In the old days, this used to be called the “perseverance of the saints” (believers). All that means is the persistence of Christians to keep their relationship with the Lord. So the related question often comes up: Can a truly born-again believer walk away from this relationship?
To answer that question, let’s allow two prominent Renewal theologians to discuss a few key, representative passages: Wayne Grudem and J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008).
Both emphasize that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sustain the believer—the one who is truly born again—but Prof. Grudem says the truly born-again believer will never fall away because God sustains him and enables him to persist, while Williams believes that the truly born-again believer can drift away. For Williams it is not so much a denial of a set of beliefs or a state of salvation, but gradual walking away from a relationship with a Person—God.
It should be noted that neither theologian likes the phrase “once saved, always saved,” but that’s what many call it, nonetheless.
This post has a related one that covers Ps. 37:23-24; Ps. 121; Ps. 145:20; John 6:37; John 10:27-29; Rom. 8:35-39; 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:6; 1 Pet. 1:4-5; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Tim. 1:19-20; 1 Tim. 6:10 and 21; 2 Tim. 1:12; Heb. 10:32-38; 2 Tim. 3:16-19
Let’s begin with some key passages.
27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one shall snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-29, NIV)
He says that the obvious meaning is that no one can snatch Christ’s sheep out of his hands. They are secure. If anyone objects that even though no one can snatch them, they might remove themselves from Christ’s hand, then Grudem says this is “pedantic quibbling over words—does not ‘no one’ also include the person who is in Christ’s hand?” (p. 789). Our hearts are untrustworthy, so Christ must give us the assurance that we need, and he does so here. To go beyond this central point in the passage is apparently unfair and excessive to the original intent.
Sheep hear Christ’s voice and follow him, which is continuous action. They must follow and keep on following. It is such persons who can never perish or can never be snatched from Christ’s hands. The world or the devil or principalities and powers together cannot shake a faithful and persistent follower loose from the Lord’s firm grasp and safekeeping. However, if the sheep fail to follow or drop out some time along his journey, they can do what no outside power can do. They remove themselves from Christ’s protection and care—“and the results are tragic indeed” (vol. 2, p. 128).
1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:1-6, NIV)
Branches that bear no fruit are “in some way connected to Jesus,” and are outwardly and apparently genuine branches, but since they bear no fruit, they indicate their true state, which must be, according to Grudem, that they are not truly born-again believers. If they were, they would abide or remain in the vine (v. 6). If anyone claims that the branches on the vine are really alive or they would not be connected in the first place, then he is pushing the imagery beyond what it is able to teach (pp. 795-96).
“The first condition of persisting in salvation is that of abiding, of staying close to the source, whether this be understood as the word heard and read or the Word who is Christ Himself” (p. 122).
He continues further in his chapter: “How important it is, therefore, to realize that while eternal life is God’s free gift through faith in Jesus Christ, we must continue to believe. … The forsaking of eternal life through unbelief can happen. How much more are we called on to remain firm in faith as the final day draws near!” (pp. 129-30, emphasis original).
12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. (Heb. 3:12-14, NIV)
This passage encourages believers to continue in the conviction firmly. This is reassurance for the believer who was thinking of falling away or had fallen away. So what does this mean if someone fell away? It is “a strong indication that they were never saved in the first place. Thus, the necessity for continuing in faith should just be used as a warning against falling away, a warning that those who fall away give evidence that their faith was never real” (pp. 793-94).
He interprets the verses as saying that there is a parallel in Israel, who did not remain faithful (p. 126). This could happen to these Messianic Jews to whom the epistle was originally addressed. But who are they? The answer is in v. 12: “brothers and sisters”; Williams writes: “therefore it is believers who are warned against the development of ‘an evil heart of unbelief’ [quoting from KJV] that leads to the falling away, to apostasy from the living God” (p. 131).
So he believes that the truly born-again believer can fall away according to a natural reading of the text (ibid). After all, v. 15 says hearts can be hardened, and surely this warning was issued to all believers, whether the shallow or the truly born again.
1 Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward toward maturity, not again laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so. 4 It is impossible for those who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and 6 who have fallen away to be brought back to repentance. To their loss, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. 9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. (Heb. 6:1-9, NIV)
Omitting a discussion of v. 1, which states that Messianic Jews are the readers of the epistle to the Hebrews, his main point is to downplay the meanings of the key verbs in vv. 4-5: “enlightened,” “shared,” and “tasted,” and some of the nouns that are the objects of those verbs: “heavenly gift,” “the goodness,” “the word of God,” “powers,” and “coming age.”
