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For most Christians their path into fellowship with God began with the same question a Roman jailor asked of Paul and Silas nearly 2,000 years ago: “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30). A companion essay in the Moments that Matter series (“Am I Saved?”) addresses that critical question.
However soon after successfully answering that most important query in life, most people realize that becoming a Christian is not the panacea for all of life’s ills that they hoped it would be. You do not become a Christian and awaken the next morning free from the temptations of sin. There is no magic elixir in faith that instantaneously transforms a person’s soul or heals a broken home.
That is not to say that the gospel has no answers for the hard issues of life. Jesus does have those answers. It is simply that his answers are often challenging to implement. Following the Golden Rule in your home by treating your spouse as you would have him/her treat you (Matthew 7:12) is difficult when they have just injured or betrayed you. Abstaining from the passions of the flesh which war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11) is difficult when those desires seem to take control of your will. Whether one is a Christian or not, choosing to live by Christ’s principles is hard. Yet, those are exactly the right answers you need to know to overcome the daily challenges of life. Christianity’s answers are the best ones, but they are often the ones we do not want to hear.
While some may teach that God inserts His power into the life of Christians to keep them from sinning, it does not take a biblical scholar to see the flaw in that approach. God does not stop the Christian from sinning. We still lie, become unfaithful to our spouses, display anger, and every other kind of offense that is found in those that profess no faith at all. If Christians had some special dispensation against sin, there would be far fewer allegations of hypocrisy against us. One reason that so many feel that churches are populated with hypocrites is because the charge is true. Christians are the ones who denounce sin the loudest and at the same time we struggle with sin and fall to it just like those who are not Christians. Personally, I wish the teaching of those who claim some kind of special help from God were true. If their doctrine were right, my life would be much easier to live.
Unfortunately, their claims provide little help to the child of God who is growing in his awareness of the struggles of the Christian life. In fact, that teaching can serve to deepen the doubts of a struggling child of God. If God is supposedly helping me in my struggles and I still am not able to overcome them . . . well, the problem cannot reside in God. The only conclusion that is left to me is that there is something amiss in my faith.
Too many Christians face the conflict of these doubts on a daily basis. The joy of becoming a Christian is lost in the daily burden of being one. Guilt from failure in standing against sin, shame from the exposure of our weakness, and fear of failing the God whose Son died to save us can envelope our hearts in a mist so thick that even the brightness of the light of God’s glory cannot be seen. When that darkness covers our eyes finding a certain answer to the question “Am I Still Saved?” is the greatest gift the gospel can provide us.
Premise 1: Once You are Saved, You are Always Saved
One answer to this important question that is popular (and perhaps the most common one) is that once a person is saved, he/she will always be saved no matter what happens from that point forward. In some writings this belief will be called the “eternal security of believers.” In others you might see it described as the “perseverance of the saints” or “once-saved-always-saved.” Some simply refer to it under the banner of “free grace.” This essay is not intended to be a discussion of all the variations of doctrines of salvation and sanctification and so we cannot take the time to dive into all of the intricacies of the topic.
All of these views share the common idea that salvation is given to man by the work of God. Man’s will and actions play no role (or at least no active role) in saving man. As such, salvation at the start and going forward from there is not tied to your actions at all. There is nothing you can “do” to cause your salvation and so there is nothing that you can or will “do” that will cause you to be lost.
For those concerned about their faithfulness to God, there is a strong appeal in this belief system. If your salvation is wholly tied to the desires and actions of God then there is nothing left about which you must worry. God’s work will never waiver. His love toward you will never lack the strength to hold you firmly within His heart. If it can be shown that once you are washed in the blood of Jesus there is no possibility of ever losing your salvation then your heart could rest in peace for the rest of your life.
To be fair, there are a number of passages which do express the power and dedication of God’s love toward His people. If they are applied unilaterally to the life of a Christian this doctrine would seem to be strongly expressed in the New Testament:
- My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)
- There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
- Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:35)
- No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
- For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)
Proponents of this view would add many more passages to this list. And if it is the case that only God’s work matters in salvation then one could make the case from these verses that a saved person could never be lost. If salvation is wholly God’s gift and His gifts are “irrevocable,” it would follow that salvation would be irrevocable as it is one of those gifts (Romans 6:23).
