(3) In 1 Corinthians 9:16 Paul says about himself and his ministry: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’
The forceful word ‘woe’ shows that Paul is thinking about some catastrophic event potentially happening to himself, and the most natural interpretation is that he is contemplating losing salvation and failing to enter heaven if he makes the wrong decisions.
Similarly, a few verses later in 1 Cor 9:24-27, he states:
‘Don’t you know that those who run in a stadium all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in everything. They, then, do this to receive a perishable wreath, but we do it to receive an imperishable one. Therefore I run in this way: not without purpose; I box in this way: not hitting the air. But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, having preached to others, I myself won’t be disqualified.’
The Christian life in this passage is compared to a sporting contest, in which winning a wreath most naturally represents gaining final salvation (at death or the return of the Lord), and disqualification represents a failure to gain final salvation.
(The fact that only one person can win a literal race but more than one Christian can win an imperishable wreath of the kind referred to here shows the limitation of the metaphor in portraying the corresponding reality, as is often the case with biblical metaphors. Importantly, however, even if we were to interpret Paul’s metaphor here in a different way from how I am interpreting it, we would still end up with more than one Christian winning a metaphorical wreath as compared to one person winning a literal wreath, so my interpretation is not more difficult in this respect than any other interpretation would be.)
This interpretation is made more probable by Paul’s use of irony. When Paul talks about a potential outcome in which he, having preached to others, is disqualified, he is surely implying that this outcome would be ironic. Because his preaching is something that results in others being saved, the irony would make most sense if the disqualification is Paul’s own failure to achieve final salvation.
Most probably, then, in these passages in 1 Cor 9 Paul, who is obviously a genuine Christian, is saying that he is in potential danger of losing salvation if he makes the wrong decisions. Although he is speaking about himself, he is doubtless presenting what might happen to himself as a warning of what could happen to the Corinthians if they were to make similar wrong decisions. We can add that because Paul’s words are inspired, this warning is given to all later Christians too.
(4) In Hebrews 6:4-6, the writer warns:
‘In the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and have then fallen away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and openly humiliate Him.’
It is surely not possible that those who have become partakers of the Holy Spirit can be other than those who are genuinely born again. In Ephesians 4:30 the Holy Spirit is said to be what seals – i.e., marks in a significant way – Christians for salvation, and the author of Hebrews is surely describing genuine Christians in this passage.
There is a clear warning here, then, for genuine Christians of the dangers of falling away from the faith.
(5) In Hebrews 10:26-29 the author states:
‘If we go on sinning willfully after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a frightening expectation of judgement and the zeal of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has disregarded the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severe punishment do you think the person will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, and has considered defiled the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?’
The references to judgement, fire, punishment and there no longer remaining a sacrifice for sins have to mean that punishment in hell is in view here. And the reference to being sanctified by the blood of the covenant can only be referring to genuine Christians.
This is a clear warning to born-again Christians not to lose their salvation.
(6) In 2 Peter 2:20 comment is given about a certain group of people this way:
‘If, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, their last condition has become worse than the first.’
Verses 21 and 22 contain similar thoughts, including the proverb, ‘A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mud.’
Escaping the defilements of the world by the knowledge of Christ here surely involves being genuinely saved. It is very difficult to believe that a superficial interest in Christianity that did not result in salvation would be described in this way. Similarly, the fact that the sow is said to have washed fits very poorly with the idea that it is depicting a superficial Christianity that never involved forgiveness of sins.
The way that the last condition of these people is said to be worse than the first has to mean that things for them are worse than before they had the saving knowledge of Christ, which must mean that their last condition is one in which they are unsaved. The sow returning to the mud surely symbolises something very similar.
By far the most natural way of interpreting this passage, then, is as a warning to genuine Christians against losing salvation.
(7) In Revelation 2-3 the members of the seven churches that the risen Christ addresses are given promises that are conditional on their overcoming.
In 2:7 the promise is of eating of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God; in 2:11 it is of not being hurt by the second death; in 2:17 of being given hidden manna, a white stone and a new name; in 2:26-28 of being given authority over the nations and the morning star; in 3:5 of being clothed in white garments, of not being erased from the book of life, and of having one’s name confessed before God and the angels; in 3:12 of being made a pillar in the temple of God and having God’s name, the name of Jerusalem and Jesus’ name written on them; in 3:21 of sitting down with Jesus on His throne.
Although these promises vary, they are all surely promises that only those who are finally saved will enjoy. Because there is a clear implication that the person who does not overcome in each case will not receive the promises mentioned, and because they are addressed to all the members of the churches, and each church would certainly have included some who were genuinely born-again Christians, these verses doubtless stand in part as warnings to genuine Christians of the danger of losing salvation if they do not overcome.
