Several years ago I had a discussion with an individual concerning whether or not a Christian could ever lose his or her salvation. The individual was of the firm belief that such could never happen and the reason he presented for his conviction on the matter was rather interesting. The gentleman referred to 1 John 5:13 and clung tenaciously to it, unable or unwilling to see that it did not teach what he thought it taught.
The verse says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.” His point was that everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ has eternal life – that it is a present possession of an individual, and if a person has eternal life, that is it. If a person has eternal life, if he or she presently possesses it, how can it ever be any different? I either have it, or I don’t. That was his approach.
I tried several different ways to teach this individual that his understanding of 1 John 5:13 was not consistent with the teaching of that book itself nor was it consistent with the teaching of the rest of scripture. Perhaps you have encountered this argument as well. Here is what I believe the Bible to teach about this subject.
First of all, the Christian does not have eternal life as a present possession. It is a promise, as sure as it can be, but a promise nonetheless. In 1 John 2:21-25 we find, “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life.” Surely we can see that a Christian has eternal life in prospect and promise, but not in realization as of yet. We continue to have it as long as that which we have “heard from the beginning abides it” us. If we cast it off, if we reject Christ, we no longer have eternal life in prospect and promise.
I remember the gentleman reacting very negatively to this line of reasoning. He said I was denying what the Holy Spirit clearly said, “that you may know that you have eternal life.” So I tried to explain it in yet another way.
In the book of Joshua, chapter 6, we find the account of the destruction of the city of Jericho by the children of Israel. In Joshua 6:2, we find these words, “And the Lord said to Joshua, See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and the valiant warriors.” The question to ask is, “Did the children of Israel have the city of Jericho when God made that statement?” No, they did not. But they had it in prospect and in promise. If they did what God told them to do, the city was as good as theirs. However, if they did not do what God said, even though He told Joshua, “I have given Jericho into your hand”, the children of Israel would not have received it. It is exactly the same as we found in 1 John 2. If that which we have “heard from the beginning abides in” us, we will have eternal life. It is as good as ours. If it does not abide in us, we will not have eternal life.
Jesus made a statement in Mark 10:29-30 that clearly shows eternal life does not belong to this age, but it is a possession in prospect, or promise. The passage reads, “Jesus said, Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Another way to consider this matter is to look at Titus 1:1-2 where Paul wrote, “Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago.” Paul has taught that we live “in the hope of eternal life.” Couple that with his teaching in Romans 8:24-25. In the context of a discussion of the Christian eagerly and earnestly desiring and expecting a glorious future in heaven, in other words, “eternal life”, he wrote, “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”
Eternal life is coming. It is a possession of the believer now in prospect and promise. If we remain faithful to the Lord it is as good as ours, just as the city of Jericho was as good as theirs if the children of Israel did what God said. Our ultimate realization of that promise is predicated upon that which we have heard abiding in us.