As for the verbs, none of them necessarily imply that they go deeply into (seeming) believers. The verbs are actually shallow. “Tasting,” for example, does not mean swallowing, but a superficial experience. Notice how v. 8 talks about land that produces thorns and thistles. Those are people who were never truly born again. And v. 9 says that the author of the epistle has hope for better things for his readers. Therefore, the people who have fallen away were not truly born again but were merely associating with the church on the periphery (pp. 798-801).
He warns against importing a theological perspective into the text that leads to a false interpretation. Instead, this passage is a picture of a “full-orbed” faith that gives way to apostasy (p. 126). “This, indeed, is a tragic picture of persons who have a comprehensive Christian experience—enlightenment, tasting the heavenly gift, becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit, the powers of the age to come—and then commit apostasy. … All of this demonstrates that even the fullest Christian experience can end in tragic loss” (pp. 126-27).
For Williams, salvation is not a “state” or condition, like a state of grace, but a personal relationship. Yes, one enters a new realm, whether it is called the kingdom of God or eternal life, but the heart of the issue is really a new relationship with God. So if a person “drifts away,” it is not from a static condition, but “from a Person” (p. 134, emphasis original).
The meaning of apostasy is that a personal relationship is betrayed, broken, forfeited. “It is not so much giving up something, even so marvelous as salvation, but the forsaking of a Person” (p. 135). That is the meaning of the unproductive field. The true believer got worse, over time. As to v. 9, he says there is hope. “But against the background of unmistakable warning is the positive witness of the Christian faith” (p. 135). In other words, the original readers of the epistle did not have to fall away.
Then he writes:
“Another comment: all that has been said about the possibility of apostasy is contrary to the expression, sometimes heard, of ‘once saved, always saved.’ Salvation, to be sure, is once and for all: there can no more be repetition of it than the once-and-for-all act of redemption through Jesus Christ. However, the ‘onceness’ of salvation does not mean its necessary continuance. God surely undergirds it, but since salvation is both received and continued in faith, it is also a matter of our faithfulness to the end (ibid., emphasis original).
Some verses seem to teach eternal security, while others assume that every believer could potentially fall away.
So it looks like your interpretation of these verses depends on your starting point. If you have the starting point that assumes only shallow believers fall away, while the truly born again do not, then you will impose this template, even if the evidence warns that all believers against apostasy.
On the other hand, if your starting point is that every believer could potentially fall away and shallow believers are the most susceptible to do this, then you will interpret verses in that way.
From my point of view, Grudem seems to impose a template on the natural reading of a given text, which is called eisegesis (reading into a text). Anyone who falls away was never truly born again, regardless of what any passage seemingly says to the contrary. If a text contradicts him, then he tells us not to over-read or push it too far.
Williams seems to do exegesis (leading truths out of a text), without imposing a template. He reads the above biblical texts (and many others not mentioned here) more naturally and easily. In my perspective, after writing this study and the related post (Possible Apostasy or Eternal Security?), there are plain warnings planted throughout Scriptures for both shallow and truly born-again believers not to wander off, even to the extreme point of apostasy.
This issue can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I hope therefore that we do not quarrel over it and instead just focus on developing our relationship with the Father in Jesus’s name and through the power of the Spirit.
So how does post help me grow in Christ and persist in faith?
I like how Williams encourages everyone:
The first fact—and glorious indeed—is that our eternal security is in God; that our salvation is based on the triune God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—who has made salvation possible for us, and who daily sustains us by His grace. It is a great salvation indeed! (p. 135).
But then he offers this balanced thought in the same paragraph:
However, just because it is so great, the New Testament writers are also concerned to warn us of the tragedy of its possible loss.
One senses in all the biblical warnings a compassionate note of hope that none of the dire results should befall believers.
His main point is that the truly born-again believer must keep believing, so there is a small human element and a massive role for God to our remaining a Christian and persisting in faith.
We should never live in fear that we can lose our salvation frivolously or casually. You can be totally secure in your Father. He really does sustain you by his grace and Spirit living in you. You can have assurance in your heart that you belong to him. Don’t let the devil whisper to you that you are not saved. That’s a lie.
You are eternally secure, if you keep your relationship with your Father through Christ and the power of the Spirit. Just surrender to the cross each day, and ask God to fill you with his Spirit, so you can walk in the Spirit each day.
Written by James Malcolm
Possible Apostasy or Eternal Security? (It covers other “standard” verses on the topic.