Preservation and Perseverance
All true believers in Christ will persevere in the faith to the end of their lives because they are preserved by the sustaining grace of God.
Will all believers endure to the end and so be saved? Can someone lose his or her salvation and thus forfeit God’s saving grace? Well-meaning Christians have disagreed about these matters, but a solid biblical case can be made that all true believers in Christ will persevere to the end of their lives through the gracious, preserving work of the Holy Spirit. The terminology surrounding this issue must be carefully defined: perseverance, preservation, and eternal security. The relevant teaching on both the preservation of God’s people and their perseverance in the faith must be considered. Finally, the meaning of the New Testament warnings against apostasy must be honestly accounted for.
Terminology and Positions
Can a believer lose his or her salvation? Will all true believers endure to the end? These pressing questions have produced a range of answers in the history of Christian theology. They have also produced a variety of terms used to encapsulate what the Scriptures teach. The favored term among many Reformed theologians is the perseverance of the saints. This term safeguards against a kind of “easy believism” that would suggest that simply praying a prayer or sincerely making a decision for Christ at some point in your life is sufficient to cover you for the rest of your life, no matter what fruit characterizes your life after that point. The doctrine of perseverance teaches that all true believers will indeed persevere in the faith (that is, not in unbelief) until the end of their lives.
Some have expressed concern that this term puts too much emphasis on the faith of the believer, rather than the grace of God. Instead, they would suggest, we should use the term preservation in order to underscore God’s faithfulness to his people despite their frequent infidelities. But, in fact, the Reformed doctrine seeks to emphasis this very point. A fuller understanding of the Reformed position would be something more like perseverance through preservation. All true believers must persevere in the faith, despite the many peaks and valleys of their spiritual journey. But, equally true, all true believers will persevere in the faith because of the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and wills. Another term that is sometimes used in this discussion is the eternal security of the believer. This term expresses the precious truth that believers are secure, safe, assured, and protected by God’s grace. But it can be and sometimes has been distorted by some teaching a so-called “free grace gospel” which diminishes the need for repentance and submitting to Christ’s Lordship. So perhaps the best expression of the doctrine would be something like this: perseverance and security through preservation.
As alluded to already, Reformed theology maintains that all true believers will persevere in the faith and that they cannot lose their salvation precisely because of the sustaining work of God in their lives. This doctrine is consistent with the broader Reformed understanding of salvation. All those eternally elected by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit will finally be brought to certain salvation on the last day through the sovereign grace of God. All those who are chosen, called, and converted by God are kept by God.1
But not all have agreed with this position. In Roman Catholic theology, the regeneration and initial justification secured through baptism may be forfeited through mortal sin and by failing to cooperate with the grace of God through the sacramental system. As a result, no professing believer can have absolute assurance that they will be saved on the last day. Such certainty amounts to presumption, in the Roman Catholic understanding.
The Dutch Reformed theologian James Arminius famously dissented from the confessional Reformed view on the doctrines of grace, although he left the question of apostasy (the forfeiting of one’s salvation) more of an open question.2 John Wesley, who adopted many of Arminius’s ideas, was more forthright about the possibility of apostasy. He and the Wesleyan traditions that have come in his wake believe that it is indeed possible for a believer to lose his or her salvation. The need for endurance and the warnings of the New Testament must be taken with the utmost seriousness. The decision to follow Christ is a grace-enabled but genuinely free choice. In order to respect our freedom, God must leave open the possibility of apostasy.3
Still others have accepted the basic Reformed commitment to the eternal security of the believer but have either rejected or modified the broader Reformed soteriology that makes this position intelligible. This “modified Calvinist” position tends to agree more with Arminianism when it comes to election, free will, the extent of the atonement, and the relationship between regeneration and conversion. But it accepts the truth that those who genuinely believe in Christ can never finally be lost. In some cases, this position tends in the so-called “free grace theology” direction in which perseverance in faith and good works might be necessary for certain heavenly rewards but is not necessary for final salvation. As such, it represents an unstable middle position. Having surrendered the Reformed understanding of God’s overcoming grace acting on the rebellious human will, it lacks the theological resources necessary to keep the doctrine of eternal security from diminishing the importance of perseverance.
