Salvation is the free gift of God (Eph. 2:8). When a person believes on the Lord Jesus and accepts God's offer of salvation extended to him through the life of Jesus we say he is saved (Acts (16:31). Thus far virtually all Christians agree. But how complete is this salvation? How long does it last? What are its ultimate consequences? Can it be later rejected and lost? These are questions on which Christians differ.
The apostle John states clearly that all our past sins are forgiven when we accept Christ and ask for His mercy. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Paul indicates that there is a present experience of salvation as well. "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18, R.S.V.). 1 *
Finally, there will be a future salvation when we will be saved from the presence of sin, when our disease-prone bodies will be changed into glorious, immortal bodies. "He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him" (Heb. 5:9). On the day of resurrection "this mortal [body] must put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53).
These three facts of salvation—past, present, and future—are linked together in God's plan. But in a certain sense there is a tension between the present and the future, a tension that Bultmann calls "the Christian's betweenness." 2
Can one who is saved, who has accepted God's offer and been forgiven of his past, ever lose his present and future salvation? Does the experience of accepting Christ immunize the new believer against the possibility of later reversing his decision, and thus automatically ensure his continued and future salvation? If not, can one change his mind and return to his past Christless life? Would one thereby relinquish any future hope of being with Christ in His kingdom? To what extent does a person's salvation past, present, and future depend on his constant, continued acceptance of Jesus throughout a life time?
Early leaders of the post-New Testament church developed a sophisticated system of penance and excommunication that sprang from their belief that a Christian could apostatize. 3 St. Augustine suggested that there are two kinds of people who accept Christ the truly elect, who receive the grace of perseverance, and those who merely profess but never receive this grace. John Calvin accepted Augustine's position and made it the basis of his teaching on the grace of God and election.4 Martin Luther also espoused this view, but his followers and the theologians of the Counter-Reformation rejected it. 5
What does the Bible teach about perseverance in salvation? The problem pivots on determining whether one's saved experience from a past life of sin and the promised future saved state with Christ in His kingdom can be affected by anything done in the present saved condition of the believer.
One quality God bestowed on Adam and Eve at their creation distinguished them from all other creatures: their freedom of choice (Gen. 1:27). Scripture and experience seem to agree that God has never revoked that privileged status for man. Scripture echoes God's appeal to man to choose His way: "Whosoever . . . believeth" (John 11:26); "As many as received him" (chap. 1:12); "Whosoever will" (Rev. 22:17). It is true that God takes the initiative in drawing man to Himself, but He will never coerce a person to accept Him. This divine gift of choice has great potential. It makes possible man's loving acceptance of God, but it also allows for his unappreciative rejection of God's will. And Adam and Eve, of course, exercised this right in making their fateful choice to doubt and distrust God.
God might have made man an automaton, a kind of mechanical slave with instincts for proper behavior. Such an arrangement would have eliminated sin, but it would have also eliminated love. God did not want that kind of servitude. He wanted man to be free to choose Him from a love awakened by love and an appreciation of His character. The risks were high, but God's determination to give man room for such freedom and creative love was even higher. God would allow nothing—not even salvation—to take away this freedom of choice, for salvation on any other basis would not really be salvation in the way God wanted man to experience it. He has planned that salvation will not rest on coercion.
Some have suggested that, although one is initially free to accept or reject God's salvation, once having accepted he can never reverse his choice and return to his old way of life. But if God should choose so to preserve men and women today who accept Him, why did He not prevent Adam and Eve from such a decision and spare the world the horrors of sin? Coercion and force are foreign to God's nature and method of dealing with men. His plan of redemption does not at any point encroach on our freedom to choose or reject Him. Instead, He relies on so clearly demonstrating His love, character, and justice that the redeemed will voluntarily choose to continue trusting Him throughout the ages of eternity. Heaven will be secure, not because God exercises mind control or other forms of coercion, but because the redeemed have been unalterably convinced of His goodness and justice. They will willingly sing, " 'Just and true are thy ways, O King of the ages! Who shall not fear and glorify thy name, O Lord? For thou alone art holy'" (Rev. 15:3, 4, R.S.V.).
The book of Hebrews lays great stress on the importance of the believer's voluntary choice and perseverance in his Christian life. The book was written to Jewish Christians, some of whom evidently were having second thoughts about their conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Hebrews was written in an attempt to clarify the gospel; throughout the book the old is contrasted with the new, the partial with the complete, and the earthly with the heavenly. The Christian faith is presented as God's final revelation, superior to Moses and the old covenant, which prepared the way for it. The writer forthrightly warns those who turn away from the gospel that they are on dangerous ground.
Hebrews 3:1-5 sets forth Jesus, the High Priest, as one, like Moses, who was faithful over God's household. This leads, in verse 6, to the thought that Christians are members of God's house hold only if they, like Moses, "hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." In other words, persevering endurance is a condition for membership in God's household. Succeeding passages in Hebrews 3 and 4 make reference to the stem warning given Israel in Psalm 95:7-11, against following the example of their ancestors who turned away from God's leading in the wilderness exodus from Egypt. Readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews are admonished likewise to hold fast their faith and refrain from backsliding, lest they too be excluded from God's promises. (See Heb. 4:2, 6, 11, 14.)
