Conditional versus unconditional perseverance (or preservation)
Conditionality is the key to Arminianism, where salvation depends on the activity of the sinner: God chooses you if He foresees you will believe (conditional election); Christ redeems you by the cross if you accept it (conditional atonement); the Spirit saves you if you do not resist Him (resistible grace); and God will keep you in the state of salvation if you cooperate with His grace (conditional perseverance). Of course, conditional salvation requires that the sinner be partially depraved, so that he retains some power of free will (partial depravity).
If you wanted to write a doctrinal statement on the perseverance of the saints, perhaps you would begin with a statement on God’s power or faithfulness. Wisely, the Synod of Dordt did not begin there. Instead, the synod presented the truth of the perseverance of the saints in the context of the believing sinner’s struggles with sin. Against what does the saint persevere; or in what context does God preserve the saint? The answer is that God preserves the saint in a state of grace in the midst of a fierce, unrelenting battle against sin. In this way, God’s saving, preserving grace is magnified; and in this way, the preserved and persevering saint experiences and is thankful for God’s preserving grace.
The Reformed-Christian life
Since the doctrine is called “the perseverance of the saints,” Dordt first identified what a saint is. God does not preserve us in our sin so that we live without repentance, faith, or good works. God delivers us, says Article 1, “from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life.” Nevertheless, continues the article, “not altogether from the body of sin, and from the infirmities of the flesh.”
The imperfect saint—delivered in principle from sin, but retaining the sinful flesh or old man—is the object of God’s preserving grace. Therefore, we can expect two things: first, we can expect to be holy and even to make progress in holiness; but, second, we also expect not to become perfectly holy in this life. We can expect to persevere and to be preserved, but we expect to do so only through many struggles along the way. We can expect, and even be guaranteed and assured, to attain to heavenly glory, but we expect to arrive in heaven only after having fought against our spiritual foes by the power of God’s grace.
Thus we see the wisdom of the Synod of Dordt: the synod sets forth a realistic (biblical) view of the Christian life. The synod does not promise an easy path to heaven in which we sail to the harbor of glory on a luxury yacht in the midst of a tranquil sea. Although God promises to keep us from final shipwreck, we ought to expect “many dangers, toils, and snares” before grace leads us home. Or to put it another way, God brings us through many dangers, toils, and snares in order to lead us home, for many passages of the Bible teach us that God prepares us for glory through suffering and temptation.
Daily infirmities versus lamentable falls
While God always “confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace” (V, 4), there are times, warns the Canons, when believers “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace.” What follows is a sobering account of the effect of negligence in the Christian life, which ought to silence anyone who suggests that the Synod of Dordt was soft on sin. In Article 4 synod lays the blame for the believer’s fall at the feet of the careless Christian: he sinfully deviates from the guidance of divine grace; he is seduced by the lusts of the flesh; he complies with such sinful lusts; he neglects to watch and pray; and therefore he is drawn into great and heinous sins, and he falls into them.
The negligent, careless, even presumptuous saint is at fault when he sins. God is not to blame for our sins, or even for our lamentable falls; we are. Never does the Synod of Dordt allow us to hide behind the sovereignty of God as an excuse for our sins. The synod rightly ascribes the glory for our salvation to God, but imputes the guilt of our sins to us.
Every believer who has fallen into sin knows that the Canons accurately portray the progress of sin. A careful study of the life of David, Peter, Samson and others demonstrates the veracity of the synod’s presentation here.
Equally sobering is Article 6, in which the synod describes in excruciating detail the miserable effects of such lamentable falls: they offend God; they incur guilt; they grieve the Spirit; they interrupt faith; they wound the conscience and cause the believer to lose the sense of God’s favor. (I summarize—look up the article and take note of the adjectives and adverbs.) As one Puritan said, “If you want to sin with David, you must also repent with David.” Triflers with sin will experience the heavy, chastising hand of God crushing their bones (Ps. 32:3-4). It may well be that the sword (or some other unpleasantness) shall never depart from their house. Like Jacob they might limp the rest of their earthly pilgrimage.
These lamentable falls, however, are not the same as “daily sins of infirmity” and “spots” (V, 2). Lamentable falls are not a daily occurrence in the life of the child of God—a pattern of living in sin without repentance is the mark of an unbeliever. Nevertheless, the Christian does not take his infirmities and spots lightly: “[they] furnish [the Christian] with constant matter for humiliation before God and for flying for refuge to Christ crucified….”
How far can we fall?
