Can you lose your salvation?

Several commenters on recent posts have brought this topic up, so I though I’d address it. What you’re going to get here is the short and dirty version, and it’s also not completely comprehensive. You have to remember that theologians have spend almost two thousand years arguing about this and that Christianity is currently so splintered that there is almost nothing all Christians agree on.

Catholics say yes

To be saved, one must be in “a state of grace.” God gives his followers grace through the sacraments, and you attain additional grace through good works, prayer, fasting, etc. If you are living in “a state of grace,” you have nothing to worry about. But just as you can have grace and gain more of it, you can also lose it.  

Catholics divide the sins you can commit into two: venal sins and mortal sins. Venial sins are the little every day sins that you commit all the time almost without thinking about it. Losing your temper and yelling at your children or spouse would be a venial sin. Mortal sins involve an intentional rejection of God and his laws. Committing murder or having premarital sex would be mortal sins.

A venial sin does not deprive one of salvation, though it does lower one’s resistance to evil. A mortal sin, in contrast, shatters one’s sanctifying grace entirely and causes a loss of salvation. Imagine that salvation is like a pane of glass, and as long as you can see through it you are in a state of grace. Venial sins are smudges on that glass and mortal sins are a complete blackening of the glass. Both venial and mortal sins can be wiped away by going to confession and participating in the sacraments, but only mortal sins cause one to lose one’s “state of grace” and therefore one’s salvation.

For Catholics, then, you can lose your salvation but you can also easily regain it by going to confession and restoring your “state of grace.” If you commit a mortal sin and then die before repenting of it and going to confession (intention to go to confession counts as well), you die outside of a “state of grace” and are damned. If you commit venial sins and then die, you are still in a “state of grace” and thus avoid damnation.

Protestants say yes and no

Protestant opinion is divided on whether you can lose your salvation. Some argue that just as you can accept God you can also reject him and thus cease to be saved, but others argue that once someone is saved God will not allow that person to ever lose their salvation. There is actually a surprising amount of arguing on this point, and both sides have Bible verses to back up their views.

In practice, though, the differences become muted. Both sides agree that a saved person will follow the Bible and live a godly Christian life (which is naturally defined differently by different Christian sects).

Protestants (with the possible exception of some high church Protestants) do not believe in mortal and venial sins. Officially, they make no distinction. In practice, however, there is a sort of distinction. If a Christian individual lashes out in anger or temporarily falls prey to pornography, it’s generally seen as a sort of falling away from closeness with God that can be patched up. If a Christian individual rejects God or commits some sort of heinous sin like first degree murder or child molestation, that person’s salvation is questioned.

If a supposedly saved person rejects God or commits first degree murder, both sides of the debate will generally argue that that person is not saved (there may be exceptions, I’m generalizing here). They get there by different means, however: those who believe you can lose your salvation will say that that person lost his salvation by rejecting God, and those who believe you can’t lose your salvation will say that that person was never saved to begin with.

The whole “was never saved to begin with” thing is predicated on the fact that if someone is truly saved, if someone truly has that connection with the God of the universe, there is no way that person could ever fall away. It’s completely inconceivable. For that person to have an intimate relationship with God and then turn their back on him is impossible. Therefore, that person must never have been saved to begin with.

In practice, then, even those Christians who believe you can’t lose your salvation do not therefore believe you can go out and rape and murder and rob and still be saved, because they believe no truly saved Christian would go out and rape and murder and steal. In other words, being saved does not in practice act as an excuse to go commit crime. If you did use your “freedom in Christ” to go commit a crime, it would indicate that you hadn’t really been saved to begin with.


While Christians take different perspectives to whether or not people can be saved and then lose their salvation, they generally agree that there is a line that cannot be crossed. If someone crosses that line, Catholics will say he has committed a “mortal sin” and shattered his “state of grace,” some Protestants will say he has “lost his salvation,” and other Protestants will say he was “never saved to begin with.” Because of this, I’ve never heard of salvation being used as an excuse to go out and live a life of sin.

