Jun 3, 2012

Can Tribulation Saints Lose Their Salvation?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. Could you comment on this article by Jack Kelley which maintains that only the Church has been promised eternal security [such that believers of other ages can lose their salvation]? This is a question that I've struggled with.

A. Before discussing the matter of security, I'd like to comment on aspects of the interpretation of the two parables in the article.

Concerning the parable of the Wedding Feast (Mat. 22:1-14) Kelley holds that the man found without a wedding garment originally had one, but lost it:

"...the guest who was escorted out had been a Tribulation believer who was now trying to gain entrance to the banquet in his own clothing, having lost or discarded the "garment of salvation" he'd been given" [emphasis mine].

The idea that the man entered the wedding feast with a wedding garment and then later lost it does not square with the statement of the king when he encounters the man,

"Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?"

The king's comment is an important clue to interpreting the parable: the man did not have a wedding garment—even when he first arrived. The king doesn't say the problem was that the man is presently lacking the required attire, but that he never should have gained entrance to the wedding feast in the first place because he lacked the necessary clothing (representing the righteousness of Christ imputed to all who trust in Him). [1] Thus, Kelley's idea that the man represents a former believer who lost his salvation is contradicted by the statement of the king. When the man is cast into outer darkness, the parable ends with:

"For many are called, but few are chosen."

This would seem to contrast the general invitation to the wedding feast (global evangelization) and those who actually are able to attend the wedding feast—having the necessary wedding garments (the elect who respond and trust in Christ). How can one square this reminder concerning election with the idea that the man once was saved, but lost his garment and wound up damned?

Parable of the Ten Virgins

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

Concerning the parable of Wise and Foolish Virgins also mentioned in the article (Mat. 25:1-13), Kelley concludes:

"The five who were excluded were tribulation believers who had lost their salvation either by not obeying God’s commandments or by not remaining faithful to Jesus or both. This is indicated by their lack of sufficient oil, which is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is sealed within the Church as a deposit guaranteeing our salvation (Ephes 1:13-14), the bridesmaids who were excluded from the banquet have to represent a post rapture group from whom the Holy Spirit had departed for lack of faith."

It is my view that Kelley runs into trouble here by trying to read too much into the symbolism of the parable:

Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach. This might be called the golden rule of parabolic interpretation for practically all writers on the subject mention it with stress. 'The typical parable presents one single point of comparison,' writes Dodd. 'The details are not intended to have independent significance.' Others have put the rule this way: Don't make a parable walk on all fours. [2]

One of the characteristics of parables is that they are approximate in the way they illustrate truth—and when we push all the details to the limit we nearly always wind up with some questionable conclusions. Kelley holds that since the oil represents the Holy Spirit, that when the foolish virgins run out of oil ("Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.") this indicates their loss of the Spirit—that they were previously saved but lost their salvation. But taking the oil as the Holy Spirit is tenuous at best:

  • The wise virgins acknowledge that they could have provided oil for the foolish virgins, although at the risk of not having enough themselves. Should we conclude that believers can provide for the salvation of unbelievers from their supply of the Spirit?
  • The foolish virgins go away and successfully purchase more oil. Should we conclude one can purchase the Holy Spirit?
  • The parable infers that when the foolish virgins arrive at the wedding feast that now they have oil. If they lost salvation when their oil ran out, but then purchased new oil (regaining salvation?), how is it that they are still barred from the wedding?

The central theme of the parable is preparation. Some virgins were prepared, others were not. All the virgins began similarly and they all slept. But when the moment came to go into the wedding, the unprepared virgins were otherwise occupied—off attending to other things because of their lack of preparation. Not having oil is not the issue—but being absent at the exact time of entry to the feast. When they return later with the requisite oil, they no longer have the opportunity of entry to the wedding. Thus, this parable is teaching something akin to the other parables in the same section of Scripture which emphasize the need to be watchful and always ready. Jesus' response to their request to let them in is telling,

"I say to you, I do not know you."

