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Doctrine of Election (once saved always saved?)

There is a fair amount of disparity in the Christian world regarding the topics of pre-destiny and “once saved, always saved.” Some people think that once you are saved, you are sealed permanently into God’s kingdom and nothing whatsoever can change this… as if you were predestined for salvation. Others think there are circumstances where one’s salvation can be relinquished even after fully tasting the heavenly gift. In this article, I’ll provide my views on these topics, give scriptural references for them, and try to make understanding these important subjects more easily considered.

Are we predestined to (or from) salvation? Can we lose our salvation? In my opinion, it is a matter of perspective… that of God and that of man.

From God’s point of view, the eternal security of those people whose names are written in the Book of Life was established from the creation of the world. This is based on God’s omnipresent and omniscient nature… that is, He is ever present, knowing the beginning from the end, and He is all knowing.   

Consider this part of Ephesians:

God, chose us in Him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world… and that He predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.

Ephesians 1:4-5

Without further consideration, these verses make it sound like God chose some for no reason other than for His good pleasure. The flip side of this thought is that God did not choose some people for adoption as sons from the foundation of the world. While there is a bit of truth in this, it is not the full story. God has chosen some over others, which is the general thought here, but why?

Let’s look at Romans 8 for more explanation. It has the same basic thought as Ephesians 1, using terms such as adoption, sons of God and predestined. Then in Romans 8:28-29, Paul speaks of, “…those who are called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son….” Again, the thought here also seems to be that of a pre-selection. But the key is in verse 30. Here it is:

Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called, whom He called, these He also justified, and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

Romans 8:30

Let’s reorder the sequence of this verse to help understand it better. All are called to God, but not everyone answers the call (remember in Revelation 3:20 where Jesus knocks at the door, but He only has fellowship with those who let Him in). You have to answer the call. Those who answer the call of God are justified by the blood of Jesus. Then those who have been justified by His blood will be glorified in Heaven with God and the Lamb. And it is those who heard the call of the Spirit and responded to it are those who are predestined to be believers; God foreknew them as believers because of His omnipresence (ever present) and omniscient (all knowing) nature. Make sense?

An example of this is like watching a parade. When I was a kid, Dad would take me downtown to watch these hours’ long parades. I didn’t like it. Today I still don’t like parades. We sat there and only saw one little section of the parade as it passed by ever so slowly. But from the parade coordinator’s view from a high-rise, the full parade could be seen all at once. That is the way God sees our lives, all at once. God knows what I’ll do a day from now and a year from now as well as He knows what I did a day ago and a year ago. He sees the whole life picture of a person with full clarity, all at once, due to His extraordinary essence. He is out of the dimension of time looking in. Since it is one full and complete life He sees all at once, He can say to the finite and linear believer that He has predestined us to be conformed into the image of His beloved Son Jesus!

From man’s point of view, we have the ability to choose God or not. God has given us free will, which is one of the most powerful things bestowed unto man, ever. The most powerful being in the universe, who exists beyond the constraints of space and time, who made this space, time and universe, allows His greatest creation, mankind, to accept or reject fellowship with the One who sustains our very existence. Our free will allows us to, in a sense, dictate to God how we will live our lives here in Earth, and where we will spend eternity. God has given us a choice to make, and he will respect and honor that choice without interference. Simply put, we either choose Him through His son Jesus, or we don’t. When we choose God, we live for Him now and live with Him forever. When we do not choose God, we live under our own will and will live apart from Him forever.

In my opinion, one of the best examples in the Bible of free will and man’s exercising of it is in the book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 18:21-22, God shows how a man can turn away from wickedness and sin and because of his righteousness will “live.” We all know this and believe it. Turn away from sin (this is the general definition of the word repentance) and be saved, we say!  

But to our point, God goes on to say the opposite of this in verse 24:

But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.

Ezekiel 18:24

It’s important to note that in the beginning of this verse the person is choosing to turn away from God by their own will, without external forces affecting him.

God basically repeats the same thing in verse 26:

When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies.

Ezekiel 18:26

God even puts an emphatic exclamation point on these statements when He twice responds to Israel’s complaint of, “The way of the Lord is not right” (Ezekiel 18:25,29) with His correcting response of, “Is it not your ways that are not right?” I can almost hear the prophet Jonah uttering these misplaced, judgmental words from beneath his shade plant, and likewise, I can hear echoes of God’s reply of pity and mercy.

It’s important to know what being righteous means to fully understand this. Righteous means to be justified and vindicated by God. We are considered righteous when we turn from our sins and sincerely seek out God in faith, believing in Him and His Word. Again, we would consider this being saved today. Believing is the key part of being righteous. We know this based on one of the most fundamental Christian verses in all the Bible. In Genesis 15:6, Abram was considered righteous when he believed what God told him about his many descendants. This is repeated in Galatians 3:6.

These verses are also further explained with a working knowledge of the word iniquity. Iniquity means wickedness or depravity, and in some instances the original word used in these verses is translated as unrighteousness. This word comes from a root Hebrew verb meaning to turn aside, as in turn aside from what is just. So as being righteous is to be in God’s good will; to commit iniquity unto death as stated above is to die outside of God’s will which results in eternal separation from Him.

