Doctrine of Salvation (Part 18): Perseverance of the Saints - Calvinism

December 09, 2020

Perseverance of the Saints - Calvinism

We’ve been working our way through the doctrine of salvation. So far we’ve talked about such doctrines as God’s election, regeneration, and justification. Today we come to the subject of perseverance. This is often called in popular piety “eternal security.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this doctrine under that label rather than as perseverance of the saints.

The question that we confront here is whether or not a person who has been genuinely regenerated by the Holy Spirit, declared righteous by God, forgiven of his sins, can lose his salvation and fall away and wind up damned, having his lot with the unbelievers and the non-elect? So the question is: if you become a Christian, will you inevitably persevere in the faith until your death so that you will be saved? Or is it possible that you, having once become a Christian, could fall away so that in fact you lose the salvation that you once had?

As with the other issues that we’ve previously discussed under the doctrine of salvation, there are at least two broad perspectives on this question. One would be the perspective of Calvinism or Reformed theology, which would be represented, for example, in the Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Anglican Church, and so on. The other perspective would be the Arminian perspective which would characterize groups like the United Methodist denomination. One should mention that Catholic theology and Lutheran theology would also hold to the perspective that a person can lose his salvation even though they were not under the influence of Jacob Arminius. We will look broadly at Calvinism and Arminianism as our two test cases of this doctrine.

First, let’s talk about the Calvinist perspective. With respect to Calvinist theology, the Calvinist theologian holds that the elect cannot fall away. This could be more clearly stated by saying, “Elect individuals cannot fall away.” If you are an individual person who is elected and predestined by God, regenerated, declared righteous by God, then it is impossible for you to fall away from the faith and to lose your salvation.

What are some of the biblical passages to which the Calvinist might appeal in support of such a view? Look at John 6:39-40. Here Jesus says,

. . . this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

Here Jesus says that no one that the Father has given to him will be lost; rather on the resurrection day Jesus will raise this person to eternal life. So if you are of the elect of God, it is not possible for you to lose your salvation and to perish. You will be raised to eternal life.

Turn over a couple of chapters to John 10:27-30. Here Jesus says,

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

Here Jesus says if you are truly a member of his fold then you will not be snatched away. You shall not perish. You will be given eternal life. No one shall snatch you out of Christ’s or God the Father’s hand. You are secure in him.

Look at John 17 for yet another reiteration of this fact. John 17:11. Jesus is here praying for the church and he says,

And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

Here Jesus prays for you. He prays for the church that they will be kept by the power of God. So we have the prayers of Jesus himself on behalf of the church that they will be preserved. Indeed, in one sense rather than talking about the perseverance of the saints, it might be better to talk about the preservation of the saints. God will preserve them; he will keep them until the final day.

Finally, turn over to John’s first epistle – 1 John 3:9. Here John says, “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” Then over in 1 John 5:18 we read, “We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Obviously, John didn’t think that we live sinless lives as Christians. In fact in the first chapter of his epistle he says that if we confess our sins, then God is faithful and just to forgive our sins. He knows that as Christians we will on occasion sin. But what he seems to be talking about here would be a lifestyle of sin that would be antithetical to being a Christian. What he says is that the one who is born of God is kept by God. He says he who is born of God (that is, Christ) keeps him and therefore the evil one does not touch him. Christ himself will keep you from this life of sin that would result in your perdition. So one is secure if you are living this righteous life for God that is consistent with being a Christian.

Paul the apostle might also be thought to have taught the same thing. In Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians – Ephesians 1:13-14 – Paul says,

In him [that is, in Christ] you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here Paul says that those who have believed in Christ have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. As a Christian, you are regenerated by and indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit, Paul says, seals you and is the guarantee of your inheritance until you acquire possession of it. So it is this indwelling Holy Spirit who will preserve you and keep you in the faith until you go to be home with the Lord in glory.

So on the basis of passages like these the Calvinist would affirm the slogan “once saved, always saved.” You cannot lose your salvation. If you are genuinely regenerated as a Christian, then God will keep you in the faith and you will persevere until the end. Therefore, one cannot fall away from the faith and lose one’s salvation.

