Is it possible or impossible to fall away from the Christian faith?

Spencer D Gear

A Lutheran, Dr Richard P Bucher, wrote:

The same Paul that could triumphantly state that he was convinced that nothing in all creation “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39), could also write, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:26-27). By these latter words Paul freedly (sic) admitted the possibility that even he, the great Apostle, could “be disqualified,” that is, fall away (Bucher 1998).

I’ve been in this kind of discussion many times on Christian forums on the Internet. Here’s an example of one fellow wrote: ‘There are no passages that threaten Christians with losing their salvation’.[1]

Passages that warn of loss of salvation

Scarlet Salvation Button

(image courtesy ChristArt)

My response was:[2]

You know there are passages that warn against loss of salvation and Hebrews 6:4-8 is a classic example. I know that you want to interpret this passage differently as loss of salvation doesn’t fit in with your theological presuppositions. These verses read:

4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned (Heb 6:4-8 NIV)

We’ve debated loss of salvation at length on Christian Forums on several occasions. I have a lengthy exposition of this passage at, ‘Once saved, always saved or once saved, lost again‘.

Paul to Timothy gives another example:

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:18-20 ESV).

Hymenaeus and Alexander have so shipwrecked their faith that Paul handed them over to Satan to deal with what they had done. He called it as an example of blasphemy. Shipwrecking one’s faith is blaspheming God, in Paul’s understanding.

Lutheran commentator, R C H Lenski. in his commentary on 1 Tim 1:19 wrote:

The Greek permits Paul to continue with three consecutive relative clauses; in English we should use independent clauses. The first is to be construed with “a good conscience” and not also with “faith,” for “the faith” appears in the relative clause: “which some by thrusting away (or: having thrust away) made shipwreck regarding the (their) faith.” When they thrust aside their conscience which tried to hold them to the prophecies they had learned from faithful teachers they made shipwreck of their very faith. One cannot keep his faith while he plays fast and loose with the prophecies (Word). He will have to silence his conscience, make it cease crying out against such practice, and then his faith is wrecked whether he admits it or not (Lenski 1937:532, emphasis added).

Clearly this is another example, this time from Paul, of people who thrust away, made shipwreck, could not keep their faith. But this does not fit in with eternal security presuppositions of a Calvinist.[3] Falling away refers to Jewish sacrificial system.

There was another person who responded to my stated interpretation of apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6. He wrote:

The reason that a person would fall away as indicated by this passage in Hebrews 6 would be if they were once Jewish and returned to the sacrificial system of the old covenant after having “tasted the heavenly gift” – and then went back to the sacrificial system – then they have fallen away – and worse have no chance of ever getting back. So who around here does this apply to?

The main point of the passage from Hebrews 6 is to demonstrate that the old sacrificial system of the old covenant is not only worthless but dangerous to Jews who might be considering going back to it.

It is not talking about sinning or breaking the law leading to falling away. Its (sic) talking about going back to a system of works based salvation leading to a person falling away. I find it ironic that someone would use this passage to defend the idea that someone could fall away when the very thing that would make such a person fall away is by going to a system of works instead of trusting in God’s grace for salvation.[4]

How should I respond?[5]

That’s not what Heb 6:4-8 says in context. In fact, the English Standard Version has a heading, ‘Warning Against Apostasy’, that begins at Heb 5:11 and continues to Heb 6:12. Obviously these translators of the Greek NT disagree with your view. They consider it relates to apostasy, ‘a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc’ (an online dictionary definition of ‘apostasy’).

The context tells us that these Christians (‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’, Heb 1:2 ESV) asked, ‘How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard’ (Heb 2:3). This is dealing with a message to those who are experiencing this ‘great salvation’ from Jesus the Son.

Good Book

(image courtesy ChristArt)

Is the Book of Hebrews addressing Christians or Jews?

Could it be that this person’s current theological worldview does not permit him to see that apostasy can be committed and salvation lost?

There were these additional problems in context:

  • They need someone to teach them ‘AGAIN the basic principles of the oracles of God’ as they were not able to get into solid food but were drinking milk instead (5:12 ESV);
  • Those who live on milk are ‘unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child’ (5:13);
  • ‘Solid food’ is for the mature, those who have ‘powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil’ (5:14).
  • These Christians are challenged to move from an elementary doctrine of Christ, to maturity (6:1);
  • Part of this movement from the immature to the mature doctrine is to understand the seriousness of committing apostasy (Heb 6:4-8).
  • ‘We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end‘ (6:11).

