It's time to throw out all the fancy schmancy -isms—Calvinism, Arminianism, dispensationalism—and just deal with the question. What exactly IS a Christian? Could it be different that what I've been taught? And, most importantly, how can I know for sure if I am one? Is it possible to lose your salvation?
What is salvation? And the oft over-complicated answer to that question is…belief. That's it. We've tried to make it other things…the sinner's prayer, going to the front in church, baptism. But the simple truth is that only belief in the Messiah changes our hearts, lives, and eternities.
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Interestingly, the crucial words "belief" and "faith" are used over 550 times in the Bible. Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16:31) and, …if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). But therein lies the question…
What is belief? From the Greek word, Pisteuo, belief means "to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in." To me, this is the difference between faking it and staking it—that is, staking your life on what you profess. Believing something "in your heart" means that the core of you is wrapped around that belief. Belief is what you feel, think, depend upon, and therefore, what you do, who you are, and what you become.
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There are too many "Christians" who say they believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but there is little significant evidence from their lives—decisions, attitudes, behaviors, convictions, conversations, morals, values, goals, habits—that would reflect their lip service. If you really believe Jesus died for you and set you free from bondage to sin and spiritual death, and if you really believe that the Creator of the Universe wants to have a personal, daily, intimate, and eternal relationship with you, your life should be radically, beautifully, permanently, tangibly, and consistently changing in every day life.
The New Testament is chock full of verses that point out the necessity of our outward lives being a reflection of our inward belief. It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6), Just as the body is dead without a spirit, so also faith is dead without good deeds (James 2:26), …work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Doing this, you will never stumble or fall away (2 Peter 1:10), Stop loving this evil world and all that it offers you, for when you love the world, you show that you do not have the love of the Father in you (1 John 2:15).
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Those in history who have demonstrated this tangible, outward faith in their daily lives are a shining beacon and example for us to follow: Armed with only a shepherd's staff, Moses led several million people to the banks of a giant sea while enemy chariots bore down from behind. Abraham raised the knife to sacrifice his only son and his only hope for the fulfillment of God's promise of a great nation of offspring from whom the Messiah would come. Gideon, the self-proclaimed weakest person in Israel, headed into a valley filled with giant warriors to destroy them with the help of only thirty men. Esther dared to approach the powerful king—uninvited—to ask a questionable favor that incriminated his trusted advisor. David volunteered to take on a freak of a giant in hand-to-hand combat, one that even the king was afraid to face. Twelve men gave up everything to follow a man around the countryside who would end up dying a shameful death on a cross. What does this mean for us? We must understand that the requirements of faith for those people are really no different than the requirements for us today.
Can you "lose" it? Some people say, "What difference does it make? Just make sure you're there." Well, that's all great…until it comes to the belief system I raise my kids with. What if I'm wrong? What if I teach them in such a way that jeopardizes where they spend eternity? Or what if I teach them in such a way that cripples their view of God's character?
I realize there's a spectrum of views on this issue, and not everyone will agree with my interpretation of Scripture. And that is okay. But I hope we will all think about this subject deeply and study it exhaustively for ourselves, until we know where we stand. But I base my belief about this on my thorough study of the entire Bible and not just a few isolated Scriptures.
First of all, I do not believe one can "lose" their salvation per se. It's true that no one can "snatch me out of my Father's hand." I also believe that only grace saves. I no more have power to save myself than I could swim across the Pacific. The forgiveness of my sins bridging the gap to favor with God for eternity is only dependent upon Christ's finished work at Calvary through His blood.
But therein, I have a part—a responsibility to respond, hence the first step of life-saving belief. And beyond that, I have the responsibility of remaining faithful to the end, exerting my free will to love God with all my heart, shown by obedience (John 14:21), and to stay in continuous fellowship with Him. The balance of grace and works appears to be a holy tension that cannot be separated. While He will not leave me or go back on His covenant with me (if we are faithless, he will remain faithful—2 Timothy 2:13), it appears that I can choose to end my agreement with Him (if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us—vs. 2:12).
Consider these additional passages of Scripture:
Conditional promises: "So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. If you do, you will continue to live in fellowship with the Son and with the Father (1 John 2:24, emphasis mine)." And, "For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ (Hebrews 3:14)."
Esau traded his birthright: "Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau. He traded his birthright as the oldest son for a single meal. And afterward, when he wanted his father's blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he wept bitter tears." Hebrews 12:16-17
The son left his spiritual home: "We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found (Luke 15:24)." This famous passage about the prodigal son has some interesting Greek translations. The word for son is Hulos, which can mean literal offspring as well as a son of Abraham. And the words for dead (Nekros) and lost (Apollumi) carry the metaphor of spiritually dead and sentenced to hell. This son, not a foreigner or someone outside the family, rebelliously left his father's house and brought upon himself a condition of being spiritually dead. While this metaphor was spoken about God's son Israel in the big picture, it is also warning to individuals.
The Israelites forfeited the Promised Land: God made a promise to Israel, His "chosen son," of bringing them into the Promised Land, but all of His promises to them were conditional upon their faithfulness and obedience. Their stubborn unbelief and rebellion kept a whole generation out of the Promised Land—their ordained inheritance. As we look ahead to our "Promised Land" of eternal life, the implications seem clear.
Judas sold Jesus: Judas was one of Jesus' chosen twelve. He was completely one of the family members in the inner circle of trust. He walked with Jesus, ate with Jesus, traveled with Jesus, lived with Jesus, was chosen by Jesus. How could Judas not have believed in Jesus at least at one time? He saw all the miracles with his own eyes. Yet Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and sealed his fate.
The banished servant: "Who is a faithful, sensible servant, to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his household and feeding his family? If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. I assure you, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. But if the servant is evil and thinks, 'My master won't be back for a while,' and begins oppressing the other servants, partying, and getting drunk - well, the master will return unannounced and unexpected. He will tear the servant apart and banish him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… (Matthew 24:45-51)."
Warnings: Solemn warnings about falling away pepper the Bible throughout, beginning in the law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), then the prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) and finally the New Testament. If it was not an option to walk away from God, why would the Bible need to post warnings? Warnings indicate there is something to be warned about. "Watch out, so that you do not lose the prize for which we have been working so hard. Be diligent so that you will receive your full reward. For if you wander beyond the teaching of Christ, you will not have fellowship with God (2 John 1:8-9)."
So here's the bottom line. If you have truly put your belief in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins in order to receive the free gift of eternal life, you now have a deliberate responsibility, Biblically speaking. You can't accidentally or easily "lose" your salvation, but I believe there is evidence that you can reject it by continuously ignoring God or refusing to obey Him. Like Esau, you can trade in your birthright as a child of God. He won't divorce you, but you can divorce Him. He won't disqualify you, but you will disqualify yourself by faithless rebellion and stiff-necked unbelief, as demonstrated by the way you willfully and consistently live your life.
So how can you and I know if we're saved for sure? "Remember that those who do good prove that they are God's children, and those who do evil prove that they do not know God (1 John 3:11)." It all comes down to how we exercise the miraculous mystery of our free will. And this free will is a beautiful picture of love in action. I can choose to receive because I am loved and desired. I can choose to respond because I love and desire.
Julie Ferwerda is the author of The Perfect Fit: Piecing Together True Love, and has written for publications such as Marriage Partnership, Focus on the Family, and Discipleship Journal. Find out more: www.JulieFerwerda.com.