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What Does "Once Saved Always Saved” Really Mean?

Written by Paul Race

If you hang around Baptists much, especially Southern Baptists, you're likely to hear this phrase. In its most literal sense, "once saved, always saved" refers to a common Baptist belief that once a person truly gives his or her heart to God and is born again, that person can not lose salvation, no matter what the future has in store.

Some Baptists are, sadly, prone to distrust any Christian who doesn't share this conviction, even to the point of questioning the other person's level of commitment to Christ.  On the other hand, folks who don't believe in "once saved always saved" are often confused by what they perceive as hardheaded adherance to a doctrine that is opposed to the views historically held in most denominations, even in most Protestant denominations. 

Personally, I'm opposed to breaking fellowship over such issues; if you are truly living for Christ and can say the Apostle's Creed and mean it, I'll break bread with you any time. If you're put off that I don't see eye-to-eye with you on every issue, I will still call you my brother, and I hope you can do the same.  "Our fellowship is with the Father" after all, not with our doctrinal statements.

Maybe you're curious why Baptists are so committed to this one tenet.  Maybe you're a Baptist who wonders why every Christian doesn't understand how important this is to you.  Either way, a look at some historical events and trends that brought the Baptist movement to where it is today should shed some light on the subject.

We have to start with a fellow who was definitely not a Baptist, but whose theology heavily influenced the early Baptists and their predecessors.

Who Was Calvin?

John Calvin was a noted "Reformer," part of the movement that challenged the Roman Catholic Church's authority to speak for God and - frankly - overrule scripture when it conflicted with church practices and traditions. Calvin was a persuasive and prolific writer.  Though he was French and spent much of his life in Switzerland, his theology heavily influenced Protestant movements in the British Isles, including the Puritans and the early Presbyterians.

Calvin staunchly defended infant baptism, but he broke with Rome on many other topics, such as the Roman Catholic notion that you could be on your way to Heaven one day, bound for Hell the next, and bound for Heaven the next, depending on which church injunctions you disobeyed that week and which sacraments you took to make up for them.  Though Calvin addressed many other topics, he is best remembered today for his opinions on what is sometimes called "eternal security."

To Calvin, the big question was:  Is it possible for someone who has truly committed his life to Christ, over whom the angels rejoiced, whose name is written in the Book of Life, who has an imperishable crown waiting for him in Heaven and the "earnest" (down payment) of the Holy Spirit here on earth to turn around and throw away his own salvation and go to Hell after all?  Calvin proposed that it isn't possible.

Calvin’s arguments on that score led to several related tenets, some of which are still held by most Baptists today.  One that most Baptists currently reject is the belief that everyone's eternal destiny was decided before the dawn of time, and no one bound for Hell or Heaven can change course.  Did you read that right?  Yes, you did.  Calvin believed that some people were put on earth for no other purpose but to live for a time and then die and go to Hell.  Other people were put on earth predestined to go to Heaven.  And there was nothing either group could really do to affect their fates.  When folks who believe this use the word "predestination" that's what they mean.* 

A companion belief - and one that has always made me sick at my stomach to contemplate - is that Jesus died ONLY for people who were predestined for Heaven**.  "Once for all" is a concept that Calvin, shall we say, struggled with?

I find both of those beliefs repellent and totally out of character with a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  But Calvin was one of the first Reformers outside of Luther to formalize his doctrines so carefully and present them so eloquently, and people hungry for teaching that didn’t smack of “Popery” were eager to snatch it up.

Who Were the Puritans?

The Puritans were mostly English Christians who wanted to “purify” the English church of all elements that they saw as “Papist” (Roman Catholic).  They rejected any number of Roman Catholic practices, sometimes to the point of violence against people who retained them.  Because Calvin preached so strongly against the same Catholic doctrines and practices that they rejected, they eagerly adopted many of his teachings.***

Who Are the Baptists?

They are Protestants whose name comes from the fact that they support "Believer's Baptism," the belief that baptism only “counts” when a person who has made a conscious decision to give his or her life to Christ is physically immersed in water.  Some Baptists like to credit that doctrine to the Anabaptists, a separatist group who practiced Believer's Baptism on the European continent.  But if the Baptists borrowed anything from the Anabaptists, that was probably the only thing. 

