In answer to the question, “Is it possible for Christians to lose their salvation?”, the pastoral thing to do is to take different approaches to people depending on where they are spiritually. To those who fear they’re in danger of falling from God’s grace, there are reassuring verses like, “Nothing can pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:29) and “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it” (Philippians 1:6) To the presumptuous, who think that because they’ve intellectually assented to the gospel, nothing further is required of them, there are challenging verses like, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 10:22).
On one extreme are Christians who overemphasize the danger of losing one’s salvation to the point that it’s implied that we live in a constant state of paranoia. Then on the other extreme are those who argue that assurance of salvation is so guaranteed that however much we sin, we needn’t worrying about it keeping us out of heaven.
Proof texting alone will not resolve the controversy since both sides admit that there are plenty of verses that appear to teach the certainty that all Christians will persevere (consider Romans 8:35-39 and 1 John 2:19) as well as plenty of verses that appear to teach that falling away and being lost is a real, not merely hypothetical, danger for Christians to guard against (consider 2 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-27). As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Paul sometimes spoke of his own salvation as if it were already a done deal, but other times he spoke of the need to discipline himself lest, after preaching to others, he himself be disqualified.
Let us, for the moment, confine ourselves to the argument surrounding the traitor Judas Iscariot. Many who believe that real Christians can fall away and be lost point to Judas as an example of a real believer who fell away from the faith. Is this right?
It is true that Judas was called by Jesus himself to be one of the twelve apostles. When Jesus sent out the disciples to preach the good news of the kingdom, heal the sick, and cast out demons, Judas was in that group and we’ve no reason to believe that he himself wasn’t endowed with the power from Christ to work miracles as the rest of the apostles did. Judas was with the apostles during the Last Supper when Jesus washed their feet. Clearly, Judas had all the outward marks of being a real follower of Jesus. All that said, Scripture indicates that, far from being a man who loved Jesus and then fell away, Judas was a man who never really loved Jesus in the first place. Once Jesus, addressing his disciples, said that though he personally chose the Twelve, “One of you is a devil.” Jesus isn’t so much saying that one of his disciples will eventually become a devil; he is speaking of a present reality. Later in John’s gospel, John says that as the disciples’ treasurer Judas was a thief and would help himself to the moneybag. All things considered, Judas is portrayed not as a real believer who defected, but rather as a counterfeit disciple from the beginning.
People make enthusiastic professions of faith, sometimes only to backslide later and seemingly lose interest in following Christ. The question is raised: do such examples undermine the doctrine that none of God’s elect will ever fall away “totally and finally”? The Reformed doctrine is that no one who has been chosen by God for salvation will ever permanently fall away from the faith. The key word is permanently. If a once-professing Christian has gone back on his commitment to Christ, so long as his heart is still beating, we can’t say for sure that any decision he’s made is permanent. His life is still a work in progress.
Where does that leave us? We can draw two conclusions: 1) From outward appearances, we aren’t always able to clearly distinguish between genuine and false conversions; therefore when we witness a professing Christian renounce his faith, we can never know, from the outside looking in, whether a real Christian is forfeiting God’s grace or a counterfeit Christian is being unmasked. 2) When professing Christians renounce their faith, this itself doesn’t prove that genuine Christians can fall away permanently because there is always hope that the one who has backslidden will repent and return. We don’t know the end of the story and shouldn’t hastily assume that a present state of rebellion will prove to be a “total and final” falling away.
What about when we’re not on the outside looking in, but rather considering our own state, wondering if we can have assurance of our salvation? If so many apparently genuine Christians fall away, never to return, might we not start to question whether our own conversion has been real or merely a delusion? Can we know if we’re really elect? Must we wait till the end of our life, to see if we do in fact persevere, before we can say with any confidence that we have had a genuine conversion to Christ?If we take this approach, which was sometimes endorsed by the Puritans (practically all of whom were Calvinists), we find ourselves bogged down in a kind of backdoor works-righteousness. Instead of wringing our hands, wondering if we’ve done enough to merit God’s favor (Luther’s pre-Reformation nightmare), we are left wringing our hands, wondering if we’ve been sanctified enough, or experienced enough growth in grace to prove that we’ve indeed experienced justification. We basically have to wait all our lives before we can attain any assurance that we are God’s elect.
While in one scenario our actions are looked at as the thing itself that saves us, and in the other our actions are looked at as the thing we point to prove to ourselves that we’ve in fact been saved, both scenarios have us looking inward, to ourselves, rather than outward to Christ. Assurance of salvation, whether we’re talking about the present moment or our hope of dying in a state of grace some day, is always grounded in what Christ has done for us on the cross. The minute we take our eyes off Christ and start obsessing about what’s going on inside us, we start to slip. Spiritual introspection, as healthy and as good as it can be, can turn bad if it deters us from focusing on Christ.