The United Church of God is frequently asked this question: “I’ve heard it said, ‘once saved, always saved.’ Is that true or false?”
It’s an interesting question. The reason there is so much confusion is that the answer depends on the meaning of the word “saved.” To illustrate, my dictionary lists 11 definitions of the English verb “save.” In the New Testament, being spiritually “saved” is used in three different ways.
The first definition of “saved”
For the first usage of “saved” in the New Testament, “saved” expresses a past action because it refers to the forgiveness of one’s sins. Jesus told a repentant woman, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50, emphasis added throughout). After baptism, a person is no longer doomed to the death penalty. He has been saved from death row.
Notice how “saved” is used in these verses: “we were saved” (Romans 8:24), “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5, 8), and “an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism” (1 Peter 3:21).
Phase one of sanctification (and saving) was made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The blotting out of each person’s sins occurs when Christ’s sacrifice is first applied to him personally at the moment of his baptism. But after baptism, a person must continue to ask for forgiveness for the rest of his life for the new sins he commits. In 1 John 1:9 it says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
If one strays away from God and quits asking for God’s forgiveness for his sins, he is temporarily lost because he is no longer receiving God’s grace and forgiveness. However, if and when he repents and turns back to God, God will always gladly forgive, just as the father did in the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15).
So based on this first usage of the word saved, “once saved, always saved” is not true because if one falls away from God and quits sincerely asking for forgiveness, God will quit forgiving him, and he is doomed.
The second definition of “saved”
Now to address the second usage of “saved” in the New Testament. It refers to the process of salvation which is conversion, the ongoing process of our natures being “transformed” into godly character (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Consider the following scriptures:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved [present progressive tense] it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18). “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
This is the primary meaning of “saved” in Romans 5:10. “Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), and “we shall be saved by His [Christ’s] life [in us]” (Romans 5:10).
So based on this usage of the word saved, “once saved, always saved” is not true because, again, if one falls away from God, quits yielding to God and quits going through the process of being saved or converted, he will lose out on salvation if he never turns back to God and never resumes the process of “being saved.”
We all must endure to the end by remaining faithful to God, His Word and His way of life.
The third definition of “saved”
Now to address the third usage of “saved” in the New Testament. It is saved in the ultimate sense—the receiving of immortal life and eternal salvation. Paul used the word saved in that sense when he said, “That his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
Jesus said, “But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22, see also Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13). In these verses, “the end” is either the time of one’s death or the return of Jesus Christ, whichever comes first (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). We all must endure to the end by remaining faithful to God, His Word and His way of life. If we do, we will be saved in the best sense, the ultimate sense, of the Word. We will receive eternal salvation in the Kingdom of God!
Based on this usage of the word saved, “once saved, always saved” is true because once we are spirit beings in the Kingdom of God, we will “have it made!” We will never be tempted to sin again. We will be God’s sons and daughters, forever safe in His family!
Thus we see the three spiritual ways that the word saved is used in the Bible. We who have been baptized and have received God’s Holy Spirit have been saved, we are being saved, and we eagerly long to be saved.
Now if someone asks you about “once saved, always saved,” you can give an accurate explanation. And what about if someone asks you, “Have you been saved?” You can say, “My answer depends on which of the three New Testament usages of the word “saved” we want to consider.” Then, if the person is interested, you can explain the three usages. Hopefully, the person will have increased respect for you as someone who understands the Bible and who understands the process of salvation.