This is our first special issue of the current volume-year, and it is the last one devoted to the so-called Five Points of Calvinism. It is devoted in its entirety to the subject of the Perseverance of the Saints.
Again in this instance the popular order of the Five Points of Calvinism—designated by the mnemonic T-U-L-I-P—and the order which we are following, that of the Canons of Dordrecht, coincide: in both, the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is fifth. That brings up an interesting question. What does the P in T-U-L-I-P stand for? Does it stand for Perseverance of the Saints? Or does it stand for Preservation of the Saints? The difference is not an essential one, but one of viewpoint. The end is the same in both instances: the saints, i.e., the elect, cannot and do not finally fall away but are saved unto all eternity. If we speak of the perseverance of the saints, we look at the matter from the viewpoint of the activity of the saints: either they persevere unto the end, or they fall from grace. If we speak of the preservation of the saints, then we look at the matter from the viewpoint of the work of God’s grace: the grace which effectually drew us out of the darkness of sin and death and made us alive in Christ continues to operate in us to the very end. He Who began a good work in us will perfect it unto the day of Jesus Christ, Philippians 1:6.
Probably the question as to the meaning of the P cannot be settled. Our Canons speak of “Perseverance.” This, however, is not determinative: for in the Canons the reference to perseverance has its historical occasion in the Arminians’ denial of perseverance. And I have not found it possible to trace the origin and early usage of the mnemonic T-U-L-I-P and to discover whether it refers to Preservation or Perseverance. And while in a sense the question is merely academic, we must nevertheless remember that there is no perseverance of the saints without God’s work of preservation: the former is the fruit of the latter. If God did not persevere in His work of grace, we would not persevere to the end. And while our Canons speak of Perseverance in the title of the Fifth Head of Doctrine, they make it abundantly clear in the articles of this chapter that it is sovereign grace alone which preserves us to the end.
In the main we have followed the outline of our Canons for the material of this special issue. There is a reason for this. The Fifth Head of Doctrine—and perhaps this is subjective on my part—is probably the most beautiful, the most thorough, the most comforting, and the most pastoral chapter of the Canons. In my opinion it would be very difficult to improve on it. It is instructive both as to the Doctrine of Perseverance as such and as to the Doctrine of the Assurance of Perseverance, a subject close to the heart of any child of God.
For the meditation in this issue we have chosen an appropriate reprint from the pen of the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema, taken from Volume XIV.
In behalf of the Staff’s committee, I hereby express sincere thanks to all who contributed to this special issue.
We hope that you, our readers, will profit.
We must not imagine that the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and of the assurance of that perseverance was a new doctrine established by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-’19. It was not. The doctrine of perseverance was not new for the church in general, nor was it new to our Reformed creeds and for our Reformed churches. I need only remind you of the fact that this doctrine finds expression in a most beautiful context in that jewel of our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 54, concerning the holy, catholic church. The 54th Answer concludes with the well-known words, “…and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.” There, in just a few words, you have both the doctrine of perseverance and the doctrine of the assurance of perseverance. And the fathers of Dordt were well aware of this, and thus aware of the fact that the Arminians militated against the adopted confession, as is plain from their reference to Question and Answer 54 in Article 9 of the Fifth Head of Doctrine:
Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion, that they ever will continue true and living members of the church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal lie.
What happened at Dordrecht was that under the impetus of the Arminian denial of the perseverance of the saints the church came under the necessity of defending that truth and of spelling it out thoroughly and carefully in the light of Scripture. The result, as I have already suggested, is an unexcelled exposition of this doctrine. Never has it been improved upon. Even that later confessional document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, does not improve upon the statement of the Canons, but rather plainly borrows from it.
The Arminians flatly deny the truth of perseverance. We must remember this. Arminianism has no doctrine of perseverance whatsoever. It is, of course, correct to say that the Arminians make perseverance dependent upon free will—correct as far as it goes. But we must remember that by this limitation they destroy the doctrine of perseverance. A perseverance which depends on free will is no perseverance. And that this is correct can be easily documented. It is true that at the conclusion of the Fifth Article of the Remonstrance the Arminians try to leave the impression only that they are in doubt about the doctrine of perseverance. For they say: “But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” This leaves the impression of honest doubt and questionings, but no more than that. However, in the rest of their fifth article they already destroy the doctrine of perseverance, though in a very sneaky way. But eight years later, at the time of the Synod of Dordt, the Arminians very bluntly denied the doctrine of perseverance when they were required by the Synod to submit in writing their opinion concerning this doctrine. Let me quote just three of the Arminians’ propositions to make this clear:
1. The perseverance of believers in the faith is not the outworking of an absolute decree by which God is said to have chosen particular persons, not circumscribed by any condition of obedience.
3. True believers can fall from true faith and fall into such sins as cannot be consistent with true and justifying faith; and not only can this happen, but it also not infrequently occurs.
4. True believers can through their own fault fall into horrible sins and blasphemies, persevere and die in the same: and accordingly they can finally fall away and go lost.
If there was any honest doubt about the doctrine of perseverance on the part of the Arminians when they drew up their five articles in Gouda in 1610, therefore, it is certain that by 1618, when the Synod of Dordrecht convened, this doubt had been dispelled; and the Arminians had come down on the wrong side as far as the doctrine of perseverance is concerned. About this there can be no question.
But in the providence of God it was this Arminian heresy which became the occasion for the church to draw up a most beautiful and clear and comforting confession of this precious truth. What a beautifully clear and concise statement of the truth, for example, is found in Article 8 of Canons V! Notice:
Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which, with respect to themselves, is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since His counsel cannot be changed, nor His promise fail, neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.
When you read this article carefully, you will discover that in this brief statement is embodied at the same time a correct statement of the relationship between this Fifth Point of Calvinism and the other four. The perseverance of the saints is rooted in eternal and sovereign election. It has its ground in definite atonement. It has its necessity in our depravity. It has its principle in effectual calling, the calling that cannot be revoked.
This means that there is no such thing as a Four Point Calvinist—one who holds to all the doctrines of grace with the exception of perseverance. If you deny the perseverance of the saints, you necessarily deny the previous four points. From this point of view the doctrine of perseverance might be termed the keystone: all the doctrines of grace stand or fall with this doctrine.