Once Saved, Always Saved?

DJ AMDG asks in a comment worth reading (at the bottom of this post) how I can think both (A) “We can do nothing apart from God’s grace. We can’t even turn to God to ask for His grace without first having His grace,” and (B) that there will be some who are damned and have only themselves to blame for it — that they were saved, and became unsaved. A contradicts Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, and as I understand it, Arminism; B contradicts Calvinism, and Arminists and Calvinists used to perceiving the debate as “A or B” often think Catholics hold a contradictory position, or that they’re trying to have the best of both worlds.

Some even seem to think that Catholics are trying to stake out a middle position in the debate, but the Catholic “A and B are both true” predates the concept of forensic justification, and even predates Pelagianism (although it certainly became fleshed out much more once Pelagianism entered the scene).

Once Saved? Or Always Saved?
When we speak of “getting saved,” we’re talking about this from a temporal, and thus, a human perspective. As a Book of Life issue, we’re either predestined or we aren’t. But we’re predestined or aren’t because of something. God knows the sum of all of our actions, of all of our obedience, of our faith. So even though God knows what we’re going to do, we’re still responsible for our actions, since He permits us to do them (rather than forces us to do them). This is what’s known as the Permissive Will of God. A loving parent lets their children learn from mistakes, and a parent who tries to do everything for their kid (because hey, I’m the parent and I can do it better), can be overbearing and stunt the child’s growth. God finds a way to work with us, rather than forcing us to do His will.

But if “once saved” is true, then we can necessarily go (with the help of Christ) from a state of not-saved to saved. And this movement (from not-saved to saved) is something foreseen and predestined by the Book of Life. In other words, there are some people who are in the Book of Life who are not yet saved, and some who are not in the Book who are not yet damned (and who are currently “saved,” in the sense that they believe and are following God, but will someday cease to do so based upon their own fault).

No Longer Slaves, I Call You “Friends”
As far as I can tell, the key to understanding A and B both being true is this: sin is slavery, while redemption (or “ransom”) brings about freedom. This is very much the way the Biblical writers view it: Romans 8:15 tells us that in becoming saved, “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!'” He contrasts this redemption with the slavery of sin elsewhere as well (Galatians 2:4, Galatians 4:23-25). This freedom from slavery is at the very crux of the atoning sacrifice. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Return to Eden
When we’re in a state of slavery, we cannot simply choose to not be. But once we’re ransomed (Mark 10:45, cf. Isaiah 35:10), once we’re “purchased” (cf. Revelation 14:4), once we’re “bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 7:23), we have freedom. This is the freedom either to walk in the path which God has laid out for us, or the freedom to return to sin. It is a return, in some sense, to Eden, which is why Christ is “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), while Mary is “Woman,” or Eve (John 19:26; Genesis 3:15). But being in Eden doesn’t mean you can’t sin, and even fall from grace (as Eden’s original occupants show mightily).

This isn’t just theoretically sound. It’s also thoroughly Biblical. First, we’re called and encouraged to persevere to the end (1 Timothy 4:16; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:12; Jude 1:21): if OSAS is true, there’s no need for such instruction. Second, 2 Peter 2 makes it abudantly clear (in my opinion) that OSAS isn’t true. 2 Peter 2:1 reads:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be
false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies,
even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift
destruction on themselves.

These are people who were “bought” by the Lord, that is, paid for by His blood. And yet, they’ve introduced heresies and wandered off course. 2 Peter 2:4 compares this with the fallen angels, who went from being in Heaven to Hell. If they can go from being saved to not saved, why can’t a human being? 2 Peter 2:19 says that “They promise them [recent Christian converts] freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.” So these individuals have become enslaved again, contrary to Paul’s warning in Galatians 5:1. 2 Peter 2:20-22 says that:

If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at
the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for
them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then
to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of
them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is
washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'”

So it’s not possible for a filthy person to become clean except through the waters of Baptism (including Baptism by desire), and entrace into the Lord’s family. But it is very possible for a clean person to get dirty again. This post-baptismal sin doesn’t require re-baptism, but merely reconciliation with God (cf. John 13:9-10).

