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The doctrine of eternal security, which teaches that the salvation of believers is forever guaranteed by our Savior and great High Priest Jesus Christ, is a glorious doctrine that gives believers assurance of their faith in Christ and their eternal inheritance. Yet tragically, it is a doctrine that many well-meaning Christians question or deny, and instead teach that people can experience genuine conversion but later fall away from the faith and lose their salvation, a view sometimes referred to as conditional security. Unsurprisingly, both sides of this ongoing debate within the church claim to have their fair share of proof-texts that justify their positions, so we will be taking a closer look at a couple of passages that appear to teach conditional security in order to better understand them and to provide meaningful responses that will hopefully strengthen your faith and assurance. As we will see, some of these passages can be a bit challenging at first glance, thus it becomes important to always remember to interpret unclear texts with clear ones.

One such text that some conditionalists have often used to make their case is found in John 15. In this great passage about the relationship believers have with Jesus Christ, Jesus is the true vine and the Father is the vinedresser (v. 1) while believers are the branches (v. 5). The imagery is so simple a child can understand it: apart from our life-giving Savior and Lord, we have no way of sustaining ourselves, nor do we have any way of living a truly Spirit-filled and God-glorifying life. We are utterly dependent on Jesus for all of our spiritual growth. Yet there is one statement in the first half of verse 2 that has led some to believe that Jesus is teaching conditional security, which reads, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away.” Jesus did not merely give a small caveat and brush it off to the side; in fact, He doubled down in verse 6 and said, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

There is no doubt that Jesus was talking about fiery judgement for all those unfruitful, non-abiding branches. That part of the imagery is unmistakably clear. But who exactly are these unfruitful branches? Are they indeed people who were truly in Christ but later departed from the faith and subsequently cast into the fires of hell? Well to answer this question, we need to define a couple of terms. What does it mean to be “in Christ?” What does it mean to “depart from the faith”? Before turning elsewhere in the Bible, let’s see if we can refine our understanding of these terms in light of the rest of chapter 15. If we continue reading beyond the first few verses, we find that Jesus is actually quite clear about what it means to be “in Him”. Quite simply, when we are in Christ, He is in us (v. 4-5), His words are in us (v. 7), and we bear much fruit (v. 5). Nowhere in this text does it ever say that Jesus abides, or did abide at one time but no longer does, in those who do not abide in Him nor bear fruit. This two-way street is only found among those who actually abide in Christ and no one else! Furthermore, Jesus said in verse 16, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give it to you.” Some key phrases to note are appointed, bear fruit, and remain. What Jesus is teaching absolutely cannot fit with the conditionalist’s narrative, because by definition true believers are divinely appointed to bear fruit unceasingly!

As for what it means to “depart from the faith”, however, John 15 does not specifically address the issue of apostasy (though it is implied) but other passages do. One such passage is Hebrews 6, another common go-to text for those who teach conditional security. The text in question reads as follows:

“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement. And this we will do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and those to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” (Hebrews 6:1-8)

Here, the writer of Hebrews employs some pretty strong language for those who initially receive but later reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, using phrases such as “once enlightened” and “fallen away”. Does this teach that true Christians can lose their salvation? Again, it would do us well to define our terms by examining surrounding passages. Logically, this entire flow of thought actually started in the previous chapter, verse 11 to be exact. It would appear, when studying this broader context, that the writer of Hebrews had one specific instruction in mind for his Jewish audience: to leave behind the elementary principles and press on to maturity, which in light of the entirety of the book of Hebrews would mean to abandon the Old Covenant and embrace the New Covenant in Christ, the one who has fulfilled all that the types and shadows of the Old Covenant pointed towards. In principle, therefore, the one who falls away according to verse 6 is one who has been taught the truth concerning the New Covenant, was emotionally drawn to the sweetness of the gospel message, and was even convicted over his sin by the Holy Spirit, yet that intellectual enlightenment, emotional experience and conviction never wrought a true, lasting salvation. Conditionalists often use this text as proof that one can be a genuine Christian and later fall away; but in reality, there is no smoking gun here because anyone can have intellectual enlightenment, emotional experiences, and conviction over sin. If these external markers do not necessarily indicate true conversion, then what does? We will answer this question next week.