The New Testament contains several warning passages. Some are clearly warnings about the dangers of false teachings and false teachers. Others alert believers to the reality of trials or warn of end-times events. Yet there are several passages that warn Christians about their own behavior, and some seem to imply a loss of salvation for the disobedient. In light of the doctrine of eternal security, how are these warning passages to be understood?
Some New Testament warning passages are aimed at those who are part of the visible church but who do not truly know Christ. Such are the warnings in the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews directs some of his statements to mere professors who are not actually saved (see Hebrews 6:4–6 and Hebrews 10:26). The target audience of these passages is unbelievers who are associated with the church and have been exposed to God’s redemptive truth—perhaps they’ve even made a profession of faith—but they have not exercised genuine saving faith. If they continue to reject Christ, they will be lost forever.
Other warning passages teach (by implication) the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints; that is, those who are truly born again will not deny the gospel or forsake Christ. First Corinthians 15:1–2 is one such passage: “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” Paul’s proviso “If you hold firmly to the word” is simply his way of saying that everyone who has truly believed in Christ will hold on to the end. Those who are false professors of the faith, who are Christians in name only, will eventually be swayed from the gospel through the attacks of the unbelieving world (see 1 Timothy 1:19–20).
Paul’s statement “Otherwise, you have believed in vain” in 1 Corinthians 15:2 can be understood in one of two ways. First, it could be that Paul is speaking rhetorically, putting forward a hypothetical statement concerning the truth of the gospel. The message he preached would save them—unless the message was false. The New Living Translation brings out this meaning: “Unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.” In the rest of the chapter, Paul emphasizes the fact of the resurrection and the reliability of his message. Second, Paul could be contrasting true belief, which results in salvation, with mere intellectual assent or an emotional reaction, which is worthless to save a soul. In this case, Paul is warning professing Christians not to be like the stony ground or the thorny ground in Jesus’ parable (see Matthew 13:1–23).
Jesus gave a warning to false professors in Matthew 7:21–23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Even many religious people who claim to serve God do not truly know the Lord. The matter of salvation is of utmost importance, and many New Testament warning passages are meant to cause professed believers to examine themselves to ensure they truly have put their faith in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 13:5).
Other New Testament passages warn believers against various sins. These warnings do not relate to salvation but to God’s work of sanctification in the lives of believers. Believers have been set free from slavery to sin and are cautioned to stand firm in that freedom (Galatians 5:1; Philippians 2:12–13). The book of Revelation contains several warnings regarding sinful behavior in the seven churches. In those churches, the sins of theological compromise, immorality, apathy, and pride had to be dealt with.
Scripture teaches that we can know we are saved: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), and God will finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). Believers are called to live in holiness, and false professors of faith are called to repent and trust in Christ for salvation. The need for believers to avoid sin and the need for false converts to stop pretending necessitate the warning passages of Scripture.