The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and the certainty thereof; which God hath most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His name, and the consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of the faithful. Satan abhors it; the world ridicules it; the ignorant and hypocrite abuse, and heretics oppose it; but the spouse of Christ hath always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it, as an inestimable treasure; and God, against Whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her to continue this conduct to the end. Now, to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, forever. AMEN.
It is in this beautiful way that our Canons conclude their treatment of “the fifth point of Calvinism,” the perseverance of the saints. The wicked not only do not understand it, but they also oppose it; but the bride of Christ loves it tenderly and defends it as a priceless treasure. God will see to it that this bride of Christ continues such conduct unto the very end, so that all honor and glory may be to Him alone.
Generally speaking, a distinction must be made between the preservation of the saints and theperseverance of the saints. The former of these two terms looks at this doctrine from the viewpoint of God’s work of grace in the hearts of His people; the latter looks at the whole subject from the viewpoint of the life of believers in the world. God preserves His people; they persevere.
This doctrine is no longer widely believed in our day. Although it was the object of bitter attack during the time of the Arminian controversy, our fathers at Dordt very emphatically set forth its truth in beautiful words in the fifth chapter of the Canons. But it seems sometimes as if the Arminians, defeated at Dordt, nevertheless won the day. It is difficult to find, even in Reformed circles, people who maintain in all its power the truth of the preservation of the saints. I have even met “three-point Calvinists,” people who profess to believe the doctrines of Calvinism, with the exception of limited atonement and the perseverance of the saints.
Many objections have been brought against this doctrine by the Arminians over the years. Butler, in his “Theology,” sums them up: 1) There are many texts which admonish men to be steadfast and faithful, all of which imply the possibility that they will not; 2) There are texts which explicitly teach a falling away, such asHebrews 6:4-6; 3) Experience itself shows that people who once profess faith nevertheless fall away; 4) The doctrine makes men careless and profane—makes believers fall into carnal security so that they say: once a believer, always a believer—live though I will.
Nevertheless, all these objections against the doctrine of preservation are based upon the fundamental error of the Arminian that he bases all of salvation upon the free will of man. Not only does man, by his free will, decide to accept Christ as his personal Savior so that only then can salvation be begun in him, but the continual salvation of the one who has accepted Christ depends upon this constant obedience and faithfulness, which is also rooted in his free will. A man may, in fact, fall away and be restored many times before he finally arrives in glory. Or, much worse, a man may be once a Christian, but through his falling, arrive, after all, in hell.
The truth of preservation is firmly grounded in the sovereignty of grace. It is this which brings up two very important questions: 1) What is the relation between preservation and perseverance? 2) How is the perseverance of the saints to be explained in the light of the fact that believers fall into sin?
The latter of these two questions needs to be discussed first of all.
The truth of preservation means, very simply, that God preserves the work of grace in the hearts of His people; that once they are saved, they continue saved into all eternity—no matter what happens to them; that once a Christian, always a Christian; that God will perfect the good work which He has begun in the hearts of His people. It is impossible for a regenerated believer ever to be anything else but that.
Yet this truth does not preclude the very real fact that a believer falls into sin. This is an obvious fact which almost needs no proof. Both Scripture and our own experience testify that this is indeed the case. Scripture records the terrible falls of David and Peter—both of which are specifically mentioned also in the Canons and which are described as lamentable falls. Never does Scripture nor our experience in any way minimize the terrible character of these falls. They are dreadful beyond description and may not, in any way, be minimized.
Nor does the truth of preservation deny that sin, just because it is so serious, takes away from the child of God the consciousness of his salvation. The Scriptures make clear that, when the child of God walks in sin, he loses the consciousness of being a child of God. He no longer experiences the love and favor of God. The assurance of his salvation is gone. He experiences only God’s wrath and displeasure. His way is filled with turmoil and trouble, with grief and spiritual distress—”While I kept guilty silence, my strength was spent with grief. Thy hand was heavy on me; my soul found no relief”; so we sing in Psalter No. 83. In this state of spiritual trouble, he may even lose the ability to pray, the spiritual interest in the things of God and of His Word, concern for the church and the preaching. In fact, he may wander far away, so that he even loses contact with the church and the fellowship of the saints for a time. He walks in the world and seems to have perfect contentment in the paths of sin. All these things can certainly happen. Preservation does not preclude all these possibilities.
