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Perseverance of the Saints

by Tim O'Hearn

After the movie Jaws came out, a lot of people were afraid to go into the ocean. While it never has made much sense to have a swimming pool at a beachside hotel, the pools did a booming business that year. When somebody would point out that a person is more likely to die from a heart attack, a car accident, a lightning strike, or all of the above combined, the common response was, “Yes, but it is still possible.” There is often a huge difference between possibility and probability. The same could be said for the difference between proponents and opponents of the Calvinist doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. It can be like those times when you are listening to two people arguing and realize that they are actually agreeing with each other, but they don’t seem to know it.

One person may say that they believe in “the security of the believer” (another phrase used for perseverance of the saints) and that “once saved, always saved,” while the other person says they believe in “the security of the believer” in that one can know they are going to heaven while still acknowledging the remote possibility that some believers may choose to “fall fromThe Calvinist view may be restated, as the “preservation” of the saints. grace.” Both are actually agreeing on the main point, while disagreeing on possibilities. Both may be right and wrong at the same time. The essential point of agreement is a truth, that one can know without a doubt that they are saved. The one may be wrong in denying the possibility of apostasy, while the other may be wrong in implying the probability of the same.

Perseverance of the Saints

It logically follows that if God elects some to salvation and others to reprobation, and if the saving power of the death of Jesus was only for the elect, and if that grace is absolutely effectual, then the ones elected to salvation cannot lose that salvation; otherwise man has the power to overpower God. This is a necessary outcome of Calvin’s (and Augustine’s) belief in specific and individual predestination. Of course, if any of those premises can be proven false (see the August through November 2018 issues of Minutes With Messiah) then the conclusion does not necessarily follow.

Calvin points to several scriptures to support the perseverance of the believer. Most particularly he points to quotations from Jesus himself. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me, and him that comes to me I will in no wise cast out. … This is the will of him that sent me, that of all which he has given me I should lose nothing; but should raise it up at the last day,” (John 6:37, 39) He also appeals to the letter of Paul to the Romans.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 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)

The Calvinist view may actually be restated, at least in part, as the “preservation” of the saints. While believers must persevere in the face of salvation even through death, the point is made more sure by the idea that God preserves saints in the faith. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (Jn 10:27-28) No devil or man may pluck the elect out of the saving power of God.

Moreover, it cannot be doubted, that since Christ prays for all the elect, he asks the same thing for them as he asked for Peter—viz. that their faith fail not (Luke 22:32). Hence we infer, that there is no danger of their falling away, since the Son of God, who asks that their piety may prove constant, never meets with a refusal. What then did our Savior intend to teach us by this prayer, but just to confide, that whenever we are his our eternal salvation is secure? (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 24)

Essential to this doctrine is the idea that those who appear to have been believers but who have (apparently) fallen away were never among the elect in the first place. They merely appeared to men to be believers. (Since man is totally depraved, they must have had a hidden, selfish motive in appearing to do good.)

But it daily happens that those who seemed to belong to Christ revolt from him and fall away. … This, indeed, is true; but it is equally true that such persons never adhered to Christ with that heartfelt confidence by which I say that the certainty of our election is established: “They went out from us,” says John, “but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would, no doubt, have continued with us,” (1 John 2:19). I deny not that they have signs of calling similar to those given to the elect; but I do not at all admit that they have that sure confirmation of election which I desire believers to seek from the word of the gospel. (Institutes, III, 24)

If you were to ask the average Baptist about the various tenets of Calvinism, he might deny most. He might balk a little at the idea that God chooses some before they are born to be reprobate, although he might pay some lip service to the election of the saved. He might grant that some people do good for the sake of doing good. He might even say that Jesus died for everyone, though not everyone will take advantage of it. He might even deny that every specific incident in life is predestined by God. But he will steadfastly affirm a belief in the perseverance of believers. Official church doctrine might include everything else, but individual belief may not, except for this one doctrine.

The Biblical View

Almost nobody questions a doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” (Rev 2:10) Many, though, will say the first phrase is an admonition, while the Calvinists would say it is a guarantee. It does not say, however, “You will be faithful unto death.” It is an encouragement to do so, which would be meaningless if one had no choice but to be faithful. Believers must persevere, but may choose not to.

It is interesting that the Reformed churches will quote some of the same scriptures in support of their view as those who oppose it, such as Revelation 3:11(“hold fast what you have”) and Philippians 2:12 (“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”). This could indicate that the passages in question are open to interpretation and thus not suitable foundation for a whole doctrine. Alternatively, it could mean that one group (or the other) chooses to form the doctrine and then give a reading to the passages that conforms with that doctrine. To determine the truth one must approach the scriptures without preconception and with a view to learning God’s truth rather than one’s own.

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. (Heb 6:4-6)

This may be the most troubling passage to believers in the perseverance of the saints. Calvin does not explain this verse at all. Some of his followers use the explanation (to some a copout) that the people addressed were never truly among the elect. They say he had heard the gospel (enlightened and tasted) but had not surrendered to it. They were partakers of the Holy Ghost only in that they had physically been baptized and taken the Lord’s Supper, but were doing so for an ulterior motive. It is true that the word taste can imply only trying something; but it is also used for full participation, as in the phrase “tasted death.” The writer of Hebrews uses the word partakers in a very specific way, speaking of the saints (Heb 3:1, 14; 12:8) It is a reach to believe that he or she would have used it in a different way only in this passage. Therefore, it must be concluded that these people were true believers who fell away.

Holding faith, and good conscience, which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck; of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Tim 1:18-19)

Again, the Calvinists will argue that the men named had never been believers. Paul says these men hadTo determine the truth one must approach the scriptures without preconception. at one time held faith and good conscience, but had put them away. That sounds very much like Paul, through inspiration, is saying that they had truly been believers, but put their faith away.

A similar difference occurs in the “parable of the sower.” (Matt 13:18-23) Calvinists argue that the rocky and thorny ground represent people who appeared to believe but never did. In Luke 8 Jesus says those on the rocky ground “for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away.” If Jesus says they had faith, who are we to argue.

How, then, do we reconcile the two views. The scriptures do not conflict with each other. If nobody can pluck the believers out of God’s hand, not even those things listed in Romans 8, then how could one who has believed lose their salvation? The usual answer, which to the Calvinist sounds like a copout, is that none of these things can pluck the believer out of God’s hand, but the believer can choose on his own to leave. It all hinges on the question of free will. Is God satisfied with a robotic response; are we mere computers running whichever program God chooses? Or does God allow us to make choices which may appear to thwart his own will? From the standpoint of a human parent, the latter seems preferable, even if it is more dangerous. From the standpoint of scripture, God gives people choice. And where there is choice, even the faithful may make the wrong one.