Thursday, 16 September 2010

Safe and secure?

It's another of the distinctives of the Gospel as opposed to other religious messages - you can know that you have eternal life now - the reason is because salvation is not by works.  But the question arises, can we lose eternal life, or is it yours forever once you have it? 

The Bible teaches that eternal life is something that the person who trusts Christ for salvation has now (John 3 v15, 16, 36; 5.24; 6.47 etc.), and if it is eternal life then I think that implies that it cannot be lost.

The purpose of God guarantees the eternal security of every believer. What I mean by that is this: in Romans 8 v 28-30 we read about God’s purpose for His people, and the passage teaches that everyone who is justified will be glorified, “whom He justified, them He also glorified” (notice, in the purpose of God it is as good as done, so Paul says that the believer is already glorified! The person who trusts Christ for salvation is as secure as anybody in heaven!) Paul has already taught in Romans chapters 3-5 that justification is something we have the moment we put our faith in the Lord Jesus to rescue us; at that moment God clears us of every charge of guilt, and what Romans 8 teaches is that it is impossible for someone who has been justified not to be glorified.   A similar thought is found in John 6 v 37-40.  The Lord says the person who comes to Him will never be cast out, because it is the Father's will that none will be lost.

The power of God guarantees the eternal security of every believer, because we are "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation" (1Peter 1 v 5).  We are in His hand and none can pluck us out (John 10 v 27-30).

The death of Christ guarantees the eternal security of every believer. Hebrews 10 v 10 tells us that the believer has been sanctified (i.e. set apart for God) once for all by the sacrifice of Christ, and v14 says that those people are perfected forever (i.e. He has made them complete and whole in the sight of God). If a person is depending on Christ for acceptance with God then all the value of His sacrificial death is applied to them and all their sins are paid for.  Romans 8 v 34 shows that the believer in Christ can never be condemned because of the fact that Christ has paid for their sins. 
Not only does the death of Christ guarantee our security but the resurrection life of Christ guarantees our eternal security.  Believers are "accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1 v 6), and Christ is their Representative, so what the Bible teaches is that our acceptance with God depends on His acceptance.  The believer is as secure as He is, and the only way a believer in Christ can be lost is if Christ is lost!  As John says, we have boldness in the day of judgment, because as Christ is, so are we in the world (1John 4 v 17), which means that just as Christ is beyond judgment, so too is the believer, and it is just as impossible for Christ to suffer God's judgment again as it is for a Christian to suffer God's judgment.  He brings all who trust in the value of His sacrifice to the other side of judgment, never to come into it (John 5 v 24; Romans 8 v 1).
But can a true believer lose their faith? The Lord told Peter that He prayed for him that his faith would not fail (Luke 22 v 31, 32), and although Peter did fail, his faith in Christ didn’t, because the Lord was interceding for him, and Romans 8 v 34 and Hebrews 7 v 25 teach us that He intercedes for all His own as well so that a true believer will not lose their saving faith in Christ.

The Holy Spirit guarantees the eternal security of every believer. Ephesians 1 v 13, 14 tells us that, upon believing, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. People put a seal on things to keep them safe (e.g. Matthew 27 v 66), and God has put His seal on everyone who receives the Saviour, and that seal is His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the guarantee that we will come into the future glorious inheritance. In Ephesians 4 v 30 we read that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of redemption, that is, until the day the Lord comes and takes all believers to heaven. So when we put Ephesians 1 v 13 and 4 v 30 together what we discover is this: we are sealed by the Spirit from the moment we believed until the moment the Lord comes – therefore we cannot be lost. Note that in Ephesians 4 v 30 Paul says, “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed unto the day of redemption”; Paul does not say, “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God or you will be lost”! It is saying that even if we grieve the Spirit, we are still sealed – nothing can break it.
In addition, the Spirit of God is the pledge of our future inheritance - He is the First-fruit of glory to come, the guarantee that promised blessings will be realised and fulfilled (Ephesians 1 v 14; Romans 8 v 23).

When we examine these Scriptures that deal specifically with the subject of the security of the believer we see that the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) ensures the believer can never be lost.

