Can You Lose Your Salvation?
[The following article was paraphrased and summarised from an interview with John MacArthur entitled “When believers stop believing: Portrait of an Apostate”1]
If you once professed faith and now don’t, then you were never saved to begin with.
People who believe it is possible to lose your salvation are usually brought to that position because of people like Charles Templeton. It isn’t because they find it in the Scriptures. It’s because they’re trying to explain how someone could be a Christian one day and not the next day. There are massive amounts of Christians around the world who think you can lose your salvation and they’ve got people to prove you can. We need to look at this issue Biblically to try to help those people who might be drawn to that conclusion because of people they know who denied the faith.
To begin with, we need to define the term apostate. An apostate is someone who knowing fully the gospel, turns against it in complete rejection. Whether you’re talking about scorn and hostility against the gospel, or utter indifference to the gospel, in either case you have apostasy. It’s a full and final rejection of the truth known.
Biblical examples of this are Judas and Demas. Judas is the perfect illustration because he was three years in the ministry. Three years as one of the Twelve Apostles with the Lord Jesus Himself. He was exposed to the perfections of Christ. He was a preacher who, as far as we can tell, participated in the miracles of the Apostles. But of him Jesus said this, “One of you is a devil”. Jesus’ diagnosis of Judas was not that he was a believer who lost his way, or that he was once saved and then became unsaved, or had saving faith then forfeited that saving faith. No, it was that he was from the beginning “a devil”. Jesus also said, “I have lost none of you except that son of perdition that the scripture might be fulfilled.” It was never a shock to Jesus that there was a traitor among the Twelve because that was predicted in the Old Testament.
Jesus never speaks of him as a believer. He is a son of perdition which is to say he is by nature headed for damnation. He is a devil. So whatever is happening on the outside, nothing was happening on the inside. That’s what we have to understand about apostates. It isn’t that they were once saved and turned against that. It’s that they never were.
Jesus gave this startling revelation in Matthew 13; He said the devil would sow the tares among the wheat, and you won’t be able to tell them apart. You and I can’t, even at our best, know who really is a Christian. I think we can say that a person has given evidence of being a Christian, but we may not be able to say that a person is not a Christian, even though they look like one. Apostasy can hide very well among the saints. Until it come to fruition and discloses itself, we may not really know. Apostates can hide in a spiritual environment and all of a sudden shock you. Judas is the model of that and the Apostles didn’t get it. They were all saying at the Last Supper, “Is it I? Is it I? Is it I?” They had no clue who it was.
The definitive passage is 1 John 2:19 “They went out from us that it might be made manifest they never were of us”.
Profession is meaningless. “There are many who say, ‘Lord, Lord,’” right? Didn’t we do this and didn’t we do that? And they are not going to be accepted by the Lord. That’s Matthew 7.
So, was Judas self-deceived? Or did he know all along he wasn’t a true believer? I think he knew all along he wasn’t a true believer. I think he was motivated by greed. Judas was the treasurer. He held the bag and was trying to ride Jesus into power, prominence and money. An example of this is when he wanted to sell the perfume to give to the poor. Some commentaries of the New Testament indicate that he didn’t want to give it to the poor. He wanted his hands on that money. It’s amazing that given all the evidence he saw for Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour, and embracing the salvation he provided, all he could see in Jesus was the path to his own power and riches.
But is it possible for us to be self-deceived? Is it possible for me to be absolutely sure that I’m not going to end up like Demus? How do I know I’m not self-deceived? Sure, you can be self-deceived – Matthew 7 “Lord, Lord, we did this…we did that,” Look at the members of the Greek Orthodox Church, the liberal Church and the Roman Catholic Church. They are not doing all that stuff for fun. They believe that all that religious activity and all that moral effort is going to get them into heaven. Even the Evangelical Church is full of people like that.
If you have a desire to serve God or know God or whatever, but have no change in heart, then you have self-deception. On the other side, true believers have increasing joy, peace, satisfaction, assurance and they do not apostatise…they do not. The way to minimise the self-deceived is to get the gospel right. To have people operating with the right biblical criteria to evaluate what true repentance and what true saving faith is. We need to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith.
We have our doubts, we always will because we are sinners who continue to sin. How can I be saved if I continue to sin? 1 John paints a bleak picture of the sinner so having Romans 7 is a great haven for the doubting Christian. Romans 8:31-39 says that nothing will separate you from God, from Christ. And no-one will successfully condemn you because Christ does not. He died to eliminate that condemnation. And then you have Romans 7 to understand that although you are secured, you’re also sinful. The answer to your assurance is that when you go through the severest of trials possible, when you go through the most disappointing behaviours, thoughts and attitudes, when you repeat the same sins, when you succumb to the same temptations, do you come out of that denying Christ? Denying the Gospel? Denying salvation by grace and faith? If not then that’s the evidence that your faith is real. That’s the proof.
Apostates have human faith. And trials and trouble are easily enough for that faith to die. If you have nothing more than human interest in belonging to a church and following the Lord to some degree superficially etc, when trials come that false human faith will fail. When you have a saving faith, bring on the trial and your faith will be proven to be the real thing. The testing of your faith proves its reality.
It starts with the gospel. We need to get the true gospel right. The foundations of what is necessary. What is the irreducible minimum that you have to believe to be saved and if you don’t believe that, you’re not saved? There has to be some essential elements of objective truth that have to be believed. Once we have that we then have to talk about repentance and the honest commitment to that truth, the honest abandonment. “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” It’s all about a total life commitment.
