Over the next several posts we’ll look at the places in Scripture that indicate you can at one time be a member of the body of Christ and then lose that position, your salvation. We’ll start by looking at some things Jesus himself says.
In Luke 8:4-15 Jesus tells the parable of the sower, and the apostles have to ask him what it means. Beginning in verse 11, Christ explains it to them in this way: “Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”
So what of those who believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away? I often use the John MacArthur Study Bible if I want to try to understand how others might view a passage. MacArthur is a well known minister, teacher and preacher who is a non-denominational Calvinist, so he believes in the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. His response to the above passage is that “some people make an emotional, superficial commitment to salvation in Christ, but it is not real. They remain interested only until there is a sacrificial price to pay and then abandon Christ. This would be a ‘nominal, non-saving faith.’”
As Catholics we would agree that only a faith which endures to the end of our life can save us. But how long can “a while” be? A few days? Weeks? Months or years? And does a person realize that their faith is not “real” and would not endure testing during that time? And what if their faith does withstand the trials of life for years but then reaches a point where they turn away? These questions are why I find the argument problematic that anytime Scripture speaks to someone who has lost their salvation, they were never really believers at all. First, Christ indicates that yes, they did once believe. He doesn’t say they were people who only looked like they believed but it wasn’t real. Those words are MacArthur’s, not those of Christ. Christ simply says they “believed for a while.”
We see another very insightful passage from Christ in his discussion with the apostles at the Last Supper when he tells them “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:1-6)
The metaphor of Christ as the vine and we the branches is used multiple times in the New Testament. A branch receives its very life from the vine. And the only way to be “grafted in” to the vine as St. Paul says is by faith. (Romans 11:17-22).
So when Christ says that the Father will remove every branch “of mine” that does not bear fruit, what does that tell us? John MacArthur’s explanation is that “The branches that bear fruit are genuine believers. The branches that do not bear fruit are those who profess to believe, but their lack of fruit indicates genuine salvation has never taken place and they have no life from the vine.” But again, is that what the text says? How can a branch actually be Christ’s and need to be taken away if they were never really his in the first place? Why would it “wither” when removed if it never had life to begin with? Christ himself refers to them as being “mine.” Other translations refer to these branches as being “in him.”
And what of Christ’s warning that we must continue to “abide” in him? Again, the word “abide” simply means to “remain.” That is why newer translations like the NIV render the passage this way – “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6)
Perhaps this is why Christ tells us twice in Matthew’s Gospel that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13). In these passages Christ is speaking to times of tribulation, so some want to dismiss them because they believe Christians will not be here for the final tribulation. That view can be problematic because it seems to profess that while those here at the end of the world must faithfully endure the tribulation in order to be saved, that we don’t have to faithfully endure the tribulations within our own lives in the same way.