Can we obtain salvation by our own efforts? If we obtain salvation, is it true that we are “once saved, always saved”? Many people are confused about the truth behind these doctrines. Scripture tells us that a Christian is justified by grace (Titus 3:7). So, what does it mean that we must not lose what we have worked for (2 John 1:8)? If justification is by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:8–10), then why is eternal life the reward of the righteous (Matthew 25:46), while eternal death awaits the unrepentant sinner (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8)?
To help answer these questions, consider a vital but often-misunderstood verse in Scripture. Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (KJV).
Clearly, grace is a “gift from God.” But, is this grace a permanent state, such that “once saved, always saved”? To find the answer, we can look more closely at this verse. The phrase “are ye saved” uses a present-progressive verb. A “present-progressive” verb describes an ongoing action. Any good Bible concordance will verify that the KJV correctly renders the tense of the original Greek verb. Sadly, many newer translations wrongly translate the phrase as “you have been saved”—which can wrongly imply a permanent condition—leading readers to infer wrongly the “once saved, always saved” doctrine.
Note in particular that the Greek verb este, used in this verse, does not demand a permanent state. A similar verb construction occurs in Luke 9:55, where Christ rebuked James and John for wanting to call fire down from heaven. Jesus told them, “You know not what manner of spirit you are [este] of.” The context makes it clear that this was a presently continuing state (“present-progressive”), and not a permanent condition. At that particular time (“presently”), James and John were speaking according to a wrong spirit, but it would be foolish to suggest that these two apostles remained forever in that state! Rather, as with any present-progressive verb, the condition may or may not continue into the future.
So, putting all this together, the most precise translation of Ephesians 2:8, in light of modern English grammar, would be that we “are being” saved through faith. Christians have been saved from our past sins by the blood of Christ; we are now “being saved” (Matthew 24:13), and we “shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).
And what of obedience? Millions believe that once they accept Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, they “are” saved. This is the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Although some find it comforting, it is a dangerous false doctrine, for it is not what the Bible teaches! Notice that, as ancient King David recorded in Psalm 51, the Holy Spirit can be “taken” from someone who is obstinately sinful and unrepentant. David had only to remember the tragedy of King Saul, who had the Holy Spirit taken from him (1 Samuel 16:14). The Apostle Paul further develops this point in his letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 6:4–6). So, we can see that the Bible does not teach “once saved, always saved.”
The key to understanding these points is that many have been convinced to assume a false dichotomy. They wonder about grace or obedience, when the Bible teaches the interrelationship of grace and obedience.
Grace is God’s unmerited love and pardon toward us (Titus 3:4–5; Romans 5:10). No one who has ever lived, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ, has ever deserved grace. And no amount of our effort can earn us God’s grace. Grace is a gift from God.
However, grace does not give us a right to sin. Paul asked whether Christians should continue in sin just so grace should abound, he answered definitively: “Certainly not!” (Romans 6:1–2). Rather, by our Christian faith, we “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). If we sin, we commit lawlessness—we break God’s law (1 John 3:4)! We cannot break a law that does not exist! Instead, we use the Holy Spirit that God has given to us, and through that Spirit we grow in grace and righteousness, able to receive God’s gift of eternal life (Romans 6:20–22).