Today’s blog ends a short series on the doctrines of grace. The purpose of this blog series is to give a brief primer on reformed theology, though not as brief as in the article “Is Veritas Church Reformed?” Ultimately, we believe that right thinking and right affections lead to right living. In order for us to live faithfully for Christ, we need to think rightly about God, and we need to use our affections for God. We want to view everything (and we do mean everything) through the lens of scripture.
A quick recap of where we’ve come so far –
Total Depravity – The inability of men to exercise faith in God of their own volition, being enslaved to sin.
Unconditional Election – The foreordination to salvation of all those to whom God savingly reveals himself.
Limited Atonement – The precision of the atoning work of Christ’s death. God saves all those whom he died for.
Irresistible Grace – How God overcomes the rebellion of sinful hearts and gives them a new nature.
Last, we come to the P in TULIP –
Perseverance of the Saints.
Perseverance of the Saints means that after God has elected, atoned, and drawn a man to Christ, that man can no longer die in unrepentant rebellion against Christ. It is impossible for a man to finally leave Christ.
This is distinguished from preservation of the saints; Perseverance is a result of God’s preservation of the saints.
One might frame the two distinctions by asking these two differing questions:
Perseverance of the Saints: “Can I lose my salvation?”
Preservation of the Saints: “Can Jesus lose a Christian?”
We will look at both of these. First the cause, preservation, and then the effect, perseverance.
Preservation of the saints is really just a logical consequence of election. If God irresistibly overcomes the rebellion and sinfulness of human hearts, then he also has the power and authority and inclination to keep those hearts. For better or worse, this is often referred to as “once saved, always saved”. We might say it is closer to “if saved, always saved”, however.
The question of preservation is ultimately “Can Jesus lose a Christian?”
Can Jesus lose a Christian?
Recall again that election is unconditional. In other words, it is not by foreseen faith that God chooses to save an individual. Rather, God chooses with unmerited grace to save sinners, and does so before the foundations of time. Therefore, it is simple and correct to infer that God’s continued saving grace is also unconditional. Anybody who has been saved will continue in salvation. How does God accomplish this? Through preserving the Christian’s faith in God. All of this is of God’s saving grace. God’s saving grace is a grace that begins, works, and completes the work of salvation in sinners.
Philippians 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
John 10:28 – “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Jonah 2:9 – “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
Revelation 7:10 – “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
There are plenty of Old and New Testament examples of the preservation God gives upon those whom he delights in. The book of Genesis is rife with obvious examples (Noah and the Ark, in which Noah and his family are sinners, and the Ark is a “type” of Christ), and less obvious exhibitions, such as Joseph (another type of Christ) being thrown into a pit by his brothers, and eventually being raised up by God as their savior from famine. Joseph acknowledges this in Genesis 50:19-20. What they had meant for evil, God meant for good. They threw Joseph into the pit, but God preserved him spiritually and physically (A couple examples: Genesis 39:6-10, Genesis 39:19-23).
Perhaps the greatest prayer for the preservation of God’s people in the Old Covenant comes from Numbers 6:24-26:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
From here, we see that the “blessing” and “keeping” is something that the Lord does, not the Christian.
In the New Testament, one need only look at John 6, 10 and 17 to see that Jesus loses none that he finds, and prays for the preservation and perseverance of his disciples and those who come to believe in Jesus by their testimony. God’s preservation of the Christian causes the perseverance of the Christian, not the other way around. Surely if we could lose “our” salvation, we would have already lost it. But because the object of our faith is the creator of all things, we may have full assurance of preservation.
Perseverance of The Saints
God’s preservation of the saints is played out in multiple ways, but the ultimate way we refer to this is called perseverance of the saints. God’s preservation causes perseverance.
During the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer (John 17), Jesus makes the following requests to God the Father:
John 17:11-13 – “keep them in your name”
John 17:17-19 – “Sanctify them in the truth”
John 17:20-21 – “…also for those who will believe in me through [the disciple’s] word”
We see that Jesus states that while he was on the earth, he kept the disciples in the Father’s name; Then he asks the Father to continue this guarding so that his joy may be fulfilled in the disciples. He asks the Father to “sanctify them in the truth”, to mature their faith in him. Then, he applies this prayer to all Christians from that point forward. Jesus is praying for God the Father to preserve the disciples through the Holy Spirit, so that the disciples would persevere to the end. In the prayer, we see Jesus’ prayer for believers (preservation), and then the outworking of that prayer (perseverance).
What Does Perseverance Look Like?
The main feature of perseverance is steadfast faith. When under spiritual attack, through the forms of suffering and doubt, a Christian’s response should be to lean into the promises of God. God will use suffering and trials, and even your doubts, to produce greater faith, and therefore greater assurance of salvation. Perseverance is what separates true believers from nominal fair weather Christians.
A quick and easy rule to identifying perseverance in scripture is to look at the Old Testament saints. Look at the peaks and valleys of their walk with the Lord. King David’s life is full of victory (1 Chronicles 18), but also full of adultery (2 Samuel 11), death and war (1 Chronicles 28:3), and lies (2 Samuel 11). Yet, we see that through faith, he persevered (Hebrews 11:32-34). The same David who was the ancestor of Jesus born of Mary (Matthew 1:1-17) was also the adulterer with Bathsheba. The resulting war between David and his son Absalom (2 Samuel 13-19) was directly attributed to this sin via prophecy (2 Samuel 12:1-14). David led a bitter life long after this. Yet, we see that in the end, due to the Lord’s promise to him, he persevered, guaranteeing kingship to his son Solomon (1 Kings 1); and so the promised seed’s line continued in fruition (Genesis 49:8-12).
David persevered. But in the midst of that perseverance, he still committed grave sin. It was only by the grace of God’s preservation that David was able to stand in the end.
So, too, may be the Christian’s walk with the Lord today. We may experience or commit treachery. We may even abandon the Lord for some time in chase of idols. But it is the promises of the Lord that keep us walking in Christ to the end. The difference between the Christian who repents and the “Christian” who leaves may not be revealed until closer to the ends of our lives.
This means that God will separate wheat from tares through time (Matthew 13:24-30); this is not a judgement that we should make, lest we pull up wheat with the tares. However, the church is given God’s word to assure (or not) Christians of salvation based upon the evidence of spiritual fruit (Romans 8, Hebrews 10:26-27, Matthew 7:21, John 8:31-32, 1 John 5:10-13, 2 Timothy 2:10-13, Romans 10:9, Romans 10:13, 1 John 3:20, 1 John 1:9, 1 John 5:18, Philippians 1:6; the list could go on and on).
Assurance is not the same as salvation though. One may be completely assured he is a Christian his whole walk on the way to hell (Matthew 7:21-23). One may suffer depression and feelings of condemnation his whole walk toward heaven (Psalm 22, Psalm 88). We cannot make these judgments; we only argue for or against assurance based upon fruit.
When there is no fruit, the church has been given leaders to act to keep their flock, and to return people to their flocks. This may take the form of church discipline, leading up to and including excommunication, wherein a person who professes Christ but does not show fruit due the profession is cut off from the visible community of God’s people. Even then, the excommunication may be a means of grace, a method God uses to bring an errant sinner back into his fold again. Thus, it may be a means of preservation, leading to repentance, and the reason that Christian does persevere to the end.
When a “Christian” isn’t actually a Christian
As Christians, it is paramount to believe that there is no prayer of Jesus which is not answered with “yes and amen” by the Father (2 Corinthians 1:20). The High Priestly Prayer of John 17 has not received any “no” from God, only “yes and amen”. Therefore, we conclude that Christians who are in the world (but not of it) are kept from the evil one. This keeping is not a guarantee of safe passage but good passage. We may experience emotional or physical shipwreck (as Paul did in Acts 27:27-41). We may experience thorns in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We may even be abandoned by those we thought were Christians (such as Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10a). We perhaps may even attempt to leave or deny Christ ourselves (for which even the apostle Peter was once guilty). However, not even our strongest efforts could take us from the loving hand of God (John 10:28).