Hebrews 5 and 6 present material intended to arouse the people from intellectual and spiritual apathy. Chapter 6:1 urges, "Therefore let us... go on to maturity" (R.S.V.). Maturity, growth in Christ, is thus presented as the best defense against backsliding.
The book of Hebrews recognizes, however, that some among the Christian flock may have backslidden so far that they cannot profit even by hearing someone repeat the fundamental teachings of Christianity. "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" (verses 4-6, R.S.V.).
Although this has always been a puzzling text, it appears that certain backsliders cannot be restored. What were these people like before they turned away? Were they genuine Christians or only halfhearted ones?
There are three participles in this passage that, in my opinion, indicate that once-genuine Christians may be among those impossible to restore to fellowship with God. The passage states that they were "once . . . enlightened" (photisthentas). Thus, they had once been instructed in the gospel. In this context it probably means more than receiving a mere body of instruction. The word in Greek may be equated with conversion.6
The second participle is geusamenous, "having tasted." Although some, such as John Owens, have contended that there is a difference between tasting and fully eating, the New Testament meaning of the word is "to experience something." 7 It is the same word used in Hebrews 2:9, where Jesus is said to have come that "he might taste death for every one" (R.S.V.). The obvious meaning is not that Jesus merely sampled death, but rather that He experienced it to the full. Likewise, the author's whole point in verses 4 to 6 would be weakened if he were speaking of those who had only sampled the Christian life but who had not responded to what they were taught with a genuine experience of salvation.
The third significant participle is metochous, sharers or "partakers" of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament consistently presents the concept of receiving or partaking of the Holy Spirit as characteristic of Christians. There is no record of non-Christians doing so, and thus this word also points to genuine Christians.
Verse 5 repeats the idea of tasting (geusamenous): having "tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" (R.S.V.). The idea, again, seems to be that the hearer has had an experience in the things of God and has received benefits from the Lord. "The powers of the age to come" are a foretaste of the blessings granted to each believer in anticipation of his future salvation.
If this understanding is correct, the passage declares that those who once truly have experienced God's saving grace but who later apostatize, and thereby figuratively crucify anew the Son of God, find that further repentance is impossible. The immediate context, as well as the theme of the entire Epistle, seems to indicate that this impossibility comes about because the individual no longer desires repentance. After all, this is the logical outcome of rejecting the only One who can prompt to repentance. Jesus Himself said that those who reject the Holy Spirit may pass beyond the desire for repentance and forgiveness (see Matt. 12:31,32).
Thus Scripture teaches here and else where that, although eternal life is freely and truly granted to a converted sinner, there is still a sense in which his possession of and continuance in that life is conditional upon his continued relationship with the Life-giver. Eternal life is, in fact, the very life of God Himself; He merely shares it with humanity. Man can claim it only as long as he maintains a continual, living union with Christ. As Robert Shank has said: "We must carefully distinguish between the certainty of God's promises and His infinite power on the one hand, and the weakness and variableness of man's will on the other. If man falls at any stage in his spiritual life, it is not from want of divine grace, nor from the overwhelming power of adversaries, but from his neglect to use that which he may or may not use. We cannot be protected against ourselves in spite of ourselves." 8
Therefore, the believer's salvation is secure. He need entertain no fears on that point. But he is secure only in Jesus and only as long as he remains in Him. "The just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him" (Heb. 10:38).
* "The Scripture quotations marked R.S.V. are
from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1946, 1952 1971, 1973.
1 See also 1 Cor. 15:2; Gal. 2:20. Paul's use of
the present tense suggests that the cross and the
resurrection are present means of being saved. See
E. M. B. Green, The Meaning of Salvation
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), pp.
2 R. K. Bultmann, The Theology of the New
Testament (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
1955), vol. 2, p. 185. See also 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus
2:11, 13; 3:5. Although the grace of God has
appeared, it is intimately connected with the
future appearance of God's kingdom of glory. Oscar
Cullmann speaks of the tension as the difference
between "D" day and "V" day (Christ and Time
[Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964], p.
3 I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God
(London: The Epworth Press, 1969), p. 4.
4 John Calvin, Institutes, II, 3:11-14; III, 21:7,
5 Marshall, loc. cit. See also Martin Luther,
Lectures on Romans (London: Student Christian
Movement Press, 1962), pp. 246-255.
6 Compare with Ephesians 1:18, where a form
of the same Greek word is used to refer to the
Christians of Ephesus.
7 See Marshall, op. cit., p. 137. See also
Oerhard Kittel (ed.), Theologica! Dictionary of the
New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Pub. Co., 1964), Vol. I, pp. 675-677; and 1 Peter
2:3; Matt. 16:28; John 2:9.
8 Life in the Son (Springfield, Mo.: Westcott
Pubs., 1960), p. 59.