Losing Salvation: Dying in the Middle of a Sin
Q: Our Sunday school was asked if a murderer could go to heaven. My immediate response was yes. The man on the cross next to Jesus was brought home with Jesus. Then came the question, “What if he died in murder without having opportunity to repent?” Wouldn’t such a man be saved? You can never lose your salvation, but you must repent, right?
A: Actually, you’ve asked a couple different questions, so let’s address them separately. In the most general terms, all sinners who seek Jesus Christ’s forgiveness have it. Murders, rapists, and thieves all can have their sins taken away and receive eternal life. As you note, one of those dying beside Jesus admitted that he deserved this punishment and confessed faith by praying that the Christ would save him (see Luke 23:40-42). “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (v. 43)”
As for the specifics, we lack an absolutely clear word of Scripture. Generally, Bible scholars and theologians agree that those whose sins were of weakness rather than deliberate, premeditated offenses against divine Law often have not forsaken God. Even though they may commit serious sins and horrible crimes, those who do not abandon their faith and blaspheme the Holy Spirit are forgiven. After all, until we die, each of us carries the taint of original sin — an inborn rebellion against God that doesn’t end until death fells us.
This condition led Saint Paul to cry, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (Romans 7:15, 19)” Luther expressed this through the Latin phrase simil iustus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinful, or “simultaneously saint and sinner”). Paul, Luther, and countless other believers have recognized that their every living moment was stained by the inclination to sin — an inclination too often put into action by each of us.
If we were forced to wait for perfect holiness in thought, word, and deed before we died, we would live our pitiful lives on earth forevermore. If we died and were forced to wait for this same perfect holiness before entering heaven, we would all be condemned to everlasting damnation. King David and Saint Paul make the same point. David confessed to the Lord, “[N]o one living is righteous before you (Psalm 143:2)” and Paul wrote in Romans 3:9-10 that “all ... are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one....’”
However, “you were ransomed ... with the precious blood of Christ, the spotless Lamb of God. (1 Peter 1:18-19).” His perfection is applied to each believer and our sins are not held against us. We sometimes speak of this as an “alien righteousness,” since it comes from outside ourselves. A “native” or intrinsic righteousness will not be ours until we enter eternity.
This is different from your question about the believer’s inability to lose salvation. The Bible never says, “Once saved, always saved.” Scripture clearly warns against forfeiting the salvation you already possess. The writer of Hebrews, addressing believers, cautions us that “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment. (10:26-27)” Likewise, Paul tells Gentile believers who’ve been grafted into Israel, “Do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (Romans 11:20-21)” The apostle also wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12)”
In other words, we shouldn’t worry about “losing” our salvation, since it’s a free gift from a loving God. However, we can still “throw away” salvation. Therefore, we should guard against false pride and take care to not intentionally and maliciously rebel against Him, for such an action moves the believer into the ranks of the unbelievers and puts his eternal life at risk.
See also my answer to the question Can Bad People Go to Heaven?
Abel painting from Kelly’s Blog.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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