Can a Christian Lose Their Salvation? A Pastoral Response

I recently studied the book of Hebrews with a group from my church and had to address the question, “Can a Christian lose their salvation?”

sweet merciful

Yes, this question opens the proverbial can of worms. But I think it is important to address because this is an evergreen issue that intersects with several absolute truth claims of Christianity:

  • There is a God.
  • Humanity has rebelled against him.
  • That’s a problem.
  • He appeared as the man Jesus Christ and died to forgive our rebellion and bring us peace with him.
  • Judgment is coming. It is only through faith in Christ that we are saved.

So, can someone “get saved” at some point and then become “un-saved”? One way to answer it is with what I will call the “theological approach.”

catchy name

Can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not because your smile is creepily ambiguous so thank you, newly freed earthworm.

But the theological approach is basically this: 1) relevant texts from the entire Bible are compiled; and 2) a model is developed to reconcile the paradoxical concepts of election, the conscious response of belief, and the certainty of persevering in faith until the end.

um what

Let me put it another way – the theological approach tries to solve the dilemma between God’s sovereignty and the human will. There are a few schools of thought on this.

    give me an

I’ll give you the big three – Calvinism, Arminianism, and Molinism.

clearerleopardy

jeopardy

Arminius answer2

calvin answer2

molina answer 2

jeopardy3

Now, I’m not writing to critique any of these thinkers. Although, I do believe one of them has a better argument than the others.

Arminius answer6

Naw.

Anyway, I decided to write on this topic because I think there is another helpful approach for everyday Christians to take. This is the one the mysterious author of Hebrews employs. I call it the “pastoral approach.”

has anyone ever

Alright, now I’m pretty certain you’re mocking me. Knock it off, you recently liberated annelid.

did you just

Yes.

did you have

Yes.

smug worm

Your smugness is the thickest. But here’s what I mean by the pastoral approach. The author of Hebrews addresses the actual phenomenon, not the hypothetical question. In other words, he writes because

  • people he intimately knew
  • who had professed faith in Christ and showed signs of transformation
  • eventually renounced their faith and left the congregation.

They weren’t going through a season of doubt or “stumbling.” They had completely rejected Christ. And the author doesn’t think they had been faking their faith either.In his mind, they were equal participants in Christ.

Until they weren’t.

So he writes to encourage and warn people who were teetering on the brink of doing the same thing. That’s the central purpose of his letter. And I think this is usually why we ask this question in the first place. “Can a Christian lose their salvation?” most often translates into “how do I respond to [insert name]’s situation?”

so he does

Yes. Or, in his terms, “throw away,” “shrink back,” “reject,” “fall away,” and “drift away.”

aha

Hold the phone, Jake. That is because he is addressing the phenomenon from the human perspective. He is not concerned with the concept of election, which is the God-given identity marker of a Christian.

From our vantage point, we don’t know who is truly elect and who isn’t. Only God knows who he has chosen, whose faith is truly genuine, and who will persevere until the end. But we do know people who have showed every sign of faith only to later renounce it, and it is painful and confusing when this happens. So the author of Hebrews presents the church with guidance for how to respond to the issue of apostasy.

Here’s how.

The author makes several clear propositions that we must simultaneously affirm and proclaim:

  • Jesus is the only way to salvation (e.g. 7:25, 27, 10:14).
  • Salvation has present benefits but is something we are looking toward (1:14; 9:28; 12:22-23).
  • Those who utterly reject Jesus – regardless of prior confession, obedience, or passion – do not have access to the salvation he offers (e.g. 2:3; 3:12; 6:4-6; 10:26-27).
  • So hold on to Christ because only those who persevere in faith until the end will be saved (e.g. 3:6 14; 4:1, 11, 14, 16; 10:36).

The author doesn’t try to reconcile these statements but uses them for encouragement and warning, respectively. This is really as far as we can go, too.

so

So here is a grid for us as a church to operate on.

  • To those who profess Christ, encourage them to continue on.
  • To those who don’t, urge them to believe.
  • To those who have abandoned Christ, pray for their return.

And I think it is important to remember that Hebrews is concerned with faith at the end of our stories. We need to avoid the danger of prematurely assigning an end date for some people’s faith. Many of us embark on jagged journeys of faithfulness, and because of this we must continue to pray for and encourage one another. Temptation and suffering are ever-present dangers. This is why evangelism and discipleship doesn’t end with conversion. This is why we have to be reminded of the gospel constantly.

And he also reminds us that we can have assurance Of our salvation in the present, especially when our faith has been tested through suffering (e.g. 3:1; 6:9: 7:25; 10:39; 12:22; 13:20-21). Salvation is not fragile. Ultimately, I think the pastoral approach keeps us from two equal and opposite errors: assuming we’re saved while showing no evidence of faith or faithfulness, and fearing that we’ve lost it because we did something bad.

In the end, there are two certainties: 1) God does the sorting, and 2) there will be surprises. So we need to embrace the mystery of God’s will. As Eugene Peterson aptly puts it, “Mystery is not the absence of meaning, but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” The pastoral approach draws out both awe for God and action from us. It inspires both worship and discipleship.

And that is the summation of our Christian lives.

____________________

1 The epicenter for the interpretation that the author thinks the deserters were never true believers is Hebrews 6:4-8. But the language he uses doesn’t support it.  The same verb for “enlighten” is used in reference to both those who have fallen away and those who still believe (6:4 and 10:32). The verb for “taste” in 6:4 is similarly used by other NT authors in relation to death, which is a full and equal experience (Mt 16:28; Mk 9:1; Lk 9:27; Jn 8:52). And the adjective “shared” is used of both believers and the apostate (6:4; 3:1, 14). From the author’s perspective, the departed looked like Christians, talked like Christians, and acted like Christians. 

Christian, husband, pastor, father. Occasionally, I try to arrange words into sequences that make a difference.