The Meaning of Eternal Life and Who Possesses It

Steve Witzki

Many people have also misunderstood the meaning of “eternal life” as it is used in the Scriptures because they have listened to “once saved, always saved” teachers. The OSAS proponents often argue that “eternal life” can not be lost, or better yet forfeited, or else “eternal life” would not be “eternal.” This is a philosophical argument that is not based upon the Scriptural understanding of how a person partakes of eternal life.

Eternal life is the life that issues from the eternal God. Since God has and always will be eternal (Psalm 90:2), he “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim 6:16), and “life in himself” (John 5:26) and has “granted the Son to possess life in himself” (John 5:26). Eternal life is eternal whether a person does or does not trust in the eternal God. Since God is the source of eternal life it follows that one’s possession of it is only through a faith relationship with the eternal God and his eternal Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus said in John 5:24, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him [God the Father] who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” On this verse NT scholar Henry Alford writes: “hath everlasting life: so 1 John 5:12,13. The believing [pisteuo], and the having [echo] everlasting life, are commensurate:—where the faith is, the possession of eternal life is:—and when the one remits, the other is forfeited” (The New Testament for English Readers, p. 508, emphasis is his).

Please note that both of the verbs, believe and has, are in the present tense. In this particular verse, the person who keeps on trusting in God the Father, who sent his Son, continues to possess eternal life. However, more often the Scriptures reveal that eternal life is one’s possession through faith in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The apostle John concisely summed up this truth with these words: “He who possesses the Son has life indeed; he who does not possess the Son of God has not that life” (1 John 5:12, The New English Bible).

Thus, when Charles Ryrie defines eternal security as: “The work of God which guarantees that the gift of God (salvation), once received is possessed forever and cannot be lost” (So Great Salvation, p. 155-156, emphasis mine), he is biblically mistaken. Ryrie, like many OSAS defenders, holds that one act of faith results in one possessing salvation forever. However, the Scriptures reveal a decidedly different reality. In the NT the Greek word echo is translated as “possess” in contexts that involve personal relationships. For example, John 5:39-40 in the NIV reads:

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess (echo) eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have (echo) life.”

In talking to these Jewish people, Jesus makes it clear that since they stubbornly refuse to come to him in faith they do not possess life since he is the source of eternal life. Unfortunately, the NIV does not remain consistent in translating echo as possess in verse 40 as it did in verse 39 when the context allows for the same English word to be used. It should be noted that in every clear instance where the Scriptures states who possesses eternal life it is always conditioned upon a continual trust in Christ. It also should be noted that in each of these contexts echo is in the present tense. Therefore, those who possess and continue to possess eternal life are only those people who trust and continue to trust in Jesus Christ. It can also be seen that spiritually possessing life from the Son and the Father is conditional upon a faith that continues to remain in the teachings of Christ and/or his disciples. This involves not denying that Jesus is the Christ, and not hating ones’ “brothers” or “sisters,” [see references in 1 and 2 John below.]

Carefully read the following verses where possess or possesses (echo) appears. I have consistently translated each occurrence in these particular contexts as “possess” or “possesses” and have put them in bold type. I have also taken the time to italize the important present tense verbs that arise in the text that refer to linear or on going action.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may now possess eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but possess eternal life” (John 3:14-16).

“He who believes in the Son possesses eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36, NASB).

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me possesses eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father possesses life in himself, so he has granted the Son to possess life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John5:24-29).

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me [in faith] will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me [in faith], and whoever comes to me [in faith] I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall possess eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’”(John 6:35-40).

“I tell you the truth, he who believes possesses everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you possess no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood possesses eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You possess the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:47-69).

“When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life’”(John 8:12).

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may possess life, and possess it to the full” (John 10:9-10).

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may possess life in his name” (John 20:30 -31).

“Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son possesses the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son possesses the Father also. See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—even eternal life” (1 John 2:22-25).

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer possesses eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:14-15, NASB).

“Anyone who believes in the Son of God possesses this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who possesses the Son possesses life; he who does not possess the Son of God does not possess life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you possess eternal life” (1 John 5:10-13).

“Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not possess God; whoever continues in the teaching possesses both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9).

From the Scriptural testimony above, one does not arrive at the definition of eternal security that Ryrie gives. Furthermore, we must reject the following statements that Charles Stanley makes in his book, Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure: “God does not require a constant attitude of faith in order to be saved [forever]—only an act of faith” (p. 80, emphasis is his). “Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy” (p. 93, emphasis mine). These statements are absurd in light of the Scriptural evidence. Unfortunately, many people have arrived at these same unbiblical conclusions because they have allowed OSAS teachers to do their thinking for them. It’s time for people to study the Bible for themselves, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and cast off the OSAS theological eyeglasses that prevent them from understanding the will of God and walking in it. Life is only in the Son. Continue trusting in the Son, and you will continue to possess eternal life, both now and more fully in the age to come.