The modern church is reaping a harvest produced by the seeds evangelicals have sown for the past hundred years or so. The law of sowing and reaping is clearly stated in Scripture. Paul wrote, “Whatever a man sows, that he shall also reap.” Though I understand this law, I still find myself astonished when I read and hear what many evangelicals are preaching and teaching. Yet, it is still true that if we water down, hide, distort, or deny the seed of God’s Word and substitute for it a corrupted seed, we should never be surprised if we reap more weeds than wheat. J.I. Packer wrote words to this effect, “The substitute gospel does not produce what the authentic gospel produces because that is not what it aims at producing.” If we preach a message that is intended to give people a sense of satisfaction with their life condition, or that is intended to give them a peaceful feeling in their hearts, or that is concerned merely to give them a free ticket to heaven and deliverance from everlasting fire, we should not be surprised if the concept people have formed of the gospel differs radically from the biblical gospel.
One way in which this harvest of false teaching has manifested itself is in the perverted ideas people have and teach about the biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It is important to understand that this doctrine is integrally related to every other soteriological doctrine in the Bible. If we fail to understand those doctrines properly, it will be impossible to understand the biblical doctrine of perseverance properly. Conversely, what we believe about this doctrine will be a good indication of what we believe about these other doctrines.
Fifty years ago, the argument over this issue was principally confined to whether believers were secure once they believed or only secure if they “held out faithful to the end.” It never seemed to occur to those who held these two views that their opponents might have an element of truth that needed to be considered. Each side had its proof texts that it could easily use to dispatch those who disagreed, and simply refused to consider passages that seemed to contradict their position.
It is unlikely those who believed “once saved, always saved” would ever entertain using the term “perseverance.” Once a person was “saved,” he was saved for eternity “no matter what he did.” Of course, many who believed this doctrine also equated walking the aisle and making a profession of faith with “being saved.” Since faith was a decision, the idea of perseverance was unnecessary. This view led to doctrines such as “the carnal Christian theory” which stated that the only difference between the natural man and the “carnal Christian” is that one has received Christ and the other has not.
It is also unlikely those who believed in the necessity of perseverance would ever speak of the believer’s security in Christ. For them, though perseverance was necessary, it was anything but certain. Their teaching led to “perfectionism,” “second work of grace theology” and other such doctrines.
In the late fifties and early sixties, enterprises such as The Banner of Truth Trust, and Sovereign Grace Publishers began publishing and reprinting Puritan and Reformed literature. When pastors and theologians began to read and study these works, the debate began to change. No longer was the issue the necessity or the certainty of perseverance. Now, the issue was only certainty or uncertainty since both the Reformed and the Arminians believed that perseverance is necessary. We do not need to choose between whether believers must persevere or will persevere since both are true. Of course, there continue to be those who deny the necessity of obedience of any sort subsequent to a profession of faith. In their view, if only we can get people to come to “a moment of genuine faith”, then nothing they do subsequently matters. It is my view that this broaches one of the pivotal issues in this debate, namely, the nature of faith. In my view, if we can speak of “a moment of genuine faith,” we simply do not understand the nature of faith. The ideas of “momentary” and “genuine” faith are mutually exclusive. Only lasting faith is genuine faith.
Statements such as the following have not been helpful in this debate since they misrepresent the Calvinists’ doctrine and incidentally the modern Baptists’ doctrine as well:
The Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is often confused with the Baptist doctrine of eternal security (once genuinely saved, always saved), but the two are very different. In fact, the doctrine of perseverance of the saints has much in common with the Arminian doctrine of a losable salvation. Both perseverance and losable salvation portray apostasy as a real and ongoing danger, overcome only by the efforts of the believer in concert with the grace of God. In other words, in the perseverance doctrine, God keep[s] His own by ensuring that their works are sufficient to keep them from falling away; while in the eternal security doctrine, those who genuinely believe in Christ are forever secure based on the works of Christ alone—there is no danger of apostasy.