However, there is another side to the testimony of scripture on the matter. There are also a goodly number of verses in which the actions of man impact the state of their salvation before God:
- Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Romans 11:22)
- But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:27)
- You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
- And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:21-23)
- My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
- For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. (2 Peter 2:20)
- Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
Each of these passages speaks of salvation in a conditional manner. A Christian can fall from grace, be cut off or become disqualified. When he does so, the last state is worse for him than the first state (i. e. lost in sin) of his life. If even one of these passages refers to a Christian’s salvation, then the once-saved-always-saved mentality cannot be true. If the one who “falls from grace” was ever “standing on” God’s grace, then it is possible for a Christian to fall.
Again, this essay is not intended for the biblical scholar and fortunately you do not need to be one to understand what you have just read. If you are in doubt, go back and read the passages again. The first group is clear: God wants you saved and will never turn away from you. Is there anything complicated about that message? No. Yet, the second group is just as clear: To be saved, you must remain faithful. What else could “be faithful unto death” mean? Your eyes are not deceiving you. You do not need help in understanding those passages. You have understood God’s message.
He wanted to tell you both things are true. He wants you saved and sent His Son to make it happen. Yet, He also wants you to understand that He expects you to remain committed and loyal to Him at all times. For the “once-saved-always-saved” doctrine to be true, that entire concept of man’s loyalty must be completely unbiblical.
Premise 2: Salvation is Based on Obedience
On the other end of the spectrum is a belief that a person’s salvation is wholly contingent on his obedience to God. Historically, this idea has been characterized as “salvation by works.” As one might expect the argumentation for this view is the antithesis of the view just discussed. The passages in the second group above are used in this view to emphasize the necessity of obedience. The thought is that man must remain faithful at all times in order to remain saved. It is then pointed out that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). When the need for faithfulness is connected to the need for faith to have works, one concludes that man’s works form the basis of his salvation. This becomes true because if one’s works are ever missing or flawed, it can be reasoned that the short-coming is evidence that one’s faith is flawed as well.
Taken to an extreme, this teaching places us in a place of an “on-again-off-again” salvation. If flawed works implies flawed faith, then with each act of sin, we cease to be faithful. And because that act of sin necessarily invalidates our faithfulness, we are no longer saved. Our recourse at that point is to confess our sins and be restored in our walk with God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But under that metric, our salvation can only remain secure until we sin again. At which point, we must repeat the process of confession and prayer to have our salvation restored. If this view is true then our walking in the light is interrupted as often as we sin.
Whether they understand the doctrine or not, many Christians live with this kind of faith. It is the kind of faith described in the opening of this essay. It is a faith which is forever in doubt of its standing before God. How could it not be filled with uncertainty? We all know how often we are tempted to sin. The awareness of the frequency of our succumbing to those temptations is always with us. Faced with those realizations we are left with little hope. So strong are our fears that in prayer we often ask God to forgive us of the sins we know we have committed and of those we have committed but are unaware. You see, in out insecurity, we cannot afford to have even one sin go by without a confession attached to it. That kind of faith is of little value in helping the soul.
This doctrine taken to its logical end removes the power of God from our salvation. His hands are tied to help us until we recognize our sins and confess them. In the end our salvation is based on our reasoning and performance abilities. How could we ever confess a sin if our reasoning failed us and we were unaware of our sin? And how could we possibly confess our sins with the consistency and precision needed unless our performance of God’s law was nearing perfection?
Under this metric, those verses listed earlier which profess the devotion of God to His people and His unwavering pledge to keep them safe in His hand provide little comfort.
Just as a “you can never fall” mentality must address verses which say you can fall, the teaching of an obedience-based salvation must address the verses in scripture which proclaim the efficacy of the steadfast love of God to the saints.
In the end both views have problem verses they must address.
God is Our Father
The textual difficulties both views have should alert us to the possibility that there is another way of understanding our relationship to God. I believe the key is found in that word just used: “relationship.” The Bible is an amazingly intricate work that can be studied for a lifetime and never have its treasures depleted. Yet, it was not written for the Bible scholar. Academics and members of the “clergy” have created such a complex vocabulary around every conceivable Bible doctrine that it appears to many that without the help of scholars no person could hope to find truth. Yet, Jesus appealed to the common man and often offended the religious elite of His day (Matthew 15:12-14; Mark 12:37). With that thought in mind, we should expect to find in the Bible a simple, basic image or concept that will enable us to understand the foundation of our connection with God.
That imagery is seen most powerfully in God’s use of the term “father” to describe his connection to us. The parent-child relationship is the only human relationship that is universal among men. Every one of us had a mother and father. It should not surprise us then that God used that one earthly connection we all share to help highlight the one spiritual relationship we share with Him.
