On “once saved, always saved”

The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book on the ordo salutis. Look for it later in 2023.

There are many churches that teach a doctrine of perseverance of a sort. Often couched in terms like “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved,” this common teaching is correct as far as it goes, but in not teaching the full doctrine of perseverance, it can be misconstrued.

The failing of much eternal security teaching is two-fold. First, it is taught in a manner where it is severed from its theological moorings. Second, the perspective from the human side, the perseverance of the believer, is often neglected.

Many Christians who affirm eternal security fail to affirm the other Reformed doctrines of grace. By not adhering to radical depravity of the whole man, the unconditional election of God, the particular and efficacious death of Jesus Christ for his own, and the effectual call of the Holy Spirit, the case for eternal security is robbed of its foundational underpinnings.

Christians who understand they are eternally secure based on some limited proof-texts may have a correct understanding, but it is not as fully grounded as it might be. Our security in Christ is rooted in massive theological truths. Consider this statement from the Westminster Larger Catechism:

True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, his continual intercession for them, and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 79

Why can’t a true believer fall away? It’s because of these foundational truths and realities that we are protected from apostasy. Teaching a doctrine of eternal security apart from the other Reformed doctrines related to salvation weakens our understanding.

The other, more critical error in the way that eternal security is taught is when the security of the believer is presented without the accompanying call to persevere until the end. The “if-then” statements are ignored (Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:6, 14; 1 Cor. 15:1-2; John 8:31)

In this form, the doctrine becomes sloganized as “once saved, always saved.” Or sometimes, “once saved, always saved, no matter what.”

On their face, these statements are certainly true. Once a person is truly saved, he will remain saved. But it’s possible to misconstrue these into a serious misunderstanding that can lead to false assurance. These slogans don’t go far enough; they leave out the necessary condition of the perseverance of the believer.

A professor of mine was once addressing the statement “once saved, always saved, no matter what,” and as he pondered it, he astutely said, “It kinda does matter what!” He was speaking to the neglect of the message that believers must persevere.

If “no matter what” means I can walk away, stop believing, stop trusting in Jesus Christ, not seek to confirm my election and calling, not check myself to see if I’m in the faith, then it is a departure from biblical teaching.

And unfortunately, that’s exactly what the failure to teach perseverance will do. It will lead people to false assurance based on a profession of faith rather than on true faith.

Failing to teach perseverance will lead people to false assurance based on a profession of faith rather than on true faith.

It is one of the great tragedies of the modern church that we give assurance of salvation to people who simply make a profession of faith. Then when they fail to demonstrate the necessary fruit of repentance, sanctification, and perseverance, they feel safe. However, if at one time in their life, they walked an aisle, signed a card, prayed a prayer, or even blossomed for a time, that is no sign of true saving faith.

But, if they add to their faith qualities like virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (see 2 Peter 1:5-7), then we can see proof of their saving knowledge of Christ. By means of these, they confirm their calling and election (1:10).

As a pastor, if I see one of my flock drifting away, falling into sin, possibly questioning the truth of Jesus Christ, my word to this troubled sheep is not, “Be at peace. You are in Christ. You accepted him as your Savior when you were 16. You are eternally secure.” No, my word to him or her must be, “Repent! Return to Jesus! Only by remaining firm in your faith until the end can you show that your confession of Christ is real.”

I dare not offer false assurance to such a one. Do I know in that moment if this is a true believer or not? Is it a Christian who is struggling? Or is it a person who made a false profession of faith and was never saved? No, I do not know. “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19). Regardless of the state of his soul, my word to this person is the same, “You must repent!”

We must not preach security without perseverance. We must preach and teach our people that the only authentic sign of a true child of God is holding firm to the end. As we have shown, the God who chose us, called us, regenerated us, justified us, adopted us, sanctifies us, intercedes for us also keeps us and enables us to endure and persevere.

2 responses to “On “once saved, always saved””

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