Can a Christian Lose Salvation?

by Matthew W. Bassford

The other day, a brother sent me this link (Can a Christian lose salvation?) and asked if I had ever before addressed the topic in a blog post. I replied that I hadn't (at least so far as I can remember), but this seemed like a wonderful opportunity to do so!

Eternal Security

For those who didn't trouble themselves to read the linked article (it is quite long), it's a rehash of the old Calvinist arguments about eternal security/perseverance of the saints. Calvinists (and a number of Baptists who aren't full-on Calvinist) believe that once a person is saved, it is impossible for them to fall away.

The problem is, of course, that all of us have known Christians who did fall away. They apparently do what Calvinist doctrine teaches is impossible. This objection also has been around for centuries, and Calvinists typically address it in one of two main ways. The first is by arguing that our subsequent behavior has no effect on salvation. A Christian ("Christian") can die of a heart attack while dead drunk and in bed with a prostitute, yet go straight to heaven afterward.

Not surprisingly, this is a bit much for most Calvinists to stomach, so they prefer Option B. They argue that Christians who fall away weren't really Christians to begin with. As the article says,

"Two common objections to the belief that a Christian cannot lose salvation concern these experiential issues:

  1. What about Christians who live in a sinful, unrepentant lifestyle?
  2. What about Christians who reject the faith and deny Christ?

The problem with these objections is the assumption that everyone who calls himself a "Christian" has actually been born again. The Bible declares that a true Christian will not live a state of continual, unrepentant sin (I John 3:6). The Bible also says that anyone who departs the faith is demonstrating that he was never truly a Christian (I John 2:19). He may have been religious, he may have put on a good show, but he was never born again by the power of God. "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16). The redeemed of God belong "to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God" (Romans 7:4)."

The No-True-Scotsman Fallacy

I think that the author mischaracterizes many of the passages he cites (and addressing each one would take not a blog post, but a book), but there's a larger problem here. This is about as pure an example of logical fallacy as you're ever going to find. The fallacy in question is called the no-true-Scotsman fallacy. In the words of the Wikipedia page, "Rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule."

Imagine a man who was baptized as an infant, brought up in a Calvinist church, continued attending services after he reached adulthood, frequently expressed his faith in Christ, and strove to live a moral, godly life. Every Calvinist on earth would unhesitatingly call such a man a Christian.

However, let him run off with the pastor's wife, and all the evidence goes out the window. Not only is he not faithful now, he never was faithful, even though back then, he did all the things that faithful Calvinists will point to now as evidence of their own faithfulness! In the very words of the article, "no true Christian" would do such a thing.

Note that as with the original fallacy, an objective definition for the class under question (male resident of Scotland, practitioner of the Christian faith) is replaced with a subjective one (holds to proper Scottish ideals, "born again by the power of God"), in order to justify the exclusion of a counterexample from the class. Misuse of I John 2:19 (the passage does not say that those who went out never belonged to "us", only that they did not at the time of going out) can't paper over the ad hoc nature of the argument. If Calvinists were truly consistent with their beliefs, they would refuse to call any living human a Christian, because such a person can only truly prove their identity by dying in the faith.

The Sting of Eternal Security

Here, in fact, we come to the ugly reality behind the supposed comfort of the doctrine of eternal security. It's supposed to provide Calvinist believers with the assurance of salvation, but logically, it does the opposite. Those who live like faithful Christians, who sincerely (to every appearance) describe themselves as being children of God, can still fall away and thereby prove that they were never regenerated at all.

I live like a faithful Christian. I sincerely believe that I'm a child of God. How do I know that I'm not going to fall away like those others? How do I know that I'm not lying to myself about my salvation, so that I remain in my sins? The heart is desperately deceitful, after all. Maybe I'm a spiritual time bomb, and five years from now, or 10 years from now, my reprobate nature will emerge and reveal my true destination.

Many Calvinists have grappled with this fear through the centuries, perhaps most notably the hymnist William Cowper, author of "There Is a Fountain" and "God Moves in a Mysterious Way". Cowper fought a lifelong battle against depression, and one of its manifestations was the conviction that he did not belong to the elect. He suffered through decades of misery as a result.

The Comfort of Free Will

Paradoxically, the apparently uncertain belief in free will offers much more comfort than this. I don't believe that I was saved from my sins because God elected me personally before the foundation of the world. I believe that I was saved when I obeyed the gospel and was baptized for the forgiveness of sins. I don't believe that I was pre-sorted into one of two categories. Instead, I believe that I choose for myself which category I belong to.

Admittedly, I don't have the power to make tomorrow's decisions today. I can't guarantee that I won't fall away at some point in the future. Of course, there also are no guarantees that I will have a tomorrow, period.

However, even though I can't decide for tomorrow, I can decide for today. I can decide for every today that God gives me. He has placed that powerful, perilous choice in my hands. Maybe tomorrow I will fall away, but it's not going to happen today, and in my knowledge of my faithfulness to God right now, I can find peace.