CLAIM: Paul writes, “If we deny Him, He also will deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12). The context of “we” in this passage refers to believers in Christ. Can a Christian go to hell, if they deny Christ?
RESPONSE: A number of responses can be made:
First, this passage does not refer to falling into sin. All sin has been paid for at the Cross. Therefore, no Christian should worry that they will lose their salvation because of excessive sin. Christ died once for all for our sin (Heb. 10:10). Instead, this passage is referring to denying Christ. This is a conscious and volitional act—not a subtle fall into sin. If a Christian is worried that they have done this, then they probably haven’t! By the very nature of being worried, this shows that you would never want to deny Christ.
Second, the very next verse is one of our better passages for eternal security. Verse 13 states that even the “faithless” will not be denied, because “He cannot deny himself.” Therefore, even if we sometimes lack faith in Christ, we will still be saved in the end! Because we have been baptized into Christ himself (1 Cor. 12:13), we cannot be taken out of him.
Third, biblically, those who deny Christ are typically non-Christians. We see this in a number of passages (Mt. 10:33; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 1:16; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Jn. 2:22-23; Jude 1:4). It’s possible that these were professing Christians, but they were not true Christians. Similarly, in this passage, Paul uses the aorist tense in Greek, which connotes an accomplished act in the past. Therefore, Paul could simply be describing those who never accepted Christ in the first place.
Indeed, the word “deny” (arneomai) can also mean “to refuse consent to something” or simply to “refuse” (BDAG, p.132). For instance, in Hebrews we read, “Moses… refused [arneomai] to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Heb. 11:24). This implies that a person is “refusing” to come to faith in Jesus in the first place.
Does Paul’s use of the word “we” require that he is referring to Christians?
No. While it is true that Paul has been referring to Christians through this section when he uses the word “we,” this doesn’t mean that this plural pronoun requires such an interpretation. After all, we cannot be all of the descriptions in this section: That is, we cannot both “endure” with Christ and also “deny” Christ. Some of the people signified with the word “we” are persevering, while others are not. For this reason, we hold that Paul is using the editorial “we” to refer to humans in general—not Christians (cf. comments on 1 Thessalonians 4:15 for another example of the editorial “we”).