Groundwork on Considering the Arminian versus Reformed Interpretations of Bible Passages on Salvation:
Part 1 - Can You Lose Your Salvation?
- Rev. Joel H. Linton, July 2007
When we begin to consider about what the Bible has to say on how someone is saved and who is saved and whether someone can lose his or her salvation, here are some starting principles:
So before going any further, ask yourself, "Why does one person become a Christian but another person reject the Gospel?"
As you explore that, you will discover where you currently stand on what you believe about the issue. It will also help reveal your current understanding of the Bible - separated from carefully crafted arguments of speakers. As Peter says, some things in the Bible are hard to understand which ignorant and unstable men distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:16) This Bible verse lets us know that we have to be humble and careful coming to the Scriptures, because some things are hard to understand. I would put this issue of God's sovereignty, predestination, etc. in this category. So you should start with the question above. It will then interact with all the verses you come across.
So why does one person believe but another person not believe when they hear the same Gospel message? There really can only be two answers to this root question: 1. God's sovereign action ---- or, in constrast --- 2. something in the person's own nature independent of God or something in the environment or the way the Gospel message was presented that they freely chose or did not freely choose.
2. Both the Arminian and Reformed positions would affirm that there are outward situations that have an impact on the event of someone being saved. (E.g. Romans 10:14-15)
The Reformed position claims that the Bible speaks to an additional inward condition of God intervening to give a new heart (regeneration - e.g. Ezekiel 36:26, Jeremiah 31:31-34) otherwise a person who hears the outward condition (Gospel presentation) would always reject and not repent and believe.
This attitude of rebellion is the state of mankind after Adam's sin (see Romans 3:9-18). If this is true, then the Arminian claim of the absence of God's prior intervention to change a heart would logically lead to NO people who believe God. There would be NO Christians.
4. There is a distinction between when the Bible describes those who are counted as the people of God (including those who fall into the orbit of God's people), and then in separation of that those who truly are BELIEVERS inwardly. Man looks on the outside; God looks at the heart. Because God uses human beings to administer his visible church, they never are perfectly able to discern true believers from false believers. And so the visible church is always a mixed church.
So you have the description: "Theirs the adoption as sons, theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, the promises...." that describes an outward administration and numbering of the people of God, within which are people who are not true believers and also a remnant who are truly God's people.
Think about that language when you compare the verses that will cause Arminians to think that someone can loose their salvation: E.g. the ones frequently referred to in Hebrews:
That is in line with the descriptions above in Romans 9 in general of the people of God. And it seems even stronger. I can see why an Arminian on first pass would think this described people who were really saved, inwardly believing Christians. But there is one main word that puts bounds on the meaning of this passage: it is the word "tasted". You can be invited a to a meal, taste it, and then turn your nose up, and refuse to partake. In that case, you never did eat the meal.
And then the context also bounds the meaning of this passage: look at what follows in verse 7 and 8.
Again you have a description of thorn-bearing land as also being rained on --- and we know what that rain is from verse 4 "those who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age..."
This again would seem to indicate someone coming under the influence, showing outward signs of faith, getting lots of privileges... people that say, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and work miracles in your name..." People who can lay claim to these things... but Jesus saying on Judgment Day, "I never knew you." Not "I knew you for a time, but then you left me." But rather, "I never knew you." (Matthew 7:21-23)
I read it this way: Many people have a hope of salvation in the church, but some have never really come to repentance and faith in Jesus. So their professed faith does not persevere. Perseverance of faith reveals a sure hope instead of an ungrounded hope. Peserverance in the faith is a FRUIT, a result, of true belief. (1 John 2:19)
Hebrews 10 has the same kind of language as chapter 6. And it ends with verse 39 "But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved."
Again: true believers are saved.
People along for the ride, when trouble comes shrink back and are destroyed. The writer is alluding to Numbers 13 and 14. Only Caleb and Joshua did not shrink back at the size of the Amorites, but believed in God's promise. The rest were scattered in the wilderness.
For someone counted as one of God's people or associated with God's people, there definitely is a tentativeness, an uncertainty... that the writers always remind their readers. This explains the presence of verses that Arminians interpret as losing salvation. People are being warned to be certain that they are not self-deceived.
Again: you have a church, called "The Church of God in Corinth" but the potential that some counted as part of that church are actually not in the faith. Some are not really Christians.
Christ Jesus being in a person is equated with one is in the faith, who passes the test. Again, that there is an inward reality to their faith. It is not an issue of whether Jesus was in you and then left you. But it is whether Jesus has ever been in you in the first place.
The implication of this is, again, that the old does not come back. The new creation does not get nullified. The old has been replaced. If there is a new creation if any one is in Christ, it means that truly being in Christ... you have passed over from death to life. All these verses have a sense of finality, of no going back, all the verses that describe the truly changed heart, not just the outwardly member of the church, but the one who is part of the remnant, the true people of God.
I think the Bible is very consistent on this: you have the Gospel-seed sown. And then there is a response by many people, who are collected into the church. But some are weeds and not true wheat. Although the weeds are in the field, Jesus calls them in verse 38 "the sons of the evil one." And they will be uprooted at harvest time and burned. (Matthew 13:24-43) The implication is not that some start out wheat and become weeds, but that they were weeds all along. (see footnote)
One passage that may lead people to believe there is not a finality to becoming a Christian is related to being grafted onto a vine, or pruned off of a vine. In John 15, Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing." This passage states the fact that the power for life comes with being connected to Jesus, not of ourselves. It matches Ephesians 2:8-10. "Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do." We can only do anything spiritually good outflowing from our union with Christ.
This passage again draws the distinction between branches that bear fruit and branches that do not bear fruit. A vine might have dead branches seemingly connected to it on the surface, but the inside is dead; there is no sap, no life flowing on the inside. The only way to tell is to see that there is no fruit. That kind of branch is cut off. Here you have the description again of two groups of people, both of whom seem connected to Jesus, but one group really has a connection on the inside and it bears fruit. The other group has not true inward reality to the outward seeming, and the only way to tell is the fruit. So in this passage, Jesus has dealt with two issues: the fact of the origin of life and good works and fruit is that of union with Christ. And the second issue, the fact that there are some who seem united to Christ, but really are not on the inside, and will be cut off and burned. One other place this kind of analogy can be found is in Romans 11. Paul's reference to breaking off branches and ingrafting of an olive tree does not speak to individual salvation, but to nations being part of the people of God. So it does not really specifically speak to individuals having salvation and then losing it, but rather, nations being included and then excluded.
This is in line with the beginning of Revelation in chapter 2, that talks Jesus coming and removing the lampstand of specific churches. Here you have an address not to individuals but an organized body of believers, just like Paul speaking of in Romans 11. If a church keeps being unfaithful, and not exercizing church discipline, and not staying close to the Bible, eventually it will stop being a true church. There will be no more Christians in it. It will cease to exist. That is a sad state of affairs, that I as a church planter in Taiwan am constantly concerned for: Will the churches I start continue to exist and be a bright witness in Taiwan fifty years from now?
So in conclusion: When the Bible speaks about the visible church, and individual people who have been baptized and counted as members of a church, the Bible constantly gives warnings -- are you really in the faith? But when the Bible speaks about those whose hearts really have been changed, there is a finality, an irreversible certainty about the state of those in Christ. You cannot lose your salvation. If you see someone leaving the faith, the questions is whether they ever really were a Christian in the first place.
So I end in full as I began with 1 John 2:19
By their fruit shall you know them.