And now I’d like to open it up to my readers. How does the church you grew up in (or are currently a member of) approach this issue? And if you have never belonged to a church, what experiences have you had with Christians that relate to this issue?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    My family’s church is one of the Calvary Chapels – so evangelical, fundamentalist, non-denominational. They believe that you never lose your salvation, you only go into periods of falling away from the church. If you go back you’re welcomed like the prodigal son.

  • AnyBeth

    The churches I grew up in were fairly Calvinistic, so that meant one couldn’t lose one’s salvation. Except there was that thing about “blasphemy of the holy spirit” being unpardonable, but since no one could figure out exactly what that was, that meant that even if something couldn’t be forgiven, we couldn’t know what that could be. In practice, this meant that anyone who’d said they “accepted Jesus” or what have you were almost always considered to have said salvation no matter what: even murder, even changing faiths or going to atheism. They took this “preservation of the saints” thing very seriously. I think it gave them a few benefits. For one, it meant they didn’t have to worry about the ultimate destination of loved ones that “backslid”. For another, it meant they didn’t have to worry whether they were “really” saved or where they’d spend eternity. Oh, and the “blaspheming the spirit” thing? If you did that and had been “saved”, you lost your salvation and could never, ever get it again, being that was the single unforgivable offense. So it really wasn’t worth arguing because anyone who lost their salvation was forever lost. It was much easier to presume salvation rather than never-saved, except perhaps for very new believers.

  • holytape

    Some of the people I dealt with say you can’t lose your salvation, because if you claimed to be save, and then lose faith, you were never really saved in the first place.

    I grew up in a Lutheran church, where you could lose your salvation easy. But you could gain it back just as easily. Salvation was like a rotating door. You just had to be on the right side when you died.

  • Anders

    Does anyone know what the Orthodox teach?

    • oldebabe

      Orthodox? Which? Greek? Russian? or.. ???

      • Kassiane

        I replied to this before it moved? I was even unprofane and don’t understand why it vanished in the move.

        I was raised Orthodox (hence the name, though Saint Kassiane was *way* progressive compared to a lot of church stuff), and the different ‘countries’ are all the same theology, just different languages…I was baptized in a Romanian church, went to Antiochian church camp, went to an OCA church in high school.

        Their whole thing is that you, once you die, start to experience heaven or hell & can still turn towards or away from God. Though apparently if you’re excommunicated you may run into a problem there. And you are supposed to go to confession extremely frequently. I dont recall any unforgiveable sins.

      • Libby Anne

        I’m sorry Kassiane, your comment is the one comment that vanished in the move, because you commented after I exported my files from FreeThought Blogs but before I removed the ability to comment on the FreeThought Blogs posts in an effort to make sure no comments would be lost. Sorry about that!

  • James Sweet

    The whole “was never saved to begin with” thing is predicated on the fact that if someone is truly saved, if someone truly has that connection with the God of the universe, there is no way that person could ever fall away. It’s completely inconceivable. For that person to have an intimate relationship with God and then turn their back on him is impossible. Therefore, that person must never have been saved to begin with.

    It’s the doctrinal Scotsman!

  • lordshipmayhem

    Now that’s why I could never be saved – the state of grace.

    I’m Canadian, and Canada doesn’t have states, it has provinces. And there’s nothing about being in a province of grace anywhere.

    At least that’s what I tell the door-knockers when they come around looking for suckers converts.

  • Colleen

    Let’s see. My grandparent’s church was of the “once saved, always saved” variety. They believe that once you had been saved (and baptized), you were done. I don’t think they even had the “fell away from God” or “was never saved to begin with” clause. When I converted to Mormonism, they DID tell me I had turned my back on God, but they were relieved that I’d been saved, and that God would eventually cause my heart to turn back to him.

    I can’t, off the top of my head, remember what the Mormons believe about salvation. I think I’m still technically a “saved” Mormon, because I was baptized in the church, even though I’m now classified as inactive, and living a sinful life. But they have the whole three tiers of heaven thing going on, and I’m not sure which tier they would actually slot me into.

    And the “ecstatic” church I belonged to at one point had altar call with the arm-waving and swaying and things, and I don’t even remember their view of salvation.

  • Jenna

    That reminds me of a time I lived with a group of five 20-ish year old women that had all met through church and one of them decided to write out the text of Hebrews 6:4 on our kitchen white board. She had started to disapprove of some of our alcohol consumption and “fraternizing.” I couldn’t tell if her passive aggressive verse dropping was supposed to warn us to be careful not to fall away from grace or to say that we obviously weren’t quite saved to begin with :)

  • Jeremy

    Most United Churches of Christ (UCC) churches believe that salvation is universal, and that everyone is saved, no matter who they are or what they believe. Some of them also don’t have a corporeal vision of heaven — but if they do, they fully expect to meet Hitler there.

  • Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer)

    Ah, the “once saved, always saved” debate. I grew up as a Catholic until my early teens, though I was never confirmed and never did have a clear understanding of the doctrine. After that, I had a stint at the Church of Christ, which focused almost exclusively on the necessity of immersion baptism for salvation. Some people definitely did subscbe to the “Well, if they did [insert horrible thing], then they never really were saved” mentality, but that was more of a gray area. Still, most people seemed to emphasize obedience to the gospel as they saw it, and prioritized that over everything else, so that I was left with the distinct impression that you could indeed do horrible things and simply repent, assuming you had taken the proper steps in the first place. It wasn’t used (to my knowledge) as a “live a sinful life for free” card, but there were certainly people who thought you never really lost your salvation once it was attained; you simply turned away from the path. Seems like semantics to me, but we definitely had long spirited debates about the distinction.

    We also had long lectures about the “like a thief in the night” passage (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4) and the “Should we continue to sin so that God’s kindness will increase?” passage (Romans 6:1), which I always took as admonitions against this attitude, even among the “once saved, always saved” crowd.

  • rilian

    I had this one friend who was an atheist for a while, and then he told me he believed in jesus again and he said to me, “I wish you could feel this… not being responsible for anything you do.”

  • Willy

    Dear all,

    It’s all about relations. What about that? Why did Jesus become so angry with the religious leaders of His time? Because they had forgotten all about the purpose and meaning of life. I litterally cry when I think about this. IT IS ALL ABOUT RELATIONS!

  • Jenn

    We attended several independent churches growing up and I don’t think this doctrine was something everyone agreed on. Salvation was accepting Christ as a sacrifice for sin period, so there was nothing that could be done for salvation except to accept Christ. However, that wasn’t considered a free pass and everyone should strive to live the best possible life.

    The only sermon I actually remember on this was one by Kenneth Coplin (who my parents thought highly of, and probably still do) about how only people who are mature in their faith (such as Kenneth himself) could reject God and be held to it. Someone who was a “baby” in Christ or new to the faith or not very strong in the faith could never reject Christ because they didn’t understand the Bible or faith well enough to really be able to reject God.

    So, by proxy I’ll assume that is possible to lose salvation, but only through directly rejecting God after gaining a thorough understanding.

  • Eamon Knight

    I was only an evangelical during my teens and twenties (which is getting to be a rather long time ago). Much more recently I ran into a friend from back then. On being told I was now an atheist, he seemed to think that I was still saved. He expressed this by way of starting in on a spiel about conversion being “a transaction through which your soul is sealed in Heaven…” which I don’t recall any more of because my eyes instantly glazed over and all I could think was “Why on earth would you imagine that I *care* about your sermonette? Which part of ‘atheist’ are you not getting?”