How similar this is to a remarkable statement Jesus makes in Matthew 7 concerning those who appear to be believers, but are not:

"...then I will profess to them, I never knew you" [emphasis mine].

We find no hint of the idea, "I once knew you, but you lost your garment or ran out of the Holy Spirit." It is my view that neither of these parables, when properly understood, teaches the loss of salvation as Kelley holds.

Depravity and Election

Be that as it may, there are other issues that arise by holding that only Church-Age saints (saved between Pentecost and the Rapture) are eternally secure—and that believers of other ages, such as those who come to faith after the Rapture, are insecure. This is because doctrines are never alone. The doctrine of the security of the believer is not an isolated doctrine, but is tightly coupled with two other doctrines: the depravity of the unsaved (inability to obtain salvation apart from a work initiated by God) and election—that God elects some to salvation. The reason believers are secure is tied directly to their election by God which, in turn, is necessitated due to all their faculties having been marred by sin to the degree that, unaided, they do not seek God (Rom. 3:10-11; 10:20 cf. Ps. 53:2-3). Surely Old Testament and post-Rapture saints are just as much in need of election in order to respond to God as Church-Age saints (Rom. 8:29-30)?

Also, if tribulation saints lack security, then what are we to make of passages which describe believers at the time of the Second Coming as being "elect" (Mat. 24:22-24; 24:31; Mark 13:19-27; Luke 18:7-8)?

For in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be. And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake, whom He chose, He shortened the days. Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'Look, He is there!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. But take heed; see, I have told you all things beforehand. But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars of heaven will fall, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send His angels, and gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven. [3]

Unless we take the "elect" here to exclusively refer to the national election of Israel (Rom. 11:28) rather than tribulation saints in general, it would seem that post-Rapture believers are elect in the same way as Church-Age saints—this being necessary in any age since none would be saved otherwise.

One of the strongest passages concerning the security of the believer (John 10:27-30) concerns Jesus' sheep who hear His voice. This teaching was given by Jesus well in advance of the creation of the Church on the day of Pentecost. In that same teaching, Jesus says of His unbelieving listeners, "...you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep" (John 10:26). Notice that Jesus applies His teaching to His immediate audience—so it strains the setting to infer that this passage on security is meant only to apply to Church-Age saints who come to faith after the Day of Pentecost.

There is also the matter of the Apostles situation prior to the Day of Pentecost. As Jesus teaches them concerning the promised Holy Spirit, He says,

"...the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:17).

This promise concerns the predicted permanent indwelling of the Spirit which "had not yet been given" (John 7:39). Here are eleven of Jesus' Apostles to whom He would soon say, "You did not choose me, but I chose you..." (John 15:16) yet the Church has not yet been created as it would on the Day of Pentecost. If security is only for Church-Age saints, are we to conclude that the Apostles could have lost their salvation between then and Pentecost—even though Jesus said He had chosen them?


It is my view that the two parables Kelley refers to, when more carefully considered, do not teach the loss of salvation. Moreover, the security of the believer does not stand alone—it is closely related to depravity and election. To suggest that believers of other ages (before Pentecost, after the Rapture) are insecure infers that either: 1) the elect in some ages can lose their salvation, or 2) some are able to truly come to faith without being among the elect (e.g., their faith doesn't endure, tribulation saints are not elect). I would suggest a different understanding of the parables offers a fruitful solution which treats all saints of all ages as being both elect and secure.


[1] Some may say, "if the man is not a believer, then how did he find entry to the wedding to begin with? Will unbelievers be admitted to the wedding and then subsequently cast out?" No unbeliever will be at the wedding. This illustrates one of the difficulties in interpreting parables—pushing the details too far. This parable is not teaching the possibility of an unbeliever being admitted to the wedding and discovered later on. It is emphasizing the requirement of proper attire—the righteousness of Christ—for initial entry.

[2] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (MI: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 283.

[3] NKJV, (Mark 13:19-27)