Every one of us wholly understands the power of a parent’s love. Those fortunate enough to have a loving father know how precious is his concern and care for us. Even those who never knew their fathers or had evil men as their fathers still know the void left in their hearts caused by missing out on his love.
On the other side of that equation, God blessed us with the ability to become parents. Most humans get the privilege of being a parent to a child. In that sense, we also are privileged to stand on the side of God. We are allowed to know the expanse of a parent’s love and the conditions on which that love is extended.
It is no accident that this arrangement exists. God called Himself our Father. God created us to be children first and afterwards parents. It is intentional that He placed us in those roles and then described Himself to us in those terms. The lessons we learned as obedient children and then as loving parents were intended to help us understand the nature of God’s love to us and His expectations of us. Jesus called upon this intention of God by saying:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
Jesus expected us to be able to reason from the care and consideration we show to our child to understand the even greater care that our heavenly Father will show to us.
So then what is the nature of the love of a godly father and are there any terms that limit it? You already know the answer to that. As a child you knew that a good parent requires obedience of the son/daughter. When children disobey, they are disciplined. That is exactly what the Bible states about God’s work with His children:
Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:9-11)
Yet, the continuation of your relationship with your parent (or child depending on the perspective) is not based upon the quality or proficiency of the child’s obedience. No good parent ever removes his son from his house simply because the child disobeys. We expect a child to be incompetent, apathetic, unsure, and occasionally resistant to our instructions. In those moments our relationship to them is not interrupted.
When those childish actions arise, as parents we demand of the children a change in their actions. That discipline just mentioned comes into play. But while the children are learning the lessons that come to them only through the maturation of experience, we do not severe our ties to them because they have not yet amended their ways and apologized for their actions. We are long-suffering and patient with them because we understand that in time they will understand and grow into the people we know they can be.
So even in times when discipline is needed, the relationship between parent and child continues. It is sustained because the same blood flows through our veins that runs through theirs. We are bound to them because we gave them life. That bond would move us to give our lives for them if it would save theirs.
Is that not exactly what God has done for us? He is bound to us by blood. The blood of His Son covers us and continually cleanses us from sin. It is this thought that the first group of verses introduced into this essay expresses. God quite literally moved heaven and earth to provide an eternal home for His children. No passing moment of weakness, incompetency, or vagary of our obedience is going to disturb it. As much as we are patient and long-suffering with our children, God’s capacity to express those qualities surpasses our own.
On the other side, could your child ever be removed from your house? Is there an offense that would cause you to end your relationship with them? Broken-hearted parents have to take that action all of the time. A rebellious child who brings drugs or all manner of immorality into a quiet home must be displaced at times. His influence cannot be allowed to infect the home and endanger the other children. Often this kind of child so completely rebels against his parents that he leaves of his own accord. No good parent ever stops loving his son, but he cannot endorse the child’s rebellion and lifestyle. He can no longer bless the child with his goodness.
Even God recognized this possibility. He told His church to remove the openly rebellious from their midst lest the “leaven” of their influence injure the church:
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:4-7)
In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) Jesus portrayed how God treats His child that no longer wishes to live under His authority. The Father allowed the prodigal to leave. The prodigal was still a son but while he lived in the foreign land he was removed from the Father’s care, protection, and blessings. He was subject to all of the pains and ills of an evil world just as were all of the inhabitants of that land.
God’s treatment of the rebellious child is exactly the same as the action of every good parent. He is not in the business of trying to remove from His house the very children to whom He gave life at the cost of His Son’s life. He is trying to save them. God’s work is to find the basis upon which to keep you with Him. He is not looking for the fault that will exclude you from His presence. Yet if you do rebel, like the prodigal, He will allow you to leave. And when you do, you walk back into the world of deceit and sin that you left to come into God’s family.
It is that thought the second group of verses listed earlier is expressing. Rebellion leads to falling from grace. It places you back into a sinful world. And when it does, your last state is truly worse than your first.
In the end good parents demand, not perfection from their children, but loyalty. The basis of their relationship to their children is not on the outcome of actions, but on the children’s acknowledgement of the role of the parents in their lives.
As a parent the question you ask of your children is not whether or not they have been good, but whether or not they acknowledge your goodness: “Are they devoted to me and will they acknowledge my authority over them?” That is the foundation of your relationship.
