This question is a point of contention among Christians. Some will reply with an emphatic “NO! – When you once accept Christ as your Savior, you are then guaranteed salvation and cannot lose it.” Others (such as we Lutherans) sadly reply “YES — falling away is a possibility – we can let salvation slip from our grasp.” To state it more technically, we acknowledge the possibility of apostasy (which is when a believer renounces his/her previous faith).
Some readers may be wondering how this could be a controversial topic. One group (which includes most ‘born again’ Christians) holds as an article of faith that once you have accepted Christ as your savior, the Holy Spirit then seals you in that faith, making it impossible to fall away. A second group of readers will find that view rather inconsistent with their experience: they can point to examples of people who once seemed to be committed Christians, but then went to the grave rejecting Christ. “Ah yes,” the first group might say, “those people only seemed to have committed themselves to Christ – subsequent events proved that their faith was not real.” But for the second group, this just seems to create more doubt, since “How will I ever know that my present faith is good enough to ‘seal’ me for salvation?” Thus, the argument goes back and forth.
As always when we have questions about our faith, we turn to Holy Scripture. There we find strong assurances that it is God who is doing the entire work of salvation in us and will not abandon us. Yet, we also find numerous warnings against taking our salvation for granted. In fact, we often find both ideas expressed in the same passages of Scripture. One such example is found in the first chapter of Colossians where the Apostle Paul addresses a group of believers who he characterizes as saints (v2), commends for their faith (v4), and describes as “qualified … to share in the inheritance of the saints in light … the kingdom of His beloved Son.” (v12-13). Clearly, Paul regards these as sincere believers who are redeemed in Christ. Yet, he recognizes the possibility that they can lose this saving faith:
“And you, … he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard….” (Colossians 1:21-23)
Do you see how clearly both ideas are present? At one and the same time these believers are holy and blameless before God – there is not the slightest ambivalence on that point. Yet in the same breath Paul cautions with that word ‘if’ that this blessed assurance can be forfeited by those who do not continue in the faith. Similarly, the point of several of Jesus’ parables is to emphasize remaining steadfast for the long haul — not allowing our faith to be choked out by worldly rocks and weeds (Mark 13:20-22) nor allowing our faith-fuel to run out (Matthew 25:1-13). Yet, this is the same Jesus who spoke of being ‘born again of water and the Spirit.’ Just as a person can forfeit the gift of physical life by carelessness or intent, so it is too with the eternal life won for us by our Savior and given to us by pure Grace. It’s an unconditional gift that we did not and cannot earn – but can refuse or squander.
No true Christian has any illusion that any part of our earthly lives approaches Godly perfection – and that’s as true of our feeble efforts at mustering a saving faith by our own efforts as it is of conforming any other part of our life to God’s standards. The Good News is that in Jesus Christ we have a Savior who provides everything that we lack. There is not a hurdle of ‘minimum-acceptable-faith’ which we must achieve. Like a doting mother who cherishes her baby’s awkward attempts to walk, our Savior walks beside us, lovingly holding us up so that we may learn to trust Him fully. In one of Scripture’s most striking word-pictures, Isaiah 42:3 describes God’s promised Messiah as one who would not snuff a sputtering candle whose flame seemed ready to go out. Though it is the unfortunate choice of some to refuse, It is Christ’s joy to nourish the flame of our faith, even when it flickers weakly. Our sole requirement is that we give Him opportunity to.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)