In light of this survey of the terminology and positions, it remains now to consider what the biblical witness teaches about these matters.
The gospel of John highlights the irreversibility and irrevocability of God’s sovereign grace in the lives of believers. Jesus teaches that the salvation he brings accomplishes a permanent transfer from death to life: “Truly, truly, I say to who, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Eternal life is not merely a future hope but is also a present possession. Believers have within them a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). Those who have tasted this heavenly bread will never hunger again but will live forever (John 6:51). Those who believe in his resurrection power will never die (John 11:25–26). The ground undergirding this certainty of eternal life is the will of the Father accomplished in the Son. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given to me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:37–39). In his discourse on the Good Shepherd theme, Jesus teaches that no one can snatch his sheep from his hand: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). This certainty is made doubly sure because no one can snatch Jesus’ sheep from the Father’s hand, underscoring the inseparable work of the Father and the Son: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The promised Holy Spirit will be the means of revealing, empowering, and enabling this security: “You know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16; cf. John 16:7–15). So, for Jesus in John’s Gospel, the believer’s assurance is founded upon the united and indefatigable work of the Holy Trinity.
The New Testament epistles also teach the preservation of all true believers. Paul describes God’s work of redemption as a unbroken chain of saving events: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:29–30). There is no break in this “golden chain.” Everyone who experiences the antecedent blessing with receive the consequent blessing. Interestingly, Paul does not use the future tense to describe the final link in the chain, glorification, although it is an as-yet future event in the present experience of believers. The reason is that their glorification has been secured in the resurrection and glorification of the Son and thus can be spoken about as a settled reality. As Paul had previously written, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:9). There is a greater-to-lesser logic at work here: if God reconciled those who were his enemies through the death of Christ, how much more will he save his reconciled friends through the resurrection of Christ (Rom.5:10).
Paul expresses this same certainty in other places in his letters. He writes with confidence to the Corinthians that God “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor 1:8). What grounds this assurance, especially given the many sins and divisions in the Corinthian church? Paul answers: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1Cor 1:9). Paul also speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit as a seal for the day of redemption (Eph 1:13; 4:30) and a guarantee of our inheritance (Eph 1:14; 2Cor 1:23). The implication is that the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers ensures their final salvation. When Paul prays that the Thessalonians would be sanctified completely in spirit and soul and body, he expresses confidence in God to bring it to pass: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1Thes 5:23-24). Likewise, he writes to the Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).
The other New Testament letters also strike this note of certainty with regard to the preservation of God’s people. The writer of Hebrews grounds this certainty in the ongoing priestly intercession of Christ: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Peter speaks of the inheritance believers receive through the new birth as “imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1Pet. 1:4–5). The New Testament writers certainly believe that final salvation depends in some sense on believers’ perseverance in the faith, as will be discussed in the section below, but those important contingencies should not be used to mute their absolute confidence that God will keep all those whom he calls in Christ Jesus.
Perseverance and the Warning Passages
In addition to this teaching on God’s preservation of his people, the New Testament teaches with equal force the need for believers to persevere in faith and good works. The warning-promises in Jesus’s letters to the churches in Revelation are indicative: the one who conquers, the one who keeps his words to the end will be saved (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). This same contingency is expressed by Paul as well. He often introduces an “if indeed you continue in the faith” condition to believers’ final reception of God’s saving mercy (e.g., Col 1:21–23). Paul teaches that justification is a gift receive by faith alone, but he also teaches that final judgment will be “according to” works (e.g., Rom 2:6–11). Good works are not the basis of final salvation (which is the obedience of Christ alone), nor even the means by which believers receive justification (which is faith alone), but good works are the necessary evidentiary fruit of genuine saving faith. In this, Paul agrees completely with James’s declaration that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26; cf. Gal 5:6). In the Gospels, Jesus also teaches a final judgment of works. On the day of judgment, the nations will be divided into sheep and goats based on their acts of mercy, or lack thereof, for the “least of these my brothers” (Matt 25:31–46). None of this makes salvation grounded in good works. The offer of the gospel is free and gratuitous, received as an undeserved and unearnable gift. But perseverance in good works is the evidence that someone has been brought from death to life.
