We had a spirited debate last Saturday on Up for Debate concerning whether or not a believer can lose his or her salvation. Joining me were two Bible scholars and friends – Dr. Bryan Litfin, professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute and Dr. Brian Shelton, Vice President for Academics and Professor of Theology at Toccoa Falls College. As usual, our time flew and we simply couldn’t address all the questions listeners posed. But, since this is such an important discussion with such personal implications, I asked both Dr. Litfin and Shelton if they’d answer some more listener questions here and they graciously agreed. I’m hoping this will spur even more thoughtful reflection and biblical engagement. Please use the comment section to offer your thoughts.
My two children, now 31 and 29, both prayed to receive Christ at a very early age, four- and five-years-old. The 31-year-old’s Sunday School teacher had no doubt that my son fully understood what happened when he accepted Christ. But, in their early teens and since, it is like they never knew the Lord and do not desire to do so. I struggle with whether they ever knew Him in the first place. Would you speak into this? I’d love to have comfort that they are saved. — Marilyn Spencer Daugherty
Dr. Brian Shelton
Even though we speak theologically the best we can, no person ultimately can judge the heart of a person; such is reserved for God, including at Judgment (1 Samuel 16:7). This is why the fruit of the Spirit or the outward actions of a believer illustrate whether or not they are God’s (Matthew 7:17).
Concerning a situation like that of your children, your question deserves as much of a pastoral answer as a theological one. Pastorally, you can hope in their early testimony of belief in Christ. Perhaps their early days showed genuine interest and faithfulness to that pledge that is now dormant. However, if a person acts like an unbeliever over time, it is best to engage that person as an unbeliever. Continue to pray for your children, hoping that they return to the faith of their upbringing or that they might receive salvation anew. God understands the prayer of the heart even if our categories aren’t perfect (Romans 8:26). Theologically, I would personally be troubled saying they were never saved in the first place — it is only a present supposition that is reading a condition back into the past. It also could create fear into the hearts of any saved, that the day will come when they are judged as never saved in the first place. At the same time, if a person can lose their salvation, perhaps it is so here. Only God knows, even as we humbly speculate on the mystery of salvation. As people of faith, our action is the same: whether saved or not, we pray the same that they may know the Lord. We hope in a God who can dramatically change lives.
I know two people who stopped believing in God. One was a missionary, who went out with his wife and boys and came back as an atheist. He went through a process when applying, had to share how he came to faith in Christ, was interviewed, etc. . . (The other) worked at my church, attended Moody (for grad and seminary), pastored and taught the Bible, and now years later, is anti-God. I assume he is an atheist. This one is hard to believe…. I attended his wedding; he taught seniors at our church; and preached. So, was he truly saved? — Psalm 91 (Facebook User)
Dr. Bryan Litfin:
(This answer also applies to the previous question.) The problem of those who formerly looked like Christians (whether through childhood conversions or outward markers of faith like church service), but who now profess no faith, is a real one. It is very confusing and distressing to see someone you assumed was a strong believer now denying Christ in word or deed. What is going on?
It is possible that the person is walking away from the Christian faith for a time. This might especially be true if they are in unrepentant sin, yet when pressed, they would still have a Christian profession of some kind. If that person were now on their deathbed, and they definitely knew they were about to meet their maker, would they say “Jesus save me”? If so, they might be true believers who have unfortunately quenched the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) and have produced works of “wood, hay, and straw” that are worthless, yet “he himself will be saved” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
However, if the person now characterizes himself as an atheist and unbeliever, or if they mock Christ and say they would never want anything to do with him, or if they have converted to a different religion, I suspect that person is not and never was saved. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) describes people who look in every way like they have accepted the seed of the gospel, to the point that even a little ‘shoot’ is growing. However, Jesus says it is not real faith, and it does not receive an eternal reward. It is possible to fake conversion very well for a time yet not be a true Christian.
“I would like to encourage all those with loved ones who may have walked away from their faith to remember that God is a merciful and loving Father.” — Dr. Bryan Litfin
No person ultimately can judge the salvation status of another person; such is reserved for God’s judgment of the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). However, it’s good for us to ask these questions for own understanding of salvation. For the sake of discussion, there may be a difference between “atheist” and “anti-God.” An atheist usually has a construct of the absence of a God, while one who is anti-God might have an additional characteristic of rebellion. The second is worse off. Yet, I won’t pretend to judge them differently simply based on your posting.
There are passages in Hebrews (3:12, 6:4-6, 10:26) that seem to say that one can fall away from the faith. We all hope that this possibility is rare, and certainly is based solely on the will of the person and not the faithfulness of God. The Hebrews passages speak about someone who “was once enlightened” and has “tasted a heavenly gift and made partakers of the Spirit” — no stronger New Testament language could be applied to a believer, and not to someone never saved. Coupling these with other passages that speak about Christians who turn away significantly (2 John 1:8, 1 Timothy 1:19, and 2 Peter 2:20-21), as an Arminian, I would reason your friends to have fallen away from the faith. At the same time, one could pray either that God leads them back to faith or that they be saved — our Lord understands our hopes even if we aren’t certain of their status. The other options include that they remain severely backslidden or that they were never saved in the first place. The former should not make us passive in coaching them spiritually and the latter affirms a theological belief that isn’t necessarily affirmed by scripture. In the end, their stories are sad and we hope for their salvation regardless of their standing before God.
If we, totally depraved children of God, can contribute anything to our salvation, why did Jesus die? In saying that we can lose something that we had no part in gaining, don’t we in effect nullify Christ’s perfect completed work on the cross? — Melanie Dunaway Lee
Christ certainly provided a completed work on the cross. Yet, if one maintains individual predestination to salvation, that person requires a potentially other “work” to the cross, Melanie: the step of predestination, too. Of course, no Christian would claim that it’s an extra step or even “nullifying,” nor should anyone say that conditioning Christ’s free gift on an individual’s belief in God as an additional step, either. When we believe and repent, we do so by the grace of God (prevenient grace) that overcomes total depravity enough to have that faith.
“Scripture repeatedly requires God’s people to exercise faith to remain in a covenant with Him, but not with threats or fears that Christians will be cut off.” — Dr. Brian Shelton
So, when it comes to losing salvation, the same principle applies. Scripture repeatedly requires God’s people to exercise faith to remain in a covenant with Him, but not with threats or fears that Christians will be cut off. The exhortations to faith, the commands to obey, and the requirement of belief to be saved—none of these are works on our part, but God-given ability to be saved or to abide in Christ. Thus, salvation is from Him, through Him, and to Him (Rom. 11:36), but in His sovereignty he conditions is upon “whosoever” would accept.
Scripture says that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. How does that reconcile with Limited Atonement? — Jeff Greer
Scripture does tell us that Jesus died for the entire world (1 John 2:2). Some theologians who hold to Limited Atonement say the ‘world’ here is the world of those who are elect. That is not how I take this biblical statement. I think it truly means the whole earth. However, you have to remember that the Bible sometimes addresses our human point of view and other times it gives us insight into God’s perspective. In 1 John 2:2, the intent is not to make a hard-and-fast theological statement about who Jesus died for; that would be God’s point of view. Rather, the goal is to encourage us to recognize the universal relevance of the gospel. Our Savior didn’t just die for us, says John; he died for anyone you might meet, including many pagans—so go preach it! That is what is meant by “whole world.”
Scripture often speaks like this. For example, 1 Kings 10:24 says the “whole world” wanted to meet Solomon. Obviously we should not insist this means every single person on earth was trying to meet Israel’s king. No, the Bible was speaking the way we normally do, using a term like “whole world” to indicate universal or widespread application. It is the same with Christ’s death: it should be proclaimed to everyone. Yet when you put all the Scriptures together, it becomes clear that in eternity past, God chose some people to whom he would give the special grace of salvation (Eph. 1:4-5; 2 Tim. 1:9). Therefore when Jesus came to earth and died, God already knew the individuals to whom the atonement would apply, for it was part of his eternal decree. Though the atonement was sufficient for everyone on earth, it was divinely effective only for those who are part of God’s plan.
