(This concludes this series of studies on the doctrines of grace)
He folded his arms and looked me straight in the face.
"Look, I was baptized as a kid, and no one can take that away from me!
Once saved, always saved!"
My mind was working overtime. Where had this guy picked up this caricature of Reformed belief? How come he thought that baptism and faith was one and the same? How did he ever get it into his mind that baptism was a certain ticket to salvation? What would be a good pastoral answer to the nonsense I had just heard?
For nonsense it was. And dangerous nonsense at that!
He was born in a Reformed family some 25 years earlier, but the last half a dozen years he had lived like the prodigal son. Carefully I tried to make it clear to him that: yes, his baptism as a child was still as meaningful as ever, but if he would continue to reject the Lord, his baptism one day would testify against him.
I put it to him that infant baptism calls for conversion and repentance, and that he would be wise not to fool himself with a make-belief heaven.
I did not come around to talking to him about this: once saved, always saved, for he had had enough, and walked away.
D-day and V-day
Last time we saw that salvation is for sure and forever! Once a person is really converted, that person will not be lost. Many times he or she falls into sin, but no matter how awful and ugly that is, God will prevent His child from falling away completely. God, having once given new life to a person, does not forsake the work of His hands.
The Bible is so clear about that. Let's focus again on just one reference, John 10:28,29:
I give them (my sheep) eternal life, and they shall never perish;
no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them
to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's
Notice that it is eternal life that has been given. Now if a person can slip away from the faith after he has once believed, then there is nothing eternal about that life, is there?
And, Jesus goes on to say, "they shall never perish". Now if a person can lose his faith, as the Arminian says, then he will indeed perish!
And for any doubting Thomases, Jesus even adds, "no-one can snatch them out of my hand." No-one; no human creature; not even the devil; no-one! Can it be put in a more positive way?
Jesus even comes with yet another argument: "My Father is greater than all!" That is why no-one is able to snatch the sheep out of the Father's hand.
It is only a matter of time. One day it will all be complete, most definitely, there is no doubt about it.
The New Testament theologian Oscar Cullmann has given us a very pointed comparison; he said: the situation of the Kingdom, the Church, the Christian, is very much like the situation in Western Europe after June 6, 1944, the invasion of the Allied forces into Normandy, D-day.
Cullmann said: Christians are now living between D-day and V-day.
The Allied bridgehead was established on D-day. The final victory was still quite a way off, but we knew it would only be a matter of time before it was V-day. In the meantime: there was still much destruction ahead, shooting, casualties, death. But V-day, Victory-Day, was sure to come!
As Christians we live between D-day (when God invaded human soil in the person of Christ, and won the decisive victory over the forces of evil: the cross, the resurrection), and V-day, when God will wind up history, and ushers in the victory He has already inaugurated. What we are engaged in at the moment is a mopping-up operation. Quite lengthy, yes, costly and painful, but it's only a matter of time.
But can Christians be too confident?
However, to simply say: Once saved, always saved, and to leave it at that, does not seem to take other Scripture truths into account.
Reading through the Bible, we come across statements that seem to warn against too glib and too easy an acceptance of the "once saved always saved" truth.
I think of Biblical statements that warn against too great a confidence as regards our final security.
There are also very stern warnings in Scripture against apostasy, and we come across people in the New Testament who actually have fallen from grace, or so it seems.
Then there is this matter of the sin against the Holy Spirit, which can be committed by people who once were enlightened, and there is no forgiveness for that sin.
I think it helpful to put such Bible statements in two categories.
First, there is a long list of exhortations to live a holy life; exhortations that seem to lay down certain conditions as essential to final glory.
Here's a selection:
Romans 2:7 - To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour
and immortality, he will give eternal life.
Colossians 1:23 - (God will present you holy in his sight) without blemish
and free from accusations, if you continue in your faith, established and
firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.
Hebrews 2:1 - We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we
have heard, so that we do not drift away.
Hebrews 3:14 - We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end
the confidence we had at first.
1 Corinthians 9:26,27 - 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 so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
So there seems to be a real possibility that a child of God can fall away. Even Paul talks about that, it seems!