The same is true of your relationship with God. Those who state a child of God cannot leave God’s house turn God into a permissive and enabling parent who is unwilling to defend the uprightness and principles of His home even in the face of open rebellion. Those who seek to equate faithfulness to a litany of rules to be followed turn God into an over-bearing, judgmental God. He is neither of those things. He is the Good Parent and His declaring Himself as such should teach us a great deal about the basic nature of our relationship to Him. Man is not once-saved-always-saved; he is not saved by obedience. Man is saved by faith in the goodness of God.
Salvation By Faith
Parents want their children’s devotion and loyalty to them. So long as the child is living in harmony with that idea, nothing will interrupt their relationship with each other. Parents want their children to have faith in them. Children are supposed to acknowledge that their parents are the authority in their lives. They are supposed to trust that the parents are seeking their best and know what is best for them. When children are at their best, they live in harmony with those acknowledgements. When they are at their worst, they violate them. But their commitment to their parents will in time bring them to realize their need of change.
The word used in the Bible to describe that dynamic is “faith.” The child must have faith in his parent. His faith is not perfect in action, but it should always be loyal in intent. Its highest expression is to seek to become like the parent. That is what the Bible is stating when it speaks of people being saved by faith. The faith of the child of God is an expression of loyalty and trust. It is found in the heart of the saint who lives every day with the goal of being transformed into the image of his Father. At its best, it pulls us to live holy lives in face of amazing temptation. At its worst, a true faith held fast in the heart of good child of God may stumble, but it is never broken to the point where we turn from God and walk away.
Salvation by faith then has almost a paradoxical quality to it. Indeed, faith does demand work as James 2:17 says. A faithful, loyal child to his parents will, because of his faith, manifest works of obedience to them. If he never obeys or submits to them, at some point, the parent must realize those actions are not signs of weakness, but evidence of a stubborn and rebellious heart. Yet, salvation by faith is not based upon those works. True faith produces works, yes. But faith is not the work itself.
Faith exists independently of and prior to the works. For example, an older, more mature son in the home fulfills his chores in the family more effectively and efficiently than a younger, less mature sibling. One is a “better” son in the empirical sense. One lives a life that is “better” at emulating the life of his father. Yet, that does not mean that the older son is a “better” son in the eyes of the father, nor does it mean the loyalty (faith) of the younger son is weaker. One cannot simply examine the works of each son to know which is the “better” son. At the end of each day, even though one son has performed more proficiently than the other, both sons are fully received by and approved of the father. In each son loyalty is complete and perfect. It existed when they arose in the morning. Even before either took the first action of the day, both had faith in their father. It was that faith that moved them to work on his behalf. So faith was not the works they did. It caused, produced, and motivated their works. Faith did not intrinsically define their works. One son had been in the service of his father longer. He had worked in his father’s field or trade more often than the other. Therefore, he understood his father’s will better. So his loyalty to or faith in his father produced better results than those of his younger sibling. Both worked. One worked better. Yet both were honored equally by their father because of their faith in him. So then for each works did matter. They both had to work for the father. Yet, the quality and/or quantity of their works was not the determining factor of their place before their father.
So it is with salvation by faith with God. Faith, true faith, will produce the works of God in our lives. The longer we live for Him, the “better” those works become. If that is not the case, we must question the truthfulness of our faith and James’ words need to cause us to change our path. Yet, it is not the condition of our works that is the basis of that salvation. For the saint, salvation comes through faith.
Salvation vs. Sanctification
People often confuse the doctrines of salvation and sanctification. In the Bible, salvation is expressed as a state. One is either saved or lost. Those are the two classifications of people. Other images express the same concept. There are those “far off” from God and those “near” to Him (Ephesians 2:11-13). There those in the “light” and those in “darkness” (1 John 1:5-9). But whatever metaphor is used people are either in one camp or the other. Right now you are either saved or lost. In that sense there are no degrees of salvation. You are either covered by the blood of Christ and so saved or you are not. No person is “more saved” than another.
The parable of the sower highlights the equality of each person’s salvation even as the quality of their works varies. In Matthew 13, the “good soil” is characterized in these words:
As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matthew 13:23)
Even within the good soil the amount of fruit it produces varies. Some yielded more and others less. But no matter the harvest, if the soil produces fruit – any fruit – it is considered good soil. Note in the passage what determined whether or not the soil was good. The good soil was identified, not by the quality or quantity of the yield, but by its willingness to hear and understand the word. Luke’s account of the same parable adds the thought that one’s ability to hear and understand is contingent upon the condition of his heart:
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart . . . (Luke 8:15)
The determining factor then as to whether or not soil is good is not the amount of fruit born. It is whether or not God’s word is held in an honest heart or a deceitful one and whether or not fruit is born.
