Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2012
Perseverance of the Saints cannot be reduced to “once saved, always saved.” That phrase does not tell the whole Story of the biblical doctrine.
What is the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints”? Can a believer be given the gift of faith and then lose it? Can one be saved by the shed blood of Jesus Christ and then fall into atheism or agnosticism? What about the “hard passages” of Scripture that seem to indicate this is possible? Of what importance is doctrine to the average believer anyway?
In fact, this doctrine is given in His Word in order to cultivate greater love for God and deeper gratitude to Jesus Christ for His sacrifice on the cross.
Let us take a journey through the “preservation of the saints” by (1) defining the doctrine; (2) exploring its practical importance for believers; (3) examining so-called “difficult passages”; and finally, (4) making practical applications for believers.
Perseverance of the saints is not an obscure doctrine reserved for monks or modern-day seminary students. It is for us. Consider John 10:27-29: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
Jesus’ metaphor of a shepherd holding lambs provides a warm and pastoral image of the truth that Christ, who saves His own, will take responsibility to guard them from eternal harm. This doctrine, like all true theology, must be—and is—grounded completely in God’s Word. This article cannot explore all the passages affirming God’s preserving of His own, but the collective force of all Scripture can be summed up in one biblical word: grace. The perseverance of the saints is thoroughly and wondrously grounded in God’s grace. Simply stated, grace is God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves; that is, deal with our sin and bring a holiness in which we can be fully restored to God as His children. He did this through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who was and is God in the flesh. God’s grace will never let us go.
The Five Points of Calvinism
The five points of Calvinism are, in fact, not the whole teaching of John Calvin on theology or his major views on the Reformed faith. They are direct answers, put in an acrostic for English speakers, to the five specific “remonstrances” (protests) of the followers of a Dutch theologian named James Arminius. The protest was made by the “Arminians” as this group came to be called, in 1610. The response to this charge was studiously provided by 84 pastors and theologians and 18 representatives of the Dutch government. After 154 sessions, lasting from 1618–19 (called “The Synod of Dordt,” for the meetings were held in the Dutch town of Dordt), this stalwart band of believers produced what became known as “The Five Points of Calvinism.” For a study of this, in particular, consider these two books: James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), and David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented, 2nd ed.(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004).
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints can be explained another way. Following the familiar acrostic TULIP [see sidebar] we see the logical progression: man is a sinner (T-total depravity) and God chooses us not on our merits but completely out of His love (U-unconditional election); Christ was sent to die for those upon whom the Father set His love (L-limited or better put, “particular” atonement); and if He drew them by His Holy Spirit (I-irresistible grace), then it follows that our salvation is not about us; it is about the love of God, the grace of God, and the purposes of God at work in us. Thus, those on whom He set His love from all eternity are His and He will never let them go.
But this doctrine also means that through the ordinary means of grace—Word, sacrament, and prayer—believers may face every sort of physical, circumstantial, and spiritual adversity and affliction, and yet, because of the work of the Holy Spirit in them, and because of the seed of faith in them, they will always persevere.
Practical Implications for Believers
Perseverance of the saints cannot be reduced to “once saved, always saved.” That phrase does not tell the whole story of the biblical doctrine. “Perseverance” is preferable. If we focus solely on “once saved, always saved” we only speak of the believer’s position in Christ. The phrase does not address the believer’s progression in holiness, which is called sanctification. The Reformed faith holds that God is sovereign and man is responsible. The mystery of those two revelations cannot be reconciled except through faith and then obedience to the Lord’s commands arising out of that heart of faith. Thus, if one is called by God and has responded in faith, and has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, then one will be eager to make his calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).
When Peter defends the perseverance of the saints as something with which the believer, through faith and works, “cooperates,” he follows with a strong statement that gives the verse sharp context: “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). Distortions and misunderstandings not only fail to acknowledge the Reformed faith’s perspective of the perseverance of the saints, but also take away from the glorious work of God in us. The Trinity is at work: God chooses His own, the Holy Spirit inspires us as He moves through us, and Christ Jesus our Savior prays for us as He prayed for Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). “I have prayed,” Jesus says. That is how believers persevere against the devil, the flesh, and the world.
Defense of the Doctrine
The Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not deny that there are difficult passages of Scripture. But having established so many passages from God’s Word that He will keep His flock and not lose any that He chose in love, the “hard” passages must be interpreted through the lens of the clear.
For example, consider the falling away of personages in Scripture. Paul mentions several ministers who served with him, yet fell away. Among the most notable was Demas: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted …” (2Timothy 4:10). The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, though, does not deny that there are those who make outward professions of faith, but who remain unregenerate. Membership in a visible congregation does not prove membership in the invisible Church of Jesus Christ.
