I recently received an email from Ron asking a great question. Here is the question and my response:
I have from time to time encountered people in jail and elsewhere who are concerned that they can lose their salvation. My discussions from Ephesian and Romans are somewhat convincing, but these folks still have lingering doubts. They seem to understand that we have been made alive; salvation is a gift we could never earn and did not deserve, God chose us, and etc. I always tell them that if my salvation in any way depended upon me or my performance, then I would be skeptical. What are your thoughts that you would direct toward these puzzled individuals?"
Ron: Thanks for the question. It is a common struggle, not just for those who are in prison. I would begin by digging around a little to discover their understanding of what it means to be a Christian and what happens when one becomes a Christian. Often it is that basic foundation that needs to be addressed. Has the person been born again by the Spirit of God? This is an important issue and one that is essential to helping a person with questioning whether they can lose their salvation.
Often evangelistic approaches are geared in one of two directions. First, they talk about the guilt of sin and its eternal consequence of hell. Christ is then presented as the sacrifice for sins and people are called to repent and believe in order to escape the consequences of their sin. So they “decide” they will be Christian because they don’t want to go to hell. They pray a prayer and then are told that they are saved, born again, and heaven is guaranteed. Many think that praying a prayer is all that is required.
The other approach is to offer Christ as a means of helping people build a better life. “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. He forgives you wants the best for you: follow him!” Who doesn’t want to have a good life? You’ve messed up, now follow Jesus and you’ll have the best life possible. So they decide to use Jesus as a means to get the good life. Perhaps in the case of prison ministry that could mean as a means of getting out earlier. Perhaps for the addict it means getting clean of drugs.
People who respond to these approaches may not be born again. Who wants to go to hell? If someone says that to get to heaven I just need to feel bad about the rotten things I’ve done and repeat a prayer, why not? It’s cheap insurance! If getting clean from drugs is the goal, any guru who promises freedom will be followed (any boat in a storm!). Once the storm has passed, there is no need for the boat. If one wants good business contacts, “getting saved” may open up new networks of people eager to do business.
In all of these cases, a person’s “salvation” must be seriously questioned.
What is Regeneration?
Jesus told Nicodemus that a man needed to be born again to see the kingdom of God. Regeneration is the essential thing we need, but what is it?
Simply put, regeneration is an act of God whereby God implants a new nature in a person. The Holy Spirit comes to reside within a person and they are connected to Christ. Once dead, they were made alive by God. They were in darkness, but now they are flooded in light. Paul writes that this shining of the light is no less powerful than miracle when God said, “let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Regeneration is a great supernatural action of God that blows apart every defense and every objection to the gospel. The work of regeneration is a weighty life-transforming thing. It cannot help but have an impact on a person’s life, any more than something could have stopped light coming into existence when God commanded it. And like creation itself, it is totally a work of God (Ephesians 2:1-10).
This is why it is so critical in answering your question to know whether the person has been born again. I don’t know of a foolproof way of figuring out whether a person has been born again. Many people claim to have had an experience they call “getting born again” but whose lives show no signs of walking with Jesus. There are many biblical indications that a person is twice-born, but these are not guarantees. We cannot see into the heart. There will always be those who appear to be believers but are not (1 John 2:19), but these signs are helpful in dealing with people.
Here are three major things that are signs that regeneration has taken place. If they are not present, then the person has not been born again.
They repent and believe the gospel.
If someone does not believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that he died and rose again for our sins, they have not been born again. Those who have been born again forsake their sin, bow in allegiance to Christ, and seek to follow him.
Of course, as a practical matter, many can outwardly respond to the preaching of the gospel and not be born again. As I mentioned, there are many motivations for responding and saying the right words. But all those who have been born again have repented and believe the gospel.
They have a deep and enduring love for the Lord.
Keith Green, the popular Christian singer from decades ago, used to have a simple definition of a Christian: Someone who is bananas for Jesus! The person who has been born again loves the Lord with their whole heart. Jesus has become their greatest treasure (Matthew 13:44-45). Like Paul, they say “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
They have a profound hatred for sin, particularly in their own lives.
1 John 3:1-10 is clear: those who have been born again do not make a practice of sinning. God’s regenerating seed has been planted in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. Sin has become offensive to them because it affects the most important relationship in the world to them: their relationship with the Lord. As a result, they strive to live a holy life. Those who are lackadaisical about sin are at best seriously ill in their faith. They may not even be born again. Sometimes people want to know if they can lose their salvation because they want a license to sin all they want! That’s a sign that the person may not be born again.
Of course, we do not achieve perfect sinlessness in this life. The regenerated do sin. But when they do, the Holy Spirit will put increasing pressure on them to lead them to repentance. I John 1:9-10 will be a cherished passage, not because it is perceived to be a license to sin, but because it is a means of cleansing when one does sin.
There are more characteristics, but those three will help diagnose where a person is at spiritually. Do they love Jesus and his word? Have they repented and believed the gospel? Do they hate sin and live lives of quick repentance? These are signs that a person has truly been born again. If they aren’t then you need to go over that ground with them and truly lead them to the Lord.
Can a Regenerate Person Lose Their Salvation?
But let’s assume that the people you are dealing with are born again as far as you can tell. Can a regenerate person lose their salvation?
Regeneration is an act of God that he promises to carry through to its completion. The central issue then becomes God’s faithfulness rather than our ability.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and my your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who called you is faithful and he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in your will carry it to completionat the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6).
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
These passage in Paul’s letters point to God’s commitment to saving those who have been born again.
There are also the words of our Lord:
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:38-40)
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-29)
Perhaps one of the most useful passages to understanding how this works in the life of the person who has been born again is found in Jeremiah 32:40. The prophet describes the new covenant this way:
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts that they will not turn from me.”
God promises not to turn away from doing good to the believer. He is committed to this relationship! He isn’t fickle. He doesn’t turn away at the slightest misstep. But there is more. He also implants the fear of the Lord in the believer’s heart to keep them following him. This fear is an love-filled awe of him that desires to please him, honor him, and obey him. It views his great glory and yearns to be close to him and disdains things that would lead away from him.
So we can rest in his faithfulness. He is fully committed. We have the fear of the Lord, so we take the warnings against falling away seriously. All of this is a gift of God’s grace and goodness.
For the person who is questioning whether they can lose their salvation, this more robust understanding of the nature of regeneration is often very helpful because they begin to see that it is God’s work and God will be faithful to finish it. All they need to do is keep following him and they have been given the Spirit and the fear of the Lord to keep them on the right track. So stay in the word and prayer (which they should hunger for), develop healthy relationships with other believers (whom they should have love for), and strive to live a holy life (because they have a hatred for sin).
If they are afraid of falling away, they need reassurance of the faithfulness of God. Perhaps they need to ponder the fact that the reason that they woke up a believer this morning is because of God’s sustaining work in their lives. He has promised to be faithful until they reach heaven. He will carry his work to completion.
Hope that helps.