Question: If God has promised to never forsake His saints (Psalm 37:28), then is it really possible that born again believers can disown/deny Him (2 Tim. 2:12, Matt. 10:33) — and that He`ll do the same with us?
“For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 37:28, NIV)
“if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us;” (2 Timothy 2:12, NIV)
“But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33, NIV)
Answer: Greetings friend. I am glad that you asked this question because it probes “the eternal security of the believer” — a doctrine near and dear to many Evangelicals. But there are verses like yours which when taken in isolation (or when taken with an eye to disprove eternal security) seem to teach that a believer’s salvation could be in jeopardy… but they do this in spite of manifold teachings to the contrary.
So which is it? Are we secure in Christ? Or are we subject to a punishment-fits-the-crime jeopardy when it comes to denying the Christ? And can a true Christian, by either the words of his mouth or the acts of his life, be disowned by the Father in a way that he is banished from the family and barred from the eternal glory? That deserves an honest look, because not every believer subscribes to eternal security… but I do, and I’ll share my two main reasons why.
The first reason is ontological. What else is a believer but a new creation?
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
(2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV) (c.f. Gal. 6:15)
And if we Christians are new creations, how exactly are we a differentiated from the old creation? Where we formerly children of Satan (Eph. 2:2) we are now children of God.
“Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”” (Galatians 4:6, NIV)
And how did we become children of God? By being born again.
“Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”” (John 3:3, NIV)
So, who are we? What is our ontology as believers? First of all, we have been born into a family (as is witnessed by the Spirit in our hearts)… and, as with physical gestation, we cannot reverse this birth. Now, we may kill a person and remove him from the physical realm subsequent to gestation, but we cannot reverse-gestate a person and make it as if he were never created — that’s off the table. So, death is not equal to never-was-ness; once conceived a “new creation” will always be a person… just not always a living person biologically.
Christians are also very much like a butterfly which was once a caterpillar. The new thing is the completed form… and there is no going back to the worm. Now, a butterfly does run some risks… the risks common to other butterflies — like being eaten by a bird. But he never runs the risk of returning to his previous form; he cannot un-pupate… that’s a one-way transformation, and he will never go back to being a caterpillar.
In like manner, people cannot travel back and forth between the old and new creations (Heb. 6:4-6) because we have been transformed into a different type of being. We have a new ontological reality… and we can never go back to the worm.
We who have been born again have changed our category from “persons who are lost” to “persons who are saved”… and we will live out our days in that new playing field. No matter what we say or do, and no matter what some decontextualized Bible snippets might seem to say, our salvation is part of our being — and that new being has no causal dependence upon our doing… and we will continue to be what we have become, no matter what.
The second reason I subscribe to eternal security is because there is only one anti-salvific act under the sun… and no saved person can perform this act. Jesus called it “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:30–32, NIV)
The glories of this verse fly over most people’s heads because they focus on its minority aspect (the condemnation) instead of its majority aspect (the salvation)… I mean, just look at it — it says that all sins are forgivable! Well… all except one. So if we avoid that one particular sin, then there is continual hope for the forgiveness of all other sins… which is just another way of saying that there is continual hope for the salvation of the human soul.
But what exactly is that sin… because it sounds as though talking smack about the Holy Spirit could condemn us irrevocably to hell or more broadly that there is a particular unforgivable sin that we can commit at a point in time… and then it’s over for us! But this is not that. So how does one “speak against the Holy Spirit?” Just ask the Pharisees.
The religious establishment of Jesus’ time — and especially the Pharisees — beheld the miracles that Jesus performed (… and with very clear eyes! [John 3:2]) — yet they refused to respond to the Holy Spirit’s testimony that Jesus was indeed the Christ. That type of infraction is by its very nature continual; it is not something that occurs at a point in time. The hardhearted among the religious establishment continually ignored the ongoing testimony of God the Father (through the miracles Jesus performed) and of the Holy Spirit (who works in the hearts of all people to draw them); in doing so they proactively ignored God’s call to salvation. That is (and singularly so)… unforgivable — and non-forgiveness is the antipode of “being saved.” As such, a person’s “not coming to Christ” is what keeps them from regenerating — from becoming a new creature.
What this means for your question is that all persons who have responded to the Holy Spirit and have found redemption in Jesus Christ have removed themselves from the possibility of performing the only anti-salvific act under the sun — and that’s the 1-2 punch of eternal security: A Christian has been irreversibly changed, and the only sin that can condemn people is no longer available to the believer because of that change.
So, what does God do about the ongoing sins of the believers… because I see Christians doing bad things all the time — and wouldn’t a horrible thing such as publicly disavowing the Christ be such an in-your-face infraction that God would have to do something about that particular crime? Let’s look at Peter for our example.
