Can a Man Be Saved and then Lost?
September 30, 1998

We are always a little concerned at glib phrases like 'once saved, always saved' because they carry with them the grave danger of complacency. While we believe the statement is in fact true we must always enter the firm caveat, 'as long as a person is really saved', and the only final test of that from the Bible’s point of view is their lives.

We do not by this wish to throw doubt on a person's faith, but the Bible does not just look on salvation as being a fire insurance. It teaches different aspects of 'salvation'. It speaks of ‘having been saved’ - Titus 3.5; 2 Timothy 1.9 (aorist tense, something that has happened once for all), and of having been saved and therefore now "are saved’ - Ephesians 2.5; 2.8 (perfect tense, something that has happened in the past the benefit of which continues to the present time). This is what is in mind when we say a person has been ‘saved’.

But the Bible also speaks of us as those who "are being saved" - 1 Corinthians 1.18; 2 Corinthians 2.15; (present tense - a process going on), and who will be saved - 1 Corinthians 3.15; 5.5; 2 Corinthians 7.10; 1 Thessalonians 5.9; 2 Thessalonians 2.13 (future tense - something yet to happen - and equivalents). In other words, when God ‘saves’ someone they are saved once and for all, and it is fully effective. But if it is genuine it means that it will then result in a process by which they are being ‘changed from glory into glory’(2 Corinthians 3.18), with the final guarantee of a completed process. If the salvation is not progressing, even though slowly, then its genuineness must be questioned. The Saviour does not fail in His work.

Consider a man drowning at sea, in a fierce storm, clinging to a life raft with one hand, his other arm broken and trailing behind, and both his legs paralyzed, having been many hours in the freezing water and suffering from hypothermia, more dead than alive. Then along comes the life boat and drags him out and he gasps, hardly able to speak because of the seriousness of his condition, "I am saved". Well, it is true. But he has a long way to go. He would not have much confidence in his salvation if they put him to one side in the bow of the boat, with the waves lashing over him, and said to him, "Well, you’re saved now", and then went off and played cards and then had a game of turning the lifeboat over. His confidence and dependence lie in a fully trained and capable crew who are dedicated to warming him up, treating him and getting him to hospital so that he can be fully restored.

So as they get to work on him, wrapping him in a blanket and gently warming his frozen limbs, trying to set his broken arm and doing everything else necessary to restore him to some kind of normality, he can begin to have hope and think gratefully to himself, "I am being saved". But he may well still be aware of the winds howling round, and the boat heaving in the heavy seas, and the pain and agony of his limbs, and he may then look forward and think, "I will soon be saved". If those crewmen, and the ambulance waiting for him on shore on that terrible night, can be so dedicated, can we think that the One Who died on a cross for us on an even more terrible night, can be less dedicated? He does not just want us in the lifeboat. He wants us fully restored. And that is what He is determined to have. And if we want to be saved that is what we must want! We cannot say, ‘Lord, save me, but leave me as I am’.

This salvation is entered into by an act of faith and commitment. As we genuinely recognise our need to be saved (in every way) from sin we commit ourselves completely to the One Who Saves (the Saviour), and trust Him to carry out the work, knowing that once he has begun the good work He will carry it out to the end (Philippians 1.6). We are then ‘saved’, and have also entered the process of ‘being saved’.

The Bible speaks of ‘sanctification’ in a similar way. To sanctify means ‘to set apart for a holy purpose, to make holy’ and from the Christian point of view that means to make "God-like in purity, goodness and love". This is something only God can do for us. The Bible tells us that once He has made us His Own, we are put in the position of ‘having been sanctified’ (aorist tense, once for all - 1 Corinthians 1.30; 6.11), and therefore ‘set apart’ for God once for all. This is because we are made holy ‘in Christ’ with Christ’s holiness, and thus covered with His purity. This is why we can approach God so confidently. It has put us in a state whereby we ‘are sanctified’ and accepted as holy in His presence - Acts 20.32; 26.18; Romans 15.16; 1 Corinthians 1.2; Hebrews 10.10 (perfect tense - ‘having been sanctified and therefore now are sanctified’ - past happening which continues to the present).

But the result of being put in this position is that we will now be ‘in process of being sanctified’ (set apart by being made holy) by Christ Jesus and the Spirit. The purity of Christ, which has been set to our account, must now become an actuality. We must therefore go through the process of ‘being set apart for God’ by being constantly changed by the Spirit (present tense - Hebrews 2.11; 10.14; compare Romans 6.19; 6.22; 1 Thessalonians 4.3; 2 Thessalonians 2.13). If we are His He will carry out this work in us. This is the same process as salvation from a slightly different point of view. We are saved through God’s work of sanctification, which like salvation is ours by faith.