Just as a man with faith will produce godly works in his life so too will a man with a good and honest heart produce fruit upon hearing the word of God. They are the same man. Now at the first hearing of God’s word and so the beginning of faith (Romans 10:17), a man knows little of God’s mind and His will. With limited training it is likely the fruit born in his life will be minimal and sporadic. Yet, so long as he remains a man of faith (the good soil) he remains in a saved state. In the terms of this parable, a man is either good soil or not. Once he bears fruit, he is good soil. The amount of his fruit does not change how “good” his soil is.
Sanctification, on the other hand, does come in degrees. To be fair, there are some Bible passages which speak of sanctification as a completed action (see 1 Corinthians 1:2). However, the need for saints to grow in their sanctification is expressed over and again in the New Testament. One prominent example of this is found in Paul’s admonition to Timothy in which he encourages Timothy to continue his growth as a Christian:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:20-22)
Timothy’s responsibility as a vessel in his Master’s house is to cleanse himself of all that is dishonorable (youthful passions, etc.) so that he could be “set apart as holy” and “useful to the master of the house.” The expression of being “set apart” is this idea of sanctification. Timothy was “in Christ.” He was an inspired preacher of the gospel and a fellow-worker with Paul (Philippians 2:19-20). Paul’s plea to him then is not about the state of his salvation. His message is not how Timothy could become a vessel in the Master’s house, rather its focus was on how Timothy could become more useful in the house.
Timothy was already a man of a “sincere faith” (2 Timothy 1:5). He was the “good soil.” His life was already bearing fruit in God’s kingdom (1 Timothy 4:12-15). But as a young man, there was room for growth in his life. He was in some danger of having his reputation sullied by the passions of youth and so limiting the effectiveness of his ministry. Paul’s worry was not over Timothy’s salvation. He knew that Timothy’s faith was sincere and that he was not in danger of turning away from God. His plea was based on his confidence that he knew Timothy had within himself the ability to be the good soil which could bring forth hundredfold. In order to do that, Timothy’s life needed to be free from every offense. His life needed to be honorable in every way so that he would be ready to serve the Master in “every good work.”
In this context within the life of a Christian therein is the basic difference between salvation and sanctification. Faith is the basis of salvation. Faith keeps the saints saved. The quality of a man’s works (which naturally and necessarily flow from the faithful man) express the nature (or degree) of his sanctification. When we confuse the two concepts, we injure our faith.
Perfection with Sanctification
For many the confusion exists because they add sanctification to salvation as the necessary elements in evaluating their relationship to God. In other words, they believe that their standing before God is determined by the perfection of their works. It is this mindset that was described in the introduction of this essay. In these individual’s moments of great spiritual triumph they feel close to God. When they are overwhelmed with struggles He seems distant and they begin to doubt their salvation. The daily progress or decline of their sanctification is then used as an indicator of their salvation.
If you live with that struggle, you need to listen to the words of the writer of the book of Hebrews about the salvation given to Christians by the offering of Jesus:
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)
Notice the descriptive words in the passage. The offering of Jesus has “perfected” those who are cleansed by it. That perfection is said to endure “for all time.” That goes back to the statement earlier. You are either saved or lost. Salvation is a state. This passage indicates that it is an enduring state. It is not a toggle-switch that rocks to the lost position at every misstep of the child of God and which only rolls back to the saved setting after confession of each sin. When Christ makes a person perfect, the power of the blood of Christ is intended to make him perfect forever.
The second descriptive term in the text is “sanctified.” Notice again the progressive element. While the perfection of this text is a one-time forever action, the sanctification of this text is one that is the process of “being.” There is growth inherent in that language. That growth is the growth of the two sons mentioned earlier and of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to cease being a vessel of wood and become a vessel of gold. It is the same growth you experienced through childhood and have seen in your children. Your child is “perfect” in your home the day he is born. He will never be any more your child than he is at that moment. Yes, you do expect growth from him over time. Still, the pace of that growth is not the determining factor in his “sonship.”
You understand his growth will not always be upward and consistent. Some days will be better than others. If you have more than one child, you know that each will grow and mature at different rates and in different ways. You are not after the perfection of their actions in order to claim them as your children. They are already “perfect” in your eyes. They are your children and nothing short of their open rebellion against you will cause that relationship to end.
So it is with God as expressed in this passage. A Christian is perfect in God’s house from the day he becomes a Christian. That perfect state is intended to last forever.
