Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/11/1998
We have been wrestling for the last few weeks with one of the thorniest questions that divides sincere, Evangelical, Bible-believing people: what to make of the doctrine that used to be called "The perseverance of the Saints" but is more often, and less happily, thought of today as "The Eternal Security of the Believer." Can a person who is truly saved ever lose that salvation, fall from grace, stray so far from the love of Christ that he forfeits the forgiveness purchased for him on the Tree, and be finally lost? We have seen why the question is so difficult. Both sides perceive that much is at stake. One side fears the loss of the very Gospel of Grace alone itself, while the other fears encouraging lax living and sinning that Grace may abound. And Scripture itself contributes to the difficulty, presenting us with two equally clear and unavoidable facts: God works in the saved in such a way that you would think they could never be lost; and God warns the saved against falling away from the Faith in such a way that you would think that they can be. We have seen that part of the problem may be the way we ask the question. We are more interested in the theoretical question whether a believer can lose his salvation, while the Bible seems more interested in instructing us in the practical question of how we can know we are saved and how we can stay that way. And we saw that, while asking the question in the biblical way helps us to see practical implications of the biblical teaching on both sides of the issue, it does not completely solve the problem between the two sets of passages. Once it has been raised, the theoretical question and the specter of contradiction between those passages that it brings with it cannot be ignored.
Well, I do not propose to ignore it. Today as we bring this mini-series to a close, I want to make some general observations about the Bible's teaching on this issue as it relates to both sides, make my best stab at trying to resolve the theoretical difficulty that we face, and look at the "so what?" of the whole thing for our theology and our Christian lives.
It has not been my aim in this series to make either side comfortable with its preconceived notions, but to force both sides to reexamine some of their basic assumptions. For the polarization that has occurred between them has been damaging to the cause of Christ.
I will not attempt to paint a caricature of those who believe that true Christians can fall from Grace. It would not be fair; the temptation to create a straw man might be too strong for me, since that is not the position that I hold. But I do not know what they can do with Rom. 8:29-30, Phil. 1:6, or 1 Jn. 2:18. Whom God foreknew He called, justified, and glorified. All of them, not some of them. He who has begun a good work in us will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Not most of the time in most of us. Those who appeared to be with us but who later denied the faith were not with us; their going out shows that they were not really of us, for if they had been they would have stayed. Not should have stayed or might have stayed--would have stayed. I have seen no treatment of these passages by those who reject the doctrine of Perseverance which can handle them without rationalization.
But I am all too familiar with the caricature of Perseverance which is often--I should say almost always--presented to the world. We Calvinists have not done a very good job at all of handling or teaching the warning passages. Our rationalization at this point is at least as bad as that of the other side. These are real warnings and they are addressed to believers. They have to be taken seriously. My fellow Calvinists have not tended to take them so. Just as bad, we have often taught this doctrine as if it were the Eternal Security of the Professing Believer. We have implied to the masses--yes, we really have; I have heard it done--that if once they have "gone forward" at an altar call and had a conversion experience they are bound for Heaven no matter what and never have to concern themselves with the question again. There is no such teaching in Scripture! We are saved by God's Grace received by an active Faith in Christ which transforms our lives. Nowhere does the New Testament encourage us to believe that we can be saved by having an "experience" which does nothing to change our life. Nowhere does the New Testament encourage us to believe that we can be saved by repeating a formula, even if it is doctrinally correct. In fact, the New Testament explicitly denies that a person whose life is not in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, a person whose life is not being changed by his Faith in Christ, can think of himself as "saved" in any sense at all. The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom. Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom. (Not, that is, people who have ever done these things, not even people who have fallen into them subsequent to conversion, but people who are these things, people who have that identity, people, that is, who continue unrepentantly in those lifestyles, are the people to whom this passage applies.) And such were some of us, until we were changed--washed, sanctified, and justified by Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11). I believe that, all passages considered, the New Testament does teach the eternal security of the real Christian, the true believer, and I hope before I am done today to justify that claim. But the eternal security of those who have merely had an "experience" or recited a formula? I stand with the stoutest Arminian who has ever lived in repudiating and abominating that heresy and condemning it as a caricature and a perversion of the biblical message! Let us have no more of it. Both doctrines as popularly held and frequently taught fail to do justice to the whole teaching of the Bible.
