There is a long running controversy within the Christian community over whether once we've been saved by God's grace we are saved forever or if once saved we can fall from His grace? Today, the most common answer to this question among Christian denominations is that we cannot lose our salvation once we have received it.
The basis for this answer is found in Paul's words to the Ephesians when he wrote, "For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast" (2:8,9). Furthermore, Paul's explanation to the Romans concerning salvation through grace is often quoted where he said, "And if [salvation comes] by grace, then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works then it is no more grace, otherwise work is no more work" (11:6). "Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight" (3:20). "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (4:5). "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confessions is made unto salvation" (10:9,10).
The understanding that many Christians have of these scriptures is that Paul is saying that salvation comes to us as a gift from God, not because we have done anything to make us worthy of salvation but only because God has graciously consented to save us. And the way they understand how we gain this favor from God is to confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that Jesus is our Savior. Therefore, they say that it is our faith in Christ alone that saves us rather than any works we might perform or refrain from doing.
But that then raises the question of what about those who accept Christ as their Savior but then return to their former ways and no longer live a God-filled life? Are they still saved despite their unchristian behavior? For those who believe that once a person has become saved they are saved forever, the words of Paul seem to again provide the answer when he said, "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire" (1 Corinthians 3:15). To some people, this means that if a saved person doesn't live as he should, he will have to burn in hell to suffer for his evil deeds, but, in the end, he himself will be saved into the kingdom of heaven.
Another explanation that has been offered is based on Paul's words, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). According to this scripture some people teach that those who have truly accepted Christ into their life have become a new person and therefore no longer desire to do the evil things they used to. As such, if someone returns to their old, evil ways, this would seem to indicate that perhaps they never really accepted Christ into their life to begin with. And if that's the case, then their conversion to Christ was not genuine, which means they never actually received God's grace of salvation. Since they weren't saved to begin with, then it's not possible for them to fall away from something they never had in the first place. A further argument of logic is that if Satan can cause someone to fall from God's favor, then Satan must be more powerful than God. But if God is more powerful than Satan, then what God has saved then no man, no power, nor anything can take away what God has given us.
Since this doctrine is based on what is written in the Bible, it is assumed that such an interpretation of the scriptures must be correct. However, it is agreed by all that Paul didn't preach one type of message to one group of people and a different message to another group. Therefore, the gospel he taught the Romans and the Corinthians must be the same gospel he taught to all the churches throughout the region of Galatia.
In his opening remarks to the Galatians, Paul said to them, "I marvel that you are so soon removed from Him [God] who has called you into the grace of Christ to another gospel, which is not another, but there be some that trouble you and would pervert the gospel of Christ" (Galatians 1:6,7).
The first thing we learn from this verse is that Paul was amazed and concerned that those who had become converted to Christ as a result of his preaching, were beginning to stray from the doctrine he had taught them and were now following the teachings of those who were trying to pervert, distort and change Paul's original message to them. The second thing we learn from this passage is that the people to whom Paul was addressing his remarks were those who had been "called...into the grace of Christ." That is, they had received the promise of salvation through grace. As far as most Christians are concerned, the people Paul was writing to fit the definition of "saved" Christians.
Later in this same epistle, he remarked, "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth?...This only would I learn of you: Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect in the flesh" (Galatians 3:1-3)?
There are three things we learn from these comments. The first is that the Christians in the region of Galatia were no longer obeying the truth as Paul had taught them. Secondly, they had received the Holy Spirit in their life, and thirdly, that despite having received the Holy Ghost, Paul complains they were no longer following God's Spirit. It should be noted that Paul doesn't state that such wayward people never had Christ in their life to begin with. In fact, he clearly indicates that they had received salvation. In further remarks he makes this point several times when he stated, "For ye are all the children of God, by faith in Christ Jesus, for as many of you as have been baptized unto Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26,27). "And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, father. Wherefore, thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Galatians 4:6,7). "But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?... Where is the blessedness ye spake of" (Galatians 4:9,15)?
Paul refers to these wayward Christians as "children of God', "sons" of God and "an heir of God". They know God and God knows them. By today's modern interpretation of salvation there can be no doubt that the people Paul was writing to were "saved." Paul even refers to the blessed condition they once enjoyed. Yet, despite all of this, they desired to return and be in bondage to their old habits and their old ways of doing things.
The question this raises is: What were the "old ways" they going back to that was so wrong?