Edit: The Christian Triathlon: Swimming, Boating, & Running
In response to DJ AMDG’s comment to this post, I thought I should paint a somewhat clearer picture than I have done so far. Consider the metaphor of a drowning person. Christ provides us a lifeboat. Once we’re in the lifeboat, we’re saved. But until we reach that distant shore, we still have the possibility to fall off of the boat. We’re incapable of saving ourselves from the water (we can’t just wish a lifeboat into existence), but we’re very capable of falling back in, or falling partially back in, or peering over the edge and wondering if maybe we couldn’t do things better ourselves if we just left the boat for a while.

Now Christ, who knows all things, knows the precise passenger list for those who will make it to the distant shore, but that doesn’t prevent Him from offering the boat to those who won’t take it, or who will only take it a little while. But just because Jesus knows person x won’t make it to the distant shore, it doesn’t mean person x was never in the boat. When we (as non-dieties) say so-and-so is “saved,” we often mean that they’re “on the boat,” so to speak.

The thief on the cross wasn’t “saved” when he was running around stealing and causing havoc. Meanwhile, any number of followers of this Rabbi, Jesus Christ, were saved: they were believing in Him, following Him, and just eagerly waiting for the overthrow of the Romans they were just sure was coming. Flash forward to the Passion, and we see some big role reversals. The crowds (not all of them, certainly, but some) have turned on Jesus, while the thief is in the process of just coming to know Him. If we can say that the thief went from a state of being truly unsaved to being saved, then we can also say the crowds went the other direction (even though to God, the thief was saved and the crowds were unsaved the whole time).

Paul uses a different sports metaphor: running a race. In Galatians 5:7, he says, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” These people were on the right track, then got off the right track. There’s hope for them yet (which Paul expresses in 5:10), but there’s also a risk that they’ll continue to be misled. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul uses the metaphor again, and this time (in 1 Cor 9:27) acknowledges the possibility that even he could be “disqualified.” If that doesn’t mean going from a state of saved to unsaved, I’m not sure what it does mean.


  1. I still don’t see you making a case for the notion that a person can “be saved” but can then lose that salvation. Even your section labled “Once Saved? Or Always Saved? makes the case that those who are to be saved either are or will be AND those who are not to be saved either are not or will not be. The net net remains the same. I think Hebrews 3 sums it up nicely but I don’t have time to get the quote now. However, if I recall correctly, it basically reads that IF you are saved THEN you will perserve to the end and BE saved. IF at the end you are not saved THEN you previously were not saved to begin with. I do not want to confuse “being saved” with the notion of being in community (2 Peter 2 – false means false). Cardinal Ratzinger even wrote of those 2 Peter 2 guys calling them “false brothers” but still brothers. That leaves the question as brothers in what. Reading the above it almost sounds as if you are saying they are brothers in salvation, but that is not what the Cardinal wrote.

    Compelling stuff, Joe. More than my McMuffin, I’m lovin’ it.

  2. This is a good response, and there is a very particular sense where we are either predestined for salvation or damnation: predestined in the sense that God sits outside of time, and knows the end of the play before Act I; not in the sense that God forces us to read from a particular script. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some who are genuinely on the road, and later deviate from it.

    Hebrews 3:14 says that, “We have come to share in Christ IF we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” To me, that implies that there are some who won’t hold on firmly, who will let the Faith, and salvation, slip away.

    I’m updating the post to include a boat metaphor which I think will explain some of what I mean.