But what about the passages in which believers are warned against falling away (e.g., Romans 11:17–24; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 5:4; Colossians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 1 Timothy 1:19–20; 2 Timothy 2:17–18; James 5:19–20; 2 Peter 2:20–22; 1 John 5:16)? Would there be a warning if in fact God was going to guarantee their salvation? Of course the answer is that the God who ordains our end also ordains the means to His end (His purpose for us). And the means is obedience flowing from a renewed heart. God calls on believers to be watchful in prayer, to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, to be baptized, to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper, to love one another, to fulfill the Great Commission, and to keep ourselves from idols, just to name a few. But the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints encompasses all of God’s means to call us to faithfulness as a way to secure what God intends.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints encompasses all of God’s means to call us to faithfulness as a way to secure what God intends.
What about the passage from Hebrews, which suggests one having tasted the things of God, then turning away and, in his sin, “trampling” on the blood of Christ? Hebrews 6:4-8: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
Here the writer to the Hebrews is speaking of a particular person or group of people who have been so close to Christ, like Judas, and yet have shunned repentance and thus secured a sort of “sin unto death” as John speaks of it, so that their flagrant sin in the presence of the knowledge of Christ is so heinous that it secures their judgment. Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, not only explains the text but comforts fragile consciences that are, in fact, repentant of sin and desirous of Christ’s forgiveness: “These great things are spoken here of those who may fall away; yet it is not here said of them that they were truly converted, or that they were justified … the apostle describes the dreadful case of such as fall away after having gone so far in the profession of religion.”
But Henry assures that the humble sinner who pleads guilty and cries for mercy can have no ground from this passage to be discouraged, whatever his conscience may accuse him of. “Nor does it prove that any one who is made a new creature in Christ, ever becomes a final apostate from Him … . If those who through mistaken views of this passage, as well as of their own case, fear that there is no mercy for them, would attend to the account given of the nature of this sin, that it is a total and a willing renouncing of Christ, and His cause, and joining with His enemies, it would relieve them from wrong fears.” All of the warnings, charges, and admonitions—far from proving that believers may fall away—stir the true believer on to faithfulness to Christ as well as converts the unbeliever for fear of falling under the judgments of Almighty God.
Practical Applications for the Believer
The perseverance of the saints, like all biblical truth, brings blessings, for as we have seen, doctrine brings delight.
The one who truly repents and receives Christ as Lord and Savior is the one who hears Christ say: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (John 5:24 KJV ). To know that you are now declared righteous before Almighty God based on what Jesus Christ has done for you—imputing righteousness to you and taking sin from you through His life and death on the cross and resurrection from the dead—is to also be assured that your Savior will never leave you nor forsake you(see Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5). Indeed, your perseverance is finally secured by the risen Christ interceding for you at the “right hand of the Father.” Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25). To know that one is safe in the arms of Jesus forever delights the soul in many ways. Here are only a few practical applications:
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to those struggling with sin. If you are His and He is yours, the means of grace that Christ has ordained will give you victory. While your struggle may last a lifetime, nothing can withstand the power of the cross.
The ruling motif in the believer’s life is the cross—the greatest symbol of victory over shame and sin and sorrow and loss. The God who promised that He would restore the years that the locust had eaten (Joel 2:25) is the God who will cause all things—all things—to work together for your good (Romans 8:28).
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to the believer. For it magnifies the Father who predestined us to salvation in the mystery of His love, as well as Jesus Christ who became the Mediator of this covenant and lived for us and died for us and rose again for us, and the Holy Spirit who actively works in and through us. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27). As this doctrine magnifies God, it correspondingly excites our souls to prayer and adoration, and convinces us of our total dependence upon the Savior.
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to the soul of the saint who needs encouragement to follow the Lord. Far from engendering lackadaisical attitudes toward sanctification, this doctrine, if received as taught in the Word of God, promotes holiness of life. For the Scriptures teach us: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). But the Lord not only warns us so that we may cling to His grace all the more and then let holy lives arise from the riches of grace which He has bestowed, but He wins us with His promises of persevering.
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to parents of prodigals. If your children are Christ’s own, then know that as Christ prayed for Peter, He is praying for your children. No one who has truly, not just tasted, but drunk deep of the grace of God, can stay away from that refreshment forever.
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to the souls of family members who watch their loved ones suffer under devastating sickness and disease in this life. Know that Christ keeps His own even when our world is darkened by disease and aging, for He says, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness” (Proverbs 16:31 KJV ), and “even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have
made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).
The perseverance of the saints is a delight to the dying. The Savior who ordained your salvation before the foundation of the world, who sent His Son to live and die for you on Calvary’s cross, who sent the Spirit to claim you as His child, will never let you go. And not even the prospect of death can now shake you from Christ. For it is Christ who has hold of you. He will keep you safe all the way home: “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Michael Milton is the former chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). He resides in Charlotte, N.C. Earlier, he served as president and professor of practical theology at RTS. He is the author of several books and a singer-songwriter with three musical CDs.