Here we are dealing with immature Christians who need to move from milk to solid food and part of that movement is to understand how serious falling away (apostasy) from the faith is, and their need to have assurance of their faith UNTIL THE END.

What about John 10?

Another person wrote:

Jesus says it very simply.
John 10:25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

v28, Jesus gives them eternal life.
‘ETERNAL’ means forever does it not?
Second part of the verse says something very significant.
“and they shall never perish”
Well who are we going to believe? Lets believe what Jesus has already said about these things.
“NEVER” does not allow for any other thing to happen.
But of course this is only for the elect of God, who are on the straight, narrow path, not the broad wide world on the path to destruction.[6]

What should be an appropriate response?[7]

This person’s listing off of proof texts does not support his view. When I examine the Greek text of John 10:28-29, this is what I find. These verses place a very different emphasis than his conclusion that “they shall NEVER perish.”

These verses demonstrate the conditional nature of salvation by use of the present tense in Greek, stating that continuing to believe is the condition required for eternal life to be experienced and for being in a position where there are no deleterious salvific consequences.

Here in John 10:27-28 we learn: “My sheep hear [present tense, continue hearing] my voice, and I know [present tense, continue knowing] them, and they follow [present tense, continue following] me. I give [present tense, continue to give] them eternal life, and they will never perish [aorist, perish as a fact of action], and no one will snatch [future tense, snatch in the future] them out of my hand”. Here the need for a continuation of belief is necessary to prevent a future snatching of believers from the Father’s hand.

This person’s promotion of unconditional eternal security in this passage has changed the biblical meaning from continuing to believe, which produces eternal life, into believing as a momentary act and they NEVER perish.

Arminius’s words are wise and consistent with the biblical revelation of John 10:27-28 and other verses. He wrote that it is “impossible for believers, as long as they remain believers to decline from salvation” (Arminius 1977:281).

Is once saved, always saved a deception?

Another person asked of me:

My only question is … Where did the OSASers fall into their deception?
In the cradle? On Granny’s lap? At an OSASer’s dinner table? In an OSAS church pew?
Oh, there are a multitude of possibilities … that’s why we have so many of ’em.[8]

I was rather subjective in my following response:[9]

My view is that it comes from the theological worldview known as Calvinism. I cannot find unconditional eternal security in an inductive exegesis of Scripture (as I’ve attempted to show in my exegesis of John 10:28-29 above).

This, for me, raises a bigger issue: What causes Christians to have blind spots in these areas? I can have them, you can have them; others can have them. The BIG issue in my hermeneutics is: How can I be consistent with the original languages in my interpretation of Scripture? What do we do when Scripture disagrees with our own present theological worldview? To be honest, for me I must change my view when an inductive study of Scripture proves me wrong.

I had to do this almost 50 years ago when I was saved and raised as a Baptist teenager with an OSAS view. Then I went to Bible College in the 1970s, followed by seminary, and found that an inductive study of Scripture forced me to abandon OSAS. It was a BIG move for me to make from OSAS to salvation can be lost. What made it even worse is that two of my close friends from Bible college days, one an outstanding evangelist and the other a brilliant expositor, or no longer serving the Lord. They have abandoned their faith. So I know that salvation can be lost from an inductive study of Scripture and from personal experience with believers.

I also had to do this with my background of support of cessationism with regards to the gifts of the Spirit.

What I have found is that most people who cling to a particular theological model (and I used to be one of them), cling to that position in spite of verses to the contrary. There seems to be a filtering out of verses that contradict one’s presuppositional views.

This fellow was persistent in his requirement what Heb. 6:4-8 was not addressing Christians who committed apostasy from the faith:

The apostasy spoken of in Hebrews is returning to the OT sacrificial system over trusting in Jesus. Clearly this is what the threat is addressing. The author wants to move on from talking about repentance from dead works and faith in Christ – which is what he is addressing in vs 4-6. It’s the returning to dead works that causes a person to be in apostasy.[10]

What did the early church fathers believe?

