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Summary: Can a person who was saved be lost?

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Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” John 8:51 (NRSV)

Back in February, if you mentioned the phrase “perseverance of the saints” to anyone in the deep South, you’d probably get a quick rundown on the New Orleans Saints’ perseverance; how they beat the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl game.

“Perseverance of the saints” is a phrase that describes a doctrine of the church. I say the church as in all believers of every age. When we say “which church” we mean the “brands” we’ve developed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc. When a Presbyterian refers to the perseverance of the saints, she is saying something quite different in meaning than what a Methodist might say. A phrase that is not found in Scripture is “once saved, always saved”; it is a term that refers to one pivotal issue in the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. That issue is the question: can a Christian cease to be a Christian, or, as it might be otherwise stated, can a person who has been saved ever be lost? [1]

This morning I do not intend to “pick this bone clean” on this doctrine. There is enough in print for you to study deeply and come to your own conclusion. It is a comprehensive and complicated issue; yet it is not unintelligible. But there is too much for a sermon or even a series of sermons (unless it takes us clean through Advent…..2015!).

Today’s Message

What we hope to accomplish today is threefold:

1. Describe the basic differences between United Methodist Doctrine and that of Calvinist teaching, which includes Presbyterians and many free forms of Protestant believers – Baptists and more. I will suggest some resources that you may use for further study, including remarks quoted from John Wesley’s sermon on “The Perseverance of the Saints”[2] and some comments from the United Methodist Church’s General Board Of Discipleship website[3].

2. Share a few observations of where I (personally) stand in this issue, and why I choose to do so.

3. Point us beyond the endless debate over can you or can’t you to a better way.

Two Positions

The first position – that a Christian can never cease being a Christian – even by his own choice, is the Calvinist child of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). The classic Calvinist quotes “T.U.L.I.P., an acronym for:

Total Depravity:

Humankind has been utterly ruined by the Fall to the point that there is no good and no possibility for redemption anywhere in us. We merit and can merit nothing but wrath and destruction. This means that only a Sovereign God acting in Sovereignty can deliver us from an eternal destiny in Hell. There is absolutely nothing we can do ourselves to contribute to or take away from God’s activity to save us.

Unconditional Election:

As such, God’s decision to save us can be and is based on no conditions we can or could ever generate. God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before we were ever born.

Limited Atonement:

God created the means to deliver us from the merited consequences of our total depravity through the death of Jesus, his Son, on the cross. On the cross, Jesus suffered the consequences of God’s just wrath and judgment on behalf of all whom God had elected for salvation, but only for these. [emphasis mine]

Irresistible Grace: Just as there is nothing humanity can to do change our depraved state, there is also nothing those who have been elect can do to resist the gracious initiative and power of God to bring them to salvation through what God had accomplished for them in the atonement.

Perseverance of the Saints: The result of all the above is that those whom God has elected to salvation and acted to save in the atonement and in the ongoing and irresistible work of the Spirit cannot but actually “persevere unto the end,” that is, those who are elect cannot help but be faithful and thus experience the promised salvation. [4]

Of course that last issue – that God will keep the saved elect person faithful – is close to what Methodists hold, except that the typical interpretation among Calvinists is that the outcome is set in stone, no matter how you behave – even if you declare your rejection of God and Christ….saved is saved!

The other (opposite) position is from the United Methodist Church website:

Do United Methodists believe "once saved, always saved" or can we "lose our salvation"?

Answer: …our Church teaches we can end up “losing” the salvation God has begun in us, and the consequence of this in the age to come is our eternal destruction in Hell. God freely grants us new birth and initiates us into the body of Christ in baptism. The profession of our faith and growth in holiness are necessary for God’s saving grace to continue its work in us, and both of these are things we must do for our love to be genuine and not compelled. We thus remain free to resist God’s grace, [my emphasis added] to revert to spiritual torpor, and possibly experience spiritual death and Hell as its consequence. [5]

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