Nevertheless, preservation means that God continues His work of grace even when all these things happen.
Here, too, we must be careful. We are not speaking here of an elect child of God who has not been brought to the faith as yet. There are elect, though unregenerated, people of God who through the gospel are brought to faith and conversion in adult life. This is especially true on the mission field, as it was true with, e.g., the Philippian jailor. Prior to their regeneration and conversion, these people surely walk in all the sins of the wicked. The truth of preservation does not, as such, refer to them—until such a time as God begins His work within their hearts.
Nor are we speaking here of those who outwardly confess their faith, seem for a time to be faithful and true members of the church, walk in the company of the people of God; but then, after a time, depart. We cannot, of course, tell the difference between such a person and the child of God who, after walking for a time in sin, returns again—at least, not until he returns. Of these former the apostle John speaks 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.”
We are speaking of those in whom God has begun His work of grace. These are always preserved by the power of Almighty God, even when they fall into sin.
We may very well ask the question at this point: What precisely is meant by preservation? especially in the light of the lamentable falls of God’s people.
There are several elements which ought to be mentioned in this connection.
In the first place, it is evident that they always remainelect. Election is an eternal and unchangeable decree of God according to which God sovereignly, out of mere grace, determines who are His and who are not.
Secondly, they always remain those for whom Christ died. And it must be remembered that they are those who objectively have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, for whom satisfaction for sin has been made, and for whom salvation has been graciously merited.
Thirdly, it follows for this, that they are always and unchangeably the objects of God’s love and favor. This is true even in their deepest falls. Though they experience God’s wrath and displeasure, this does not alter the fact that even God’s wrath upon them and His hot displeasure are manifestations of His love. When God sends them trouble and distress, grief and sorrow; when His hand is heavy on them; even then they are loved by God. And the distress He sends them is evidence of His love, for through these means He brings them to repentance and confession. He restores them again to Himself.
Fourthly, (and here we really come to the very heart of the truth), God maintains His work of grace in their hearts. That is, the life of regeneration remains within them. They continue to be united to Christ by the bond of faith. The principle of salvation remains. Even though they have lost the consciousness of this salvation, of faith, and of the life of Christ, God maintains it and continues to perform His work.
This is very clear from Scripture. No one is able, Jesus says, to pluck His sheep out of His hand or out of His Father’s hand (John 10:27-30). Triumphantly Paul shouts that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39). John solemnly writes: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (I John 3:9).
Finally, the truth of preservation means that, even though the child of God falls into sin, God will restore him again through the way of repentance and confession. God will bring him back to the full riches of the joy of salvation through the consciousness of the forgiveness of sin. And, doing this, God will preserve His own unto final salvation and glory. This last, too, is important. Preservation means that we are kept by God safely into all eternity. To be in heaven does not mean that we then suddenly become independent of God’s grace and are able to stand on our own strength. Forever and ever in glory, though now without the possibility of sinning again, we are kept and preserved by the power of the grace of our God.
We have not the space to enter into all the Scriptural proof for this beautiful doctrine. But we refer the interested reader, in addition to the passages mentioned above, to such texts as John 6:37-40, Philippians 1:6, I Peter 1:4, 5, Ephesians 1:13, 14, II Thessalonians 3:3, II Timothy 1:12.
Scripture also speaks oftentimes of the ground of preservation. We cannot go into this in detail, but a few points are worth noting. As we have already indicated, election itself is the most fundamental ground. Jesus alludes to this in John 10:26-30 when He speaks of the fact that His people are His sheep—a name reserved for the elect, and He tells His audience that they are given Him of the Father. No one can pluck them out of His hand or out of the Father’s hand.
Secondly, the ground for preservation is the perfect work of Christ in which He actually accomplished satisfaction and atonement for the sins of His people. To deny preservation is to deny the efficacy of the cross. Those for whom Christ died can go lost? Utterly impossible!
Thirdly, Christ’s intercessory prayer is part of this ground. Jesus Himself speaks of this when He says to Peter that Satan desired to have Peter to sift him as wheat. “But,” says the Lord, “I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.” And that prayer is surely heard because it is rooted in the cross of Christ.
