Christians have been debating this question for centuries. The issue directly impacts our sense of assurance and confidence before God. Left unresolved, it affects our faithfulness, our witness and our effectiveness for Christ. To get a handle on this question, we must wrestle with the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. And to make the point, let’s portray the dispute by the caricature of two extremes.
Faith as Presumption: If salvation is by faith in Christ alone, then good works have nothing to do with it. So it doesn’t matter how people live their lives as long as they believe. A believer can sin with impunity and he will still go to heaven. Once people “give their hearts to Jesus”, they are eternally saved. They cannot go to hell. Even though faith in Christ had had no transforming effect on their lives, they will nevertheless be accepted in heaven because they claimed to believe in Jesus.
Faith as Inadequate: If salvation is gained by a combination of faith and good works, then a person needs to do good works to get into heaven. So good works are therefore meritorious; they, in part, earn us our salvation. From this perspective, salvation depends on the good works we perform. If a person does not live right according to God’s will, that person will not go to heaven.
Of course, both extremes are wrong because they fail to define a number of terms regarding the doctrine of salvation by faith. What is biblical faith? What is the nature of salvation? Who then, is a true Christian?
Biblical faith is a relationship with the Living God and goes beyond cognitive knowledge or simple intellectual assent. Biblical faith is a belief that entrusts itself to Another; embracing the Person of Christ in a relational and familial bond. It is more than ”what” you know; it is “Who” you know. From this relational angle, true faith is never presumptuous and does not look for excuses for continue in sinful behavior. Faith as “fire insurance” misses the mark, forgetting that true faith is already the evidence of an inner regeneration. A true faith thinks differently and will inevitably act differently. True faith has feet, it walks what it talks (James 2:14-26).
The nature of biblical salvation emphasizes the merits of Christ. Our salvation depends entirely on trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross as full payment for our sins (John 3:15-16, 36; Romans 3:22-24). He is the object of our faith and our faith alone in Him is the basis for our salvation (Philippians 3:20-21). We are secure as we trust in His merits and His promise to forgive us and to bring us to Himself (John 14:1-2).
Our good works, no matter how noble, play no part in meriting salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-5; Romans 3:9-18). In God’s eyes, all our righteousness (good works) are as filthy rags (Isaiah 59:1; 64:6), and therefore inadequate to save us. Salvation is absolutely free, a gracious gift which cannot be earned but which accomplishes what God has promised (Hebrews 10:14; Jude 24; I John 3:1).
While good works produce no merit as far as our salvation is concerned, they will certainly be evidence of biblical faith (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:14). True Christians will perform good works, not to earn salvation, but as authenticating signs of saving faith in Christ (Matthew 7:21-23).
The two extreme positions can be formulated by the following equations.
Faith as Presumption: faith = salvation
Faith as Inadequate: faith + good works = salvation
The true Christian knows that he/she is saved by grace through faith alone; they live to honor the Creator God through intimate fellowship and works of righteousness. This saving faith is formulated as a faith which produces good works as a fruit tree produces fruit (John 15:1-6).
Biblical faith: faith = salvation + good works
To get back to our original question, we now have some parameters for deciding if Christians can lose their salvation.
First, we affirm that true Christians are trusting in the merits of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins; they are therefore secure in their salvation and can have assurance of heaven. They may experience failure and even backsliding for a season, but if their faith is genuine, they will return to a pattern of obedient service, living out their true calling as God’s children. Someone who is truly saved cannot lose their salvation (John 10:27-30; Romans 8:1; Romans 8:35-39; John 5:24; 1 John 5:13; Titus 3:7; 1 John 1:8-9).
Secondly, we may affirm that if there is absolutely no change in the lifestyle of someone who professes faith in Christ, there can be no assurance of saving faith. Saving faith inevitably transforms. Therefore if no transformation has taken place, it follows then that such persons have never been saved. They are counterfeit “Christians”, no matter what they claim (Matthew 13:24-30). Their faith is a spurious faith, a false faith that does not save (James 2:19).