And therefore the opponents of the doctrine of preservation and perseverance argue that if it is established beforehand that the believer can never fall away finally, can never fall from grace completely, these admonitions of Scripture loss all their seriousness. If it is established beforehand that once saved is saved forever, why should we still fight the battle in order to be saved? And therefore, it appears as if the doctrine of the preservation and perseverance of the saints must needs make men careless and profane. And a doctrine that is based on such an ungodly conception certainly cannot have the truth of Scripture for its foundation.
But let us look at these arguments a little more closely.
As to the argument that the Scriptures admonish the believers to stand fast and to watch and to pray, in order that they may not fall away from the faith, but persevere, we may answer that this in no wise militates against the truth of the preservation and perseverance of the saints. Even as conscious faith is wrought through the preaching of the Word but by the Holy Spirit, so also the perseverance of the saints is a fruit of the operation of the Holy Spirit through the same Word of God. We must remember that grace does not destroy the rational and moral nature of the Christian, but preserves it. God always treats believers as rational, moral creatures. This is also the language of the Reformed confessions. In Canons III, IV, 16, we read: “But as man by the fall did not cease to be a creature, endowed with understanding and will, nor did sin which pervaded the whole race of mankind, deprive him of the human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death; so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor takes away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto; but spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it; that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign; in which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consist. Wherefore unless the admirable author of every good work wrought in us, man could have no hope of recovering from his fall by his own free will; by the abuse of which, in a state of innocence, he plunged himself into ruin.” The same note is struck in Canons V, 12 and 13: “This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God: so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture, and the examples of the saints.” Art. 12. And in Article 13 we read: “Neither does renewed confidence of persevering produce licentiousness, or a disregard to piety in those who are recovering from backsliding; but it renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which he hath I ordained, that they who walk therein may maintain an assurance of persevering, lest by abusing his fatherly kindness, God should turn away his gracious countenance from them, to behold which is to the godly dearer than life: the withdrawing whereof is more bitter than death, and they in consequence hereof should fall into more grievous torments of conscience.”
Hence, the work of God’s grace whereby the believers persevere even unto the end does not treat the believers as stock and blocks, but as rational, moral creatures. That God preserves the elect presupposes, in the first place, that the Most High has determined the final destination of His people from all eternity in His counsel. And this determination is not only general, so that He pre-ordained His church unto glory, but also particular, so that He ordained every one of His elect to his own place in final glory. In the second place, this preservation also presupposes that God with a view to that final destination of the elect also determined the way along which and in which the believers reach the end, and ordained also the means which must serve the attainment of the final glory. And finally, that preservation also implies that God Himself executes that counsel, and that He leads the believers in particular, as well as the church in general, alone and in the way determined by Him, and through almighty grace, to their final destination. And to those means which God has ordained to lead His children to glory also belongs the preaching of the gospel. For once more: God deals with His people as rational, moral creatures. He preserves them. And through the power of that preservation they persevere. The power of God whereby He preserves the saints does not make them stocks and blocks, but works in them and through I them. It works in their hearts through the power of the Spirit of Christ. And from their heart that power influences mind and will and the entire consciousness of the Christian. The people of God, according to I Peter 1:4, 5, are indeed infallibly preserved unto the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fadeth not away; but that preservation is in the power of God, but also through faith. And for that reason, the argument of those that oppose the truth I of the final perseverance of the saints which appeals to the exhortations of the Scriptures in order to maintain the opposite, is of no validity whatsoever. The Word of God, addressed through the preaching, is one of the means whereby God leads His people infallibly unto salvation, even unto the very end.