True believers can fall into sin—they struggle daily with infirmities and they can even experience lamentable falls resulting in life-altering blows with the Father’s rod—but they cannot forfeit salvation altogether. God chastises His erring children, God even inflicts heavy blows upon His rebellious children, but God never damns His children to hell. Instead of allowing them to run wild as unruly, incorrigible, spoiled children, He “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator” (V, 7). According to the Canons, there is no salvation for the backslidden saint without repentance from sin, which repentance has good works of gratitude as its fruit. David repented and lived a new and godly life, humbling himself when he faced the painful consequences of his sin. Peter repented, weeping bitterly for his denial of Christ and devoted his life to preaching Christ. Samson, blinded and bound in fetters by the Philistines in Gaza’s prison, repented and laid down his life for God’s glory.
Against this the Remonstrants argued that true believers “can fall from justifying faith” and “indeed often do fall from this and are lost forever” (V, B, 3). They insisted that true believers “can sin the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit” (V, B, 4). The Arminians believed that a true believer could sin his way into hell, while the Synod of Dordt taught that such an outcome was impossible.
The power of perseverance
The theologians at the Synod of Dordt labored under no illusions, however. They did not believe that we persevere in our own strength. They did not attribute the final perseverance of the struggling saint to some power that he possesses, even with the assistance of divine grace. “It is not in consequence of their own merits or strength,” say the Canons. Left to our own strength, warned the synod, final apostasy and perishing in backsliding “is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen” (V, 8). The power of perseverance, therefore, is found in God alone: the counsel, promise, call, and purpose of God; the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ; and the sealing of the Spirit make the perishing of the elect absolutely impossible. What an unshakable foundation for our faith! What an invincible fortress for our confidence! If the triune God ceases to be God, then and only then is the loss of our salvation possible!
The Arminians disagreed. God provides the believer with grace, if only he is willing to make use of it. Therefore, “it even then ever depends on the pleasure of the will whether [the believer] will persevere or not” (V, B, 2). Indignantly, the fathers at Dordt exclaimed: “[this] makes [men] robbers of God’s honor” by attributing to man what rightly belongs to divine grace.
We are weak—we cannot stand a moment!—but God powerfully preserves us in a state of grace. Christ never suffers anyone to pluck us out of His Father’s hand. Even in our foolish wanderings, He restores our soul so that we never perish. He finds the prodigal in the pigsty, He wrenches from his wretched soul the confession, “I have sinned against heaven,” and He brings him home to the Father’s embrace. That’s grace—irresistible, preserving grace!
The assurance of perseverance
“Of this preservation…and perseverance” we “may and do obtain assurance” (V, 9). It is one thing to understand and believe the doctrine of salvation as it pertains to others; it is quite another to believe that you are saved. It is one thing to believe that you are saved today; it is quite another to believe that you will continue in that state of salvation and be saved on the Last Day. The Arminians believed that present assurance is possible (we can know that we are currently in a state of grace), but certainty of final salvation is impossible and unnecessary. “Without special revelation,” said the Arminians, “we can have no certainty of future perseverance” (V, B, 5), which opinion the Canons labeled the comfort-removing “doubts of the papist.” Moreover, the Arminians claimed that the assurance of final perseverance is harmful to piety and that “it is praiseworthy to doubt” (V, B, 6).
Assurance, both of eternal, unconditional election (Head I) and final perseverance (Head V), is of the essence of faith. “This assurance…springs from faith in God’s promises” (V, 10). The stronger our faith, the stronger is our assurance; the more we struggle with doubts, which the synod calls “carnal doubts” (V, 11) or doubts of the flesh, the weaker our faith and assurance shall be. In addition, assured faith brings forth good works: notice that good works are the fruit of faith, not the cause of assurance: “and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works” (V, 10). Never does the Synod of Dordt encourage a morbid introspection as the method to obtain assurance. We are assured through faith by looking to Christ, who is the object of our faith. The effects of this assurance are not, contrary to the Arminian slander, carelessness and a lack of piety. On the contrary, he who is assured of final perseverance produces good works (V, 12).
The church’s defense of this “inestimable treasure”
The truth of “the perseverance of the saints, and the certainty thereof,” say the Canons, is something that “the spouse of Christ [has] always most tenderly loved and constantly defended.as an inestimable treasure” (V, 15). The spouse of Christ (the church) loves her Savior. What can be more precious to her than the promise of eternal life, a life with her Beloved that shall never end, a life with her Beloved that can never be taken from her, a life with her Beloved that she shall enjoy forever? Let Satan rage; let the world mock; let the hypocrite abuse; and let the heretic oppose this truth. Dordt defended it, we shall defend it, and God will cause us to defend it forever to His glory and our comfort.