Church Fathers on Eternal Security

Derek Ouellette —  April 29, 2012

I’m not quite sure to what extent, but it is my suspicion that the earliest Christians understood salvation differently than we do. I also think the Bible writers themselves understood salvation, and the nuances of “faith”, “works”, “law”, and so on, differently than we.

While the Church Father’s did not agree on everything, when they speak with one voice on any particular subject I think wisdom dictates that we should listen and give their voice a great deal of weight.

Such is the subject of this post. It seems that in regards to the idea that once someone “believes unto salvation” that there is no chance they will not continue in that state to the end, our Father’s protest.

“We ought therefore, brethren, carefully to inquire concerning our salvation. Otherwise, the wicked one, having made his entrance by deceit, may hurl us forth from our life.” ~ Barnabas (c. 70-130)

“For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he will no be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints. But to the unbeliever, repentance will be possible even to the last day… For the Lord has sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life to despair.” ~ Hermas (c. 150)

“I hold further, that those of you who have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back for some reason to the legal dispensation [i.e. the Mosaic Law], and have denied that this man is Christ, and have not repented before death – you will by no means be saved.” ~ Justin Martyr (c. 160)

“Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons.” ~ Irenaeus (c. 180)

“God had foreseen… that faith – even after baptism – would be endangered. He saw that most persons – after obtaining salvation – would be lost again, by soiling the wedding dress, by failing to provide oil for their torches.” ~ Tertullian (c. 213)

“Certain ones of those [heretics] who hold different opinions misuse these passages. They essentially destroy free will be introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost.” ~ Origen (c. 225)

“Being a believing man, if you seek to live as the Gentiles do, the joys of the world remove you from the grace of Christ.” ~ Commodianus (c. 240)

“Let us press onward and labor, watching with our whole heart. Let us be steadfast with all endurance; let us keep the Lord’s commandments. Thereby, when that day of anger and vengeance comes, we may not be punished with the ungodly and the sinners. Rather, we may be honored with the righteous and with those who fear God.” ~ Cyprian (c. 250)

“As to one who again denies Christ, no special previous standing can be effective to him for salvation. For anyone of us will hold it necessary that whatever is the last thing to be found in a man in this respect, that is where he will be judged. All of those things that he has previously done are wiped away and obliterated.” ~ Treatise on Re-Baptism (c. 257)

“He put a seal upon him, for it is concealed as to who belong to the side of the devil and who to the side of Christ. For we do not know out of those who seem to stand whether they will fall or not. And of those who are down, it is uncertain whether they might rise.” ~ Victorinus (c. 280)

Et cetera, et cetera…

While they may disagree with one another on this point or that point, the one consistent theme which they seem to agree on is that even “after obtaining salvation” – as Tertullian puts it – one may be “disinherited by Him” (to quote Irenaeus) if they cease to be faithful (which is inextricably tied up to obedience according to Hebrews 4).

And by the way, I find Origen’s thoughts to be of particular interest. Apparently during the first few centuries of the Church – that is, prior to Augustine – it was the heretics who promised salvation “in such a way that they cannot be lost.”

It was the Gnostics – and then Augustine, Luther, Calvin and so on – who taught “once saved always saved.”

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Morgan Guyton

    Thanks for this resource! Very interesting. Hope you’ve been well.

  • LexCro


    Great stuff here! Your last post (and the subsequent comments) had me thinking of where the pre-Augustinians church fathers landed on perseverance. As someone who also holds to conditional perseverance, I often ask advocates of eternal security/perseverance of the saints how it is that the early church fathers arrived at such a unilateral consensus on the issue if, indeed, biblical authors like Paul, Peter, and John taught that regenerated saints cannot lose their salvation. How could they have all arrived at the notion that salvation could be forfeited if such a notion was foreign to the Church? Why don’t we at least have hint of a person or group who introduced conditional perseverance over and against the impossibility of loss of salvation? Why don’t we have any record of dissent on the issue? I think the answer is clear: The pre-Augustinian church fathers were persuaded by the Scriptures (e.g. Mk. 9:42-50; Jn. 15:5-8, 17:12; Rom. 11:17-22; Col. 1:21-23; Heb. 6:1-12, 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 2:20-22; Rev. 22:19, among others) that salvation could be forfeited. I used to hold to eternal security. But once I was forced to seriously wrestle with what the Scriptures say on the issue, I was compelled to change my tune. Thanks for posting this!

