“Does once saved always saved apply even though he became an atheist?”

Source: staytondailyphoto.com

I stand at the graveside of a young student. Fifteen years old. Dead in an instant. Skateboarding on a foggy night and a car that never even saw a faint shadow, until it was too late.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. I’ve met this kid only one time and he attended youth group functions only a couple other times. So my brain and my heart try to meet in the awkward unknowing of my emotions.

It’s sunny today, not a cloud in sight. The temperature is rising every minute it seems. Pockets of people merge into a large crowd.

Now the first song begins. Amazing Grace finally comes into focus as the mass of people pick up on the song choice. This, in spite of the poor sound quality of the amplification system.

As the song ends a young pastor comes up to the front podium. My eyes begin to squint as the small bit of shade shifts with the pattern of the sun. Not only will the sermon deal with a difficult subject but I’m now physically uncomfortable. No chair, hot clothes, and a sun that chose to shine brighter than it has all winter long.

The pastor begins with warm words to the family about their young son. He recalls the accident that led to their son’s instant death. His demeanor reeks of sorrowful joy. A dichotomous perspective typical to many evangelical funerals.

Now the pastor begins down a rabbit trail that catches my attention. This is a moment I’ve waited for ever since I caught wind of a rumor that this fifteen year old boy had recently professed himself an atheist. How does a pastor handle the questions generated from this reality?

Some folks wonder if this student is in hell. Others wonder if there’s any chance that God let him into heaven. I think about how I’d appeal to the wideness of God’s grace and defer the judgment to God. We have no place guessing what the Divine will do… at least in definite “yes” or “no” statements.

“We know that this student accepted Christ at a VBS at a young age. This prayer saved him from hell and we can have absolute confidence that he is in heaven. His salvation is forever.”

My ears can’t believe what they just heard. Instead of appealing to mystery (which would have left room for holding the student’s atheism in tension with God’s perfect judgment), he outright appealed to a “once saved always saved theology!” How can he do this with biblical and pastoral integrity?

I know that he is probably a good guy and has good intentions, but what he just said will leave more questions than answers. I like when we live with questions when they come from a helpful premise, but this “absolute confidence” approach will create pastoral difficulties.


Brave New Films

It is now three days after the funeral. I pull up to the student’s close friend’s house to pick up a group of boys. I offered to take them out to pizza to have some fun in the midst of all the pain.

Driving to the restaurant we engage in small talk about quirky teachers, funny movies, and Xbox 360 games. I don’t know when the right time will be to bring up the death of their close buddy, but I know questions are coming.

After ordering two pizzas we sit down at the table closest to the video games. We play until the simmering pies of goodness arrive at our table. Over slices, I bring up the issue looming in the back of our minds.

They express to me how weird it is that their buddy is dead. Awkwardness arises in their tone when asked about the funeral service. Explicitly, one of them says: “Kurt, he wasn’t a Christian anymore. He told me that he was an atheist just two weeks ago.” This same student goes on to describe how the preacher came across as a liar to everyone who knew their friend. He was not a Christian.

In the back of my mind I reflect on the pastoral dilemma that “once saved always saved” theology creates. How will I move the conversation in a healthy direction from here? Hell is bound to come up. Do I tell them that you can be a Christian even if you deny it? I certainly don’t believe that.


“Does once saved always saved apply even though he became an atheist?”

What do you think? Does this theology create interesting pastoral scenarios? How would you discuss this issue with the friends of the victim? Other thoughts? And yes, I experimented with writing in a narrative format… just to push myself :-)

FOR MY VIEW ON THIS ISSUE SEE: Can You Lose Your Salvation? Mark Driscoll and Greg Boyd in Dialogue

Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.  He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook

Sponsor a Child in Jesus Name with Compassion

Print Friendly

About the Author

Kurt Willems

Kurt WillemsKurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities - a movement of peace, justice, & hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wa. Kurt writes at The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.View all posts by Kurt Willems →

  • Donnie T

    I was brought up to believe “once saved always saved” and I see no real reason to stop believing it. To do so is saying the sin of unbelief is more powerful than God’s gift of salvation. And if we can lose our salvation when we sin, wouldn’t that mean we would have to ask for salvation every time we sin? Every time we get angry? Every time we swear? Every time we have an impure thought?

    • PLTK

       I don’t think any mature believer would think that. However, I do believe  consistent, intentional turning away from God and rejecting him will be honored by God. Its not easy to “throw away” your salvation, but I do believe it is possible to do so.

      • Brittgudowski

        So what if a 15 yr old kid said he was an Atheist…..Kids say a lot of stuff they don’t mean all  the time.Everyone who is reading this,has done it more than a few times.Kids don’t know what they believe.Was he mad while he said it? Did he mean it? Did some recent event of sorrow cause him to hurt and say it? What about the church kid who is a believer ,gos to church and yet struggles with lying or looking at porn,then he dies because of some freak accident? Is he in Hell? Is God only committed to me due to my imperfect commitment to him?