However, we do not know who they are! Only God knows his elect. This is why many Bible verses highlight the human perspective instead of the divine. Such verses speak in universal language, telling us the “whole world” is open to be evangelized with the Good News. Yet we shouldn’t build a theology from these verses that Jesus’s death was intended to secure the salvation of every single man, woman, and child on earth. Other Scriptures inform us that from God’s point of view, the atonement was actually limited to God’s eternal elect. But since we don’t know their identities, the Bible instructs us to preach the gospel to everyone on the planet and let God call his sheep to himself (John 10:14-15).
How do you explain verses like Ephesians 1:4-5, which clearly say God predestined believers for heaven? “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will . . .” — Julie
These verses clearly say that God predestined believers for heaven, but it does not claim that he selected and predestined them as individuals. Rather, it describes collective believers and the benefits of salvation to them all.
Arminius was among the first to point out that predestination passages in the New Testament describe the benefits of salvation, not a case for select individuals: “predestined to be holy and blameless” and “predestined for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:4-5). The predestination was an act of love from the dawn of time, in His good will, that “whosoever believes” (John 3:16) would get the benefit of being holy and adopted into the family of God. Romans 8:29 illustrates this again, “Those whom he foreknew, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In other words, it is a general predestination plan described here with its benefits for any and all who believe in Jesus. The salvation isn’t unconditional for the elect, but the benefits are. There is a condition that one must repent and believe in order to encounter and receive these benefits of salvation as God predestined. Thus, there is no one who believes that isn’t made holy, adopted as children, or conformed to Christ’s image — it is powerfully awaiting all Christians, as God ordained. “Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:9) and receive the predestined benefits of holiness and adoption (Eph. 1:4-5).
If believers are predestined for heaven, does that imply unbelievers are also predestined for hell? If so, why evangelize? — Julie
The first question is logically true. However, that doesn’t mean the Bible wants us to describe it quite like that. Let me explain what I mean, then answer the second question.
From a purely logical viewpoint, yes, if God has chosen his fixed number of the elect in eternity past (Ephesians 1:4-5; 2 Timothy 1:9), then by not choosing others he has essentially chosen to condemn them. The problem is that while this might be logical, it isn’t how the Bible wants us to express it. Scripture does not tell us that God predestines some people for heaven and others for hell; it says he predestines some people from mercy while allowing other sinners to receive the justice they deserve. This doctrine is called Double Predestination. In this view, the non-elect are described as being passed over or left behind in the “lump of clay” that makes up sinful humanity (Romans 9:21). The goal is to display God’s glory when he exercises divine mercy (Romans 9:23).
The idea that God long ago decided to pull out some people for salvation while leaving others behind — and that this plan of his is fixed and cannot be changed — is hard for us to hear. We will ask, “How is it fair to send a sinner to hell if God has already decreed that this person will not receive the necessary grace of salvation?” The apostle Paul recognized this exact dilemma in Romans 9:19, and his answer was simple: since you are merely a created being, you have no right to question the Creator. Instead you should trust that God is both good and just, and recognize he is doing something you cannot understand.
But then why evangelize anyone if God’s decree is already fixed? The mistake is thinking that we evangelize in order to save people. That is incorrect. Saving people is God’s business — including the when, where, and how. Our job is simply to be the mouthpiece and let God do his work. The right reason to evangelize is to be obedient. Perhaps God is bringing one of his eternal elect to salvation through you or me! Yet even if we fail, God’s plan will not be thwarted. This frees us to evangelize out of love and gratitude for what God has done, without the burden of ‘closing the deal’ (as if something like eternal salvation could ever hinge on human activities). God knows what he is doing, and he can be trusted to bring the right people to salvation at the proper time. He wants us to rest in him and be available to carry out his purposes.
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