Saint Irenaeus.jpg

Irenaeus (Wikipedia)

cubed-iron-sm Irenaeus (ca. 125-202), bishop of Lyons, ‘e was most influenced by St. Polycarp who had known the apostles or their immediate disciples’. It was he who wrote in one of his most celebrated publications:

‘Christ shall not die again in behalf of those who now commit sin, for death shall no more have dominion over Him…. We ought not, therefore, as that presbyter remarks, to be puffed up, nor be severe upon those of old time, but ought ourselves to fear, lest perchance, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but be shut out from His kingdom (Against Heresies 4.27.2).

Tertullian 2.jpg

Tertullian (image courtesy Wikipedia)

cubed-iron-sm Tertullian (b. ca 160), the son of a centurion and a pagan until middle life, wrote,

But some think as if God were under a necessity of bestowing even on the unworthy, what He has engaged (to give); and they turn His liberality into slavery…. For do not many afterward fall out of (grace)? Is not this gift taken away from many? (Tertullian, On Repentance, ch. 6).

Martin Luther on eternal security

Martin Luther by Cranach-restoration.tif

Martin Luther (image courtesy Wikipedia)

In his commentary on Galatians 5:4, he wrote:

Ye are fallen from grace.
That means you are no longer in the kingdom or condition of grace. When a person on board ship falls into the sea and is drowned it makes no difference from which end or side of the ship he falls into the water. Those who fall from grace perish no matter how they go about it…. The words, “Ye are fallen from grace,” must not be taken lightly. They are important. To fall from grace means to lose the atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the righteousness, liberty, and life which Jesus has merited for us by His death and resurrection. To lose the grace of God means to gain the wrath and judgment of God, death, the bondage of the devil, and everlasting condemnation (Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians 5:4).

What about Jacob Arminius’s views?

James Arminius 2.jpg

Jacobus Arminius (image courtesy Wikipedia)

It is worthy of quoting him at some length in his segment on ‘The Perseverance of the Saints’:

My sentiments respecting the perseverance of the saints are, that those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his life-giving Spirit, possess sufficient powers [or strength] to fight against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh, and to gain the victory over these enemies—yet not without the assistance of the grace of the same Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ also by his Spirit assists them in all their temptations, and affords them the ready aid of his hand; and, provided they stand prepared for the battle, implore his help, and be not wanting to themselves, Christ preserves them from falling. So that it is not possible for them, by any of the cunning craftiness or power of Satan, to be either seduced or dragged out of the hands of Christ. But I think it is useful and will be quite necessary in our first convention, [or Synod] to institute a diligent inquiry from the Scriptures, whether it is not possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ, to cleave again to the present evil world, to decline from the sound doctrine which was once delivered to them, to lose a good conscience, and to cause Divine grace to be ineffectual.

Though I here openly and ingenuously affirm, I never taught that a true believer can, either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish; yet I will not conceal, that there are passages of scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect; and those answers to them which I have been permitted to see, are not of such a kind as to approve themselves on all points to my understanding. On the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine [of unconditional perseverance] which are worthy of much consideration.

Thus, Arminius, whose views have been most often associated with loss of salvation and repudiation of eternal security, actually stated that the one who is ‘a true believer’ (presumably meaning that he/she continues as a true Christian, cannot either totally or finally commit apostasy and fall away from the faith. The key is: Is that person continuing to trust in Jesus for salvation?

Thus it is evident from Scripture, some early church fathers, and evangelical leaders such as Martin Luther that it is possible to fall from grace and lose salvation, and thus experience the wrath and judgment of God.

I don’t believe that the promoters of eternal security are deceived. I place it within their hermeneutical system and the methods they use. However, there is a decided bias that seems to come from traditional interpretations (generally Calvinistic) that they have bought into.

Works consulted

Arminius J 1977. The Writings of James Arminius, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Bucher, R R 1998. Is a Christian “once saved, always saved?” February. Lexington, KY: Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, available at: (Accessed 29 July 2013).

Lenski, R C H 1937. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc (originally published by Lutheran Book Concern, The Wartburg Press, and Augsburg Publishing House).


[1] Christian, Soteriology, ‘A super-short summary of God’s plan of salvation’, Hammster #46. Available at: (Accessed 29 July 2013).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #53.

[3] From his many posts, I know that Hammster promotes Calvinism.

[4] Op cit., Behe’s Boy #56.

[5] Ibid., OzSpen #65.

[6] Ibid., sdowney717 #48.

[7] Ibid., OzSpen #55.

[8] Ibid., extraordinary #54.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen #60.

[10] Ibid., Behe’s Boy #67.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 18 April 2016.