If we ever do “leave” Christ, it is not because we are no longer in him. It is exactly because we never actually were in him. We were “Christians” by name only. We were not genuine Christians. Consider the meaning of 1 John 2:18-25:
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 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. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.
A good sign of preservation is precisely that a person “confesses the Son”, for to confess the Son is to “[have] the Father also.”
What is the basis for such a confession? 1 John 2:26-27: “The anointing that you received from him [which] abides in you. […] But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie-just as it has taught you, abide in him”. John’s point is that you believe because God has anointed you. Therefore, to believe in Jesus is to abide in Jesus. John is saying that those who abide in Christ cannot be lost.
Thus, we conclude that God preserves all Christians in the faith. If God has ever done any saving preservation, he will continue to do it because it is the nature of God to say “yes and amen” to Christ and all those who are of Christ.
Some detractors of perseverance of the saints will appeal to the circumstance of the rebellious person who proclaims Christ yet continues to disobey and rebel against God and his commandments. Oftentimes, they will use Hebrews 6:4-6 as a prooftext against irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints. If God’s saving grace can be finally resisted, then we can’t assert preservation of the saints. Let’s take a look at the context of that scripture.
Hebrews 6:4-6 deals with a hypothetical situation of a person proclaiming Christ that falls away, to the point that it is “impossible” to “restore them again to repentance”. This is a very strong warning against apostasy, wherein a professed believer cuts himself off from the covenant community of God. The challenge here is how to preserve the meaning rightly in light of John 6:37-40. Jesus says that he will lose no one that he is given. The author of Hebrews warns against becoming “lost”. If we hold to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we must believe that all scripture is true, breathed out by God’s Spirit. Therefore, we don’t have a contradiction between Jesus and the author of Hebrews. There is compatibility between each author and book.
We must look at the entire context of the passage. Hebrews 6:1-12 does contain a warning. It also contains a consolation after this warning. The author of Hebrews makes a bold claim in verse 9. “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation.”
Did you catch that? The author of Hebrews first warns of apostasy, and then expresses his conviction (as recorded infallibly in scripture) that the apostasy will not take place. God will preserve the Christian. The point of this section is restated positively in verses 10-12. “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end“. The context of this scripture is not that a regenerate Christian can actually rebel to the point of destruction. The purpose is to illuminate the hope of the gospel which keeps the Christian, and thereby give them reasons to be assured. This is why we conclude that this is a hypothetical situation. Should a believer actually fall away, it would really be impossible to restore them again to repentance. However, in the next paragraph, we see that the author of Hebrews, under the divine inspiration of God, expresses his surety that this will not occur.
Ultimately, the perseverance of the saints is rooted in the perseverance of Jesus Christ. One of the most encouraging passages in the New Testament is Hebrews 12, wherein we are encouraged to “[look towards] Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of throne of God”. Christians persevere because Jesus persevered. Christians will be seated before the throne of God, because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
If you are in Christ, it matters not the “strength” of faith that you have in Jesus, provided that he is indeed the object of your faith. The Christian who is barely rooted in Christ will still receive the blessings and promises of Christ. Should God shake the world, the Christian, no matter how doubting, is part of the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). If Christ was a building with the strongest foundation, and you were two inches from the door, and God was shaking the world itself into oblivion, you would still be in Christ. If you fell out of your chair, you would still be under his protection. If you were laying flat against the floor, covering your face, you are still under Christ’s roof. Your foundation is Christ. This is what it means to be a Christian. The world may shake; but Christ will not suffer to have you walk out the door and through his fingers. That is the meaning of perseverance.
This concludes our series on the doctrines of grace.
For more information on perseverance of the saints, look at the original points from the Canons of Dordt here: http://www.creeds.net/dordt/mp5.htm