Written by: Curtis Thomas
The biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is referred to by several names, for example, “once saved, always saved,” “the security of the believer,” and “the preservation of the believer.” In each case, the doctrine described says that the elect are not only redeemed by Christ and renewed by the Spirit, but that they are kept in faith by the almighty power of God. All those who are spiritually united to Christ through regeneration are eternally secure in Him. Nothing can separate them from the eternal and unchangeable love of God. They have been predestined for eternal glory and are therefore assured of heaven. The Westminster Confession of Faith (19.1) states, “They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
This doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not maintain that all who profess the Christian faith are certain of heaven. It is saints, those who are set apart by the Spirit, who persevere to the end. It is believers, those who are given true, living faith in Christ, who are secure and safe in Him. Many who profess to believe fall away, but they do not fall from grace, for they were never in grace. True believers do fall into temptation, and they do commit sins, but these sins do not cause them to lose their salvation nor do they separate them from Christ.
Because this doctrine emphasizes God’s keeping the saints, I prefer to speak of it as “the security of the believer,” or “the preservation of the believer.” Perseverance is the responsibility of the believer, (though God gives him the power to persevere), while God’s gift of salvation secures him in Christ, or preserves him in his salvation.
The question we must consider is whether or not this doctrine is taught in the Word of God. In this brief article, we shall attempt to answer that crucial question since that must be the supreme test for all we believe. In doing so, we hope also to clarify what this doctrine does not teach and to mention very briefly some of the passages in the New Testament, which, at first glance, seem to teach that a Christian may lose his salvation.
Most of the biblical material on this doctrine is located in the New Testament. However, in the Old Testament, the psalmist David concludes the wonderful twenty-third Psalm with these words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6). In Psalm 48, David says, “this is God, our God forever and ever” (v. 14). And in Psalm 100 he exclaims that God’s “steadfast love endures forever” (v. 5). In speaking of the new covenant, Jeremiah promises that God will make an everlasting covenant with His people and that God will not turn away from doing good to them (32:40).
When we come to the New Testament (the new covenant) we find one promise after another that God will preserve His people. Jesus says, “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:14). In John chapter 6, Jesus promises, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. … And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37–39). Speaking of the Good Shepherd and the sheep, Jesus very clearly teaches the doctrine of the security of the believer: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27–30).
The apostle Paul emphasizes that as justified sinners we are once and for all delivered from the wrath of God, and thus secure in our salvation. In Romans 5 he states, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (vv. 9–10).
In Romans 8, Paul gives numerous arguments in support of the security of the believer. He begins, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (v. 1). True children of God shall never suffer double jeopardy; God will never condemn them. They have been delivered once and for all by the sacrificial work of their Savior. Later he states that those who have been foreknown, predestined, called, and justified, will be glorified (vv. 29–30). None will be lost in the process. In concluding this wonderful chapter, Paul so clearly establishes our security in Christ that it is difficult to understand how someone could believe otherwise. He asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (v. 35). His wonderful closing words are: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 37–39). Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Note that it is not the believer’s love that keeps him secure, but rather the love of God from which he cannot be separated.
In other places, Paul promises that Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8); “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us … into his presence” (2 Cor. 4:14); “He predestined us for adoption … we have redemption through his blood … we have obtained an inheritance … were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:5–14).
In Philippians he says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). In Colossians, he writes, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:4).
The writer of Hebrews speaks of our “eternal redemption and eternal inheritance,” that God has “by a single offering … perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” and that we must be grateful “for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (9:12,15; 10:14; 12:28).
Peter reminds us that we have been born again to a living hope and that we have an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven” for us. The apostle John reminds us that we have overcome the world, that God has given us eternal life, and that He who has the Son has life (1 John 1–5). Jude adds that those who have been called are “kept for Jesus Christ” (v. 1) and that God is able to “keep us from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (v. 24).
Many more Bible references that support the absolute security of the believer could be cited. But some readers will object saying that they know people who have “fallen away.” The biblical teaching is that those who are genuine believers will never fall away from Christ. It is true that many fall away from a temporary excitement over Christianity, or an emotional decision to follow Christ, because of persecution, the cares of this world, or from a shallow commitment to a local church. In the parable of the sower, Christ makes it plain that three of the four classes of hearers do fall away because their faith was only temporary or not deeply rooted (Matt. 13:1–23). But the fourth hearer, the true child of God, never falls away completely. His faith is genuine and he produces fruit one hundred, sixty, and thirty fold.
Many will respond, “But what about those verses that seem to speak of people falling away?” Often they refer to verses such as Psalm 5l:11; Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 2:1–3; 3:4; 6:4–9; 10:26–31. However, when looking into the context of these verses, we observe that they refer to people who, for example, have fallen into sin and are asking to be restored to fellowship with God. Other verses contain warnings about obedience to the house of Israel, and still others refer to a person who has only a temporary, non-saving faith; or they are a warning to first-century Jewish people that they must not turn away from Christ back into Judaism. Nowhere in these verses do we find that the true child of God can lose his salvation.
Dr. Curt Daniel has done valuable work in explaining and setting these verses in their proper context in The History and Theology of Calvinism, Dallas: Scholarly Reprints, pp. 420–425. I conclude with his words: “The Reformed doctrine of perseverance is that a regenerate soul will certainly persevere through the trials of life and continue to believe and repent. He will slip and fall, develop bad habits, wrestle with doubts, but through it all he will keep on going even as he began. … all believers slip and fall into sin. But the truth of the matter is that no believer stays down. Just as God gave him faith and repentance unto initial conversion, so He supplies him with faith and repentance all along the way to heaven” (p. 415 ).
What a wonderful and comforting truth!