Bible Question:

Did the primitive church preach the doctrine of once saved always saved? My pastor says that this doctrine is heresy and it wasn't preached until after the 1500's during the Reformation. Was this in the Nicean creed?

Bible Answer:

The writings of the early church fathers indicate that they did not all agree with the statement “once saved always saved.” Some of the early Christian writers appear to have believed that a person could lose his or her salvation by sinning and others believed that a person could lose his or her salvation if he or she no longer believed in Jesus. Here are a variety of quotes from some very significant early church fathers.

Justin Martyr

The first quote comes from Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165).

But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded . . . to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved. And I hold, further, that such as have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back from some cause to the legal dispensation, and have denied that this man is Christ, and have not repented before death, shall by no means be saved. Further, I hold that those of the seed of Abraham who live according to the law, and do not believe in this Christ before death, shall likewise not be saved . . . – Justin Martyr, Dialogue Of Justin 47

At the end of the quote it is clear that Justin believes that anyone who denies Jesus is the Christ will not be saved; that is, he or she will go to hell. At the start of the passage, he is not sure that someone will be saved if he or she believes in Jesus but is disobedient. Justin believes that faith and obedience go together. He agrees with James 2:26 and 1 John 2:4 which say,

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (NASB) James 2:26

The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him . . . (NASB) 1 John 2:4

The Bible teaches that someone who claims to be a Christian but does not live like one is a liar. They are not real Christians. Likewise, someone who might live like a Christian but does not believe in Jesus is not saved.

Shepherd of Hermas

Some have claimed that the writer of the Pastor of Hermas or Shepherd of Hermas (A.D. 155-180) believed that a Christian could lose his or her salvation and quoted the following passage,

They only who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God; but as to those who keep not His commandments, there is no life in them. Shepherd of Hermas, 2.7 (A.D. 155).

Another passage seems to say the same thing,

And he said, “If you do not guard yourself against [anger], you and your house lose all hope of salvation . . . Hermas. Pastor of Hermas. Book 1.4.1.

But just a few sentences away we read this,

“Hear now,” said he, “how wicked is the action of anger, and in what way it overthrows the servants of God by its action, and turns them from righteousness. But [anger] does not turn away those who are full of faith, nor does it act on them, for the power of the Lord is with them. Hermas. Shepherd of Hermas. Book 1-2, Commandment Fourth, Chap. 1.

This passage reveals that the author of the Shepherd of Hermas did not believe that a true Christian could lose his salvation.

Irenaeus

The Christian writer, Irenaeus (A.D. 120-200), appears to believe that Christians are not “once saved always saved” with the following quote,

Those who do not obey Him . . . have ceased to be His sons. – Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book 4.41.3.

But several sentences earlier he said this,

But with respect to obedience and doctrine we are not all the sons of God: those only are so who believe in Him and do His will. And those who do not believe, and do not obey His will, are sons and angels of the devil, because they do the works of the devil. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book 41, 2.

What is our conclusion? Irenaeus believed as Justin Martyr did. Faith and obedience go together. One must be connected to the other. Therefore, Irenaeus believed that a person who lives a life of disobedience is not a true Christian, even if he once claimed to be a Christian. He agrees with James 2:14-26.

Tertullian

Tertullian (A.D. 150-220) makes the following statement which echoes the same message of 1 John 2:19.

But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule (of faith), will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith? No one is wise, no one is faithful, no one excels in dignity, but the Christian; and no one is a Christian but he who perseveres even to the end. Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chap 3.

1 John 2:19 says this,

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (NASB) 1 John 2:19

Throughout the New Testament the Holy Spirit has stated that a true Christian, one who believes in Jesus, will persevere or continue in the faith until the end. The following quote from Tertullian seems to imply that he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation by disobedience. If so, we must remember that scripture contains the truth and not Tertullian.

But the world returned unto sin; in which point baptism would ill be compared to the deluge. And so it is destined to fire; just as the man too is, who after baptism renews his sins: so that this also ought to be accepted as a sign for our admonition. Tertullian, On Repentance, 2.9

Origen

The writer Origen (A.D. 185-254) said this,

If there is any other nature which is holy, it possesses this property of being made holy by the reception or inspiration of the Holy Spirit, not having it by nature, but as an accidental quality, for which reason it may be lost, in consequence of being accidental. So also a man may possess an accidental righteousness, from which it is possible for him to fall away. Origen, Origen De Principilis, Book , Chap 8.

Origen contrasts true righteousness, given by the Holy Spirit, to an “accidental” righteousness. Those who do have the righteousness of God, which is given by faith through Jesus Christ, are truly righteous.

If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. (NASB) Rom. 8:10

. . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe . . . (NASB) Rom. 3:22

Origen seems to agree with this statement. Another quote from Origen echoes Christ’s teaching,

He who has not denied himself, but denied Christ, will experience the saying, “I also will deny him.” – Origen. Gospel of Matthew. Book 12. 24.

Jesus simply said that another who rejects Him will be rejected.

But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (NASB) Matt. 10:33

Cyprian

The last quote comes from Cyprian,

Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. Cyprian, Treatises of Cyprian. Treaties 1.6.

He also echoes 1 John 2:19.

Conclusion:

These men wrote from about A.D. 100 – 250. We do not find any statements to the effect that once a Christian is saved, he or she is always saved. But we do find a consistent belief, except for a few instances, that faith and works go together. This is consistent with the teachings of the Bible.

The earliest statement regarding “once saved always saved” comes from Augustine (A.D. 354-430).

It was left to Augustine to speak a clear word for perseverance in pre-Reformation times. Starting with predestination, he saw that election to eternal life inevitably involves final perseverance. Since salvation is always God’s gift, he entitled his work on perseverance On the Gift of Perseverance. He denied, however, that the believer can have any assurance of his final salvation. Carl F. Henry. Basic Christian Doctrines. Baker Book House, 1962.

It is important to note that the doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” did not appear in the literature of the church until the Reformation period. A review of the existing literature from the early church fathers suggests that most of them believed faith and works must both exist for a person to be a true Christian. While no person is perfect, the pattern of life must be present. Only a few seem to believe that a person can lose his or her salvation by disobedience. But it is also possible that they are only observing the biblical truth stated in James 2:17 and 1 John 2:19.

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (NASB) James 2:17

What is most important is, “Does the Bible teach, ‘Once Saved Always Saved.?'” The opinion of the early church fathers does not constitute truth. The early church fathers were not inspired authors. But Jesus and the apostles were. Jesus did not teach and the Bible does not teach that once a person believes in Jesus Christ he or she is going to heaven regardless of what he or she does in the future. James 2:26 captures the truth that faith and works go together. A true Christian will believe and obey. A true Christian will not leave the faith. Someone who claims to believe and lives like the world or leaves the faith is a liar, and 1 John 2:4 says the truth is not in him or her. However, we must remember that only God knows if one has actually left the faith. We do not see as God sees. The statement “Once Saved Always Saved” is misleading. It should be worded as follows, “Saved Only Once” or “Once Truly Saved Always Saved.” Once God selects people for salvation they have been selected and they will not depart from the faith. Those who have been truly saved will never depart from the faith. The Nicean Creed does not address this subject.

Reference Links:

Saved Only Once
Apostasy - Leaving the Faith?