In Part 1 of this mini-series, I tackled the idea of eternal life as providing some present experience and yet, a majority of eternal life is a future reality that Christians have never experienced. The New Testament calls it “the hope of eternal life,” and Paul makes it clear in Romans 8 that if we hope for our future salvation, then it isn’t sight — and if we already have it in its fullness, then we need not hope for what we already see or experience. So, with that said, we arrive at the million-dollar question: can eternal life be lost? The King James Version poster above says that if eternal life is truly eternal, it can’t be lost.
Is this true?
No. Not at all. I go into the reason below.
The answer to the question regarding eternal life being eternal if it can be lost requires us to distinguish between two concepts: 1) the nature of eternal life and 2) the nature of the promise.
The nature of eternal life
Eternal life is eternal. When we get to Heaven, believers will be with the Lord forever. Once believers arrive to Heaven, they cannot be “kicked out” of Heaven. In this regard, eternal life is truly eternal in that it lasts forever.
The nature of the promise
Does the promise last forever? No. Sinners are told in Scripture that if they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, they will have eternal life. And yet, the promise is not eternal: it doesn’t last forever. If sinners do not accept Jesus before their last breath, the promise is no longer available to them. I’m well aware of postmortem evangelism and its attempts to give people “a second chance” after human death, but Scripture does not speak to this (in my mind, postmortem evangelism is speculation without biblical support). So, the promise isn’t eternal, though the prize (eternal life) is eternal once believers receive it.
If eternal life is eternal when you experience it, then why isn’t it eternal now?
If eternal life is eternal, why isn’t it eternal now? Why isn’t eternal life eternal at the moment of reception? Well, eternal life itself is eternal. It’s “eternal life” for a reason. And yet, our earthly reception isn’t the same as the eternal experience. Believers “lay hold” of eternal life when they receive it initially by faith (1 Timothy 6:19). And yet, to “lay hold” of eternal life is not the same as actually experiencing eternal life itself. I can lay hold of a money prize, but that isn’t the same as actually spending the money prize itself. Laying hold of the prize is to receive it; experiencing the prize is another step, distinct from the prize’s reception.
So with that said, reception and application are two different things.
The promise versus the prize
With the discussion of the nature of the promise and the nature of eternal life, it appears as though the promise and the prize are two different things. They are.
Some assume that both the promise and the prize are the same and thus, must be treated or considered in the same way. This is simply not true.
The promise of eternal life is conditional
Promises can be conditional. Promises are not guaranteed unless they say as much. And when it comes to eternal life, God has not promised eternal life to particular individuals “without condition.”
One thing that I think advocates of the “eternal life is forever, so the promise is guaranteed” view need to understand is that promises can be conditional. Those who say that eternal life isn’t eternal if it can be lost believe that the promise of eternal life is unconditional: that is, they believe it is without condition. But this poses a problem.
First, think about how you got saved. You repented and believed the gospel. You heard the Word of the gospel, Scripture, and then you repented of your sins and confessed that Jesus is Lord. You said you believe in Him and that you wanted Him to come into your life and cleanse you of your sins. All believers do things along these lines today. Well, “repenting” and “believing,” and “confessing” Jesus is Lord are conditions. Take John 3:16, for example:
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, NKJV)
There is a promise in John 3:16. The promise is everlasting life. But the condition is “whoever believes in Him,” that is, believes in Jesus. So the promise is not without condition.
Look at Romans 10:
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV)
Here in Romans 10, there are conditions to being saved: first, “confess with your mouth” (v.9) and next, “believe in your heart.” The verse doesn’t read, “be saved,” but rather, “if” you confess and believe, you will be saved. These conditions are necessary for salvation. So, if the promise of God is the promise of salvation unto eternal life, and salvation comes with conditions, then the promise of God comes with conditions.
Eternal life comes with the condition of keeping the faith
I haven’t said much about time and eternity specifically, but I can here. There’s time and eternity. Eternal life is called “eternal” because you receive the gift in eternity, not in time. You can’t receive the fullness of eternal life in time because time is not eternal. If time were eternal, it wouldn’t be time. Time implies temporality by nature, which means there’s a beginning to time and an end to it. Eternity is without end, unceasing. In fact, even though we’re in time right now, eternity is in existence too. We’re outside of eternity, but eternity has always existed.
This is why theologians distinguish “before time” with the words “in eternity past.” Of course, eternity and past don’t belong together. In eternity, there is no “past” because “past” implies time. And yet, we talk this way about eternity prior to creation because we have no other way to talk about it. “Eternity past” is an accommodationist term, but it’s the human way of grappling with eternity’s existence prior to time.
This eternity/time distinction is important because it helps when considering how we have eternal life in time versus how we’ll own it in eternity. In time, we can only have the promise of eternal life. The promise, as I’ve said above, isn’t the prize, however. That’s a huge distinction worth making.
What must believers do in time to inherit eternal life in eternity?
To inherit eternal life in eternity, what must believers do in time? Most believers agree that there must be an initial confession and belief. This is virtually uncontested. However, where believers differ is when it comes to the rest of the Christian life. Is belief a one-time act, or is it something you must continue throughout the rest of your life?
According to Scripture, believers must retain faith. The Apostle Paul said at the end of his life that he had “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Jesus says that the one who follows Him must “take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23). One must remain in faith until the end, according to 2 Timothy 4:7. Jesus says believers must take up their cross daily and follow Him (daily). And, in case keeping the faith until death isn’t iterated enough, Jesus says it in the Book of Revelation to the Smyrna church:
10 Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10, NKJV)
“Be faithful until death” is explicit, a direct statement about keeping faith until death. The saints we read about in Hebrews 11’s Roll Call of Faith all “died in faith” (Hebrews 11:13).
So we must keep faith until the end of our time on earth to inherit eternal life, experienced in eternity. Keeping faith, remaining faithful, is a condition we must perform in time.
The idea that the promise of eternal life is without condition falls flat on its face. Believers must believe the gospel to be saved initially, and they must continue to keep the faith throughout their lives, until death. We see in the Parable of the Sower that believers can have initial faith but fall away due to temptation (Matthew 13:20-21; Mark 4:16-17; Luke 8:13). What this means is that, if keeping the faith until death is necessary, and a believer falls away in time, that individual can no longer claim to be a believer and no longer lays hold of the promise of eternal life. The individual has forfeited the promise of eternal life by choosing to turn away from their initial faith confession.
There is time, and there is eternity. There is the promise, and there is the prize. We can’t conflate the two (promise, prize), and we can’t conflate time and eternity. Those who do so believe that we are in full reception of eternal life here. Living only “a few days” on this earth ( ), if eternal life is given here in its fullness, eternal isn’t eternal. You can’t lose eternal life when you’re in eternity, but you can lose (forfeit) eternal life here by throwing away your confidence/faith, that has great reward (Hebrews 10:35-39).