Perseverance of the Saints: What Thomas Watson Has to Say
Our extraordinary God loves the ordinary. And it seems that in his extraordinary salvation of sinners he loves to use ordinary means. This is true even in the extraordinarily gracious preservation of his children; ordinary means mark the road all the way home to our final rest in Christ. Indeed, the entire New Testament lays before us this beautiful balance between God’s sovereign grace in keeping and preserving his own and the Christian’s responsibility to persevere and work out his own salvation in fear and trembling.
Have you ever read that great book on practical godliness by the Puritan pastor Thomas Watson entitled A Godly Man’s Picture? It is one of those books that rewards the reader with unfading treasures. I read through it often, a very ordinary activity to be sure, but I do so with the awareness that it is one of those ordinary means which God is using to extraordinarily keep me and preserve me. In fact, at the end of the book, Thomas Watson actually seeks to encourage his readers to persevere through different ordinary means of godliness - activities which ultimately show and evidence God’s preserving grace.
His advice isn’t focused on those ordinary means of grace that we tend to focus on - things like prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, the Sacraments, and hearing the word preached. No, Watson is here focused on what we might call activities of the heart; watching over the proclivities and tendencies of our own hearts to fall away. I want to relay some of his advice to you here.
He begins actually with a great biblical exhortation for Christians to persevere in godliness, quoting from Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Watson explains that this is a “seasonable exhortation in these times when the devil’s agents are abroad, whose work is to unsettle people and make them fall away...” How true that is for us today!
After giving two large warnings to watch against, 1) wavering in our religion and confession and 2) falling away from a godliness that we once seemed to have, he then goes on to give us a number of responsibilities, these activities of the heart, that we ought to pursue in persevering in our faith.
First, Christians ought to strive after a real work of grace in our souls. What exactly is a real work of grace? Well, it is both a “heart-humbling work” as well as a “heart-changing work.” At the very least, I take this to mean that we ought as Christians to be praying for God’s heart-humbling grace as well as for his heart-changing grace. And every other pursuit of God’s ordinary means of grace will flow out of this first principle. Indeed, as Watson quotes from Hebrews 13:9, “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace.”
Secondly, Watson encourages us to be deliberate and judicious in our Christian walk. “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost?” (Luke 14:28). For Watson, this means that we need to think seriously about what the true, persevering Christian life entails; that we should have an honest expectation for what God calls us to. And this is especially true today where far to many seem to become Christians on the false promises of an easier, better life. It is hard to persevere in faith when we haven’t considered the words of Christ that “because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Watson concludes by pointedly asking “Why are people so hasty in abandoning religion if not because they were so hasty in taking it up?”
Thirdly, persevering Christians ought to “know the love of the Father, the merit of the Son, and the efficacy of the Holy Ghost. Those who do not know God aright will by degrees renounce their profession.” Oh how I pray for our American evangelical church to take seriously these words of exhortation! Indeed if our faith is grounded upon our knowledge of who God is and what he has done, and our continued faithfulness is sustained by our growing knowledge of God, then ignorance of who God is can only prove a weakness, if not an absolute absence, of persevering faith. Watson makes the point clear that “blind men are apt to fall, and so are they who are blinded in their minds.”
Fourthly, and this says Watson is “the golden pillar that will support you”, we are to strive for integrity. He quotes Psalm 78:37, which reminds us that “Their heart was not steadfast toward him therefore they were not faithful to his covenant.” Integrity of heart will keep us from becoming a Judas. It’s integrity which the hypocrites lack and therefore says Watson, “if we wish to have our profession hold its colour, it must be fixed in the oil of sincerity.”
Fifthly, the persevering Christian is to “exercise great self-denial.” Here is a call that we in our Western culture of prosperity and comfort ought to take seriously. Watson reminds us that “self is the great snare; self-love undermines the power of godliness... The man who cannot get beyond himself will never get to heaven.” Indeed, does not Christ call us to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Sixthly, those who are being preserved will “persevere in a holy jealousy over their hearts.” What does he mean? Watson gives an example. “The man who has gunpowder in his house fears lest it should catch fire. Sin in the heart is like gunpowder; it may make us fear lest a spark of temptation should fall on us and blow us up.” And here he points out that we ought to fear and be watchful over the deceitfulness of our own hearts (see Jeremiah 17:9) as well as the lusts of our own hearts (see Romans 7:13-25). This is exactly why the author of Hebrews commands us that “while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it” (Hebrews 4:1).
Seventhly, the godly man will strive for assurance. “The man who is sure that God is his God is like a castle built on a rock - all the powers of hell cannot shake him.” It is this principle from which the apostle Peter commands us to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10).
And lastly, Thomas Watson calls us to “lay hold of God’s strength. God is called the Strength of Israel (1 Sam. 15:29). It is in his strength that we stand, more than our own. The child is safest in the nurse’s hands. It is not our holding God, but his holding us that that preserves us.” Here Thomas Watson rightly encourages us in the truth that our ultimate perseverance is due to God’s preservation. All our efforts in using God’s ordinary means of grace are only but the outworking of his sovereign extraordinary grace.
As we have sought to unpack the P in T.U.L.I.P. here at Place for Truth, delighting in the truth of the perseverance of the Saints, let us be encouraged as God’s saints to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” for indeed, “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace.”
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 All quotations come from The Banner of Truth’s “Puritan Paperback” edition, reprinted in 2013; Thomas Watson,The Godly Man’s Picture, pages 209-215.