Eternal Security of the Believer
By Dr. Harry Ironside
By Dr. Harry Ironside
This brief work consists of a message delivered in the D. L. Moody Memorial Church on a Lord’s Day morning and the substance of two Friday meetings when questions were submitted and then answered from the platform. Careful editing might have eliminated everything that looks like repetition. But inasmuch as it is by constant re-affirmation that truth is lodged in the mind and heart, I have not pruned the answers as much as I otherwise might have. Let me say that my object was not controversy nor the besting of an opponent, but rather the edification and enlightenment of the people of God, so that the knowledge of the truth might deliver from legality and give true liberty.
H. A. IRONSIDE
April 24, 1934
H. A. IRONSIDE
April 24, 1934
Can A Believer Ever Be Lost?
It has been announced that I will speak to you on a subject which has occasioned a good deal of controversy among the people of God. I want to take as a starting point--not exactly as a text, because we shall be looking at a good many Scriptures--Romans 8:38-39: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the inspired answer to the question of verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” That is, once we have been justified by faith, who is there, what power is there, that can separate from the love of Christ? And the answer, how full, how clear, not a shadow, not a doubt, not a question left, when the apostle says that neither death nor life shall separate! Can you think of anything which is neither included in death nor in life? Neither death nor life shall separate!
No unseen powers can separate the believer from Christ, “neither angels, nor principalities, nor powers.” These terms are used again and again in the New Testament, particularly in the Epistles, for angelic hosts, good and evil. When our Savior rose from the dead He spoiled principalities and powers, that is, He defeated all the hosts of evil led by Satan; and so we may take it that the angels referred to here are good angels, and the principalities and powers are possible evil angels. But there is nothing that good angels would do and nothing that evil angels can do which will result in the separation of the believer from Christ. And then further he says, “neither things present nor things to come.” Again let me put the question, Can you think of any experience through which a believer might ever go which is neither a thing present nor a thing to come? And the Holy Ghost says that neither things present nor things to come shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ. As though that were not enough, He speaks in a more general way when He says that neither “Height nor depth (nothing in heaven, nothing in hell), nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It looks to me as though we are safe if we are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Eternal Security: Its Meaning
When we speak of the eternal security of the believer, what do we mean? We mean that once a poor sinner has been regenerated by the Word and the Spirit of God, once he has received a new life and a new nature and has been made partaker of the divine nature, once he has been justified from every charge before the throne of God, it is absolutely impossible that that man should ever again be a lost soul. Having said that, let me say what we do not mean when we speak of the eternal security of the believer. We do not mean that it necessarily follows that if one professes to be saved, if he comes out to the front in a meeting, shakes the preacher’s hand, and says he accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, that that person is eternally safe. It does not mean that if one joins a church or makes a profession of faith, is baptized, becomes a communicant, and takes an interest in Christian work, that that person is forever secure. It does not mean that because one manifests certain gifts and exercises these gifts in Christian testimony, that that person is necessarily eternally secure.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said to the people of His day, as recorded in Matthew 7:21-23: “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name have cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.” Such people then may have been very active in what is called Christian work--they have preached, they have cast out demons, that is, their influence has been such that men and women have found deliverance from satanic power through their ministrations in the name of Jesus, they have professed with their lips, they have accomplished many wonderful works, but they are found in that day among the lost, and when they plead their great activity and their earnestness in Christian testimony, the Lord says to them, “I never knew you.” Notice, He does not say to them, “I used to know you, but you have forfeited My favor and I do not know you any longer.” He says, “I never knew you.”