  • Peter

    Martin Luther did not hold to Irresistible Grace or Perseverance of the Saints either. He did believe in the Bondage of the Will, and was a determinist, however…

  • Anna

    nicely done! sharing :)

  • Dave Leigh

    Interesting that Origen is credited with being the first voice for universalism in the early church and Tertullian, although he gave us the term “Trinity” later left the faith to join the Montanists.

    I wonder how fragile and precarious these “fathers,” who were wrong and conflicted on so many points, thought their salvation to be — it having been purchased by the eternal and incorruptible blood of Christ.

  • LexCro

    @ David,

    I don’t think that your comments about the early church fathers stand up well against what Derek has presented. I mean, by your reasoning, shouldn’t we toss out what they said the Trinity because of the fact that they were “wrong and conflicted on so many [other] points”? The fact is that they were UNANIMOUS about this point. As I pointed out earlier, this is a massive historical problem for folks who adhere to eternal security/perseverance of the saints. Where did this consensus come from? Why is there absolutely no record of dissent? Also, Tertullian never “left the faith”. He believed the Montanist prophecies (which were wrong). Because he had a penchant for asceticism, Tertullian also admired the Montanists for their ascetic rigor. However, despite defending the Montanists, Tertullian always remained a catholic Christian. And even if Origen was a universalist, why would that mean that he was wrong about the possibility of apostasy for the regenerate? Also, how would his belief in universalism make him incorrect about his historical (not theological) point with respect to the Gnostic belief in impossibility of salvation for some and the impossibility of loss of salvation for others? And even if we do away with Tertullian and Origen, what of the other pre-Augustian church fathers who unilaterally held to the belief that regenerate persons could apostatize? And from what I’ve read of the church fathers, they believed in the power of God to save through the Gospel and life lived in the Spirit. Belief in apostasy need not lead to fragility of salvation, and it did not lead to fragility of salvation for them.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Here’s my observation: people who accept once saved always saved have a misunderstanding of those who do not. They have an all or nothing bipolar view of things.

    Either it’s once genuinely saved always saved OR you fall in and out of salvation at will.

    Ah yes, it’s EITHER Augustine OR Pelagius. But no, those are not the only options. There is the Arminian/Church Fathers option.

    Coming to accept a view that some might consider heretical, perhaps that is heretical, does not mean that one is no longer saved, it merely means that they are mistaken on a particular point. The Church Father’s knew this and did not have the type of insecurity that Dave suggests. In fact, I’d say he has it precisely backwards. I’ve shown in the previous posts that the Once Saved Always Saved view (when mingled with determinism) is logically incompatible with Salvation Assurance. And the opposite is true as well, rejection of Once Saved Always Saved OFFERS the believer a GREATER MEASURE of assurance of salvation. I suppose I’ll have to write a post to back that up. Forthcoming.

  • Dave Leigh

    Not sure how you guys interpreted me as arguing againt Derek. I was simply making some observations that raised a question for me. Geesh!

  • THEOparadox

    I agree that some people have an all or nothing bipolar view of the other side. But in my observation this is true on both sides. However, those who hold to the full Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverance/preservation of the saints (not OSAS) are not so far off, in practice, from those who take an Arminian approach with a strong component of Biblical assurance. Either one could accept the short summary of Biblical assurance I mentioned in a comment on the previous post. Our natural tendency is to paint the other side as an irrational and extreme straw man by emphasizing one apparently logical outcome of their position – an outcome which they may actually deny.

    Bottom line: assurance & perseverance are complicated. Those who hold a Biblically balanced position within an orthodox theological system ought to be applauded, even if we disagree vehemently with the system.

    BTW – as a Calvinist I find these quotes challenging. They push me to study my Bible and Church History more closely. They give me one more reason to understand why my Arminian brothers don’t adhere to what I think is blindingly obvious in the Scriptures.

  • LexCro

    @ THEOparadox,

    I actually think that you’re onto something with respect to Calvinists and Arminians having lots in common on the practical side of the issue of assurance. We Arminians who hold to conditional perseverance (some of us hold to some form of OSAS) just believe that these Calvinistic practicalities are out of step with Calvinistic theology on multiple levels.

  • JonX

    It’s pretty much universally agreed that the pre-Augustine Fathers did not hold to perseverance of the saints since a) they heavily emphasize free will and b) they never mention the doctrine. And even after Augustine’s writings, no one in the East accepted it and only few in the West. But then again, the Fathers were much more concerned with devotion and holiness than theoretical doctrines until Augustine. I use the term theoretical because that’s what most systematic theology actually is. Very little of our theology today is so spelled out in scripture. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But, don’t expect the Fathers to offer us much support.

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  • steve davis

    you’re using primarily extra-biblical writings to support your beliefs regarding sternal security? What about the vast number of actual biblical references that do support it?