In contrast being "justified", ie ‘put in the right with God’, can only have happened in the past tense for the Christian. The verb is dikaioo, the oo ending showing that it means ‘counted as righteous’, a judicial position before God, rather than ‘made righteous’, a factual experience of being changed. It has happened once for all (Aorist tense- Romans 5.1; 5.9; 1 Corinthians 6.11; 8.30; 10.10; Galatians 2.16; Titus 3.7). The result is that we ‘are justified’ (present passive - Romans 3.24; 3.28) - standing in the right with God through His grace ( His undeserved favour and love).

But as James makes clear, this standing must result in good works (James 2.24). In the end it is these which, although they cannot put us in the right with God, are the necessary fruit of justification. Good works do not cause us to be justified, but they are the necessary consequence. To quote John Calvin, ‘we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone’.

And how are we put in the right by God? By faith (Romans 5.1). The same act of commitment to Christ that saves us also puts us in a position of being justified, of being accepted as righteous by God. And what is the basis of our justification? We are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3.24). God can declare us righteous, and still remain righteous Himself, because of the propitiating work of the crucified and risen Christ "through His blood" i.e. by the shedding of His blood for us (Romans 3.25; 3.28).

Yet even justification has its future tense. "By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned" (Matthew 12.37). A man who has been justified will produce the fruit in his life that evidences the fact. By this we are not just ‘accounted as righteous’ but shown to be righteous, at least to a degree.

This demonstrates that when God saves He does so once for all, but that the test of this is that it continues to the present time and is going on at the moment as an ongoing process. We can then be sure of its final completion. If the work of salvation is not happening within, resulting in a changed life and a tenderer conscience, it must be questioned whether the person is within God’s process of salvation. Paul had nothing but condemnation for those who thought that ‘being saved’ meant they could behave how they liked (Romans 3.8).

(It must, however, be pointed out that we are not necessarily the best judges of whether we are improving. The more we advance in Godliness, and the nearer we get to God, the more sinful we feel ourselves to be. That is why Paul thought of himself as the ‘chief of sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15). Our confidence must be in the One to whom we have committed ourselves, not in our feelings. It is others who will testify to the change that has taken place in our lives).

This guarantee of salvation is confirmed specifically in a number of verses. In Philippians 1.6 Paul speaks of "Being confident of this very thing, that He Who has begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ". Philippians 2.13 adds, "For it is God Who is at work within you to will and to do of His good pleasure". In both cases the assumption is that God’s work will produce results, slowly but surely, because it is He who is doing it.

This aspect of the security of the Christian in Christ is found in the words of Jesus. In John 10.28, Jesus summarizes the Christian’s position in these words. "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give to them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them from My hand". This verse is packed through with certainty. The gift of ‘eternal’ life, the safety in His hand, and the guarantee that they will never be allowed to wander away and perish. They may sometimes wander for a while, but if they are truly His, He will seek them until He finds them (Luke 15.4). He is the Shepherd, and He will keep them. This is His promise. But notice the test of whether we are His sheep. His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. This is a continual process. We become His sheep when we hear His voice (through the Bible or through a preacher) and respond. We can be confident that we are His sheep if we know that we genuinely want Him to save us, and we demonstrate it when we go on responding, not perfectly, but definitely. We can have no sense of security away from the Shepherd.

Paul had no doubt of his safety in Christ. "I know Whom I have believed", he said, "and am confident that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him against that day" (2 Timothy 1.12). Jude gives the same assurance to us. "To Him Who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24).

So our confidence lies in the fact that it is God Who is doing the work and not us. It may at times appear slow, but it is certain. And because of this certainty we must put every effort into our part. "Work out your own salvation with greatest care (fear and trembling), for it is God Who works in you (making you) to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Philippians 2.12-13).

Paul’s confidence did not make him complacent. In 1 Corinthians 9.27 he points out "I run, not doubting, I fight, not uselessly. I keep my body under control, and bring it into subjection, lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected after testing". These were not the words of someone fearing failure, they were the words of one confident of success and determined to keep it that way. And when he is describing to Christians the resurrection body in 2 Corinthians 5.1-5, he enters the caveat "on condition that you are not found naked" (ie guilty before God because of sin).

In the same way John’s messages to the seven churches in the book of Revelation (chapters 1-3) warn the members of those churches quite strongly that they must set right what is wrong, and distinguish clearly between genuine Christians and those who are playing at it. They must be overcomers, progressing in the Christian life, and not those who sit back and wait for the falsity of their profession to be revealed.