It is probably more accurate to say that the early Baptists were, essentially, English Puritans who began practicing Believer's Baptism because they felt that the New Testament supported that practice.  That caused a division with the Puritans who still baptized infants, of course. But that division helped the Baptists to develop as a separate movement.  That said, the early Baptists stayed pretty close to the Puritans on most theological topics, including Calvin's notions on "eternal security."

This has historically put most Baptist groups in conflict with the view historically held by most other churches, including most other Protestant denominations, that it is at least possible for someone who has been truly "saved" to nevertheless "fall away" in such a way that he or she might not even get to Heaven.

Who Was Arminius and Does Anyone Really Follow Him?

One Dutch Reformer who expressed the majority view was Jacob Arminius. Because he was the most prominent theologian of his age to argue against Calvin's views on eternal security, the moniker "Arminian" became a sort of shorthand for "anyone who doesn't follow Calvin."

Some Calvinistic writers would lead you to believe that Calvin was right about everything (except, maybe, infant baptism), but people couldn’t “handle the truth,” so when Arminius proposed a new, heretical point of view that was more palatable, people of weak faith and shallow understanding rushed to his writings in droves.  But that’s just not true.  Calvinism was always the minority view.  And, ironically, the main reason there are enough self-proclaimed Calvinists to argue otherwise today is that the “Calvinistic” churches that back-burnered and eventually abandoned Calvin’s more extreme doctrines grew much faster than those which didn’t. (We discuss that below so if this sort of issue is important to you, keep reading.)

For centuries, writers of theology books have been framing the disagreements between folks who follow Calvin and folks who don't as a sort of ongoing grudge match of "Calvinists versus Arminians."  Some churches who disagree with Arminius on most issues have even taken to calling themselves Arminian because it's easier than saying "non-Calvinist."

To my way of thinking, that's like if dog lovers started calling all animals who aren't dogs "cats." For the dog lovers, it would be easier than sorting out all the other animals or inventing some classification like “not-dogs.”  But it doesn't really clear anything up.  Especially for the people who own horses, iguanas, or parakeets.  

Some Calvinists like to stereotype all non-Calvinists as believing that - as the Roman Catholics did - that you can be saved one day, not saved the next, saved the next day, not saved the next, and so on.  But that is hardly a universal view.  A strict reading of Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage non-Calvinists often cite when this subject comes up, implies that rejecting Christ after originally being saved is anything but trivial - it apparently seals one’s fate like no other sin.  Believers who follow that interpretation are anything but careless about their salvation.

If you disagree with some or all of Calvin’s doctrines on eternal security, that doesn’t automatically make you an Arminian or careless about your salvation or anything else. It just means that you disagree with some or all of Calvin’s doctrine’s on eternal security.

Predestination Goes on the Back Burner

Though most modern Baptists like to call themselves "Calvinists," most of them hold only to a subset of Calvin's tenets. It's obvious that they disagree with the fellow on the subject of infant baptism.  But they have come to reject even some of Calvin's beliefs regarding "eternal security."

You may encounter Baptists who still hold to Calvin’s more extreme beliefs.  (So do the remaining devout Presbyterians, and a few others.)  But Baptist culture overall has shifted away from those views somewhat, beginning in the United States, in the 1800s.  I think it’s worth taking some time to examine how that happened and why those particular views eventually went “on the chopping block.”

Some time before the mid-1800s, some Baptist preachers realized that holding to a Calvin-inspired view of predestination actually discouraged preaching the Gospel - after all, if everyone's final destination was established before the dawn of time, what's the point of telling people about Jesus? 

Feeling challenged, nevertheless, to obey the Great Commission, a handful of Baptist preachers started calling for their hearers to make a decision to serve Christ.  And folks who were really challenged by the Gospel for the first time in their lives, actually gave their lives to Christ, in larger and larger numbers. 

The Baptists groups who eschewed evangelical outreach as a waste of time stagnated in comparison.  Note that I'm not saying that they had bad theology (that’s another discussion entirely), only that by letting Calvin’s view of predestination color their attitude toward outreach, they fell far behind their more evangelical brethren in growth.

Keep in mind that at the beginning of this evangelical thrust, Calvin's views on predestination were not so much as rejected as "back-burnered."  This is in contrast to a rogue Presbyterian minister who rejected predestination outright within a denomination that considered it a major tenet.

Who was Charles Grandison Finney?

