This is part 3 in a blog post series on the question “Can A Christian Lose Their Salvation?” In part 1 of this series, I made a powerful case from The Bible that the true believer has the ability to forsake Christ and “lose” his salvation. In part 2, I made a powerful case from The Bible that no true Christian will ever forsake Christ and “lose” His salvation.
The Bible seems to affirm two mutually exclusive positions. How is this possible? Does The Bible contradict itself? Does it teach that a Christian both can and cannot lose their salvation? Does it teach that it’s possible to lose your salvation and it’s impossible to lose your salvation? How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory sets of scriptures?
The above questions are actually worded wrongly. It would indeed be a contradiction to say “You can and cannot lose your salvation” or “Salvation loss is possible and yet impossible”. But that is not the position I take. I take that while it is possible for one to lose their salvation, this possibility will never become actualized. You can lose your salvation, you just won’t.
It is contradictory to say “You can lose your salvation, but you can’t.” It is not contradictory to say “You can lose your salvation, but you won’t.” The former statement makes two mutually exclusive modal statements, while the latter makes a modal statement followed by a de facto statement.
Let me unpack this a little more.
The Warning Passages Bring About Perseverance
God uses means to keep the elect persevering. Christians have the ability to exercise their free will to turn their backs on their Lord, but God gives plenty of warning passages (Hebrews 3:12, Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2, 2 Peter 3:17, etc.) because He knew before creating the universe that if He put plenty of warnings in Scripture not to fall away, then those who are truly saved would freely choose to heed the warnings and ergo would freely persevere in their faith. It’s like a mother who warns her child not to touch the top of a stove because he would be burned if he touched the stove. As a result of the warning, the child is fearful of being burned and chooses not to touch the top of the stove, and hence, he never gets burned. I see these warning passages in Scripture (Hebrews 3:12, Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2, 2 Peter 3:17, etc.) in the exact same way. As a result, we can make sense of these passages telling believers to be careful not to turn their backs on Christ while at the same time, we can make sense of passages like 1 John 2:19, which essentially says that anybody who abandons the Christian faith never belonged to Christ in the first place. And also passages like John 10:28-29 which says that Jesus gives us eternal life, we’ll never perish, and no one can pluck us from His hand.
This view says that the stern and scary warnings in scripture about falling away from the faith are a means that God uses in keeping a person saved. A person will read passages like Hebrews 6:4-6 which says “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.”and Hebrews 3:12 which says, “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”, and think “Gosh! This is pretty serious! I’d better guard, my soul!”
So, on this view, God knows that if he were to give these warnings then the elect would heed them and persevere. The elect can fall away but they won’t because God knows that if they were to receive these warnings then they would heed the warnings and so, persevere.
Unfortunately, when I bring up my view on eternal security in theological circles, I’m often met with push back. Here are a few objections I’ve encountered to The Can/Won’t Model Of Eternal Security. I don’t think these objections succeed.
1: What About Those Who Don’t Think The Warning Passages Are Warning Passages?
It seems the apostasy texts are used as the means to keep people persevering, but that would only seem to work if one agrees with the Arminian that these texts are teaching that it’s possible to lose/forfeit salvation. But what about people like the Calvinists who downplay, ignore, or reinterpret these passages to match his view that apostasy isn’t even possible? If you think that a verse like Hebrews 6:4-6 isn’t talking about the apostasy of believers, what good is that as a warning? You won’t heed the warning because you don’t even think it is a warning. It seems then, that some Christians who dismiss these passages would apostatize at some point.
Well, it seems to me that for these people, God would use other means to keep them in the faith (based on His middle knowledge of what any person would freely do any given situation). For example, if a person is drifting towards atheism due to intellectual doubts, God might introduce this person to Christian Apologetics, or He might have actualized a world out of all the possible worlds He could have created, in which all of the Calvinists who dismiss these texts will persevere anyway. God makes sure not to actualize a possible world in which these believers are put in situations where He knew they would (if placed into that situation) turn away from Christ. It could be that the warning passages are a means to bring about perseverance, but it is by no means the only means.
2: There Are Passages That Seem To Imply Salvation Loss Is Impossible
My model of eternal security, while affirming with the Calvinists that no true Christian ever will lose or forfeit his salvation, nevertheless can forfeit his salvation. It’s possible, but it’s a possibility that will never be actualized. The problem though is that there are some passages that seem to imply that not only will the falling away of true believers never happen, but that it cannot happen. For example, Matthew 24:24
“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” – Matthew 24:24
For those of us who deny either eternal security or at least the Calvinist version of it, and hold that salvation can be lost/forfeited, what do we make of a passage like this? The way Jesus said this seemed to imply that it was impossible for the elect to be deceived. The “If it were possible” part seems to imply that the false Christs and false prophets will try to deceive the elect but they’ll fail because it isn’t possible.
What should we make of this passage? Are Christians really incapable of being deceived?
The passage does not answer the question at all. The Greek does not have “were” but reads simply “if possible,” which gives no indication of whether it is possible or not. It is a common sort of statement as when anyone would say that someone would try to do something if possible. “The student will try to pass the test if possible.” “The man will try to win the woman’s heart if possible.” “The salesman will try to sell the car to the couple if possible,” etc., etc. It doesn’t fit into the normal conditional clause typology. There is no verb, only the Greek conditional particle ei, and the adjective possible.
While I deny that Jesus’ statement is intended as an assessment of the possibility of the elect being able to be led astray, the context of warning I pointed out gives indication that the elect can be led astray and that further supports the reading I initially gave, that this is a common sort of statement as when anyone would say that someone would try to do something if possible. “The student will try to pass the test if possible.” etc. While these sentences don’t say anything about possibility or impossibility and formally leave the matter uncertain, such statements normally assume possibility while leaving uncertainty as to whether the possibility will become actualized.
There’s also Ephesians 6:24 that seems to imply that it’s not possible. But I won’t address that passage here since I already addressed it in another blog post. Click here to read it.
3: ”it seems to me that if God makes something impossible, then it is impossible. The warnings would really amount to God saying: if it were possible for you to fall away, you could fall away, but I won’t let that happen, so it is not possible (i.e. you can’t in fact fall away).
This objector is conflating modality with actuality. Can a Christian fall away? That is a modal question, a question of what can or cannot happen. Will the elect fall away? That is a de facto question, what will or will not happen. Yes, losing your salvation is possible. No, it won’t actually happen. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it will happen. Being trampled by a herd of elephants is something that could happen to me in my lifetime. That does not mean that it will, in fact, happen to me. And the fact that it won’t happen does not negate the fact that it could happen.
God has not made apostasy impossible. He just knows what means to use to deter us from committing it. We have free will and choose to stop serving the Lord at any time. It’s not like God has got us in a choke hold or anything. It is very much possible to forfeit one’s salvation, but God has used His middle knowledge to actualize a possible world where no one will lose their salvation. God acted on His knowledge of what everyone would freely do in any given circumstance to arrange the world in such a way (by that, I mean choosing when and where people will be born) and inspired the words of Scripture in such a way that every one of the elect would freely persevere in the faith.
God is not lying when He tells us that we could fall away if we don’t watch ourselves. It is a very real possibility. But I think that God knows we would persevere to the very end if He put warnings in scripture. As an analogy, suppose your mother knows that you would obey her if she gave you a warning not to touch the stove when it’s on. She knows if she doesn’t give you the warnings, you wouldn’t know any better. Consequently, you’d touch the stove and burn your hand. To prevent you from getting burned, she gives you the warning. Lo and behold, the child is frightened by the thought of being burned, so he obeys and isn’t burned. Now, was it impossible for the child to be burned? Did the fact that the mother used her warning as a means to keep her child safe meant that she was rendered the child getting burned impossible? Did it mean the mother was talking about something that couldn’t happen? Of course not! The child very well could have disobeyed the warning or ignored it and put his hand on the top of the stove anyway. It wasn’t that the child couldn’t get burned, but that the child wouldn’t get burned. The mother knew ahead of time that her child would stay away from the stove if she had provided him that warning. She gave him the warning, and lo and behold, he obeyed. But no factors prohibited him from reaching up and touching the stove.
4: ”Your Interpretation Makes God’s Word Contradict Itself. You’re Saying That God says it is both possible and impossible to lose salvation.”
–Once again, this objector is conflating the modal question with the de facto question (see the objection above). Think of this: what if God came down from Heaven and said to me “If you go to the zoo, you will be trampled by an elephant because the zookeeper will accidentally leave the gate open and the pachyderms will make a mad dash for the exit.” but then an hour later God says ” Evan, you will never get trampled by an Elephant in your entire life.”
Did God contradict himself? No. Both statements are correct. The former statement is merely a warning not to go to the zoo, because if I were to go to the zoo, then I would be trampled by elephants. The reason the latter statement is correct is that God knew whether I’d stay away from the zoo if He gave me the warning. God’s not contradicting himself because I really would get trampled if I didn’t heed his prior warning. The reason the statement “You will never get trampled by an elephant your entire life” is true is that I chose to heed the warning “If you go to the zoo, you’ll be trampled by elephants”. And again, nothing rendered it impossible for me to go down to the zoo anyway. I could have disregarded the warning. I could have gone to the zoo anyway and got trampled. It was within my power to ignore God’s warning and go to the zoo anyway. It’s just that God knew in advance whether or not I would ignore the warning. He knew that I wouldn’t and that’s why he gave it to me.
The same goes with warnings of apostasy in scripture. We still have the free will to ignore the warnings. We still have the freedom to turn away from God. We have the ability to be lead astray. It’s just that God knew in His middle knowledge “If I put warnings in scripture not to apostatize, then my children would obey them and persevere.”
To suggest that my view has God asserting a contradiction is absurd.
5: ”Doesn’t this render it impossible though? It’s impossible for God to be wrong. If God knew in His middle knowledge that the elect would not fall away if He put warning passages in scripture, then it seems the elect cannot fall away. If they did, then God’s middle knowledge would be off. But God is perfect! He cannot be wrong! How then could you do otherwise?”
I think this objection (as well as the previous two) stems from the belief that a middle knowledge approach to Providence entails determinism, which I used to think myself but eventually saw that it did not. This view is a Molinist view. One does not need to adopt this apostasy/security model in order to be a Molinist, but one needs to be a Molinist in order to adopt this model.
For some reason, people think of middle knowledge in a fatalistic manner. They seem to think that God’s middle knowledge has the causal power that makes everything happen. So that if God knows “If Bob were in circumstance S, he would choose action A over action B” and then God decides to create a world where Bob finds himself in circumstance S and chooses A over B, they think that somehow Bob was determined to choose A over B and that it was impossible for him to choose otherwise. But if IS possible for Bob to choose otherwise. Bob could have chosen B and refrained from choosing A. If Bob had chosen B instead of A, then what God knew in His middle knowledge would have been different.
If Bob had chosen B instead of A, then God would NOT have known “If Bob were in circumstance S, he would choose A instead of B”
INSTEAD, God would have known “If Bob were in circumstance S, he would choose B over A”.
The argument that middle knowledge is deterministic fails for the same reason the argument that foreknowledge, in general, is deterministic fails. It does not follow that just because God foreknows that something would or will happen, that therefore it would or will happen necessarily. All of the propositional truths in God’s middle knowledge are contingent facts that could have been different, and if they were different, then God would know them. If you want to go into more detail into why a middle knowledge view of providence is not deterministic, check out my blog post “Molinism and Divine Foreordination”.
6: There Are Bible Passages That Seem To Imply That Not Only Is Apostasy Possible, But Actual Instances Of Apostasy Have/Will Occur
This is probably the most powerful objection to this eternal security model. I’ve had some argue to me that this view is false because there are scriptures that do not merely warn that apostasy is possible but that there have been/will be actual occurrences of apostasy. They’ll point to verses like 1 Timothy 4:1 and Luke 8:13.
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” – 1 Timothy 4:1
“Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” – Luke 8:13
The context of Luke 8:13 is Jesus’ parable of the seeds, In this story, a sower sowed seed on the path, on rocky ground, and among thorns, and the seeds were lost; but when the seed fell on good earth it grew, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The seeds represent people who hear the word of God and how they respond to it. Some seeds fell on rocky ground.
As for 1 Timothy 4:1, it is possible that this passage is talking about people who had merely intellectual assent to the faith but never made an actual commitment to Christ, and they departed from that intellectual assent (e.g they went from being theists to atheists). I certainly believe there are people like that; nominal Christians. I used to be one of them until I was 17. So the “faith” referred to in 1 Timothy 4:1 isn’t saving faith, but demon faith. It isn’t the kind of faith believers have in Jesus, but it’s just mere intellectual agreement with the creeds of the church. This is “demon faith”, the kind of belief that James 2:19 talks about; “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe this and tremble.”
But is Paul really talking about nominal Christians in this passage or is this just an ad hoc attempt to preserve the perseverance of the saints? For something to be ad hoc, you would have to say that the only reason that you believe a particular interpretation is to preserve your doctrine. But I do not see that. I do not think it is so implausible that Paul would be referring to the visible church when referring to apostasy, and the invisible church, the elect, when referring to eternal security. One could also make the argument that I’m interpreting scripture in light of scripture. If an overwhelming case can be made for ES elsewhere, you’d interpret those passages that seem to be predictions of people leaving the faith in light of those scriptures. You’d interpret 1 Timothy 4:1 in light of passages like Ephesians 1:13 and 1 John 2:19 among several others that suggest no one truly born again will depart.
Luke 8:13 could also be referring to the changing head knowledge of nominal Christians. However, an Arminian I was talking to about this objected to this interpretation saying: “On Luke 8:13, I think that interpretation is strained [[[he means the Can/Won’t view I was espousing]]]. The result of believing for a while is life (the plant springs up), but then withers and dies. So the believing causes life that doesn’t last because the believing doesn’t last (cf. John 15:6). Even if we view the plant springing up as representing faith and not the person, (which I don’t think the context will really allow), the fact that it dies is seen as a bad thing. If false faith is in view, why should false faith (or demon faith) dying to be seen as a negative? It would seem that false faith would actually need to die for true faith to begin. But the text sees it as a bad thing that it doesn’t last and not a good thing. Why should it be bad if demon faith doesn’t last?”
