How can it be theologically consistent to say that justification can be lost, but salvation cannot?

Scripture teaches that justification can be lost, but that salvation cannot.

At first glance, most people, especially those who come from an Evangelical-Reformed perspective will likely consider this statement to be a contradiction for three reasons: a definition of salvation that does not take context into account, the belief that justification is permanent and therefore equivalent to salvation and the belief that we can operate as if we know God’s secret work. When these three erroneous ideas are considered biblically, we will easily see that our thesis does not contradict Calvinistic soteriology and more importantly, it is consistent with the whole of Scripture.

Therefore, here are three biblically-supported answers to the question: how it is biblically consistent to hold that justification can be lost, but salvation cannot?

Because the Bible uses the term salvation in more than one way depending on the context

The word or idea of salvation does not always refer to exactly the same thing every time it is used. The Bible uses the idea of salvation in at least four different ways:

  1. To refer to salvation from temporal threats. (Noah on the Ark, Israel out of Egypt, David from his enemies, etc.) In fact, the most common use of the concept of salvation in the Old Testament is in respect to the present dangers of life and not salvation for eternity.
  2. To refer to a present reality. (Ephesians 2:5 by grace you have been saved, 1 Corinthians 15:2 by which you are being saved, Romans 10:10 with the mouth one confesses and is saved, 2 Corinthians 6:2 now is the day of salvation. One can be in a saving relationship with God right now.
  3. To refer to a future hope. (Romans 13:11 our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, Hebrews 1:14 of those who will inherit salvation, 1 Peter 1:5 being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
  4. To refer to the entirety of God’s work in redeeming His people: election, calling, justification, and glorification. (Acts 28:28 this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, Hebrews 5:9 he became the source of eternal salvation, 1 Peter 1:9 the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Therefore, it is important to determine what is meant by the term “salvation” in each context in order to find the correct interpretation. The most important idea to recognize is that in senses one, two and three, salvation is mutable -meaning that while the position or state of salvation might be true of an individual in a particular moment, that position can be lost or changed in the future. In these three uses of the concept of salvation, future salvation is not a foregone conclusion because there are things yet to happen that might disqualify one from gaining that future hope.

For example, God provided the people of Israel with salvation out of slavery in Egypt, but afterwards He destroyed them (Hebrews 3:16-19; Jude 1:5). Salvation is sure only as long as a person remains in a reconciled state with God.

It is only in the final sense from above that salvation is immutable or cannot be lost. Consider Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the daylong; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Therefore, only when the entirety of God’s work and the entirety of our lives are completed will salvation be considered a final, irrevocable reality and it is in this sense that salvation cannot be lost. Those who were elected unto salvation will be saved forever, but not everyone who enters the state of justification has been elected to final salvation. Furthermore, the final outcome of any single person’s life will be consistent with his election to salvation or election to damnation.

There is one place in Scripture where the Apostle Paul seems to imply that the salvation of his readers is an irrevocable, past present and future event. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul tells his readers “by grace you have been saved through faith.” Many take this to mean that Paul was telling his readers that their salvation was a foregone conclusion, that it was a confirmed outcome which could not be changed. However, that conclusion contradicts many Biblical passages such as Hebrews 10:38-39 where believers are told that they must press on in order to avoid being numbered among those who “shrink back and are destroyed.”

In fact, it is not only in Hebrews where we find a contradiction to this interpretation, but we also find a contradiction in the book of Ephesians itself because in later chapters, Paul implies that this reconciled position or saving relationship with God could be lost. He is telling the Ephesians that they were presently in a right standing with God, but as we read the rest of the epistle, it becomes clear that this position of salvation would only continue only as long as the Ephesian believers were faithful to walk worthy, put off your old self, not grieve the Holy Spirit, and be imitators of God. If these believers instead decided to walk in sexual immorality, filthiness, crude joking, or covetousness, they would not inherit the kingdom of God and the wrath of God would be upon them.

Even though the Ephesian believers were in a state of salvation (or we could say “state of justification?), Paul saw this position as mutable. Whether or not these believers eventually fell away or were persevered to glorification would be consistent with their election. Those who had been elected to salvation could never lose that election, but some would enter the state of justification only temporarily. Thus, salvation, in the broad sense cannot be lost, but justification can.

Because salvation is distinct from justification

There are many who operate with the assumption that justification and salvation are the same or equal. The logic goes something like this:

Premise 1:       Faith = Justification

Premise 2:       Justification = Salvation

Conclusion:    Therefore, Faith = Salvation

The problem with this syllogism is that justification does not equal salvation. The state of justification is necessary for salvation, but it does not guarantee salvation. Faith is the requirement to enter the state of justification and justification is the requirement for salvation, but the entrance into justification does not guarantee that one’s justification will remain intact unto salvation. Justification is a function of salvation, not the equivalent of salvation.

This error is similar to assuming that an engine is the same thing as a car. Obviously, an engine is essential to the car, but the mere presence of an engine does not conclusively guarantee that you have a whole automobile. In the same way, the state of justification must be present in order to make salvation possible, but it does not guarantee that final salvation will occur.

The lack of precision in distinguishing between the two has produced an erroneous systematic theology and faulty beliefs about justification, particularly the belief that since salvation cannot be lost, therefore justification is permanent and immutable.

Because we cannot know God’s secret work

We strongly affirm that those who have been elected according to the foreknowledge of God will be saved. This tenet of Calvinism is also an undeniable truth that is found in many places throughout Scripture (Mark 13:22; Romans 8:33, 11:7; 1 Peter 1:2) and it is important to point out that the doctrine of the loss of justification does not contradict doctrine of the perseverance of the saints: all of those whom God has elected to salvation will remain faithful to the end.

However, God’s work in electing and calling are secret acts on His part. We cannot know who is or is not elected and this extends to even ourselves. What we can know is our current state. This is why Peter wrote that we are to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you.” (2 Peter 1:10)

The only way in which we can be certain about our election and calling is if we persevere in faithful obedience all the way to the end. Therefore, Scripture teaches that salvation is a sovereign act of God which cannot be revoked, but nowhere does the Bible teach that justification, as a subset of salvation, is an immutable, permanent reality. Thus, salvation cannot be lost, but justification can.