“Don’t tell the kids that they can’t lose their salvation! They’ll live like the devil if you do.” Those words were spoken to me, by a venerable saint–one of my sweet, godly Sunday School teachers. He issued this warning after I had just finished teaching 3rd through 5th grade boys in our church Awana club.
I had taught them about their security in God through Jesus. I had taught them a doctrine commonly known as ETERNAL SECURITY. It can be really unnerving when a man you respect calls into question your Bible teaching. Especially when you’re only 19 and he’s about 80.
I have thought about his comment over the years. Here’s where I’ve landed: I call this gentleman’s approach the SCARED STRAIGHT approach to Christian living and obedience. If the only way you can get people to follow Jesus is by scaring them with the threat of hell, then the whole gospel message is impotent.
I believe in Eternal Security. I believe in the idea, “Once Saved, Always Saved.” I also believe that it is this doctrine that really clarifies the true nature of the gospel as a gospel of grace. When people first hear about eternal security, their eye’s light up. It’s as if they really get the depths of the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death.
In this post I’ll define Eternal Security and distinguish it from related doctrines. In the next post I’ll defend it. I do want to say that there are godly Christians who sincerely seek to understand their Bibles on both sides of this issue, so I wouldn’t make this a prerequisite of friendship. But it is an amazing, life-changing teaching.
Here are some ways that other Bible teachers have defined Eternal Security:
- Charles C. Ryrie. Eternal Security: The work of God which guarantees that the gift of God (salvation), once received, is possessed forever and cannot be lost.
- Harry Ironside [for many years pastor at Moody Church]. When we speak of the eternal security of the believer, what do we mean? We mean that once a poor sinner has been regenerated by the Word and the Spirit of God, once he has received a new life and a new nature and has been made partaker of the divine nature, once he has been justified from every charge before the throne of God, it is absolutely impossible that that man should ever again be a lost soul.
- R.T. Kendall [who succeeded Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, London]. We are not saying once saved, always obedient. We are not saying once saved, always perfect. We are not saying once saved always godly. It is once saved, always saved.
Eternal security means that God himself bears all the burden for you to be secure. Once you have, by faith, cast the burden of your salvation on the Lord, then God himself bears all the burden for you to stay secure forever. Your eternal destiny is forevemore out of your hands; it is in the hands of God. Bringing you safely home to heaven becomes his personal burden and responsibility.
That is Eternal Security. Here are a couple of supporting verses. DON’T go peppering me with opposing verses until after tomorrow’s blog, okay? I’m defining today, defending tomorrow. Thanks.
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38, 39, NKJV.
“Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25, NKJV.
““My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.” John 10:27-29, NKJV.
Distinctions from Other Doctrines
There are other theological concepts related to Eternal Security that are not exactly the same.
ASSURANCE: Assurance refers to the level of your personal confidence in your salvation. It is you hearing and resting in the inner whisper of the Holy Spirit who tells you that you belong to God (“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” Romans 8:16, NKJV.)
Sometimes you hear and respond to this inner witness, other times you don’t. Sometimes you feel confident, other times you don’t. Assurance comes and goes. Security does not–it is permanent. Assurance is subjective and experiential. Eternal Security is objective and a matter of faith and doctrine.
Assurance is God’s gift to his children when we live faithfully with him, and when we take him at his Word. Assurance grows stronger as you grow mature, and as you grow deeper in God’s word.
When a believer fails to grow, or fails to obey God, assurance can be lost (not salvation, not security, just assurance). You are forgiven, but you don’t feel forgiven: “For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.” 2 Peter 1:9, NKJV.
PERSEVERANCE: Perseverance is one of the central tenets of Calvinism. (It’s the P in TULIP). It teaches that once a person is saved, it is impossible for that person to abandon herself to sin, and to in a final, lasting way defect from the faith and turn her back on Jesus. This is different than what eternal security says.
- Eternal security means that you are always saved no matter what.
- Perseverance means that you will always stay and act and believe saved (apart from lapses into “grievous sins”) no matter what, and that it is your lifestyle that proves your salvation.
See the difference? John Murray describes it this way:
The doctrine of perseverance is the doctrine that believers persevere. . . . It is not at all that they will be saved irrespective of the their perseverance or their continuance, but that they will assuredly persevere. Consequently the security that is theirs is inseparable from their perseverance. Is this not what Jesus said? “He than endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.”
I am in sympathy with this doctrine when it is rightly formulated. The problem is when teachers imply that if you fall way from God, it proves that you were not or are not saved. Or when teachers imply that no one can be certain of his salvation–you’re always on edge until you die. These are mis-applications of the doctrine of perseverance.
The Westminster Catechism (Calvinistic) correctly affirms:
Nevertheless [believers] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein; whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit: come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts; have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (sec. 3).
In other words, perseverance does not rule out the possibility that a Christian my fall into “grievous sins”. Understood this way, I’m on board.
I see Eternal Security as the larger doctrine, encompassing within it Perseverance. I know this contradicts the esteemed John Murray. But if you reverse it, you run the risk of legalism. Which comes first, security or perseverance? Answer: security. The logical sequence is:
- Eternal security (a gift from God, effective the moment of salvation)
- Perseverance (equally a gift of God, throughout the Christian life)
- Assurance (also a gift of God, though reserved for those who walk with God)
It is only because you are secure, that you can persevere (continue) living with Jesus until the end of your life. This does not rule out your ability to sin, or disobey, or do evil. It simply affirms that the indwelling life and power of Christ will be operative in you 24/7, and that if you resist him continually, you’ll crack up and break down. God will not let you be satisfied in a life of sin.
The moment that the burden of perseverance is conceptually shifted from the shoulders of God to the shoulders of the follower of God, it becomes legalism. It becomes a SCARED STRAIGHT approach to Christian behavior modification. The correct approach would be an appeal to follow Jesus NOT based on fear, but on grace:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” Romans 12:1, NKJV.
The Bottom Line
The Bottom Line is Calvary! How much of the burden of salvation did Jesus bear on the cross–SOME OF IT? or ALL OF IT? (check one).
All of it! All of it! All of it! And I rest on him entirely. It’s not I’m holding onto him. He’s holding onto me, and he’ll never let me go.
Once saved, always saved. Thank God.
I’ll keep telling anybody who cares to listen. Including the kids. Even my kids.