One of the deeper divides in Christian theology is the question as to whether a person can have God’s grace and then lose it. Strong passages can be found in the Bible to bolster either side of the argument. That fact suggests that the actual answer is complex and nuanced.
No matter on which side of this debate you are currently, one thing you cannot deny: there are people who once claimed to believe and now adamantly deny that they believe. Those people can be adult converts to Christianity or baptized and raised from infancy. Even big time pastors can do this. So, do we explain this phenomena in terms of these people always being false Christians or can a person have the gift of grace and throw it away? Both possibilities are disturbing. What does the Bible say?
Someone once told me that your theology can often be the result of where you start. This means that if you have a foundational proof passage that you feel you understand completely, then you will view all other passages in through the lens of that understanding. It is hard to weigh all relevant passage objectively as a whole.
The view that once you are saved, you are always saved starts with John 10:27-29:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
This seems very definitive. Jesus’ sheep follow him and never perish. No one can forcibly remove them. Open and closed, right? On the other side of the argument stands another “clear” passage, the whole book of Galatians. The Galatians were initially brought to faith by Paul, but something went terribly wrong. A group of false Christians came along and sold them on a modestly distorted version of the Gospel. They taught that you are saved by Jesus’ death and keeping the Jewish law of circumcision. Paul’s response is terse:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to another Gospel–not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the Gospel of Christ.
If John 10 is accurate, how can you desert Christ? Were they always false Christians? Galatians 3:2 gives insight into this:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by hearing with faith?
These people had received the Holy Spirit, so by definition they are or were believers. Maybe “deserting” just speaks to their disobedience and not to their status as saved people. Paul addresses this in 5:2f:
Look, I, Paul say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole Law. You are severed from Christ; you who would be justified by the Law, you have fallen from grace.
The skeptic would say, “See, the bible contradicts itself.” I don’t believe this. John 10 can be understood in the light of Galatians and other verses. Galatians can be seen in the light of John 10 and a few others. If you want to compare the number of verse on each side of this argument, the ability to fall away wins by a landslide.
This is my synthesis. God, who knows the future, knows who will believe for a short while only and those who will endure all the way to Heaven. From that standpoint, Jesus knows His sheep. He calls them to faith in the first place and it is his power that preserves them. This doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t extend the Gospel to others or that they might also be lead to a genuine faith and given the Holy Spirit. God wants all to be saved. But as the Bible says, “the mystery of faith is great.” Why don’t some believe when it is the Holy Spirit that must create faith? Why do some sever themselves from Christ when it the Holy Spirit who is critical in preserving faith?
A bit more information may lie in the parable of sower. (See a longer explanation here) In this story the soil (which represents different types of people) is passive. The seed and the sower must do the work, but the type of soil is important. Two types of soil produce something, only to fail in the long run. One type remains fruitful. God has the power to make anyone into “good soil”, but this does not seem to be what he is willing to do. He provides the seed (the Gospel promise) and he plants it (Holy Spirit creating faith).
Can anything be done or is this all fatalistically determined? From our point of observation, there is much to be done. The clear presentation of the Gospel and reinforcement of this gift is a start. Rebuking, repenting and confessing of sins is yet another. Basically, if you are growing as a disciple then you will not be dying as a disciple. Where is the line of “falling from grace”? I don’t know and I don’t want to test it.
There is this balance of confidence and holy fear. We want to be confident in the promise of God, not take it for granted. We recognize faith as a sign that God has given us a connection to Jesus. We feed that faith rather than starve it. We also don’t question whether we have enough faith to be saved or whether it is “real”. Jesus is enough. We proclaim Jesus as our Savior, that’s all.