However, even in this passage that enduring perfection is conditional. The condition though is not tied to a perfect obedience; it is tied to a progress in sanctification. The force of Hebrews 10:14 is that if a person is one who is in Christ and is “being sanctified” he is a person who is perfect in his standing before God. Just as with a human child, that process of growth, of sanctification, is not always a steady, upward, and linear progression in the child of God. There are times when we jump ahead in growth and then turn around and struggle in the next stage of development. It is not the case that we become more perfect when our actions become more nearly perfect and become less perfect in our moments of doubt and weakness. Sanctification is a process of a lifetime. It is not a snapshot. It is a mural of our lives.
Being one who is “being sanctified” means that we are people of true faith. We are people who never rebel against God’s authority. We never turn our hearts and lives away from Him. Our missteps are just that. They are acts of weakness or ignorance. They are not actions of willful, premeditated rebellion against our God. Most of the Christians I have met in my life have never broken trust with their God in this manner. We have all stumbled. We have all had times of doubt and dismay. Most of us have never rebelled as the prodigal son did to his Father.
As such, we should remember the prodigal in our moments of doubt. The lines marking his movement from a saved state to a lost state and back again are clear. When he was in the Father’s house, he was saved – always. When he left the Father’s house, he was lost – always. When he returned to the Father he was again saved – always. In the first state and the last he was not a perfect son in his obedience before the Father. If he had been a perfect son, he would have never left. Surely, he was no different than his elder brother in the parable. In spite of his resentment and distance from his Father, the elder brother was still kept in the Father’s house and was worthy of the inheritance coming to him (Luke 15:27-31). The difference in the two sons was not that one obeyed perfectly and the other did not. The difference is that one rebelled and the other did not. It was no action of the Father’s that causes us to call the younger brother the prodigal. The younger became the prodigal because he broke trust with the Father. He turned away and he rebelled.
Do you think you would know if you were the prodigal? Is it possible you could end up impoverished, begging food, and estranged from your family without knowing it? The prodigal knew his mistake. His actions were premeditated and willful. If you have never made the same choice as the prodigal, why do you worry that you might join him in his fate?
We end up feeling that way when we equate the progress of our sanctification with God’s estimation of our salvation. What Hebrews 10:14 shows is that the up’s and down’s of our sanctification do not disturb our perfection with God.
Sanctification Without Perfection
Another common area of confusion concerning these two topics is that some believe their progress in areas of sanctification necessitates their perfection. In other words, they begin their path of sanctification without ever addressing the issues of their perfection before God. If you are trying for the first time to understand your relationship with God it is important you study the material presented in the companion essay to this one in the Moments that Matter series (Volume 21 – “Am I Saved?”). Everything we have said about salvation by faith and the perfection it gives before God is only true of those who are “in Christ.” The blessings of sonship and the inheritance that comes with it are only for those that are a part of the family of God.
That thought falls in line with every family analogy drawn in this essay. While your children are special to you and wonderful in your eyes, when they tear across the neighbor’s yard, he does not share in your affection for them. While you feed and clothe your children without hesitation, a stranger’s children at your table would cause some questions to be asked.
The same is true of God. He has a family into which we must be born. There is a new birth of water and the Spirit that separates the saved within it (John 3:5) from the lost outside His family.
Outside of His family faith is necessary to be saved, but until you are born again (John 3:7) and have put Christ on in baptism (Colossians 2:12), your faith is powerless to save you. It is in your submission to Christ in baptism that your sins are washed away (Acts 22:16); you are buried into the death of Jesus and come into contact with His shed blood (Romans 6:3-4). Until you wear the name of Jesus in that way, you reside outside of His family.
Too many people ignore this step. If you have never addressed this issue, you need to consider it. You may have striven to become more like God for many years, but that progress in the manner of life is of little value to you if you have never had your sins washed away. No amount of good done in your life can save you. You need the blood of Jesus covering your life. That blood is found in His body and in His kingdom. It is found “in Christ” and never outside of Him.
Am I Still Saved? How Can I Know?
What does this really mean to the Christian? The answer to that question is really a discussion of the impact of sin upon the saint. Each Christian has done something (or not done something) since becoming child of God that makes him feel as if he has come short of God’s will for his life. In order to understand the salvation of the Christian, we must understand the impact of sin not just upon him before his conversion, but also after he becomes a saint as well.