Finally, that preservation is grounded in the absolute sovereign rule of God over all. When Jesus, in the classic passage on which this truth is based, assures His people that no one can pluck them out of His hand or out of His Father’s hand, he really speaks of what is, from the point of view of our earthly existence, an extremely precarious position in which the people of God stand. They are surrounded by enemies—in this world and from hell—who are bent in pulling God’s people out of God’s hand. These enemies are much, much stronger than the believer and they come with great power and irresistible might to accomplish their purpose. And the child of God is so weak in himself because he finds that his greatest enemy is his own evil and corrupt flesh which agrees with devils, sides with the world, and is always trying to jump out of the hand of Christ. He has every reason, from the viewpoint of this life, to be terrified. But, Jesus says, My Father is greater than all! God rules. He rules even over all the wicked so that nothing can happen to them without God’s will. The Angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him. The enemies are in the control of Almighty God. No temptation can come upon us but what we shall be able to bear, and God will provide a way of escape. What great comfort.
There is then one more aspect to this question which we must face: What is the relation between preservation and perseverance? God preserves, we persevere. God keeps us safe, we continue in the way of salvation. What is the relation?
That we are called to persevere cannot be doubted. There are literally dozens of texts which prove this. The apostle John writes: “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not” (I John 5:18). Jude admonishes the church: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1:21). In His letter to the church of Smyrna the Lord writes: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). And so we could go on.
In a certain sense of the word, it can surely be said that we do not really persevere; that our salvation is due only to God’s preservation. That is, perseverance means “steady persistence in a course of action.” And this we do not do. We sin constantly. We sin greatly. We sin in such a way that we deny the Lord, walk in the paths of the world, and depart from the precepts of the Most High. If perseverance is taken in its absolute sense, then the fact is that we do not persevere at all.
But there are a couple of points which must be remembered nevertheless. In the first place, the admonitions which Scripture uses to enjoin us to persevere are not without use and purpose. They call us to persevere, and they are the very means which God uses to continue us in the way of perseverance. Through constant admonition God keeps us faithful to Himself. This is because His work of preservation is never apart from, a violation of, our own rational and moral nature. In the second place, perseverance is, with us, a matter of the principle of a holy life. Though we fall into sin and depart from the ways of God in many and lamentable falls, nevertheless we do, in principle, persevere. And that is evident from the fact that we, though often weak and sinful, confess our sins, flee to the cross, cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ and seek again renewed strength to walk in God’s way. There is a principle of perseverance within us that is real and true.
And so we come to the point. Our perseverance is not our work in distinction from God’s work, isolated from it, independent of it. It is not as if here at last we come to what we can do. Perseverance and preservation are linked together as effect and cause. Our perseverance is the effect of God’s causal work of preservation. We must persevere in working out our own salvation in fear and trembling, but we do this because it is God Who works within us both the willing and the doing of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13).
It is indeed exactly to teach us this total reliance upon Him that God sometimes allows us to fall into sin. We think, in our pride, as Peter did, that we can stand in our own strength. And sometimes, just to teach us that we cannot, God lets us stand in our own strength—and always we fall. We cannot stand for a moment. We cannot persevere ever without the sovereign grace of God Who works both the willing and the doing of our perseverance.
It is in the doctrine of preservation also that God receives all the glory. In his better days, Berkouwer wrote a book on “Faith and Perseverance.” In this book he writes:
Has the Church given a true and reliable answer to anxiety as it reveals itself in our threatened human lives? Whoever gives an affirmative answer to this question will do well to reflect conscientiously on this doctrine and to understand that here it is not the pride and self-esteem of man which have pierced the gloom of anxiety and uncertainty, but rather, according to the deepest intention of the Church, the doctrine of perseverance of the saints is a song of praise to Gods faithfulness and grace. The saying is applicable here, if anywhere, that in doctrine a song of praise sounds forth. Not for a moment may we forget what the faithfulness of God means. Only in terms of that supposition can one speak meaningfully of faith and perseverance (p. 14).
Our Heidelberg Catechism puts it very beautifully in Q. & A. 54:
What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.