Question: How can we be eternally secure when Paul warns that if we go on sinning, then Jesus will not save us? Paul says we have to kill the sin in us:
“So then, brothers, we are obligated not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all those who are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:12-14).
Answer: That’s a reasonable question. I would first point out that Paul nowhere says that if we sin, Jesus will not save us. That’s your interpretation of this text, but it’s not what the text says.
Instead, Paul warns that living according to the flesh will lead to death. What does that warning mean? Is he warning that a believer can lose salvation if he doesn’t stop sinning? Is he warning against suffering eternal death? Or is this about something else?
Let’s compare Scripture with Scripture.
What is true of the believer according to Jesus?
“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24, emphasis added).
According to Jesus, if you believe, you have eternal life and have passed from death into life. It’s a done deal. The only condition is to believe. There is no mention of also having to stop sinning. If Jesus and Paul were talking about the same kind of eternal death—with Jesus saying we are saved from that through faith and Paul saying we are saved from it by stopping sinning—there would be a contradiction between them.
Furthermore, if eternal death depends on not sinning, that would contradict everything Paul said about justification by faith apart from works. Paul made clear that God justifies ungodly people (i.e., people who sin!):
But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness (Rom 4:5).
And in Romans 6, Paul made clear that eternal life is a free gift:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23).
So, a works salvation interpretation of Rom 8:12-14 would contradict both Jesus and Paul. Since contradiction is a sign of having one or more false beliefs, let’s start over with fresh eyes.
What kind of “death” does Paul mean there?
In Romans 7, Paul presented the problem of life under the law—i.e., it leads to constant defeat against sin, meaning the Law is no more useful for sanctification than justification.
In Romans 8, Paul presents the alternative way of life: life by the Spirit. Christians follow the Spirit, not the Torah.
However, enjoying life in the Spirit is conditional. There is no guarantee that you will automatically live that way. On the contrary, while you’re not obligated to live according to the flesh, you might choose to do that anyway, setting your mind on fleshly things rather than on the Spirit.
Suppose an eternally secure, justified-by-faith-apart-from-works believer insists on continuing in sin. What will happen? He will reap all the negative consequences of it—the divorces, unhappiness, pain, suffering, stress, and conflict it creates. He reaps the experience of “death” in this life.
Instead of having an experience of death, the believer should have an experience of life. To have the very best experience of life in the Spirit, Paul calls us to set our minds on the Spirit and to mortify (i.e., put to death) the sinful deeds of the body. Here is John Scott:
“Having called eternal life a free and undeserved gift (6:23), he is not now making it a reward for self-denial…The rich, abundant, satisfying life, he is saying, can be enjoyed only by those who put their misdeeds to death. Even the pain of mortification is worth while if it opens the door to fullness of life…it is only by putting our evil deeds to death that we experience the full life of God’s children. So we need to redefine both life and death. What the world calls life (a desirable self-indulgence) leads to alienation from God which in reality is death, whereas the putting to death of all perceived evil within us, which the world sees as an undesirable self-abnegation, is in reality the way to authentic life” (Stott, Romans, p. 229-30).
Let me give another supporting quote, this one from Michael Eaton:
Paul is not threatening loss of salvation. They will reap death in their experience no matter what they may be in their position, if they do not respond to what he says. He goes on: but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. You will reap the blessings of eternal life (Eaton, Branch Commentary, p. 474).
Eternally secure believers have a choice.
If you live by the Spirit, you’ll enjoy the blessings that come with having eternal life. Jesus came to give us abundant life (John 10:10; cf. 20:30-31). There is a quality to it you can enjoy to a greater or lesser degree. That is life led by the Spirit.
But if you focus on indulging the flesh, your Christian life will not be what it could have been. It will be a deathly experience, and you’ll be miserable, and when Jesus comes back, you’ll be ashamed. But if you’ve believed in Him, you’ll still be saved. Don’t settle for anything less than the fullness of life.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.