Two years ago, John trusted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He had been talking with a Christian friend of his for several weeks about the Gospel, and finally, at his friend’s invitation, he went to hear an evangelist the church had invited. During the message, John felt a deep tugging in his heart of hearts and realized that everything he was hearing was true, and that Jesus truly was the only way to salvation. As soon as the evangelist gave the invitation, John was on his feet on his way down front. He talked and prayed with the minister, and two weeks later was baptized and joined the church. Things went well for a few months from there. He was excited about his experience and even told a few people. He attended Sunday school and started reading his Bible. But as the months wore on and Monday morning came over and over again, John started falling back into his old ways. He attended church less and less, and soon, his Bible never left its place on the shelf. Before long, he stopped going to church all together, and within a couple of years, decided the whole thing was just a phase in his life. He was back to being old John again, complete with all the “sin” in his life the pastor spent so much time talking about. Many of his old church friends decided he apparently had never even believed in the first place. Some decided that he had just lost his salvation. Everyone, though, agreed on one thing: John was back on a one way road to Hell.
For most of us, this story isn’t all that fictional. We know someone, or know of someone, who has been through it in one way or another. Whether “former Christians” or Christians who have backslidden into serious sin, such as substance abuse, sexual addiction, anger problems, homosexuality, or perhaps even something as simple as a lack of “change,” we conclude these people can’t really be saved, because no real Christian can have such behaviors and beliefs.
The question is an honest one. Can real Christian live in such sin? Or put differently, don’t real Christians produce works and have a change of life to prove that they are really saved?
I’d like to suggest that as popular—near universal, actually!—as this view is, it just isn’t true. We’ve often heard people say something like, “I can’t inspect the root, but I can inspect the fruit” Or we hear, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone!” The clichés are endless. Better yet, they supposedly have Scripture to back them up. After all, Jesus said you will know real Christians by their fruit, didn’t He? And James says that faith without works can’t save.
Before we look at those verses, though, let’s just stop and look at what Jesus said.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but has everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
According to this verse (and dozens more like it; see John 5:24; 6:47; 20:31, etc.), every single person who believes in Jesus has everlasting life. Notice that it doesn’t say that they “will have” everlasting life. They have it now. If you believe in Jesus, you have everlasting life right now. How long does everlasting last? Forever! But if you could lose your salvation by a lack of works or a falling away, then your life wasn’t really everlasting, was it? It was temporary life. That isn’t what Jesus promises. In this verse, He says that every single person who believes in Him will live forever. He goes on to add, if that isn’t enough, that they will never perish.
For some people, though, Jesus’ Gospel isn’t enough. They believe what I call “Andy’s Gospel.” For them, it doesn’t matter what Jesus says. Belief isn’t enough. A person has to believe “and he’s” got to repent or be baptized or have a change of life or do good works or stop sinning or whatever. In short, they are adding to the Gospel. Jesus said everyone who believes lives forever. Those who deny that, unfortunately, deny the Gospel.
But what about those verses we mentioned above? Doesn’t “real faith” produce real works? Amazingly, the Bible doesn’t make that claim anywhere. In fact, the Bible doesn’t talk about “real faith” versus “false faith.” On the contrary, the Bible explicitly says in several places that there are times when faith does not lead to works! In John 12:42, certain Pharisees believed in Jesus but were afraid to confess Him. Why? Because they loved men more than God. In Luke 8:1-15, Jesus talks about four kinds of people who hear the Gospel. Of them, only one rejects it, but the other three believe. Jesus says of one type that they believe for a little while. I’m not going to tell Jesus He was wrong and that they didn’t really believe! Another believes, Jesus tells us, but never produces fruit of any kind. Further, the entire book of Hebrews is dedicated to warning Jewish Christians against leaving their faith and going back to Judaism.
Everywhere, the New Testament supposes that Christians can fall into serious or permanent sin. David murdered a man and stole his wife (2 Sam 11). The last we hear of Lot in the Old Testament is when he gets drunk and impregnates both his daughters (Gen. 19:36). Peter denied Jesus three times (Luke 22:54-60). If anyone were to do any of these things today, we would doubt their salvation. But why? Jesus says that everyone who believes has eternal life. Is His Word not enough?
Passages like James 2:14-26 (see our exposition of that passage here) and Matt. 7:15-23 do not challenge our view. First off, we should note that even if they did, they would not change the fact that John 3:16 promises all believers eternal life. At worst, we have a contradiction in Scripture! But there is no such contradiction. In James 2:14, he isn’t talking about eternal salvation at all, and further, even if he were, demons are never offered salvation anyway. In Matthew 7, the fruit we are to inspect is not good works, but the doctrine of teachers (the context is false prophets). In fact, in Matthew 7, it is the works of the false prophets that causes people to think that they are genuine believers!
So, can a genuine Christian fall into sin or even unbelief? Sadly, yes we can. The response of the church in such a case is not to call into question their salvation. It is to restore them gently (Gal. 6:1-5) on the basis of their salvation. It is to love them unconditionally and recognize that all of us are capable of falling into error. None of us but Jesus Himself is perfect. This obviously doesn’t give us the permission to go living in sin. There are serious consequences for that, and some of them are eternal. It just so happens that one of them isn’t Hell.
Salvation is by grace. It is not earned, and if we have to do works to keep it or prove it is really ours, then it really isn’t a gift after all. Against this, the clear testimony of Scripture is that God saves by grace or not at all.
I know the view I’ve suggested here isn’t popular. The Gospel never is. If you have any questions, comments, or even cries of outrage, leave them in the comment box below. I’m sure we can have a great discussion!