Can You Lose Eternal Life?

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“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)

“Eternal life is life that never ends,” my student answered in response to my question. Then I added these questions to stimulate discussion:

  1. “If eternal life is life that never ends, essentially unending existence, doesn’t everyone have eternal life by design of the Creator?”
  2. “Haven’t you heard preachers say that everyone will live someplace forever, either in heaven or in hell? Is living someplace forever the same as what the Bible means by eternal life?”

Consider what the Bible says.

Christ is the Source of Eternal Life

John declares that eternal life is not a thing or a message but a Person. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 John 1:1, 2).

John declares that eternal life is not a thing or a message but a Person.

Thus, Jesus Christ Himself is eternal life. 1 John 5:20 emphasizes that Jesus Christ is “the true God and eternal life.”

Eternal Life is the Gift of Right Relationship with Him

John 17:3, tells us that we have eternal life when we know God and His Son Jesus Christ. The term “know” (ginosko) in this context speaks of something more than simply cognitive information. It implies a personal relationship.

In other words, when we enter into a personal relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ, we are said to have eternal life, because we are united with Him and are participating in His life. You must be connected to the source of eternal life in order to have eternal life.

If you have truly repented of your sins and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you are said to be “in Christ.” And as a result of being “in Christ,” you have eternal life (1 John 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:17). The gift of eternal life and the Giver of eternal life are inseparable.

Romans 6:23 also describes eternal life as a gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This gift is not like a birthday present, which requires no on-going contact with the giver. If he moves away or even dies, the gift still remains with you. But the gift of eternal life comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ its Giver, and that must be continuous and ongoing.

How to obtain the gift of eternal life was apparently a burning issue in Jesus’ day. When He said, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but [work] for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you” (John 6:27), some misunderstood Him and thought He was teaching that certain “good works” would gain them eternal life.

On several occasions, He was asked what good works must be done to obtain it (Mat. 19:16; Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18; 10:25). Although Jesus did urge the people to work for the food which endures to eternal life, He was not speaking about “good works” as the means of obtaining eternal life.

He was urging the people to seek diligently to understand the truth and to learn that “faith” in Christ is the key to obtaining eternal life (John 3:15, 16).

Three Elements Are Necessary for this Relationship

These three elements, at least, are necessary to develop this personal relationship with Jesus:

A desire to have a personal relationship

Both parties in a personal relationship must have a desire to cultivate it. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus desires such a relationship with all who will turn from their sinful ways in true repentance and place their faith in Him.

Statements such as “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and “…whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) indicate His desire that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He says that He knocks at the heart’s door of individuals and that He is willing to establish a personal relationship with all who will open their hearts and invite Him in (Rev. 3:20).

Statements such as “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), and “…whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) indicate His desire that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He says that He knocks at the heart’s door of individuals and that He is willing to establish a personal relationship with all who will open their hearts and invite Him in (Rev. 3:20). He says that He knocks at the heart’s door of individuals and that He is willing to establish a personal relationship with all who will open their hearts and invite Him in (Rev. 3:20).

A willingness to spend the necessary time to nurture the relationship

It takes time to nurture a relationship, and Jesus has all the time in the world to spend with anyone who wishes to do so with Him.“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28). He invites us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). One of our privileges is 24-hours-a-day,

He invites us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). One of our privileges is 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week access to God (Rom. 5:2). Too often, though, we don’t make sufficient time in our busy schedules for meaningful time with Jesus. Unless we do this, we will be like the seed that was sown among thorns.

True life did spring up, but “the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in” choked out that life (Mark 4:18-19).

A commitment to maintain the relationship

Jesus promises anyone who wishes a personal relationship with Him, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

This Relationship Can Be Forfeited

Sadly, though, a person may decide that he doesn’t want to continue a relationship with Jesus, and he can turn his back on Him and walk away. Remember that without a relationship with Him, no one has eternal life.

