Once a Sheep, Always a Sheep (ten observations on what Jesus said about our Eternal Security)
Can a born-again, justified by faith, adopted child of God ever lose their salvation? Or as others have expressed it, is it possible for a born-again, justified by faith, adopted child of God to forfeit their salvation by fully and finally turning their back on Jesus Christ and reverting to unrepentant unbelief? Some say, Yes. Others, such as myself, believe that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is committed to preserving all his children in saving faith and will uphold and protect them not only until the final day of judgment but also throughout eternity.
The issue before us isn’t whether or not a born-again, justified by faith, adopted child of God can sin or backslide or wander away from the Lord or spend an extended season of their life in doubt about their faith. Yes, we all acknowledge they can. The issue is, instead, whether or not they remain in their sin unrepentant and defiant, or eventually come under conviction and seek God’s forgiveness and fellowship.
So how do we account for the behavior of someone who claims to have been born again, claims that they truly trusted Jesus for forgiveness of sins and have been adopted into the family of God, who then turns away from Christ and lives like those who never claimed to be Christian in the first place? Typically you will hear one of three explanations.
One view is that such people were in fact born again, genuinely saved and justified by faith in Jesus, and were undeniably at one time a child of God, but they no longer are. They somehow lost their new birth and reverted to a condition of spiritual death. They were de-justified or went from a state of being declared righteous in Christ to one of being unrighteous and under God’s judgment. And although they were once a son or daughter of God, they have been disowned by God and cast out of his family. Whether or not such a person can ever come back again to true saving faith or is forever consigned to condemnation is a matter of dispute among those who hold this view.
A second view is that if someone who once professed faith in Christ and gave every appearance of having been born again turns or reverts to unbelief and rejection of the gospel, he/she was never truly saved in the first place. Their so-called “faith” in Jesus was spurious and artificial and was never the sincere expression of having been born again. This person was self-deceived and deluded into thinking they were forgiven and saved, but their abandonment of Christ and rejection of the gospel proves that they were never saved and justified in the first place. They haven’t lost their salvation because they never had it in the first place.
There are several texts that appear to support this option. We see in John 8 that some of the Jewish leaders who “believed” (John 8:30-31) in Jesus were, in point of fact, the children of the devil (John 8:37-47). In his first epistle, John described many of those who professed faith in Jesus in this way:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Another position is that if someone is truly born again and justified by faith in Christ, he/she will always remain born again, justified, forgiven, and an adopted child of God. If they do, for a season in life, walk away from the Christian faith and live in sin and even repudiate the gospel, they are not lost or condemned or irreversibly consigned to hell. If they were truly born again and became a child of God, the Father will do one of two things.
In some, perhaps most, cases, he will bring conviction to their hearts and restore them and eventually bring them back to their formerly robust faith in Jesus. Even after years of living as if they were not Christians, they will repent of their sin and seek renewed fellowship with God. Or, the other possibility is that they will come under the Father’s loving discipline. This discipline may be light and successfully restores the person to a vibrant faith in Christ, or it may be severe and could even entail physical death. In this latter case, the person is still saved but he/she is taken home into heaven prematurely. We see this in what had happened in the church at Corinth among those who were treating with disdain the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:27-32).
There are many texts in the NT that I believe affirm in no uncertain terms the eternal security of the sheep of the Good Shepherd, such as John 6:37-44; Romans 5:1-11; 8:29-39; 1 Corinthians 1:7-9; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:4-14; Philippians 1:6; 2:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; 2 Timothy 1:8-14; Hebrews 10:14; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 5:10; 1 John 2:1-2, 19; Jude 24-25; Revelation 13:8; 17:8.
But John 10:27-30 may well be the clearest, strongest, and most convincing text of all. Let’s look closely at what Jesus says.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
Let’s take note of ten assertions Jesus makes.
First, “I give them eternal life” (v. 28a). Eternal life is a gift! There isn’t anything you can do to earn it, win it, or bargain for it. You can’t earn a gift by merits or lose it by demerits. A gift is by definition an expression of grace and therefore does not depend on works of any sort.
