Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/28/1997
Today we begin a miniseries in which I will try to take an original approach to an old controversy. At issue is the doctrine of The Perseverance of the Saints, or, as it has more popularly (and less happily) been known in recent years, the doctrine of Eternal Security or "once saved, always saved." That this is a controversial doctrine which has divided the Church hardly needs to be demonstrated. As you may know, the doctrinal statement of the Evangelical Free Church of America does not take a stand on this issue, and the Free Church has people on both sides of the question, though with a preponderance of them believing in some form of the doctrine. There is a very good reason why the doctrinal statement adopted in 1951 is silent on the matter: a hundred years ago Free Church pastors on opposite sides of the question would not speak to each other, and there was no wish to risk ending the uneasy truce that had been reached. Back in the 1980's, before the rise to power of the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist convention, you could deny the inerrancy of the Scriptures and still teach in a Southern Baptist seminary--but even then Dale Moody was fired from one for denying the doctrine of Eternal Security!
Unlike the Southern Baptists, our Free Church fathers wisely decided that this was not a doctrine that should divide the Church. But that does not mean it is unimportant, or that we do not need a good understanding of what is at stake in the debates. People on both sides perceive that, while The Perseverance of the Saints is not itself essential to the Gospel, it has implications that strike near the very heart of what the Gospel is. That is why they are so fierce in their advocacy. Those who oppose Eternal Security fear that it encourages presumption, moral laxity, and sinning that Grace may abound. Those who favor it think that to give it up compromises the whole concept of justification by faith, turns salvation into probation, and destroys the purity of sola gratia, salvation by faith alone.
You can see then why this is an emotional issue stirring strong feelings on both sides. But it is also a difficult issue, because there is strong biblical teaching which, at first glance at least, appears to support both sides. And it is a confused issue as well, with caricatures of both positions more prevalent in the Church than either in its purity.
The reason for that confusion is partly the emotional and difficult nature of the doctrine. But I think it also partly comes from the way we state the question, which is not necessarily the biblical way of stating it. We seem to be interested in the theoretical question of whether a believer can lose his salvation. But the Bible seems more concerned to instruct us in the practical question, "How does God go about the business of keeping people saved?" That is the consideration which has determined my approach. Today I will present the positive teaching of the New Testament on what God does to preserve believers in a state of Grace once He has got them there. It will sound like there is no possibility of one of them failing finally to be saved. Then next week we will examine the "Warning Passages," which seem equally to suggest the possibility that one could lose his salvation, the possibility of not being preserved. Then finally we will try to put these two sets of passages together and see if they can be reconciled, see if we can find a way of taking them both seriously, and talk about the "so what?" of our solution.
Keeping the Christian saved is just as much a work of God's Grace alone as getting him saved was in the first place. Several aspects of the doctrine of salvation point together to this conclusion.
Accepting Christ as one's savior is only one link in the "golden chain" of Romans 8:28-30 which leads all the way from Predestination to Glorification. "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these also He called; and whom He called, He justified; and whom He justified, these also He glorified."
Even if we accept for the sake of argument the Arminian understanding that Predestination is based on God's Foreknowledge of the fact that we would freely chose to believe in Christ, it is hard to maintain that Paul is not talking about the same well defined group at each link of the chain. He does not say that "some of those He justified were glorified." And that would seem to be what he would have had to say if he had truly believed that it was possible for people to "fall from Grace." Once God has predestined us to become conformed to the image of His Son, it would seem that we are part of a definite company whose number is fixed and not open to revision according to the whims or the performance of the individuals in the group. So the first thing that God does to keep true believers in Christ saved is to predestine them to conformity to Christ. And then, to bring them to that conformity, He calls them, justifies them (i.e., forgives their sins on the basis that those sins have been imputed to Christ and judged fully on the Cross, while Christ's righteousness is imputed to them, i.e., counted as theirs), and glorifies them, i.e., brings them to final salvation in Heaven. If Paul had thought of some of these people as falling by the wayside during that process, he would logically have had to use the word "some" instead of giving us the gloriously inexorable chain of "whom . . . whom . . . whom."
Not only the golden chain as a whole, but also the nature of the crucial link of Justification by Faith itself, tends to the end of keeping the truly saved preserved from falling again. "Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him" (Rom. 5:9). "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). "Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies. Who is the one who condemns?" (Rom. 8:33-34). "He who believes in Him is not judged" (John 3:18).
