WCF chapter 17: Of the Perseverance of the Saints | John 10:22–30

  1. Many people suppose that “true believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.”[i] This opinion seems to be supported by Scriptural warnings against falling away, and examples in the Bible and in our own experience of people who negate earlier professions of faith.
  2. But a right understanding of Scripture and experience suggests a different view. God’s beloved children can backslide. But those who finally fall away prove that they were not truly of the people of God (1 John 2:19). God’s children “can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
  1. The Truth of Perseverance
    1. Perseverance is a vital part of the ordo salutis: Whom God predestines, he also calls, justifies, and glorifies (Rom. 8:30). If God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” including perseverance (32). Those who are born again have “an inheritance that is imperishable, kept in heaven for them. God guards them “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4, 5). The outcome of genuine faith is actual salvation (9).
    2. If God accepts a person in Christ, that person cannot be cast away. Paul expressed confidence about the saints at Philippi: “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” (Phil. 1:6). Those who are genuine partakers of grace God will surely make pure and blameless at the day of Christ (7, 10). This was Jesus’s conviction. Our Lord gives his sheep “eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of [his] hand” (John 10:27, 28).
    3. Those who will persevere are saints truly in a state of grace who actually love the Lord and diligently walk in his ways. “For good reason, we speak of the perseverance of the saints, not the perseverance of all who profess faith.”[ii] God never promises that those who make a bare confession of faith in Christ will persevere to the end. In fact, “Among those who hate Christ the most, some once professed to trust him. His claims are so exclusive, and his demands so pervasive that, in the end, you must either give yourself to him completely or give him up altogether. There is no middle ground.”[iii]
    4. But the truth of the perseverance of the saints, of those indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is firmly fixed in Scripture.
  2. The Reasons for Perseverance
    1. Believers must persevere. But perseverance doesn’t depend on human free will. Our wills waver. Our choices violate our wills. The occasions for apostasy are many, our enemies are strong, and “We are so weak that we cannot stand on our own for a moment.”[iv] Our perseverance depends fully on God.
      1. God’s decree of election is fixed. “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (2 Tim. 2:19). God’s saving choice cannot be revoked. So we persevere: “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19).
      2. The Father’s love is free and unchangeable. To those who come to God for rest and find grace in him he says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:3).
      3. Christ’s righteousness and intercession actually produce salvation. Jesus prayed that Peter would persevere through his terrible failure. And he did (Luke 22:32). To Judas, who was a devil and “the son of destruction,” Jesus simply said of his betrayal, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 6:70; 13:27). Jesus’ intercession cannot fail (John 17:20–26).
      4. The Spirit abides with believers. The “power of the Spirit is so effectual, that it necessarily retains us in continual obedience to righteousness.” We have momentary lapses. But “the Spirit continues his grace in us to the last, so that inflexible perseverance is added to newness of life.”[v]
      5. The covenant of grace guarantees the salvation of God’s children. If our perseverance depended on a covenant of works requiring “perfect and personal obedience” we would be lost (7.2). But in the covenant of grace Christ has bequeathed to us everything demanded by God (7.4).
    2. Obviously God reveals his commitment to preserve us unto eternal life to comfort us, not to excuse our laziness. In fact, to keep us diligent Scripture speaks stern warnings against failing to persevere.
  3. The Warning Connected to Perseverance
    1. While Scripture attributes to God the credit for preserving the saints, we have many good reasons to diligently persevere.
    2. Backsliding—falling into and remain for a time in grievous sins—is a real possibility for God’s children. We can grow lazy in our walk with the Lord. Satan never grows weary in “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The world is relentless in presenting opportunities to veer off the course of righteousness. And we have a war within us. Wars require perseverance. As soon as we neglect the means of grace—the preaching of God’s word and the celebration of the sacraments—our spiritual health begins to decline.
    3. And backsliding is terrible. Sinning believers induce God’s displeasure and grieve his Spirit. This means nothing to an unbeliever. But God’s children will avoid their Father’s disapproval at all costs. Careless saints also hurt and scandalize others. Sin always inflicts collateral damage. Like the wicked kings of Scripture we too can make “Israel to sin” (see e.g. 1 Kings 14:16). And backsliders harm themselves. Sinners lose a measure of comfort, harden their hearts, wound their consciences, and incur temporal judgment. God’s gracious preservation does not cancel sin’s natural consequences.
    4. You must persevere. To be sure that you will never fall “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). But the way saints persevere is not in their own strength. We fall and we fail. But we keep coming back to the cross. This is the believer’s motto: “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress; ‘midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed, with joy I shall lift up my head.”[vi] Peters says that in this way—in the way of perseverance—there will be richly provided for you an entrance the eternal life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (11).

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] “The Opinions of the Remonstrants” in P.Y. De Jong, ed., Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618–1619 228 (Grand Rapids: RFI, 1968), 228.

[ii] Sproul, Truths We Confess, 378.

[iv] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 127.

[v] Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 213, 214.

[vi] Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 457.


William Boekestein