Perseverance of the Saints: One Evangelical’s Perspective (Part 3)

In part one and part two of the same title I shared my understanding of eternal security. I presented what I termed biblical facts. In the first post I started with the fact that a person who is living in open rebellion to God has no justification for expecting eternal life. I also pointed out that the Bible warns believers of the dangers of sin and of falling away from the faith. And I explained that the only difference between a regenerated heart and un-regenerated heart was the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit on the first and not on the second. In the most recent post, I went on to address the promises God gives to His children, namely that He is able and faithful to keep them from falling away. In this post I want to share a few related concepts in order to help us reconcile these seemingly contradictory biblical facts to some degree.

Assurance Vs Security

For those whom He foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so 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.

Romans 8:29-30

I alluded to the first issue in part one of this title. It is the difference between assurance of salvation and security in salvation. I believe the New Testament teaches that God has foreknown particular individuals from eternity and determined to lead them to salvation in Jesus Christ. The Bible refers to these individuals as “the elect.” The Bible further teaches that God has promised to finish the work He begins in these persons by ultimately bringing them safely to eternal life through a life of holiness and faith.

Since God determined to accomplish this in certain individuals and He will not fail, we can say that the elect are eternally secure. That is, there is absolutely nothing that can change the result which God has predestined; all the elect will be eternally saved. In this sense, the doctrine of eternal security is an absolute doctrine. It is in the hands of God’s sovereign choice and power, and it will never be thwarted or hindered by anything or anyone. The elect will be saved, period!

Philosophical Calvinists often get overly focused on this doctrine. All biblical doctrines can be dangerous when isolated from the whole counsel of Scripture and made more important than other biblical truths. When people exalt this doctrine above the warning passages of Scripture or the passages that teach that Christians are responsible to grow in grace and persevere through spiritual effort and discipline, it tends to lessen one’s zeal and the fear of God. For many setting this doctrine up as an idol has become their downfall that has led them into sin.

So why does the Bible teach this truth? The doctrine of eternal security ensures that we understand that salvation, from beginning to end, is a work of God’s grace. This doctrine, when applied properly, will not create a proud spirit that leads to a fall, but will instead humble the believer’s heart. The saint will come to understand that he has neither saved himself nor will he keep himself saved. He will be assured that apart from the grace of God he would surely perish. None shall enter the heavenly Zion boasting, but all will cast their crowns at the feet of their Savior.

Not only does this doctrine humble the pride which still resides in the heart of God’s child, it also lifts him up from despair when he sees the corruption that remains in his heart. The mature believer has come to know beyond all doubt that in him “dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18). And this truth would lead him to despair if not for the promise of Jesus that His sheep “will never perish” (John 10:27).

But this doctrine, must be distinguished from another doctrine that is closely related, namely the doctrine of assurance of salvation. Eternal security is dependent solely on God’s sovereign choice and power. Assurance of salvation, on the other hand, is something that we experience subjectively. We can be certain biblically that God’s elect will never perish, but we cannot be certain biblically that we are among the elect.

No where in the Scripture does it point us out by name and declare us elect. Instead the Bible tells us characteristics of the elect (fruits of the spirit, spiritual experience, etc.) and instructs us to test ourselves by that standard. But this is subjective. Some can be weak in assurance but be eternally secure. Some can be very confident that they are elect and yet be false converts. For this reason we must not allow our subjective assurance to blind us to the warning signs in our lives that we are straying from the narrow path.

A Snapshot of Assurance and Security

Not only so, but we also boast in tribulation, knowing that tribulation produces patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope.

Romans 5:3-4

For this reason make every effort to add virtue to your faith; and to your virtue, knowledge; and to your knowledge, self-control; and to your self-control, patient endurance; and to your patient endurance, godliness; and to your godliness, brotherly kindness; and to your brotherly kindness, love. For if these things reside in you and abound, they ensure that you will neither be useless nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the one who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted because he has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, diligently make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble. For in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly provided for you.

2 Peter 1:5-11

So how do these doctrines weave together in the Christian life?

The false convert who has not been truly converted from the love of sin to the holy fear of God will delight in the promises of God’s faithful love. He will hold firmly to the doctrine of eternal security and never be shaken from it. He will pervert it, being comforted by it in his sin. He will rejoice in his imagined security until he wakes up in hell after hearing Christ say, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice evil” (Matthew 7:23)

The genuine, but immature convert, might be infused with confidence that he is going to be faithful to his Lord, even unto death. As with Peter, Christ might allow the overly confident disciple be sifted like wheat in order to wean him from self-dependence unto Christ-dependence. By showing the disciple his weakness, he will remove his boasting which dishonors God’s grace, but by this means the disciple will also learn to put his hope in something much stronger than his own strength. He will go from confidence in the arm of the flesh, to confidence in God’s unfailing mercy. And in the end his assurance will be more sweet than it ever was in his youthful zeal.

The mature believer has learned well the waywardness of his own heart. His own confidence of finishing the race is found in the faithfulness of His Lord. As the trials & temptations of life come & go he sees the weakness of his heart & the grace of His God. His confidence in Christ grows, & so does his hope that he shall inherit eternal life.

But this confidence is not such that it would deny the waywardness of his own soul. That weakness he feels deeply, & daily listens to the warning, “the soul that sins shall die.” When he is growing in grace he rejoices in hope. When he is becoming cold in his heart he begins to tremble that his sin has finally captured his heart. With this godly fear he begins to cry out as Peter did when sinking in the water, “Lord, save me!”

