Article 3. 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.
The above translation is not entirely correct; and because the article is brief, we will present a corrected version of the entire article:
On account of these remains of indwelling sin, and also the attacks of the world and of Satan, those who are converted would not be able to persevere (remain standing) in that grace, if they were left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who mercifully confirms them in the grace once conferred, and powerfully preserves them in the same, even to the end.
In this article we have the main proposition of the entire fifth chapter of the Canons, namely, that God mercifully confirms the saints in the grace once conferred, and powerfully preserves them in the same even unto the end. This, we say, is the main thought of this entire chapter. In the present article this truth is simply set forth, without being further explained. In the remaining articles the fathers speak of the relation between preservation and the sins and falls of the saints, the manner in which the grace of preservation operates, the assurance of preservation, and the means of preservation. All this remains to be discussed. But here the fundamental proposition of the Fifth Head of Doctrine is propounded, that God powerfully preserves His people to the very end.
We may add at once that this truth is presented by way of contrast, as the conjunction “but” indicates also. The contrast is between the powerful preservation of the faithful God and the utter inability of the saints to persevere if left to their own strength. This is noteworthy. God always reveals His grace against the background of and at the point of the utter inability of man, the sinner. He will give His glory to no other. He will not share the glory of His grace with the creature. When the wonder of grace is revealed, the Lord God always takes care that there is absolutely no room for the creature to boast of self, to take any credit for himself. Only then and there, when and where it becomes abundantly plain that things are impossible for man, does God reveal that those human impossibilities are possible with Him. Such is our God!
At the same time we may observe that in this article is set forth the very genus of the Reformed faith in contrast with the genus of the Arminian heresy. It is no accident that the fathers present the truth of preservation by way of two contrasting statements here. We must remember that they are throughout the Canons consciously opposing the heresy of the Remonstrants. And stripped of all attempts to cloak it in pious and apparently Scriptural terminology, that heresy is that in spite of the remains of indwelling sin and the attacks of the world and of Satan, the converted, if left to their own strength, are able to persevere. The Arminians may call in divine grace as an assistant; they may even speak of God’s preservation of the saints. The fact remains that their doctrine leaves it entirely within the power and will of man to persevere to the end. That is Arminianism, plain and simple. And that the fathers deny, flatly and bluntly: the converted, if left to their own strength, could not persevere. And mark you well, this is a matter ofability! It is not the mere question whether they do ordo not persevere, but the much more fundamental question whether they are able or unable to persevere. The Remonstrant grants,—he will have to grant,— that there are many that do not, in fact, persevere to the end. But to the Arminian this is not a matter of inability, but a matter of unwillingness on the part of a man who is endowed with a free will, which means that it also lies within the scope of that free will to persevere if a man so desires. On the other hand, stripped of all related questions as to the experience, the manner, the assurance of, and the means of this preserving grace, the plain and simple Reformed faith is: God powerfully preserves the converted in grace even unto the end.
With this in mind we may pay attention to some of the details of this article.
First of all, then, we must keep in mind what kind of men the article is speaking of, namely, saints. The question is not now: can a mere natural man, left to his own strength, obtain the grace of God and all the blessings of salvation implied therein? But the question is: granted that a man has once become a saint, has once obtained grace, can he, if left to his own strength, continue a saint? And the question is, in this article, stated in still more limited form when the article speaks of the grace of conversion. For this is indeed the intention: the article speaks of “those who are converted” and the possibility of their persevering “in that grace.” The latter expression refers undoubtedly therefore to the grace of conversion. Hence, the question is as follows: granted that the current of God’s converting grace has once begun to flow into a man, if that man is now left to his own strength, can he continue and persevere, endure to the very end, in that grace of conversion? Or, on the other hand, is it necessary,—granted once more that grace has once been given to a man,—that the current and energy of divine grace must continue to flow from God to him if ever that man is to continue a converted man?
In order to answer this question, we must next consider what is meant by a man’s being left to his own strength. This certainly means that once a man has been converted, there is no further operation of grace upon him, no further flow of the current of grace from God through Christ into him, no further operation or influence of God whatsoever in him. He is simply regenerated, once made alive, receives a beginning of the new obedience, is delivered from the dominion and slavery of sin, but also left still in an imperfect state, that is not altogether delivered from the body of sin and the infirmities of the flesh. And from that point on he is “on his own.” It is up to him to continue in Christ, to keep on believing in Him, to keep on fighting against sin, to see to it even that this beginning of the new obedience, this principle of regeneration, survives and is not snuffed out. God may probably help him, ifhe himself seeks that help. But God does not even operate within this man to cause him to seek divine help. This man is left entirely to his own strength, not, mark you, as a natural man, but as a man described in Article 1 of this chapter. Let us be very clear on this point. The question is: can a Christian, left to his own strength as a Christian, survive the battle and persevere to the end?
You will probably be very quick to answer negatively. Your reason will probably be that the life of regeneration can never exist in .separation from Christ, no more than the branch can live in separation from the vine. There cannot be a multitude of independent living ones in separation from the Living One. There cannot exist a family of sons of God independent of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. If a saint is to continue a saint, then the bond, the connection, must be maintained between him and Christ: he must not only once be called into the fellowship of God’s Son Jesus Christ, but he must also continue in that fellowship. Yes, but that is exactly the issue. The connection of faith must indeed be maintained between the saint and Christ. The saint must indeed continue in the fellowship of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. If that connection, that fellowship, is broken, the life of regeneration must certainly perish. But now, cannot the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is once regenerated and converted, himself continue in the fellowship of Christ? Cannot the Christian, by virtue of his first gift. of grace even, from then on take the initiative and continue to draw the gifts of grace out of Christ and have fellowship with Christ? Or must God in Christ always take the initiative? Must God through the Spirit of Christ not only establish the connection between the sinner and Christ, but also constantly maintain that connection? Is there never any saving activity that originates purely with man, not even with the man that has once become a Christian?
We emphasize that this is the issue, in order that we may see clearly that the matter of salvation is from beginning to end solely a matter of sovereign grace. It is very easy, while we may perhaps emphatically grant that the natural man can do nothing toward his own salvation, nevertheless to imagine that the Christian, once he has become a Christian, can, left to himself, do something. To put it rather crudely, if God gives him a start, he can keep going. But this is very definitely not the case. Suppose that it were possible that Christ would say to the saint: “I have established the connection of faith between you and Myself. And through that bond I have caused a supply of my life to flow into your heart. But I am going to give you no more. I will take no further action. I will not add to your supply of life. From now on I will remain completely passive. Or, at least, I will do nothing unless you seek My help. There is an ample supply of grace and of life in Me. But from now on you must come and take it out of me: I will not simply give it to you. I am certainly willing to lead you to life eternal, but I will not do so unless you put your hand in Mine and hold on to Me. Remember, I will not give you any more strength than you now have to hold My hand. It is entirely up to you. All the exertion, all the initiative must from now on come from you, the Christian.” What would happen to such a Christian?
He would never persevere! He could never remain in the fellowship of Christ. The moment he would be left to his own strength, that is, the moment the life-giving current would cease to flow from Christ to him, at that moment he would be powerless to maintain the flow of that current. If it were really true that Christ ,gave us a small supply of the new life, delivered us from the dominion and slavery of sin, though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, and then abandoned us to persevere in our own strength, we would inevitably fail most miserably. If this were true, not only would some men fail; all men would fail.
And this failure would be inevitable because it is rooted in an incapability. There is no question of it, according to the article under discussion, for “those who are converted would not be able to persevere in that grace, if left to their own strength.”
Such is the negative side of the Reformed truth of perseverance.