Perseverance of the Saints & Shepherding
I hope that you’ve read the previous four articles on the doctrines of grace: depravity, election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. This 5th installment may not make much sense to you if you haven’t. The reason for this is because this final doctrinal summation of Reformed thought is the crown jewel that sits atop the other four. If you are familiar with Reformed doctrine at all, you will understand that the truths discussed are not independent of one another but in fact build upon one another. For example, one cannot understand unconditional election without first understanding the totally depraved state in which unsaved humanity resides. The final piece, and I dare say the pinnacle and climax of Reformed thought, sits atop the house that the other four have built. What then is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and why is it important for us to understand?
Simply stated, the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints (“Perseverance” for short) teaches that all those whom God has justified will persevere until they reach heaven, that is, they will inevitably make it to heaven. Over-simply stated, it’s “once saved, always saved.”[i] There are some important elements to this doctrine that we need to discuss, however.
Firstly, to whom does this truth apply? As the name of the doctrine would suggest, it applies to saints. But who are saints? Saints are all of God’s elect, those to whom He has shown the light of His saving grace by effectually calling them unto faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, justifying by His free grace through the forgiveness of their sins, uniting them to Christ by faith, reconciling them to Himself, and adopting them as sons and daughters. Saints are those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith and hope in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If this is you, then this doctrine of Perseverance applies to you.
But who is responsible for our perseverance? One may think that persevering unto the end is dependent on the saint. After all, it’s called perseverance, right? It’s the individual who is responsible for persevering in other aspects, so it should be no different in this doctrine, right? In one sense, yes, Scripture commands us to live a life of repentance and faith, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Yet in reality, Scripture is clear that the ability for our faith to endure unto the end comes not from ourselves but from God Himself. Paul immediately says in Phil. 2:13, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Even here Paul claims that it is God’s work that brings the culmination of our Salvation. There are a plethora of other Scriptures that make this point clear as well. “And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” Here in Romans 8, Paul uses the proleptic aorist in “glorified” to indicate that our glorification is a done deal. Final glory is guaranteed for those whom God has already elected, called, and justified. “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.” In Philippians 1:6, Paul offers a word of encouragement to the embattled Philippian believers by reminding that when God begins a work in someone, He WILL bring it to completion. He will always finish what He starts. Although not officially the title of the doctrine, I often refer to it as “Preservation of the saints,” as it reminds me that my lasting until the end is God actually preserving me unto the end.
How does God preserve His saints? “In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory.” Here in Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul culminates his discussion on God’s sovereign and electing grace by stating how it is that God preserves His saints: He gives us the Holy Spirit as a seal and guarantee. Ultimately this is how human responsibility to work and God’s sovereign grace to preserve go hand-in-hand: the Spirit is within us, engendering faith and empowering the believer unto good works, not to justify, but as a necessary fruit of that justification. The Holy Spirit is the one who keeps the believer, ever uniting him or her to their Savior. And once united to Christ, there is nothing that can snatch them away. Of course, the Holy Spirit uses means to draw us into deeper communion with Jesus Christ, what are called the Means of Grace – Gospel preaching, the sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, etc. The continual intercession of Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, also brings preserving grace, as we have a true and faithful high priest who ever lives and intercedes on our behalf.[ii]
Pastoral implication. The doctrine of Perseverance carries both an encouragement and an exhortation. First, the truth that there is nothing that could ever snatch us out of both the Father’s and the Son’s hand (John 10:28-29) is immensely encouraging to those who struggle with temptation and guilt over sin. Paul’s definitive statement in Romans 8, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is a soothing balm to the broken and weary soul. Christ promises that a bruised reed He will not break and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out (Isa. 42:3). The beleaguered Christian can rest assured that even in the darkest valleys of life, Christ is walking right beside, upholding and steadying us by His gracious and mighty power and love. Even in the moment of death, there must only be peace for the Christian, as closing one’s eyes in death only to have them opened again in heaven is as sure as the sun will rise day after day. For those who have thrown themselves upon a merciful Christ, He will never let them go.
There is also an exhortation that comes with this doctrine, however. For those that find themselves wandering away from the faith or from the church, this doctrine brings with it a stern warning. If my affection toward Christ is waning, I must reevaluate whether I ever did truly trust Christ for my salvation, whether I have truly repented of my sin and rebellion against God. Though it is ultimately God who works in us, we are still responsible to obey and partake of those means of grace that God has given us. If we hesitate to partake, we must ask ourselves whether we have ever been united to Christ in the first place.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.
[i] Due to limited space, I do not have time to engage with the alternate views, namely, that one can lose his/her salvation. I’ll suffice it to say that the Scriptures I will present necessarily contradict this Arminian understanding of salvation. Thus, Reformed theologians have spent many hours in understanding that the faith which justifies must have a certain quality about it, namely, one that works and endures. Simple belief that Jesus was a guy who lived and died and even is the Son of God is not saving faith…after all, the demons believe this and shudder yet are not redeemed. Proper saving faith is a casting of oneself onto the mercies of God in sending Christ to atone for our sin, something which we could never do.
[ii] For a thorough explanation of this truth, read Christ Set Forth by Thomas Goodwin.