Once Saved, Always Saved?

Once Saved, Always Saved? February 11, 2019

The Culture of Instant Gratification

As someone who grew up on a farm, my earliest job experiences involved doing chores. It wasn’t until I was 12 years old when I started to get paid to do work on the farm. I spent my weekends mowing the lawn, pruning trees and piling branches in the middle of the field to burn. Just before my school year had finished, I had enough money saved up to buy a Nintendo 64 gaming console. Though I wasn’t allowed to play it until my final exams were finished, I was so excited about my reward. I would open the box and hold the controllers while imagining myself playing the games on the screen. As an adult in my 30’s, I make enough money that buying a brand new gaming console wouldn’t be a huge setback. But I could say that buying one on impulse would diminish the romance of carefully budgeting for such a purchase.

In this age in North America, we seem to be immersed in a culture of instant gratification and entitlement. From online shopping to fast food there seems to be tremendous emphasis on fast progress and immediate results. Items that used to take weeks to be delivered can now be shipped to your doorstep the next day. Food that used to take hours to prepare can be ordered in minutes through a drive-thru. And if you wanted it, you could have it right away.

In a lot of ways, I think the desire for instant gratification seems to have crept into Christian culture long before the 21st century. I think the human condition naturally tries to somehow bring Heaven down to Earth for everyone to experience firsthand. Many of us have a habit of living for the weekend rather than planning for retirement and living for the long run. It’s easier to want a bit of Paradise right away instead of enduring the process of investing in a worthwhile end goal.

Are You Saved?

As I have mention in several previous articles, I attended an Evangelical Bible camp when I was a teenager. In my last year of attending, a guest speaker had talked about the importance of forgiveness. These very words struck a chord in my heart and changed the course of my life forever,

“…but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
— Matthew 6:15

After the chapel session was over, I approached the man and told him how his sermon had affected me. He looked me in the eyes and asked a most unusual question my cradle-Catholic ears had never heard before,

“Are you saved?”

I was so dumbstruck by such a strange statement that I did not know what to think. I had grown up with the impression that only good people go to Heaven, yet I never really considered what makes a person ‘good.’ It was at that moment I prayed with the camp speaker and accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.

Long story short, as I continued on my journey identifying as a born-again Christian I found myself becoming disenchanted with Evangelical culture. There were many times when I second-guessed what I had experienced at camp. If I somehow found myself questioning my assurance of salvation, people automatically concluded I don’t have a relationship with Jesus. Due to how Evangelicals have a habit of ‘testing all spirits,’ it was a topic I was afraid to bring up. As for those who identified as Christians previously and have found themselves losing faith or becoming disconnected from their faith communities, they were unfortunately viewed by everyone else as having never been saved from the beginning.

Hence the phrase, ‘Once saved, always saved!’

Assurance of Salvation?

The most cited pet verse Evangelicals use as a way of proving assurance of salvation is,

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
— John 10:27-28 RSV

Upon hearing this phrase for the first time, I had an initial feeling of reassurance. There is something comforting about knowing no matter how much I sinned, God would still love me and take me back. This is most evident in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The imagery of a man who returns to his father after doing his family wrong and living a life of sin is truly moving. This parable is a powerful glimpse of how much Heaven rejoices when one person repents and enters the Kingdom of God.

But what if the prodigal son had chosen not to return to his father? What if he had suddenly decided to go back to his old ways, in a similar way a drug addict would return to substance abuse? Additionally, I would argue that this man would never cease being the father’s son. Another passage that comes to mind is how a good shepherd seeks out his lost sheep in Luke 15:1-7. This definitely shows the volume of the Father’s love for his own. But this also seems to imply that the ‘sheep’ can escape – or in the case of both parables, they can leap out of His hand.

While humans and spirits are completely powerless in undoing Christ’s sacrifice, there seem to be many instances in the Bible that talk about God handing people over to their own sin. Although an all-powerful God could certainly prevent humans from destroying themselves, if He truly respected free will it would only make sense for Him to give people the freedom to ‘jump out of His hand.’

