Once saved, always saved?

by K.W. Leslie, 10 October 2019

Let’s start by getting this first idea straight: God saves us, by his grace. It’s entirely his work, done by his power; we don’t save ourselves; we can’t possibly. No number of good deeds, no amount of good karma, not even memorizing all the right doctrines, is gonna do it. We gotta entirely entrust our salvation to God. Period. Full stop.

Since we can’t and don’t save ourselves, various Christians figure an attached idea—and they insist it’s a necessary attached idea—follows: We can’t and don’t un-save ourselves. If God saves us, the only way we can get unsaved is if God does it—and he’s not gonna. He’s chosen us, he’s elected us, for salvation. And it’s permanent. It’s a done deal. Nothing in our universe can separate ’em from God’s love. Ro 8.39

Not even if they themselves later choose to quit Jesus. (So how do they explain ex-Christians? “Oh, they were never really Christian.” Which opens up a whole different can of worms… which I’ll get to tomorrow.)

Sometimes Christians call this idea perseverance of the saints, or “perseverance” for short. Sometimes eternal security or absolute security. Sometimes assurance, though other Christians (like myself) mean something very different by this term. More recently some Christians have adopted the term free grace. All these terms mean “once saved, always saved”—OSAS for short, but since I really don’t like acronyms I’m going with “always saved.”

And loads of Christians have adopted the “always saved” view. It tends to get associated with Calvinists, but they’re far from the only Christians who believe it. Legalists don’t, ’cause they love being able to threaten people with hell; Pelagians don’t, ’cause they think God saves them based on karma, and bad karma earns you hell. But the rest of Christendom tends to think, “Well yeah, we don’t save ourselves… so it stands to reason we can’t unsave ourselves, so I guess it is a done deal.” The only reason they’d consider an alternative view, is if they know any ex-Christians and can’t rationalize ’em away as “weren’t real Christians before they quit.” Or, of course, if they grew up among legalists and Pelagians.

I grew up among both, but that’s actually not why I reject the always-saved view. Because I used to have the always-saved view. I totally get its appeal: It’s the security. It’s awesome that we can never just lose our salvation—that if we have one bad day, or commit a particularly heinous sin, God’s not gonna say, “That’s it! I’m done with you” and now we’re damned; our sins have driven God away. God loves us far too much to give up on us entirely. It’s a wonderful idea.

But “always saved” takes this idea to an extreme that can’t be supported by the scriptures. Because, as I say in all these articles on apostasy, the bible’s authors warn us to not reject God and his salvation; and it makes no sense that these passages would be in there if it’s impossible to unsave ourselves. Only God can save us, true. But we can still totally reject his salvation.

Living in denial.

When I’ve talked with Calvinists, I brought up the bible verses which warn us against apostasy. What do they have to say about these verses?—how do they interpret them? And nearly all of the Calvinists I’ve spoken with don’t know these verses. They skipped ’em. In the past they’ve dodged them; when they read the bible for themselves they’ve learned to skim over them, and never deal with them. The verses don’t jibe with their theology, so they’ve deliberately inserted blind spots into their bible reading. It’s kinda disturbing.

Thankfully these aren’t the only Calvinists I can talk to about the topic. Some scholars, some of the better-known Calvinist teachers, have dealt with these verses. And how they tend to interpret them… is to insist these verses aren’t actually talking about Christians. They’re about Christianists—people who look Christian, interact with Christians, even interact with God himself, and thereby might even assume they’re totally Christian. But they never actually became Christian. God never elected them (psyche!); they never partook of the Holy Spirit; so they’ll inevitably fall away, for they were never really Christian. The rest of us can comfortably ignore these warning verses. They’re not for us.

But if that’s so… then who are these warning verses actually for?

If they’re not for Christians, ’cause we’re eternally secure, are they for all these false Christians who are invariably gonna abandon Jesus? But… they’re invariably gonna abandon Jesus. Which means these warnings don’t work. ’Cause if they did work, these wannabe Christians would actually become Christian. And then we’d have a paradox on our hands: Since these verses aren’t for Christians, they weren’t actually for the people who read them and freaked out and turned Christian. They were only for the people who didn’t.

Apparently the only point of their existence is so God can be a giant tease: “Don’t fall away, phonies… but ha-ha, you’re all gonna fall away.”

Nope, not very loving of God at all. Which is the usual problem with Calvinist theology: Their insistence on defining absolutely everything by God’s almightiness, regularly turns him into a cosmic jerk. Plus it distorts a lot of bible. To be fair, we all do that when we try to make bible fit our favorite worldviews. We’re supposed to follow, not force.

But enough about that. Let’s now deal with the various ramifications of an always-saved mindset.

“Free grace” is cheap grace.

Our salvation cost God his son. His grace was infinitely expensive. But when we take it for granted, and treat our safety net like it’s an inflatable castle to bounce around in, we’ve cheapened it. There are Christians who really don’t like the phrase cheap grace because they appreciate God’s grace so much. But that’s what it becomes when irreligious, entitled Christians figure it’s okay if we sin, because God’ll just grant us more grace. Ro 6.1-2

Now certainly not every Christian who believes in “free grace” (as certain people rebrand perseverance) treats it lightly or casually. They’re fully aware God paid a vast price for what he hands out free, and freely. They try not to take him for granted. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of them.

