The Inadequate Historical Precedent for
“Once Saved, Always Saved”

Steve Witzki

John Jefferson Davis wrote an article titled: “The Perseverance of the Saints: A History of the Doctrine” [Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 34:2 (June 1991)]. Three things make this article of great value. First, it was written by a well-known and highly respected Calvinist theologian. Second, it covers the key people and church groups on the topic. Third, it demonstrates that “once saved, always saved” or unconditional eternal security was not a doctrine that was taught by the ancient church, nor for that manner, by any well-known theologian before John Calvin. This doctrine is, in fact, completely foreign in the history of Christianity.

While the first extensive discussion of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is found in Augustine’s Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance, written around A. D. 429, Augustine believed it was possible to experience the justifying grace of God and yet not persevere to the end. Augustine did believe God’s elect would certainly persevere to the end, but he denied that a person could know they were in the elect and he also warned it was possible to be justified but not among the elect. Not until Calvin was unconditional election, permanent regeneration, and certitude of final perseverance all connected.

James Akin, a Catholic theologian, said in a debate with Calvinist theologian James White that no one before Calvin taught that predestination to grace automatically entails predestination to glory.
You can check that out for yourself. I did. I searched multiple books and called half a dozen Calvinist seminaries, talking to their systematic theology and church history professors, and no one could name a person before Calvin who taught this thesis. They all said Calvin was the first. I even called John Jefferson Davis, a scholar who published an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society on the history of this doctrine, a man who is himself a Calvinist, but who has researched the history of this doctrine thoroughly, and he said Calvin was the first to teach it.

This poses a problem even for those who claim that they take their teachings exclusively from Scripture, namely, "How could a doctrine this important--if true--remain completely undiscovered for the first 1500 years of Church history and, if Jesus comes back any time soon, for three quearters of all of Church history?"

Other important doctrines have been known all through Christian history. Christians always knew, even when heretics denied it,that Jesus Christ was God. Christians always knew, even when heretics denied it, that Jesus Christ is fully man as well as fully God. And Christians always knew, even when heretics denied it, that they were saved purely by God's grace.

So when it turns out that Christians never knew that true Christians can never fall away, and then suddenly 1500 years later someone starts claiming it, one has to ask who is conveying the true teaching of the apostles and who is teaching the heresy “Are All True Christians Predestined to Persevere?”

Akin’s remarks are accurate and problematic for Calvinist scholars. Furthermore, the Calvinist does not fare any better when one looks even more deeply into what the early Christians believed about this issue. In 1998, Hendrickson Publishers printed A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers. Under the topic heading of “Salvation,” we find the question, “Can those who are saved ever be lost?” After several Scriptural passages are quoted [2 Chron 15:2; Ezek 33:12; Matt 10:22; Luke 9:62; 2 Tim 2:12; Heb 10:26; 2 Pet 2:20-21], five pages of quotes are given from the writings of early Christian leaders. These quotes give evidence that the early church did not believe in “once saved, always saved.” They taught that it was possible for a genuine believer to reject God and wind up eternally separated from God in hell [pp. 586-591].

David Bercot, editor of this dictionary, also wrote a provocative book called, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? It takes today’s Evangelical Church, both its lifestyle and teaching, and looks at it in the light of early Christian teaching. It is an interesting book that comes from someone who has read through the entire works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers more than once. He writes,
Since the early Christians believed that our continued faith and obedience are necessary for salvation, it naturally follows that they believed that a “saved” person could still end up being lost. For example, Irenaeus, the pupil of Polycarp, wrote, “Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him…. Therefore we should not be puffed up…. But we should beware lest somehow, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins but rather be shut out from His kingdom” (Heb. 6:4-6) [p. 65].

What the Christian Church historically believed about the security of the believer is not the ultimate test for determining our stance on this issue today, but the lack of historical precedent should serve as a warning. Before John Calvin, the teaching of unconditional eternal security was not a doctrine that was taught by the universal church through the centuries. Therefore, while the Scriptures are the ultimate test for truth on this issue, “once saved, always saved” teachers need to acknowledge that their doctrine is historically an anomaly. Furthermore, the brand of “once saved, always saved” teaching that tells people that they can stop believing and still be on their way to heaven (but with less rewards) is nowhere to be found in historic Christianity prior to the twentieth century.


RETURN TO INDEX