The vast majority of Evangelical and Reformed theologians accept the doctrine which teaches that no man who has been sovereignly elected to salvation will be lost (John 6:39, 10:25-29, 17:12-15) as this doctrine is well-supported in Scripture. However, if not understood with biblical precision, this idea creates apparent inconsistencies with a large number of passages that teach that there will in fact be believers who fall away, that a believer must remain faithful, and that there will be a future judgment based on deeds. Therefore, while salvation cannot be lost, there is something that can be.
In order to reconcile the doctrine of perseverance with the “loss” passages, let us take a look at twenty-three Scripture passages which indicate that something can be gained by the believer, but that something can also be lost.
1. Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! – Psalm 85:4
In this passage and many passages throughout the book of Psalms, the writers ask God to restore them to a right standing before Him. The obvious implication is that they were once in this state of right standing, but had since been removed from that place.
2. Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. – Jeremiah 31:31-32
Again, the state of reconciliation with God that was obtained by the Jewish fathers was lost as a result of their breaking the covenant.
3. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. – Matthew 6:14-15
If you do not forgive others, the Father will not forgive you. This is a warning about a potential future loss of God’s forgiveness, a forgiveness that was currently possessed by Christ’s audience and a forgiveness that is absolutely necessary for salvation.
4. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 8:11-12
Here, Christ prophesies that the very “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown into hell. Those who were current residents of the kingdom could not consider their place in the kingdom to be permanent. They were going to be removed.
5. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. – Matthew 24:10-13
Several terms here imply that there will be individuals who once occupied a place of favor, but who lose this position: fall away, betray, astray, love. . . will grow cold. Then, in verse 13, we see that there will also be people who do not fall away and it is those people who are saved in the end. At minimum, there are two groups of people recognized in this passage: those who had something but lost it and those who had something and kept it until the end.
6. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. – Matthew 13:20-22
This passage is pretty self-explanatory: a man can hear the Word, respond in faith, and start to grow, but then fall away. Of particular note is that the responses of the people represented by the rocky soil, the thorny soil and the good soil are identical. They all receive the Word in faith and start to grow. The difference is that only those represented by the good soil do not lose what they have gained.
7. If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. – Matthew 18:15-18
Here we have a person who is called a “brother” and who is a member of the covenant community, the church. But because he does not repent of an offense, he is removed from that community, thereby losing what he had gained through membership in the church.
8. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” – Matthew 18:32-35
When we read the entire story of this unjust servant, we learn that he was a man who was originally forgiven a large, impossible-to-pay debt by his master. However, when the servant refused to extend the same grace to another who owed him what was a much smaller debt by comparison, the master took back his debt forgiveness and threw the unreasonable servant into prison. The truth that is illustrated here is identical to what was mentioned Matthew 6:14-15, number 3 in this list: if we do not forgive others, God will remove us from the position of being forgiven.
9. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. . . But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24:43-51
Yet another servant who occupied a place of favor, but lost it due to his own actions. This servant is moved from one place to another – the place that is occupied by hypocrites – hell. And the warning to current believers is to stay awake, to be on the alert because Christ could come at anytime and if we are not ready, the consequences will be tragic.
10. He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ – Matthew 25:14-30
The parable of the talents is one of the Bible’s most well-known stories. It is the account of a man who was a servant and who was entrusted with the master’s property. He was not an outsider or one who did not hold the position of slave. He was a man who had entered into a right relationship with his master, but he lost that relationship and was condemned to hell because of his unfaithfulness.
11. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. – Galatians 5:2-4
In this passage, Paul is teaching that circumcision, the symbol of one’s entrance into covenant with God under Old Covenant has now been replaced with faith. One’s entrance into New Covenant is through faith alone. Paul then goes on to point out that by going back to the Old Covenant symbol of a covenant relationship and expecting to be clean before God as a result, some of his readers have been “severed from Christ” and had “fallen away from grace.” Clearly, these were individuals who were once in Christ, but were now severed from Him. One cannot be severed from something of which he was never a part and one cannot fall away if he was never on board in the first place.
12. Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” – Luke 14:34-35 (See also Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50)
In this passage, salt is used as a symbol of those who are distinct because they are in the covenant and because they are faithful to the covenant. Throughout Scripture salt is used as a sign of covenant: Genesis 19:26, Numbers 18:19, Leviticus 2:13, 2 Chronicles 13:5, Ezekiel 43:24, and Colossians 4:6. Therefore, Christ here is making it clear that one can be salty (i.e. in covenant), but at some point one can lose that saltiness.
13. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. – John 15:5-6
A person can be a branch who is attached to the Vine, but as a result of unfruitfulness, that branch can be removed and burned in hell. This idea dovetails perfectly with Galatians 5:4 passage listed above which teaches that one can be “severed from Christ.”
14. For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. – Romans 2:25
This is another passage where circumcision and faith are compared. Both represent the entrance into the covenant or a person’s being brought into a right standing with God. However, that entrance can only be maintained through faithful obedience to the law.
15. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 with Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. – 2 Corinthians 5:20
The impact of these words loom large when the overall context of both letters to Corinth are considered. Here we have two different letters sent at different times to the same group of people. In the first letter, Paul views the Corinthians as washed, sanctified and justified, but by the second letter, they had lost that position because Paul is pleading with them to “be reconciled to God.” He also goes on to tell them in 2 Corinthians 6:2 that “now is the day of salvation.” The Corinthian church had lost something in the time that transpired between the two letters.
16. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. – Hebrews 6:4-6
In this passage, we have the possibility of at least three states of man: pre-enlightenment, an enlightened state which is made possible by the crucifixion of Christ and a loss of that enlightenment from which it is impossible to be restored.
17. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. – Hebrews 10:23-27
We must hold fast, stir up and not neglect meeting together because there is still a threat of judgment if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth. It is of particular importance to point out that what is lost in this context is the “sacrifice for sins.”
18. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:9-11
It is possible for a person to walk away from their cleansing from sin and as a result, this one can be prevented from entering the eternal kingdom. Again, he is a person who was once “cleansed from his former sins.”
19. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. – 2 Peter 2:20-21
Again, there are three states implied in this verse: danger, escape and entanglement again. And according to Peter, the last state will be worse for that person than the original state of “danger.” This person is one who knew “the way of righteousness” but turned back from it.
20. Or certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. – Jude 4-5
What an incredible warning that Jude is delivering here! He reveals that it is possible for his readers to be destroyed if they do not cling to the true Gospel and war against false teachers. In order to bolster his point, he references the children of Israel who were initially saved, but were then destroyed because of persistent unbelief. Even though Jude grants that his readers “fully knew” the Gospel, it was still possible for them to be destroyed just like the Israelites.
21. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. . . Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. . . Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. . . And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. . . Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations. . . Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. . . The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. . . I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. . . – Revelation 2-3
Here are just a few phrases from the warnings to the seven churches that are found in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. In each instance, there is a true church comprised of true believers who are warned that this state is not permanent. If they continued on their current trajectory, their candlesticks would be removed and that it was of the utmost importance for them to persevere in faithfulness all the way until the end.
22. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. – Revelation 3:5
This passage was mentioned in the previous point, but it warrants additional emphasis because here we have a name that at one point appeared in the book of life, but is threatened with “blotting out.”
23. And if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. – Revelation 22:19
A person who has a share in the tree of life and the holy city can lose those that share.
Conclusion: So what are we to think about these passages in relation to the biblical truth that the elect will be saved without exception? Given that salvation cannot be lost, why does Scripture warn believers about the possibility of falling away or committing final apostasy? Why does the Bible place us under the obligation of faithfulness and if salvation cannot be lost, how can there be any kind of future judgment that is based on deeds?
Most modern theologians who hold to the security of the believer explain the “fall away” passages in one of two ways (or both). One solution is to characterize the passages that hold the possibility or threat of apostasy for the believer as merely hypothetical. This means that the threats are present in Scripture as warnings, but that the actual consequences can or never will come to pass. The problem with this idea is that it plays fast and loose with the text and authority of God’s Word. It puts God in the position of making empty threats, an idea which is completely inconsistent with the biblical record. The true believer understands that the very character of God assures that His warnings about judgment are literal and to be taken seriously. As the Psalmist says, the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and 1 Peter 1:17 reads, “If you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” The warnings in these passages are absolutely real. It is utterly incompatible with the rest of Scripture for them as hypothetical impossibilities.
Other Bible teachers say that if individuals appear to have fallen away it indicates that they never had saving faith in the first place. In other words, the faith of those individuals was somehow not genuine or heartfelt enough to actually save the person. This is by far the most popular solution to the problem posed by the “loss” passages. But is this solution biblical? Does Scripture teach that those who once professed faith Christ and then departed from the faith never were really on the path in the first place?
The answer is absolutely not!
And here is why: individuals who express initial faith are literally placed into a gracious state of righteousness, redemption, reconciliation and regeneration before God. In other words, they are justified. Only the barest of faith (Luke 17:6) in the sacrifice of Christ is needed for a man to enter into justification before God and to be members of the Body of Christ, but a man who has been graciously justified as a result of faith alone must maintain that state of justification until the end in order to be gain glorification (Revelation 2:26). Persistent, unrepentant sin will eventually result in the removal from the covenant community, the covenant and to forfeit that state of righteousness.
The solution to the “loss” passages is to precisely determine “what” exactly has been lost. The only “what” that answers the question without Scriptural contradiction is justification. A believer who has been justified freely by grace and through faith can lose that justification via unrepentant sin.
Justification is necessary for salvation, but the initial entrance into the state of justification does not guarantee election or final salvation. One who has been elect unto mercy or elect unto salvation will never lose that election, but according to the previous twenty-three passages (and others which could be added), the Bible also teaches that there will be men who enter into the state of justification by faith, but who ultimately lose their justification and go to hell for all eternity. Justification is gained by faith, but maintained through faithfulness.