Can a Christian Lose Their Salvation?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can a Christian lose their salvation? Is salvation guaranteed? Are there categories of sin?

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, salvation can be forfeited. However, his views on sin and the loss of salvation differ in some ways from the perspectives of the Catholic church, John Calvin, and other Christians.

Read more to learn about these various theological views.

Views on Sin and Salvation

Can a Christian lose their salvation? Bonhoeffer says yes. He brings up the example of Judas Iscariot. Judas was one of Jesus’s original 12 disciples. As recorded in Matthew 10:1-8, Judas even preached the gospel and performed miracles according to Christ’s command (along with the other disciples). But in the end, Judas betrayed Jesus and therefore lost his salvation. If Judas could fall away from discipleship, presumably we also can. 

Bonhoeffer goes on to cite passages such as Galatians 5:19-21, which admonish the church against certain sins, such as fornication and idolatry, and assert that God will not allow people who commit these sins into Heaven. According to Bonhoeffer, these sins can be forgiven only at the time a person is initially baptized, and a person can be baptized only once. So, if a man who has already been baptized commits fornication (for example), then he will face inevitable damnation.

Controversy Over Loss of Salvation and Categories of Sin

Bonhoeffer’s assertion that disciples who commit certain sins will face unavoidable damnation is at odds with most mainstream Christian teachings. To illustrate this, let’s compare how different churches classify sins with regard to their effect on your salvation.

The Roman Catholic church teaches that sins can be forgiven through the sacrament of confession, by which a sinner confesses their sins to a priest, who acts as a conduit to Jesus, who forgives them. The church distinguishes between “mortal sins” that are punishable by eternal damnation, and “venial sins” which are not. This distinction resembles Bonhoeffer’s, but where Bonhoeffer asserts that mortal sins can be forgiven only when a disciple is initially baptized, the Catholic church teaches that even mortal sins can be forgiven through the sacrament of confession.

Meanwhile, many Protestant churches reject Bonhoeffer’s idea that certain sins are more serious than others. They teach, in effect, that all sins are mortal sins, but also that all sins can be forgiven through faith in Christ. They base the perspective that all sins are spiritually equal on verses such as Matthew 5:21-22 and Matthew 5:27-28, where Christ compares anger to murder and lust to adultery.

John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, also taught that it was impossible for any true believer to fall away from Christ. In his view, Christ (who knows the future) specifically atoned for every sin that each of his future followers would ever commit when he died on the cross. As such, these people are destined for salvation. Clearly, this contradicts Bonhoeffer’s view that a disciple can fall away from Christ.

Where Bonhoeffer presents Judas as a disciple who fell away, Calvinists argue that Judas was never truly a disciple—he played the part and looked like a disciple on the outside, but he did so out of self-interest or other ulterior motives, and he eventually showed his true colors when he betrayed Christ.
Can a Christian Lose Their Salvation?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "The Cost of Discipleship" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Cost of Discipleship summary:

  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
  • Why getting into Heaven will cost you a lot more than you thought
  • Bonhoeffer’s design for real Christianity

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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