Once Saved Always Saved?

The Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints (POTS), otherwise known as “once saved always saved,” is one that is held by Baptists of almost every background. Baptists have historically divided fiercely over general and particular redemption, but this is one doctrine that nearly all Baptist traditions held and continue to hold with a tight grip. We believe that once a person has been reborn through repentance and faith, there is nothing that they could ever do to undo their regeneration.
 
Our tight grip on POTS draws many criticisms from other protestant believers, particularly those who come from Wesleyan traditions. Most arguments that have been formulated against POTS are some form of the following: Mankind is saved, by grace and by one’s commitment to Jesus. Therefore, if one withdraws their commitment to Jesus, then grace is no longer sufficient to sustain their salvation. In other words, it is possible for a born-again saint to fall finally away from grace if they do not hold up to their end of the salvation bargain.
 
Let’s begin by taking an honest look at the arguments against POTS. Then I will give the Baptist’s answer to these arguments. I will then show the Baptist argument for POTS, address a common fallacy, and give a remaining thought about backsliding.
 
  1. The Wesleyan Argument Against POTS

 

A. From Hebrews 6:4-6:
 
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
 
The Wesleyan interpretation of this passage is that those who have received Christ and the benefits of salvation are susceptible to falling away. Jesus is like an unattached parachute that one must hold onto, and if they lose their grip then there is no way for them to be saved. They could never pull themselves back up. Why? Because their denial of Him amounts to them joining the murderous mob and crucifying Him again.
 
The argument hinges on the interpretation of “tasted.” Those who deny POTS hold that tasted means that the person has accepted Christ’s offer of salvation… that they have wholeheartedly and knowingly repented and turned their lives over to Him and been joined to Him. As such, they have also benefited from His goodness and grace and power. If they now turn away from Him, counting the greatest gift of all to be nothing, then there no longer remains any hope for them.
 
The Baptist response: “Tasted” does not mean the same thing as “obtained” or “received.” This passage speaks of a person who reached for Jesus out of a desire to better themselves or merely to escape hell. They confessed Jesus in order to receive the “heavenly gift,” but had no interest in actually following the One who gives it. They went through the motions, prayed the prayer, and got baptized, but it was a superficial commitment. As soon as it became clear that their life with Christ meant the bearing of a cross they reneged on their commitment to Jesus and fell away.  This passage does not speak of a person who was saved but rather a person who was falsely converted. Such a person becomes an even greater offender of the gospel if they make the same superficial commitment again. Every time they do so, they in a sense crucify Him again and again and heap up guilt upon themselves.
 
B. From Hebrews 10:26-29.
 
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”
 
With this passage, opponents of POTS conclude that while the covenant between Jesus and the church is irrevocable, the covenant between Jesus and individual believers is conditional. After all, the people of God agreed to enter into a covenant at Mount Sinai (Exodus 4:31, 19:8), but many proved to be unfaithful and “set aside the law of Moses.” Those individuals were judged with ferocity on the testimony of two witnesses.
 
Given the high view that God had of the Mosaic covenant, as evidenced by His righteous judgment upon those who set it aside, how much higher must His view be of the covenant which He sealed with the blood of His own Son? How much more deserving of judgment is one who would “trample underfoot the Son of God?” Wesleyans hold that this is precisely the case with those who “go on sinning deliberately” after they are saved and such people can expect a fearful judgment. To this point, opponents of POTS offer the story of Ananias and Sapphira as evidence (Acts 5:1-11).
 
The Baptist Response: This passage is a warning in the form of a hypothetical scenario. If we could in good conscience go on sinning after we have been saved then there is sufficient evidence to prove that we were never saved, to begin with. And if we were indeed saved, then our sinning… our trampling underfoot the Son of God would serve as our condemnation. We cannot expect, on the day of judgment to make the argument, “but I prayed the prayer… I sang the songs… I was Baptized.” Such explanations will be crushed under the weight of His righteous judgment. There will be no sacrifice for our sins because our lives will prove that we denied the only sacrifice in existence.
 
  1. A Baptist Argument for POTS.

 

A. From Romans 8:28-35
 
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
 
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”
 
It is a long passage, I know, but it is hard to know where to stop or where to begin the argument for POTS from Romans 8. The very first verse says that “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ…” But I digress.
 