T.C. Hammond gives quite an acceptable paraphrase of verse 27:
"I cannot", says Paul, "pride myself on my acceptance in Christ if I am the subject of waywardness and fleshly desire. Unless my body is subject to the mind by which I serve the law of God, I may be living in a delusion and experience a rude awakening."
This first group of Bible references are set - as it were - in a pedagogical framework. They teach us the need for being constantly alert and spiritually wide awake. Watch and pray!
I think that the story in Acts 27:14-44 is a marvellous illustration of that principle. It's the story about the storm, the shipwreck, Paul, the lives of hundreds of people. God reveals to Paul: No loss of life; but when some soldiers are scheming to leave the ship, he warns that unless these men stay in the ship, we cannot be saved.
So God uses human action to make His promise come true!
And so it is in the spiritual life!
God warns, and He uses it as a means to keep His children from the fatal sin of apostasy. It is not all automatic in the Christian life; there must be a working out of the salvation which God has worked in! God puts the power of faith in the believer's hands, and then the believer exercises it unto salvation.
The power comes from Him. The exercise of it comes from the believer.
Once again, it is not merely believing in Christ as Lord and Saviour and then things will go automatically. No, they do not. We are warned against complacency, laziness, lack of spiritual growth, still feeding on milk, no progress.
A little boy of six fell out of his bed in the middle of the night. At breakfast the next morning he gave his own explanation; he said: "I went to sleep too near where I got in."
You wonder of how many Christians that is true.
But what about Demas?
Then there is a second group of Bible statements that seem to put into question the doctrine of the Perseverance of the True Believer; and I refer to those people we meet in the Bible who to all intents and purposes at one time possessed grace, but perished nevertheless.
Judas Iscariot, who was a co-labourer with the other apostles, but he betrayed his master.
Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:19,20), who rejected faith and good conscience, and so shipwrecked their faith.
Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), who deserted Paul because he loved this world.
The false teachers (2 Peter 2:1) of whom Peter writes that they denied the sovereign Lord who bought them.
And those one-time church members who are pictured in Hebrews 6:4-8, of whom it is written that they had fallen away so dreadfully that it was impossible to bring them back to repentance.
What do we make of these situations?
Let us take note of this: not all grace of which the Bible speaks is saving grace (just as not all faith in the Bible is actually saving faith). Scripture does not say that those people mentioned earlier actually possessed saving grace.
They did experience a certain enlightenment, as is rather common with those who have a measure of historical faith.
They tasted something of the sweetness of the gospel, an experience which usually accompanies temporary faith.
But they were never brought into vital fellowship with the Christ!
John writes (1 John 2:19):
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.
John's words are still true today.
Faith which is shipwrecked was never saving faith!
Fill 'er up!
The Reformed conviction can have no sympathy whatsoever for the Arminian approach which says in effect that God is somewhat like the owner of a service-station. He has a great storehouse of power, just waiting to be "tapped". But it is up to the sinner to drive in, and say "Fill 'er up".
And all that power is powerless, until the sinner makes his move.
What is more, as soon as we start the trip, we learn the bitter fact that we can also run out of "petrol", and fail to make our destination. The power of God that is powerless until the sinner makes his move at the beginning, is just as powerless at any later time.
Surely, if that is what the Bible teaches, who among us could possibly have assurance of salvation? Who among us would not fret and worry about his or her salvation all day long?
I'd like to conclude with the very last article of the Canons of Dort, those statements truly are packed full of comfort and joy;
This teaching about the perseverance of true believers and saints,
and about their assurance of it - a teaching which God has very richly revealed in His Word for the glory of His name and for the
comfort of the godly and which He impresses on the hearts of
believers - is something which the flesh does not understand, Satan
hates, the world ridicules, the ignorant and the hypocrites abuse
and the spirits of error attack.
The bride of Christ, on the other hand, has always loved this
teaching very tenderly and defended it steadfastly as a priceless
treasure; and God, against whom no plan can avail and no strength
can prevail, will ensure that she will continue to do this.
To this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honour and
glory forever. Amen.
Dr Keith V Warren
(Prof. Warren recently retired as Principal of the Reformed Theological
Back to the Article Index
Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised March 96 / Copyright 1996