Those passages in isolation seem pretty compelling. But there is another set of passages in the New Testament which is a challenge to this view and is difficult for the Reformed theologian to deal with. I am thinking here of passages in which the Scripture warns us of the danger of apostasy; that is to say, the danger of falling away from the faith. There are passages in the New Testament that seem to contemplate the possibility of apostasy; that is to say, turning your back on Christ, casting him out of your life, and in effect going back to a non-Christian status.

Look at the book of Hebrews, for example, for passages of this sort that are especially riveting and clear. Hebrews 6:1-8 concerns such warnings which are, I think, very sobering. The author says,

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned.

Now that dramatic illustration between the fruitful crop-bearing land and the worthless land that brings forth thorns and thistles rather than good fruit is a dramatic analogy between the believer and the apostate. The author says that in the end the wretched land will be burned – you clear that land of its thorns and thistles by burning it. He says here that if these persons commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to repentance. These people who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come, if they commit apostasy, then it is impossible for them to be restored again to repentance. Their end is to be burned. They seemed to have forfeited their salvation.

If that were not enough, turn over to Hebrews 10:26-31 where the author reiterates these terrible warnings. There he says,

For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Again, obviously all of us on occasion sin after becoming a Christian. I think on some occasions we sin deliberately as well, don’t we? We know it’s wrong but due to weakness or rebelliousness we sin anyway. The author is not talking about that type of sin. Rather, I think that the author is talking about the same thing as he did in chapter 6. If a person commits apostasy, that is to say, he deliberately chooses to renounce Christ, to walk away from the faith and abandon Christ, then he says there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. That would make sense of why he said before that it is impossible to restore them again to repentance, since they crucified the Son of God on their own account. There no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, but all that remains, he says, is this fearful prospect of judgment. So he speaks of the man who has spurned the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified. He is evidently warning Christians here not to commit apostasy (not to fall away) because God is going to judge. It is, he says, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

So how, from a Calvinistic perspective, are we to understand these sorts of warnings against apostasy? Typically, the Calvinist will propose two ways of understanding these warnings. First, some Calvinists will say the persons being described here are not really Christians. They are at best nominal Christians – people who are Christians in name only. But they are not genuine, born-again, regenerate Christians who have been declared righteous by God. So if you look at Hebrews 6, they will point out that it speaks of these people as having “tasted” the heavenly gift. They’ve “tasted” the goodness of the Word of God. They haven’t really drunk it deeply and imbibed it. They just sort of sampled it. Maybe they’ve been in the context of a Christian congregation or a local church and they benefited from being part of it, they’ve gone through the motions, but they aren’t really regenerate, born-again Christians. For these people to reject Christ, to walk away from him, is simply a continuation of their own unregenerate state and not a matter of someone’s falling away from the faith.

Other Calvinist theologians, however, have taken a quite different perspective on these passages. What they point out is that the Holy Spirit uses means to preserve Christians in the faith. He doesn’t just zap them so as to make them persevere. Rather, he will use means by which he will bring about their perseverance: for example, Bible reading, prayer, the preaching of the Word of God, participation in the Lord’s Supper, and the exercise of your spiritual gifts in a local fellowship. All of these would be means by which the Holy Spirit will help to keep you and persevere in your Christian faith. And so these theologians will say one of the means that the Holy Spirit uses to help the elect persevere are precisely these warnings. These warnings are the means by which God ensures that the elect will persevere. By putting these frightening warnings in Scripture, God brings it about that when the elect read them, they realize the consequences of walking away from Christ; and therefore they will not do so.

So the warnings are not meant to show that it is a real possibility that you could actually fall away from your faith; rather they are the means by which the Holy Spirit ensures that you will not fall away from the faith because you will heed these warnings as you confront them.

So on the Calvinistic perspective, anyone who is a genuine, born again Christian will persevere in the faith. When we see examples of persons – and certainly there are many both in Scripture and in our churches today – who were either raised in Christian homes or were once involved in Christian service or even in Christian ministry and have then walked away from Christ and turned their backs on him and are now unbelievers (perhaps even atheists or agnostics), the Calvinist will say that those persons were never really Christians to begin with. They were only nominally Christian, but they weren’t genuine Christians. Anyone who is a genuine believer, that is to say, a regenerate believer who has been declared righteous by God, that person will inevitably persevere in the faith. It is impossible for him to lose his salvation.

The next time we will look at a radically different Arminian perspective on this question.[1]


[1]           [1]Total Running Time: 21:54 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)