In this article series on the Doctrines of Grace (also know as the 5 Points of Calvinism or TULIP), we’ve covered man’s radical corruption in sin (Total Depravity), God’s sovereign choice in salvation (Unconditional Election), the definite intention of the atonement (Limited Atonement), and God’s effectual call (Irresistible Grace) through the Holy Spirit in regeneration to bring people to faith in Christ. In this last article in this series, we will look at the important doctrine of the Perseverance or rather, the Preservation of the Saints. It is often referred to as the doctrine of Eternal Security and has been the focus of many heated debates.
The Arminian Position believes that true Christians can lose their salvation and become apostates. If sinners fail to keep up their faith by falling into serious, unrepentant sin and walking away from faith in Christ, they forfeit their salvation. This has caused much worry for many young believers concerned about losing their salvation. However, another troubling viewpoint has emerged (perhaps in response) which is equally problematic called "Easy Believism” which embraces antinomianism (anti = against, nomos = law). It teaches that anyone who makes even the most nominal of a profession of faith is eternally saved whether or not their lives show any fruit. It is often expressed as "once saved, always saved." In this view, salvation becomes nothing more than fire insurance after you tip your hat to Jesus and say the sinner’s prayer.
In contrast, the Reformed Position states that the Bible teaches that all whom God has chosen, redeemed by Christ’s atoning work and regenerated by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit to give them a new heart are eternally justified, in the progress of sanctification and will eventually be glorified. All true believers, although they may struggle with sin and even serious lapses, are kept in the faith by the power of God himself and therefore will never ultimately fall away but rather persevere in faith until the end.
The question of whether or not we can lose our salvation really hinges on whether or not we believe its our salvation to begin with or if "salvation belongs to the Lord" (Psalm 3:8).
As we will see from Scripture, this accords with what God’s Word says and gives us a sure footing for our confidence and eternal security. As Dr. James R. White says,
“There is great confidence in trusting God's sovereignty, especially when it comes to the fact that even Christians are willing to place their own supposed freedom and autonomy over the true freedom and autonomy of God. I have seen many precious souls struggle through these foundational issues and emerge changed, strengthened, with a new and lasting appreciation of the holiness and love of God along with a passion for His grace that cannot be erased.”
So, to the Scriptures we now turn to see what is clearly taught about this important topic.
The Scriptural Support
The Scriptures give us many precious truths about the believer's eternal security in salvation:
1. Scripture says that the true believer HAS eternal life
It is perhaps significant to note that the most famous Bible verse, John 3:16, says that God gave His Son so that the all ones believing in him (πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν) should not perish (μὴ ἀπόληται - aorist subjunctive) but rather should have (ἔχῃ - present subjunctive) eternal life. The giving of the Son is for the intended purpose that those believing should have eternal life - present tense! Jesus is even clearer just a little later in verse 36 saying, “the one believing in the Son has (ἔχει - present indicative) eternal life.” Again in John 5:24, Jesus affirms,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has (ἔχει - present indicative) eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
And again in John 6:47 he reassures us that, “whoever believes has eternal life.” (See also John 6:51 & 11:25) It would seem that our Lord wanted to make it clear that true believers have eternal life - right now - not that they may potentially have it.
Indeed, even the apostle John confirms this saying, “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) His expressed purpose in writing his letter was so that his readers could know that they have eternal life. The apostle Peter likewise reasons with his audience to love one another earnestly, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23) His command to brotherly love was on the basis of them already having been born again of an imperishable seed - that is, to eternal life. If we say that a believer who has been "born again" can be lost, then that seed is not imperishable but perishable. But thank God that is not the case! Indeed, “this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” (1 John 2:25)
God keeps His promise.
2. God keeps all who truly come to saving faith in Christ
This point is made quite emphatically by Jesus himself. Jesus said in John 6:38 that he had come to do the Father’s will. He says,
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Verses 39-40)
Jesus accomplishes the Father’s will perfectly, and none of those whom the Father has given to him will be lost and they will surely be raised up on the Last Day - indeed they have eternal life. To give extra clarity, Jesus says in John 10:27-30 that,
“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 guarantees that he gives his sheep eternal life, they will never perish and no one is able to snatch them from him. In fact, we’re doubly secure because no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand as well! At the end of this passage, we have that amazing statement, “I and the Father are one.”
We should be asking, “one what?”
The word for one used here is “ἕν” - which is in the neuter gender. What Jesus is saying is not in reference to their personhood - otherwise he would have used the masculine form “εἷς” instead. Jesus and the Father are not one person (they are however, one in being). Rather, Jesus is saying that he and the Father are one in purpose - and that purpose was explained prior: to not lose all who come to him and to give them eternal life! The believer has the unified purpose of the Father and the Son to keep them as their sure guarantee.