Once Damned, Always Damned?

If God chose to save someone before the beginning of time, the phrase ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’ cannot exist without ‘Once Damned, Always Damned.’ This comes from the Calvinist biblical exegesis regarding the description of God’s wrath in Romans 9. By this logic, those people were already judged before he or she were even conceived. The presumption that a person was ‘never saved to begin with’ is the ultimate no true Scotsman fallacy.

People will sometimes argue that it’s impossible to lose salvation because God’s sovereignty transcends beyond the realm of time and space, and is far more powerful than a person’s will to sin. But in my perspective, an imposition on free will would render God to be the author of sin.

What I also find interesting is how Evangelicals in general have a habit of reminding the world about fire and brimstone while acting as though they were exempt from such a horrible fate. Yet Scripture itself alludes to so-called believers who will face judgment themselves,

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ — Matthew 7:21-23 

I’ve often seen this passage used as a form of gaslighting poorly-catechized Catholics into becoming Protestant. In reality, this verse is more of a warning to be aware of those who use faith and good deeds as a facade to hide what’s really going on in a person’s heart. Over the years, I’ve met just as many Evangelicals who use their relationship with God to exalt themselves as nominal Catholics who think attending Mass at Christmas and Easter is good enough.

Can Salvation Be Lost?

In contrast to assurance of salvation, these passages in Scripture seem to communicate the opposite effect:

For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries.
— Hebrews 10:26-27 RSV

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.. . . . If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.. . . . As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
 John 15:1-2, 6, 9-10

“Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come, and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
— Luke 14:7-11 RSV

After collectively meditating on these verses over the years while reflecting on my own need for God’s grace, I’ve come to believe it is quite possible Christians can lose their salvation through willful and conscious disobedience. My article Are All Sins Equal? expands on this in further detail.

The Sin of Presumption

The Evangelical understanding of assurance of salvation seems to enable the sin of presumption. To often have I known Christians who assume they are specially favored or ‘chosen’ by God while recklessly treating others horribly and believing their actions have no effect on their relationship with God. This stems from being convinced they are supposedly already forgiven before their sin even took place. This is the sense of entitlement that comes with the theology of justification by faith alone. But as I have discussed in my article Faith Alone Is Not Enough, even Lucifer’s so-called faith wasn’t enough to save him from being cast out of Paradise.

The problem with OSAS theology is people are so focused on instantaneous assurance they neglect to realize a relationship with God can be damaged. It also enables a toxic mentality that forces Christians to view non-Christians with prideful contempt. If God is an intelligent, personable being, I don’t imagine He would disregard chronic impenitence because of a person’s faith.

Salvation Is A Journey

The most memorable stories usually involve a journey through adversity before reaching the end goal. The Lord of the Rings would have been a pretty boring story had Frodo hitched a ride on an eagle all the way to Mordor. Much rather, it is the walking journey through Middle Earth that made the destruction of the One Ring so incredibly satisfying. Similarly, I think God would be doing us a complete disservice if we were given a free pass to Heaven without experiencing the process of carrying our own crosses. The Scriptures even say,

“But he who endures to the end will be saved.” — Matthew 24:13 RSV

Since reverting to Catholicism I have learned to answer the question of whether I am truly saved with a more nuanced response. I have faith that Jesus is true to His word. I have a hope and an anticipation that I will go to Heaven, but I will not expect it as a gift I’m already entitled to receive. I may have to endure a life of suffering, or even pass through Purgatory for a time to rehabilitate myself from attachment to sin. I often brace myself thinking this could be a likely path for me, though that is pure speculation on my part. I will never know until I cross that threshold from this life to the next.

But it’s the journey of walking with Christ that will make the beatific vision of Paradise all the more sweeter.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
— Philippians 2:12-13 RSV

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