Consider the following: 1. Modern Baptists seldom refer to “genuine” salvation in the mantra “once saved, always saved.” Most modern Baptists believe that any profession of faith is genuine unless proven otherwise. I should note that “the Baptist Faith And Message” clearly articulates the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance under the heading “V. God’s Purpose of Grace” the BF&M states, “All true believers endure to the end.” 2. No Calvinist would disagree that once a person is “genuinely” saved he is always saved. It is the meaning of “genuinely saved” that is the issue. Only those who persevere in faith have been “genuinely saved.” Consider the following statement from the New Hampshire Confession of Faith: “We believe that such only are real believers as endure unto the end: that their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from superficial professors; that a special providence watches over their welfare, and that they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” This is the Calvinistic doctrine. The historic Baptists’ doctrine and the Calvinists’ doctrine are not even slightly different, much less “very different.”
3. Though it is true that apostasy is a real and ongoing danger [It would have been foolish for the biblical writers to warn of a danger that was not “real and ongoing.”], there is nothing the Calvinistic doctrine has in common with the Arminian doctrine of “losable” salvation. No Calvinist believes “genuine salvation” is “losable.”
4. No Calvinist believes God keeps his own “by ensuring their works are sufficient to keep them from falling away.” The believer’s works have nothing to do with “keeping him from falling away” or that the danger of apostasy is “overcome by the efforts of the believer in concert with the grace of God.” We are “kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation. . . .”
5. The following contrast is illegitimate: “In other words, in the perseverance doctrine, God keeps His own by ensuring that their works are sufficient to keep them from falling away; while in the eternal security doctrine, those who genuinely believe in Christ are forever secure based on the works of Christ alone—there is no danger of apostasy.” The impression it gives is that in the Calvinists’ doctrine, there is the danger that genuine believers may fall away and be lost. Additionally, it gives the impression that Calvinists trust in something other than the “works of Christ alone” to make them forever secure.
In reading this statement, I hope it has occurred to you that the issue we are discussing concerns the nature of saving faith and the nature of true conversion. It is not that the believer must make an effort to produce sufficient works to keep him from falling away. Just a little thought should cause anyone to understand this cannot be the case. We are considering the doctrine of “perseverance.” To persevere means to continue to pursue a course of action in spite of the obstacles that may present themselves. If the issue were persevering in producing sufficient works to keep a person from falling away, the assumption would have to be that the beginning was concerned with producing sufficient works to save him. He must persevere in that which occurred in the beginning. In reality, concern with producing sufficient works to keep one from falling away would itself be apostasy. Genuine faith seeks to produce nothing. Genuine faith acknowledges the person who possesses it has nothing to offer. A person who perseveres is a person who continues to acknowledge he has nothing of merit to offer and must cling to the merit of Christ alone.
Perhaps it would be helpful to state this issue negatively before attempting to explicate what we mean by “the perseverance of the saints.”
1. We do not mean the believer may or must do anything to maintain his/her right standing before God.
2. We do not mean a believer must persevere in perfect obedience to God’s revealed will. Remember, we did not begin with perfect obedience to God’s revealed will, therefore, we cannot persevere in such obedience. We can only persevere in that course in which we began. Too many have fallen into the trap of believing they cannot enjoy assurance of salvation unless they produce perfect evidences of conversion. Often, Matt. 7:21 has been quoted to show that some who profess faith in Christ will be rejected because they have not produced sufficient evidences of saving faith, i.e., “doing the will of the Father in Heaven.” In reality, the problem in view is not that they had not done enough, but they had not trusted enough. The true believer’s hope is not in what he has done. True believers do not say “have we not. . . .” The true believer does not focus on what he has done, but on what Christ has done.
3. When advocates for the perseverance doctrine speak of persevering in faith and holiness, we do not mean faith and perfect obedience. The believer’s fruit-bearing [holiness] is the by-product of his union with Christ by faith. Jesus said bearing much fruit is the result of remaining in him (See John 15:5). By this we do not mean believers have no responsibility to walk in holiness. There are clear commands in the Scriptures we are expected to obey. What we are saying is that it is impossible to obey those commands unless we remain united to Christ by faith. If we persevere in our union with Christ by faith, the by-product will be a life of fruit-bearing or holiness.
