One of the reasons Protestant Christianity has fragmented into so many different churches is that sola scriptura lends itself too easily to cherry-picking Scripture for “proof texts”. This tendency leads to two different logical fallacies: 1) quotation out of context, and 2) special pleading.
We should be familiar with out-of-context fallacies; we see them all the time with product and movie advertisements. The TV trailer tells us, “Roger Ebert says Thrill Ride is ‘A GREAT MOVIE … DON’T MISS IT’”. You go look up his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, and it says, “Thrill Ride is a great movie … except for the story, the dialogue, the acting, the cinematography, the editing and the score. I would tell you, ‘Don’t miss it’, except that I can’t think of a reason why it should be showing in the first place.”
Special pleading refers to an argument that, in its entirety, doesn’t give due consideration to countervailing evidence. In the blogosphere, that’s a hard charge to escape, simply because “due consideration” would make posts too long for the average surfer to want to read. In arguments between Catholics and Protestants, though, it chiefly crops up in the Protestant’s tendency to pin his entire argument on one or two proof texts.
Such is the case with “once saved, always saved”: the assertion that, once we profess faith in Christ, our work is done … Jesus will do the heavy lifting from that point on. Two texts are used to support this contention:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:27-28).I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life (1 Jn 5:13).
There’s a nuance of order between simple belief and faith which often escapes notice. We say at the beginning of both Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth;” but we can say this with as little personal commitment as we say, “I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow.” It may be reasonable, but it’s nothing we need to do anything about.
But while we can reach a belief in God through “flesh and blood” reasoning—Socrates and Aristotle did—we can only reach faith through the grace of God (CCC 153; cf. Mt 11:25, Mt 16:17, Gal 1:15). And yet, it remains a fully human act: we can refuse this divine grace through our free will at any time between birth and death—including after baptism.
The apostles recognized this, and spoke of salvation in the past, present and future tenses:
- Past tense: “… for in hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24); “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Gal 2:8); “ … the power of God, who saved us and called us … in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago” (2 Tim 1:8-9).
- Present tense: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you” (Phil 2:12-13); “As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1:9).
- Future tense: “But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Ac 15:11); “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11); “…so Christ … will appear a second time … to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:28).
When Jesus speaks of the end times, he tells his disciples, “But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13). There’s no point in speaking of perseverance if salvation is automatically assured once faith is professed. And the New Testament writers take several occasions to remind us of that fact:
- "Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom 11:22).
- “Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
- “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12).
- “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27).
Salvation, then, is not a “done deal” once you say, “Jesus is Lord”. It takes no special effort or act of God to come to this conclusion; even demons know this much (Jas 2:19).
For how great soever ever a man’s righteousness may be, he ought to reflect and think, lest there should be found something blameworthy, which has escaped indeed his own notice, when that righteous King shall sit upon His throne, whose cognizance no sins can possibly escape, not even those of which it is said, “Who understands his transgressions?” “When, therefore, the righteous King shall sit upon His throne, . . . who will boast that he has a pure heart? Or who will boldly say that he is pure from sin” (Prv 20:8-9)? Except perhaps those who wish to boast of their own righteousness, and not glory in the mercy of the Judge Himself (St. Augustine of Hippo, On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness 14:33).
No power in heaven or on earth can snatch us out of the Lord’s hand. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t willingly put ourselves out of His friendship.
 Evangelical converts Tim Staples and Steve Ray have both pointed out that this passage from1 John comes at the end of the letter, the body of which contains over twenty “if” statements making our salvation conditional.