What is that reality? It is the fact that holiness, godliness, sanctification, a separated life--whatever you want to call it (one biblical term is "conformity to Christ," Rom. 8:29)--is not an option. It is a necessity, not the cause or ground of our salvation but a necessary result that follows from it, a necessary condition that accompanies it. The two sides differ on the theoretical question of how to explain the once (or still) professing Christian who has denied the faith or who is living, apparently comfortably, in unrepentant sin. Was he never really saved in the first place except in appearance, or has he lost a salvation he once had? But the informed Calvinist agrees with his Arminian brother in saying that this person is not now saved! The shallowness of many advocates of Eternal Security today has mightily obscured this point, but nevertheless the fact remains that historically it is quite true. The exact same group ends up in Heaven either way. The only disagreement is over how to explain certain people who once looked like they were going there but did not. Both doctrines as taught by their most spiritual and profound exponents point to the same spiritual reality.
At this point you may be wondering whether this is not all just much ado about nothing. If the biblical evidence is really so equally balanced, if both doctrines as taught by their most spiritual and profound exponents point to the same spiritual reality, does it really matter which one we hold to? Yes, I believe it does. Let me try to explain why.
This dispute is one manifestation of a larger problem we all have: how to understand the relationship between divine Predestination--or even Foreknowledge--and human experience. Here again Scripture quite unabashedly presents two apparently contradictory points of view. God infallibly foreordains or predestines all that occurs, and human beings are free and responsible agents rightly held accountable for their choices. As Francis Schaeffer once aptly put it, "The Bible simply states both and walks away." Yet how can both be true? We cannot see it.
Let me ask you to help me with a little experiment. Most of you probably have a coin in your pocket or in your purse. Take one out--a quarter will do nicely. Hold it up to your eye edge-on. What do you see? A line. Now flip it up ninety degrees. What do you see now? A circle. Well, is this object a circle or a line? It is both, obviously, and you accept this because you have just seen it. But if you were an inhabitant of Edwin Abbot's Flatland--if you were only a two-dimensional creature--you might very well insist that it has to be one or the other, and that anyone who insisted otherwise was either being irrational or just copping out by taking refuge in "mystery." Nevertheless, despite the Flatlander's inability to see it, the quarter really is both a circle and a line. You can see the quarter in perspective, but the Flatlander cannot. Both statements are true. But that does not mean that both statements are equal. Most of us would probably agree that circularity is a more important, more basic attribute of a quarter than linearity is.
I would argue that this is precisely the position we are in when it comes to Foreordination and Freedom, Predestination and Predilection, Sovereignty and Significance. Both are true: God is sovereign and we are responsible; the quarter is both a circle and a line. We cannot see how both can be true because we are not big enough to flip this quarter over. But God is big enough, and we just have to trust him. We need both truths whether we can understand them or not. Why? Because we have to trust God and depend on Him, and because we have to act on that trust. Both truths are relevant to our lives whether we can reconcile them or not. But it does not follow that both truths are equally significant or equally basic. Whom God foreknows--no one else--He calls; we make a real and significant and unforced choice. But God has the initiative. Our response is real, but it is still a response. We are to correct those who are in opposition in case God grants them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). We correct; they repent; God grants. People accept Christ, and some who have apparently done so seem to fall away--but God knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19). A quarter is more basically a circle than a line. Therefore it makes sense to say that the Perseverance of the Saints depends on both His faithfulness and theirs, but it depends on His in a more basic and profound way. After all, their birth was "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn. 1:13). He can grant them free choice and still preserve those who are truly His own, whether you can explain how or not.
There is a very interesting story in Acts 27. Paul was facing shipwreck after being tossed about by a horrible storm. In verse 24, God says to him, "Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you." God has already determined and promised that everyone on the ship will be saved from drowning. So how can any of them be lost in the shipwreck? Yet when the sailors were trying to escape from the ship under pretence of letting down the ship's boat to lay out anchors, Paul said to the Centurion, "Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved" (v. 31). And so the Centurion ordered his men to cut the ropes and let the boat fall into the sea, foiling the sailors' plot, and all were safely brought to shore.
