Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
There are many passages which teach the doctrine of the preservation of saints, or, as it is sometimes called, eternal security. But we believe in the preservation and perseverance of saints not only on the basis of those passages, but also on the basis of the testimony of all Scripture that salvation is from beginning to end the work of God. In other words, believing in the preservation of saints is an integral part of believing in salvation by grace alone.
The opposite is also true. Those who do not believe this doctrine do not believe it because they attribute something of salvation to man’s own works or free-will, not just because of certain passages like Hebrews 6:4-6. Because they make a man’s own “decision” or believing the deciding factor in his salvation, I they cannot believe that he will surely and infallibly be saved to the end, for what work of man is there that endures? What thought, or motive, or decision does he have that does not change from moment to moment? And how shall he ever be sure that his will to be saved will last, and that what seems to him now the right thing will not look different in the light of another day, or under the pressure of time and circumstances? If his own will is decisive in his salvation, what hope can he ever have of everlasting salvation and security, he whose will is so unstable and changeable that from one moment to the next he is not sure what color shoes he will wear or what he will have for his supper?
The foundation of faith in the preservation of saints, and in my own preservation as a child of God, is not any one text of Scripture, therefore, but confidence in God as the only Savior.
The Canons express this very beautifully in the very first article on the doctrine of preservation or perseverance:
When God calls, according to His purpose, to the communion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, He delivers also from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life; though not altogether from the body of sin, and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in the world (V, 1).
That is to say, that because salvation is according to the purpose of God, because it is into the fellowship of the Son of God, and because it is by the powerful work of the Spirit of God, it cannot come to nothing.
To teach a falling away of saints, or even the possibility of it, is to say that God Almighty can be frustrated, the work of the Son of God ineffectual, and the Holy Spirit too weak.
This is exactly the opposite of what the Canons say in Article 8 of the Fifth Chapter:
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 (V, 8).
Notice again in this article that all the emphasis is on the fact that salvation is all God’s work, and that though man can and always will fail, God cannot and will not.
Since the Holy Spirit is the one who actually gives us salvation and the enjoyment of it, His work is of particular interest when we talk about preservation. Receiving salvation and enjoying it involves such things as the new birth, faith, repentance, conversion, sanctification, and entering into glory. To fall away would be to lose one’s faith, to turn from repentance, to re-convert to ungodliness, to go back to the old life of sin that preceded our rebirth, to fail to continue in sanctification and never to see the glory that awaits us. The question whether or not this can happen, however, is a question that will be answered according to what one believes about faith, repentance, regeneration, conversion, sanctification and glorification. If one believes, as so many do today, that these are in some way or part the fruit of man’s own efforts and free-will, then it is not difficult to believe either that what man has found or gained he can lose again. The whole history of mankind is the history of his losing what he once had. But if one believes that all these things are the free gifts of the Spirit of God, it is impossible to believe that they can ever be lost, for that is to say that the Spirit who gives them to us is too weak to keep on giving them, and to preserve us in the enjoyment of them, and that is blasphemy. It is to say that God is weak.
Believing, then, in the unmistakable testimony of Scripture, that. all these things are gifts of the Holy Spirit of God, we believe that salvation once given cannot be lost, not because we are strong, but because the Spirit of God is strong, yea, not only strong, but almighty.
This is all to say that the real issue in the matter of the perseverance or preservation of saints is not whether or not there is such a thing taught in Scripture, but the question, “What is a saint?” Many believe that saints are self-made people. Scripture teaches that saints are those whom the Holy Spirit has made and fashioned, not those who have made themselves to differ. It is impossible to deny that there are those who fall away from the church and from the fellowship of believers, but they are not Spirit-made saints. They may be called Christians, be counted by us as brethren, be for a time exemplary members of the church, even be leaders and teachers in the church, but should they fall away, they show by that very thing that whatever may have happened to them previously, the Spirit had not worked in them unto salvation.
The thing that has to be emphasized is this: that all of our salvation, regeneration through glorification, is the work of Spirit. No part of it depends in any way on us. No part is a matter of our own choice and “free-will.”
Even when we speak of this doctrine as the doctrine of the perseverance of saints, we must remember that it is the Spirit’s work. The name “perseverance” emphasizes the calling of all believers to continue steadfastly in the way, not to neglect spiritual exercises, or allow themselves to be seduced by the world and the flesh. That calling is real and necessary, so much so, that those who do not give heed to it will surely fall into great sin. But the reality and urgency of that calling does not change the fact that obedience to it is only by the indwelling and operations of the Spirit. We must persevere if we are to be saved, but it is God the Holy Spirit who works the necessary grace in us.
We must remember this even when talking about the falls of God’s people. They are not the work of the Spirit in the sense that the Spirit is to blame for them. But they do take place under the sovereign direction of the Spirit of God, and are even part of His work, in that He uses them for our salvation, causing them to work together with all other things for our good. We acknowledge this when we pray to God through the Spirit; “Lead us not into temptation.” It is His withdrawing which makes it possible for us to fall, though this never happens arbitrarily, but always righteously, that is: when we are inclined to go our own way, neglect watching and prayer, and seek the satisfaction of fleshly lusts. It is His withdrawing that leaves us comfortless in our falls. It is His grace that renews us to repentance and restores the assurance of salvation, and that according to the purpose and will of God. In fact, it is only because we believe this, that we can be sure, even in our temptations and falls, that we will never fall away. How else could we sing the beautiful words of Psalm 73; “In doubt and temptation I rest, Lord, in Thee” (Psalter #202, 1). That same confidence, that the Spirit of the Living God rules even in our temptations, is also the one thing which preserves us from despair, when we see our sins and sinfulness, and all our failures and weakness. That He, in the end, will use even those things for good gives peace.
Understand too, that only if what we have said is true, can the Spirit really be called our “Comforter.” His comfort is never mere words, but the gift of salvation itself, so precious. But a salvation which is fallible, imperfect, even perishable, is not any comfort at all. We may not put our hope in the things of this world because they are perishable and perishing. How much less in that kind of a salvation? Only a salvation which is “world without end” can be any comfort to those who are perishing, and shall surely perish without it.
The Canons say that the truth of the preservation of the saints is “an inestimable treasure,” “most tenderly loved and constantly defended” by the church of Christ (V, 15). It is that because it is part and parcel of the whole glorious truth of salvation by God’s great grace. May God, “against Whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail” dispose us to continue to cherish and defend this truth to the end (Canons V, 15) when finally and forever we shall enjoy without weakness and sin the fruits of His Spirit’s great work of preservation.