        What about King David who left Isreal and went and lived with Isreal’s enymes? Did God leave him? There is a difference to knowing Theology and to knowing the heart of theology…
        The kid said he was an Atheist only 2 weeks ago….That is hardly enough time to know for sure if he meant it at all…..Why not side on the erroe of Grace? 

        • Drew

          I don’t agree with the way you are arguing your point, but the point that “we don’t know” is a valid one.  We are imperfect and judge people by their actions and words, while Jesus is prefect and judges people by their hearts.  Jesus said that even some who professed his name would not enter into heaven (Matthew 7), so really, while we can make educated guesses, only Jesus knows for sure.

    • Drew

      Do you mean if I say I believe in Jesus Christ, then ten minutes later I say I believe in Muhammad, that I am saved in two religions?  Would not an atheist say that they believe in Jesus Christ simply so they could have that insurance policy in their back pocket?  Do you mean that since 1/3 of the world’s population is Christian, that 1/3 of the world’s population (plus the percentage that were formerly Christians) are going to heaven?  Just a few things to think about in response.

      • Soremoose

         No, but it would probably make you Muslim, since they also believe in Jesus, though differently, and also await His return.

  • Blake F

    I was always taught that once you were saved, you were always saved. I, however, do not teach this idea. Biblical evidence gives me the right to teach, “IF saved always saved”, but it gives me foundation for teaching “once saved, always saved”.

    • Blake F

      “NO” foundation. Sorry for typo.

  • stephen

    salvation is in a state of superpostion.  

  • Tim C.

    I don’t believe in once saved, always saved.  That would destroy our right as spiritual beings to choose to despise God rather than love him.  That is his greatest gift to us, created in his image – the ability to reject Him.

  • awesome!

    This theology of “Once saved always saved” is a pretty recent phenomena. I think it sort of was generated, through time, as a comfort level with those who were scared of their own soul and what would happen to it. With the premise that you’ll always be saved, they can live at peace. Just my thoughts.

  • Drew

    It happens every second of every day of every month of every year of every decade of every century of every millennium – people changing the Bible to what they want it to say.  Often these false doctrines and false prophets sound good and feel good, but that does not make it/them true.  I think “once saved, always saved,” if meant literally, is one of those instances.  I know a lot of Catholics who believe this, that confession is their “get out of jail free” card – do what you want Mon-Sat, go to Church and confess on Sun, and repeat.

    Matthew 7, Matthew 25, James 2, John 3 are all passages I go to on this subject.

    We know from John 3:16 that everyone who believes in Jesus (has faith) will have eternal life.  However, James 2:14-26 brings great clarity.  What does it mean to believe?  After all, even the demons believe in God.  Faith will result in deeds, and no deeds *likely* means the person never had faith – what they professed was empty.  Matthew 7 and Matthew 25 discuss this in more detail – two parables about those who claim to believe in Jesus but do not have the lifestyle of someone that believes in Jesus.

    I think it’s pretty foolish to speculate on judgment.  We’ll never know what this kids last days, hours, or minutes were like.  Furthermore, Matthew 7 and 25 leave a lot of gray area.  Trying to distinguish who has “true faith” and who does not is up to God, not to us.

    If I was a pastor, I think I would say that I’m not sure if the kid was in heaven or hell but that I would trust God – that he is righteous will decide.  If he did fully reject God, yes, he would go to hell, but there is the possibility in those last days, hours, minutes that he did come back to faith, even if remote.

  •  Yes, indeed, it is a modern positon. Most discussions of OSAS presume that this is the same as the perseverance of the saints postion. There are really three, rather than two positions– fuller treatment of this in Chapter Four, Sin and Silence, here:

    Also, this statement of Kurt’s is excellent:
     ‘I think about how I’d appeal to the wideness of God’s grace and defer the judgment to God. We have no place guessing what the Divine will do… at least in definite “yes” or “no” statements.’

  • Suzanneburden

    Firstly, I like the narrative format. It strikes me, as I am studying historical theology right now, how foreign this “once-saved-always-saved” reasoning would have been to the early church. They would seriously be scratching their heads! And how quickly we are to conveniently manage pastoral situations instead of applying Scriptural truth and living in the tension of God’s sovereignty.

  • Anonymous

    Really enjoyed this post!  The videos on the link are very interesting.  I was in a church that split over this issue a few years ago and I have really struggled to understand it myself ever since that painful experience.  I really liked Greg Boyd’s and Paul Eddy’s explanations.  That really makes a lot of sense to me now.  I also appreciated the balance offered by giving the other point of view.  Thanks for sharing this!

  • I feel there are plenty of New Testament verses that support a “once saved always saved” position. But, I don’t know of too many instances of people losing their salvation in the NT. However, I may not be privy to these cases if there are any. I would be interested in finding out from you what verses/passages in Scripture support the view that an individual can lose his/her salvation.