Finney was an educated young lawyer in backwoods New York, whose conversion so impacted his life that he soon began studying for the ministry under the local Presbyterian minister and his colleagues.  In one of church history's great ironies, when Finney's mentors explained their traditional Calvinistic views to him (including an extreme view of predestination), he couldn't see any real connection between that theology and the Bible, so Finney assumed he had heard them wrong.  Unlike contemporary Presbyterian and Baptist preachers, Finney believed that everyone in his hearing could be saved, if they would just receive the Gospel.

In churches of all denominations, Finney told people who had heard all their lives that they had no choice in the matter that if they didn't choose Christ RIGHT NOW, they were choosing - by default - to go to Hell and they had no right to blame God if that was where they wound up.  Solid church members who had been told all their lives that there was nothing they could do to affect their eternal destiny responded, first with anger and outrage, and then with tears.

There is no doubt that Finney's approach was instrumental in what is now called the "Second Great Awakening," which affected most Protestant denominations in the Eastern United States.

An Era of Soul-Winning Takes its Toll on Predestination.

Nor is their any doubt that evangelically-prone Baptist preachers of that era were greatly influenced by Finney’s belief that anybody could be saved.  Eventually, Calvin's view of predestination became less central to Baptist theology.  Baptists also abandoned the accompanying onerous tenet that Jesus' blood was sufficient only to cover the sins of the "elect" (those predestined for Heaven).

That's not to say that there was some deliberate, official agreement on the subject like, say, the conferences that produced the Nicene Creed.  Rather, groups that continued to stress Calvin's version of predestination as a core belief tended to grow slowly, if at all, and groups that "back-burnered" or otherwise diminished its importance tended to be more evangelical, and therefore tended to grow far more rapidly.  With a few decades, there were far more Baptists in the latter camp than the former.

Calvinism and Baptist Creeds

So at what point was Calvinistic predestination dropped from the Baptist creed?  Never, because it was never IN a Baptist creed. 

Up until the late 20th century, Baptists avoided creeds.  If you asked a Baptist what he believed, he might say "the whole Bible." "No creed but the Bible" was one way they put it.  Formalized "statements of belief" and the like didn't begin to emerge in some Baptist denominations until about the 1980s, when the Southern Baptists realized that, in the absence of such guidelines, they ran the risk of ordaining ministers and sending out missionaries who didn't even believe in core Christian beliefs like the Divinity of Christ.  Of course, once such formulations began to be written, many doctrines that had become traditional Baptist beliefs between 1850 and 1980 were included. This included belief in Believers’ Baptism and the integrity and inerrancy of Scripture, as well as at least one of Calvin’s doctrines regarding eternal security (the one commonly expressed as “once saved, always saved”).

But Calvin's beliefs about predestination and about who Jesus died for were quietly left out (although a few smaller Baptist denominations and a number of independent churches still hold to them).

“Once Saved Always Saved” Makes the Cut.

That doesn't mean that Baptists abandoned everything that Calvin stood for.  Most of them held/hold firmly to the Calvinistic belief that once you truly give your life to Christ, the process is irreversible, even by you. This doctrine is commonly called “once saved, always saved.”****

Again, I’m not going to get into scriptures arguing for one side or the other of that doctrine, only attempting to clarify what the doctrine means to Baptists, and, frankly, what it should mean to non-Baptists. 

According to "once-saved-always-saved" believers, if ever in your life, you truly committed your life to Christ, you will go to Heaven when you die, no matter what kind of person you become after that event. How does this apply to people who once made a "profession of faith" but are now living like the devil?  One common answer is that they're still saved, and God is working on them in ways we can't see. I know any number of parents who take comfort from "once-saved-always-saved" theology to feel better about their children's bad choices.  This is not trivial; I understand why this doctrine helps them through the bad times.

Also, just as some Calvinists like to accuse non-Calvinists as being casual about their salvation, some non-Calvinists like to accuse Baptists of being casual about their salvation, by supposedly encouraging the belief that you can behave any way you want to as an adult as long as you “gave your heart to Jesus” as a child. Of course most Baptists would take exception to that - as Paul said in Romans 6:1-2, “God forbid!” 

People who are serious about the cause of Christ need to stop using the worst extremes, caricatures, and hypothetical examples to drive wedges between groups that agree on almost everything in the Bible.

