Perseverance of the Saints
The following article is taken from the chapter on Perseverance in JimScott Orrick’s book, Mere Calvinism. Used by permission.
The Danger of Doctrinal Reduction
The doctrine of perseverance is like a golden crown that adorns the glorious body of God’s sovereign grace. There are more than a few who would say that they believe only one of the Five Points of Calvinism, and the one they believe is this point, the perseverance or preservation of the saints. They want to hold to the crown while rejecting the body of sovereign grace that supports the crown. Such a position leaves the crown mysteriously floating in mid-air. I readily admit that these “one-point-Calvinists” have a substantial reason for holding so tenaciously to this one point: they see that it is taught in the Bible! They rightly take Jesus at His word when He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27–30). The “one-pointers” at least know the meaning of eternal.
There is, however, a dangerous tendency that is inherent in holding to the crown of perseverance while rejecting the other four points. That dangerous tendency is hinted at in the name the “one-pointers” often call this doctrine. Instead of referring to the doctrine as the Perseverance of the Saints, or the Eternal Security of the Believer, they call it, Once Saved Always Saved. Properly understood, there is nothing wrong with calling it that. It is catchy, memorable, and it is true. The real trouble is not what they call it, but the way they sometimes explain it. Regrettably, some of the one-pointers—not all, but some—who say that they believe in Once Saved Always Saved have woefully deficient ideas of what it means for a person to be saved. For them, a person may “get saved” when he or she merely repeats “The Sinner’s Prayer” (a prayer, by the way, that is not in the Bible). Or a person may “get saved” when he “walks down the aisle” (not in the Bible) or “asks Jesus into her heart” (also not in the Bible) or when she gets baptized. In brief, the person who “gets saved” has not necessarily repented. Perhaps the person has been told that all she need do is to admit that she is a sinner, but merely admitting one’s sin is not repentance.1 Repentance that leads to eternal life is a saving grace, and when a person repents, he has a true sense of his sin, and he has begun to see the mercy of God offered in Christ. He is grieved over sin, he hates sin, and he turns away from sin. At the same time, he turns to God fully intending to and trying to obey God.2 Repentance is much more than admitting that I am a sinner! A superficial understanding of repentance leads to a superficial understanding of salvation.
Similarly, many of those who hold to Once Saved Always Saved have a superficial understanding of saving faith. For them, faith in Jesus Christ may be no more than believing facts about Jesus, or believing that Jesus died for sinners, or even believing that “Jesus died for me.” Nowhere does the Bible say that if you just believe that Jesus died for your sins you will be saved. You must receive the Christ who died for sinners and rose again from the dead. The fact that our church rolls are sometimes swollen with the names of persons who give no evidence of spiritual life is a strong indication that we have often dealt with precious souls in a hurried, slipshod way. I am a Baptist, and we Baptists have historically stood for believer’s baptism, but based on the disparity between the large number of inactive members on our church rolls and the members who faithfully attend our worship services, the evidence is that we have settled for consenter’s baptism. We will baptize anyone who consents to it. Consent to be baptized is not saving faith.
What, then, is saving faith? Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.3 We are saved when we receive Christ—a person—and we are not saved until we receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation.
An Important Clarification
Some time ago, I was talking with a man who did not have long to live. He admitted that he was not ready to meet the Lord, and I was earnestly pleading with him to receive Christ. I explained the gospel to him as well as I could, but he seemed confused. He had lived long on the earth, but he had not used his days wisely. He knew little about Christ. After I left that day, I reflected on what I had told him, and I wondered, What does he understand me to be saying when I tell him that he must receive Christ? What does he know about Christ? What if I were dying, and someone came and told me that in order to be ready to meet God, I had to receive Millard Fillmore? I cannot tell you five facts about Millard Fillmore, and my eternal salvation depends on receiving Millard Fillmore? If I read books about Millard Fillmore, and I learned a lot about him, and I believed what I learned, would that be the same thing as receiving him?
Allow me briefly to explain what it means to receive Christ. There was a time in my life when the truths expressed in the next few paragraphs saved me from despair.4 First, the word Christ means anointed one. It has become one of the names by which we refer to Jesus, but originally it was not a name, it was a title. Who is the Christ, or The Anointed One, and what does He do? Under the Old Covenant, when God wanted to set a person aside to perform a special task, He would have one of His representatives pour oil on the person’s head—anoint him—as a sign that he was the person God had chosen to do the job. There were three very important jobs or offices that God anointed select men to perform. One was the office of prophet.5 A prophet speaks for God. A second office for which a chosen person was anointed was the office of high priest.6 The high priest offered sacrifices and interceded for the people. Third, kings were anointed.7 Kings were authorized to conquer, defend, and rule.
