The Ordo Salutis: Perseverance
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints means if a person is truly saved he cannot lose his salvation. Roman Catholicism and some strands of Protestant theology, such as traditional Arminianism, Methodism, and Pentecostalism reject this final point of Calvinism. They instead hold that a truly saved person can fall away from the faith and actually lose his salvation. But it gets more complicated than that. Often the rejection of perseverance runs hand in hand with a legitimate concern over an antinomian gospel of salvation apart from any good works. Accordingly, some of those rejecting perseverance see this point of Calvinism advocating a “once saved always saved” position, allowing a person to go to heaven after “living like the devil.” But here their concern truly does miss the point! Perseverance of the saints does not teach that a person can live like the devil and still be saved; it does not say “salvation” perseveres no matter what. It teaches that the “saint” perseveres. The word “saint” means holy one. Believers in Christ are called saints because at conversion they receive new natures that are by faith united to Jesus, the Holy One. A truly converted person has a new nature from God that believes in Christ, and loves and pursues holiness. Though that person’s old nature still loves sin and sins, his new nature loves God’s law and obeys, and he will persevere in that love until his desire for holiness is fulfilled in heaven. Therefore, the true believer, the truly saved person will not, cannot “live like the devil” precisely because he will persevere in real faith, repentance, and good works. He perseveres not as a devil but as a saint.
So when a professing Christian falls away from Christ, we can be certain one of two things is occurring. Either the person’s faith was a lie and he was never truly converted to Christ (like Judas who was always “a devil,” Joh. 6:70), or else he is a backsliding Christian, who for a time lives according to the old nature, but will eventually repent and return. Such was the case when David—already a man after God’s own heart—gave in to his sinful lusts and committed adultery and then murder, living in denial of his sins until convicted by the prophet some time after the child was born. Or when Peter denied Christ three times. That night at least Peter renounced his faith, claiming to be an unbeliever and acting like an unbeliever, cursing and swearing (Mar. 14:71). But he returned to profess Christ again precisely because he really was a true saint. Thus, Jesus promised him he would persevere: “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luk. 22:32). Such is always the case with those who have real faith. It will not fail because of Jesus’ strength, not because of our own.
Accordingly, when professing believers renounce the faith, we know they did not fall away from salvation, but are simply showing their true colors: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 Joh. 2:19). Clearly, this passage asserts that those who are true Christians will always continue until the end, and those who fall away were never true Christians. True Christians must persevere because what keeps them true to God is not the strength of their own faith, their own wills, or their own hearts, but they are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation,” (1 Pet. 1:5). We might be fooled by false believers but Jesus never is. On Judgment Day many professing Christians claiming all sorts of powerful acts of service will be shown to have never really known Jesus (Mat. 7:21-23). Not to one of them will Jesus say, “I knew you for a while, for a time, for a season, then you fell away.” No, to all who are sent from Him He will say “I never knew you.” And so whether or not they remained in the pale of the visible church, they were never truly saved.
However, if once you are converted to Christ, so that you really trust in Him as your Lord and Savior, you will never fall away from that real faith. It will persevere to the end. Though often shaken, assaulted, tested, and pressed, you will continue to believe. And therefore, you will continue to repent and to strive after ever-increasing obedience. You will do this precisely because God will not allow your old unbelief to prevail over your new faith. He began the good work of salvation in you. He will be faithful to complete it (Phi. 1:6).
Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).