Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Subjective Soteriology: Lesson 9 – Perseverance of the Saints
by Bob Burridge ©1999, 2010, 2012
The Saints Persevere
The Foundation of Perseverance
Perseverance is Not Without Lapses
Westminster Confession of Faith XVII
I. 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.
II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
III. Nevertheless, they 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.
The Saints Persevere
One of the most comforting and humbling teachings of Scripture is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is an imperishable and inalienable gift of God. What Jesus purchased for his people by his life and death cannot be taken from them. It will not deteriorate, and it cannot fail. No fault in the creature or power in all of creation can sever the covenant bond God establishes by grace with his children.
Jesus taught the Jews in terms they clearly understood. Not only did he assert his deity (John 10:30-31), he also taught the unquestionable perseverance of all who are truly his in John 10:26-29 “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall 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.”
Jesus made a distinction between those who were God’s sheep and those who were not. The sheep are so secure that nothing can separate them from the care of their good Shepherd’s hand. They will never perish.
Many New Testament texts teach this same lesson. Those who are redeemed cannot lose the salvation God grants to them.
John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.’
John 6:39 “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”
Romans 11:29 “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’
Ephesians 1:13 “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation– having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise,”
Philippians 1:6 “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
1 Peter 1:3-5 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. “
Salvation is a work of God who alone determines who will or who will not be secured in him. It is determined by grace alone and not by anything done or decided by any creature (see our previous studies concerning election and the decrees). Since the work of regeneration is a sovereign work of grace alone, its maintenance cannot be reliant upon the work of any finite creature or it would not be secure or certain at all.
Those who imagine that salvation is caused by a human choice or decision conclude that it could be surrendered by the same. If the security of our salvation was up to us, then it would be no more unchangeable or reliable than we are. An unbiblical gospel offers at best an insecure salvation. But according to the biblical message, true believers cannot finally fall away from the state of grace. They will certainly persevere to the end.
On the other hand, there are those who do fall away. This does not indicate that salvation can be lost. It shows that they were never truly regenerated in the first place.
Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ ”
1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”
Jesus explained in his parable of the seed and the different types of soil that there are those to whom the gospel comes whose response is not the result of true regeneration. These are among those who appear to be true converts to Christ, but who in time prove that their profession of faith was only made in the flesh. They do not lose their salvation. They are only exposed as never really having possessed it.
Matthew 13:5-6 “And others fell upon the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”
Matthew 13:20-21 “And the one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word, and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.”
The Foundation of Perseverance
The certainty of our perseverance depends upon a sure foundation. If it was in the hands of fallible and mutable humans there could be no reason to believe that perseverance could be possible. But it is certain since it rests in the eternal and immutable decree of election and God’s immutable love toward his own. It is founded only upon the judicial merits of Christ, and maintained by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit who seals their sonship with God. The implanted spiritual life of those redeemed continues to progress in sanctification affirming the reality of a salvation that never fails.
The previous texts of Scripture plainly show that no created power or effort can separate us from the eternal blessings purposed by God. We are kept by his hand. We persevere because God perseveres with us. The Golden Chain of Romans 8:29-30 culminates in the glorification of all who are foreknown in the eternal mind of God to be predestined, effectually called, and justified.
This perseverance is not the same as the commonly accepted doctrine of “eternal security” which implies that the security of a person’s standing with God is independent of God’s work of sanctification. In contrast, the biblical teaching is that we are secure because we persevere, and we persevere because God by grace perseveres with us to enliven in us the faculties of faith, repentance, and sanctification. We are not merely chosen by grace to be redeemed. The same ones called to come to Christ are also chosen by grace to exercise true faith, sincere repentance, and spiritual growth. God has ordained all the means to his ends as well as their final outcome.
When a true believer sins he is brought to repentance for his sins. In faith he rests upon Christ for forgiveness and he progresses out of his sins by the process of sanctification. These implanted graces have been fully discussed in previous chapters of the confession.
The true doctrine is well summarized by Pastor Gordon Girod,
“How can I be certain that I am a child of God, and that He will never let me go? Have you ever wept for your sin? Have you ever felt deeply and agonizingly that you have failed your God? You see, it is only that man, that woman, who in the agony of their guilt before God not once but a thousand times – have sought forgiveness, who can know with certainty that God will not allow them to be lifted from the hollow of His hand.” (Pg. 90 in “The Deeper Faith”)
Perseverance is Not Without Lapses
The doctrine of perseverance does not imply that believers do not at time grievously lapse into sin. In their not yet fully sanctified condition they are influenced by external temptations, are drawn away from holiness by their remaining inner corruptions, and fall through their neglect of the means of grace. Yet they are repeatedly humbled by the conviction of the Holy Spirit so that they progress in spiritual growth into the image of Christ.
Some , by co-mingling this doctrine with the humanistic notions of the soul, imagine various causes of falling from grace and the forfeiture of the benefits of redemption. These fictions are not only inconsistent with the plain promises of Scripture, they also lack reasonable support from God’s word when properly interpreted. The previous heads of doctrine we have studied in the Confession such as providence (particularly the decree of election), atonement, regeneration and the implanted faculties of saving faith, repentance, and sanctification, rule out any possibility that those who are truly redeemed by Christ could ever totally fall away and lose their eternal hope.
Some suggest that failure to confess specific sins leaves them unforgiven. This comes from a faulty understanding of verses such as 1 John 1:9. Confession is admitting sorrowfully our lostness, not the naming of each transgression. Literally, the word used in that verse means “agree with”. When we are confessing our sins we are agreeing with God about the truth and offensiveness of what we have done. The work of Christ fully paid for all the sins of his people. Guilt is not taken away by our remembering the details of our transgressions so that we can list them back to God. It is not the confession of each sin that transforms the lost heart. It is the regenerated heart that of necessity confesses its condition generally, and confesses each individual sin as it is made aware of it by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Others suggest that there is a sin which may be committed by the believer which is unpardonable and would result in the canceling of our adoption. But those sins which are unpardonable in Scripture are those not atoned for by Christ. They are the sins of those never redeemed to begin with.
Still others, while admitting that no one can take our salvation from us, believe that the believer could surrender his own salvation by an act of choice. On the one hand this foolish notion fails to consider the biblical view of salvation itself which never begins by our choice, and therefore may not be surrendered by it. The elect partake of salvation by grace not by self-determination. On the other hand this tragic theory separates choice from the inclination of the heart which moves it. One truly redeemed is bound to Christ to the degree that he will not lay aside that which has laid hold of him.
[Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.]