Christians can be certain of their right standing with God and confident about their eternal future with him. They can rest in the Romans 8 assurance that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:39). Satan or men can never force a Christian to forfeit his salvation. Jude 1:24 commends us “to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.”
On the other hand, Jude 1:21 warns us to “keep yourselves in the love of God” and 1 Peter 1:5 teaches that we are “kept by the power of God through faith” (KJV). God’s keeping power flows to those who abide in his son by faith. Abiding in Christ requires persevering faith. Is it possible for a true Christian to stop “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:12), revert to a sinful lifestyle, and ultimately lose his salvation? Two key texts offer considerable insight into this question.
Those Who Are Again Entangled (2 Peter 2)
In 2 Peter 2:18-22, a solemn warning is issued concerning the corrupting influence of false teachers:
18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 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 overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 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. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
Peter’s concern is for all Christians, especially “those whose who are barely escaping” (v.18); that is, recent converts who are “unsteady souls” (2 Pet. 2:14) and especially susceptible to the deception of false teachers. False teachers “promise them freedom” (v.19); that is, they insist that freedom is an opportunity for the flesh (Gal. 5:13), distorting the Scriptures, especially Paul’s writings, to accommodate sensual living (2 Pet. 3:16).
Those for whom Peter is concerned are actually saved. They have “escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of him” (2 Pet. 2:20). Peter began his letter by describing saved people in these same terms:
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
In both 2 Peter 1:3 and 2 Peter 2:20, the word translated as knowledge is epiginōskō. The normal word for know, ginōskō, is intensified by compounding it with epi to indicate a fulness of knowledge. For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now I know (ginōskō) in part ; then I shall know (epiginōskō) fully, even as I am fully known.” Peter begins his epistle by writing “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours” (2 Pet. 1:1); their “knowledge of him” (v.3) and the apostle Peter’s knowledge of him is a saving knowledge that results in God’s gracious provision of “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (v.3). Those who have this knowledge have “escaped the corruption that is in the world” (v.4). They are true Christians. There is no reason to think otherwise in 2 Peter 2:20.
But what happens if these true Christians are deceived by false teachers, and become convinced that Christian freedom is a license for the flesh? What if they are caught up in the things that they did in times past, “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Pet. 4:3)? What if they tire of being thought strange and maligned by their unbelieving friends, and decide to “join them in the same flood of debauchery” after all (1 Pet. 4:4)?
Peter says, “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 overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first” (v.20). Even the most carnal Christian is better off than he was in his unbelieving state; this must refer to an unsaved state. Not only will the backslider once again come under the wrath of God, but he will incur a stricter judgment. This is a sobering thought for all believers. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
While “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Ro. 1:18), it is most fierce against those who have the knowledge of Jesus and then forsake him. Earlier in 2 Peter 2, the apostle wrote that God turned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to an ash heap, condemning them to extinction, “making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (v.6). But Jesus told his disciples that if a town rejected their preaching, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Mt. 10:15). Those who hear but reject the knowledge of Jesus receive a sorer punishment; much worse yet is the destiny of those who embrace the knowledge, taste its goodness, but later turn back. This is why “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” (v.21).
Those Who Have Fallen Away (Hebrews 6)
In Hebrews 6:1-9, the writer warns against a more deliberate falling away:
1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
In the previous passage, the writer expressed his concern that “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (5:12). There is great danger in staying a baby Christian. It is the mature “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good form evil” (5:14). Immature Christians are like the “unsteady souls” of 2 Peter 2:14, especially susceptible to “the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).
The author urges these immature Christians to “go on to maturity” (v.1). Verse 4 begins, “For…” signaling that the warning to follow is directly related to this exhortation. Verse 4-5 clarify the kind of people who are being addressed:
They “have once been enlightened (φωτίζω)” (v.4). The word translated as “enlightened” occurs one other time in the book of Hebrews: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened (φωτίζω), you endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (Heb. 10:32). There is no question that it describes a saved person in this context, since Paul tells these enlightened ones, “do not throw away your confidence” (Heb. 10:35). There is no reason to think that is has a different meaning in chapter 6. Those who are enlightened are those who have been called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
They “have tasted (γεύω) the heavenly gift” (v.4) and “have tasted (γεύω) the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (v.5). The word translated as “tasted” in verses 4 and 5 occurs one other time in the book of Hebrews; we read that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste (γεύω) death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). To taste in both contexts is to experience. Strong’s notes that γεύω can mean “partake of (implying enjoyment of the experience).” The apostates in Hebrews 6 had not merely sampled Christ, like one tastes the free meats at the deli counter. They had enjoyed the blessings of a saving experience.
They “have shared in the Holy Spirit” (v.4). Elsewhere, “shared” (μέτοχος) denotes participation. Hebrews 3:1 speaks of “holy brothers, you who share (μέτοχος) in a heavenly calling.” To share in the Holy Spirit is to partake of the Spirit. It is to “receive the Spirit…by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). This too describes a saved person.
There are no serious exegetical reasons to think that verses 4-5 describe anyone other than saved persons.
The author who in one breath urges Christians to press on to maturity goes on in the next breath to warn about the possibility of falling away. Hebrews 3:12 carries a similar warning: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Hebrews 6 does not warn against yielding to temptation and committing sin. While this is a possibility for Christians, it is not the issue in view. Hebrews 6 warns against total apostasy—deliberately, defiantly, defecting from the faith. Like Benedict Arnold, the apostate is a turncoat, and everyone knows it. By his apostasy, he is “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (v.6). The connection between verses 1-3 and 4-8 appears to be that if Christians do not press on in faith and holiness, they run the risk of settling into a foul complacency that, over time, can breed indifference to Christ and ultimately lead to a renunciation of him.
The one who has fallen away is, obviously, no longer in a saved condition. Like the land that once bore a crop, the apostate once bore spiritual fruit; but when this same land “bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (v.8). The same is true of apostates. Their destiny is destruction in hell.
Possible But Not Likely
Both 2 Peter 2 and Hebrews 6 describe saved persons falling away. Second Timothy 2:12 affirms, “if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” Ezekiel 18:24-26 asks:
But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die. “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die.
The answer to the question, “Can I lose my salvation?” is “yes.” But that is not to say that losing one’s salvation is like losing eyeglasses or car keys. The loss of salvation is the loss of right standing with God through persistent rebellion. It is preceded by stubbornness and carelessness. Samson woke up and “did not know that the LORD had left him” (Judg. 16:20), but it was only after he had broken every part of his vow and given free rein to his sinful appetites.
To fall away, one must first disregard the Lord’s discipline. Hebrews warns about the possibility of being defiled through bitterness or immorality, and uses the example of Esau, who “found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17); but this only comes after a lengthy explanation of God’s loving, gracious, and persistent discipline of his children for the sake of their holiness (Heb. 12:5-11). Our standing before God does not hinge on perfect performance, but on our perpetual relationship with God through Christ. Those who are sincerely trying to serve God should not live with anxious fear about their standing as sons and daughters.