While we sometimes speak of “big” and “little” sins, the Bible does not. However the Bible does speak about two kinds of sin. 1 John 5:16 provides us that description:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life–to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. (1 John 5:16)
John wrote of a “sin not leading to death” and “sin that leads to death.” From James 1:15 we see that when sin is “full grown” it brings “death.” Paul adds that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So one sin in 1 John leads to that death and one does not. If sin brings the wage of death, how is it possible for a man to sin and not reap the deserved payment of that sin?
According to the “once-saved-always-saved” view it would be because in some way a Christian cannot die as a result of his sin. He cannot be lost. However, 1 John also then states that a “brother” (i.e. a Christian brother – one who has eternal life – 1 John 5:13) can commit a sin that does lead to death. If the words of 1 John 5:16 have any connection to the readily apparent meaning of the words, then a “brother” can commit a sin that does not terminate his salvation and he can commit a sin that does terminate it. “Once-saved-always-saved” cannot allow for that.
However, the works-oriented salvation has the opposing problem. It readily understands how a saint can commit a sin that leads to death. In this view, every sin must lead to death. At the moment a man sins that sin puts a separation between him and God and remains unforgiven until the saint confesses his wrong-doing and prays to God (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9). Yet, this passage affirms that there is a sin that does not lead to death. Some may argue this refers to the sin that is confessed. This position has its own problem. What about the time between the sin and the confession of it. Is that man saved or lost? If he is saved then it must be held that he sinned, has not confessed and is still saved. On the other hand, if he is lost then it must be held that he sinned and has been separated from God and so is dead spiritually. If that is the case then his sin did lead to death.
Neither view is sufficient to address the difficulty of this text. How is it that a man can sin and not die? The answer is found in an application of the parent/child model of faith that God used to express His relationship to us.
In our discussion of that relationship it was highlighted that a child’s standing in the home is not calculated by adding up the sum of his good works and bad. A relational metric must be used to determine whether or not he is a good son. Of course it is understood that a good son will work to please the parent and persistent wrong-doing can undermine the trust between parent and child. We understand all of that.
But is there any indication in the biblical text that God treats his saints in the same manner? There is. In Romans 4, Paul makes this statement about God’s actions toward His faithful child who sins:
. . . just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:6-8)
Notice that Paul describes a man in this text who has his sins “covered” and “against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
That statement is critical. It is in harmony with 1 John 5:16. For John states there is a sin that does not lead to death. For Paul there are sins that are covered and not counted against the people of God. Note this passage does not affirm they are counted and later forgiven. It affirms that there are sins that God will not count against His people.
How is it possible that a holy and righteous God would not count transgression of His law against a man? Look again at Paul’s words. Verse 6 begins by saying, “just as David also speaks . . .” The sentiment expressed in those verses was first written by David. The quotation is taken from Psalm 32. Read the full rendering of verses 1-2 of that psalm:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
David adds a critical thought about the nature of the man who is protected from his own sin to the point that God does not count iniquity against him. In David’s words, he is the man “in whose spirit there is no deceit.” The man protected from his sin is the man upright in heart toward God. Returning to the Parable of the Sower, he is the good soil who holds God’s word in an “honest and good heart.” In Paul’s language it is the man who bases his relationship on belief and not works (Romans 4:5).In our own experience; he is the good, respectful son in our homes.
As we have noted before, the good son in the home is not removed because he fails. His fault is acknowledged. It is corrected, but he never loses his standing in the home. His “sin” does not lead to the “death” of his sonship. The reason it does not is that we as parents understand the nature and challenges of childhood. Even with our limited insight, we can tell the difference between a loyal, faithful son and a rebel. In terms of his place in our home, his failures never threaten his sonship. The principles we place before him are important and we want him to embody each one. But we place them before him not as traps into which he will fall. They are goals and aspirations that we hope will one day transform his character.
In God’s house it is the same. His laws provide the path for our transformation into His character. He never intended to use them against us a weapon. With infinite and perfect judgment, He also knows whether we are His faithful, loyal son or are a rebel in the making. Our sins are still sins. They must be acknowledged and compared against His law. But if that law, that word, is held fast in the good and honest heart of a child of God, the shortcomings of that saint’s life never threaten his sonship.
Does that Mean All That Matters is a Good Heart?
It should be first noted that every passage quoted just above is written in reference to those in covenant or in God’s family. As was stated earlier, God has family and that family is not entered into just by having a good heart. It is only entered by one’s getting “into Christ” by putting Him on in baptism. Until one is in the body of Jesus Christ, good intentions will never address the issues of sin. Sons are treated differently than strangers.