’Cause when you interact with Christians who have an always-saved mentality, you’ll immediately notice they’re bouncing on grace like a 6-year-old whose dad irresponsibly lets her drink Frappuccinos. They might use a lot of Christianese, and drop bible references after every other sentence… but they’re loaded with bad fruit. Unkind, impatient, angry, totally willing to fudge or obscure facts just to win arguments, totally willing to divide churches and break fellowship over small disagreements, totally jealous of fellow Christians’ ministries and successes (and wealth), and very quick to dismiss all their own failings just as they slam everyone else’s. Plenty of grace for themselves, but none for you and me.

Shouldn’t they have developed fruit by now? Well you’d think. But it just goes to show you how foundational grace is to Christianity: When we get that wrong, everything else goes wrong. If God’s grace isn’t the manifestation of his love, but his might, then it’s not about a relationship which draws us to him, but about his power to lock us in position. It’s not about us loving him in return; it’s about us being showered with his riches… then turning into spoiled trust-fund kids who never, ever have to deal with the consequences of our actions, ’cause our heavenly Daddy will always bail us out and bribe the judge.

And they never have to grow out of this mindset. ’Cause why should they? They’re saved! No depravity, no matter how filthy, can ever be the final straw that snaps the camel’s spine; it’s an unbreakable camel. No act of rebellion, no matter how utterly antichristian, can undo the irrevocable decrees of God. Those who insist we’re always saved, figure such rebels have to turn back to God at some point, same as in the Prodigal Son Story: God will stick us in some sort of rock-bottom circumstance which breaks us, forcing us to acknowledge him, repent, and go back to our Father. And if for some reason he doesn’t, or if we resist? Well still: We don’t save ourselves, so we don’t unsave ourselves, so we’re still saved. All those warnings about not taking the broad way into God’s kingdom? Mt 7.13-14 Meh; Jesus only said ’em to tease pagans.

I know this mindset mighty well. Back when I believed I was always saved, I quickly glommed onto the idea my sins no longer mattered. God forgives all! And thank God he kept me from doing anything particularly egregious; my conscience still largely worked. But free grace gave me license to be a great big hypocrite, grow little fruit, and think it didn’t matter ’cause God would let me into heaven regardless.

Now I’m not saying this fruitlessness and irreligion and backsliding are the same thing as apostasy. That’s what Pelagians claim. It’s not. Apostasy is a decision: You have to reject his forgiveness, not just willfully abuse it. You have to leave, not just stay and misbehave. And there are apathetic ways to become apostate, like ghosting Jesus: You stop praying, stop going to church, stop anything religious, admit you don’t believe any of this stuff anymore. It doesn’t require any formal declaration. (The apathetic route is exactly what most ex-Christians do.) But bad Christians are still Christian. They’re still in the kingdom; they’re just the very lowest in the kingdom.

Yep, that’s where all the bad Christians came from.

So because there are so very many Christians who treat God’s grace so cheaply, we have so very many fruitless, irreligious Christians… and Christendom has a reputation of being an utter fraud, filled with hypocrites. ’Cause pagans know (inadequately, but they do know) Jesus taught us better than this. Pagans know Jesus expects better of us. Pagans know we’re supposed to be better people; they may not agree with what defines “better people,” but we don’t even meet the bare minimum of pagan standards for goodness. ’Cause “once saved, always saved” means we don’t have to be good to be saved… so we’re not.

And our evangelists are no help. “Come to Jesus; he forgives all. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done; it doesn’t matter what you do; he forgives all.” True, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done before. True, Jesus forgives all. But Jesus does care what we do, now that we’ve taken on the title “Christian” and claim to follow him. He does care that we represent him properly, and actually follow him instead of putting on a show to impress fellow phonies.

Eliminating bondage to sin, and the threat of death and hellfire, is meant to spur us to stop worrying about karma, and live a good and abundant life. Problem is, humans are inherently selfish, so we abuse the freedom Christ Jesus grants us. Jesus’s assurance is meant to encourage us, not give us a free pass to sin—but we sin.

And because God is good, he doesn’t punish our abuses by revoking our salvation: “Okay, you’re not using my forgiveness rightly, so I’m unelecting you.” No; he keeps giving us chances to repent and reform. He’s not giving up on us.

But if we continue in a lifestyle of selfishness and cheap grace, where we never even think about Jesus before we decide to indulge our appetites… well, over time, ghosting Jesus becomes more and more of a likelihood. Over time, we might unthinkingly, rebelliously choose apostasy. Because Jesus simply won’t matter to us anymore. We’ll drift from being barely Christian, to not Christian anymore—to even confessing to friends, “Oh, I don’t believe that stuff. Used to, but nah.”

That’s why it’s so dangerous.