  • cy

    I grew up very Catholic–10 years of Catholic school. I think the first time I really questioned the truth of my religion was when I was 7-years-old and had my First Communion. To commemorate the occasion, all the girls were given a white plastic purse with a prayer book that contained liturgy stuff.
    It also had an explanation of “venial” and “mortal” sins. The venial sins list included the sin of eating a small piece of meat on a day of abstinence. On the mortal sin list was the sin of eating a large piece of meat on a day of abstinence.
    That was such a WTF?? moment for me and probably the beginning of of very long process of deciding that this was a extremely crazy religious system. I just couldn’t get my head entirely around the idea that I would burn in hell forever and ever and ever for eating an incrementally larger piece of meat on the wrong day. So much for salvation!
    (Also, I am also so grateful that I have this in writing—in my lovely little official prayer book. Because really, so much of what really screwed up my head about this whole religion process is that a lot of it is just what I heard in church and than when I would question it, someone says, “well that’s not really what is true . . .you must have misunderstood.”)
    And last but not least, as a first time commenter who just found your blog a week ago and have read all your posts, I want to say that you are one amazing person–your logic skills and writing are simply phenomenal and I’ve loved reading everything you’ve written. Thanks.

  • alanuk

    I think that the attitude in my church was that once saved you should not be worrying about becoming unsaved again and you should certainly not be worrying whether you had committed the unforgivable sin of blaspheming against the holy spirit – or certainly not while you remained a member. We were all pretty fanatical but did not go as far as saying we would be the only ones in heaven – though sometimes it could come across like that.

    Other commentators have covered most of the permutations. Considering that this topic is the only thing that really matters, it should be more clear. Just decide on your theology and select verses to suit.

    When I stopped believing (my church had also disappeared) none of these things mattered any more – total relief.

  • seditiosus

    The Baptist church my mom was involved with when I was young thought of salvation as a relationship with god. You could “fall away” from Christ when you committed sins and that would put your salvation in jeopardy, but you could then repent and “get right with Christ”, which would get your salvation back.

    They didn’t think that “falling away” from Christ happened because you sinned, but rather that moving away from Christ caused you to be vulnerable to temptation, and thus more likely to sin. So it wasn’t the act of sinning itself that damaged your chances of salvation, but the fact that your relationship with god was shaky.

    If your relationship with god got compromised, it was because Satan had got between you and god. That was what made you vulnerable to temptation; you were listening more to Satan than to god. Because of this there was a belief that people weren’t actually responsible for their sins because the devil made them do it, but they were responsible for allowing the devil to tempt them.

    • Rosa

      That makes sense of the “working on my relationship with God” thing, and the way the terminology is so similar to “working on my marriage” or whatever other project people are worried about. It’s pretty puzzling except for the explanation that “saved” isn’t an either-or state, it’s an ongoing thing.

  • Holly

    So if someone who commits a serious crime was “not really saved in the first place” what about people who have never heard of Jesus but still lead righteous lives? Are they “saved” unbeknownst to them?
    By the way, in my faith, we don’t need to be saved from anything, we were born fine the first time and all souls will return to their Creator from whence they came.

  • J Enigma (the Transhumanist!)

    Hi! :) I’m an atheist, so take from this what you will, but here’s my thoughts on the matter:

    Ephesians 2:1-2:10 (yes, there is a 2:9 and 2:10; I know a lot of protestants avoid those verses like the plague because they undermine the “salvation through grace alone” soteriology that the American church(es) ha(s/ve) adopted) states that God put us here, and we are saved by grace alone so nobody can brag about doing more than anyone else. However, they also make it pretty clear that God expects us to work to keep that grace anyway, by doing “good works” that he’s laid out before us ahead of time. So really, what I take away from that is the this: God is like the teacher who begins each semester with, “Okay. Everyone has an ‘A’ in the class. It’s yours to keep or lose.” In this sense, it certainly is possible to lose salvation and grace; in fact, you lose it by not working to keep it (because Ephesians states that God is expecting you to work to keep the grace that he’s given you ahead of time. There’s nothing in there about belief, or accepting him again; that line comes from “No man comes through the father except through me,” which can be interpreted any number of ways ranging from “Jesus is a door with hinges” – the literal interpretation – to “Jesus is your defense attorney”. That makes the most sense given the adversarial nature that salvation embodies throughout the text – see Job for more on this, where Satan/HaSatan/The Adversary becomes the prosecuting attorney who’s ultimately rooting for you in the end). In this sense, whether or not you keep grace depends entirely on whether or not you work for it. And because salvation is something you work to keep, if you lose it by not doing good works and making the world a better place, you can gain it back by doing just that. So while it’s hard to lose – you have to actively be opposed to good works, helping people, and doing everything else Jesus said to do – it’s easy to get back.

    Naturally, quite a few, if not most, American protestants avoid this like the plague. They prefer the “salvation by grace” soteriology, because it’s simpler and doesn’t require that much of them – not to mention, it’s also more concrete and more clear cut. You know whether or not you have salvation with that; admit to be born again, and voila, salvation. With this whole “good works” business, it gets messy. What is “good works?” Who gets to define what those are? Jesus came out and gave a few examples, but our world is a lot more complicated now than his was, and as a result, good deeds can take many different forms. Not to mention good deeds require you to expose yourself to the world and all in it, which is something that most in the “salvation by grace” crowd want to have nothing to do with.

    Interesting post – I always enjoy theology and philosophy, even if I am an atheist. It’s interesting to study, especially when you hear about it from all sides.

  • fort nerd

    The state of grace is a special condition you get right after going to confession. It goes away the moment you sin again, so you need another confession to get it back. Growing up, I was always confused about how long is it normally supposed to last, as sometimes you’re not sure whether you’ve sinned yet or not, as the definition of what “counts” as sin is sometimes pretty foggy and varies from person to person – especially when you’re a kid.
    Also, since you only need the state of grace condition right before you die, to get to heaven, does it mean it’s totally OK to commit all sorts of sins as long as you’ve confessed every once in a while?….Wait, I’ve pretty much summed up Catholicism!

  • Mara

    Wow. I’ve got to say that as someone brought up in Conservative Judaism, this whole discussion reads kind of like it’s in Old English. Y’know how when you try to read something like Beowulf and it drives you crazy because you know you should understand what the text says but it’s not quite the language you know?

    ::shakes head:: We didn’t have any of this stuff. (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism has a whole thing where if you don’t do the right things the world becomes unbalanced but the rest of us never learned any of that.)

  • sumdum

    I refused to go to church anymore when I was around 12 years old, I’d just gotten out of sunday school and now had to stay in church with the adults. Usually though I snuck out with some friends, went to a local snackbar and bought some french fries, then wandered around the neighbourhood. Therefor I didn’t get a lot of doctrine. What I do remember is that they never taught that you could do whatever you liked once you gave your self to god. You had to continue being a good christian, it wasn’t a get out of hell free pass. Funny thing, I recently googled the name of a pastor from back then. Found out he got caught for some financial scam or something. I and my older brother would often joke ‘pastor needs a new car’ when the collection plate was passed around. Heh.

  • Sophia

    The Methodist church I ended up attending for the last years of my teenage life (which was pretty hippy and liberal as far as churches go) defined “sin” as an act which harms others and/or yourself, and that to make things right, you needed to not only pray and ask forgiveness, but make amends in the real world and serve the earthly consequences.

  • John B Hodges

    It is the fervent belief of the Pure Land Buddhist sect that simply hearing the mantra “Om namo amitabhayya buddhaya”, or in Japanese “Om namu amida butsu”, which can be abbreviated to “nembutsu”, guarantees your entry straight into paradise… oops, sorry, if you didn’t want to go there, but reading it works too. And unlike Christianity, this does not require that you believe in it or have faith in it.