By the way, if you think this article was written to slam Baptists, it was not.  Baptists have given much to the world, even the non-Calvinist world - respect for scriptures, a tradition of evangelical outreach, and many, many missions around the world, to name a few.  In fact, I attended an independent Baptist seminary (with Southern Baptist leanings), and we currently attend and participate in an independent Baptist church that is somewhere between “Southern” and “Regular” Baptist in its theological orientation.   We don’t agree with the church about everything in their doctrinal statement, but we also feel safe from the fear that radically new “doctrines” or hateful old legalisms may be arbitrarily introduced (or reintroduced) into the church at any time, things which have blindsided us in other churches.

Back to the “once saved, always saved” doctrine; there’s a side of that “coin” that its proponents don't like to stress so much. If, after making a "profession of faith" you become a reprobate that NOBODY would imagine ever going to Heaven, the diagnosis is that your "profession of faith" wasn't real.  You didn't really put your whole heart into it, or you didn't really mean what you prayed or some such. 

Please keep in mind that this doesn’t affect anybody who is truly living for Christ and sure of their salvation and their commitment to continue serving Christ until death or Rapture.  It only affects people who once made a profession of faith and seemed to be living as believers, who are now living in such a way that it shows a complete disregard of spiritual things, and possibly even an outright rejection of Christ.

A non-Calvinist would say that such a person may really have been saved once, but has since fallen away. 

A Baptist would say that such a person either:

  • Is saved and we just can’t see it, but will eventually “come around,” or
  • Never was saved, because their original profession of faith was flawed in some way.

This presents a sort of “Schrodinger's cat” conundrum.  You can’t tell if the person is a wheat or a tare, alive in Christ or dead in sin, without “opening the box” and looking inside.  And nobody but God can do that. You could wait to see if a person dies in his sins or repents on his deathbed, I suppose, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it. 

Again, I’m not trying to trivialize this issue - whether you go to Heaven or Hell is the big issue facing every person on earth and nothing to joke about.  But I’m trying to be clear about the theological ramifications of the “once-saved-always-saved” doctrine.

So what’s a believer to do?  Whether you believe or reject “once-saved-always-saved” theology, you can urge anyone to come to Christ.  If, once we’re all in Heaven, you learn that someone you presumed was an unbeliever and called to Christ really was saved all along and was just “hitting a rough patch,” then you’ve called them back to Christ and that’s not a bad thing either.

A young woman who grew up in a religious family once asked me what I thought about an evangelical preacher's claim that she might not be saved unless she could name the exact circumstances of her decision to serve Christ and what she prayed at the time.  But she had no such memory, just a sense of being a Christian from an early age.  I asked her if - regardless of what she might or might not have prayed in the past - she was willing to repent of her sins, to trust Jesus' sacrifice for her forgiveness, and to accept Him as Lord of her life RIGHT NOW.

Sadly, she couldn't.  She found it more comfortable to think of herself as a "lapsed Christian" than as an unbeliever who still needed to be saved.  I pray that she turned (or turned back) to Christ eventually, but we soon lost touch, so I don’t know for sure.

How about you?  If you once prayed for forgiveness of sins, accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for your forgiveness, and asked Jesus to be Lord of your life, but you are not really living for Christ RIGHT NOW, there are essentially three possiblities.

  • You're pretty sure you meant it when you made your original profession of faith so you're pretty sure you're on the path to Heaven in spite of your current lack of spiritual focus. Or else,
  • Your original profession of faith wasn't really sincere or didn't really cover "all the bases" or some such, and you're not saved at all.  Or else,
  • You really were a Christian at one time, but have become so cold and distant from Christ and all things spiritual that your "last state is worse than the first."

However you slice it, "pretty sure" isn't good enough.  It’s hardly an excuse to keep putting off questions of your eternal destiny. And the other two possibilities aren't good at all.

It's not too late to fix this, you know.

Some people are afraid of praying the "prayer of salvation" more than once, for fear that it would show a lack of faith in their first confession.  But our faith isn't IN our profession of faith; it's in Jesus.  Whatever you believe about "once saved always saved" you should be able at any time in your life to tell Jesus you're sorry (or still sorry) for your sins, that you accept (or still accept) His sacrifice as God's means of forgiveness, and that you want him (or still want him) to be Lord of your life for the rest of your life.