In his high priestly prayer in John 17, he affirms that,
“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction [Judas Iscariot], that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”
Even Judas's apostacy was so that God's Word would be accomplished. Jesus doesn't lose any of those whom it has been purposed to save. He continues in verse 15 as he prays for those who believe and would believe in him, that God “should keep them from the evil one.” Surely Jesus’ prayers are not ineffectual - God does keep those who are His.
We also see this doctrine affirmed by the apostle Paul in Romans 8 as he tells us that all who are foreknown, predestined and called are also justified and glorified (v.29-30). Furthermore, this salvation is so secure that he asks, “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” The obvious answer being no one. But, just to make sure that point is emphatically understood Paul lists all the things which cannot separate us from the love of Christ (v.35-39). God has predestined us to adoption as sons (Ephesians 1:5) and He does not ‘unadopt’ us. It is not the believer’s own strength or endurance ultimately that keeps them, but rather it is God who “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:8)
Note what is not being said here. This is not an "easy believism" that excuses the professing Christian's nominal faith or lack of fruit or effort in working out their salvation. Rather, for the true believer, you will see these things increasing in their life because God is the one ultimately sustaining and carrying them along. Indeed, God has sealed us with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14 & 4:30) as a guarantee that He will come through on His promises. This is why we can be confident, because “He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We have been born again to a living hope and an inheritance that is imperishable, undefined and unfading, being kept in heaven for us, “who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)
3. The Holy Spirit empowers true believers so that they will persevere to the end in faith
Paul commands believers to “work out their own salvation”, knowing that it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) Here we see that it is not a case of either we do all the work or God does all the work. It is both - they occur concurrently. We are commanded to work out our salvation - to put it to work. That word, κατεργάζεσθε, is a command to literally "work down to the end-point" or to an exact and definite conclusion. Paul is telling believers to put effort in bringing their salvation to its proper end. However, at the same time, he tells them that it is also God working in us the desire and ability to do His good pleasure!
Paul continues on this thought in chapter 3 stating that he presses on to make it his own “because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (v.12). Note here that his basis for pressing on and striving in the faith is the fact of surity that Christ Jesus has already made Paul his own! This doctrine should be an encouragement to work out our faith, not to passivity. The fact that God preserves us is the motivation for our own effort in pressing on with the confidence that God is empowering it through His Spirit in us. This is why Paul could say, “I worked harder than any of them” without being proud because, “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Believers face intense struggles on every side from the world, the flesh and the Devil. Truly it is "through many dangers, toils, and snares" we must pass to our eternal reward. The world seduces us with insidious attractions and temptations. Our own flesh betrays us with our bias towards sin and self-deception. And prowling around is our great enemy, the Devil, and his host of wicked minions who wage war against us (Eph. 6:10-18). Add to this the general suffering of this fallen world, persecutions and temptations, and you see that we face insurmountable obstacles as believers if it were up to us alone!
"The phrase 'the perseverance of the saints' points to our need for God's help, for we 'by God's power are being guarded through faith' (1 Pet. 1:5). We are in dire need of the help the Holy SPirit alone can give. This is a far cry from talk of security, which conjures up images of carefree reclining in comfortable, plus, padded chairs, safe and secure from all alarms, hermetically and unrealistically sealed from contact with the nasty realities of spiritual battle." (Letham, Systematic Theology, p.743)
This is also why I and many others are uneasy with the phrase "the eternal security of the believer" since it tends to communicate a certain passivity. As Letham has commented, "The point is that the form of the words does not do justice to an utterly essential element of salvation, 'the holiness without which no one will see the Lord' (Heb. 12:14, and so the phrase implies a certain complacency."
Thus, far from being the sort of “easy believism” that teaches that all we need to do is give our tip of the hat to Jesus and say a prayer to get our “fire insurance”, the doctrine of the Preservation or Perseverance of the Saints does not allow a believer to live a spiritually apathetic life. True believers in Christ will progress in holiness because every person who has been justified by Christ will also be sanctified by the Spirit. For the professing believer who does not show any fruit in their life of this, there is no good grounds to be sure that they have truly been saved - because if they are saved, then God's Spirit lives in them and will compell them to live lives that are progressively being sanctified.
The apostle John in 1 John 3:9 affirms that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” For the true believer who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they cannot continue in a pattern of unrepentant sin indefinitely. As Paul Washer has said, if you have a new relationship with God, you’ll also have a new relationship with your sin. The apostle goes on to say that, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” (1 John 5:18) God guards and protects the true believer from continuing in sin and from the evil one. What an amazing comfort!
What about those who do fall away?
