Can The Righteous Fall Away?

The question as to whether or not a person who is once saved can fall away and be lost eternally is a hotly debated one. The teaching that once a person is saved, he is always saved, is among the most popular in the denominational world. We want to think about it some, because the consequences of the doctrine are quite serious.

The Nature of Salvation

I believe that, in order to understand this issue, we need to understand the nature of salvation. One’s view of how salvation is attained is directly connected to his view of whether or not it can be lost. The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” is really the end result of Calvinistic teachings, which begin with the idea of inherited depravity. Calvinism says that we are born sinners: The only way to be saved is to be “unconditionally elected” by God to salvation. Then, we must wait for the direct operation of the Holy Spirit to take us and save us, after which it is impossible to lose salvation. The whole theory is built on the assumption of inherited sin, which the Bible denies Ezek. 18; Matt. 18:2-7.

The question comes down to choice. Is man’s free-will choice involved in salvation? If not, then what does this say about the grace and partiality of God (cf. Acts 10:34-35)? If choice is involved, then can a saved person choose to depart from God?

The Scriptures teach very clearly that choice is involved in salvation. God has not made us robots with no capacity for choice. If that were the case, the Bible would be senseless. God gives us the choice to obey or disobey (Heb. 5:9; Jn. 12:48; Acts 13:46; Luke 9:23, etc.) We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8), but this is not unconditional. His grace is given to those who choose to submit to His will (Titus 2:11-14; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; Jas. 4:7-10).

Can One Turn from Righteousness?

The issue before us is not whether or not a righteous person will be saved. I affirm that a righteous person cannot be lost (in his righteousness). The question is not whether or not a righteous person who perseveres to the end can be lost. Again, I affirm that a righteous man who perseveres to the end cannot be lost (Rev. 2:10). The question is, can a righteous man turn away from his righteousness? If so, what are the consequences of that turning?

Since choice is involved in our salvation, then it is possible to choose to turn away from God. I don’t know of any passage which more clearly defines this point for us than Ezekiel 18. The whole chapter is significant to this discussion, but notice verse 24: “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.”

The text states that a righteous man can turn away from his righteousness. It also states the consequences of the turning: he shall die. That alone ought to be enough to end the debate.

New Testament Warnings

The New Testament is full of warnings written to Christians about maintaining faithfulness. The entire book of Hebrews fills this purpose. Notice Hebrews 3:12-14 “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” Note some of the points. It is possible to have an “evil heart of unbelief” and to “depart from the living God.” They could become “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” And remaining partakers of Christ is conditioned upon holding “the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” Again, this is not written to alien sinners, but to Christians. If it is impossible to lose salvation, warnings like this are utterly meaningless. Notice Romans 11:22 “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”

The severity of God came on those who “fell,” and His goodness is extended to those who “continue in His goodness.” Again, this is meaningless if losing salvation is impossible. Many other passages illustrate the same point.

But Were They Really Saved?

Many counter what the Scriptures say by teaching that these people who “fell away” were not really saved in the first place. If they want to contend that a righteous person who perseveres to the end will not be lost, then I would agree. But to say that those who fall away were never saved in the first place is to teach what the Bible does not. Hebrews 10:26-29 shows this: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?”

The passage discusses one who has “received the knowledge of the truth.” When this person willfully turns away, he is said to trample the Son of God underfoot, count the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insult the Spirit of grace. This is a person who was sanctified (set apart, made holy) by the blood of Christ. To say that he was not really saved is to say that one can be sanctified by the blood of Jesus without being saved. That immensely cheapens salvation. Now note Hebrews 6:4-6: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”

This passage refers to those who were “once enlightened,” having “tasted the heavenly gift,” and have “become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” Can these things be said of one who has not been saved? If they can be, then salvation is cheapened greatly. The verse states clearly that they can “fall away.” 2 Peter 2 also shows the same point. Verse 1 speaks of false teachers “who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.” Can it be said of unsaved people that the Lord “bought them”? Later, the text tells us that if, “after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (v. 20). I deny that such language could be used of those who were never saved. To say that it does makes a mockery of salvation.

There are many other important passages to consider in this discussion, but space forbids a detailed look. Some of these are: Gal. 5:1-4; Heb. 3:7-4:11; 12:13-14; 1 Cor. 15:1-2, etc. There are really too many to list. The whole New Testament is full of warnings and exhortations to remain faithful. What good are they if, after we are saved, we cannot turn away from God and lose our salvation?

What About Security?

Because we teach that it is possible to lose your salvation, we are charged with teaching insecurity. This supposedly will make people deathly afraid, and there couldn’t be any happiness in our salvation. To the contrary, if, as we just considered, one can be called sanctified, bought, a partaker of Christ and the Holy Spirit, enlightened, etc. and yet not be saved, then there is terrible insecurity in that. The warnings are given to spur us on to remain faithful. A righteous person does not need to feel insecure. But if one turns away from righteousness, then there is no security in that. I would not want to be guilty of teaching security to one who spurns the will of God. Would you?

We can know that we are saved. By the things that are written, we can know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13). Likewise, by the things that are written, we can know if we are not right with God. If we turn away from the will of God, we have no security, but if we continue in His will, we are very secure. It is our choice.

The blood of Christ which cleanses our sins is always available to us if we walk in the light (1 John 1:7). Involved in walking in the light is turning from sin and confessing our sins to God (vv. 8-9). If we willfully and rebelliously turn against God, we have no more sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:26). Until we repent and pray God for forgiveness (Acts 8:22), we can expect God’s righteous indignation.

The warnings are in the Scriptures for a reason. Let us not turn a deaf ear to them. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (Heb. 2:1). These warnings ought to exhort us to faithfulness and perseverance even in the midst of great trials and tribulations. They help us understand that it is up to us. We have a choice in the matter, and God wants us to gladly choose Him. If we will, we have a great reward awaiting us in heaven (1 Pet. 1:3-5).

Article by: Doy Moyer

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