The Bible indicates that salvation is received when one confesses his or her belief in Jesus as the risen Son of God (Mark 16:16; Romans 10:9-10), repents of the sins that he or she has committed (Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 7:10), and submits to baptism so that he or she reenacts Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and, thereby, comes in contact with God’s grace through Christ’s blood which removes all sin (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-4; 1 Peter 3:18-22). How salvation is received is a question of prime importance, and, once answered, it breeds a corollary question, which is, “Can salvation be lost after it has been received?”
The issue at hand is whether or not the doctrine often summarized in the phrase “once saved, always saved” is supported by Scripture. Many religious bodies associated with Christianity have adopted such a theology, but the congregations associated with the Church of Christ are known for their insistence that salvation can be lost. On what is this belief based?
First, Scripture asserts that salvation can be lost by describing our relationship with Christ in conditional terms.
Our relationship with Christ dictates whether or not we are in a saved state. Those who have received salvation are said to be “in Christ,” and those who have not received salvation are said to be “separated from Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13). So, if Scripture indicates that one who was “in Christ” can potentially become separated from Christ then Scripture indicates that one can lose his or her salvation. Consider the following passages in this regard.
In Colossians 1:22-23, Paul said that one is “reconciled in [Christ’s] body of flesh by his death…if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” The preposition “if” indicates that a condition exists for maintaining one’s “reconciled” state, and that condition is whether or not one “continue[s] in the faith.” Thus, Paul indicates that a failure to “continue in the faith” after being reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus would be a condition on which our state of reconciliation would be compromised.
The author of Hebrews wrote, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). The preposition “if” indicates that a condition exists for maintaining our “share in Christ,” and that condition is whether or not “we hold our original confidence firm to the end,” which is a reference to the steadfastness of our belief in Jesus. Thus, the author of Hebrews indicates that an abandonment or retraction of faith in Jesus would be a condition on which our “share in Christ” would be compromised.
Both of these statements indicate that our relationship with Christ is contingent on faithfulness. That is why Scripture repeatedly instructs us to “keep” the commandments of Christ (John 14:15; 15:10; 1 Timothy 6:14; 1 John 2:3-4; 3:22-24).
Second, Scripture asserts that salvation can be lost by its use of fallen terminology.
Separation from God is frequently described as a state of fallenness in Scripture. David described the ungodly state of mankind saying, “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 53:3). When Isaiah spoke God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem he said, “For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence” (Isaiah 3:8). In fact, we often refer to the first sin as “the fall of man” because fallenness depicts separation from God. Therefore, it is important to note that the language of fallenness appears in the New Testament in reference to those who at one time were in a saved condition.
We examined Hebrews 3:14 earlier but the verses that immediately precede it should be noted as well. In Hebrews 3:12, the author of Hebrews instructed his readers to “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” By referring to his readers as “brothers,” the author indicates that the people to whom he is writing are members of God’s family, which implies that they have received salvation (Galatians 3:26-29). He then goes on to warn those members of God’s family against developing an “unbelieving heart” that would cause them to “fall away from the living God.” In other words, he warned them that the potential existed for one to move from a saved state (i.e. “brothers” in God’s family) into an unsaved state (i.e. “fallen away from…God”).
Also take notice of Christ’s letter to the church in Ephesus as recorded by John in Revelation 2. These words are sent from Jesus to a congregation of the Lord’s body, which means that they are written to people who have received salvation. Yet, Jesus said, “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” (Revelation 2:5). Jesus indicated that this church had fallen from a previous standing to which they now needed to return. In addition to that, Jesus indicated that this church had followed a course that now necessitated repentance, and failure to correct their course would result in their removal from His body. It is apparent from this text that those who at one time entered a saved state (i.e. the church in Ephesus) could compromise that state and necessitate repentance.
So, Scripture indicates that salvation can be lost because it speaks of our relationship with Christ in conditional terms and because it indicates that those who entered a saved state have the potential of falling away from that state. Understanding this claim of Scripture makes Paul’s comparison of the Christian life to a race all the more important. In 1 Corinthians 9:24 he wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Three verses later he added, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” In this metaphor Paul indicated that participation in the race does not necessitate victory, and that disqualification from the race is a possibility. This means that salvation is not contingent on whether or not a person enters the race but whether or not a person finishes the race. So finish strong so that, like Paul, you can proclaim, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).