The Sheep Of Christ
You remember how He speaks of His own in John 10:27-30: ”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. I and My Father are one.” Of His own He says, “I know them.” Of these others, in spite of all their activity, in spite of all their accomplishments, He says in the day of judgment, “I never knew you.” That is a very solemn thing. That answers a question that is frequently put to us. I do not know how many times I have had individuals come to me with a hypothetical case like this: “Suppose a man who joined the church, who professed to be saved, who for a number of years was a very active Christian worker, perhaps a Sunday school teacher, perhaps an elder or a deacon in the church, maybe a minister, but after some years of apparent consistent Christian living and helpfulness in testimony he turns his back on it all, returns to the world, utterly repudiates Christianity, and now denies in toto the gospel he once professed. How does that square with your doctrine of the eternal security of the believer?” That does not touch the matter at all. The apostle John tells us how we are to understand a case like that. He says in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us,” or literally, “That they were not altogether of us.” That is, it is possible to do all the things that I have spoken of and yet never be regenerated. It is quite possible to join a church, to make a Christian profession; it is quite possible to observe the Christian ordinances, to teach and to preach, and yet never be born again. If one teaches and preaches the truth, it will produce good results and will do men good whether the teacher or the preacher be real or not, for it is the truth that God uses. Of course He can use the truth to better advantage when it is proclaimed by a holy man living to the glory of God than when it is proclaimed by a hypocrite. Nevertheless, God uses His truth regardless of who may proclaim it, and that explains how people may do mighty works in the name of Christ and yet never be born again.
Christ’s One Offering
When we say that the believer in the Lord Jesus is eternally secure, we base it upon a number of lines of scriptural testimony. In the first place, we rest it upon the perfection of Christ’s one offering upon the cross. Personally, I never can understand how thoughtful people, taught by the Holy Spirit of God, can carefully read the Epistle to the Hebrews and not see that throughout that Epistle the writer is contrasting the many sacrifices offered under law with the one sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. That to which he particularly calls attention is this: under law every time an Israelite sinned, he needed a new sin offering, and every year the nation had to celebrate the great day of atonement when a new offering was presented to God for the people. Why? Because those sacrifices could never take away sin, they simply covered sin for the time being. But we are told in Hebrews 10 that when the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world and offered Himself without spot to God, the effect of His sacrifice was eternal. Verse 14 makes this clear: “For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” Perfected for how long? “Oh,” says somebody, “as long as they are faithful.” No, that is not what it says. “He hath perfected for ever.” Why? Because the sacrifice is all-efficacious.
I am sure my brethren who deny the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer do not realize that in so doing they are putting a slight upon the finished work of Christ, they are reducing the sacrifice of Christ practically to the level of the offerings of bulls and goats in the Old Testament dispensation. I am sure they do not mean to do that, for they love their Lord just as truly as I trust I love Him, and they do not want to dishonor Him. But they are afraid that this doctrine will lead people to be careless about their lives, and therefore they stress the possibility of a man losing his salvation after he has once been justified by faith. But they do not pursue that to its logical conclusion; they do not see that it is a practical denial of the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are saved eternally because the sacrifice of Christ abides.
When I came to the Lord Jesus Christ and put my trust in Him, not only were all my sins up to the day of my conversion forgiven, but all my sins were put away for eternity. When a young Christian, I was taught something like this: I thought when I was converted that all my sins, from the time of dawning accountability up to that night when I put my trust in the Lord Jesus, were put away, and now God had given me a new start, and if I could only keep the record clean to the end of my life, I would get to heaven; but if I did not keep it clean, I ceased to be a Christian and I had to get converted all over again. Every time this happened the past was under the blood, but I had to keep the record clean for the future. What a God-dishonoring view of the atonement of Christ that is! If only those of my sins that were committed up to the moment of my conversion were put away by the atoning blood of Jesus, what possible way would there be by which sins I have confessed after that could be dealt with? The only ground on which God could forgive sin is that Jesus settled all upon the cross, and when I trust Him, all that He has done goes down to my account.
What Of Future Sins?
A lady came to me one day and said, “I do not understand you there. I can understand that Christ died for the sins I committed up to the night of my conversion, but do you mean to tell me that Christ died for my future sins?”
I said, “How many of your sins were in the past when Christ died on the cross?”
She looked puzzled for a moment, and then the light broke in, and she said, “How foolish I have been! Of course they were all future when Jesus died for me. I had not committed any of them.”
God saw all your sins, and He laid upon Jesus all your iniquity. Therefore, when you trusted Him, you were justified freely from all things. Do you say, “Does it make no difference then if a believer sins?” That is another question, and it would take a whole evening to go into that, but here is the point: the moment you trust the Lord Jesus as your Savior, your responsibility as a sinner having to do with the God of judgment is ended for eternity, but that same moment your responsibility as a child having to do with a Father in heaven begins. Now if as a child you should sin against your Father, God will have to deal with you about that, but as a father and not as a judge. That is a line of truth that stands by itself and does not contradict what I am now teaching. It explains some things that bewilder people when this doctrine is brought before them.