We can note particularly the promise to the church in Sardis in 3:5 that the one who overcomes will not have their name erased from the book of life. It is very difficult to believe that people who are only superficial Christians would ever have their names written in the book of life. It makes much more sense to think that professing Christians who are written in that book are genuinely saved.
By far the most natural way of interpreting this verse, then, is as a warning to genuine believers not to lose salvation.
There are many other biblical passages that should also be understood as warnings to people who are genuine Christians of the perils of falling away from the faith. But I think I have listed enough to show clearly that the Bible contains numerous warnings of this kind.
Given that this is a common theme in Scripture, church leaders should be careful to include warnings of this type when teaching their flocks. I can’t speak for churches in other parts of the world, but where I live I’m not sure that I have ever heard a church leader warning Christians in this way.
I think this will be down to several factors. Some leaders don’t believe that it is possible for a genuine Christian to lose salvation and therefore think that warnings against this are inappropriate. Others, knowing that the issue of perseverance and falling away is a controversial subject, will shy away from it for that reason. And others might simply not want to frighten Christians by talking about the possibility of falling away.
None of these reasons is legitimate. Church leaders need to fear God, not what people might think of them. And they need to strive to the utmost to fit their ministries around what is found in Scripture – all Scripture, not just parts of it.
Warning Christians that in order to end up in heaven they need to continue in fruit-bearing faith either until they die or the Lord returns is a basic part of Christian exhortation as it is found in the New Testament. It should therefore form a basic part of Christian teaching in all churches.
The fact that the Bible contains warnings of this kind doesn’t prove that it is possible for born-again Christians to finally lose salvation. Even Calvinists, who believe that no one who has been born again will end up in hell, usually agree that the passages I have listed above, or most of them, are real warnings to genuine Christians against losing salvation. However, they believe that these warnings are God’s way of preserving Christians from falling away, even though it is not actually possible for them to fall away.
Personally, I find this logic very dubious. If a Christian knows that it is not possible for them to fall away, then I fail to see how these warnings can be taken seriously. I much prefer the view that God means these warnings genuinely and that it is in fact possible for born-again Christians to fall away and end up in hell.
Of course, many claim that the biblical teaching on election shows that it is not possible for a born-again Christian to be finally lost. In my view, what the Bible has to say about election is relatively difficult to understand, and I think most Christians, if they are honest, will admit that election is a difficult subject. Even New Testament scholars who are experts on the book of Romans interpret Romans 9, a key passage on election, in very different ways, and I think the difference in their interpretations helps to show what a difficult subject election is.
Instead of starting with the relatively obscure (election), I prefer to start with the relatively clear (the natural sense of the warnings against falling away). I therefore believe it is better to argue in this way: Scripture contains many warnings to genuine believers of the perils of falling away from the faith; because God doesn’t deceive His children or play games with them, it seems highly likely that it really is possible for a genuine Christian to fall away and be finally lost; therefore a doctrine of election that says it is impossible for someone who has been born again to fall away and end up in hell is very probably incorrect.
Anyway, whether it is possible for a genuine Christian to fall away and be finally lost is not my main concern in this article, so I will say no more about it. Nor will I say anything about how the doctrine of justification by faith alone relates to the possibility of falling away. My overriding concern is to point out that the Bible contains many warnings to genuine Christians of the perils of falling away from the faith, and to say that church leaders should point out these warnings to their flocks.
There is one final thing that I would like to mention, which includes something of my own experience. Many years ago, when I was a young Christian, there was a time when I was terrified of losing salvation and ending up in hell, and I suffered really badly in this way. Since I couldn’t know the future, and I couldn’t trust myself to make the decisions that would be necessary to remain in the faith, how could I be sure of ultimate salvation?
God released me from this fear, however. Today, even though I still don’t know the future and I still can’t trust myself to make the right decisions, I have a confidence that I will end up in heaven.
The kind of fear I have of losing salvation today is not an anxiety or terror. It is similar to the fear of what would happen if I walked too close to the edge of a cliff-top or if I drove too fast on a winding road – an awareness of horrible consequences that I can avoid unless I make a conscious decision to do something really stupid. Even though technically and logically it could be possible for me to fall away, I believe that God will preserve me and will keep me for His eternal kingdom.
I think those born-again Christians who have an awareness of the real danger of losing salvation that the Bible seems to portray are paradoxically actually very secure in salvation. I think it is those who believe that because they have been born again they are therefore bound to get to heaven, who are often more likely to be in some real danger.
Max Aplin I have been a Christian for over 25 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland.