Revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 21 dated 19 Nov 2000
We have come now to look at the final petal of the Calvinistic flower which is also the final head of the Canons of Dort under the same appellation. In simple terms, this doctrine answers the question: Can a regenerate and justified person fall from the State of Grace. The Calvinists says no! The Arminians, at least the Remonstrants, appears from the Remonstrantia to be unsure. We will briefly analyse their position shortly, but it will be helpful for us first to comment on the various other phrases and professing Calvinists use to describe this doctrine so that we have a clearer understanding of what it entails.
First, one of the most common phrase used is “Eternal Security.” This phrased is very popular among Dispensationalists, but it often belies the acceptance of the concept of “Carnal Christians.” We will say more about “Carnal Christians” in another article, but very briefly, it teaches that once a person has prayed to received Christ, he will be saved even if he exhibits no repentance for sin and therefore do not have Christ as Lord. According to those who hold to this doctrine (mostly Dispensationalists), such a person will be saved as by fire. “Eternal Security” when it is thus coloured with this doctrine of Carnal Christianity is far from what the Synod of Dort propounded. The synod taught “Perseverance of the Saints”, not “Preservation of Sinners.”
The second phrase, which is commonly used, is: “Once saved always saved!” This phrase is often used with the same significance as Eternal Security, but it is sometimes used by Calvinists who wish to make theology more easily acceptable to modern Christians—many of whom have a distaste for theological terms. Unfortunately, this phrase has contributed to the common modern notion that God’s work of salvation in the life of the sinner is completed when the sinner “prays to receive Christ.” One of the effects of this misunderstanding is that many modern believers would find it very jarring to read important theological statements such as in the WSC 91 which speaks about the sacraments becoming “effectual means of salvation.” And so there are some (including well-known writers!) who on account of these statements assert that the Westminster divines taught baptismal regeneration and salvation by works! The reality is that the older theologians has more correctly reflected the usage of the term ‘salvation’ in Scriptures (e.g. Phil 2:12; 1 Th 5:18 etc) when they speak about salvation as including the work of sanctification of the Spirit of Christ.
One other phrase that is commonly used, often by very sound Calvinistic theologians is “Preservation of the Saints.” This term has great merit and is especially useful to emphasise the fact that the only reason why a Christian remains a Christian, once he is regenerated and justified, is the power of God. Personally, however, I would still prefer the wordings of the Canons, for it especially emphasises the fact that the saints (Christians) persevere as saints throughout their Christian journey. In this way, two of the common Arminian objections to the doctrine,—viz.: (1) that it promotes carnal security; and (2) that there are many real life examples of Christians who fall out and denounce the faith,—are answered. The fact is, all Calvinists will maintain that anyone whose life shows no evidence of the working of grace cannot be regarded as a true Christian; and anyone who does not persevere to the end has simply never been a true Christian, united with Christ and possessing a true living faith in Him in the first place. The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this truth positively in the words: “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” (WCF 17.1).
The Arminian Contention
Although there are many flavours of Arminianism today, it is helpful for us to look at what was submitted to the Synod of Dort by the Arminians so that we may better understand what the Calvinistic or Biblical doctrine is. Here, then, is the first article of the Remonstriatia:
That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.Art V, “Articuli Arminiani sive Remonstrantia” in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 3, p. 548
Notice, firstly, that the Arminians agree that “those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith… [cannot] be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands.” But, secondly, notice how they emphasise that the Christian is preserved only by the “assisting grace of the Holy Ghost.” In other words, the Christian remains a Christian by his own effort, assisted by grace. Remember that for the Arminians, regeneration does not involve a permanent change. And so, thirdly, since the freewill of the Christian is the final determining factor in the Christian life, it cannot be certain from a theological standpoint to assert whether the Christian is “capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ… of becoming devoid of grace.”
The Response of Dort
What did the Synod of Dort say to the Arminian contentions? First, they reassert the fact that a Christian is a Christian by the purpose of God, or in other words, the perseverance of the saints is flows from the fountainhead of the electing grace of God (Head 5, art. 1, 6; rej. 1). Second, they insists that the Christian is regenerated (permanently) by the Holy Spirit and set free from the dominion and slavery of sin (art. 1). This means that the Christian has a new heart or principle of life which is not naturally inclined to sin as in the case of the unregenerate. But thirdly, the Christian is “not entirely in this life [free] from the flesh and the body of sin” (arts. 1, 2). In other words, the Christian has remaining corruption, and though by the grace of God, he is able and desirous to resist temptation, he is also capable of falling into sin (arts. 3, 4). Nevertheless, fourthly, “God is faithful, who confirms them in the grace once mercifully conferred on them, and powerfully preserves them in the same unto the end (art. 4, 7). And fifthly, it must be remembered that the saints persevere “not by their own merits or strength, but by the gratuitous mercy of God [so that] they neither totally fall from faith and grace, nor finally continue in their falls and perish.”
In a word, the Synod of Dort disagrees with the Arminians that the perseverance of the saints is dependent on the effort of the saint. Rather, it insists that saints persevere because God preserves them in grace sovereignly. He does so by firstly preserving the immortal seed, by which they are regenerated (1 Pet 1:23; 1 Jn 3:9); and secondly, by “His own Word and Spirit, He assuredly and efficaciously renews them to repentance” (art. 7). God, in other words is the author and cause of our perseverance.
Also, the Calvinistic position follows logically from the other 4 points which we have already proven from Scripture. For example, if God has elected unconditionally every Christian who will be saved, it follows that none who is elected will be lost, for other wise, it would either mean that God is not sovereign or that election can only be understood retrospectively, which also means that God did precisely nothing when it is said that He elected. Additionally, if Christ died to pay for the penalty of the sin of the elect, then if any of the elect perish, it would mean that the death of Christ is insufficient even to pay for the sins of those who perished.
Perseverance of the Saints proven Biblically
The Westminster Confession of Faith which was written some years after the Canons of Dort, not only provides the most succinct and eloquent definition of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints; but it also provides the most comprehensive argument from Scripture for the doctrine:
This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the degree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.WCF 17.2
Note first from this statement how the Westminster divines nails the error of the Arminians on the head: they have made the perseverance of the saints ultimately dependant upon man’s free will. Second, notice the fourfold arguments: (1) God’s immutable love and decree of election: since God’s love and decree is unchanging, how could the elect perish? (2) The merit and intercession of Christ: Since Christ paid an infinite price for our salvation, and He is constantly interceding for us, how could we perish? (3) The abiding of the Spirit: since we are by the sovereign will of God united with Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit, how could anything cut us off from Christ; and (4) The nature of the Covenant of Grace: Since the covenant of grace is unilateral and unconditional, how could we,—on account of our sin and failures,—perish?
To prove the doctrine of the Perseverance of the saints, we need only to prove these 4 propositions as given in the WCF. But let’s begin with some clear statements from the Scriptures which asserts that none who are in Christ will perish.
Clear Scriptural Affirmations
Perhaps the most precious statement with regards to our perseverance as saints comes from the lips of our Lord, the “Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2) Himself, for concerning the sheep for whom He laid down His life for (Jn 10:15), He says: “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28). Three times in this one statement, does the Lord assure us that those who are in Him will never perish: First, he gives us eternal life, which is not only a life of communion with God (Jn 17:3), but is as the word ‘eternal’ (aiônios, αἰώνιος) suggests, an everlasting life. Second, He assures us that we shall never perish or be destroyed or to fall irrecoverably (apollumi, ἀπόλλυμι). But in case someone thinks that if we cannot fall by ourselves, it does not mean that the enemies of God cannot destroy us, the Lord assures us, thirdly, that no one will be able to pluck or snatch (arpazô, ἁρπάζω) us out of His hand. What an encouraging thought! He who is the Sovereign God is holding us in His strong hands, how can we ever perish?
The apostle Paul was essentially echoing this thought in his famous and beautiful statement:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Rom 8:35-39
Notice how Paul’s statement speaks about our perseverance and not just our preservation, for he tells us that “we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” In other words, Christ preserves us by making us victors over all that may tempted us to fall away.
What about professing Christians who apostatise? Do they not prove that the doctrine is wrong of that we have misinterpreted both the Lord and the apostle Paul? Well, we must always interpret experience with the Scripture and not the other way round. This is particularly so in the case of the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, for here we have the apostle John writing under inspiration asserting that any who apostatise have never been a Christian in the first place: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn 2:19).
God’s Immutable Love & Decree
We have already previously seen how the apostle Paul asserts in Romans 8:29-30 that those foreknown or elected by God (cf. 2 Tim 2:19) will with certainty attain unto glorification. This is because God’s decree to save the elect is unchangeable. If it were in any sense changeable, the apostle Paul could not have spoke so definitively.
