Once Saved, Always? / Function, Not Validity
Once saved, always saved—so the adage goes. Depending on your theological persuasion, there are other ways to say it: eternal security, perseverance of the saints, or more straight to the point—you can’t lose your salvation. It’s an interesting doctrine because it has wiggled its way into the theological bedrock of many theological systems, some of which differ fundamentally on other matters.
But rather than examining its validity as a biblical doctrine (for a good case against see Scot McKnight’s short book, A Long Faithfulness…for a good case for see chapter 6 in Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones’ PROOF), I’d like to examine its function because I’m not convinced the doctrine of eternal security provides as much security as some think. So as to function, what kind of security does the doctrine of eternal security really provide?
A Hypothetical “Backslider”
Let’s say you have a friend who becomes a Christian // asks Jesus into her heart and starts following him // gets baptized…the whole nine yards. She is faithful with it for a while, going to church, participating in local and foreign missions trips, saying her prayers, reading her Bible, sharing her faith, being transformed by grace. But then a couple of years later, she drops the whole thing. She renounces her faith, burns her Bible, tries to un-share her faith with everyone she previously shared it with. And what’s more, she never returns to it—in fact, she just goes further and further off the deep end. Dream up the craziest scenario you can: she becomes a senator and tries to pass legislature that legalizes the imprisonment of Christians, she assassinates the Pope. You get the point.
So what happened to her? If you do not believe in the doctrine of eternal security (that is, you believe you can lose your salvation), then you probably think she “fell from grace”, lost her salvation (Hebrews 6:1-8). If you do believe in the doctrine of eternal security, what do you think happened to her? The basic answer is that she was never really saved. If you ascribe to eternal security (whether you’re a Calvinist or free-will theist or whatever) you assume that her faith and conversion could not have been genuine, because if so it would have persevered (a bit circular, but it sounds a bit like 1 Jn. 2:18-19 so we’ll let it slide). As my friends and good Calvinists Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones say it, “Where there is no perseverance in faithfulness, there was no faith in the first place.”
But notice where this leaves us: both those who ascribe to eternal security and those who don’t agree that there is no assurance without perseverance. In the case of our hypothetical “backslider” above, they disagree regarding whether or not she actually “lost” her salvation but they agree that her lack of faithful perseverance puts her outside the realm of security. This agreement on “no assurance without perseverance” is rooted in the Bible. Simply put, when addressing people who have turned away from the faith, the biblical writers never invoke the idea of eternal security to comfort them. They call on “backsliders” to repent (Hebrews 2:1-4, 3:7-4:13, 5:11-6:12, 10:19-39, 12:1-29). They don’t tell them, “Well once saved, always saved…so if you were really saved you’ll repent and if not, you won’t.”
All of this leaves me feeling as though eternal security tends to give you comfort when you don’t need it (that is, when you’re persevering in your faith) and no comfort when you do (that is, when you’ve rejected your faith and probably don’t even want the comfort it supposedly offers). In a sense, eternal security only gives comfort to those who are already secure in their faith and are following Jesus (although even those of us secure in our faith can certainly use some comfort now and again). Perhaps it gives some comfort to those on the fringes of faith, but it is fickle comfort because what happens if you fall off the fringes? Your comfort is gone (or so would say the writers of Scripture), regardless your belief in eternal security.
To be clear, none of this has anything to do with the validity of the doctrine, nor is it meant to patronize the importance of it. It’s just an observation that, to me at least, eternal security isn’t quite the security blanket many think it is. If you are, like Luther was, a tortured conscience filled with angst in regards to whether or not you’ve done enough to please God, the remedy is the stunningly gracious and faithful God revealed in Jesus Christ (justification by grace through faith is a beautiful and central piece of this bigger picture) and not so much eternal security, even if you think eternal security necessarily follows from it. Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but not much.
These are merely some observations and not settled certitudes, so what do you think? Am I underplaying its function?
 PROOF, 117.