Perseverance of the Saints: Clearing Up Some Confusion
The doctrine is known by more than one name, which has created some serious problems because it has led to confusion about what the biblical teaching really is. Two other terms or expressions, "eternal security" and "once saved, always saved," are not the most accurate to use because of what can wrongly be concluded from them.
First, the doctrine of perseverance does not mean that no spiritual trials will come. Becoming a Christian does not mean that Satan will no longer try to influence one toward evil. In fact, the opposite is true. Spiritual battles will increase because Satan rages against anyone's conversion, since such conversions show that his kingdom cannot hold and is even now giving way to the kingdom of Christ. Thus, becoming a Christian does not make one's life easier, but more difficult.
Second, related to the first, the doctrine of perseverance does not mean that the Christian life is always an upward progression of holiness with no valleys of temptation and even decline. Satan is a powerful enemy and knows where we struggle. He wants to hit those sensitive points hard and often in order to discourage believers, to cause them to doubt their salvation, and to make them as spiritually ineffective as possible. When such trials and temptations come, the Christian's constant attitude needs to be one of repentance and the request for greater grace to withstand attack, combined with the longing to increasingly love and pursue those things that mark a child of God.
Third, the doctrine of perseverance does not mean that merely making a public profession automatically conveys or promises salvation, when a genuine desire for God and his Word are largely absent. It does not matter what kind of external interest was expressed in the past if one's internal affections have not been recreated by the Holy Spirit in regeneration, producing in one an attitude of discipleship.
There are numerous passages to which we could turn to see the doctrine of perseverance. Philippians 1:6 is one such passage, and its theme of perseverance is the reason it is one of the best known verses of the New Testament, which probably nearly every child is taught to memorize from an early age.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with thanksgiving because of what he calls their "partnership in the gospel from the first day until now" (v. 5). This partnership was established some ten years earlier, when Paul traveled to Philippi to preach the gospel. So he has a long history with this church and counts them as dear friends. And because it is the gospel that binds Paul and the believers in Philippi together, he can speak confidently of their true spiritual condition and hope in v. 6: "And 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."
Though Paul does not elaborate on what this "good work" is which God will complete, we nevertheless know what he is referring to. For example, in Romans 8:29 Paul writes that the purpose of God's foreknowledge and predestination is to conform Christians to the image of his Son. The aim of salvation is to make us like Jesus. And while this will not happen fully in this life, but will take place at Christ's return, yet still there is an element of process about it. It is a change that God continues to work even while we make our way through life as sinners who are longing to be renewed. Until that day comes, we are to live as those who are both experiencing and awaiting this transformation. How we think and act now should be a consistent reflection of what we will one day be.
Notice that this is not merely something that Paul hopes will come, or even strongly suspects is on its way. He declares that he is sure of this. Why does he say that? How can he be so confident of the eternal good of these Philippian Christians in particular, and of God's people in every age in general? It is because Paul knows that God always finishes what he begins. Salvation is the work of God from beginning to end, and that is why the end can be counted on.
And thank God that it is! For if our salvation rested upon our spiritual consistency from day to day, there would be no hope and assurance for anyone. Not only do we fail to do the things we should, but there are times when we are not even all that interested in trying. So not only does our performance not measure up, but even as genuinely converted people our motivations, affections, and inclinations are sometimes elsewhere, rather than on what pleases God.
What gives Paul the confidence to believe that God will not alter his plans? Why should God tolerate such sin in his people and still preserve them eternally? Why does he put up with our failing and disobedience and not cast us out of his kingdom? Because all those who have been redeemed by the death of Christ are loved by God even as he loves his own Son.
This relationship is illustrated by Jesus in John 10; indeed, it is this perfect union of God the Father and God the Son that creates it. Jesus likens those who belong to him as sheep, since Christians are to be as obedient and submissive to Jesus as sheep are to a shepherd. Jesus declares: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will 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" (vv. 27-30).
The Father's sovereign plan is to save all those whom he gives to Jesus to redeem. And because he is "greater than all" not a single one of his children will be lost. No one, in heaven, in earth, nor even in hell itself, will be able to steal a Christian away from his secure position in Christ. Once God gives eternal life to an individual, such a one will never perish. As we said earlier, this does not mean that the Christian life will be easy. But it does mean that Jesus, by his Spirit, is with us to the very end. Each one for whom Christ died will persevere in holiness—sometimes through indescribable suffering—to their promised eternal reward because God himself vows to preserve them. As Charles Wesley described it in "Arise, My Soul, Arise":
My God is reconciled; his pard'ning voice I hear;
he owns me for his child, I can no longer fear;
with confidence I now draw nigh,
with confidence I now draw nigh,
and "Father, Abba, Father!" cry.
Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of ThinkandActBiblically.org. He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.