By far the most popular teaching to come out of the
Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of "Justification by Faith Alone."
Sometimes this is referred to as "The Assurance of Salvation." Martin Luther
held that once a person professes a belief in Christ He is saved for all
eternity. Anything he does from that point on has no effect on it. Once saved
always saved. He once wrote: "No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though
we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day" (Letter to Melanchthon,
August 1, 1521).This of course was in stark contrast to what the Church had been
teaching from the beginning.
Martin Lutherís new teaching was in direct opposition to the teachings of the Bible. The apostle Paul clearly tells us that salvation can be lost. He affirms this when writing the church at Corinth, "but you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren. Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor the idolaters, nor the adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:8-10).
It is important to note that Paul is talking to Christians. In other words, those who Martin Luther would say are saved. And yet Paul is warning them. He points out their sins and then he tells them not to be deceived because those who commit such sins will not inherit the kingdom of God. The message here seems pretty clear; straighten up or lose it all.
Earlier in the same letter he allows for the possibility that even he might not be saved. He said:
It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God (1 Corinthians 4:2-5).
Unlike Martin Luther Paul does not claim to be
saved. And he rightly points out that it is God who pronounces judgement. And he
takes the extra step to tell others not to pronounce judgement. That means you
can never definitively say that someone in particular is headed for hell or that
they are saved. Only God can make that judgement. And He makes that final
judgement at the second coming.
Paul claims that it is possible for him to lose his salvation a second time in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air, but I pommel my body and subdue it lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."
I donít think that anyone would argue with the fact that Paul is a Christian at this point. And yet in this passage he tells us that he can lose his salvation. The reason why Paul, and anyone else for that matter, can lose their salvation is because even after accepting Christ a person is still capable of sinning and remaining unrepentant. And repentance is necessary for forgiveness. Paulís says as much to the Church at Rome:
Do you suppose, then, you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you hold his priceless kindness, forbearance, and patience in low esteem, unaware that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).
We find Jesus issuing a similar warning to the
Church at Ephesus. He says: "Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the
works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand
from its place, unless you repent (Revelation 2:5).
The Church at Ephesus is obviously a body of Christians. And yet he warns them to repent of their sins otherwise He will remove their lampstand. In other words He will no longer be present among them.
The theme of repentance appears throughout the New Testament. Acts 11:18 makes a reference to "repentance unto life." In Luke 13:3 Jesus tells us we must repent or perish. If we are still capable of sinning after having faith in Jesus then we must still repent when we sin or be separated from Him. In Luke 15:10 Jesus tells us that "there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." Certainly one can assume that the opposite is true when there is no repentance. And thatís because without repentance there is no salvation.
As you would expect, the early Church agreed. The epistle of Barnabas which was written around the year 130 reads in part: "So no assumption that we are among the called must ever tempt us to relax our efforts, or fall asleep in our sins, otherwise the prince of evil will obtain control over us, and oust us from the kingdom of the Lord" (4).
I think that a little history would be helpful in understanding how Martin Luther came to the conclusion that a Christian could never lose his salvation. Martin Luther suffered from a condition called scrupulosity. A person thus afflicted experiences severe anxiety and guilt concerning his own sinfulness. Some describe it as a religious form of OCD. Luther thought that no matter what he did he was always headed for hell. He would go to confession for hours. At one point his confessor told him that God didnít have a problem with him, he had a problem with God.
From his reading of Scripture he imagined that he had made a startling discovery. He came to the conclusion that Scripture actually taught that we are saved by faith alone. While faith is certainly a vital element on the path to salvation, it is also true that our faith must be evident in our actions. The book of James is very clear on this:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he
has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is
ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace,
be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what
does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believeóand shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead (James 2:14-26).
Martin Luther rejected the book of James. He
referred to it as an epistle of straw. Obviously this was due to the fact that
it disagreed with his new teaching. He took things a step further and altered
Romans 3:28 in his translation of the Bible. The verse reads as follows: "For we
hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." He changed it to
read: "For we hold that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of
law." By adding the word alone he changed the meaning of the verse and put it in
direct opposition to James 2:24 which uses the phrase "not by faith alone." By
the way the works of the law mentioned here are the works of the ceremonial law
not the moral law.
I have said it before but it bears repeating, the works spoken of here are not the product of our intrinsic goodness. They are accomplished by the power (grace) of God. The best the Christian can ever do is to allow God to work through him. That is why James 2 (faith without works is dead) and Romans 5 (we are justified by faith) are in complete harmony. We are saved by faith, "faith working through love." And as we saw earlier love requires action. If there is no love there is no salvation.
And that brings us to our original question; can salvation be lost? It most certainly can be lost. And it will be lost when a Christian rejects Godís grace and remains unrepentant.
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For Further Study
The Early Church Fathers on Justification
Can a Christian Lose His
E-Books - The Salvation Controversy by Jimmy Akin and Faith Alone: Is It Justifiable? by Scott Hahn
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