“For we have become participants in Christ if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
It’s amazing how the kind of debates you have depends on the kind of community you’re a part of. This doesn’t mean that some debates are necessarily more important than others (some debates are more important than others, but this isn’t a reason for it), rather that different communities have different concerns. One debate I haven’t had for some time but which I used to participate in fairly frequently is whether salvation can be lost once it has been gained. As far as the Scriptures go, Hebrews contributes more to the back and forth of this debate than just about anything else you’ll find in them, mostly because of verses like this one. Let’s talk about it.
I remember going back and forth with other theology nerds in high school, college, and, interestingly, to a lesser extent, seminary about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We would sit around go back and forth on the matter, never coming to any firm conclusions except to be reinforced in whatever our own thinking was. No one wanted to concede their own point and let the other side get a victory. The debates never got terribly heated, and we were all still friends in the end which just goes to show you that believers can disagree agreeably, but debate we did all the same.
The basic question here is whether or not a person can gain the prize of salvation at one point in his life and subsequently lose it later on down the road. A further question is whether or not someone who has lost his salvation can gain it back again. The two major camps on this issue are defined by leading theologians of the past whose thinking shaped the respective positions more powerfully and directly than anyone else. On the side of salvation being a permanent state of affairs is John Calvin, one of the early French reformers. His ideological followers are called Calvinists. Today they are often more broadly referred to as “reformed” in their thinking and theology. On the side of salvation being something that can be gained and lost is Jacob Arminius, a Dutch pastor and theologian from about a generation later. His ideological followers are typically called Arminians.
To wildly oversimply their respective positions on the subject of the gaining and losing of salvation, Calvinism holds that once a person has been saved, that person will always be saved. There is no leaving the faith or somehow getting out from under that particular burden. This is because once God has chosen a person to be counted among the elect who will receive the gift of salvation, that choosing never changes. Salvation begins with God, is administered by God, and is maintained by God. If pushed too far, this can be construed to make us out to be little more than automatons who are merely doing what God has pre-programmed us to do, but it doesn’t typically get pushed that far. While all of this is absolutely by grace through faith, there is a fairly heavy emphasis on God’s election. Arminianism, on the other hand, places a great deal more responsibility for receiving the gift of salvation God offers in the hands of the one receiving it. God offers us this gift by grace, but receiving it or not is entirely up to us. Additionally, because salvation is something over which we have so much control, we are able to lose it if we turn our backs on it at some point along our journeys. But, if we repent and return, salvation is there waiting for us to take it up again. The emphasis here is pretty strongly on God’s grace and human responsibility.
While both theological positions claim the backing of Scripture, Calvinism tends more in the direction of rigorous, systematization in ways Arminianism does not. This is why you can find loads of systematic theology books which are ultimately rooted in Calvin’s thinking to one degree or another, but books that offer a systematic treatment of Arminius’ thinking are much rarer. This doesn’t mean there aren’t still thinkers who have given it a great deal of thought, but Calvin’s thinking tended to be more structured and organized than Arminius’ thinking.
The question you are wanting answered here is this: Which one is correct? I guess that depends on who you ask. For me, while I do lean somewhat in the direction of Calvinism, I am not convinced that all of the Arminian arguments are entirely without merit. As a matter of fact, the letter of Hebrews offers some of the most challenging material in terms of backing the position of Arminius over and against Calvin. The author gives several warnings against leaving the faith behind. He talks about how once someone walks away from her faith, there’s no going back at that point. The general impression here is that losing salvation is something that is within the realm of possibility. Calvinists are left trying to come up with all kinds of theological jujitsu to explain why the text doesn’t really mean what a plain reading suggests it means. One of their chief explanations is that when someone appears to have lost salvation, this is an indicator that it was never really securely obtained in the first place. The trouble here, though, is that you are left questioning a person’s committed belief and experience in a moment from their past and that’s a tough position to justify.
As I have grown and studied the matter on my own over the years, I am more and more convinced that neither side gets everything right and that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I would still set the slider somewhat in the direction of Calvinism, but the warnings to remain faithful and on guard against the loss of faith and salvation with it are not things we should ignore entirely. Indeed, as you read through the Scriptures with as few preconditions as possible, there are indeed verses that would seem to justify parts of both sides. The various authors who contributed to the New Testament seem to consistently hold the two different positions in this uncomfortable tension that we would love to have neatly resolved, but which doesn’t get cleanly resolved anywhere.
In a day when believers seem to be on the lookout for reasons to be divided from one another, historical clashes like this one are dangerous. They find us separating ourselves into warring camps that both run the risk of losing their vision of the Gospel in their efforts to be right and get the win over the other side. It is wiser to look for those places where both sides can agree…places like this verse from Hebrews 3. Whether you can gain and lose your salvation or whether a subsequent falling away is the result of never having really had it in the first place, both sides can agree that the person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and remains rooted in and faithful to that relationship over the course of his life is unquestionably saved.
When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He’s not calling us to some side quest to the rest of our lives that, while not unimportant, is something we can be on-again-off-again about in our thinking and doing. He is calling us to an all-encompassing way of life that lays claim to every part of who we are. Nothing falls outside its purview of interest. If we are not wholly committed to it mind, heart, soul, and strength, we are not ready for it at all. Jesus Himself was explicitly clear about the importance of counting the cost before we get started along with the incredibly high demands that will be placed upon us once we sign up for it. But once we are His, we are His entirely. So, give it some careful thought, but when you are ready for the life that is truly life, start following. You’ll always be glad you did.