Second, “I give them eternal life.” Eternal life is life that not only lasts forever but is qualitatively suited to life forever in the new heavens and new earth. Jesus does not say I give them 6 months of life or 11 years of life or life until such time as they decide they don’t want it anymore.
Third, “and they will never perish.” Literally, Jesus uses a double negative: they will never, no, by no means ever perish. There is no way in the Greek language to make a statement with greater force. It is an absolute negative, an unequivocal negative, an unassailable negative. I find it incredibly odd that Jesus would say this if in fact many of his sheep will perish.
Let me bring out the force of this statement with even greater clarity. Again, to translate this as literally as one can, Jesus says, “and they will never, no, by no means ever perish unto the ages” or “unto eternity.” Jesus doesn’t merely refer to what won’t happen to them now, in the present age. He also extends this promise into eternity itself!
Fourth, “and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” The word translated “snatch” is the verb used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to describe the Rapture – “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
No one, says Jesus, can sever the relationship between me and my sheep. No one. Not the attacking wolf (John 10:12), nor thieves and robbers (John 10:1), no one. To suggest otherwise is to say Jesus failed to do God’s will. We see this in John 6.
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. [Why?] For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, [i.e., that none of those he has given me should be “snatched” out of my hand] but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37-40).
Here in John 6 we see the unified resolve of the Father and the Son to preserve eternally secure the sheep, those whom the Father has given to the Son. They are of one will. This emphasis on the unity of their will is seen again in John 10.
Fifth, “my Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all” (v. 29a). Here we see that the security of the believer, of the sheep of the Good Shepherd, is rooted in God’s election of them in eternity past. The Father “gave” the sheep to the Shepherd by choosing them to inherit eternal life. We see this yet again in John 17, where Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1b-2).
This unbreakable connection between election and eternal security is what Paul was describing in Romans 8:29-30,
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined [i.e., those whom he gave to the Son] he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
Sixth, “my Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (v. 29).
What does Jesus have in mind when he refers to the Father’s incomparable “greatness”? Clearly, he is talking about his power, his omnipotence, his limitless and infinite strength. Here Jesus grounds the impossibility of any of his sheep ever being fully and finally lost in the omnipotence of the Father.
God is “mighty in strength” (Job 9:4). He is “the Lord strong and mighty” (Ps. 24:8; see also Deut. 7:21; Isa. 1:24). “Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you” (Jer. 32:17). “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6). “For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isa. 14:27). He declares “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isa. 46:10). “Then Job answered the Lord and said: 'I know that you can do all things; and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’” (Job 42:1-2). “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:35). See also 2 Chron. 20:6; Job 23:13; Prov. 21:30; Isa. 40:26; 43:13.
Jesus grounds his confidence in the safety of his sheep in the incomparable omnipotence of his Father. It is because there is no one greater or more powerful than God the Father that the sheep are secure. Was Jesus mistaken in his assessment of the Father's power and purpose? Are you greater than God? Is your will stronger than his? Can you stand up against the infinite power of the one who called everything into existence out of nothing? Jesus declares that no one can snatch a single sheep out of his Father’s hand because the Father’s hand is omnipotent and limitless in power.
Seventh, in v. 28 Jesus said that no one “will” snatch them out of my hand, but in v. 29 he says that no one “is able” or “can” snatch them out of the Father’s hand. They can’t do it now and they won’t do it in the future. There is no “will” in heaven or on earth that is greater and more powerful than the “will” of the Father and the Son! Again, why is it that no one, not even you, can snatch the sheep out of the Shepherd’s hand? It is because no one is greater than God! They can’t do it and never will do it! To say that even one of the Shepherd’s sheep can be lost is to say that God is not, in fact, greater than all. Are you willing to say that?
Eighth, Jesus declares that “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). Jesus means two things by this. First, he is claiming to be equal in deity and glory with the Father. They are distinct persons but one God, together with the Holy Spirit. They share a common divine nature. Whatever power abides in the Father also abides in the Son. If the Father is greater than all, then so too is the Son, for they share a common nature that is omnipotent. We know that Jesus was claiming to be equal with the Father in power and glory because the religious leaders picked up stones to kill him (v. 31). When Jesus asks why, they tell him it is for “blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (v. 33).
The second thing Jesus has in mind is the unity of will and purpose that he and his Father share. This we already saw in John 6:37-40. Jesus came to do the Father’s will, and that will is that not one of those whom the Father has given to the Son should ever be lost. So, too, here in John 10, Jesus and the Father are united in their determination that not one of the sheep shall ever be snatched out of their hands. Their hands are united in this purpose. We are in the hand of Jesus and we are in the hand of the Father and from that unified divine, omnipotent hand no one will be snatched!
Someone might say, “OK, I agree that no one else can snatch me from God’s hand. But what if I myself, through my willful stupidity and hard-hearted rebellion, wriggle free and jump out of it of my own accord?” Ah, so now you are claiming to be greater than God! Your power exceeds that of God! Your will is stronger than his! Are you really prepared to say that your determination to jump out of God’s hand is greater and stronger than God’s determination to keep you securely in his grip?
Ninth, twice (in v. 28 and again in v. 29) Jesus declares that “no one” can snatch them out of our hand. What does “no one” mean? It means “no one”! You don’t have to be a Greek scholar to figure that out. No one means not Satan nor an abusive parent nor an unbelieving spouse nor even yourself can separate you from God’s love in Christ.
If you believe that any believer could at any time jump out of the hand of the Father and the Son and perish eternally, it means you believe that “no one” actually means “anyone”! If everyone can be lost, should they choose to walk away, why does Jesus say that “no one” can? If you mean “everyone” you don’t say “no one”! Let me say it again: Jesus doesn’t say, “no one except for the person himself/herself.” Paul reaffirms this truth in Romans 8:39 when he excludes “anything else in all creation” from having the power to separate you from the love of God in Christ. And the last time I checked, each and everyone of you is a part of “all creation”!
Tenth, just assume for the sake of argument that Jesus wanted to teach the eternal security of his sheep. How else could he have done it than how he does it in John 10? If you wanted to assert eternal security, how could you do it more clearly than by using the words that Jesus uses? How could Jesus have said it with any more force or persuasion than we read here?
Someone might still object by saying: “They won't perish so long as they remain sheep.” But the text doesn't say that, does it? The assertion of the text is precisely that sheep always do remain sheep! The point of the text is: “Once a sheep, always a sheep.”
If Jesus wanted us to believe that some of his sheep could cease being sheep and suffer eternal death, why did he say his sheep will never suffer eternal death and no one can snatch them from him or from his Father? Surely Jesus is not guilty of the crassest form of double-talk. In other words, “they will never perish” = “they shall always stay sheep!”
“But what if some sin I commit or failure in life or weakness or lapse of faith occurs repeatedly?” How repeatedly? How much sin does it take to lose one's salvation? What does a Good Shepherd do with wandering sheep? He wouldn't be a good shepherd if he didn't restore them when they wander. Our security is ultimately dependent on God's character and commitment, not ours. People say: “If we change, we lose our salvation.” No. We can't lose it, not because we can't change, but because God can't.
Also, if you believe Christians can lose their salvation on earth, you have to believe they can lose it in heaven too. People who deny eternal security do so because they say God can’t override our will and keep us saved against our desires. But we know that God is committed to preserving and upholding our will in faith and trust in Jesus so that we never fall or finally fail. He is committed to ensuring that we will never fully and finally lose our desire for him and what he is for us in Jesus. That is why Peter said that “by God’s power” we “are being guarded through faith” (1 Peter 1:5). Faith is required to stay secure and God is committed to sustaining us in faith (see also Phil. 1:6). Furthermore, if God can preserve and keep you secure in heaven without destroying your freedom, he can surely do it on earth as well!
So, I will leave you with these simple questions. First, why would Jesus say “never” if he meant “often”? Second, why would Jesus say “no one” if he meant anyone? Third, why would he say God is “greater” than all if all are potentially greater than he? And fourth, why would he say “no one is able” if, in point of fact, “everyone is able”?
In the final analysis, the primary reason I affirm the perseverance of the saints is because I believe in their preservation by the Savior. We persevere only because God preserves us in faith. Praise be to God!