The Spirit’s Perseverance
In the second place, we base the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer upon the perseverance and omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit of God. Look at Philippians 1:6. Writing to these saints, the apostle says, when he thanked them for their fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Do you see that? Who began the good work in you if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus? The Holy Spirit of God did. It was He who convicted you of sin; it was He who led you to put your trust in Christ; it was He who through the Word gave you the witness that you were saved; it is He who has been conforming you to Christ since you first trusted the Lord Jesus. Having thus taken you up in grace, the Holy Spirit has a definite purpose in view. He is eventually going to conform you fully to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, and He never begins a work that He does not intend to finish. “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” If when you were a poor sinner the Holy Spirit had power sufficient to break down your opposition to God and to bring to an end your unbelief and rebellion, do you think for one moment that He does not have power enough to subdue your will as a believer and to carry on to completion the work that He began?
People say, “I see you believe in that old Baptist doctrine of ‘once in grace, always in grace.’” Or another says, “I understand you hold that old Presbyterian idea of ‘the final perseverance of the saints.’” I do not know why this should be called either Baptist or Presbyterian, only to the extent that Baptists and Presbyterians agree with the Book, and the Word of God clearly shows that once God takes us up in grace nothing can separate us from the love of Christ so that evidently the expression, “once in grace, always in grace,” is a perfectly correct one. But, on the other hand, I am not so enthusiastic about the other expression, “the perseverance of the saints.” I believe in it; I believe that all saints--all really belonging to God--will persevere to the end, for the Book tells me, “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 24:13), and if a man starts out and makes a profession but gives it all up, he will never be saved, because he was never born again to begin with, he was never truly changed by grace divine. On the other hand, the reason he endures to the end is not because of any particular perseverance of his own. What I believe in, and what the Word of God clearly teaches, is the perseverance of the Holy Spirit. When He begins a work, He never gives up until it is completed. That is our confidence.
Experience And Faith
Forty-three years ago the Spirit of God in grace led me to trust the Lord Jesus Christ. I have had many ups-and-downs since then, as the old folks used to sing in a camp meeting I attended:
I am sometimes up and sometimes down,I have had varied experiences, but the wonderful thing is this, the Holy Spirit of God has never given me up. And if at times I have been wayward and willful and did not immediately bow before God and repent of my waywardness and willfulness, then I found I had to come under the rod, my Father’s rod, and He whipped me into subjection until I came to the place where I was ready to confess by failure and be restored to fellowship with Him. But I was just as truly His child while getting a good whipping as I was when the effects of it had restored me to fellowship. Your child does not cease to be your child when you have him over your knee and are using the slipper on him. It is because he is your child and because you want him to grow up to be a well-behaved boy that you do that. And so we believe in the perseverance of the Holy Spirit of God, that having begun the work He will carry it on to completion.
But still my soul am heavenly bound.
New CreationIn the third place, we base the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer upon the fact of the new creation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 we read: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” That verse may be rendered like this: Therefore if any man be in Christ, this is new creation; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.
What do we mean by new creation? Just this: we were once in the place of death; we were once utterly lost and ruined. How did we get there? Follow me now. It was not by any act of our own. Do you say, “I did not get into the place of spiritual death by any act of my own?” No, you did not. Do you say, “I was not lost because of any act of my own?” No, you were not. But why were you numbered among the lost? Because you were born into the world a member of the old creation of which Adam the first was the head, and every child of Adam’s race comes into the world lost and is under sentence of death. And so we read in verse 14, “The love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead.”