  3. Joe, on Hebrews I don’t think anybody asserts that 3:14 means that. I could be wrong, and perhaps a Catholic theologian does, but I’d like the referrence. Everyone I’ve read asserts that 3:14 means that holding firmly till the end is descriptive of the reality at the beginning, not prescriptive lest we lose salvation. Additionally, those same commentators would all agree (I think) that this verse does not imply believers won’t fall/sin or become weak in faith. The NT is covered with that descriptive reality, that believers will still sin, but that through confession we might be sanctified for righteousness. Every NT books speaks of believers who were sinning in some respect. If your interruptation of Heb3:14 were correct, than the NT authors failed us in not being clear what assurance meant. I refuse to believe that even Jesus failed the nuance test in John 10:27 where he talked about his followers given eternal life, never perishing, and that no one can change that.

    All that being said, I’d like to go back to the nature of God logic test again. If God is perfect, and his works are perfect, and his gift of salvation is perfect, and there is nothing I can do to take it/earn it (it’s a gift), then once given – it doesn’t make sense that the gift wouldn’t perfectly work.

    Although your lifeboat analogy makes sense in terms of actual life boats on the sea where people want nothing more than to be saved from drowning, that’s not what Jesus is and that’s not what our natures’ reveal. If his gift of salvation is like the lifeboat you describe, than it’s not a perfect gift. It doesn’t work. You forget that we (those who need the lifeboat) have deceitful lying hearts. Our fallen nature wants to sin. Our fleshly desires are – fleshly. The NT reminds over and over not to give into that nature, but to “hold firmly.” Jesus knows that.

    So, if I’m right, and Jesus’ gift of salvation is as you said like a lifeboat, he must construct the lifeboat in such a way that those he offers it to CANNOT defeat it’s purpose. Otherwise, what’s the point? How is his gift of savlation any different than what we already had in The Law? The Law was given to the people so that they might know the way to righteousness. Some (a very few according to scripture) followed The Law in such a way that they did indeed garner God’s favor. You might say that they managed to stay on the imperfect lifeboat just long enough to reach (not the shore) but Jesus’ perfect lifeboat. Yet, many failed to hold firm to The Law. They simply couldn’t. The Law was a terribly imperfect lifeboat.

    Now, you might be tempted to argue that The Cross of Salvation works the same way as The Law but now, however, the “gift” is offered to all people – not just the Jews. The offer to join the Brotherhood of the Saved has now been expanded to everyone. That that is the difference between the two “gifts.” If you believe that, than I’ll gladly point you to plenty of non-Jews whose discipline of The Law was found pleasing to God. Further, there are those prior to The Law who neither had Christ nor had The Law and yet whose lives were still pleasing to God.

    Regardless, to some extent I don’t think we’re saying different things. It’s a now and future truth. Option 1 is: you’re either SAVED NOW or you WILL BE SAVED later. Option 2 is: you are NOT SAVED NOW or you WILL NOT BE SAVED later. There is no option 3 or option 4 where the previous two options’ factors rearrange.

    Let me say lastly, although we may not agree on this (even though I think we do) I deeply appreciate your writing and your spirit in defense of the Catholic faith. May God bless your efforts, Joe so that others may come to know him and still others will be encouraged in their exisiting faith.


  4. Seriously, don’t worry about the delay. I’m particularly bad about that myself (you actually reminded me that I owe Reese Currie an e-mail that’s like 2 or 3 weeks overdue). I’m going to address your post in a bit more depth in a post for tomorrow morning, so feel free to check back then (or whenever’s convenient) to see my responses.

    I’ve really appreciated hearing your thoughts on this, so please, keep it up!


  5. Thanks, Joe. I wanted to correct one thing I said in drawing an analogy between The Law and your lifeboat. I thought about while working on a paper today, so I figured I should correct myself. The Law wouldn’t really be the lifeboat so much as the manual to the lifeboat of Our Deeds. (Per Romans 2:1-16.) The manual was/is perfect (in contrast to what I said regarding The Law as a terribly imperfect lifeboat). Our ability to follow The Law (our “deeds lifeboat”), however, is greatly imperfect. (Again, Romans 2:1-6)

    You know, writing in reference to other people’s analogies should be declared a crime against authorship…LOL. “People who talkin metaphor ought to…”


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