As The Christ, or The Anointed One, Jesus has been authorized to do all three jobs, or to put it another way, He performs or executes all three offices. So when we receive Christ, we are receiving someone who is a prophet, a priest, and a king. First, He is a prophet. Christ executes the office of a prophet in revealing to us, by His Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation. Are you willing to receive Jesus as your prophet? Will you take His Word to be absolute truth, and reject any ideas and philosophies that contradict His Word?
Second, He is a priest. Christ executes the office of a priest in His once offering up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us. Are you willing to receive Jesus as your priest? It means that you must abandon any idea of saving yourself by your own good works. If you take Jesus to be your priest, then you will rely on Him to represent you before God the Father and to do all that is necessary to make you right with God.
Third, He is a king. Christ executes the office of a king in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all His and our enemies. Will you receive Jesus as your king? Will you lay down your arms of rebellion, submit to His absolute rule, and look to Him as your champion to deliver you from all your spiritual foes?
If you have received Jesus as your prophet, your priest, and your king, then you have received the Christ, and you are now a child of God.8 When Jesus came to earth, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him But to all who did receive him, who believed in is name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13). What a difference there is between believing something about the work of Christ and receiving Christ! We know who the true Christ is because of the true things that are said about him in the Bible, but do not confuse believing true things with receiving the true Christ.
The problem with the doctrine of Once Saved Always Saved as it is held by many “one-point-Calvinists” is that it offers a false assurance of salvation to those who have never repented of sin or received Christ. A person who has “prayed the prayer” or “walked the aisle” or “asked Jesus into his heart,” or has been baptized is told that he has been eternally saved, and he must never allow Satan to cause him to doubt his salvation. This poor, deceived fellow may then live the rest of his life walking in darkness and in friendship with the world, never reading or hearing the warnings of the Bible that might alert him to his lost condition: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6) and “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The Lord Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Those who do not believe in the eternal security of the believer point the finger at those who hold to Once Saved Always Saved and say, “You people believe that a man can get saved, spend the rest of his life as a drunkard, and still go to heaven when he dies!” Sadly, these finger-pointing critics are sometimes right, but that is not the teaching of the perseverance of the saints. Those of us who believe in Perseverance agree that all God’s children must “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
The Perseverance of the Saints
The Biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a far richer and more robust doctrine than what is often meant by Once Saved Always Saved. The Bible teaches that God preserves believers by working faith in us and thereby permanently uniting us to Christ. In this way, believers are enabled to persevere to the end because of faith and because of union with Christ. In the words of the famous old hymn, Christ’s atoning work cleanses us from the guilt of sin and it also frees us from the power of sin:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood
From thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.9
The nature of true saving faith insures that believers will persevere to the end. Faith is not strong optimism. Faith is not the ability to imagine a desirable outcome and then convincing yourself that the outcome you have imagined will certainly happen. I suspect that when the average person uses the word faith, he uses it as a synonym for strong optimism. For example, when a person is going through a trial, he might say, “But I know it is going to be all right because I have faith.” Faith in what? Faith may, and perhaps should, produce strong optimism, in the form of true biblically sustained hope; but faith is not strong optimism. A person may be strongly optimistic about something that is not true.
“Faith is that persuasion of truth which is founded on testimony.”10 In other words, when you have faith, you believe something to be true merely because a person you judge to be trustworthy has said that it is true. In Christianity, God is the one who has testified to the essential ideas of our religion, and we have faith when we believe Him. At its most fundamental level, faith is believing what God has said. He is the God of truth, so we are safe in believing all that He reveals. The most important truths in life are not explained; they are revealed. We do not know these revealed truths because we have figured them out; we know them because we believe them. We believe them because God has spoken them. God has provided ample evidence that He has spoken in the Bible and that the Bible is therefore trustworthy. The experience of countless Christians confirms that the Bible is true and trustworthy. After God’s ample attestation to the truthfulness of the Bible, should we insist that God further prove to us everything that He reveals there, we insult Him, just as we would insult an honest man if we insisted that he provide proof for everything that he claimed to be true.11
Hebrews chapter eleven begins with a description of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped12 for, the conviction of things not seen” (v.1). The remainder of Hebrews eleven is filled with illustrations of saints who were commended for their faith. If you read that chapter, you will find that every person mentioned in the chapter did something courageous because he or she believed God, and the only reason that they had for acting courageously was because God had revealed truth to them. In most cases, evidence and experience would have led them to disobey God, but they did what they did because they saw “him who is invisible” (v. 27). Faith is the way we see the invisible and the way we know the unknowable.