The Two Adams
Let me try to make that clear. Here is Adam the first, the head of the old creation, and he was placed on trial in the Garden of Eden. The entire world was represented in him--you were represented in him, I was represented in him. As the Spirit of God says of Levi, “He was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedec met him” (Hebrews 7:10), so we, every one of us, were represented there in Adam when the old creation was on trial. Adam failed, and God said, “In the day thou eatest thereof, dying thou shalt die.” As a result of that failure the old creation fell down in death, and every person that has ever been born in the world since that time was born down there; no one has been born up here, where Adam the first started, except our Lord Jesus Christ, and His birth was a supernatural one. Therefore, as members of the old creation we were all dead, all lost. But now see what happened--our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world (the written Word here speaks of Him as the living Word) and He stood on this plane of sinlessness. Adam was created sinless but fell; Jesus came, the sinless One, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of a virgin mother, but He saw men down there in death, and at the cross He went down into death, down to where man was, and came up in grace from death. But He did not come up alone, for God has quickened us together with Christ, so that all who believe in Him are brought up from that place of death; and as at one time we were made partakers of Adam’s race, so now we are made partakers of a new creation. What does God do for us now? Does He put us where Adam was before and say, “Now behave yourselves, and you won’t die again”? No, He puts us up higher than Adam could ever have gone except by a new and divine creation. “He hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), and because we belong to this new creation we can never be lost. You were lost because the head of the old creation failed, and you went down with him. You can never be lost unless the head of the new creation falls, and if He does you will go down with Him. But, thank God, He remains on the throne where God Himself has put Him, in token of His perfect satisfaction in the work He accomplished.
You may have heard of the Irishman who was converted but was seized with a dreadful fear that some day he might commit some great sin and lose his soul, that he might be lost after all, and he trembled at the thought. He went to a meeting and heard the words read, “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” “Glory to God!” shouted Pat. “Whoever heard of a man drowning with his head that high above water?” We are linked with Him, we belong to the new creation, and that is why we shall never be lost.
Eternal Life Possessed Now
In the last place, we rest the truth of the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer upon the fact that the believer is the present possessor of eternal life. It is not merely that if we are faithful to the end we shall receive eternal life. There is a sense in which that is true; there is a sense in which our hope is eternal life. I am a Christian now if I believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; believing on Him I have eternal life, but I have it in a dying body. I am now waiting for the redemption of the body, and when the Lord Jesus comes the second time He shall change this body of my humiliation and make it like unto the body of His glory. Then I shall have received eternal life in all its fullness, spirit, soul, and body, entirely conformed to Christ. In that sense I am hoping for eternal life. But over and over and over again, Scripture rings the changes on the fact that every believer is at the present time in possession of eternal life. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Adam’s life was forfeitable life; he lost his life because of sin. Eternal life is nonforfeitable life, otherwise it would not be eternal. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Everlasting life is life that lasts forever, and we have it now. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).
His Sheep Follow Him
I have purposely left this point until last because people generally take it for granted it will be the first passage used in taking up this subject. In John 10:27 we are told, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Notice these three things. It matters not what profession a man makes, if he does not hear the voice of the Son of God he is not a Christian, and therefore the Savior does not know him as His own. No matter what profession he may make, if he does not follow the Lord Jesus Christ, he is only a sham and a fraud and a hypocrite. He may follow for a little while outwardly, like those of whom the apostle Peter speaks, who walk in the way of righteousness and then turn from it. “But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22). If that dog had ever been regenerated and become a sheep, if that sow had ever been changed and become a lamb, neither would have gone back to the filth; but, you see, the dog was always a dog, and the sow was always a sow. They were just whitewashed, not washed white, they were never regenerated, and so went back to the old things. But the sheep of Christ are different. “They follow Me,” Jesus says. Be careful. Do not profess to be one of His sheep if you do not follow Him, It is the test of reality. There are many people who tell us, “At such and such a time I was converted, I went forward, I signed a card.” You can do all of these things and be lost forever. What you need is a new birth; and when you are born again, you get a new life; and when you receive a new life, you love to follow Jesus; and if you do not, you are not a Christian. Think about it; examine your own foundations a bit.
A Dangerous Doctrine?
People say, “If you preach this doctrine of the eternal security of the believer, men will say, ‘Well, then it doesn’t make any difference what I do, I will get to heaven anyway.’” It makes a tremendous difference what you do. If you do not behave yourself, it shows that you are not a real Christian. I know that a real Christian may fail, but the difference can be seen in Peter and Judas. Peter failed, and failed terribly, but he was genuine, and one look from Jesus sent him out weeping bitterly; his heart was broken to think that he had so dishonored his Lord. But Judas companied with the Lord almost three-and-a-half years and was a devil all the time; he was a thief and was seeking his own interest. He was even made the treasurer of that company and he held the bag, but we read, “He bare [away] what was put therein” (John 12:6), as this has been literally translated. At last remorse overtook him, not genuine repentance, and what was the result? He went and hanged himself. He was never a child of God. There is a great difference, you see, between a Christian and a false professor.
