We Reformed Christians believe in the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints,” which is the “P” in the Calvinist “TULIP” (T = “Total Depravity”; U = “Unconditional Election”; L = “Limited Atonement”; I = “Irresistible Grace”; P = “Perseverance of the Saints”). Not only does God brings all of His elect to saving faith in Christ at some point in their lifetime; He also preserves His elect in their faith until the end of their lives, enabling them to persevere in a state of grace. As Scripture teaches, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV). Both Father and Son keep Christ’s sheep in their care; the sheep hear His voice, and they follow Him (John 10:27-30). Those who turn away from Christ and abandon His church do so because they were not really of us to begin with (First John 2:19). We confess this truth over against Roman Catholics, Arminians and other non-Reformed Christians who believe that it is possible for true believers to fall out of a state of grace and ultimately to commit final apostasy, thereby losing their salvation.
Given our Bible-based conviction that true believers will not and cannot fully and finally fall away from the faith and lose their salvation, what are we to make of what seems to be the growing trend of more and more Christian youth growing up and rejecting the faith in which they were raised and abandoning the church? What are we to make of the growing market niche for books written by former-Christians-turned-unbelievers (Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, etc.), and of the increasing number of people in our nation who identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated”? In view of our belief in the perseverance of the saints, how are we to address this trend of apostasy? Below I will suggest some thoughts on addressing apostasy.
1. Understand that a profession of faith does not necessarily mean the possession of true faith.
A mere outward profession of faith in Christ and external involvement in the life and worship of the visible church do not, of themselves, guarantee that the professor of faith has in fact been born again and actually possesses a true saving faith in Christ. In other words, just because you say you love Jesus and go to church doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually know Jesus in a saving way. Hypocrisy, self-deception and a mere intellectual faith can hide behind a glowing testimony and greater outward religious zeal. Genuine conversion (true repentance from sin and trust in Christ alone for salvation) is necessary.
2. Understand that true believers can backslide and even seem to lose their faith for a time.
In line with Scripture, our Confession of Faith states that true believers “…may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the 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 be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.” (Confession of Faith 17.3, “Of the Perseverance of the Saints”)
A true faith in Christ may be a weak and wavering faith. True believers sometimes fall into grievous sins (like King David did in committing adultery with Bathsheba), wrestle with serious doubts (as Thomas did), and may even deny Christ for a time under external pressures (like Peter, who denied Christ three times on the night of our Lord’s trial). While true believers may commit temporary apostasies and become battle-weary in their warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil, God’s Word assures us that our Father in heaven will ultimately preserve His elect, and Christ will ultimately bring His lost and wandering sheep back into the security of the fold. True believers may “fall away” for a time, but God will ultimately preserve them from full and final apostasy because of Christ’s perfect work of salvation.
3. God uses means to preserve His elect in a state of grace.
We believers can take great comfort in knowing that our eternal salvation is secure because it is grounded in God’s sovereign, unconditional election of us in Christ, Christ’s effective atonement on the cross for our sins, and the Spirit’s irresistible grace at work in our hearts. At the same time, in the mystery of God’s providence, our heavenly Father employs means to preserve us in faith and holiness unto the end. This is why the author of Hebrew exhorts us: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV) It is because of such considerations that the Reformed Faith stresses the vital importance of diligently using God’s means of grace (the Word, the sacraments and prayer), the importance of weekly attendance at public worship, and active involvement in the life and fellowship of the Body of Christ. God uses such things as the Word, the sacraments, prayer, worship and Christian fellowship to keep the engine of our faith fueled and in good condition.
While this is not a magic formula, if you regularly read your Bible, pray, receive the Lord’s Supper, are faithful and consistent in attending church, and are involved in fellowship and service with other believers, then it is much more likely that your faith will be strong, stable and persevering. But if you habitually neglect private devotions, church attendance and meaningful fellowship with other believers, then you will expose yourself to the temptations of apostasy. Yes, our sovereign God will preserve us in a state of grace and salvation to the end; but His sovereign grace does not negate our genuine responsibility not to neglect the God-ordained means of our perseverance.
4. Perseverance requires a serious-minded Christianity.
In my opinion, one of the reasons why the church in this nation is losing its young people by the droves is because it is more concerned to entertain them than it is to equip them to defend and confess their faith in the midst of a hostile environment. Many Christian young people go off to college equipped only with a simplistic, shallow, emotion-based faith. No wonder many of them find their faith crumbling when they are exposed to intelligent, articulate unbelievers in the classroom. In many cases the churches in which they were raised were so concerned to make church fun for them that they neglected to actually catechize them by offering them solid answers to their questions, and by instructing them to know what they believe and why they believe it. At the risk of sounding overly-critical, I would suggest that churches whose services feel more like an adult youth group gathering, or a musical stage show, or a three-ring circus, are not doing their job in equipping Christians with the spiritual weapons they need to resist the temptations to apostasy. Only a serious-minded, biblically-based Christianity can effectively resist the current trend of apostasy in the long run. By God’s grace, let us strive to be serious-minded Christians and a serious-minded church.