Although God has given to his image-bearers means of knowledge of this temporal and created world, those are not the same tools as achieving knowledge of the eternal world. Though we are happy to consider the right application of reason, carefully crafted experiments to gain empirical knowledge, and the use of mathematical formulas to gain useful knowledge for better living and flourishing in this world, knowledge of the eternal world in which God dwells is gained only by revelation. John Calvin noted, “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit.”13 He went on to argue
When we call faith “knowledge” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. Paul, therefore, beautifully describes it as the power “to comprehend . . . what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge” [Ephesians 3:18–19]14
Since “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22) faith is the only possible means of knowing God, and “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). The complement to this is that with faith it is possible to please God. While faith, per se, is a human response, and therefore not a supernatural act, no human ever exercises saving faith apart from the supernatural work of God in him.15 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, emphasis added).
Faith is a condition of salvation, but faith is not a work. On the contrary, faith entails the cessation of works that might otherwise be performed in the hope of earning salvation. Faith may be compared to a hole that is dug to receive a tree seedling. The hole is necessary, but the tree is the living, growing thing. The hole is empty; it is nothing. Again, faith is like a bandage that is used to apply a healing medicine to a wound. The bandage is not the medicine, but it is necessary to keep the medicine on the wound. The Bible says that we are saved by faith, but that does not mean that faith itself saves us. It is the one in whom we have faith who saves us.
Works That Accompany Faith
If faith is not a work of merit, how does that relate to the necessity that there is no such thing as faith without works? “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14,17). That is exactly the point, isn’t it? Faith arises because it loves the works of Christ and yearns for those works to be glorified both in the gratuitous character of salvation and in the transformation of life it produces. That stands as the foundation of so many of the warnings and admonitions in Scripture that help define the nature of true faith. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:17–20).
The Holy Spirit has identified many fruits, or evidences that will help us honestly to discern whether we have saving faith. When we see these scriptural evidences in our hearts and lives, then “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16–17). The Holy Spirit bears witness most unmistakably in the written word, and not in some undefined sense of well-being that might embolden us to say, “I just know that I know.” What is in the heart will eventually come out. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:34–35). When the Holy Spirit indwells a person, he makes his presence known by producing good fruit in that person’s life. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). A person who does not bear the fruits of the Spirit does not have the Spirit. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9).
The Word of God is filled with evidences and examples of godly character, but the little book of 1 John was specifically written to identify and confirm true, saving faith. It shatters false perceptions of faith and bolsters true faith with the intent of giving a joyful assurance to real believers. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Six outstanding marks of true faith are identified in 1:5–7, 2:4–6 and 29, 2:9–10, 2:15–16, 3:6–10, and 5:1.
Saving Faith Endures
Sometimes there are persons who demonstrate some of the evidences of true faith for a while, but like the seed sown among thorns or on rocky soil, they do not endure (Luke 8:13–14). When such persons fail to persevere, they simply show that whatever faith they might have had was not true saving faith. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). Salvation is not promised to temporary believers; it is promised to believers who continue in the faith. “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14).
Union with Christ
In our effectual calling, the Holy Spirit works faith in us and thereby unites us to Christ. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. The Bible teaches that when a person receives Christ, Christ and that person become one. The believer is now in Christ. “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
God has seen fit to deal with human beings through representative heads. There have been two representative heads, the first man Adam, and the Lord Jesus, who is called “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Every human being is either in Adam or he is in Christ. One need do nothing to be in Adam; simply being born a human in the ordinary way means that we are originally represented by Adam, the first man. To be in Christ, one must be born again and believe in Christ. Being united to Christ, there are definite benefits that are credited to us because of Christ’s obedience. Christ is the one who obeyed, but God treats us as if we had obeyed. That is, Christ works for us. We are justified and adopted.
