Not too long ago there was a lot of discussion surrounding some things John Piper said concerning justification (I’ll let you sort through all that). Some were claiming that Piper’s teaching amounted to a denial of salvation by faith alone–that he was throwing good works into the mix and adding additional requirements for salvation. Although I don’t believe this to be the case, I’m not trying to weigh in on that matter. Instead, I want to address an important element that I believe the Bible does throw into the mix about salvation that is often neglected or ignored.
In Acts 20:21, Paul says that his message consisted of “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” So we have two elements to our message of salvation, repentance and faith.
In regards to repentance, I like Grudem’s definition: “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.” Repentance is something that God commands all people everywhere to do (Acts 17:30). There is no salvation if there is no repentance. It is necessary.
In regards to faith, a saving faith is composed of knowledge of Jesus (Romans 10:14), and approval and personal trust in what He has done for us (John 3:16). Both aspects of this definition are required. If you do not know Jesus, you can’t be saved (Romans 10:14), but just merely knowing about Him does not save you (Romans 1:32; James 2:19; see also the admissions of Nicodemus in John 3:2, and King Agrippa in Acts 26:27). You must acknowledge Him rightly as Lord as well as place personal trust in His saving work on your behalf (Romans 10:9). Both are necessary.
Typically, that’s where discussions of the requirements for salvation end. But this is unfortunate because the Bible has a wealth of passages that speak of another element that is required for our salvation, which is perseverance. Perseverance is put forth as a requirement in many places in the Bible, but just to note a few:
- “He who endures to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 10:22
- “We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” – Hebrews 3:14
- “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.'” – John 8:31-32
Notice in particular the full weight of the passage in John. Jesus is speaking to the Jews “who had believed in Him.” So faith was already present in the Jews (repentance is safely implied); and to these Jews who had already believed, Jesus gives an additional condition: “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.” Their authenticity is proven by their persevering obedience to Jesus. In other words, like repentance and faith, perseverance is necessary.
This always raises the question about those who once exhibited signs of conversion but have since fallen away. Are they still saved? Doesn’t the Bible teach eternal security of the believer? Indeed it does! But that assurance is only for those who continue steadfast in their profession of and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. The eternal security of the believer applies to believers, not those who once said they believed but are now by all intents and purposes functional unbelievers.
The Scripture addresses this situation directly in 1 John 2:19, saying that “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” Jesus also mentions this unfortunate reality in the parable of the soils, noting that there are those who “hear the word and immediately receive it with joy, yet have no root in themselves, but endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately fall away” (Matthew 13:20-21). The first category of people “were not of us”, and in the second, the Gospel did not take root in their heart. So both of these passages prove that those who “fall away” didn’t lose their salvation, they were never saved to begin with.
The entire testimony of Scripture is explicitly clear about this issue. Without perseverance, without endurance, without persistence, it doesn’t matter what you professed years ago, it wasn’t a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we assure the one who has fallen away from the faith that they are secure because of a past profession or baptism, despite all present evidence to the contrary, we are literally damning them to hell.
This is a hard truth to receive for a lot of us and I’m including myself in that group. Odds are we all know many people who lack perseverance and we don’t want to entertain the idea that their past profession wasn’t genuine. But might I encourage us to not let our desire for emotional coddling prevent us from reckoning with what the Scripture says about those who fall away. It is not love to encourage someone who is a practical unbeliever to trust and rely upon something they said or did years ago. This has dangerous, eternal ramifications. Instead, let us allow that anxiousness to fuel our urgency in sharing the Gospel and let it push us to continue pursuing Christ with all we have.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” – Jude 24-25
If you are interested in learning more, you can listen to a talk I gave on the doctrine of salvation.
Also published on Medium.