The argument that according to Scripture there are examples of those that have fallen away from grace and from the faith is not difficult to contradict. To all such arguments certainly apply the words of the apostle in I John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not of us.” This also applies to the false prophets and teachers mentioned in II Peter 2:1. This verse certainly cannot mean that those false teachers were bought by the blood of Christ, and that now they fell away from grace. But it must mean that although formally and nominally they were reckoned to belong to the church of Christ in the world, they became enemies and denied the atoning blood of Christ. And the same interpretation applies to the well-known verse in Hebrews 10:29, which speaks of those who have trodden under foot the Son of God, and have counted the blood of the covenant wherewith they were sanctified an unholy thing, and have done despite unto the Spirit of grace. Also to these words apply the words of the apostle John, “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” Although for a time they appeared as if they belonged to the true church of God and of Christ, they never did belong to that church whatsoever. And therefore, it certainly must be maintained that once a believer is always a believer, once a saint is always a saint. There is no possibility nor reality of the falling: away of the people of God from faith and from salvation.
To the same category, although from a different point of view, belongs the passage of John 15:1-6 and that of Romans 11:17-22. In John 15 we read the well-known words: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except: ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He: that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man. abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” And in the passage from Romans II we read: “And if some of the branches be broken off, and. thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then; The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he I also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
It does not surprise us that the Arminians appeal to these texts to prove that there is a final falling away from grace. It stands to reason that if we understand by the branches of the vine and of the olive tree that are broken off individual believers, then we must come to the conclusion that there is a falling away from grace.
However, we must call attention, in the first place, to the fact that according to the presentation of these texts, if there is actually a falling away from grace, such falling way is indeed final; and those that fall way can never return. The finality of the falling away from grace does not occur at the moment of the death of the believer, but at any time when he falls away. Understood thus, the Arminian certainly proves more than he intends to demonstrate by these verses. But, in the second place, as soon as we bear in mind the historical, organic development of the covenant of God in the line of continued generations, it will be perfectly evident that even these verses do not teach a final and definite falling away from the faith. According to this thoroughly Scriptural conception, the branches that are broken off from the vine and from the olive tree are not individual believers, but rather generations. God establishes His covenant with Abraham and his seed in the line of continued generations. Those generations of the covenant are the branches in the vine and in the olive tree. This historical development of the covenant in the line of continued generations, however, is the cause of the fact that while some generations are originally live branches of the vine and of the olive tree, in their continuation they do not remain in the tree. Just as there are branches of the vine that do not bear fruit, so also in the generations of the people of God there are those that are fruitless and that are cut out. This could not be the case if all the seed of Abraham were spiritual seed. But now, according to Scripture, this is not the case. All are not Israel that are of Israel; and only the children of the promise are counted for the seed. And therefore, also these verses do not teach a falling away of the individual believers in Christ Jesus.
That this is indeed true is very evident from Romans 9:1, ff.: “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish-that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. Not as though the word of God bath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shal1 thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” This passage proves very plainly what I said before, namely: that the branches which are cut off must not be considered to be the individual believers, but the generations of the people of God. And therefore also this passage does not prove the Arminian view of the falling away of believers.
Finally, a word must be said about the well-known passage from Hebrews 6:4-8. There we read: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.”
How must this passage be explained in the light of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints? The text uses indeed very strong terms, which almost would leave the impression as if those of whom it speaks were true believers and true saints in Christ Jesus our Lord. The text says that these men, these members of the church, were once enlightened, that is, they have received the light of the gospel. Intellectually they understand the truth of the Word of God and clearly apprehend its import. Moreover, the text says that they tasted of the heavenly gift. Now the heavenly gift is without any doubt the fullness of grace. It is the gift bestowed from heaven through the Spirit of Christ. It includes blessings of grace such as forgiveness, righteousness, peace, joy, etc. Now the text says that of this heavenly gift they tasted. Mark you well, it does not say that they had a spiritual part in that heavenly gift. But they simply tasted of it. Moreover, the passage teaches that these men were partakers of the Holy Ghost, that is, of the special and general gifts bestowed by the Spirit upon the church, especially in those times—gifts such as healing, tongues, prophesying, comfort, exhortation, teaching, admonition. Moreover, they tasted the good Word of God. Good the Word of God is because of the blessed promise of eternal life. And also of that Word of God they tasted; and they tasted, moreover, of the powers of the world to come. The world to come is evidently the glorious kingdom in which Christ is Lord and in which all His people reign with Him over all things. The victorious powers of that world to come are experienced by true believers even in the present world and in the present time. And also of these powers, so the text teaches us, those that fall away tasted. The text, therefore, after all does not speak of true believers, but of men that in the church of Christ have come very near to the kingdom of God, so that with their intellectual and natural mind they apprehend the kingdom and its blessings, so that they have had a taste of the powers of salvation, without, however, having a spiritual part in that salvation.