As we read further we learn that some of these Christians were teaching that in order for a Gentile to be saved they first must be circumcised according to the Law of Moses. So adamant were these teachers that they went about zealously trying to persuade other members of the church of Christ to accept this doctrine as part of the gospel. Paul explained it this way: "These teachers are zealously trying to persuade you, but their purpose is not honorable. What they want to do is to isolate you from us [the apostles] so that they might win you over to their side... My little children, I am again suffering birth pains until Christ is completely formed within you. Would that I were with you now and could coax you vocally, for I am fearful about you" (Galatians 4:17,19,20, Amplified version).
We gain several important facts from this. The first is that there were some Christians who were deliberately seeking to change Paul's message and were trying to undercut his authority for the purpose of gathering followers to themselves. The second thing we learn is that there were many innocent and naive members of the church who were accepting what these deceivers were saying and were straying from the truth Paul had taught by going back to their old ways of observing the laws of Moses. The third thing we learn is that Paul was struggling, as a mother in labor would, to keep these people, whom he had brought into the gospel and into a new life, from falling away from the gospel of Christ. The fourth thing we learn is that Paul was fearful for them. In other words, he was extremely concerned about what they were doing.
But why would he feel that way if they were in no danger of losing their salvation? More than that, what great sin were these Galatians committing by requiring Gentiles to be circumcised if works have no effect upon our salvation? To rephrase this question: If we are saved only because of our belief in Jesus Christ, and if salvation is a matter of God's grace rather than a result of anything we do or don't do, then why was Paul so concerned over the Galatians difference of opinion regarding circumcision?
Paul answered that question this way: "If you seek to become justified through the law [of Moses] you are severed from Christ. You have fallen away from [His] grace... You were running the race nobly. Who has stopped you from following the truth?" (Galatians 5:4,7 Amplified version, italics added). According to Paul's own words, these people were in danger of severing themselves from Christ and falling away from His grace. In other words, these people could lose their salvation over this matter! That's why he was so concerned and had such fears about them. And, again, notice that he is talking to people who once "were running the race nobly." To do that, they had to have had a firm belief in Christ, which is today's definition of what it means to be saved by grace.But, if Paul says that they can fall away from God's grace then by implication that means they can lose their salvation.
Paul acknowledges that these Christians had been doing very well in the faith, but now he wonders why that is no longer the case. Paul had labored hard to bring these people to Christ but now he was fearful that all of his labors were in vain. That's why he said to them, "I fear for you. I am afraid that all my hard work for you was worth nothing" (Galatians 4:11 The Paraphrased New Testament).
He also expressed this same concern for the Thessalonians when he said, "When I could bear the suspense no longer, I sent [Timothy to you] that I might learn how you were standing the strain and the endurance of your faith, for I was fearful lest somehow the tempter had tempted you and our toil among you should prove to be fruitless and to no purpose" (1 Thessalonians, 3:5, Amplified version).
Obviously Paul had a fear that, after all of his work in bringing people to Christ, the tempter could lead these believers away, thereby undoing all that Paul had done. So concerned was he about the saints in Thessalonica that he dispatched Timothy to make sure their faith remained strong (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Again we need to ask the question: Why would he fear for these believers if they were in no danger of losing their salvation?
Paul gave the answer when he warned the Galatians, "Let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap if we faint not" (Galatians 6:9). If salvation is not dependant on our works and our salvation is assured once we have accepted Christ and can never be taken away from us regardless of what we do, then it makes no sense for Paul to council us not to become weary in doing good works since we will reap our reward only if we don't faint, or give up. The clear implication of this scripture is that if we become weary in doing good works or if we give up ahead of time there will be nothing for us to reap when the time comes to receive God's promise.
But what kind of "works" was Paul referring to? He clarified this when He told the Galatians, "Now the works of the flesh are these: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21, Revised Standard Version).
As far as Paul was concerned, there were clearly certain "works" that, if performed, even by a believing Christian, would disqualify them from inheriting the kingdom of God. This hardly sounds like the doctrine of "saved by grace alone and not of works." And neither do these words seem to indicate that "once saved, [we are] always saved." In fact, they specifically state just the opposite.
Yet this message wasn't something new. Paul taught this same doctrine to the Hebrews. He said, "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh and put him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Paul spoke about "those who were once enlightened", those who "have tasted of the heavenly gift", those who have received "the Holy Ghost", those who have understood and partook of "the good word of God", those who have had a taste of "the powers of the world to come." These are not people who had just a casual or momentary or insincere belief in Christ. These are people who had a firm knowledge and faith in Jesus to the point that they had been able to experience all these gifts from God. Surely, if anyone can be called saved, it's these people of whom Paul is speaking. Yet, Paul says that if these people fall away from the gospel, it is "impossible ... to renew them again unto repentance". And without repentance we can't be saved (Matt. 9:13, Mark 6:12, Luke 15:7, 24:27, Acts 2:38, 26:20, 2 Peter 3:9).