    • Derek Ouellette

      You missed the point of this post. My goal here is simply to show that the early Christians did not share the beliefs of determinists. If you’re fine with that, then so be it. As for what the scriptures teach, the matter is quite controversial, but there is much BIBLICAL evidence against “eternal security” and I’ve written on that before to. You’ll just have to search my archives for those posts. Peace.

      • MithrandirOlorin

        You only prove the leadership didn’t. Jesus hated the doctrine of the Nicolatians. They didn’t even teach Salvation being by Faith Alone to begin with BTW.

  • Guest

    I think you clearly have not studied Augustine and Luther well.

    “But the devil devotes himself to making men secure,
    teaching them to heed neither law nor sin, so that if sometime they are
    suddenly overtaken by death or by a bad conscience, they have grown so
    accustomed to nothing but sweet security that they sink helplessly into hell.
    For they have learned to perceive nothing in Christ but sweet security.
    Therefore such terror must be a sure sign that Christ (whom they understand as
    sheer sweetness) has rejected and forsaken them. That is what the devil strives
    for, and that is what he would like to see.” (Luther in the antinomian letters)

    “No One is Certain and Secure of His Own Predestination and Salvation… But, moreover, that such things as these are so spoken to saints who will persevere, as if it were reckoned uncertain whether they will persevere, is a reason that they ought not otherwise to hear these things, since it is well for them “not to be high-minded, but to fear” Augustine in Treatise on Rebuke and Grace

  • MithrandirOlorin

    First of all Barnabas is not a Church Father. That was a forged letter written during the Bar Kochba revolt with an Anti-Semitic agenda.

  • MithrandirOlorin

    The Church Father were the founder of Catholicism, that heresy didn’t begin with Constantine. And they showed a willing to lie when ti suited them.

    We should not take them at their word on what they accuse the “Heretics” they attacked of. It woudn’t suprise me if many of them were really only hated because they tought Faiht Alone and Eternal Security. history is written by the Winners. Oaul warned of False Teachers arisingas soon as he died. That’s 64-7 AD, if we believe what the Church Fathers siad on that event.

  • MithrandirOlorin

    Actually the Origen quote supports my theory.

  • Gary

    Here is my story: I grew up fundamentalist Baptist. I repented of all my sins and accepted Jesus Christ into my heart to be my Lord and Savior at age nine…and again in my early teens…just to be sure. In my early 20’s my family moved to another state where we attended a non-denominational, evangelical mega-church (which taught Baptist doctrine) for several years. In my mid to late 20’s I stopped going to church because I didn’t “feel” God inside me and he didn’t seem to listen when I prayed.

    I remained unchurched until I was married in my forties. I started attending liberal churches. When we had children, I started looking again at more conservative/fundamentalist churches, something closer to what I had believed as a child and teenager. We joined a conservative, orthodox Lutheran church. I became very involved in the church. I was happy and content in my orthodox Christian belief system. I read the Bible and prayed regularly.

    One day I was surfing the internet and came across an atheist’s website. He was a former fundamentalist Baptist/evangelical pastor! I was shocked! I started to engage him in conversation, and also tried to bring him back to the Faith, to belief in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

    However, this man pointed out to me some very big assumptions in my Christian belief system which I had never thought of, such as:

    1. Just because there is evidence for a Creator does not mean that the Creator is the Christian God, Yahweh.

    2. Our current Bibles contain thousands of scribe alterations, most of them inconsequential, but a couple of them are shocking. Why did God allow scribes copying the original Scriptures to change, delete, add, or alter his inerrant, Holy, Word?

    3. How do we know that the books of the New Testament are the Word of God? Is there a verse that tells us? Did Jesus give us a list? Did Paul?

    4. Do we really have any verifiable eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection or is it all hearsay and legend?

    5. Modern archaeology proves that the Captivity in Egypt, the Exodus, the forty years in the Sinai, the Conquest of Canaan, and the great kingdoms of David and Solomon are only ancient Hebrew fables.

    At first I fought him tooth and nail. I fought him for four months. At the very end I had to admit that there are no verifiable eyewitness accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus in the Bible or anywhere else. All we have are four anonymous first century texts full of discrepancies and contradictions. The only thing I had left to attach my faith to was the testimony of the Apostle Paul: why would a devout Jewish rabbi convert to a religion he so hated unless he really saw a resurrected dead man on the Damascus Road?

    But after studying the five Bible passages that discuss Paul’s conversion, I had to admit that Paul never says he saw a resurrected body. All Paul says is that he saw a light…and that this event occurred in a “heavenly vision”. Visions are not reality…not in the 21st century nor in the 1st.

