Calvinism 101: Perseverance of the Saints
The final point of doctrine in the so-called “doctrines of grace” or “five points of Calvinism” is the biblical doctrine known as “the perseverance of the saints.” The Westminster Confession of Faith offers a succinct definition of this doctrine in chapter 17, section 1:
“They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
This doctrine is not to be confused with the common distortion of it, which in non-Reformed evangelical circles is called “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.”
The popular “eternal security” doctrine often conveys the idea that you can be guaranteed eternal salvation, just so long as you make a one-time “decision for Christ” (which often involves revivalistic practices such as praying a ritual “sinner’s prayer” or responding to a so-called “altar call” at an evangelistic meeting). In this popular view, as long as you have “asked Jesus into your heart” or made that “decision” for Christ, you are guaranteed eternal life in heaven, even if you live the rest of your life in open rebellion against God and His law, and, in some versions of this doctrine, even if you commit apostasy and lose your faith altogether. This view is one expression of antinomianism, and it is heresy.
Contrary to this shallow, heretical understanding of “eternal security”, the biblically Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that true believers, though they may fall into sin (even into serious and scandalous sin for a time), will never totally nor finally fall away from their faith in Christ, but will continue to strive to persevere in faith, repentance and holiness, even to the end of their lives. The ultimate reason why they will do so is not found in their own merit or will-power or strength or resolve, but in the sovereign and gracious God who plans, accomplishes and applies Christ’s saving grace to His elect. The God who has chosen, redeemed, called, justified and adopted His elect ones will continue to sanctify them unto the end, enabling them to continue clinging to Christ in daily renewed faith and repentance. The faith by which God’s elect are saved is not merely a one-time “decision” for Christ, but an ongoing, continuous, Spirit-wrought clinging to Christ as the only Source and Hope of one’s eternal salvation.
The biblically Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is rooted and grounded in the clear teachings of God’s Word, the Bible, and in the biblical logic of the doctrines of grace.
There are many Scripture passages which teach and support the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. To offer just a sampling:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jesus Christ, in John 5:24, ESV)
“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.” (Jesus Christ, in John 10:27-30, ESV)
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6, ESV)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (First Peter 1:3-5, ESV)
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10, ESV)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, ESV)
And, of course, the Apostle Paul’s great “chain of salvation” in Romans 8:30 makes it clear that all who are predestined, called and justified will likewise be glorified in the end. Which implies that none of those who are thus predestined, savingly called and justified will fall short of the final stage of salvation, glorification.
The biblical logic of the doctrines of grace likewise undergird this important and comforting doctrine of Perseverance. Think about it: Scripture reveals that fallen men and women are completely in bondage to their sin natures, totally unable and unwilling to turn themselves to God apart from His sovereign grace (Total Depravity). God’s choice of sinners for salvation is not based upon God foreseeing that they will meet certain conditions by their own “free will”, but rather it is based upon His sovereign good will and pleasure alone, and made certain by His sovereign decree (Unconditional Election). In the fulness of time God sent His Son to die on the cross in order to atone for sin and infallibly secure the eternal redemption of those whom the Father had unconditionally elected in Him (Limited Atonement / Definite Redemption). In time the Holy Spirit applies the redemption purchased by Christ to those who have been chosen (Christ’s “sheep”) and redeemed by Christ by giving them new spiritual life (the new birth) and effectively drawing them, through the gospel, to trust in Christ alone for their salvation (Irresistible Grace). Perseverance of the Saints is simply the completion of God’s saving plan in the lives of the redeemed. The idea that one who has been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and renewed and called by the Holy Spirit could subsequently fall away, fully and finally, thereby losing his eternal salvation, denigrates the perfection and completion of God’s saving work in Christ. It would imply that puny man could overthrow the sovereign grace of God. But the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints comports fully with the biblical logic of God’s saving plan, and therefore it gives glory to the God who, by His grace alone, saves sinners.
But what are we to make of objections to this doctrine? Two major objections to the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints are that it caters to loose, sinful living, and also that it contradicts passages of Scripture which seem to teach, at least on the surface, the possibility that a true believer can fall away and thus lose the gift of salvation.
Regarding the first objection, it is said that this doctrine implies that believers can be casual about their sin. After all, if God has unconditionally chosen me, if Christ has infallibly redeemed me, and if the Spirit will preserve me infallibly unto eternal salvation, then why not relax and give oneself over to sin? This objection confuses the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance with the antinomian doctrine of “eternal security.”
The Reformed view is the perseverance of the saints, not the preservation of the sinner. In line with the Word of God, the Reformed doctrine of the true believer’s Perseverance unto the end teaches that, because the true believer has been born again by the Holy Spirit, he hates his sin and seeks to fight against it.