At the same time, being united to Christ, there are benefits that are produced in us. He influences the way we think and act so that we are changed to look like Him. That is, Christ works in us. We are sanctified. What Christ does for us insures that no one united to Christ can ever be damned. What Christ does in us insures that everyone united to Christ will persevere to the end. In justification He has erased our demerit by forgiving us our sins through the substitutionary death of Christ; He has given us the merit of eternal life by Christ’s perfectly loving obedience. In addition, He has made us children through adoption and has guaranteed that we will conduct ourselves according to the character of this divine family by sanctification.
I often hear the following Scripture read as a benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:20–21). Does God ever answer that prayer? Does He ever equip us with everything good that we may do His will? Does He work in us that which is pleasing in His sight? Is He pleased with us?
I get the impression from a lot of Calvinistic preaching that God really does not like anyone but Jesus. Oh, He loves us, it is granted, but it is no more than a benevolent love. He loves us only because of the good person that He plans to make us one day, but today! He can barely stand to have us around Him. That is not true. God does love us benevolently, yes. That is the only way He could love us when He loved us in eternity past and up until our conversion. But when He reconciled us to Himself, He was reconciled to us, and we were reconciled to Him, and He loves us not only for what He is going to make of us one day, He loves us because of what He has made us today: His children. If you are a believer, you are part of a noble family headed by a Father who loves you.
When God moves in with you, he changes you. He transforms you into a person he likes. He sanctifies you. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.16 In sanctification, the perverse effects of our depravity are not healed all at once, but, indeed, we are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. Though at one time we wanted what this world could afford, we come to say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25).
Why It Is Impossible for a True Child of God Not to Persevere
In some ways, I think that 2 Peter 1:3–4 is the most shocking passage of Scripture in the whole Bible. If you are thinking about it for the first time, you might think that it sounds like a scripture from a cult, but it is in the Bible. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” You may become partakers of the divine nature. God’s power has provided everything you need for it to happen. When you come to know Jesus Christ, you have embraced a Savior who expects great things of you, and He calls you to them. He lived a life of glory and excellence when He was on the earth, and now that He has crossed the finish line, He turns and calls you to a life of glory and excellence. He equips and motivates you with His very great and precious promises. You have become a partaker in the divine nature. You were created in the image of God, but you were bruised and mangled by the Fall. You fell into a diseased way of thinking and living, and you were enslaved by the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire, but your King freed you, and you have escaped. He has adopted you into His family.
Your greatest delight is to know Him, “and this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) As you behold the glory of the Lord, you “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). You are precious in His sight. You are part of His bride, and He will not let another have you. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25–27).
You are His child, and he will not give you up. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15–16). You are His sheep, he knows you, and He will protect you from the wolf. “I am the good shepherd I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). You are one of His precious jewels, and “They shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels, and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him” (Malachi 3:17, KJV).
Jesus holds you tight in His strong hand, and He is in the Father’s hand, and He says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29). How could you be in a safer place? “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31–39).
1 See C. H. Spurgeon’s “Confession of Sin—A Sermon with Seven Texts” in which he examines the lives of seven men in the Bible who admitted, “I have sinned” but were not converted.
2 Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) Q.87.
3 WSC Q. 86.
4 I first encountered this summary in The Christian’s Great Interest, by William Guthrie, a magnificent little book.
5 For example, you can read about Elijah anointing Elisha to be prophet in 1 Kings 19:16–21.
6 For example, you can read about Moses anointing Aaron to be high priest in Exodus 40:12–14.
7 For example, you can read about Samuel anointing David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:13.
8 The ideas in this paragraph are summarized in the WSC, questions 23–26.
9 Works of Augustus Toplady (originally published 1794, reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1987), 912. The last line of this stanza has been altered to say “Save from wrath and make me pure,” but the meaning is very similar.
10 A. A. Hodge and J. A. Hodge, The System of Theology Contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1888, reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 121.
11 This sentence is an idea I encountered in William Jay’s Evening Exercises.
12 Like faith, hope is often misunderstood. There are three essential components of Christian hope: 1. We believe a promise that God has made for the future. 2. We are happy about the promise, and we want God to fulfill it. 3. We cooperate with the means that God has ordained for the accomplishment of the promise.
13 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.8.5.
14 John Calvin, Institutes. 3.2.14. Battles Translation.
15 This is explained at length in the chapter on Irresistible Grace [in the upcoming book Mere Calvinism].
16 WSC, Q. 35.