    • Drew

      Easy Greg – Matthew 7 and Matthew 25.

      Matthew 7 is especially interesting.  The individuals not only profess Jesus as Lord, but tell Jesus of some of the good works they have done.

      You can argue that they never had salvation to begin with; however, that would mean that professing Jesus as Lord and having “some” good works may not be a guarantee.

      • Drew – Matthew 7:21-23 is open to a lot of interpretation. I would argue this passage is a warning against false disciples, not those who have lost their salvation. False disciples may exercise power in Jesus’ name but their activities are meaningless because they deceive themselves and other believers, desiring attention for their own spectacular displays. Furthermore, this passage shows that works are not proof of the Father’s will since they can come from sources other than God, including demons and human contrivance.

        In Matthew 25:31-46 there is no indication that the “goats” or the “ones on the left” were believers of Christ. It simply says these people never fed or cared for the least of these.

        My argument, Drew, is that being a true disciple of Christ requires a circumcision of the heart. What we do on the surface makes no difference. For even the Pharisees seemed righteous on the outside, but their hearts were wicked and deceitful.

        I encourage you to read what Jesus says about His sheep. 

        “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-29)

        I think it’s pretty clear that this passage emphatically states that NO ONE can take Christ’s followers away from Him. What are your thoughts on this passage? A misinterpretation? Who are the sheep? 

        • Drew

          I understand it’s an important distinction, but it is a semantic one.  The difference between the kid having salvation and losing it,
          versus the kid never having salvation in the first place, still has the
          same result of not having salvation. Such is the nature of a lot of these debates : )

          Revelations 3:1-4 is a pretty good passage that we both failed to mention.  Based on that, I think I may ultimately concede the point to you that salvation can’t be lost, but rather, is not given in the first place.

          However, I find no solace in either position.  Believing that many receive salvation but few keep it is no more solace than believing that few receive salvation in the first place, even if they think they have.

  • CDL

    I suppose I would be uncomfortable with any statement of absolute certainly in this situation. I would be equally upset to hear that, unfortunately, this boy was condemned to hell because he rejected God. I wonder, is God’s grace really so fickle?

    For some serious head-scratching theological paradox, how about 2 Tim 2:11-13? “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself,” sure sounds like once-saved always-saved to me, but back up a line and you have what seems to say precisely the opposite: “If we deny him, he also will deny us.”

    I agree with your statement “I think about how I’d appeal to the wideness of God’s grace and defer
    the judgment to God. We have no place guessing what the Divine will do…
    at least in definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ statements.”

    We all crave certainty at times like this, but let’s try to stick with the thing we can REALLY be certain of–God is just and merciful.

    Thanks for this.

  • Notellu

    Once saved always saved is a HERESY. Any person who dies an atheist, dies an UNbeliever. Rev. 21:8 says they will go to the lake of fire. End of discussion for truth lovers. 

  • Noteeu

    You mentioned Mark Driscoll. Have you heard the Mark Driscoll vs Dan Corner eternal security debate?  Driscoll lost!  http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/MarkDriscoll.htm

  • Alyssa B

    As an atheist I believe your the question of an atheist being “saved”is moot. Has anyone here given any consideration to what the deceased would have thought about his afterlife? His are the only opinions that hold any true weight. Not his friends, family or loved ones. If this boy being described was truly an atheist, then he does not exist in an afterlife, whatever you may believe. Trying to guess or suppose where he “ended up” only serves to comfort yourself and has no bearing on the dead. I know my mother is struggling with this very question. She prays for me on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. She believes it will do some good. I believe it is a waste of time and energy. I unequivocally believe that when I die, I will cease to exist and my body will decompose. That is all. No happy reunion, no fiery pits of hell. Dirt. And maybe a flower will grow.

  • Lloyd

    My sense is that this 15 year old kid was hurt by Christians. Most all of us have been at some time and that this affected his view of God. He may have come to question if there is a God and even claim to be an atheist, but I struggle with God allowing a painful situation rob him of his eternity. Let me share my story – my son accepted Christ was a very committed Christian, very involved in youth group, invited people to church, went on mission trips. Then he was hurt by a youth minister and other judgmental Christians. This caused him to literally question everything. He had a lot of pain and after a break up by a girl friend and no longer a Christian community to turn to, he eventual took his life. To say he “lost” his salvation would be to say if he had died before lots of Christians let him down then he would be in Heaven. Some may also question suicide, but I don’t see that as the unpardonable sin either. He was in a lot of pain, had been deserted by Christians and didn’t feel he had any other way to end the pain. I am a pastor and my son, Matthew, once gave me the compliment, “I know you are a pastor and a Christian leader, but I don’t see you as a Christian.” He had come to view “Christians” as hateful and judgmental and MANY are.

Read previous post:
Offensive Jesus?

Nobody's perfect.  We all make mistakes.  I've made plenty.  I'll make plenty more. And in the future, when i err,...