Someone may ask, “What about Jesus’ promise, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28).” There is no doubt that this affirms the safety of Christ’s sheep. But note our Lord is unmistakably clear as to who His sheep are: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (verse 27). A more literal rendering of the promise is: “My sheep are hearing My voice, and I am knowing them, and they are following me.” Because His people have these qualifications for being “sheep,” Jesus gives them “eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

But if a person is not living up to these present-tense statements, he does not qualify for the present-tense promise. The knowledge that certain attitudes or actions displease Jesus requires the person who is hearing and following Jesus to cease such behavior. Willful disobedience demonstrates that the person is not “hearing” in the Biblical sense of the word, nor is he following where Jesus leads. Therefore such a person, by Scriptural definition, is not one of Jesus’ sheep. Thus, there is nothing in John 10:27–28 that gives security to those who are not presently following the Shepherd. One must also remember Jesus’ teaching in John 15. Using an analogy of a vineyard, He says that He is the true vine and His Father is the vinedresser.

A Christian is described as a branch that is organically connected to the vine and draws its life from the vine. Jesus warns that if any branch in the vine does not bear fruit, the Father will remove the unfruitful branch from the vine, leaving it to wither and die, and then be thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:1, 2, 6). This passage does not contradict John 10:27, 28. It is not “man” who severs the branch from the vine, but God Himself. It is also He who will pluck the unrepentant backslider out of His hand.

I ought to make an important clarification. Although there is the real possibility of forfeiting one’s eternal life, we should not speak about “losing our salvation.” Remember that eternal life is the gift of right relationship with God, and we do not normally speak of “losing” a relationship but rather of “breaking up” or discontinuing it.  God does give us the grace-enabled ability to break relationship with Him; and in doing so, we do forfeit eternal life. But we should not speak of “losing” it, when really we have walked away from the relationship which gives it to us.

Some argue that once a person is born into the family of God, he can never be unborn. “Once a son, always a son,” they argue, pointing to the story of the Prodigal Son. Although the boy was wayward—even a “pig-pen” Christian, as they say—he never ceased being the son of his father. But by the same same logic, we would have to conclude that no one can ever be saved! For Ephesians 2:3 teaches that we were all born “children of wrath,” and according to 1 John 3:10, we were “children of the devil.” True, the Prodigal Son was a backslider who “wasted his substance with harlots and riotous living,” they admit; but for all of that, they insist that he was still the “son” of the father.

The primary problem with this view is found in Jesus’ own statement that the Prodigal was dead and lost while he lived in sin (Luke 15:24, 32). In discussing this serious topic, we must recall the warning of James 5:19, 20:

Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth [if a believer backslides] and one convert him [the backslider repents and his relationship with Christ is restored]; let him know, that he which converts the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins.

See also the warnings in Ezekiel 3:20,21; 18:24-26; 33:12, 13.

Eternal Life Begins in the Present but Has a Future Dimension

As indicated by John 17:3 and 1 John 5:11, eternal life is defined as the gift of right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This begins in this life, and is nurtured and deepened throughout one’s life on earth. But there is a dimension to eternal life that can only be known fully by being with Him in the eschaton (the future after death).

In this sense, eternal life is the believer’s hope. Paul speaks of the hope of eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7) and emphasizes, “He that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:8, 9).

Conclusion

Eternal life is not a thing but a Person. It is a gift—the gift of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can either nurture or neglect that gift. If we nurture it, we shall experience the fullness of eternal life when at last we are with Him in our resurrected bodies. But if we neglect that relationship and finally walk away from it, we will forfeit that gift forever.

If you now have a personal relationship with God, you have eternal life. If not, you are heading toward eternal punishment (Mat. 25:46) in the Lake of Fire, which is called “the second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). So we must distinguish between unending existence and eternal life.

Those without Christ will have unending existence, but it will be eternal death. Those who live and die in Him will have eternal life, His gift which comes through personal relationship with Him.

 


Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.