Closely related to the necessity of perseverance are the many warning passages in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews is especially important in this regard, and Hebrews 6:4–6 in particular seems to provide the strongest case for the possibility of apostasy.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
At first glance, this passage seems to suggest rather straightforwardly that a true believer can fall away from the faith, but the case for seeing the referent in this passage as a genuine believer is not the only possible reading. As Anthony Hoekema points out, no mention is made of their faith or regeneration.4 Enlightenment here may be a reference to baptism and the heavenly gift a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps the persons described are simply outwardly connected to the church. The working of the Holy Spirit mentioned here is also not necessarily determinative, since the writer of Hebrews later speaks of certain persons who have “outraged the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29). So, it is possible that the reference here is to those who have experienced the promptings of the Holy Spirit but have rejected them. In any event, the writer of Hebrews goes on to distinguish such persons from the recipients of his letter: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (6:9).
There are four different ways of taking the warning passage in Hebrews.
- One possibility is that they teach apostasy as a real possibility for true believers.
- Others, however, take the warnings as merely hypothetical: if someone were to fall away from the faith they could not be restored to repentance, but that is not a real possibility for true believers. But this interpretation sounds a bit too much like special pleading and seems to take the teeth out of the warnings.
- Still others take the warnings as addressed to professing believers, that is, to the visible church, and not specifically to true believers alone, that is, the invisible church. All Christian communions, even those in the believers’ church tradition such as Baptists, acknowledge that it is possible for people to make false professions of faith. No visible church on earth is perfectly pure; false professors may creep in unnoticed (Jude 4) So, in that case, the warnings are real but are not necessarily teaching the apostasy of true believers.
- In an important study of the doctrine of perseverance, Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Canady take a different tack from these other approaches.5 They see the warnings as the means by which God keeps true believers in the faith. In this case, the warnings are real in their threats but say nothing about the actuality of those threats being carried out in reality. Why? Because the writer (and God through him) marshals the warning as a way of keeping believers on the path of obedience—believers about whom the writer is confident of “better things.”
It seems that either or both of these last two options—a warning to professing believers and/or a means of preserving the elect—are legitimate ways of interpreting the warning passages without recourse to actual apostasy (which would undermine the teaching on preservation explained above).
But what of the New Testament passages that seem to teach actual cases of apostasy? Here, one might think of Jesus’ parable of the sower, where some of the seed represents those who hear the word and immediately receive it—with joy even—but when persecution comes they “immediately fall away” (Matt 13:20–21). It seems that the point of the parable is to distinguish between true faith, which is persevering faith, and both unbelief and a kind of temporary faith, which is tested precisely by the tribulations that try its genuineness. Only the seed that falls on good soil produces the fruit that demonstrates legitimate faith.
Another example of falling away is especially instructive for bringing the two foci of this article together: both preservation and perseverance. In 1 John, the apostle considers a sect within the church that has abandoned the church for an antichrist doctrine. John describes the situation like this:
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge (1Jn 2:18–20).
So, it is possible for those who were at one time visibly connected to the church to abandon their profession. But for John, their very forfeiture of the faith is a demonstration that they never truly belonged to the saving orbit of the church.
To conclude, the New Testament teaches both the necessity of perseverance and its certainty through the sustaining work of God: perseverance and security through preservation. This doctrine is both an exhortation to continued faith and obedience and an encouragement that God will complete the work he has begun. Paul captures both sides of this dynamic well he writes, “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling [perseverance] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure [preservation]” (Phil 2:12–13).
- Hoekema, Anthony A. Saved by Grace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
- Pinson, J. Matthew, ed., Four Views on Eternal Security. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
- Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955.
- Schreiner, Thomas R. and Ardel B. Caneday. The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2001.
- Stanley, Alan P., ed. Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
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