The Baptist doctrine of Eternal Security is often confused with the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, especially since there are many Calvinist Baptists. While the two doctrines are similar and share the same end result, there are important differences.
Eternal Security is the doctrine that affirms that once a sinner comes to genuine, repentant faith in Christ, God responds to that faith by doing that which irrevocably saves that one. God justifies the believer, and then seals the believer by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, indissolubly uniting the believer to Christ and forever identifying him with Christ’s righteous life and atoning death. While such irrevocable salvation does not depend on continuing works of righteousness and limitations on how far the believer may fall into sin, the reality of Christ within the believer will inevitably result in continuing good works and limitations on how far the believer will fall into sin.
Perseverance of the Saints is a very different doctrine. Some of the differences come from subtle distinctions in how faith is defined. John Murray, in Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 152, says, “We must appreciate the lengths and the heights to which a temporary faith may carry those who have it.” This is a true statement as far as it goes, but notice that the emphasis is on “temporary” rather than disingenuousness. The crucial difference between a faith that fails and one that does not is not chronological duration but the reality of Christ within the genuine believer. Murray ostensibly agrees with this in some of his statements, but the inherent inconsistency keeps surfacing. He states, on p. 152:
…The Scripture itself, therefore, leads us to the conclusion that it is possible to have very uplifting, ennobling, reforming, and exhilarating experience of the power and truth of the gospel, to come into such close contact with the supernatural forces which are operative in God’s kingdom of grace that these forces produce effects in us which to human observation are hardly distinguishable from those produced by God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace and yet be not partakers of Christ and heirs of eternal life. A doctrine of perseverance that fails to take account of such a possibility and of its actuality in certain cases is a distorted one and ministers to a laxity which is quite contrary to the interests of perseverance.
It certainly is possible for someone to have a disingenuous faith, and for that kind of faith to “produce effects… which to human observation are hardly distinguishable from those produced by God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace…” But again, the crucial factor is whether or not one is a “partaker of Christ.” Only those who are of genuine faith are made partakers of Christ and have Christ within them. With this Murray seems to tentatively agree, saying that men can have a faith convincing to “human observation,” “and yet be not partakers of Christ…” However, he implicitly moves the saving difference from partaking of Christ to persevering by effort, when he warns that failing to take into account the possibility of such a convincing counterfeit “ministers to a laxity which is quite contrary to the interests of perseverance.” A disingenuous, unreal faith is not caused by laxity and neither can it be cured by zealous efforts; and a genuine faith results in the immediate indwelling of the Holy Spirit and union with Christ, which cannot be invalidated or annulled by laxity. Intentionally or not, Murray is implying that those whose faith did not persevere might have persevered if they had not been so lax—and by extension, we who have genuine faith should beware of laxity lest we fail to persevere also. This falsely grounds the reality of our salvation on our efforts to persevere.
In those who have failed to persevere, it was not perseverance that they lacked but a genuine faith (which would have resulted in spiritual union with Christ and the fruit that naturally comes from that saving union). To say that true saints will persevere is to speak only of the outwardly apparent differences between those of true faith and those of false faith. Murray states, on p. 155:
The perseverance of the saints reminds us very forcefully that only those who persevere to the end are truly saints. We do not attain to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus automatically. Perseverance means the engagement of our persons in the most intense and concentrated devotion to those means which God has ordained for the achievement of his saving purpose.
This has much in common with the Arminian view, as the idea of salvation is moved to the end of life, and there is work to be done in order to successfully attain it. “We do not attain [it]… automatically,” but rather, we must engage “our persons in the most intense and concentrated devotion to those means which God has ordained for the achievement of his saving purpose.” Murray explains, on p. 154:
The very expression, “The Perseverance of the Saints” in itself guards against every notion or suggestion to the effect that a believer is secure, that is to say, secure as to his eternal salvation, quite irrespective of the extent to which he may fall into sin and backslide from faith and holiness. It guards against any such way of construing the status of the believer because that way of stating the doctrine is pernicious and perverse. It is not true that the believer is secure however much he may fall into sin and unfaithfulness. Why is this not true? It is not true because it sets up an impossible combination. It is true that a believer sins; he may fall into grievous sin and backslide for lengthy periods. But it is also true that a believer cannot abandon himself to sin; he cannot come under the dominion of sin; he cannot be guilty of certain kinds of unfaithfulness. And therefore it is utterly wrong to say that a believer is secure quite irrespective of his subsequent life of sin and unfaithfulness.
