Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
One of the most beautiful and comforting truths of Holy Scripture is that pertaining to the preservation of the saints and their perseverance in the faith.
It is a truth that permeates the entire Word of God. On the one hand, it is drawn forth by God as the inspired confession of the psalmist in Psalm 16. Christ stands in the loins of David, as the New Testament quotations of this passage make clear. And because Christ was in him, David confessed (and we do with him), “I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
Standing in Christ we have a certain hope for the future, a hope that even absorbs and dissolves the despair of death. God Himself shall preserve us for Christ’s sake.
For that reason the apostle Paul could exult in God’s faithfulness, pointing to Christ and saying (Rom. 8:38-39), “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the loveof God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So that same inspired apostle wrote to the church at Philippi, “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Whether we speak of the preservation of the saints or of their perseverance, we are speaking of the same doctrine. It is the simple and wonderful truth that those who are one with Christ by faith can never lose their salvation, and therefore shall never perish but are surely saved. Concisely stated, “Once saved, always saved.”
There is an important distinction to be maintained, however, between the preservation of the saints and the perseverance of the saints.
Preservation looks at this truth from the viewpoint of God’s work of grace in the hearts of His people, as that grace which has saved us continues to operate in us until we are safely received into glory.
The perseverance of the saints, on the other hand, looks at this truth from the viewpoint of the activity of the saints and their lives as God’s people in the world.
The relationship between the two is clear: Our perseverance is the fruit of God’s preservation of us. That believers do not lose their salvation is not due to their steadfast obedience and their unshakable faithfulness, but is due solely and entirely to the grace of God that preserves and keeps them from falling.
A Certain Preservation
The preservation of the saints is certain. That certainty is tied with several unbreakable cords to God Himself.
In the first place, the preservation of the saints is certain because of the immutability of God’s decree of election. While this truth does not preclude the reality that believers often fall into sin, nor minimize in any way the seriousness of such falls, God’s unchangeable purpose of election must stand. In that beautiful Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordt, Article 6 says,
But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and to forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
This is biblical. Jesus said in John 6:39, “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” And in John 10, He says of His sheep (v. 28), “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” That certain promise He grounds in the next verse (v. 29): “My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.”
The same truth is set forth in Romans 8:29-30: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
In addition, the Bible teaches that the certainty of God’s preservation of the saints rests upon the accomplished work of Christ and the unbreakable bond between Christ and His elect church. The definite atonement of Christ stands as a sure ground for the complete salvation of His people. He who laid down His life for His sheep accomplished their perfect and complete satisfaction. The debt is paid, and therefore can never be charged to us again.
Furthermore, Christ stands in relationship to His people not only as Mediator, but as their covenant Head. That covenant of grace is infallible. It actually and unfailingly saves all those who stand in that covenant relationship to Him. That covenant is established with an oath, with God’s oath, which confirms to the heirs of the promise His own unchangeable faithfulness, thus providing for us a strong consolation, indeed, an anchor of the soul (Heb. 6:17-19). While it is not in the realm of this article to define the doctrine of the covenant—something that has been done repeatedly in this rubric and in the Standard Bearer—any idea that one who stands in a covenant relationship to God through Jesus Christ might eventually fall away and finally perish is an idea foreign to the Scriptures. The union between Christ and His people is unbreakable. Scripture repeatedly reveals the unbreakable bond of marriage as a reflection of that unbreakable union between Christ and His bride. He who purchased us with His precious blood also unites Himself with us so that we are one flesh with Him. It is impossible even for Satan and his hosts surgically to separate Christ and His people.
Still more, the certainty of the preservation of the saints is tied with an unbreakable cord to the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. It is not without reason that the Canons of Dordt, in the article quoted above, states that God “does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people.” The Holy Spirit was given us, said Christ, “that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16).
What God preserves is the new life of regeneration, the life of Christ in us. The Spirit is He who implants that new life in us. That life is everlasting life. I Peter 1:23plainly teaches that we have been born again, “not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.”
That the work of the Holy Spirit is a preserving work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Spirit is revealed in Scripture as sealing the believer. In speaking of that sealing work of the Holy Spirit,Ephesians 1:13, 14 states explicitly, “…ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” We are sealed by Him “unto the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). The idea of being sealed is not only to authenticate as genuine, but also to mark one as Christ’s possession and to protect Christ’s possession from tampering. That idea plainly speaks to the doctrine of the preservation of those who are Christ’s.
What About Those Falls Into Sin?
No, this truth of divine preservation does not exclude the possibility of believers falling into sin. The realism of biblical revelation repeatedly brings us face to face with the grievous falls of the saints. The Canons of Dordt, in developing this doctrine, face the reality of sin in the lives of God’s people. It is striking that most of the Fifth Head of Doctrine develops the truth of the preservation and perseverance of the saints in direct relationship to this very fact, that there remain much sin and many infirmities in the lives of God’s people.
By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world, those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end (Art. 3).
The Canons proceed to face the “lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints,” and to show how devastating sin can be in the lives of the saints, and how wonderful is the preserving power of the merciful and faithful Savior. So serious is sin and so destructive, that when a child of God walks in sin, he loses the consciousness of God’s favor and love. His way is filled with turmoil and distress, the tokens of God’s wrath and hot displeasure. The inspired David recounts his own experience with the vivid language of Psalm 32, saying, “When I kept silence my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.”
The doctrine of preservation does not even exclude the possibility that the child of God wanders far from Him for a time. David spent several months in impenitence before God in mercy sent Nathan the prophet to him with the powerful and efficacious call to repentance. And there are children of God who grieve the Holy Spirit and even leave the church and live in sin for a time, seemingly never to return.
But the preservation of the saints is that truth that God continues His work of grace in His people, never permitting them to commit the sin unto death, nor to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
Oh yes, there are those who are members of the church only outwardly, who even seem for a time to be faithful members of the church, only to depart and never to return. That the church and her families experience such grief does not serve as evidence contrary to the divine preservation of the saints. The fact that we cannot see the hearts of those who walk in sin, and that some return, while some depart never to return, only demonstrates the fact that God preserves the elect, that is, those who are in Christ Jesus.
When the church experiences the sorrow of seeing men and women die in their impenitence who once had outwardly confessed faith in Christ, she can only humbly bow before the words of the apostle John 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 all of us.”
God preserves those in whom He has begun His work of grace. He preserves them even when He has to pull them out of the fire, to use the expression ofJude 23.
For in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit, 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, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforth more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Canons V, Art. 7).
God restores His own through the way of repentance, renewing and strengthening their faith. He does so of His own free mercy. God preserves His own work of grace in His people. That is our comfort. That is our assurance.