Words have meaning.
I know that seems like a “duh” statement, but really, words carry with them ideas. Words strung together into sentences convey ideas – powerful ideas. And sometimes what words are meant to convey becomes unclear in transmission – we call this a “misunderstanding”. Statements that are true when understood in the right context can be dangerous untruths if understood in the wrong context. Take for instance the statement “God is love”. A true statement, but it can be understood wrongly if we insert the wrong definition of “love”.
Sometimes a statement is so likely to be misunderstood that it is better to say that same thing in a different way.
The term “once saved, always saved” is one of those statements.
When understood in the right context it is a true statement, but if out of context it becomes misleading and dangerous.
The problem with understanding the statement “once saved, always saved” lies in what a person understands it means to be be “saved”. Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18 says that the preaching of the cross is the power of God to “us who are being saved”. Not who were saved, but who are being saved. This is crucial to note.
Paul in Romans 8 presents the golden thread of redemption that begins with the predetermination and foreknowledge of God and ends in completion -“glorification”- in God’s presence. It begins when God speaks his creating word and shines the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” into our hearts, which begins a process where we “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”, this process takes a massive leap forward when we put off this mortal frame with its remaining sin and we see his glory clearly, in that moment “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (II Cor. 4:6; 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2). This is what we call glorification. This is the end goal of salvation. This is what it means to be saved.
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
(Romans 8:29-30 ESV)
Glorification is that point when we see him and become like him – glorification is when the conformation into the image of the Son is completed. The work we call “sanctification” that we experience in this life – the work of the Holy Spirit – is in fact as sort of guarantee that what God has begun at justification he will complete – it is a foretaste of glorification. This is why someone who is not changing “from one degree of glory to the next” in this life should have little confidence that they are “being saved” (II Cor. 3:18; I Cor. 1:18) The immense amount of remaining sin and work to be done in the lives of Christians at any stage of life is why the preaching of the cross remains always from year one to year ninety, the power of God to “us who are being saved”.
Our assurance of salvation is not found in a white-fisted grip on the statement “once saved, always saved” but is found in the fruit of the golden chain which assures us that what God started he will bring to completion. Progress, however slow it may be, gives hope that the job will get done.
I hate the term “once saved, always saved” because it portrays justification as the end goal of redemption. It wrongly identifies justification, that precious and necessary point where by faith in Christ we are declared righteous, as the sum of salvation.
This statement in question is in one sense true, once justified you are always justified but being saved is about more than justification. All of God’s elect are justified, but that is not all that they are.
The chain cannot be broken, therefore, a person has no reason to believe they are justified if they are not showing evidence of moving toward glorification. This is why we are told to examine ourselves to see if we be in the faith (II Cor. 13:5). Our trust is not in a decision, a prayer, or in a moment we look to when we were “justified” but our trust is in the God who finishes what he started.
I hate the term “once saved, always saved” because it muddies the reality of redemption, which is to conform fallen image bearers of God back into faithful reflections of his glory.
So what should we say instead?
One could say “once elect, always elect”. This would be a true statement, but would not be helpful to us who do not know the hidden counsel of God, because the proof of election is found in endurance (Mk. 13:13).
I prefer the old-fashioned term “perseverance of the saints” also referred sometimes to as the “preservation of the saints”.
What this term means is that all whom God elects he preserves in faith so that they persevere by faith in him, beholding his glory, repenting of sin, trusting in Christ, and thereby being transformed into his image.
From God’s perspective our salvation is as good as done, in this case – “once saved, always saved”. But from our perspective this is deceptive, because we can by our sin and rebellion come to the place where it does not look like we are “being saved”. And this might be because we are not being saved! For John makes clear that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning”(1 Jn. 3:9). Sin in the life of a believer should lead to creaturely fear and child-like sorrow. Many that thought they were saved “went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 Jn. 2:19)
I hate the term once saved always saved because I fear it has damned many, causing them to rest in their iniquity by leading them to misunderstand the purpose of salvation – what it means to be saved.
Preachers need to proclaim boldly the sovereignty of God in preserving his own while making it clear that he preserves in perseverance to the end. Right preaching of the “perseverance of the saints” should lead those persisting in sin to cry out with proper fear to God for mercy and should lift them from the pit of despair and open their eyes to view the soul-transforming glory of Christ. It should also lead those with only the slightest progress, overwhelmed by their indwelling sin, to be filled with hopeful expectation of the work that will be completed.
I hate the term “once saved, always saved”, but I find great joy in the reality that by the grace and power of God all of his children will reach the end where they will be as the song says,“saved to sin no more” – once saved, always saved.