But why is it so "impossible" to be saved if we fall away? Paul explained it this way: "[It is not necessary that Christ] should offer Himself often, as the high priest [does when he] entereth into the holy place every year with blood for others, for then must He [Christ] often have suffered since the foundation of the world, but now once in the end of the world... As it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, so also Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many" (Hebrews 9:25-28). "But this man [Jesus], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God... For by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified... Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (Hebrews 10:12,14,18). "For" if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26,27, italics added).
"...Esau, who for one morsel of meat, sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears" (Hebrews 12:16,17). "Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward, for ye have need of patience that, " after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise" (Hebrews 10: 35,36, italics added). "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering" (Hebrews 10:23). "Follow peace with all men and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. Looking diligently "lest any man fail of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:14,15, italics added).
Paul clearly taught that it is possible to fall from grace and to fail to keep the grace of God. Paul clearly stated that this can happen even to those who accept Christ. Paul explicitly explained that there was only " one " sacrifice made for our sins, and that if we willfully sin after accepting Christ, there is no more sacrifice left to atone for those additional sins.
Paul showed us by way of example that, just as Esau lost his birthright because of what he did and was rejected, we too can lose the promise of salvation by the things we do, (i.e., following false doctrines, not enduring to the end, letting our faith waver, not following peace with all men, etc.) and be rejected by God. Peter offered a similar warning to a group of Christians when he wrote, "For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.... For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them" (2 Peter 2:18,20-21).
The people to whom Peter was writing were not unbelievers but were those who had come to have "the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." These were those who once had lived "in error" but had "escaped" from the "lusts of the flesh" and were now "clean." In other words, they were "saved" as the term is understood by many of today's Christians. Yet Peter tells these very people that if they don't keep the "holy commandments" and return to living the way they had been instructed, it would have been "better for them not to have know the way of righteousness" because in the end it will be "worse with them" than it would have been had they not accepted Christ at all.
In the fourth chapter of Hebrews Paul was even more explicit about this point where he wrote, "Therefore, let us be afraid and distrust the promise God has given us about entering into His rest because some of you will not make it there. Just like in the past when God gave the Israelites a promise that they would be delivered from Egyptian bondage and enter into a land flowing with milk and honey where they could rest and call their home, yet many of them did not enter that land even though God had promised it to them. They forfeited that promise because they angered God by not being faithful to Him. Instead of obeying His commandments, they placed their trust in their own wisdom. Therefore, in His wrath, God declared, "They shall never enter into the rest I promised them.
"Now, that promise God made is still being offered to us today and the same condition applies as it did before, which is, if you hear His voice and do not harden your hearts against what He tells you to do then you will obtain that promise, otherwise God will revoke that promise as He did with the Israelites. Thus, the rest that God promises is promised only to those who are true believers and not to those who are believers in name only. Therefore, knowing this, you should make every effort and diligently strive to do what it takes to enter into His rest or otherwise you will not obtain it" (Hebrews 4:1-11, NIV, Amplified, and Paraphrased).
But Paul not only said this about other believers but he also said the same thing about himself. There is no doubt that Paul was a true believer in Christ and yet even he refused to say that his own salvation was assured. To the Corinthians he wrote, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? [Therefore] run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave for fear that after I have preached to others, I myself will be disqualified (i.e., found unfit, unapproved, rejected) for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NIV)
The "prize" that the gospel offers is eternal life, which is what most Christians refer to as being saved. Thus, what Paul is saying is that despite all he has done in proclaiming the gospel and bringing others to Christ, he fears that if he doesn't continually keep himself in spiritual shape by strictly doing what God commands he will be disqualified from receiving the prize of God's grace (i.e., salvation). Notice also that he not only says this about himself but counsels all believers in Christ to "run in such a way as to get the prize." But that is the opposite of what it means to be saved by grace alone.
While it is true that Paul taught that salvation comes as a result of God's grace and it is also true that he stressed many times that we are saved because of our faith and not because of our works yet, in light of the other things Paul taught, what he meant concerning God's grace and what some people think he meant are not always the same. As we look at all the words Paul wrote, rather than just quoting a few selected verses, we find that he clearly taught that we are capable of falling from grace.