4. We do not mean that genuine believers can lose their salvation if they fail to persevere. We mean that genuine believers will not fail to persevere. Apostasy should be considered a real and ongoing danger for all who have professed faith in Christ, but it is no danger at all to those who are truly united to Christ by faith. The issue is how we can know whether we are truly united to Christ by faith or are merely those who have professed to know him. The answer is, true believers are distinguished from false professors by the true believer’s perseverance in faith. If a person appears to be drawing back from God instead of drawing near to God, he needs to be warned that his “faith” may not be genuine at all. True faith does not draw back.
5. We do not mean believers cannot fall into open sin and continue in a state of impenitence for a time. Consider the words of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith on this point.
And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to have their graces and comforts impaired, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end.
6. In stating that faith is not a one time decision but is an ongoing response to the perpetual operation of God’s grace in the believer’s life, we are not saying a person needs to come to Christ to be saved again and again. Once a believer has been declared righteous in God’s sight, he will never be more righteous in God’s sight than he was the moment he first believed. It is simply that once God brings a person to rest on Christ, that person will never stop resting on Christ alone. He never gets over the intense consciousness that Jesus’ blood and righteousness imputed to him through faith are his only hope of seeing God’s face in peace.
There are two questions we need to address if we are to have an accurate understanding of the Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The first question we need to answer is whether the New Testament teaches that a believer’s safe arrival in glory is contingent on his persevering attachment to Christ. A careful examination of Scripture seems to leave no doubt that the answer is, Yes! Consider the following:
1. Many were called “believers” in the New Testament Scriptures who later “went back” and, as far as we know, were lost.
2. John usually described historical faith using the past tense, but used the present tense (the tense of continuing action) to describe genuine, saving faith.
3. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, then you are really my disciples.” There is no biblical distinction between “disciples” and true believers. Every true believer is a disciple of Jesus.
4. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, . . .by which you are saved, if you hold fast the word I preached to you—unless you have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
5. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “. . .we are his [Christ’s] house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3:6), and “we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14).
6. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their soul” (Heb. 10:39). Here he demonstrates the nature of genuine faith both negatively and positively. Faith does not shrink back but presses forward. True faith is enduring faith.
The overwhelming sense of these verses, along with other verses that teach the same truth, is that any person who shrinks back and stops believing the gospel he once professed to believe has no reason to think he is a child of the living God. If you do not continue to believe, you have never experienced genuine faith at all.
The second question is whether this contingency will keep any genuine believer from arriving safely at his eternal destination. Will any of those whom God has declared righteous fall short of perfect conformity to Christ’s image in glory? The answer of Scripture is a resounding, NO! God does not promise to keep us and glorify us no matter what we do. Instead, he promises to keep us by his power, through faith. Additionally, he who initially enabled us to bow to Christ in saving faith continues to support our faith so that we continue to look to him and rest in him alone for salvation. Let me mention just a few of the factors that guarantee our perseverance. All the following occur in the Epistle to the Romans. There are others throughout the New Testament Scriptures. I offer these only as a sample of the wealth of material on this subject.
Our Death with Christ
In Romans six, the apostle answers an objection to his free proclamation of justification through faith in Christ alone. He had boldly proclaimed that where sin overflowed, that is, under the covenant of Law, grace [in the redemptive work of Christ under that covenant] had more than overflowed, so that grace, not law and sin, now reigns in righteousness through Christ. Whether the objection is real or anticipated, the apostle states an objection to his statement—“What shall we say then, shall we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” Then he answers, “May it never be!” The question he asked next speaks to the issue we are discussing—“How shall we who died to sin, go on living any longer in it?” Of course, the answer is, such a thing is impossible. If Jesus died for us, then we died with him. No one has a reason to believe Jesus died for him unless he has evidence that he died with Christ to the rule and reign of sin. The point here is not that we OUGHT not go on living in sin. The point is that if we are truly united to Christ, we CANNOT go on living in sin.
Our Freedom from the Law
At the end of this section in Romans six, Paul states another promise to the true believer—“For sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under Law, but under grace” (6:14). The true believer will not be dominated by sin. The reign of grace guarantees his victory. Again, please notice, he does not write, “sin should not have dominion over you,” but “sin shall not have dominion over you.” The reason he gives seems very curious at first glance. To the minds of many theologians it is counter intuitive. Many would have written, “You are perfectly safe because you have the Law to guide you.” Instead, Paul told them they were free from sin’s dominion because of the power of grace. Grace enables believers to do what the Law could only require but never produce. Law is not God’s solution for sin. Grace is God’s answer for sin. Since he has come under the reign of grace, the true believer cannot fail to persevere. He has been set free from sin and has become a bond slave to God (Rom. 6:22).
The Spirit’s Indwelling and Leading.
Having demonstrated, in Romans seven, the inability of the Law to produce fruit [sanctification] to the glory of God [such fruit only comes when we are dead to the Law and married to Christ], the apostle begins to describe the ministry of the Spirit in chapter eight. The Spirit is the down payment on our full inheritance in Christ. It is his ministry that characterizes the new covenant era in contrast to the Law. The Spirit produces what the Law demanded but “could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh.” This Spirit who now dwells in us, guarantees that we will not fall away. Paul wrote, that because of his ministry in us, “. . .we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. . . .” (8:12). If you are led by the Spirit to put to death sinful deeds, then you are a son of God. If the Spirit indwells you, you have God’s guarantee that the full inheritance is yours. Think of the terms “first-fruits,” “seal,” and “pledge.”
The Predestined Purpose of God
There was a time when Romans 8:28 was stored in the memory bank of every serious believer. Though I fear that verse was more widely quoted than it was understood, at least people were able to quote it. This is what Paul wrote, “and we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called ones according to his purpose.” There is enough theological truth in that verse for a hundred sermons. Among the things that text does not teach is the idea that everything is going to somehow work out for the temporal good of everyone who reads the verse and claims the “promise.” The basic teaching of the verse is that, based on God’s promises, we know that if we love God because he has, pursuant to the fulfillment of his eternal purpose, called us effectually, enabling us to believe the gospel, he is certain to accomplish his predestined goal for us. The “good” Paul speaks of in this verse refers to our full and final conformity to the image of Christ. His teaching here is that even those events and experiences that seem to be moving us in the wrong direction are included in God’s plan for us. He has determined that nothing will occur in our lives that will not contribute positively to our final glorification. God will realize his purpose in the life of every genuine believer.
Christ’s Intercessory Work
Just as Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith not fail (Luke 22:32), he, as our Great Priest, is able to save completely those who come to God by him, because he lives forever to make intercession for us. Far from accusing and condemning us, he appears for our defense in the presence of God. It is because he lives, that we are certain to live also.
We can only conclude that the perseverance of the saints is both necessary and certain. Any faith that does not continue is not saving faith. A person who truly trusts in Christ as his only hope will go on trusting in him alone for the rest of his earthly life.
The final salvation of God’s professing people is contingent on their lifelong persevering attachment to Christ. Those who shrink back, never belonged to him.
The other side of the coin is that those whom God brings to faith are certain to persevere in their saving attachment to Christ. He who began the work will complete it. The end of salvation is as much his work as was the beginning of it. “We are more than conquerors,” but it is “through him that loved us.” If our final glorification depended on the tenacity of our resolve, we would be in deep trouble. The good news is that if God gave us the greatest gift possible, the sacrifice of his own Son, he will not refuse us any other blessing, including our glorification.
One of my favorite hymn-writers expressed the glory of this hope in the following hymn,
A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear with Thy righteousness on,
My person and offering to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.
The work which his goodness began,
The arm of his strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Things future, not things that are now,
Not all things below or above,
Can make him his purpose forgo,
Or sever my soul from his love.
My name from the palms of his hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impressed on his heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is giv’n
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heaven.
Augustus M. Toplady