That this is indeed true is evident from the rest of the text. The text says that it is impossible to renew those men again unto repentance. To renew is not the same as to make something entirely new. But it means “to renovate, to make something new of something old.” Spiritually it means to make a new man out of an old man, to change the natural man into a spiritual man, to change an unbeliever into a believer, to change the unregenerate into the regenerated Christian. Now the text says that it is impossible that those men of whom the passage speaks and concerning whom it asserts very glorious blessings, can ever be renewed again unto repentance. Repentance, as we know, is a state of mind, a turning of the mind from the love of sin and unrighteousness unto the love of God, the love of righteousness, and therefore unto a true sorrow over sin. And when the passage says that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance, it does not mean that formerly they were truly penitent Christians, that they were true believers, with a true sorrow over sin. For then, after all, there would be a falling away of saints, which all Scripture definitely contradicts. But the author of the epistle to the Hebrews has in mind their former state, as they appeared, as they were known by men, as they used to be members of the church visible in the world. They were baptized. They went through the outward show of repentance; and for a time they walked in that repentance. But now they have definitely fallen away from that outward show: not from the true faith, not from the grace of God in Christ Jesus. They have become, even as they were already, unbelievers. They have become wicked. They have become part of the Antichrist. And the text says that it is impossible that they who so fall away from their apparent membership in the body of Christ can ever be renewed unto repentance. The case of these people is therefore completely hopeless. It is desperate. Their falling away is final. They can never return. But the question is: is this renewal impossible for men, or for God? The author does not say. And we may no doubt answer that it is impossible in both senses of the word. It is impossible for men: for as men they do not have the power of themselves to bring anyone to repentance. To bring to repentance is always the work of the grace of God. But men can preach and admonish to repent. And when they put forth efforts in that direction, they find that all their attempts to bring those men that are so fallen away unto repentance are hopeless and fruitless. But, reverently speaking, it is also impossible for God to renew them again unto repentance. In the absolute sense, of course, all things are possible for God. But in reality it is impossible because it is not the will of God to bring those men to repentance, because they have become manifest, and very clearly manifest, as reprobate. And therefore, reprobation is the deepest cause both of that falling away, and of the impossibility of bringing them again unto repentance. God never lets His elect people come so near the kingdom of heaven, in order then to allow them to fall away so deeply and hopelessly. Only the reprobate, in order that they become manifest as reprobate and profane, are ever placed in that outward relation to the kingdom of heaven. And notice that they actually become manifest as Antichristian. The text says that they crucify Christ afresh. They hate Him. They despise Him and treat Him as a criminal and crucify Him afresh. And this second act of crucifixion is much worse than the historical crucifixion by the world, because they understand that it is the blood of atonement. And they show that they hate that blood of atonement and trample it under foot. Unto themselves they crucify the Son of God afresh, so that they openly profess that they want no part in that blood and in Him. And so they put Him to an open shame. They take part with the enemies of Christ and of His cross. They mock Him and condemn Him openly. And thus those wicked reprobates, that stood in very close connection with the church and with the kingdom of God, that tasted the good Word of God and tasted the heavenly gift and were partakers of the Holy Spirit, join the ranks of the Antichrist.