Some Christians would call that "coming to Christ.”  Some would call it “coming back to Christ."  Some would call it a "rededication." 

But the important thing isn’t what we call it, it’s whether or not our lives and the lives of those who cross our paths are truly turned over to Jesus’ Lordship. 

Is Jesus is Lord of your life now, and are you determined now (because of or in spite of your personal theology) to make daily, deliberate, choices to make certain that never changes?

As Paul says:

       ... forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:13b, 14)

God bless and guide you through your life choices -

Paul Race


 

 

*Subsequent generations have summarized Calvin’s beliefs on this topic with two terms:

  • “Unconditional Election,” meaning, roughly, that nothing YOU do has any effect on whether God has chosen you to be saved or not, and
  • “Irresistible Grace, meaning, roughly, that, if God HAS chosen you to be saved, there’s no way you can avoid it. 

Of course, the other side of this coin is that if God has chosen you to go to Hell, there’s nothing you can do about that either.  In case you wondered, most Baptists do not follow this teaching today, but there are still individuals and small churches that do, and they look down on the rest of the Baptists for “falling away” from Calvin’s teachings, as though Calvin’s teaching on eternal security holds an equal weight with scripture, or has any more value than, say, Calvin’s teaching on infant baptism, which Baptists rejected centuries ago.

By the way, folks who still hold to these doctrines have learned that talking about predestination by name puts people off, so they use code words and phrases.  “Grace” is one - ironically, a comment on the belief that you are saved by the grace of God only, and there was nothing you could have done about it. Sometimes in this context “grace” boils down to an attitude like, “God picked me and he didn’t pick you,” not an attitude I’m comfortable with.  Another code phrase is “the sovereignty of God,” a nod to the notion that if God created some people just to go to hell, that’s His prerogative.  Once, I met up with a friend who had fallen hard into extreme Calvinistic beliefs in the years since we had gone to the same church.  Wanting to know if I was “of the elect” like she was, she asked me, “Do you believe in the sovereignty of God?”  And I said, “Of course I do,” and she said “Hallelujah!,” because she thought I meant that I had also bought into predestination.  But of course I meant nothing of the sort.  I only meant that I believe that God is sovereign.  Who could call himself or herself a Christian and NOT believe that?   

**People who write about theology sometimes call this principle “Limited Atonement” or “Particular Atonement.”  It means, in part, that if you were one of the people who wasn’t chosen before the dawn of time to go to Heaven when you die, then Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t - can never - apply to you.  To use a modern phrase, “It sucks to be you.”  But since the diehard believers in this doctrine all believe themselves to be among the “elect,” you’re not their problem, and they’re perfectly fine with you going to Hell.  The next time you read The Scarlet Letter or see The Crucible, remember that even the “good” characters portrayed in these works would have shared this attitude toward any outsider or anyone who believed differently from them.  Hopefully, you will find it encouraging that most Baptists have NOT followed this teaching since the mid-to-late-1800s.  Or burned witches, for that matter.

***As an aside, Calvin’s doctrine that some people are born bound for Hell and some are born bound for Heaven allowed the Puritans to disdain and even mistreat those who were outside their “club,” since anyone who didn’t believe as they did was going to hell anyway.  I wouldn’t be bringing this up, except that even as I write this, the United States is still home to men of Western European descent and born to great wealth, who retain the attitude that God has singled them out for the privileges of being white and rich (and presumably Heaven-bound).  And if other people are brown and/or poor, it’s because God has singled THEM out for them out for hardship.  No, these haters and bigots are not Calvinist in any meaningful sense, but they are the by-products of generations of Calvinist attitudes toward “outsiders.”

****People who write about theology sometimes call this doctrine the “Perserverence of the Saints.”  This doctrine and Calvin’s doctrine on Original Sin, sometimes called “Total Depravity of Man” are the only significant Calvinistic doctrines you’ll still encounter in most Baptist churches today.  That said, the “Total Depravity of Man” doctrine is similar to many churches’ beliefs about Original Sin, so it’s not particularly controversial.  Which leaves “once saved, always saved,” Believer’s Baptism, and belief in the integrity and infallibility of scripture as the three remaining obvious “distinctives” of the modern Baptist movement. And of those, the only one that most non-Baptist Christians can’t seem to come to terms with is “once saved, always saved.”

 


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