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UNDERSTANDING: My Sheep Shall Never Perish

A look at eternal salvation. Is it right to say, “One saved, always saved”?

In recent times there has been considerable controversy over the question of eternal salvation. Articles have been written in Christian magazines, opinions have been expressed in programmes, and discussions have arisen over the nature of salvation.

The expression, “once saved, always saved” has, in some cases, generated disagreement. Some sincerely preach that those who believe the message and are saved will always be saved. Others say that it is possible to fall from grace. They point out that the expression “once saved, always saved” is not found in the Bible and has done considerable harm. They will tell of those who “believed” at one time but now have no interest whatever in following the Lord. Salvation, for such, was simply as an escape route from hell. People “believed” or “said a prayer of commitment” but carried on living as before. There was no evident change in their lives.

How can we reconcile such opposing viewpoints? Many reading this article will have no difficulty identifying people who at one time made a profession and were in fellowship with the Lord’s people but are now immersed in worldly pursuits and have no interest in Christian activities. From time to time we may even encounter individuals who will tell us that although they once believed they have now become unbelievers. What has happened to them? Have they lost their salvation?

SOME CLEAR PRINCIPLES

First, in seeking to answer this question, it must be stated that there is no simple answer. There are many things which will remain beyond our ability to understand. However, at the same time there are a number of facts which are clear. In order to help us, a few simple observations can be made. Consider a statement made by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:19: “The Lord knoweth them that are His” (KJV). We must allow the full force of those words to be impressed upon our minds. It is the Lord who knows those who are His. In other words, looking at others I do not know! We may look at certain people who are found in the company of Christians and think that they are believers too, but in reality only the Lord can recognize His true people.

Ephesians 2 is very clear concerning the matter of salvation. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (v.8,9). Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn it by any merit of our own or through any good deeds we may perform, for it is “not of works” done by us. We do not deserve salvation; it is a gift graciously bestowed by God upon those who are completely undeserving. According to this passage, it is simply received by faith. In other words, God offers salvation on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, and we accept the gift humbly and without question.

When someone repents of their sin and asks God for salvation, receiving Christ as their personal Saviour, the Holy Spirit comes to live within the heart. The Bible speaks of believers being indwelt, or “sealed” by the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:13). A believer receives a new nature, according to 2 Corinthians 5:17. However, although all of this is true, the believer does not become sinless. One who has been forgiven by God can still sin because the old nature has not been removed. Passages in the New Testament speak of “walking in the flesh” rather than in the Spirit. A believer can still tell a lie, say things which should not be said, be unkind, act dishonestly, or engage in immorality. But when we sin as believers, we are responsible to get matters put right. John was writing to believers when he stated, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn.1:9). In the previous verse we discover how wrong we are if we dare to suggest we “have no sin” in our lives. Such a declaration is utterly false and contradicts the truth of God. Those who confess their sins to God can be forgiven because of the cleansing found in the precious blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son (v.7).

CONTRASTS

Perhaps the best-known illustration in the New Testament of a believer sinning is of Simon Peter denying his Lord. Peter was a loyal and devoted follower of Christ who had declared his willingness to lay down his life for Christ’s sake. The Lord Jesus warned Peter of his frailty and of his imminent denial, but Peter would have none of it. He remonstrated with the Saviour and again announced his determination to be unswerving in following Christ. Yet the self-confident Peter failed and denied his Lord three times. He was brought to his senses when the cock crowed and the Lord looked at him. Leaving the high priest’s court Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (Lk.22:60-62). We may wonder what thoughts went through Peter’s mind. He must have felt like an utter failure. But the Lord restored Simon Peter to fellowship and to usefulness, as subsequent history shows.

We can contrast Simon Peter with Judas Iscariot who also failed the Lord. Judas has always been remembered as the disciple who was a traitor. He was the one who led the Lord’s enemies to Gethsemane in order to arrest Him, kissing the Lord in an abhorrent act of betrayal. But when Judas realized the gravity of his offence, he did not break down as Peter did. Instead, filled with remorse, Judas went out and hanged himself. Earlier, the Lord Jesus had referred to him as “the son of perdition” (Jn.17:12). Judas was never a true believer. Although the other disciples saw him as one of their number, the Lord knew Judas’ lost condition. He might mix with all the others, but he had never been saved.

Since this happened among the disciples we should not be surprised by the same scenario today. Individuals may pass for believers and be actively involved within a church, yet a work of grace has not taken place in their hearts. They may have had some kind of spiritual experience without ever having been born again. Living a double-life, they carefully shield their true selves from the eyes of others. Just as the disciples were not aware that Judas Iscariot did not belong to the Lord, we can make the same kind of mistake today. As we have already said, it is the Lord – and not us – who knows those who belong to Him.

“ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED”?

The expression “once saved, always saved” needs to be clarified as it can all too easily be nothing more than a glib saying. In explaining the gospel, salvation is sometimes likened to a ticket that has been purchased for us in order to bring us to heaven. Some travel tickets allow a passenger to disembark from a train, for instance, as it travels to its destination so that a person can explore other places on the way. This may be interesting for tourists who are in no real hurry to reach their final destination. However, we must not think of salvation in this manner. We have not been saved simply to escape from eternal punishment and to live as we choose on our way to heaven – like getting off the train in order to pursue our own interests and then get on board once more. To emphasize the analogy, the “ticket” for salvation requires that we remain on board right through to our final destination, not leaving the safe environment of the train.

Changing the illustration, salvation is not simply an insurance policy to get someone to heaven. Anyone who thinks of it in this way has failed to grasp the message of the gospel. We are called to repent of our sin, to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to give our lives to Him. He is not only the Saviour to trust but also the Lord who must be obeyed. Conversion speaks of a life that has been changed and is no longer what it was before. We are called to follow Christ and to be different.

In Romans 6 Paul raised the matter of grace and the Lordship of Christ. He asked the question, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” and answered it with an emphatic, “God forbid!” (Rom.6:1,2). Are we saved so that we can live as we please and sin without being too much concerned about it because God is gracious and always ready to forgive? Absolutely not! The expression could be translated “Perish the thought!” Anyone suggesting such a thing has failed to appreciate the true grace of God. It is not a flimsy indulgence with which we can trifle. The believer who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit must “walk in newness of life” (v.4). If we meet someone who claims to be a believer but whose life has not been changed, we may well question the reality of their salvation. The true believer will have the desire to be found walking in newness of life.

MY SHEEP WILL NEVER PERISH

In John 10 the Lord Jesus used a significant expression when He referred to “My sheep” (v.27). In the first part of the chapter the Lord revealed Himself as the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (v.11). He then explained that, as the Good Shepherd, He knows His sheep (v.14). If the words “My sheep” identify those who belong to Him, clearly there are also those who do not belong to Him. Jesus said to the Jews, “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep” (v.26). These words reveal an important fact. Sheep belonging to the Lord are those who believe in Him. Although the Jews to whom He was speaking were descendants of God’s Old Testament people, they did not accept Jesus as Messiah and therefore did not belong to Him.

The next verses have brought great comfort to God’s people. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand. My Father, which gave them Me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand” (v.27-29). The question of eternal security is answered conclusively here. Let us note carefully what our Lord is saying about His sheep.

As we have already seen, those who belong to Him are believers whom the Lord knows. They have been purchased by Him through His sacrifice on the cross, but they have also been given to Him by the Father. Their eternal security is guaranteed by the Lord Jesus. He assures them that He has given them eternal life and therefore they will never perish. If they could perish, the life given by Him would not be eternal. While those who fail to exercise saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will perish (Jn.3:16), the believer is eternally safe in a twofold sense for no power can snatch him from the hand of the Lord Jesus or from the Father’s hand. Do we need more assurance than this?

It is interesting to note two characteristics of the sheep: they hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow Him (v.27). The true believer therefore knows the Lord Jesus personally and gladly listens for His voice in His Word. In addition to this, the true believer is a follower of the Lord Jesus. His life is not marked by carelessness and indifference. Rather, he is genuinely concerned to please his Master.

SALVATION IS OF THE LORD

In drawing these thoughts together, perhaps we understand a little more about the “once saved, always saved” controversy. A true believer, born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, cannot be lost. Christ’s sheep will never perish. Salvation depends upon Him, and God will “save … to the uttermost” those who come unto Him through Christ (Heb.7:25). However, there are those who only profess to believe. No real work of grace has gone on in their hearts. They may have listened to a superficial presentation of the Gospel where they have been told “just believe” – without understanding what it really means to be a follower of Christ. They have not known true repentance or genuine surrender to Christ, and eventually their lives will demonstrate that a real work of the Spirit was absent.

If we know the Lord as our Saviour and Shepherd, we must keep near to Him in order to avoid falling into sin. Remember Peter. He did not lose his salvation, but he lost his joy and usefulness. If we have been saved, let us never cease to thank the Lord for His mercy to us. As we consider the greatness of His love, it will make us want to live near to Him, seeking to please Him in all that we do.