It’s interesting to note that Jesus said “Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away. “ (v. 13). What does it mean to have no root, except that you are not really in Christ? It would seem that this is
But what about my friend’s argument that the falling away of this person is a bad thing? Well, if a lost person has given mental assent to the proposition that “Jesus died for my sins,” is that not better for evangelistic purposes than just being staunch atheists? They are clearly closer than they would be if we had to convince them of the truth. It is clearly better for them to give mental assent than to be atheists or some other form of non-Christian. For they already have belief that, all they need is to have belief in. They already believe that Christianity is true, all they need to do is to act on that knowledge and place their trust inJesus and become born again (John 3:3). But if they lose even the “belief that”, I can imagine how that would be viewed in a negative light for now they are even further from their salvation than they were before. So yeah, a nominal Christian converting to atheism or Islam is spiritually no worse off than they were before, but once they cease giving intellectual assent to God’s Word, they become even further from attaining salvation than they were before. Now they must be convinced of Christianity’s truth and exercise faith in Christ.
7: “You want certain promises of final, eschatological salvation to mean that you WON’T fall away, but they just do not indicate such.”
It’s not about what I want or don’t want. I just think this is the best way to understand the apostasy/security issue. This is the conclusion I’ve come to after a couple of years of scripture reading, study, and reflection. Maybe it’s wrong. Maybe there’s a better view to explain all of the proof texts both Arminians and Calvinists use. If so, I hope to find it someday. I try to keep an open mind.
I hope nobody here thinks I’m trying to force fit biblical passages to fit a paradigm I favor. I’m honestly trying to figure out what The Bible teaches regarding this subject. I happen to think that both the Arminian and the Calvinist make powerful arguments from scripture to support their views on security/apostasy. That’s why I’ve been so conflicted on this issue for the longest time (in fact, for me, it’s been one of the most difficult theological issues I’ve ever wrestled with). But maybe this isn’t the best way to explain the biblical data. I think it is, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe there’s a better hypothesis to reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture.
I have no emotional qualms about believing that some who are genuinely saved have and will fall away. I just want to know what God’s Word says on the subject. I don’t really care which view makes me feel better. I just want to be true to the scriptures.
8: “If you could lose your salvation, you would.” – John MacArthur
I have a problem with this statement by MacArthur. The reason is that it is a non-sequtor. It doesn’t follow that because it’s possible for someone to throw away their salvation, that therefore it will inevitably happen. That’s like saying “If you could die in a plane crash, you would”, or “If you could get mauled by a grizzly bear, you would.” Is it possible that I could die in a plane crash? Yes. Does that mean it will happen at some point in my life simply because that possibility exists? No. Of course not. Could I get mauled by a grizzly? Yes. Does that mean it will inevitably happen at some point in my life? No. Or it’d be like saying “If you could commit adultery, you would.” Now, because the possibility exists that I could freely choose to cheat on my significant other, does that mean that it will inevitably happen at some point in my life? You tell me.
People too often straw man the Arminian position on apostasy. Let me explain it: Salvation loss is a willful, deliberate act of apostasy. It is something that must be purposefully brought about. That’s what Arminians believe. It’s possible that after someone has chosen to accept Christ, that they can choose to reject Christ at a later date.
This is what’s it NOT: You do NOT lose your salvation from falling into sin, giving into temptation. A man hasn’t lost his salvation because he stubbed his toe and took the Lord’s name in vein or because he was seduced by a woman or whatever. Otherwise, we’d have to get saved like 50,0000,000,0000,000,000,000 times before we die, which is absurd.
The former is what any “Can” position of apostasy is be it a Can/Will position or a Can/Won’t. The latter is a straw man. And that straw man is probably what John McArthur was thinking when he made this statement. No “Can” advocate believes that. Otherwise, they’d be constantly full of anxiety that they might do something to make God reject them. Since we’ve properly defined the belief of apostasy loss possibility, I hope you can see how fallacious it is to say that because a Christian can turn away from Christ, that therefore they will. If apostasy loss possibility meant you lose your salvation as soon as you sin, then I’d agree that if that’s what resulted in salvation-loss then none of us could remain in a salvific state for very long.
Again, salvation loss is not that we stop being saved if we sin. It’s those who turn their backs on Christ. An example would be someone who’s a Christian but stops being one.
I hope this series has been helpful to you. I myself am quite comfortable in this position. I’m willing to change my mind if I am given good reasons, but after all my study on the subject, it seems that The Can/Won’t Model is the model that’s true. I believe that the Arminian and the Calvinist have only part of the picture. I believe that this model I have defended in this series takes those two parts, molds them together, and gives us the complete picture.