This may all sound great, but pretty much everyone who has been a believer for a while and been in church has known people who seemed to have believed in Christ and then later fallen away from the faith. What gives? Has God failed to keep them until the end? Were they able to snatch themselves out of His hand?
The apostle John answers this directly in 1 John 2:19 that,
“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.”
We cannot see the true state of someone’s heart. Many people “come to Christ” for many different reasons other than the right reason. Some come to the church to find help in their marriages, or perhaps seeking blessing and success or to find a wife or husband. Others come for more "noble" reasons like finding good community and support or being involved in a charitable cause. While these may not all be bad reasons, they are not the primary reason we are to come to Christ. We come to him to get him. We must come to the Kingdom as that one who has found a treasure of surpassing worth buried in a field and in his joy sells all that he has to have it (Matt. 13:44-46)!
The common Biblical objection to the doctrine of the preservation of the saints is usually found in Hebrews 6.
There, we see the author describe someone who has “been enlightened” and “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” (Hebrews 6:4-5), yet has fallen away. This seems to be, upon first reading, speaking about a true Christian. However, this is not the only way to understand this passage. Douglas Kelly comments,
"People who are never born-again by the Holy Spirit can be touched by His tender and mighty power in such a way that causes them to break down and weep. People who never submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord are able to feel the anointed preaching of the eternal Gospel of God. Thus, they have really been enlightened; they have tasted of the powers of the world to come and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit.”
They can be like the seed sown on stony ground that sprout up for a season and then wither away. Kelly continues,
“as tragic as it is to see, the experiences listed in Hebrews 6 in no way constitute an argument against the perseverance of the saints. Rather, it shows how high some can go in terms of spiritual experiences, without going all the way to a saving knowledge of God in Christ."
The reality of false converts is one repeatedly warned in Scripture. Jesus says that many will say to him "Lord, Lord" but it will be revealed in the last day that he never knew them (Matt. 7:21-23). He speaks of sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Paul warns of "false brethren" (Gal. 2:4) and avoiding those who have the appearance of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5) and who cause division in the church (Rom. 16:17). This is why the apostle Paul encourages us to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Furthermore, it must be pointed out, that for the one who makes the argument that Hebrews 6 talks about a true believer falling away, they must also affirm that this also means that they cannot ever turn back. The text goes on to say that “it is impossible… to restore them again to repentance…” (v.4-6) However, no one (that I know of) makes that argument. The little parable that follows the passage about the land that fails to produce a good crop ending up in destruction is another way to say the same thing that Jesus said in John 15 - that every branch which doesn’t bear good fruit is thrown into the fire. These are the ones who are known by their fruit that they were never true believers.
Finally, we must also continue reading in Hebrews 6. The passage concludes in this way, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” (Hebrews 6:9) So, whatever we make of the passage prior, it seems that the author is confident that his audience is truly saved and he says these things to them so that they would “show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish” (v.11-12a). I believe that in context, this passage in Hebrews 6 is a rhetorical device used by the author to encourage his audience to continue to hold fast in the faith (v.18). True Christians may have serious falls and struggles with sin, but never total and final falls beyond God’s grace. God's Word is one of the appointed means that He uses to keep true believers in the faith through the rebuke of the Word because the sheep hear the voice of their Shepherd in them. This is why it is so vitally important to be under the regular and faithful expositional preaching of the Word in a local church.
I think R.C. Sproul rightly summarizes this doctrine for us,
"I think this little catchphrase, perseverance of the saints, is dangerously misleading. It suggests that the perseverance is something that we do, perhaps in and of ourselves. I believe that saints do persevere in faith, and that those who have been effectually called by God and have been reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit endure to the end. However, they persevere not because they are so diligent in making use of the mercies of God. The only reason we can give why any of us continue on in the faith is because we have been preserved. So I prefer the term the preservation of the saints, because the process by which we are kept in a state of grace is something that is accomplished by God. My confidence in my preservation is not in my ability to persevere. My confidence rests in the power of Christ to sustain me with His grace and by the power of His intercession. He is going to bring us safely home." (emphasis mine)
The Westminster Confession of Faith neatly summarizes it:
“They whom God has 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.” (Westminster Confession of Faith XVII, 1)
This is surely good news that we have “a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19) that God is able to keep those He has called to Himself in love until the end. This is the type of assurance we want to have in the midst of even the most dire trials and ruthless persecution. It is not our own strength that will keep us - it is His - and that’s Good News to rest in.
This concludes our article series in the Doctrines of Grace. I hope that you’ve found it educational and edifying. If you have, please consider sharing it with others so that they too may be blessed and stay tuned for more articles!
God bless and Soli Deo Gloria!
Articles in this series: