The persistence of soil organic carbon (SOC) has traditionally been explained as a combination of recalcitrance properties and stabilization processes, which lead to the formation of complex organic compounds. However, recent conceptual advances and experimental evidence challenge this view. Here, we test these conceptual advances using a dynamic equilibrium theory of SOC founded on classic ecological theory. We postulate that the persistence of SOC is an equilibrium point where SOC losses resulting from continuous decomposition and SOC gains due to SOC protection are balanced. We show that we can describe the temporal dynamics of SOC remarkably well (average and median R2 = 0.75) in publicly available SOC time series from experiments that investigated the effects of agricultural practices in arable soils. The predictive power of our simplistic model is not meant to compete with that of current multi‐pool SOC models or recent developments that include microbial loops. The simplicity of our analysis can, however, show how the conceptual distinction between the forces that control SOC loss and gain, and their equilibrium, can shed light on SOC dynamics. Specifically, our analysis shows that, regardless of specific mechanisms, the persistence of SOC will depend on the ultimate equilibrium between SOC gains and losses, which may depend on environmental (e.g. temperature) and ecological (e.g. spatially structured microbial activities) factors and the relative roles of these factors. Future experimental studies should quantify these roles to formulate a new generation of SOC dynamics model.