But for the children of God this question has a different answer. A return to the parent/child model will again help to answer it. We have noted that a good parent will be able to discern the difference between the good son who is failing and the rebellious son in the house. How would a parent make that determination? The obvious answer is that he/she would observe the actions of the child. In the Bible there are many clear statements connecting the heart to the action of a person. For example Jesus makes this link:
You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)
The mouth speaks what is in the heart. There is no getting around that. And so James’ statement that faith “by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) is making the same argument. If the good-hearted saint is truly that man of faith that is protected from his own sin, his faith will produce work in his life. It has to. That is the nature of faith. As that saint grows and matures, as he progresses in his sanctification, the quality and quantity of those works will improve.
So in that sense, even for the child of God, a “good-heart” is not enough. That heart must continue to grow and mature and it must begin to manifest the works of God or else its claim of honesty would no longer be valid.
However, it must be remembered that the pace of growth and the proficiency of execution is not the metric by which a man in Christ is judged. True faith does produce true works, but some true faith produces thirtyfold and some hundredfold. Both examples are true faith in a good and honest heart.
Does That Mean I Never Need to Repent?
If God does not count my sin against me, some might argue then I would never need to repent. That would be true expect that this protection from sin that we have discussed is conditional. The man of Romans 4 (Psalm 32) is protected because he is in covenant and there is no deceit in his spirit. So when he sins those sins are sin that do not lead to his death because God will not count them against him. But his protection is based on the quality of his honest heart. If he sins and will not confess the sin, or seeks to rationalize it, his heart is no longer honest.
In that sense, every sin we commit has the potential to endanger our standing before God. Every time we sin, we put the honesty of our heart to the test. Every act of sin makes us choose the response our heart will make to it. So the danger of sin may come not only in the act itself, but also in our response to the act. Often we sin out of weaknesses or some other vagary of the human condition. Those sins are not the willful, premeditated acts that threaten the soul. But when we are confronted by the consequences of our sins, we then deny or excuse the action; in that moment, we are in danger of breaking trust with God and walking down a path of rebellion.
Saul and David provide wonderful illustrations of this. Both kings sinned and both sinned in meaningful ways in the execution of their duties. Yet when Saul was confronted with his sin he first blamed Samuel and then the people for his actions:
- Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” (1 Samuel 13:11-12)
- And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.” (1 Samuel 15:14-15)
In contrast David showed the honesty of his heart toward God when he was confronted with his own sins:
- David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13)
- But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10)
As soon as David’s “heart struck” him over his sin, he confessed it and repented of it.
It should come as no surprise that Saul’s actions are called “rebellion” and he was rejected from being king (1 Samuel 15:23), while David was never rejected and his kingdom was established through the coming of the Christ.
Saul could have been David. He could have acknowledged his sin when given the opportunity. He could have not acted willfully or in rebellion. And David could have been Saul. He could have explained away his actions and lost his standing before God. If David had refused to repent, it would have demonstrated that his spirit was deceitful and disqualified him from the protection contained in his own words in Psalm 32.
Every sin has the potential to place our hearts into a crisis of faith. We must choose whether or not to confess it or deny it. Yes, if we choose to deny the action, that act of rebellion can cast us away from God. If that act is “rebellion” we can be rejected just as Saul was.
Are you still saved?
- First, make sure you have answered the initial question, “Am I Saved “correctly.
- Second, make sure that you are the good soil who holds fast the law of God in a good and honest heart (Luke 8:15).
- Third, make sure that you are one who is “being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).
- Fourth, make sure that you never commit a willful sin of rebellion (1 Samuel 15:23).
- Fifth, make sure that you never rebel by denying or hiding your sin (Psalm 32:1-2).
This list is not about your ability to perform proficiently all the right things. It is not focused on your reasoning abilities. The thrust is focused on living a life that is true to your nature. God values the faith of the whole-hearted man in his service. My favorite passage in the Bible summarizes the point of this essay perfectly:
His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. (Psalms 147:10-11)
As a Christian, God does not value you because you are the strongest or the fastest. He holds you dear because of the qualities of your heart toward Him. You honor His majesty and reverence His authority over you and your heart never turns from Him, even when surrounded by the strongest temptations and trials. Your hope is set fast because you have faith in His steadfast love toward you. Your salvation is not founded on performance. It is founded on faith in God.
Have faith in God’s love for you. Have faith in His desire to save. Have faith that He will do as He has promised and will count as righteous those who have faith and are covered in the blood of His Son. If you are in His family and have that kind of faith within you, then your answer to the question of this essay is a resounding, “Yes, I am saved!”