The election of the saints by God is according to the “good pleasure of His will”, and His predestination of the saints is founded upon His eternal love of for them in Christ (Eph 1:4). This is the same love that Jehovah expressed to His saints of old through Jeremiah: “The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jer 31:3). Notice how the Lord speaks of His love as being ‘everlasting.’ This means that He will never cease to love His elect. His love for them is unchanging. When the elect of God sin against Him, they incur His Fatherly displeasure, this wrath is for them but for a moment (Ps 30:5). It never impinges on the love of God for them. And since the final destiny of man is entirely determined by the will of God, we know for certain that those whom God loves will never perish.
Merit & Intercession of Christ
We have already seen that Christ’s atonement for the elect was not to make salvation possible for them but to save them. The apostle to the Hebrews make this point when he says: “…we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.… For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb 10:10, 14; cf. Heb 13:20-21; 9:12-15; Rom 8:33-39). Notice the language of completion and permanence in the phrase: “He hath perfected for ever.” This, certainly does not leave any room for the possibility of a fall from grace. A fall from grace would not only mean that the atonement of Christ is neither perfect nor sufficient, but would also imply that God’s Word is unreliable.
Christ, furthermore did not just suffer and die for the saints. He rose from the dead and is ascended to the right hand of the throne of God. There, He is interceding, as He did before His death, for His saints whom the Father had given Him (Jn 17:11, 24). It is through this intercessory work of Christ, that He preserves us to the very end, for we read: “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). We have an idea of how the Lord intercedes for us in his words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not…” (Lk 22:31-32). The Lord is praying for us that our faith fail not, and His prayers are always efficacious.
Abiding of the Spirit
We have seen the perseverance of the saints on basis of the work of the Father and of the Son, it is not surprising therefore to read that the Spirit is involved in our perseverance too. The Lord indicates this when He tells us that the Holy Spirit, the other Comforter, will abide with us forever (Jn 14:16). Similarly the apostle John tells us that as the Spirit abides in us, we shall abide in Him” (1 Jn 2:27; cf. 1 Jn 3:9). Indeed, the Christian perseveres because the Spirit or the Seed of God remains in him to work efficaciously in his heart (1 Jn 3:9), so that the he cannot fall habitually, finally and totally into sin.
Nature of the Covenant of Grace
The Covenant of Grace is most beautifully displayed in Genesis 15 where God in a theophany passed through the severed pieces of animals to indicate that His covenant with the seed of Abraham is unilateral, unconditional and everlasting (cf. Heb 6:13-20; Gal 3:16, 29; see PCC Bulletin, vol. 1 issue 9, dated 29 Aug 1999).
Elsewhere the same thought concerning the everlasting nature of the covenant is repeated, e.g.: “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me” (Jer 32:40); “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee” (Isa 54:10).
This covenant, we must remember is not made with the Jews as a nation, but with the Jews as the covenant people of God; and the covenant respects our eternal inheritance in Christ rather than the land of Palestine, which is but a shadow and type. And since it is everlasting and unconditional, it follows that none of those who are the elect or the children of the promise (Rom 9:8) can either fail to be saved, or fall away ultimately.
We have, I believe, proven beyond doubt that the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saint is sound theologically and biblically. The Arminian vacillation on the doctrine is largely due to their errors respecting the election of God, the atonement of Christ and the efficacious call of the Spirit. Logically, from their theological propositions in these areas, they ought to be very ready to reject perseverance altogether. However, it seems rather impossible to deny or re-interpret that Scriptural assertions of preservation and perseverance. Perhaps this is why the Arminius and the Remonstrants were not prepared to put their foot down to say that it is definitely possible to fall from grace. Nevertheless, later Arminians such as the Wesleyans insisted on the possibility.
Does the doctrine of perseverance mean that the Christian can live any way he chooses and yet persevere all the way to glorification? Not at all! Those who understands this doctrine will know that anyone who live in disregard to the Word of God is simply not a Christian in the first place. This is why the apostle Paul teaches us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), and the apostle Peter reminds us “to give diligence to make our calling and election sure” (1 Pet 1:10-11). And indeed, if we are truly Christ’s elect, we will do so, for we will be led by the Spirit of Christ. Then as we make use the means of grace, we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). We will behold the face of Christ in this way, and the Spirit who illumines our heart will changed us into the same image from glory to glory until the day when we shall be like Him, when we shall see Him as He is (2 Cor 3:18; 1 Jn 3:2). Amen.