[The following shares some material from a similar lesson under Amazing Grace in the Index, but has some new material.]
Some teach two levels of falling away – (1) a temporary, easily fixed falling away where you go forward, confess your sins, and receive forgiveness and (2) a permanent, impossible to fix falling away described in Hebrews. But my reading of Hebrews is that there is no in between. A Christian is either still saved or else fallen, never to repent.
Romans 8:1 says there’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. It’s the same thought. If you’re a Christian at all, you’re saved.
As taught throughout 1 John. You either have faith and love, and live righteously or else are not a Christian at all. John leaves no room for lost Christians or even temporarily lost Christians. All Christians are saved all the time.
The normal path for a Christian is to come to faith in Jesus (which includes repenting) and submit to baptism. The Christian remains true to his faith and lives as well as he understands God’s will. His flesh is weak and so he makes mistakes. He isn’t perfect in fact, but he tries. Over time, he grows in his faith and becomes an increasingly better Christian.
However, there are times when he has doubts and is even angry with God (Ps. 4). He may for a while succumb to sin, but he quickly realizes his error, refreshes his repentance, and continues a life that is, overall, righteous.
Such a Christian is saved for every minute of every day of his life.
However, there’s another kind of Christian. This Christian starts out just like the first Christian. But this Christian decides to play with sin. He lets grace become an excuse for ignoring God’s will.
The first time he sleeps with his girl friend, he feels horribly guilty. But God doesn’t strike him dead, the sex is fun, and so he continues. Pretty soon, he really just doesn’t care how God feels about his sex life. Better yet, his friends at church have no clue what he’s doing, and so he can continue to enjoy the community of the church without really believing in its teachings.
Over time, his conscience becomes “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). When his desires and God’s desires differ, his desires win and he feels no guilt. Of course, he still opposes theft and some of the other sins, and so he feels holy for honoring God’s will, not recognizing that he’s only honoring God’s will because it’s also his own will!
For a while, the Spirit contends (Gen. 6:3) and strives with him (Acts 7:51), making him feel guilty for his sins. But the Spirit never overrides our free will, and so he eventually defeats the Spirit, quenching him (1 Thes. 5:19) (more literally, dousing the Spirit’s fire. The Greek word refers to a permanent end of a burning fire), and the Spirit leaves him, leaving him irrevocably damned and incapable of repenting.
Isn’t this Parable of the Sower?
Those who teach once saved, always saved are, I think, correctly repelled at the conservative Church of Christ mistake that we are damned every time we sin until we specifically confess, repent of, and ask for forgiveness of the sin – going forward if the sin is public. Of the two errors, I think once saved, always saved is less dangerous and less likely to divide churches. Both are wrong, but the notion that we are lost every time we sin is very, very damaging to our congregations and to fellowship among congregations. It’s the reason for nearly every split that has happened!
The lazy Christian mistake.
This may be the biggest mistake of all. Many times when our members finally come to learn about grace, they are thrilled and relieved, but they also no longer bother to do good works. They were only serving God out of fear. With the fear removed, they lose their motivation!
Peter was aware of this risk and taught a powerful lesson. Peter starts reminding us of the grace Jesus gives us–
(2 Pet. 1:3-4) [Jesus’] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
But Peter is always practical. The promises are given us so that we can “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” God expects us to avoid worldly sins.
(2 Pet. 1:5-8) For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter then teaches a very practical lesson. Grow in the Christian virtues. You will never have perfect faith or goodness, etc., but you can most certainly possess these “in increasing measure.”
(2 Pet. 1:10-11) Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You see, it’s possible to have a “sure election” and therefore it’s possible to have an “unsure election.” If I don’t make my election sure, then I’ve left it unsure. I’m in jeopardy of falling. And at some point, I will fall, never to return.
How do I prevent this? Well, I grow in the Christian virtues. And so long as I’m growing, my salvation is dead certain. I cannot fall.
(1 Pet. 1:5) [You] through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
(2 Pet. 3:17-18) Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
God gives us security if we’ll only take it! But this security requires that we always grow as Christians. There never comes a time, health permitting, that we can say we’ve done enough and have become good enough. We work and mature until God calls us home to his rest.
The failure-to-discipline mistake
Grace is wonderful beyond words! Falling from grace is awful beyond words!
We forget these two teachings and so often lead our churches incorrectly. Much of New Testament teaching is built on these two simple premises. Particularly, much of the doctrine of church discipline is about keeping our brothers from falling.
In Matthew 18:15 ff, we are taught to go to a brother who sins (”against us” is likely not in the original) and urge him to repent. Why? Are we to insist on moral or doctrinal perfection? Surely not. If we did that, we’d spend our entire lives confronting our brothers and being confronted!
But when a brother begins to sin in a way that looks like a Hebrews 10:26-27 deliberate continuing to sin, we need to quickly intervene so that our brother doesn’t become so desensitized to sin that we cannot be brought back.
You see, the great danger of sin is that (a) for a time, it’s often very fun and (b) sin desensitizes us to the Spirit and our brothers in Christ. The more we sin, the harder it is to come back. There comes a point where we literally cannot repent.
Therefore, willful sin becomes a community matter. We have to look out for each other. We need to surrender a little of our American insistence on privacy and give our Christian friends permission to ask us if we’re being sexually pure, abusing alcohol, and such.
1 Cor. 5 and 2 Thes. 3:14 ff both deal with Christians who commit sins they know to be sin. They aren’t being penitent. They are rebelling against the Lordship of Jesus. They certainly aren’t growing in the Christian graces. And they are in danger of falling away forever.
The solution Paul prescribes is to remove such people from our fellowship in hopes that they’ll repent. Now, there’s a real art to disfellowshipping an erring member. First, the must be in fellowship. If they’ve already left the church, then disfellowshipping them is simply being vindictive.
On the other hand, if we disfellowship them too soon, the church won’t support it’s leaders. This sort of discipline has to be a last-ditch effort – but not too last ditch.
Long before we expel a brother from our midst, we must follow this command–
(2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We are bad to quarrel, to be resentful, and to be harsh. But the command is to gently restore the sinner without quarreling. After all, we are trying to bring him back because we love him, and he needs to really feel the love. He needs to see the hurt in our eyes, the tears we shed at the prospect of his leaving us.
Both views of once saved, always saved are wrong. We can fall — but not easily. We are secure — if we will just honor the teachings on how to be secure. In fact, we’re so secure that we likely will never fall away in our Christian lives.
Moreover, this security isn’t reserved for super-Christians. It’s not all that hard. And God gives us his Spirit to help us actually make it.
And this viewpoint allows us to understand and profit from all the verses — both the Church of Christ and the Baptist verses.