The Bible includes many passages that indicate an individual can lose their salvation. We’ve looked at what Christ has to say. Before we move on to St. Paul, I’d like to look at some of the other New Testament passages that speak to this topic.
In the book of Acts we read “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Ico′nium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:21-22). And in the book of Hebrews we read ”Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:12-14)
There’s another “if” associated with our salvation – we share in Christ only “if” we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
St. Peter has some of the strongest words on the topic when he writes ”For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21). This is another passage where John MacArthur indicates in his study Bible that the passage is referring to false believers, not true believers. But how could someone who was not a true believer ever have escaped the defilements of the world? How could they ever have known the way of righteousness?
And the book of Hebrews also says this ”For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Other translations refer to these believers as “fallen away.” Even though this passage speaks to individuals who have been “enlightened,” who have “tasted the heavenly gift,” and who have “shared in the Holy Spirit,” John MacArthur in his study Bible still identifies them as people who were not ever true believers because he says that “the context must be the final determining factor.” And since the context indicates they are people who have fallen away, and since in his view a true believer cannot fall away, they by default must be people who never really believed in Christ in the first place. This, in my limited view, is an example of letting your desired conclusion determine what the text says instead of letting it speak for itself. How could someone described in that way never have been a true believer?
In reality this is a very difficult passage even for Catholics. What does the author of the Hebrews mean when he says that it is “impossible to restore again to repentance” these people? It very much sounds like he is professing that once lost, always lost. But this is not what Catholics believe.
One possible explanation from a Catholic perspective is found in the word “enlightened.” In the writings of the early Church fathers we see a correlation between “enlightenment” and Baptism. As they understood Baptism to be the way in which our sins are forgiven and we share in the Holy Spirit, sin after Baptism is seen to be much more grievous than prior to our enlightenment. We are crucifying Christ “again” by our sin. And it is impossible to go back to pretending we never knew Christ and experience that initial repentance of conversion that creates us anew. We can however, be restored to Christ and to each other (the Church) through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In my next post we’ll look at what St. Paul has to say on the topic of whether an individual can lose their salvation.