mean that if any of us (Christians) sin, our salvation is in jeopardy? No. There is no eternal security in that stand. Rather, if any of us sin, we have an Advocate with the Father who intercedes with us as we confess our sins and the Father cleanses us from our sins. The above verse from chapter 10 is not talking about the occasional sin all of us commit; it’s talking about the Christian that chooses to go on sinning willfully, trampling underfoot the Son of God, regarding unclean the blood of the covenant, and insulting the Spirit of grace. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t describe me. But it does describe the state of a defector.
Are there other verses in the Bible that support this position? Yes – many of them. Without going into lengthy exegesis of each verse, let me just list them here.
Ø “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:1-3)
Ø “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb. 3:12-19)
Ø Hebrews 4:1-11 Verses 1, 6 & 11 are listed here: “Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it… Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience… Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience.”
Ø “He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before the angels.” (Rev. 3:5) (Implying that if we do not overcome, he will erase their name.)
Ø “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” (Matt. 7:21-23)
Ø “And at that time many will fall away and will deliver up one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many. And because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:10-13)
Ø “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of hypocrisy of liars searing in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.” (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
Ø “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ – which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:20-21)
Ø “For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” (Titus 1:10-16)
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)
Hallelujah, what a wonderful plan…this plan of salvation. Woven through the pages of the Bible from beginning to end is a scarlet thread of redemption for the salvation of sinful man. One has to ask why God created man in the beginning when He knew He would have to crucify His only Son to save sinful man from eternal damnation. Yet Scripture says He knew He would send His Son from the foundations of the earth.
What man needed most, but was helpless to obtain, was given as a free gift to all those who believe in Jesus’ atoning death as full payment for our deliverance. His supreme act of sacrifice restored our position of favor before God. Satan’s cruel reign has no dominion over the one who is covered with the precious blood of Jesus Christ. Praise the Lord!