Justification is God's declaration as the Judge of all the earth that we are just, that we are found innocent of the charge of sin, and that we are counted as righteous, on the basis, not of our own works ("By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified"), but purely on the basis of the work of Christ on the Cross. Because Christ stands as our Substitute, we are judged, not as we are in ourselves ("sinners condemned unclean") but as we are in Christ. Now, we must be very clear about this. Salvation is not based on how well we have done or will do in attaining righteousness. It is not based one whit on our merit, but completely on the merit of Christ. God will actually make us righteous, i.e., conformed to Christ in the language of Rom. 8:29 (we call that the doctrine of Sanctification), but this is the goal and therefore the result of our salvation, not the cause of it. We are justified not because we have become righteous (we have not--yet), but in order that we might become righteous (we will). In the meantime, our right standing before God as our Judge and our loving relationship with God as our Father are simultaneously restored as a free gift right now, bestowed purely by Grace and received only by Faith, in Justification.
All right. If Salvation depends not on our attainment of innocence but on God's declaration of innocence because our sins have already been punished in full in Christ on the Cross, how can those sins ever be made to stand against us again? If Salvation is not based on our merit but on Christ's, how can it be made provisional, as if it now depends on our faithfulness and not His? Justification by its very nature seems to be a permanent and not a provisional declaration, a destiny-creating and not a revocable decree.
People who come to Christ are declared righteous. But they also begin at that moment to be made righteous. Their nature is changed, for they pass from death in transgressions and sins to spiritual life (Eph. 2:1, 5). This creation of new spiritual life is called the New Birth, or in Latinate technical form, Regeneration. That is why Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be "born again" (John 3:3-7). The result is that "if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things have passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). The true Christian is no longer a neutral being who can easily change his mind and return to his sins. He is a new creature; he has been changed; he is a new person with a new nature. The spiritual birth of this new person is the beginning of the process of his finding the destiny he was given in Rom. 8:29. It is a dynamic so powerful and with a trajectory so tied to destiny that it would seem there is no going back. God will keep you saved by giving you a new nature and new life.
Sanctification is the process of working out the change begun in Regeneration so that it increasingly comes to permeate the believer's life. We thereby "lay aside the old self" and become "renewed in the spirit of your mind" so that we "put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Eph. 4:22-24). But we must also note carefully vv. 20-21. Referring to sensuality, impurity, and greed, Paul says "But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him." A Christian who is not being sanctified is a contradiction in terms. Sanctification is not optional; it is the inevitable working out of salvation itself. Its absence is prima facie evidence of false profession, proof that a person has not learned Christ at all. How are people in whom this work is proceeding going to turn their backs on Christ and forsake Him? It does not seem possible.
In Eph. 1:13 Paul tells us that believers have been "sealed" by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who convicted us of sin and called us to Christ and regenerated us in Christ comes to indwell us, and His presence is the seal of God's ownership of our lives. In ancient times seals had a dual purpose: to authenticate a document and to protect its contents from tampering. No one less than the Third Person of the Trinity Himself, the personal agent and representative of the Lord Jesus Christ, performs that function in the believer's life. In Eph. 1:14 Paul goes on to say that the Spirit's sealing us makes Him the "pledge of our inheritance." The word translated "pledge" is the Greek arabon, which means a non-refundable down payment which obligates the giver to complete the deal. The arabon is non-refundable. The ownership which the Spirit seals does not appear to be a provisional thing, but a solid and settled and irrevocable covenant indeed. God keeps us saved by sending the Holy Spirit to indwell us to that end.
The summation of the effect of all the above is the Preservation of the Saints, which results in the Perseverance of the Saints. There are certain advantages to this older name for the doctrine. Eternal Security sounds passive. Preservation is active, an active work on the part of a sovereign God "who shall also confirm us to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:8). That is why Paul is so "confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). And it is why Peter can describe believers as "protected by the power of God for salvation." Preservation is an active work on God's part that issues in Perseverance, an active response on our part. Salvation is a transaction which leads to a process in which God is at work, a process initiated and concluded by God and dependant for its success on Him and on His faithfulness, not on ours.
How then does God keep His people saved? By determining that they shall be glorified (Predestination); by wiping out their sins, past, present, and future, from His memory (Justification); by working in them a work corresponding to the work He has done for them in Justification, thereby changing them, transforming them, and bringing them from death to life (Regeneration); by continuing that work to make the change increasingly manifest and dominant in every aspect of their lives (Sanctification); by indwelling them and sealing them through the very Holy Spirit whose presence and power is behind that process (Sealing); and by taking on Himself the responsibility to see that this process is brought to a satisfactory conclusion (Preservation). Surely this should be enough!
Can someone who is saved in the sense described above ever be lost again? The answer would seem to be "no." If God is not working in that way in your life in the present, then you cannot lose your Salvation, because you have no Salvation to lose! This is the definitive New Testament description of what it is like to be saved. You need to accept the Lord as your personal Savior and give yourself to Him without reservation so that you will be saved in the sense being described--which is the only Salvation worthy of the name, the only Salvation that Scripture knows anything about.
Yet some will say, "Yes, that's great, but what about that other set of verses that seem to present a different picture?" That is a very good question. We will attempt to deal with it next week.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 7/2/2004 11:17 AM