If you’ve been paying attention to Christian celebrity culture in the last five years or so, you can probably think of an example of a deconstruction or deconversion story—the story of a person who although they once professed to trust Jesus for salvation, and perhaps even seemed to be bearing some fruit, now claims they no longer believe the Bible, follow Jesus, or wish to be associated with him. This has many believers asking: Can a believer lose their salvation?
The short answer is absolutely not. Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” That’s a promise. Or think of Jesus’s words in John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” And Paul’s words again in Romans 8:37–39—“nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The list of relevant Scriptures goes on: Ephesians 1:11–14 teaches that the Holy Spirit seals believers, guaranteeing their inheritance to come. Scripture is very clear. All those whom God has chosen, who have believed in Jesus, who have truly trusted in him, not one of them will be lost (cf John 6:37–40). That’s a great comfort to us! As the hymn “Come, Thou Fount” suggests, we are prone to wander away from the God we love, but he’ll keep us. It’s not because we’re so strong or noble. It’s not because we have enough willpower. It’s because of God’s great grace that he’s promised to keep us.
But what about places in the New Testament that have conditional language, like Colossians 1:21–23? This text says that you’re only reconciled if you persevere to the end. We ought to take this condition seriously, but I think it is a mistake to conclude that since there is a condition, then it is uncertain whether we’ll meet the condition. Yes, we must persevere to the end to be saved. That is a condition. But because of God’s grace in our lives, we will meet that condition.
People wonder how we should interpret Hebrews 6:4–8 or Hebrews 10:26–31? I take the person in Hebrews 6 to be a Christian—a true believer. He’s been enlightened. He’s tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the coming age. And yet, God warns this believer against falling away—that is, committing apostasy. Apostasy is turning your back on Jesus and refusing to follow him anymore. And Hebrews 10:26 teaches that if you sin deliberately, there’s no longer any forgiveness for sins. (Now that really can terrify people. I think a lot of Christians read Hebrews 10 to mean, “if I sin at all then I am damned.” But of course we all sin every day—there may even be dramatic ups and downs in our lives. Peter even denied Christ at one point, and yet he wasn’t condemned eternally.
The warnings in Hebrews teach us that we won’t be forgiven if we reject Jesus. Jesus sums up this truth up in his own words in Matthew 10:33 when he says, “If you deny me, I’ll deny you.” If you finally and fully deny Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and don’t place your faith in him, he’ll deny you on the final day.
But I’d also say this—and this is the good news—no true believer ever denies or rejects Jesus as the Son of God. In truth, God has given us these difficult warning passages to help us persevere in the long race of faith. God uses these warnings against apostasy to keep believers in the faith. The warnings are a means of perseverance.
Perseverance to the end is not perfection. It’s perseverance by faith. We do not persevere by sheer effort and through our works. All the works flow from resting in Christ, trusting in God, and depending on the Spirit. This call to perseverance can really be misunderstood. We must look to God in Christ to sustain us. And I would argue that all true believers do that.
We even see hints of this doctrine of perseverance in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:31–40 and Ezekiel 36:24–27, the New Covenant is described. These passages tell us that God’s laws will be written on hearts and the Spirit will live in God’s people, giving them new hearts. We learn here that those who belong to God are transformed. God’s people keep his law. And that promise of the Spirit is also seen in Joel 2:28–32, Isaiah 32:15, and Isaiah 44:3. Obedience is a marker of those who have the Spirit, not a requirement to receive the spirit.
When we then consider those who have “deconstructed” their faith and walked away from Jesus, we must keep in mind passages like the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. There are people who appear to have new life. They look like they belong to God. But when they fall away, it proves they were without roots, planted in rocky ground. This is supported by 1 John 2:19. John explains that those who leave the faith prove the reality that their faith was never real, or they would have persevered. “They went out from us because they were not of us.” As John says, if they were truly of us, they would have persevered.
God’s commands reveal whether we are truly his. For example, are we keeping God’s commandments? 1 John 2:3 teaches that those who have come to know Jesus obey his commandments. John’s not talking about perfection; he is talking about a direction in our lives. So if a person hasn’t changed at all—has no love for Jesus, no inclination to keep his commandments and so forth—John is saying, “well, then, you don’t really know him.”
Another example is, do we love one another? 1 John 2:10 teaches that those who are walking with Jesus will love one another. True believers will be marked by real and radical love. Do we care for one another? Do we pour ourselves out for others? Or are we just living by ourselves? A person who lives selfishly for himself, without compassion for others is likely not saved.
Be aware though, an anxious person can overemphasize these tests, worrying about their eternal soul. On the other side of the coin, a person may take the idea of “once saved, always saved” as permission to continue living licentiously.
But this is key: We are not called to anticipate who might fall into which category. We don’t need to anxiously fret about ourselves or others, wondering who will persevere.
In Galatians 3:3 Paul asks rhetorically if believers begin by the spirit but are perfected by the flesh. And through the rest of the letter, Paul uses phrases like “walk in the Spirit,” “be led by the Spirit,” “produce the fruit of the Spirit,” “march in step with the Spirit,” and “sow to the Spirit.” Our faith is animated by the Holy Spirit, not self-effort. And should we face anxiety, whether our own or that of a brother or sister in Christ, we respond, saying, “Look to Jesus; don’t look to yourself. Don’t worry about whether you can do it; you can’t. But Jesus did. Call on him for help. He’s faithful.”
Thomas R. Schreiner serves as the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has served since 1997. Before he joined the Southern faculty, he taught at Bethel Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of many books and articles including, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.