“… [Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13–17, NIV, emphasis mine)
The above verse shows Peter taking “ownership” of Jesus’ messiahship — just exactly as God had revealed it to him. But look at what Peter did later on — even after that revelation from God and even after its continual reinforcement under Jesus teaching:
“And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.” (Luke 22:55–60, NIV)
Now, did Peter lose his salvation? Because it surely sounds as if he disowned the Christ to me… and three times at that! No — Peter was not lost. In fact, he went on to preach the most Spirit-filled sermon in the history of Christendom (Acts 2), and God was continually with him. You see, we saved-people can look like everybody else… with our denying, disowning and complaining… but we are in a different field of play — the household of God. So, when we “deny” the Christ actually or figuratively, we may lose our intimate fellowship with him, but we do not lose our positions as sons. Now, don’t get me wrong — we are subject to his discipline. But such discipline proves that we are the children of God; it is never about kicking us out of the family.
“because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:6, NIV)
But (and this is a huge but), there are a lot of Christian-looking people out there who give lip service to the Christ (and it’s easy to look and sound like a genuine Christian — especially when things are humming along just fine)… but then they walk away from him when the going gets rough. Now, this could be a believer who was having a rough time living out his faith and is frustrated with the Christian enterprise, but this can also be a pseudo-Christian who has reached the end of his personal resources. You see, it is the trials that test the heart, not peace — and some erstwhile Christians show their true colors when squeezed. But they are not persons who have taken “ownership” of the Christ. So they may look like believers who are denying the Christ, but they are merely persons of the world making their position plain.
At this time I’d like to share one of the possible solutions to the difficulties you see in your specific verses, but I did not want to do this without first making the positive case for eternal security, because no matter what you think of the following solution, a believer is eternally secure as an ontological result of the new nature and the new birth, and he is logically secure because there is only one unforgivable sin… and a saved person is categorically unable to perform it. Therefore, a person’s salvation does not hang on the following solution; this just addresses one difficulty. But as a matter of form, having an educated confidence that salvation is irrevocable makes these technical solutions seem a little less ad hoc to those who don’t usually work in the original languages.
To that end I would like to share Bible.org’s explanation of one common solution for 2 Timothy 2:11-12, and I’ll merely quote their website because I cannot improve on their concision.
…In the first part of this chapter, Paul is urging Timothy to endure for the cause of Christ. He gives Timothy the example of the soldier, who works hard to please his master and the farmer, who works for the reward of the harvest, etc. He then quotes a hymn in verses 11-12 that evidently is doctrinally correct to give Timothy further motivation for enduring. What then is the motivation? We must take the structure into account to determine this.
The second thing to consider is the literary structure of the quote. It is quite common in Hebrew literature to see things arranged around a chiasm. It is possibly the case in this passage. And thus we have the following:
a. For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him.
b. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him;
b.1 If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
a.1 If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself.
Line “a” deals with the issue of eternal life. It is clear that if one has died with Christ, eternal life is his. This first statement is in the aorist which taken in context with the next two tenses, which are present and future, must point to a past event in Paul’s and Timothy’s lives. The death must therefore refer to their positional death with Christ.
Line “b” deals with their present situation. This is in the present tense which points to their present circumstances. They were enduring suffering. If they continued to endure, they would reign with Christ. Reigning is different than living eternally and refers to receipt of rewards and a superior quality of eternal life. This concept can be supported by passages like 1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Pet. 1:11; 2 Cor. 5:9-10; Rom. 14:10. This then is the motivation: eternal rewards, not eternal life.
Line “b1 ” uses the future tense and thus looks to a future possibility in which Paul and Timothy might, in their human weakness, deny Christ. If that were to happen, Christ would certainly deny them something. Here is where the debate centers. But because line “b1” is paired with and contrasted to line “b” in the chiasm, the thing denied must be rewards and the superior quality of life.
Line “a1 ” returns to the topic of eternal life and to the assurance that this eternal life is theirs. Thus Paul says that Christ will remain faithful even though we do not endure.
It must be noted that lines “b” and “b1 ” deal with the same issue and lines “a” and “a1” deal with a different issue. To…. include “b1” and “a1” as being more closely related than “b” and “b1” is to misunderstand Paul’s logic and the logic of the Hebrew mind.
Furthermore, it is characteristic of the chiasm that the center holds the main idea, and so it is in this pericope which is concerning rewards. Thus, understanding the use of the chiastic structure, and taking into consideration the context of giving Timothy further motivation for endurance, helps the reader understand that Paul is explaining that eternal rewards can be earned. And consequently our eternal position is secure, it is the eternal rewards which are at stake.
(Matthew 10:32-33 has a similar solution, so it would be redundant to detail its breakdown.)
An appeal to the chiastic possibilities in the Scriptures can cause an English-speaker’s eyes to glaze over, I know — but the principle is more important than the detail: ancient languages used communicative structures (like chiasms) that do not always come across perfectly into the English. This is why we should resist the temptation to overthrow an otherwise robust doctrine based on a few outlying verses.
That being said, let me encourage you to keep a high confidence in the reliability and understandability of our English Bible translations, because they have transmitted God’s meaning through the centuries with stunning efficiency… but language is a lively thing! We can always know it better.