Now this is a very curious passage indeed. God has decreed that a certain party of men will be saved from the sea. Then his Apostle says that this promise will be kept only if they remain in the boat! How is that consistent with the earlier statement? Hmmm. Does this sound familiar? God has decreed that all who are foreknown, called, and justified will be glorified. Then he tells us that this promise will be kept only if we remain faithful; if we fall away we cannot be renewed and will face judgment. How is this consistent with the earlier statement? In exactly the same way. God had already determined to save everyone in the boat. When the situation arose, he used the warning that, if they did not stay in the boat they would be lost, as precisely the means by which he fulfilled the earlier prophecy. God has decreed that all who truly belong to Christ will be brought to glory. And in exactly the same way he uses the Warning Passages as precisely one of the means by which he fulfills the earlier prophecy. Those warnings will in fact be efficacious for all who truly know Him. They do not contradict the prophecies of their Perseverance any more than Paul's statement in Acts 27:31 contradicted God's prophecy in Acts 27:24. (One way of understanding this is to see that the Perseverance Passages are declarative statements, statements of fact about what God has determined to do, while the Warning Passages are conditional statements, statements about what would happen if certain other things take place. In such a case, the declarative statement takes logical precedence, and the conditional statement must be interpreted in a way consistent with the declarative.) The warnings are real warnings, addressed to people in the boat or to people in Christ. What they say is true. But God has already determined that they will act on the people in the boat (or in Christ) in such a way that those who are truly covered by his Promises will in fact be brought to shore (or to Heaven). This is the only perspective which truly salvages the consistency of the two sets of passages. And it is not something I made up, but is based on an example of how precisely such things work that is given in Scripture itself. To me, the parallel is powerfully compelling.
It is unavoidably inconsistent to say that getting saved depends on God's grace alone accepted by faith alone apart from works, but that staying saved then suddenly depends on our faithfulness rather than His. Unlike us, God does not set his hand to the plow and then turn back.
To make salvation ultimately depend on our faithfulness is to devalue not only grace and justification, but regeneration--and the unbreakable connection between justification and regeneration--as well. Let me share with you an ironic quotation from one of the most outspoken opponents of Perseverance, John Church. "A person may have everlasting life and then lose it just as a person may have . . . Life Insurance . . . and lose it by failing to comply with the conditions laid down. . . . If I fail to pay the Premium, then I lose my claim with the company." Oh, my! Trying to avoid the idea of salvation as Fire Insurance, we have not only landed right back smack in the middle of that unfortunate metaphor but even blasphemously changed who is making the Payment! Now, Church does not intend to teach salvation by works, for he also says quite properly that "There is no promise for those who cease to hear His voice and follow Him." (With that, I heartily agree.) But he has ultimately made our final salvation depend not on Christ but on us--whether we comply, whether we make the payment. To deny the doctrine of Perseverance logically puts you on this path whether you like it or not. And where is the sense that we are talking about people who have been regenerated, brought from death to life, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, in whom all things have become new? How are people like that supposed to cease listening to His voice? I ask you who know the Lord, has your walk with Him, His work in your life, made no more difference than that? If someone remains a neutral party who can conceivably change his mind, if he has not received a new nature and been brought from death to life, let us not dignify his state as a professing believer by calling it salvation. When he "loses" it, the dog has just gone back to his vomit.
Why hold to the Perseverance of the Saints? Most persuasively, because it parallels the paradigmatic interaction between prophecy and exhortation, security and warning, which we are allowed to see operating in Paul's shipwreck in Acts 27. Most importantly, because it helps us to preserve and to highlight the central doctrine of Sola Gratia, grace alone, and thereby to preserve and highlight the appropriate stance of Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone. When I get saved, I look at the non-Christian and say, not, "What's wrong with him? I had the good sense to believe," but "There but for the Grace of God go I." Why? Because I know I was saved by Grace alone. And when I reach the end of my life still preserved in faithfulness to Christ by that same Grace, what do I say then? Do I look at the professing believer who fell by the wayside and say, "That wretch! He should have been faithful like me"? God forbid! I say, "There but for the Grace of God go I." Why? Because I know that I was preserved for salvation by the Grace of God alone. He knows those who are truly His, and He will complete in them the good work He has begun. And all the glory for all of this is His and His alone.
I hope you have been persuaded by the perspectives on this controversy I have tried to bring forth here. But even if you are not, let us magnify the Grace of God! Let us not bring it into disrepute by teaching that people can be saved without being changed, brought into conformity with His Son. Let us not bring it into disrepute by making salvation seem to be dependent on us at the end, after having avoided that implication until then. Whether we hold to Perseverance or reject it, let us be sure to do so in ways that magnify the Grace of God! For this brings glory to His Name.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 7/2/2004 11:52 AM