    And as for the improbability that a Jewish rabbi would convert to a hated religion, there is a Muslim cleric in Israel today who not too many years ago was an ardent Zionist Jewish settler and rabbi, intent on ridding the Muslims from Jewish land.

    Strange conversions occur. They do not prove that the new religion is true and inerrant.

    I was broken-hearted, but I saw my Christian Faith was nothing more than an ancient superstition that had been modified in the first century by Jesus, a good man, but a dead man. There is zero evidence that this first century Jew is alive and the Ruler of the Universe.

    • Joel L

      Hi Gary,

      Thanks for sharing your story, and some of your experiences with churches, religion, and just life in general! To put my cards out on the table upfront, my experiences are somewhat similar to yours, especially regarding upbringing in conservative churches, engaging with atheists and common objections to Christianity, and wrestling with difficult questions in search for the truth.

      Let me start by saying, I’m not going to answer your questions, at least not explicitly. Nothing that you said in your 5 points is new, or unanswerable, but I don’t think me giving you answers is what will be most helpful, and I say that for a few reason:

      1. If the Resurrection is true, 1,4 and 5 (Jesus taught the Exodus, David, etc) are all answered. When it comes to history, it’s not the same as 2+2=4, there is some degree of uncertainty. Nevertheless, you can’t say the Resurrection is impossible unless you presume the worldview of atheism. What you need to decide is, what would be sufficient evidence for you to believe the Resurrection, and, if the Resurrection is not true what is the best alternate hypothesis to explain in the simplest way the events of history surrounding the emergence of the Jewish sect that became Christianity?

      2. Recently, I’ve been wrestling with the question (based on Romans 8:15-16) of does the Holy Spirit testify with my spirit that I’m a child of God. I’d start by asking you, during the time in which you made the good confession and held the faith, did the Spirit testify with your spirit that you were a child of God? Did he give you a faith that was, according to Hebrews 11, ‘the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen.’? Personally, the answer I came to was ‘I don’t know, and as I think you probably would know if the Holy Spirit of God was dwelling in your spirit and bearing witness, no, the Spirit doesn’t testify to me in that way?’ At this point, I had two options, the same two options you have.

      A. Using whatever faith there is in you by the grace of God, cry out to Him for him to save you. Let this be a true test of whether the Bible is God’s Word. Jesus said in John 6:40 that it’s the Father’s will that ‘we would look on the Son, and believe in Him, and receive eternal life, and I (Jesus) will raise him up at the last day.’ Go before God and cry out to Him for Him to save you from the sins of the flesh and from the judgement that is to come. Let Him not rest until His Spirit impresses onto your soul in an undeniable way that You are His and He is yours.
      The Bible says that Jesus died, and that as He hung there on the Cross the wrath of God directed towards our sin was poured out on the Son, crushing Him, until the full payment for sin was made and Jesus cried out ‘It is finished.’ The Bible says that God raised Jesus from the dead 3 days later, and that this resurrection is the evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. If you need more evidence than the Resurrection, there is no hope for you but a certain expectation of judgement. Jesus was ‘given over because of our sin, and raised for our justification.’ By faith, God can declare you righteous, and save you both from the judgement to come, and from the power of sin in this present age by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. This is the Gospel. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. But is or was it ever true for you? Did God ever made you a new creation; if he did trust me, you would know he did. If not, let ‘this is the day of salvation!’ Come to Him in prayer, plead to Him for mercy, for salvation, and for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If you wake up the next morning, and He has not heard, cry out again, He will not tarry long. Or, you have the option to not don’t do any of this, and do the opposite instead….

      B. Don’t cry out to God. You may decide that investigating the Resurrection, and/or crying out to God for salvation is too much work. It’s not worth it; you would be a fool to try such a thing. Friend, for the sake of your soul and for the sake of your families souls, how much work could possibly be too much? You have the ability and the freedom to walk away, and abandon any lasts shreds of faith you may still hold. If you can justify to yourself that it’s not worth it, that holding on to whatever you live for now is more satisfying than knowing, personally and intimately, the Creator as your Father, this is the pathway to fulfil that choice.

      I realise this is quite long, and you may have stopped reading long before this point. But I pray that you might have seen this, and read this far. I realise my way of responding to this might sound unloving, and no doubt some people will believe that. I could have simply told you that it is ok, everything is relative, and it’ll probably work out ok in the end. But to me, to speak nice, sweet sounding and false words would be the peak of being unloving. We’ve never met and probably never will, but I hope and pray that you would see this, and that as you read the Spirit of God would be willing to use this in some small way.