So, can we know we are going to endure? Only by growing in grace. To the measure we are growing, we can be assured we are in him. Though none in Him will be lost, the only absolute way we will know that we are in Him is by enduring to the end. On that day the children of God will be revealed.

Consider this interchange between Moses and God:

Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this will be a sign to you, that I have sent you: When you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, all of you shall serve God on this mountain.” Exodus 3:11-12

Moses is asking for assurance that God will be with him to deliver the people of Israel out of Egypt. So, God gives him a sign. What is the sign? After Moses goes to Egypt and brings the people out, then Moses will know for sure that God has been with him!

So, it is with us. As Moses surely grew in assurance with every plague that God brought upon pharaoh, so we can grow in assurance with every victory God gives us over sin and Satan. But the only absolute assurance for Moses came at the end, and so it will be with us. After we have endured to the end, then we shall be saved. As it is written, “For we are saved through hope, but hope that is seen is not hope, for why does a man still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).

Eternal security is absolutely certain for the true children of God. But assurance in this life never reaches that level of certainty. As we walk in Him, we grow in assurance. But never to a degree that we do not know it is possible for us to fall. The promises of the Lord are certain & eternal, but our assurance grows in hope. The true Christian grows in hope, but never denies the reality of the fact that the wages of sin is death, even for him.

The Issue of False Converts

I would not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased, and they were overthrown in the wilderness…. Now all these things happened to them for examples. They are written as an admonition to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:1-5, 11-12

For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence firmly to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

For who were they who heard and rebelled? Was it not all of those who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? And with whom was He grieved for forty years? Was it not with those who had sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who disobeyed? So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief.

Hebrews 3:14-19

They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us. But they went out, revealing that none of them were of us.

1 John 2:19

The sower sows the word. These are those beside the path, where the word is sown. But when they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word which is sown in their hearts. Others, likewise, are seed sown on rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness, but have no root in themselves, and so endure for a time. Afterward, when affliction or persecution rises for the word’s sake, immediately they fall away. And others are seed sown among thorns, the ones who hear the word. But the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. Still others are seed sown on good ground, those who hear the word, and receive it, and bear fruit: thirty, sixty, or a hundred times as much.”

Mark 4:14-20

Let me briefly address one more issue. If it is true that all true believers will endure to the end by God’s grace, why do so many converts turn back into sin? Not everyone that confesses the name of Christ and comes into the fellowship of the saints is truly born again.

In the Old Testament God led a whole nation out of Egypt. But most of them never entered the Promised Land because they did not have true faith. That is, not everyone who was part of Israel was a true follower of God. In the same way, not everyone that turns away from an old lifestyle, is baptized, confesses Christ as Lord and declares that God has given them assurance of salvation, is truly born again.

As Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sower many seem to come to faith but are not genuinely “good soil” (Mark 4:14-20). For this reason many of them turn back for various reasons. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian actually is. Jesus warned that many will come on the Day of Judgment expecting to inherit eternal life, but He will tell them that He “never” knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). For this reason we are commanded, “Examine yourselves, seeing whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you? unless indeed you are disqualified” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Haven’t You Experienced This Paradox?

God’s Word is our daily bread while we are pilgrims in this weary and dangerous world. Through it He faithfully warns and encourages His children. By His Spirit He applies to the heart and conscience of His children what they need to remember, just when they most need to remember it. His warnings wean us from the world and its desires by reminding us that God is no respecter of persons and that the wages of sin is death! This is no hypothetical warning, for many who claim to know Christ will one day be told, “Depart from Me you workers of iniquity, I never knew you,” and will forever taste its veracity! And yet in other passages the Father of all comfort strengthens the weak knees and lifts up the hands that hang low by speaking grace and peace to His despairing child. Why does the Scripture warn so forcefully against sin and warn of its consequences? So that the child of God will work out his salvation with fear and trembling. Why does the Scripture so emphatically say that God will skillfully and faithfully preserve His children despite their desperate weakness and natural bent towards sin? So that His dear saints will take heart and run with perseverance the race marked out for them.

Is it not your experience that at some time in your life, when facing some particular temptation, the Spirit of God has convinced your heart that if you choose to sin in this case, you might end up never finding your way back home ever again? Has your Father not graciously warned you that the wages of sin is death, even for you?! And have you never been in despair that the waywardness of your heart is so deep and deceptive that you will never be able to navigate through every temptation this world has to offer and arrive safely on the shores of heaven? And in such a dark night of the soul have you not heard the Lord’s promise, “I, the Lord, am your Shepherd”?! Which of these precious pieces of manna was false? Of course, both were the very truth of God. And both have been the means of preserving you for your Father’s heavenly Kingdom.

For they indeed disciplined us for a short time according to their own judgment, but He does so for our profit, that we may partake of His holiness. Now no discipline seems to be joyful at the time, but grievous. Yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness in those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift up your tired hands, and strengthen your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame go out of joint, but rather be healed.

Hebrews 12:10-13

  1. Do have a determination to serve Christ until the end, & strive to maintain that determination?
  2. Do you believe that will be enough to cause you to endure until the end?
  3. Do you believe Christ has brought you this far & have confidence that Christ will preserve you until the end?
  4. Are you certain that if you turn from Christ & live in rebellion the rest of your life that you will perish eternally?

The mature Christian will answer the same on each question, whether Arminian or Calvinist.

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes

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