This question has troubled many Christians throughout history. In fact, many still struggle with it today. To make matters worse, many theologians are divided on the issue making it even more difficult for laymen to arrive at a definitive answer to the question since both sides have Scripture to support their viewpoint. Calvinists support a viewpoint in favor of the security of the believer while Armenians support a viewpoint in favor of apostasy (i.e., the possibility the believer can fall away). So, what does the Bible say about it? We will examine the key biblical passages used to support each side and attempt to arrive at a conclusion.
John 10:27-30 (NASB)
27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 “I and the Father are one.”
In John 10:27-30, Calvinists claim that Jesus’ words constitute a powerful declaration of security. Verse 28 is especially emphatic, where the declaration that something will not happen in the future is made. Jesus is categorically excluding the slightest chance of apostasy by His sheep. This assertion is followed by statements that no one can snatch believers out of Jesus’ hand or out of the Father’s hand. This passage is a definite rejection of the idea that a true believer can fall away.
Hebrews 6:4-6 (NASB)
4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Armenians argue that Hebrews 6:4-6 represents an equally emphatic case for their position. The passage seems clear enough. The description is apparently of genuinely saved persons who abandon the faith and thus lose their salvation. However, because of the complexity of the issue and the material in this passage, a number of interpretations have grown up:
- The writer has in mind genuinely saved persons who lose their salvation. He notes that once they lose their salvation, there is no way to regain it for it’s impossible to renew them to salvation. This point is ignored by many Armenians.
- The persons in view were never regenerate. They merely tasted of the truth and the life and were only exposed to the Word of God. They did not fully experience these heavenly gifts. They do in fact apostatize; but from the vicinity of spiritual truth, not from its center.
- The people in view are genuinely and permanently saved; they are not lost. Their salvation is real, the apostasy is hypothetical. In other words, the “if”-clause does not actually occur. The writer is merely describing what would be the case if the elect were to fall away (an impossibility).
Upon close examination, the second explanation is difficult to accept. The vividness of the description, and particularly the statement “[those who] were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,” argues forcefully against denying that the people in view are (at least for a time) regenerate. The choice must therefore be made between the first and third views.
Part of the difficulty stems from the ambiguity of the Greek word translated “if they fall away.” It is an adverbial participle which can denote cause, time, concession, and (significant to this discussion) condition. Thus, one legitimate translation would be “if they fall away”; but it could also be rendered “when they fall away” or “because they fall away.” The actual meaning must be determined based upon context, the key element of which can be found in verse 9:
Hebrews 6:9 (NASB)
9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.
This verse might be understood as implying that the people described in verses 4-6, unlike the people to whom Hebrews is addressed, were not really saved. However, as pointed out above (view 2) there is a major difficulty with this interpretation. The other possibility is that the people referred to in verses 4-6 and 9 are the same. They are genuinely saved people who could fall away. Verses 4-6 declare what their status would be if they did. Verse 9, however, is a statement that they shall not fall away. They could; but, they will not. Their persistence to the end is evidence of that truth. The writer of Hebrews knows that his readers will not fall away; he is convinced of better things regarding them, the things that accompany salvation. He speaks of their past work and love and exhorts them to continue earnestly in the same pursuits.
Hebrews 6:10-11 (NASB)
10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end,
The full context of the passage would seem to indicate then that the writer has in view genuine believers who could fall away; but, will not.
We are now able to correlate John 10 and Hebrews 6. While Hebrews 6 indicates that genuine believers can fall away, John 10 indicates they will not. In other words, there is a logical possibility of apostasy; but it will not come to pass in the case of true believers. Although they could abandon their faith and consequently come to the fate described in Hebrews 6, the grace of God prevents them from apostatizing. God does this, not by making it impossible for believers to fall away, but by making it certain that they will not. The emphasis on can and will not is not inconsequential. It preserves the freedom of the individual. Believers are capable of repudiating their faith, but will freely choose not to.
What about the “examples” of others who have allegedly fallen away in the biblical texts? It must be questioned whether these individuals were in fact true believers to begin with. There is insufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that they were true believers who fell away.
The practical implication of the understanding of the doctrine of perseverance is that believers can rest secure in the assurance that their salvation is permanent. Nothing can separate them from the love of God. Thus, they can rejoice in the prospect of eternal life.