So, when we re-examine Ezekiel 18:24, 26 with the thought that a righteous/saved person can pursue iniquity to death, it surely appears that a person can turn away from and abandon their salvation. To be clear, this is not when a righteous person sins infrequently then repents; it is when a person first turns from God and righteousness then continues in repeated unfaithfulness to the Lord. 

God cites more examples of man turning from his righteousness in Ezekiel 3:20, 33:12-13, and 33:18. Some biblical commentators refer to the New Testament parable of the delayed master in Matthew 24 as an example that a believer can change his mind about God. Here the servant has a relationship with his master, but when the master delays in his return, the servant becomes wicked, does wicked things and comes to his end with the hypocrites (Matthew 24:45-51).

The writer of the book of Hebrews makes it quite clear that falling away from God is possible after knowing (or acknowledging) Him. This is from chapter 6:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.

Hebrews 6:4-6

(Note: the word impossible above isn’t absolute, it doesn’t mean that it is not possible at all. It means highly unlikely given the circumstances… without strength… weakly. This same Greek word, adynatos, is translated in Romans 15:1 as weak.)

(A different thought… in considering biblical themes and patterns, this may be connected to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which disallows a man to remarry a wife he’d divorced for finding “nakedness of a matter” in her.)

In 2 Peter 2, Peter writes that a righteous person with precise and correct knowledge of God can become entangled in the world then overcome by it:

…after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.

2 Peter 2:20-21

In similar fashion, Luke writes of the parable of the sower where Jesus teaches that a person can believe for a while before falling away in temptation:

But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.

Luke 8:13

To cite one more verse, Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4, that latter day believers can turn themselves over to deceptions:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons…

1 Timothy 4:1

In all four of these examples from Hebrews, 2 Peter, Luke and 1 Timothy, it is apparent that a person can leave their salvation. And in every example given in this article, the person chooses of their own free will to turn away from righteousness:

  • Ezekiel 18, “a righteous man turns away from his righteousness”
  • Hebrews 6, “if they fall away”
  • 2 Peter 2, “to turn from the holy commandment”
  • Luke 8, “in time of temptation fall away”
  • 1 Timothy 4, “some will depart from the faith”

Another good example of turning away from God after having been righteous is Satan. The being commonly known as Satan (means adversary) or Lucifer (light bearer) was God’s throne guardian (Ezekiel 28:14) and had a preeminent place in God’s cosmic design. Before his fall, Satan obviously saw and knew God intimately, and according to Ezekiel 28, was in the garden in Eden, anointed, blameless, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. But even so, he, in his own free will, turned from God to unrighteousness, violence, profanity, pride, corruption and iniquity. He exercised his free will to turn away from God, and had known God better than anyone ever before. It’s amazing to consider.

Let’s examine the possibility of losing salvation for a moment, then leaving it.

In John 10:28, Jesus, speaking of His believers, says, “…no one will snatch them out of My hand.” And the writer of the book of Hebrews says in Hebrews 7:25 that, “…He (Jesus) is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him….” These are referring to the care and authority of Jesus and His ability to retain us. We will not be lost from God or His salvation in any case; it is obvious that Jesus will not lose or forsake His believers, His beloved bride. And the saved individual will not lose his salvation as he burns in his heart for God… to be with Him and His Son Jesus above all else.

If a saved person can’t lose their salvation, can they leave it? A good example of losing vs. leaving is that of the car keys. When a person loses their keys, they desire them but unfortunately misplaced them and don’t know where they are. When a person knowingly leaves their keys somewhere, they purposefully leave them and know where they are… they just don’t have them due to a conscience decision about it. The same holds true about one’s salvation… purposefully and knowingly leave it and it’s gone. Based on the losing example above and the concepts related to it before it, no one will lose their salvation. But you can abandon it; God will not force you kicking and screaming into Heaven against your will. He will honor the wishes of your heart and allow you eternal separation from Him if you wish, even with prior knowledge of Him. Ezekiel makes this point very well.

I’ve heard it said that what cannot be earned by merit cannot be lost by merit. In other words related to our topic, if you don’t earn salvation through works (and you don’t), then you can’t lose salvation through what you’ve done. I totally agree. Let’s apply this construct to believing faith; if you obtain salvation through belief and faith (and you do), then can you leave your salvation in unbelief? Yes, you can. Free will allows for this.

It is safe to say that true believers are sealed into God’s kingdom from the beginning of time, even as the individual fully makes that decision on his own accord. God’s Sovereignty is not negated by man’s free will; both work hand in hand and in perfect unity when you understand the relative perspectives. A friend once told me the story of a man going to Heaven… as the man approached the gates of Heaven, a sign above the gates read Free Will. Then as the man passed through the gates and looked back at the sign above the gates, it read Predestined. From man’s perspective, it is free will; from heaven’s perspective, it is predestiny. A person may choose God or not, and in free will can change their mind on God as they can anything else. But let’s find God, and abide in Him without reservation and without turning back. As Ezekiel says, let’s turn away from wickedness and sin… and live!