In August 2009, a man named George Sodini walked into a gym in Pittsburgh and started shooting people. He killed three women and finally himself. Usually, the workings of the mind that lead a person to commit such an act remain a mystery. However, George Sodini left behind an online journal that sheds some light on this tragedy. It turns out that a former pastor had convinced him that he could murder people and still go to heaven! Sodini wrote his last journal entry the day before his killing spree. Here is some of what he said:
"Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus. At least that is what I was told. Eternal life does NOT depend on works. If it did, we will all be in hell. Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid. People judge but that does not matter. I was reading the Bible and The Integrity of God beginning yesterday, because soon I will see them."
George Sodini was a very disturbed man, to put it mildly. However, it seems that his problems were exacerbated by the doctrine of unconditional eternal security. Basically, this doctrine expresses the idea that once you are saved, there is nothing you can do to throw away your salvation. Just believe Jesus died for your sins, and you are irrevocably bound for heaven. This idea is very dangerous, because it is used to justify sin. Most people would not use this idea to justify murder, but Sodini carried the idea to its logical end. This begs the question: what does the Bible say about the concept, "once saved, always saved"? In fact, the Word of God deals with this issue over and over again. Let us begin with some of the words of Jesus.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."
Now, this is a rich passage from which many insights into the Christian life can be derived. For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to focus on how Christ's teaching bears on the nature of salvation. When we are cleaned from our sins by the blood of Jesus, we become branches on the true vine. Once that happens, does Jesus say, "Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he [the Father] leaveth on the vine"? Quite the contrary. However, that is the implication of unconditional eternal security. I do not believe that Christ is referring to people who have never been believers being cast into the fire because He mentions "every branch in me." A person who never accepted Christ could not logically be a branch on the true vine.
The imagery of branches appears again in the book of Romans as the Apostle Paul is discussing the future of Israel. In Chapter 11, Paul compares Israel to a natural olive tree, while Gentile believers are branches from a wild olive tree and have been grafted in with the natural branches (verse 17). Talking about Israel to the Gentiles, Paul writes:
"Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off."
The message seems clear. God will not preserve a branch that is not bearing fruit. That would be bad gardening practice. Therefore, the Bible seems to be teaching that the security of the Christian is not unconditional.
Even if these were the only two Scriptural passages that speak to this issue, I believe "once saved, always saved" would be amply refuted. However, the Word of God does not end the discussion there. From several different authors, the teaching is always the same. I hope I am not overloading you with verses, but I want to demonstrate the thoroughness with which the Bible handles this doctrine. Next we could look at what Peter has to say.
"For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. "
A valid point to consider: does this passage and others like it refer to people have never been saved, as opposed to people who were saved but turned their backs on the Lord? Peter says the people in question "have known the way of righteousness." Can that describe an unbeliever? But perhaps the apostle is referring to head knowledge. What I mean to say is, maybe Peter is discussing people who knew the way to be saved but never actually accepted Christ. In an attempt to clarify this point, turn with me to the letter to the Hebrews.
"For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame."
For a person to be a "partaker of the Holy Ghost," he must have been a true believer. A individual who never knew Christ would never have received the Holy Spirit. So, this passage cleary indicates that a true believer can fall away from Christ. Is such a person still on the true vine? A few chapters later, the writer to the Hebrews addresses the idea of conditional security again.
"For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries."
"Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul."
After we are saved, we still have to choose between walking after the Spirit or walking after the flesh (see Romans 8). God created man with free will. We can choose to accept Christ as our Lord and Saviour. We can also choose to "draw back," thus throwing away our salvation. No man can pluck us out of the Lord's hand (John 10:29), but we have the free will to walk away from His hand if we so choose.
Both the Old and New Testaments make references to the "book of life." I believe the earliest mention of it is in the book of Exodus, after the children of Israel had worshipped the golden calf.
"And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written. And the LORD said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book."
Of course, this took place under the Old Covenant, which could be summarized as, "this do, and thou shalt live." After the atoning death of Christ, the faithful are now under the New Covenant of grace. With that in mind, does God still blot names out of the book of life? Yes!
"Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels."
"And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."
The messages to the seven churches in Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation are full of warnings to hold fast to your faith lest it is somehow lost. Why would any of these warnings be necessary if nothing a Christian did could endanger his salvation? For example, multiple times Jesus admonishes the churches to be faithful in order to receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10, 3:11).
Don't get me wrong; I do not live in constant fear of losing my salvation. I know that as long as I abide in Christ, I have eternal life (see 1 John 5:11-13). Jesus tells us, "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love..." (John 15:10). I think one of the dangers of unconditional eternal security teaching is that it actually breaks down the fear of the Lord. If there are no eternal consequences for our disobedience, we can break the commands of Christ with impunity. In other words, there is no reason to fear God. As Christians, are our works valued by God? By way of answer, I leave you with an account of the Judgment. Remember, we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). Determine for yourselves.
"And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."