There is a subtle fallacy here, by which it is implied that because some people have a disingenuous faith and abandon themselves to a life of sin, therefore a true believer’s salvation is contingent upon his not abandoning himself to such a life of sin, etc. The true believer may have no right to feel secure in his salvation if he has fallen into grievous sin, but security is more than a feeling. Security is also a fact, and a fact which is true of genuine believers irrespective of any sin that they fall into. It is a false implication that genuine believers may fall into such sin as to invalidate their faith or their salvation, and one which Murray never explicitly affirms. Nevertheless, he does lean heavily on the idea by way of implied warning of the same. Murray is very adept at using the language to employ the force of the idea while maintaining that true believers do persevere. He adds, “It is not at all that they will be saved irrespective of their perseverance or their continuance, but that they will assuredly persevere.” Which is the cause and which is the effect? Is the believer saved contingent upon perseverance, or is perseverance merely the evidence that flows from a real conversion to Christ through a sinner coming in genuine faith? The term, “irrespective,” is obscuring the issue. Yes, the genuineness of the faith by which the sinner was converted does have respect to the future perseverance; but the question ought to be, in what respect are the two related? They are not related in such a respect that the sinner’s salvation in any way depends on what he does or does not do in the future. Whether the convert has a faith that is true or not, his salvation depends only on whether or not he genuinely believes in Christ (and has been spiritually indwelt and joined to Christ). Those who do not persevere are not lost by a lack of perseverance, but by a lack of Christ within—and a lack of the real faith that would result in Christ within. Additionally, some men who are of a disingenuous faith die prior to any seeming failure to persevere, but Christ will say to them in the end, “Depart from me… I never knew you.”
The very idea of contingency has no meaning outside of this temporal world; but within this world, there are contingencies even with regard to God’s certain work. As one who holds to unconditional election, I agree that the elect will certainly be saved with no contingency in God’s eternal plan. However, contingency is the fabric out of which this temporal world is made, so that even the salvation of the elect is—within this world—contingent upon their coming to faith. It cannot be rightly said that we were saved from nothing, since an eternity in hell was never really a possibility for us. This would be an abuse of categories, since the contingencies of earth are not measured by the certainties of heaven. Certain our salvation is; but just as certain is the hell that we were headed straight towards—a hell that God saved us from as truly as the state of grace that He saved us to.
Murray does not, of course, deny the eternal certainty of the salvation of the elect. But he does strongly imply that salvation—within this temporal world—is contingent upon perseverance. This is not to say that our perseverance, in Murray’s view, is not a matter of certainty within God’s redemptive plan, but only to say that God must use the means of perseverance to accomplish that final salvation—a means effected through His gracious enabling and sustaining.
Accordingly, salvation is certain for the elect because perseverance is certain; and perseverance is not meritorious or dependent only on the believer’s will, since it is enabled and accomplished by God’s grace. However, those who hold to Eternal Security must disagree with how the means by which God accomplishes our salvation are portrayed. We see our salvation as fully and completely accomplished when we come to a genuine, repentant faith and are reborn into Christ; while those who hold to Perseverance of the Saints seem to see perseverance (by the grace and power of God) as necessary to the accomplishment of our final salvation. In other words, they see a temporal contingency of apostasy to be avoided or overcome by persevering (by the grace and power of God).
Ken Hamrick, 2013
[Note: the last three paragraphs were added on 6/4/2013, and were drawn from the comments below.]