THE PERSEVERANCE OF BELIEVERS
1 The elect are those whom God has accepted in [Christ] the Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect.
The saints are described as those whom God has accepted. In the light of our common talk about salvation as a matter of accepting Christ, this is important to remember. Saints are not first of all people who have overcome their animosity towards God and learned to accept him, they are sinful people he has come to accept despite his hatred of their sin. This acceptance is made possible only for those who are in Christ Jesus, who have been united with him in his death which was the sacrifice for sin. Paul’s argues from lesser to greater when he says that “since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom 5:9). If God has already reconciled his enemies to himself, how much easier will it be for him to save those whom he as accepted through reconciliation (Rom 5:10).
These can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but they shall certainly persevere in grace to the end and be eternally saved. For God will not repent of his gifts and calling, therefore he continues to bring about and nourish in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit that lead to immortality.1
Those who have been given faith, repentance, love, hope and the other graces that lead to eternal life will continue in them because God not only grants them at the beginning of the Christian walk, but daily as we need them. When we keep this in mind this doctrine means a lot more than, “Once saved, always saved.” Perseverance is perseverance in God’s grace and the Christian walk. A corollary to this doctrine is that those who persevere will continue to have faith, repentance, love, hope and other evidences of the Spirit’s work in their lives. If a man lives constantly in rebellion against God it is a sign that he was never saved. Far from suggesting that a man can be saved and live like the devil, this doctrine teaches that the elect will continually grow in grace.
Many storms and floods may arise and beat against them, yet these things will never be able to sweep them off the foundation and rock upon which they are fastened by faith. Even though unbelief and the temptations of Satan cause the sight and feeling of the light and love of God to be clouded and obscured from them for a time,2 yet God is still the same and they are sure to be kept by his power until their salvation is complete. Then they will enjoy the purchased possession which is theirs, for they are engraved on the palms of his hands, and their names have been written in the book of life from all eternity.3
Though tempted and tried severely by Satan in this life, the believer’s future is secure for the God who granted him life in the first place is unchanging in his faithfulness. We are not told that if we believe we may have eternal life, but rather “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (Jn 3:36). Again, Jesus tell us, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (Jn 5:24). The promise is clear and simple: if we believe we never have to worry about facing God’s condemnation again.
2 This perseverance of believers does not depend on their own free will,4 but on the immutability of the decree of election,5 which flows from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father. It also rests on the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ and their union with him,6 the oath of God,7 the abiding of his Spirit, the seed of God within them,8 and the nature of the covenant of grace,9 from all of which arises also its certainty and infallibility.
5 Mt 24:22, 24, 31, Ro 8:30, Ro 9:11, 16, Ro 11:2, 29, Eph 1:5-11
6 Eph 1:4, Ro 5:9-10, Ro 8:31-34, 2 Co 5:14, Ro 8:35-38, 1 Co 1:8-9, Jn 14:19, Jn 10:27-29
7 Heb 6:16-20
8 1 Jn 2:19-20, 27, 1 Jn 3:9, 1 Jn 5:4, 1 Jn 5:18, 2 Co 1:21-22, Eph 1:13-14, Eph 4:30
9 Je 31:33-34, Je 32:40, Heb 10:11-18, Heb 13:20-21
The reason our salvation is secure and certain is that it is not dependent on our free will, which might at some future point turn away from God, but on God’s free grace. (The Arminian who insists that salvation is the result of man’s choice of God will, if he is consistent, have to admit that salvation can also be lost if the same man chooses against God later.) The foundation of our salvation is the unchangeable decree of God which is not based on anything we have done or will do, either good or bad, but purely upon his merciful choice.
Our salvation is secure because it is based not on what we do, but on what Christ has already done. The redemption price paid at Calvary was perfect. It fulfilled all the demands of the law for those who are joined to Christ by faith; the Father can ask no more. Never again can the guilt of our sins be held against us so that we are threatened with condemnation.
Our salvation is certain because the Holy Spirit indwells us. He bears fruit in our lives that ensures eternal life by enabling us to walk in the ways of holiness and godliness in this one. He is the seal of our salvation that marks us as belonging to God and protects us from all tampering by others. He is the down payment God has made that ensures the full salvation we seek will be ours.
Each Person in the Trinity contributes to the perseverance of the saints. By means of an oath and the language of a covenant God seeks to add to our confidence in his word and thus to our assurance concerning salvation. Of course, the word of the One who cannot lie is sufficient to establish the certainty of our salvation, but our Father seeks to comfort us with language meaningful to us.
3 They may fall into serious sins through the temptations of Satan and the world, the power of the corruption remaining in them, and neglect of the means for their preservation, and may even continue in them for a time.10 In this they incur God’s displeasure, grieve his Holy Spirit,11 have their graces and comforts impaired,12 have their hearts hardened and their consciences wounded,13 and hurt and offend others,14 and bring present chastisement upon themselves.15
11 Ps 38:1-8, Eph 4:30
12 Ps 51:10-12
13 Ps 32:3-5, Ps 73:21-22
14 1 Co 8:9-13, Ro 14:13-18, 1 Ti 6:1-2, Tit 2:4-5
15 Ge 19:30-33, 1 Co 11:27-30
Though the believer can never fall finally or totally from grace, he can fall within grace. This is called backsliding, and its causes vary. The attractions of this world (1 Jn 2:15), the temptations of Satan, the corruption remaining within our heart (Jas 1:13,14), and the neglect of the means of grace (Heb 10:24,25) can all lead to a believer to backslide. The sins into which a believer may fall can be great and even continue for a while. They lead us to experience God’s Fatherly displeasure and to lose the comfort and assurance that grieving the Spirit can bring. The harm that results can hurt not only the backslider, it can bring scandal to the church and dishonor to God.
Yet they will [in time] renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end.16
The assurance brought about by a proper understanding of this doctrine is not intended to encourage us to take our failures lightly. Having said that the work of the Holy Spirit is the basis for our perseverance does not mean that it is the Holy Spirit who perseveres, saints persevere. “The true doctrine is not that salvation is certain if we have once believed, but that perseverance in holiness is certain if we have truly believed” (Hodge). Our assurance of the final outcome of our life does not mean that we are playing a game, we are fighting a battle. Our struggles with sin are real even if the final outcome is predetermined.