Everyone knows Romans 8:28. It is offered as encouragement to anyone suffering through a trying time. What many people do not understand is that Romans 8:28 and the context in which it is found offers hope for the wobbly-kneed-salvation-doubting Christian. All things work together for those who love Him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Why? Because their love comes from a bottomless well that is fed by His providence just as 1 John 4:19 says, “we love because He first loved us.”
 
Those who are saved are known by God since before the foundation of the world and “predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” Notice that the verbs in verses 29-30 are all in the past tense. Not only were they predestined and foreknown, they were justified and glorified through Christ’s finished work on the cross. As such there is nothing that can stand against them. There is no charge that can be brought against them, and there is nothing that can separate them from Christ.
 
If there was anything that a Saint could do to make Jesus love them any less, then they have already done it. They can rest, knowing that their every need will be supplied by the One who lives. If God loved them while they were yet sinners, and sent His one and only Son to die for them, how can they not also expect that He will graciously give them all they need for the new life that they have in Christ.
 
If Christ is interceding on behalf of the Saints, how can we fail? How could God ever turn on us and condemn us when to do so would mean condemning His own Son? So what will the Father do if we falter? He will hear the prayers of His Son and grant us to repent and draw near to Him with a fresh filling of His Holy Spirit and a lesson learned.
 
B. From John 10:27-29
 
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
 
John 10 is filled with imagery associated with the shepherd-sheep motif. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:14). The saved are His sheep. They hear his voice, and they follow Him. By this, they prove to be His sheep. The Pharisees were obviously not among the sheep because though they knew the scriptures and could talk about God, they did not believe or follow Jesus (John 10:26).
 
His sheep are His own. They were given to Jesus by the Father that He might love, lead, feed them. If they were gifts from the Father, the One who is greater than all, how could they ever be snatched away? How could they ever fall away? If a wolf were to come after them, what would a Good Shepherd do? If a sheep should stray too far, what would a Good Shepherd do?
 
In Luke 15:4 Jesus asks “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” The implication is that if any ordinary shepherd would leave the flock to go find his straying sheep, then we can expect THE Good Shepherd to do this as well. In fact, we can expect the Good Shepherd to go even father and work even harder to rescue His straying sheep. One could never stray so far that Jesus could not (or would not) rescue them.
 
  1. A common Fallacy
 
The most common fallacy in arguments against POTS is the ad hominem (“straw-man”) argument. In a formal debate, the ad hominem fallacy occurs a person attacks an argument that his opponent doesn’t make. Here’s the straw-man argument against POTS:
           
“You mean to say that a person can get saved and then go off and kill someone and still be saved and expect to go to heaven? This just doesn’t make any sense to me so you cannot be right.”
 
Response: No good Baptist or proponent of POTS would argue that a person who does such a thing is “still saved.” Our argument is that this person was probably never saved, to begin with. We make this judgment based on their evil works which bear witness to their lostness.
 
Jesus said that we would know saved people by their fruits in Luke 6:44-45. “For each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
 
Also, no orthodox proponent of POTS argues that a person can go and live in their old way of life after they have been saved. We believe as John the Baptist instructed in Luke 3:8, that a saved person will “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” We believe that one who claims to be a follower of Christ must, as Paul instructed in 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” We expect believers to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).

 

  1. Concerning Backsliding
 
No Christian is able to live up to the holiness of God on their own. There will always be a battle between their flesh and the spirit of God in them (See Romans 7:21-25 and 1 John 1:8-10). The presence of that struggle in a person’s life is evidence that the Spirit of God is at work in them, sanctifying them by His power.
 
Most Christians experience a prodigal season in their walk with Christ. They are in good company. Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Saul, David, Solomon, Peter, and all the disciples failed, at times, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Each of these believers went through seasons in their life when one would not have known that they were saved. They all, at times, behaved like lost people, and yet they were just as saved during those seasons as they were when they first believed. God pursued them through their failures and won them back to Himself again and again.
 
The Bible contains promises and warnings for the backslider. The promise is that no matter how far you have strayed, it is never too late to turn back. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The warning is that if you persist in your sins, you will prove to be lost and suffer the judgment of God. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep in sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil; whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10).