A few days ago someone asked me a question that I’d been asked quite a few times before, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to give him a direct answer to his question. This is because over the years, my own understanding of the issue had grown beyond “is it this or that” to questioning the assumptions behind that question. Since my alarm deceived me and made me wake up at 3 am instead of 5am this morning, I thought to make good use of the time and share here the question and how I now approach it.
“Is it possible to lose one’s salvation or is it ‘once saved always saved’?”
This is typically asked by someone who tends to be worried that a fellow brother or sister may be taking their “salvation” for granted and not living according to what the questioner expects them to live as a Christian. The legalist in us then seeks to warn the “sinner” that they may loose their salvation as the New Testament would seem to suggest in different places, whiles the “sinner” will also strongly hold to the libertine stance of “there is no condemnation for me” also found in so many other places in the NT.
How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.
One of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to put grace front and center of the Christian life and doctrine, and we can all be thankful for that. However, this achievement was not without a fair amount of “demonization” of 1st century Judaism by interpreting the letters of Paul in a certain angle.
The Roman Catholic church had taken up the payment of penances and indulgences as a means of giving one’s favourite dead grandmother a quick passport to heaven instead of her spending a few hundred years in purgatory (after all who doesn’t love their adoring grandmother). This practice became an issue of concern to Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other leaders of the protest movement, and to buttress their arguments against an obviously wrong practice, they harnessed Paul’s writings on grace against law to finally break away from the Catholic church. In this scheme of things, the Roman Catholic church were cast as Paul’s 1st century “Judaizers” who thrived by “works” aka penances and indulgences, whiles they the reformers represented Paul, wielding one thing only – grace. The rest as they say is history.
Unfortunately this has coloured the way a lot of us read the Old but especially the New Testament, and even the gospel itself has been reduced to a question of grace as opposed to what it is about – that Jesus is Lord of the world.
What the past century is teaching us though is that Judaism was not quite the “works” religion that we thought it was (or at least not as defined by the Reformation). And in fact if we are to pay better attention, we might realize that Christianity and 1st century Judaism have a lot more in common, and maybe we have been asking the wrong question about salvation being lost or not for quite a while.
The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament
A closer attention to the Torah seems to yield the fact that Israel was a chosen nation by grace. They didn’t work for it, they didn’t have to pay any penances or indulgences to be a chosen people of God. They were chosen because their forefather Abraham had shown faith in God’s promise to remake the world through him. Simple and short.
In fact, Moses had to remind them how they become a chosen people: because he loved their ancestors.
Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”
Deut 10:14-15 “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.”
Do you realize the similarities between this and Paul’s statements about being chosen, being saved, grace etc not because of our “works” but BECAUSE GOD LOVES JESUS and Christians who are in Christ are also loved and saved?
Rom 8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
Eph 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”
Eph 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
These similarities should tell us 2 things.
There is very little doubt that the principle of favouring a people because of someone else’s status before God is what runs through both the Old and New covenants and these 2 people are Abraham and Jesus Christ. In the case of the Old covenant, being born an Israelite was all it took, in the case of the New covenant, being born of Christ is all it takes.
The point about grace is about election – who are the chosen people of God. An individual may be added to the people of God (aka saved by grace), but the covenant is not just about their individual selves but about God’s intent for the corporate entity called “the people of God”. In the latter, it is Israel, in the former it is the church.
Therefore if the old covenant only required being born an Israelite, then one needed to somehow declare oneself not an Israelite anymore for one to be outside the grace of God. I believe the same applies to a Christian. Once saved, they are indeed “under grace” forever unless they choose not to be.
The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness
But the point of being the chosen people of God was always meant to achieve something beyond themselves. The point of being a chosen people was so they could point the rest of the world to Yahweh. To enable them do this, Yahweh gives them a set of laws to obey which if they obeyed, it will be well with they themselves as well as draw others to be attracted to this god called Yahweh.
Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”
The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham
Gen 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; … and all peoples on earth will be blessed THROUGH you.”
What was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness? Not that they will no longer be considered God’s chosen people (people of grace), but even whiles still being considered so, will suffer judgment, great loss and ultimately exile, as documented in Deut 28-30. Of course we know that these judgments did come upon them with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the evidence for that is well documented in the stories of the kings and prophets.
What do we find in the New covenant? Jesus launches his ministry and calls many to follow him. He tells people that being children of Abraham is no longer enough, but rather following him is. Behaving strikingly like Moses giving the law to Israel, he also takes his place on a mountain and delivers what most scholars refer to as his Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. Even while delivering it he places down his warnings as well, just like Moses.
Mt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Elsewhere in John 15 he says he is the vine, and his followers are the branches. But they will be judged if they don’t bear fruit.
John 15:5;16 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”
The Answer To The Question
It would seem then that although the covenants may be different, the intended goal was and has always been the same. God chooses a people out of his love (grace) and not because of what they’ve done (works), and sets them on a journey beyond themselves to do WORKS because of his redemptive plan for the whole world. The same Ephesian letter says it quite succinctly.
Eph 2:10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”
Grace always goes with covenant faithfulness, and the disciples being normal 1st century Jews (and not 16th century Europeans) didn’t pretend about this at all even in the new covenant.
Its sad to note then that Martin Luther in his unfortunate attempt to demonize works, was actually in favour of removing the book of James from the Protestant bible because James said things like this
James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”
That would have been a grave loss to the Protestant church if the other Reformation leaders had agreed to this proposal.
Salvation then (as put in the original question. Salvation means much more but we’re sticking to the above usage) is about inclusion into the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ. God has no intention of taking that inclusion away from you if you don’t exclude yourself. After all what shall separate you from the love of God (Rom 8:35)?
However, it is a recruitment call of those who are glad to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Non-participation, or false participation, will always go with severe judgment. The old covenant had it, the new is not getting rid of it anytime soon. Not even if Martin Luther wants to.