Yes, true believers may and will sin, and sometimes true believers can backslide into serious and scandalous sin. However, the heart of a true believer is a heart that mourns over remaining sin (Matthew 5:4) and which hungers and thirsts after righteousness (Matthew 5:6). True, born again believers will not be casual about their remaining sin, but will fight it daily as they long for the glorious day when the last remnants of their sin nature will be finally eradicated and they will be finally conformed fully into the image of Christ in true holiness and righteousness.
Yes, God preserves His elect unto the end, but Scripture indicates that God preserves His people by moving them to persevere in faith, repentance and holiness. This is why, for example, the Scriptures urge professing believers to examine themselves to make sure they are in the faith (Second Corinthians 13:5), and to give diligence to make their calling and election sure by adding virtue to their professed faith (Second Peter 1:3-11, especially verse 10). The things that God uses to preserve us in faith include the diligent use of the means of grace (the word and the sacraments, along with prayer) – which is why the Reformed Faith not only stresses the importance of personal Bible reading and prayer, but also diligent and faithful attendance upon the public means of grace in a faithful local church.
What about those Scripture passages that seem to contradict the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance? Let me close this article with a look at two of the more prominent passages that are often used to deny the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Faith.
Hebrews 6:4-6 says this: “For it is impossible, in the case of 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, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (ESV)
On the surface this passage seems to clearly teach that it is possible for a true believer to fully and irrecoverably fall away from the faith and thus to lose the gift of salvation. How do the Reformed respond to this passage?
The Epistle to the Hebrews was apparently written to a group of Jewish Christians who faced severe persecution for their faith, and who were therefore mightily tempted to turn away from Christ and revert back to their previous Judaism. It is a “word of exhortation” to these professing believers, showing the superiority of Christ’s priesthood and the new covenant to the old covenant and its’ levitical priesthood, and urging them to continue to persevere in their confession of the Christian Faith.
This stern warning can be understood in one of two ways: (1) Some Reformed scholars believe that the language of this passage (which speaks of “tasting” the heavenly gift and the goodness of the gospel) is not speaking of true conversion, but of a powerful yet merely external experience of the Spirit in the fellowship of the visible church. For example, some have suggested that the “enlightenment” spoken of in this passage merely indicates that they had been baptized, and the “tasting” language merely indicates they have heard the gospel preached and participated in the Lord’s Supper. In this view the warning implies that mere external participation in the benefits of the visible church, while important, is not of itself sufficient to guard one from falling away from a profession of faith. True, persevering faith must also be present. (2) Other Reformed scholars believe that this language is speaking of true conversion, and of the danger of falling away, but is presenting this as a hypothetical, not an actual, possibility. They point to verse 9, which seems to indicate that such falling away does not belong to salvation. In this view the purpose of this somber warning is to drive the professing believer to cling all the more closely to Christ and His gospel. Whichever view one takes, this passage of itself does not contradict other clear passages of Scripture which teach the Perseverance of the Saints.
Galatians 5:4 says this: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (ESV)
This passage uses some very strong language, speaking of being “severed” from Christ and of being “fallen away from grace.” How do the Reformed understand this language, and how is it compatible with the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance?
In the context of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians he is seeking to counteract some Jewish Christian false teachers (whom scholars call “Judaizers”) who were teaching the Gentile believers that faith in Christ alone is insufficient for justification before God. In addition to faith they must also be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul anathematizes this view as a false gospel, and those who teach it as accursed (Galatians 1:6-8). His point is that if the Galatians give in to the teaching of the Judaizers and embrace their false gospel of justification by faith plus works, they will in effect be cutting themselves off from Christ and the grace that is offered in the true gospel of justification by faith alone. To embrace a false gospel of legalism is to fall from the way of salvation by grace alone. Again, the purpose of this warning is to urge them to continue to cling to Christ alone, and not to fall into legalism. A Reformed take on this passage would be to say that if any of the Galatians had, in fact, submitted themselves to the false gospel of the Judaizers and persisted in seeking to be justified by works of the law, they would have thereby shown their original profession of faith to be false. They would have shown themselves to be cut off from Christ and from the grace of the gospel, and thus not true believers. But none of this contradicts what Scripture so clearly teaches elsewhere about the true believer’s perseverance in the faith.
Praise God that our salvation is secure from first to last! May these doctrines of grace comfort your soul and add fuel to your Christian life as you continue to cling to Christ in daily renewed faith and repentance, and as you continue to diligently use God’s means of grace.