What we do need to be weary of is the “Pray this prayer and you’re saved” crowd. We can’t tell if that prayer really resulted in salvation. It’s an invisible transaction. You can’t see regeneration. The best you can say is, “If your repentance and faith was real and if God in His power and grace has given you new life and justified, converted and saved you, here’s what you can expect. You’re going to love Christ, love His people, desire to worship, desire the Word, find hope in the midst of difficulty and look forward to seeing the hand of God manifest in the trials and issues of life.”
It is massively tragic for new believers to find themselves in churches that are utterly incapable or arming them for trials, of taking them deep into the Word of God where they find their soul flourishing. When you go to a church where the worship exalts the Lord and where the Word of God is taught in depth, your soul resonates with the spiritual dynamics that are going on in Bible exposition, sound theology and God honouring worship. In many cases, people can grow indifferent and maybe even bitter toward churches that don’t give them anything.
You don’t find somebody who is downloading, say, five sermons every week, listening to them and digging into the Bible and reading the Bible, saying to themselves, “Am I saved? Am I a Christian? I don’t know. I have all kinds of doubts.” Why? Because their soul is flourishing, excited and energised by the truth and that’s the evidence.
People who sit in churches where the so-called pastor is a real cool dude who talks about the culture and tells funny jokes etc, must really struggle. Churches like that just multiply apostates because they inoculate people against the truth with the appearance that they’re getting some kind of Christian teaching. They multiply the self-deceived. They are the many there that are saying, “Lord, Lord”, and He says, “I don’t know you.” They give every reason to be a part of it except the right one. Apostates are less likely the more faithful the church is.
So what are the warning signs that apostates give before they abandon the faith? A dead give away is that they put themselves in a position to sit in judgment on the Bible, to be a judge of Scripture’s validity. For thousands of years the most Godly and brilliant minds in Christianity have found the Bible to be consistent, inerrant and divine. It verifies itself again and again in every way possible. The apostate considers themselves as a higher judge, a clearer minded authority than all the Christian scholars of all the ages. A danger sign that someone is headed to apostasy is that they want to render judgment on the Scripture that is independent of history, Christian theology and Christian tradition. They reject what they were taught and come up with some novel interpretation. Rather than submitting to the consistent interpretation of the Word of God, they have come up with their own critique of what has traditionally been believed.
There are apostates still in the ministry. They have not denied Christianity, they have denied true Christianity. They are pastoring emergent churches, liberal churches and defecting to Catholicism. They are affirming a false gospel while still in the church or some form of false Christianity. People can also apostatise by going into unrepentant sin but still profess to love Christ. They invent ways to believe in Christ that is different than the real way to savingly believe in order to justify unrepentant sin.
Apostates in the church will simply create more apostates. For example the Emergent Church Movement is mainly made up of former disaffected fundamentalists and they are attracting more of those disaffected fundamentalists.
Is there any hope for an apostate? In the truest sense, apostasy is a final rejection. Hebrews 6 is saying that if someone has full light, tasted the heavenly gift etc, there is no coming back from that. Notice that there are no terms of salvation in Hebrew 6. It never says such a person is regenerate, saved, born again or converted. But it does use terms to indicate full knowledge. And at that point when you have had full disclosure, you fall away, it’s impossible to be renewed again to repentance. Why? Not so much because of some divine judgment, but because there is nothing more to say to you. There can be no more revelation because you have already had it all and rejected it.
This is a parallel to the unpardonable sin that Jesus spoke about the Pharisees in Matthew 12. Rejecting the truth with their eyes wide open. They never deny His miracles. They heard all he had to say. And they concluded that He is of the devil, operating under the power of Satan. Jesus said you can’t be forgiven.
We must though, be careful in our judgment of those who apostatise. Because we can’t always be sure. We don’t know the secret decree. So don’t give up. That’s a conclusion we don’t want to presume. We don’t always know when the heart has made that final step. We should continually pray for that person that whatever their rejection of the gospel is, it’s not final. Unless there is a prolific outspoken animosity toward the gospel, just keep praying for them.
God only does what He wills to do and what He purposes to do. And all the sinner can do is the model of Luke 18, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
What if I am secretly entertaining doubts about the Christian faith? Am I an apostate? No. Denial is apostasy. Doubt is just struggling, and we all do that. If you doubt, Paul said He remains faithful. Doubt is just part of being human, the weakness of the flesh. Don’t beat yourself up on matters of doubt. Doubt what you might have reason to doubt. Don’t doubt what you know to be true. Don’t doubt the veracity of scripture, the deity of Christ, the gospel of Christ and salvation by faith and the hope of heaven. That’s temptation. You need to overcome temptation the way you overcome all temptation, by turning to the Lord, His Word, and anchoring yourself to the truth.
“Lord, I believe, cure my unbelief.” We are all short of 100% faith because we aren’t perfect morally. It’s part of being in a fallen condition, of remaining flesh.
So can you lose your salvation? No. You either remain in Christ, or you were never saved to begin with. Check out John 6:37, John10:26-29, Acts 13:48, 1John 5:1, Eph 1:4-5 and 2 Thes 2:13-14 for more scriptural assurance that salvation is secure.