Do United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation”?
A short, but very incomplete answer, is that our Church teaches we can end up "losing" the salvation God has begun in us, and the consequence of this in the age to come is our eternal destruction in Hell. God freely grants us new birth and initiates us into the body of Christ in baptism. The profession of our faith and growth in holiness are necessary for God's saving grace to continue its work in us, and both of these are things we must do for our love to be genuine and not compelled. We thus remain free to resist God's grace, to revert to spiritual torpor, and possibly experience spiritual death and Hell as its consequence.
I call this a very incomplete answer because it does not actually answer the question in the way it is usually framed, or the meaning of the terms in that framing.
There are several problems with the question itself from the perspective of Wesleyan and Arminian theology. Above all, "once saved, always saved" is simply not part of our theological vocabulary or world-view. It is a kind of Americanized short-hand for the fifth of the core theological principles of Calvinist theology (perseverance of the saints) articulated by the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). Those principles are often summarized in English under the acronym TULIP. They are:
Humankind has been utterly ruined by the Fall to the point that there is no good and no possibility for redemption anywhere in us. We merit and can merit nothing but wrath and destruction. This means that only a Sovereign God acting in Sovereignty can deliver us from an eternal destiny in Hell. There is absolutely nothing we can do ourselves to contribute to or take away from God's activity to save us.
As such, God's decision to save us can be and is based on no conditions we can or could ever generate. God has chosen, based on God's own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before we were ever born.
God created the means to deliver us from the merited consequences of our total depravity through the death of Jesus, his Son, on the cross. On the cross, Jesus suffered the consequences of God's just wrath and judgment on behalf of all whom God had elected for salvation, but only for these.
Irresistible Grace: Just as there is nothing humanity can to do change our depraved state, there is also nothing those who have been elect can do to resist the gracious initiative and power of God to bring them to salvation through what God had accomplished for them in the atonement.
Perseverance of the Saints: The result of all the above is that those whom God has elected to salvation and acted to save in the atonement and in the ongoing and irresistible work of the Spirit cannot but actually "persevere unto the end," that is, those who are elect cannot help but be faithful and thus experience the promised salvation.
To be sure, not everyone who has followed a "generally" Calvinist theology has followed all "five points" of the Synod of Dort. Perhaps the majority of Calvinists in the United States have adopted a modified version of this account of God's saving activity, most frequently by eliminating, de-emphasizing, or modifying "double predestination" (that is, that God had ordained both who would be saved and who would be damned), limited atonement (emphasizing that Christ had died for all, and that all thus potentially could be saved), and irresistible grace (opting for some limited role for free will).
Often, too, in making these accommodations, the understanding of salvation has been radically altered. In classic Calvinism, God saves and our participation is entirely in God's control, not in ours if at all. There is thus simply no way that one can speak coherently in such a framework of anyone either "gaining" or "losing" salvation, because salvation is simply not ours to possess or control in any way. We can in a very real sense neither gain nor lose it. But in many modified forms, salvation is indeed something we can possess by agreeing to or, more often, verbally confessing or offering prayers that confess certain beliefs at some point in our lives. If one has ever said such words, one is saved now and always.
The theology of John Wesley, however, follows more closely a different strand of theology in the Western and the Orthodox (Eastern) tradition that understands salvation is both something God does and in which we cooperate, though not as equals by any means. Only God can initiate salvation. But only by our ongoing, living relationship with God through faith can God's saving intention be fully realized in our lives.
John Wesley particularly identified his understanding of salvation with the theology and writings of the seventeenth century Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, against whose teaching the Synod of Dort was called and its Canons (the TULIP principles described above) were articulated. While Arminius was Reformed, he was far more convinced by the mainstream Roman Catholic theology which spoke of human free will and limited human cooperation in salvation, dissenting strongly from what was already becoming and later would become the standard of Reformed theology in his country.
Arminius, like Calvin and all of classical Christianity, affirmed that there is nothing humans can do to initiate salvation. Only God can do this, and God does so unconditionally, and for all, not just a limited number of the pre-selected. Christ's saving activity in his life, death and resurrection was thus potentially effective for all. Only faith, which is an exercise of our will, under the influence of divine grace, is required of us. Such faith and responsiveness to God grace, revealed in our works, but not caused by them, keeps us "in grace." This means it is possible for us to "fall from grace," a phrase he borrows from verses in Hebrews 6 and 10, by not sustaining our faith. A lapse in our works can be a sign, but again is not a cause, of such a fall from grace. The consequences, if our error is not corrected, can be spiritual death and eternity in Hell.
Though perhaps the most popular publication John Wesley produced during his lifetime was called "The Arminian," he sharply disagreed with Arminius on one point. Arminius had concluded that if a person had fallen from grace and into a state of spiritual death after having had an experience of conversion (whether that was understood to have occurred through baptism or to be heightened or awakened in a personal experience or affirmation later in life) there was no further hope for salvation. Wesley rejected this. Both experience and scripture told him otherwise. He addressed this at greatest length in his sermon, "A Call to Backsliders."
In this sermon Wesley tackles the Arminian argument on the grounds of both scripture and experience.
Wesley notes that the penalty of eternal separation from God with no hope of return applies in scripture only in two cases-either, as in Hebrews 6 and 10, to persons who willfully, publically and explicitly reject Jesus as Savior after having confessed him, or, as in the gospels, to those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit by declaring that the works of Jesus were the works of the Evil one. He then turns the question to his hearers: "Now, which of you has thus fallen away? Which of you has thus 'crucified the Son of God afresh?' Not one: Nor has one of you thus 'put him to an open shame.'" The penalty of there being no more sacrifice for sins thus cannot apply to the vast majority of those who have indeed fallen into spiritual decline, and perhaps close to or even into spiritual death, but have not in fact committed these atrocities.
The first paragraph of Wesley's argument from experience is worth repeating in its entirely (emphasis added). Acting as his own interviewer, Wesley writes:
Do you know, have you seen, any instance of persons who found redemption in the blood of Jesus, and afterwards fell away, and yet were restored, -- 'renewed again to repentance?' " Yea, verily; and not one, or an hundred only, but, I am persuaded, several thousands. In every place where the arm of the Lord has been revealed, and many sinners converted to God, there are several found who "turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them." For a great part of these "it had been better never to have known the way of righteousness." It only increases their damnation, seeing they die in their sins. But others there are who "look unto him they have pierced, and mourn," refusing to be comforted. And, sooner or later, he surely lifts up the light of his countenance upon them; he strengthens the hands that hang down, and confirms the feeble knees; he teaches them again to say, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour." Innumerable are the instances of this kind, of those who had fallen, but now stand upright. Indeed, it is so far from being an uncommon thing for a believer to fall and be restored, that it is rather uncommon to find any believers who are not conscious of having been backsliders from God, in a higher or lower degree, and perhaps more than once, before they were established in faith.
Does this mean that it is impossible for persons to fall so far from grace once received that they will never end up in Hell? By no means. Hell is surely the potential destination for all who are not living into "that holiness without which no one can see God" (Hebrews 12:14, a phrase frequently quoted in the sermons and journals of John Wesley). His point is that despite whatever the condition of our souls may be, God is always calling, always wooing, always pleading, and always working and leaving the way open for our faith to be renewed, our hearts to be quickened by grace, and our souls to be brought to life and health again.
In our Wesleyan-Arminian theology, as in all mainstream Christian theology, salvation still isn't ours to possess. It is always and only God who saves. In that sense we cannot "lose" salvation. But we can "fall away" from it. Or to use another metaphor, we can move so far from the saving streams of God's love and power that we parch and spiritually die. The consistent focus of Wesley's teaching, however, is far less the warning about the possibility of such death and thus ultimately Hell (though he does not shrink from offering such warnings upon occasion, even as noted in the quote above), but rather upon the consistent, unfailing grace of the God revealed in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ, the God who is abounding in mercy and steadfast love.
Once saved, always saved? No. We're not Calvinists. We don't believe God has orchestrated the world and the universe to make that the necessary outcome for some limited number of the pre-selected. And we're not reducing salvation to a propositional transaction, as some forms of American Protestant proclamation has done, so that once we believe and say certain things, no matter what else happens, we "have" salvation and can never "lose" it.
Perhaps the better phrase, though one Wesley himself did not use, would be one that starts where Calvin starts-not with us (as once saved, always saved often seems to do), but with God. "God is out to save us, one and all." Though we have no faith we can articulate, God is out to save us, one and all. Though our faith may grow dim and our works disorderly, God is out to save us, one and all. Though we may lose our way and do terrible things to others, God is out to save us, one and all. And though for some God's efforts to save may still leave them in spiritual death and Hell, God is out to save us, one and all.
Once saved, always saved? No. But always, always called to the fullness of God's salvation. And always, always loved.
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards is Director of Worship Resources with the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, and an elder in the North Indiana Conference.