I grew up knowing that a genuine Christian could not lose his or her salvation. Though I could not explain the doctrine, I had it taught to me time and time again. A real believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, a truly forgiven sinner, could not turn from the Lord so as to fall again under God’s condemnation. And I often heard that doctrine expressed as the security of the believer or in the colloquial, “Once saved always saved.”
In truth, I believe still that any person who is a genuine believer is once saved and always saved. But I think that expression is misleading. The idea that a person is saved through the simple response to an invitation after a sermon and the praying of a prayer leads to the abuse of the biblical doctrine that tells us that the genuinely saved remain in Christ. It is maligned by those who disagree with the doctrine as being licentious, permitting a person to pray a prayer and then live however they want.
The problem with an overly simplified doctrine of security is that we lose the language and thought of the Scripture as we speak of it. We get pithy in our claims, and we begin to say things that are true, or tru-ish, but which do not contain the full counsel of God on the issue.
Consider the words of Paul in Philippians 3. I believe wholeheartedly that Paul knew that he was saved. Paul knew that he could not be eternally lost. Christ had made him alive, forgiven his sins, and granted him a place with Christ for eternity. Paul had no doubt about his salvation. But Paul did not speak of his salvation with a casual line like once saved always saved.
Philippians 3:12-16 – 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
In this section of Scripture, Paul has been talking about his wonderful religious pedigree in Judaism. If anybody could have earned salvation through obedience to the law, by being born into the right family and performing the right rituals, Paul could have done so. But Paul knew this would not save him. He knew that all he thought had been gain for his life before Christ was really garbage when it came to earning salvation. So, as Paul says in this passage, he forgets what is behind him and looks forward.
Twice in this section, Paul describes his Christian life as pressing on. Paul strains toward the Lord. But we know that Paul has nothing to do with a self-earned, works righteousness. His letter to the Galatians is proof enough of that. Yet, the same apostle who says in Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith here says that he strains toward the goal, pressing on to win the prize.
This language is a help to us to show that the better way to talk about our security in Christ as Christians is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. You see, the biblical wording is never such that you get saved, and then you let go of any thought of repentance or effort. No, your efforts will never contribute to your salvation. Neither will your efforts contribute to your being kept by God. But, a truly saved person will, through the course of his or her life, put forth effort to honor the Lord. True Christians persevere, striving toward Christ.
This doctrine makes sense when you consider what truly happens in our salvation. When we were lost, our hearts opposed the Lord and the things of God. We were saved when God transformed those dead hearts to living hearts, causing us to be born again and to respond to him in faith. Suddenly, hearts that were against God now desire God. And so, genuine Christians press toward God, because our new hearts now have a gracious, God-given desire to know and to please God. We persevere in the faith because of the supernatural transformation that takes place at salvation.
Of course, this is not always a steady process. True Christians can go through seasons of doubt or rebellion. But a person with a truly changed heart by God will eventually return to the Lord. True believers will persevere, being kept by God, kept in faith, for a salvation that is unbreakable.
Some who talk of this doctrine also use the term, the preservation of the saints. That too is biblical language, as God is the one who truly, sovereignly keeps us. He loses none of his own, but raises them up on the last day.
Thus, what we see about our salvation is a beautiful, two-sided truth. We press on, straining toward the Lord, and persevere in our faith. Paul says mature believers all think like this. We also rejoice in the promise that God guards our salvation (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-5). Thus, we know that “once saved always saved” is true, but it is a scant description of a bigger and better doctrine, the perseverance of the saints.