Another important consideration in this issue is that the Bible teaches that salvation is by faith, not by works. Because God’s standard is perfection, and we have all fallen short of that, we can never earn salvation by works. But this also means we cannot keep our salvation by works. Salvation has to be by faith in Christ from start to finish. If keeping salvation depends upon our performance then how good does our performance have to be? At what point will the holy God say, “OK, I could tolerate those previous sins you had committed but that sin you have just committed is too much, and you’re out”? Either our salvation depends on our performance, in which case one sin is enough to disqualify us, or our salvation depends on Christ, in which case no sin can disqualify us because His death pays for our sins. If keeping our salvation depends on us being good enough, then none of us are good enough because God will not say certain sins or a certain number of sins are tolerable. The grace of God and the blood of Christ will either cover all our sins or none, but it won’t do a part way job. Also, if we have to keep our salvation by being good then those in heaven would have something to boast about, but the Bible says no one can boast, because salvation is completely by faith (Romans 4 v 1-8; Ephesians 2 v 8, 9).

Now this all needs clarified because people get the wrong impression, namely that someone can be saved and live a life of sin. If someone is prepared to live a selfish sinful life in light of the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ it evidences that they have never experienced it in reality.  It has to be said however, that if your understanding of salvation does not lead someone to make such an objection then your understanding of salvation is not the apostolic one because Paul anticipated the very same objection arising after his teaching on how sinners can be right with God (Romans 6 v 1).  The Bible teaches the believer cannot live in sin, but the reason why is because when someone believes on the Lord Jesus then the Holy Spirit comes in to dwell within them to empower them and motivate them to live a new life. The believer is born again and receives a new nature that loves holiness and hates sin. This new nature is not instead of the old sinful nature that we all were born with, but it is as well as the old nature, so every Christian experiences a struggle between the two natures, and whichever nature the Christian feeds will be the one which manifests itself. But the presence of the Holy Spirit means that a believer cannot and will not continue in a course of sin indefinitely, and they will not be happy when they are embarking on a sinful lifestyle – God will make them miserable to bring them to repentance.

But what about the verses that appear to say believers can lose their salvation? Remember that we have looked at passages of Scripture that deal directly with the subject of the believer’s security, and those passages teach explicitly that a child of God can never be lost, so all other passages need to be interpreted in the light of these clear verses. A lot of times people take Old Testament narrative passages and take statements they read there to teach that a believer can be lost. This is not a sound way to study the Bible. The passages in Scripture intended to teach us on a particular subject should be the passages we use to form our beliefs on that subject, and then we interpret narrative sections consistent with those beliefs.

When we come across verses that seem to suggest that salvation can be forfeited there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Often such verses are not stating the condition upon which people are saved, but the indispensible indications that people are saved. For example, if someone is living in a continued, settled course of rebellion against God, and they are happy in doing so, it indicates that they have never been born again, because the Spirit of God would not let them continue to live such a life. This is a theme John emphasises in 1st John; he points out that if we have been born into God’s family (i.e. born again) then it is obvious that we will exhibit characteristics of our Father, and if such “family traits” are missing then the conclusion is that the person has never been born again.

The book of Hebrews is a book that a lot of people take verses from to show that a believer can lose their salvation, but Hebrews is in a very specific context that needs to be understood. The writer is addressing Jews who have been presented with the Gospel and have seen the miraculous sign gifts that God gave to the early Christians to validate their message (abandoning all the God-given rituals of Judaism was something that they could not do without miraculous proof. That is one reason why the apostles had miraculous powers, and why we do not see the same things today). These Jews had become convinced of the truth of the Gospel, yet there were some who were tempted to turn away from fully embracing Christ as Lord and Saviour and turn back to the Jewish rituals, and the writer is warning them that if they sin wilfully in this way, then they are turning to a system that offers no salvation and no true sacrifice for sin. If they refuse the truth they have then it will be impossible to bring them to repentance. The “wilful sin” in Hebrews is to see the truth of the Gospel not take that final step, and to turn away from it to Judaism. It is nothing to do with a Christian deliberately committing a sin; and just think – if it was saying that sinning wilfully disqualifies a person from salvation, no one would be saved, because every Christian has sinned wilfully.

It is also true that people can have a false faith that is shallow or insincere. Praying the sinner’s prayer or coming to the front during an appeal etc. does not give someone a ticket to heaven. Many people make a response to the Gospel but do not repent (i.e. change their attitude towards sin). They can respond to the Gospel without having an appreciation of their guilt and helplessness, or they can “accept Christ” as a buddy, helper or example, but not as the Bible demands, as Lord and Saviour. Such people may show an initial change but soon revert to their old lifestyle. I would say that the Bible teaches that it is not the case that these people have lost their salvation but rather that they never actually had it.