Romans 11:20–21, "Unbelieving Israelites were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you." Bible passages like this one cause believers to question their salvation. How can Christians be sure they are saved? Are we protected, or is there a way in which one might lose salvation?
Sealed for the King
“The method of sealing a papyrus document was to roll it into a tube, tie a strand or cord around the centre, and seal a clay lump over the knot. This method continued into the Christian Era.” (Britannica) A seal (noun) is a form of fastening and also a guarantee while to seal (verb) means to fasten or guarantee; an official document for example. (EtymOnline) Impressing a dollop of wax against the lip of an envelope with the king’s signet ring reassured the recipient that contents were untouched and deterred thieves, traitors, and other criminals from tampering.
The penalty could be harsh. For example, “the power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal” guaranteeing that Christ was in His tomb. “Anyone found breaking the Roman seal would suffer the punishment of an unpleasant death.” (BlueLetterBible)
Biblically, to be “sealed” is to be verified as God’s child. Ephesians 1 says “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (v.13) The Apostle John wrote, “I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him, one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads.” By their seals, these believers are protected from Satan.
How Are We Sealed by the Holy Spirit?
“People whose inheritance God guarantees are the people who believe the gospel.” (DesiringGod) When a person admits to his or her sin, asks God for forgiveness, and accepts forgiveness through the saving work of the risen Christ, God “commissions his Holy Spirit to enter our lives and to make us secure forever.” We accept Christ as Savior and receive the Holy Spirit as a gift. God recognizes the mark of His Spirit while others see the outworking of that Spirit as it changes a person.
John Piper explains that “God sends the Holy Spirit as a preserving seal to lock in our faith, as an authenticating seal to validate our sonship” and also as protection “to keep out destructive forces.” (Ibid.) By destruction, he is talking about the soul, not the body. “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
What Does the Seal Protect Believers From?
Christians are protected against attack. Satan can’t take a believer’s soul, but he can still cause chaos. When one listens to the Devil’s alluring lies and falls into sin, we do not lose our salvation; yet, a verse such as 2 Corinthians 13:5 suggests otherwise: "Examine yourself to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you—unless you fail to meet the test!" Are we saved or not?
“When you swore allegiance to Jesus Christ, you signed up for the most dangerous mission in the world.” (Ibid.) Satan blows-up the bridge under our feet just as we get to the mid-way point over a raging river 300 feet below. There will be falling, bruising, breaking, and trauma: are we afraid? Sometimes, yes. “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” (Matthew 24:9) That’s a terrifying promise.
Belief does not seal us against being attacked, but from losing our eternal place in the Kingdom of Heaven with God. Jesus asked the Father to take the cup from Him because He foresaw the terrible suffering to come, but He went to the cross because He trusted in the Father’s plan to use His agony on the cross to end all pain for believers forever. (Revelation 21:4) Feeling fear is natural, but a Christian remembers the hope of Christ. He is bruised and bloodied, but hope is his parachute: he pulls the rip-cord and is pulled to safety. That remnant of hope is a benefit of being sealed in the Spirit.
What Is our Responsibility?
What about Galatians 6:9, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” What do we reap (defined in the dictionary as “cut or gather”) if we hold fast to “hope of the gospel?” (Colossians 1:23) We gather a harvest we did not sow; we reap the assurance of salvation according to what Christ sowed for us. “They will receive fruit from labor they didn’t do and from gardens they didn’t tend or plant.” (TheGospelCoalition)
Yet, Christians must “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) “Brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” (2 Peter 1:10) Is this a warning that we won’t be saved if we fail to do take up the calling?
Salvation is not our work; we are saved by Christ through His salvific work. He sends us to spread the Gospel, but only after equipping us both with inclination and ability to act according to His plan. We trust Christ to “equip [us] with everything good for doing his will.” (Hebrews 13:21)
To “work out”, katergazomai in the Greek, means “bring to decisive finality”, “work down to the end-point.” (BibleHub) According to Jon Bloom, “though we are saved by God’s unconditional electing grace through the gift of faith, the works we do prove that our faith is real. Works are evidence of election.” (DesiringGod) Works are the mark which a watching world sees, not the mark God looks for on the day we enter eternity.
“The church in Corinth included believers who were spiritually immature and had gross sin in their lives. Yet they were all sealed with the Spirit.” (BlueLetterBible) Belief secured them. (Ibid.) We want to be like Jesus, and that involves an outworking of our love for Him, but salvation is not based on works.
What about Apostasy?
“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” (2 Timothy 2:11-12) Denying Jesus, like accepting Him, happens at a deep level.
One can say “I love the Lord” while harboring unbelief in his heart. The world might be deceived, but God knows. The reverse is also true: one might pretend to have given up on Christ but, deep down, remain unable to truly commit apostasy.
Hebrews 6:4-6 says “it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, […] and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” Who has fallen away?
A true believer might doubt, might occasionally despair, but he does not renounce faith and hope wholesale. Even that “mustard seed” of faith is enough to tether Him to the Father who has equipped Him. God grasps His children to Himself by His strength, not our own.
If the reader is still unsure of his or her salvation, remember this: “God does all things for the praise of his glory,” and “believing his Word magnifies that glory.” (DesiringGod) God wants His children to worship Him, to praise Him, and to tell others about His beloved Son. He wants to seal us against “unbelief and apostasy” to achieve His plans. (Ibid.) “God […] works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13).