Justified By Faith
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me: and I give unto them eternal life.” Do you believe it? I do not understand how people can read a passage like that and then talk about a Christian losing his life. It would not be eternal if it could be lost. “And they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand.” The original is very strong here. In the English a double negative makes an affirmative, but in Greek it only strengthens a declaration. “They shall never, no never, perish.” It is impossible, it is unthinkable, that one who has eternal life shall ever perish. “My Father, which gave them Me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand.” Here I am, a poor lost sinner, but the Lord in grace picks me up and saves me, and I am in His hand. And now the Father puts His hand around too, and I am in the hand of the Father and of the Son, and the devil himself cannot get me unless he can loosen those hands. Could you think of any greater security than to be in the hands of the Father and of the Son? “Never perish,” “eternal life”--what wondrous words are these! Do not be afraid of God’s truth. You might as well be afraid of the beginning of the gospel that God can freely forgive and justify a guilty sinner by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. People try to put guards around that truth and say, “Yes, you are justified by faith if you have enough good works to add to it.” That is not true. It is by faith alone, and good works spring from that. When you know you have eternal life, you will find your heart so filled with love for Christ that you will try to live for His glory.
There will be certain passages coming up in the minds of different ones, and they will say, “What he has said may sound logical enough, but what about this Scripture and that?” Let me say, there is no possible Scripture that will come to your mind that the present speaker has not considered carefully over and over again. I have not time in one address to go into all these, but I can assure you that having examined them all with the greatest degree of care, I have never been able to find one that can set aside this: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you have a clear, definite, positive Scripture, do not allow some passage that is perplexing, that is difficult to interpret, that seems somewhat ambiguous, to keep you from believing the positive statement, “He that believeth hath everlasting life.” It is because I have a salvation like this to offer to men, it is because God has sent me to proclaim a salvation like this to sinners, that I have confidence in inviting people to come to Jesus, for I know if they get in living touch with my Savior He will make them His forever.
I recently received from a gentleman a tract entitled “All about the Eternal Security Doctrine.” He is afraid that this doctrine may have a tendency to make people careless about their lives. I can sympathize with him in that for this reason: I was a Christian worker in an organization that believed in what is commonly called the Arminian view; that is, when a person gets converted he has a good start for heaven, and then it is up to him to keep on going. As my old instructor used to say, “Getting to heaven is like riding a bicycle: if I stop, I will fall off.” I believed that thoroughly, so thoroughly that when people spoke to me about being eternally saved I used to say, “That is a doctrine of the evil one; that would mislead people and lead folks to become careless,” until I had a rather rude awakening.
I found our halls were thronged by people who were getting converted over and over again every few weeks. It seemed as though that old hymn, “Ye Must Be Born Again,” should really be sung, “Ye must Be Born Again and Again and Again.” That puzzled me, for I never read of anything like it in the Bible. Then I found that the falling away doctrine had a tendency to make people very careless indeed. Let me give you a concrete example. A young man in whom I was quite interested had been addicted to a certain sin in his unconverted days. After he professed conversion he turned from that particular sin, but he confessed to me privately that he had gone out in the darkness of the night, when no one knew where he was, and had fallen into the same sin many times. “How can you do it?” I asked him. “Well,” he said, “I always make up my mind that I will commit the sin and then get converted again when I come home.” I saw from that how dangerous was the doctrine of being saved today and lost tomorrow. The last time I saw that young man, he said to me, “It’s no use; this sin has such a grip on me that I cannot stand it.” “Don’t yield,” I said. “Let me call in several of the others and let us pray with you.” So four or five of us knelt and prayed very earnestly, but he rose again and clenched his fists, for he was in great agony, and said, “It’s no use. I am going out to sin, but I am coming back to get converted afterwards.” I never saw him again, and I do not know what became of him. That, you see, was one effect of this doctrine that a person loses his salvation when he sins but can come back again and get converted any time he desires. Certainly the Word of God teaches nothing like that. You can see that the Arminian view can be used to turn the grace of God into lasciviousness. It is possible for the other view to be misused also. But I want you to see that the misuse of any doctrine does not in itself prove the teaching is wrong. We need definite Scripture upon which to base our faith. If people have no conscience toward God, they can misuse any doctrine in the Bible.