Here's another discussion from my old website. I originally wrote it on 15 April 2002 and it was last modified on 28 February 2003. I wrote it in the context of an off-topic debate on whether Christians can lose their salvation on an email list (composed mostly of Christians) created to discuss music, of all things. I haven't changed anything except to put links in for the scripture references. The price of the book at the bottom, predictably, has changed. It's now $17.49.
I guess I wanted to suggest some thoughts for sorting out this issue. I think there are things to be said for both sides, and both sides to have some tendency to ignore the passages that cause problems for their position or to explain them away with implausible interpretations. However, I don't see these passages as contradictory to begin with.
There are tensions within scripture on this issue. That's because the truth of God's salvation isn't so easy to put into a human system. When we try, we often end up going beyond what scripture requires us to say, and that often leads us to deny things in other parts of scripture. It also means that it takes quite some time to explain fully what all these different sorts of passages are getting at and how they fit together, so bear with me.
One tendency is to focus on salvation, justification, redemption, etc. This is about what is true of us immediately as a result of God's work in initiating the new covenant. One thing we don't want to ignore is what happens to us as a result of being in the new covenant. See Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8 and 10; 2 Cor 3; Gal 4; Ezek 36; John 3; Isa 44:3-5; Rom 8:4. This is a new birth. We have hearts of flesh replacing our hearts of stone. We've been circumcised in the heart. God's Spirit has been poured out, and we live by the Spirit. We receive salvation through faith by God's grace (Eph 2:9), but that's tied to being God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works prepared by God for us (Eph 2:10).
This connection is pretty significant. God's work in our lives brings about life change. What God has done for us in Christ does lead to change in our hearts and minds, leading to change in our words and actions. That's why moral stagnation and depravity from Christians shocks us. 1 John recognizes this quite a bit (how can those in Christ remain in sin? It's impossible. Yet no one is without sin.)
You can't ignore the clear passages that talk of those who don't have genuine faith but appear to. There's Judas Iscariot, though salvation hadn't fully come with all it entails (most notably the Holy Spirit). Heb 6 and 10 are most notable, but there's also 1 John 2:19 and some of Jesus' comments in the letters to the seven churches in Rev 2-3. Some who believe salvation can't be lost minimize these passages. They say they're hypothetical, about what would happen if people could lose their salvation. That seems to lessen what clearly seems like a genuine warning to those receiving these letters.
Paul had some real fears that his work would be in vain, and the best way to take this seems to be that he doesn't want his seeming converts to turn out not to be saved in the end. Some examples of this are I Cor 9:23-27; I Cor 15:2; 2 Cor 6:1; Gal 2:2; Gal 4:11; I Thess 3:5; Phil 2:16. But is Paul talking about people who got saved but might lose it, or is he worrying about people who may turn out never to have been saved to begin with? He doesn't say in these places, but many of these passages do end up with some confidence that God will protect and preserve those who are really his children, which suggests the second interpretation.
I think the stronger evidence for the second reading is the passages generally downplayed by the more Arminian end, such as John 6:37-40. If some genuine believers to lose their salvation, then Jesus is either not willing or not able to keep all those the Father has given to him. We can't reduce passages like this one just because there are others that warn against falling away. That would be like reducing the passages about Jesus' divinity just because it's clear that he's human (or vice versa). If there's a possible position that recognizes both, we should consider it before saying something that conflicts with scripture.
I see indications in scripture that this position recognizing both (i.e. the impossibility of genuine believers falling away and the real warnings about falling away directed at those who seem for all the world to be genuine believers). Many passages throughout the NT indicate that there are tares within the wheat. See Matt 7:21-23 "I never knew you." John 2:23-25 has people seeing Jesus' miracles and believing on his name, but Jesus knew what was really in their heart -- they weren't genuine followers. Those who hold to his teachings are his true disciples. I John 2:19 speaks of those who were among the believers but weren't really of them. Then he says "their going showed that none of them belonged to us". So they never were genuine Christians. 2 John 9 says the same thing.
Then we come to passages like Col 1:22-23, Rev 2-3, and 2 Peter 1:10-11, and we see that faith that doesn't last, doesn't persevere, doesn't lead to salvation. Heb 3:14 says "we have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first." If we don't persevere, that suggests we haven't really come to share in Christ. This is the same book as Heb 6 and 10. Also, the parable of the sower has three seeds that don't bear fruit. Two of these give all the signs of life, yet turn out not to last. One case is described as receiving the word with joy but having no root and therefore not lasting. This sounds to me like a case indistinguishable from the most promising conversions you can find, except to God's eyes.
So it seems to me the best way to look at Heb 6 and 10 is that it's about people indistinguishable from genuine believers. Even they can't tell, so it applies to everyone in the church. It's a warning to all to persevere in the faith. Yet God says those who are genuine believers will perseverence (Heb 13:5 along with John 6 above). How do these go together? The same as in Phil 2:12-13, where Paul says God's at work in us at the same time as we bear the full responsibility to live righteously. God's at work in us, and he'll carry through the work he started, and that's the very motivation to work out our salvation by living righteously. Those who turn out not to do so weren't genuinely saved, but this doesn't mean those warning passages aren't genuine warnings, because false believers are currently indistinguishable from genuine believers.
If anyone is interested in reading more in depth on this approach, the best place to start is D.A. Carson's "Reflections on Assurance". The current way to get it is in the volume called Still Sovereign, edited by Bruce Ware and Thomas Shreiner, available at Amazon for $14. There are other contemporary defenses of Calvinistic or associated doctrines in it, including Wayne Grudem on similar issues (perseverance of the saints), John Piper on how predestination is consistent with God's love for all humanity, and I believe some stuff on foreknowledge and open theism. It's probably a useful resource even for non-Calvinists, since it helps avoid caricatures of the position, but the Carson paper is worth looking at no matter which side you're coming from. It helps sort out a lot of the issues in more detail than I've been able to do. This book is a shortening of a two-volume work that included work by J.I. Packer, but I don't know if his paper was included in this release. I've got one of the original volumes, not the new release.