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Perseverance of the saints

Perseverance of the saints is a controversial Christian teaching that none who are truly saved can be condemned for their sins or finally fall away from the faith. The doctrine appears in two different forms: (1) the traditional Calvinist doctrine found in the Reformed Christian confessions of faith, and (2) the Free Grace or non-traditional Calvinist doctrine found in some Baptist and other evangelical churches. In a sense, both can describe Christian believers as "once saved, always saved", but the two forms attach a different meaning to the word saved — namely, whether or not it necessarily involves sanctification, the process of becoming holy by rejecting sin and obeying God's commands. Because of this difference, traditional Calvinist Christians tend to prefer the historical term "perseverance of the saints", which is one of the five points of Calvinism, and advocates of the Free Grace doctrine usually prefer the less technical terms "eternal security", "unconditional assurance", and "once saved, always saved" to characterize their teaching.

The two views are similar and sometimes confused, and though they reach the same end (namely, eternal security in salvation), they reach it by different paths. Free Grace advocates seek to moderate the perceived harshness of Calvinism as it is found in the Reformed confessions and to emphasize that salvation is not conditioned on performing good works. Traditional Calvinists maintain that the Free Grace doctrine ignores certain key Bible passages and would be rejected by Calvin and the Reformed churches, which have both firmly advocated the necessity of good works and with which Free Grace has sought to align itself historically to some degree. Other Christians such as Catholics, and Orthodox reject both versions of the doctrine.

Reformed doctrine

The Reformed tradition has consistently seen the doctrine of perseverance as a natural consequence to its general scheme of predestination in which God has chosen some men and women unto salvation and has cleared them of their guilty status by atoning for their sins through Jesus's sacrifice. According to these Calvinists, God has irresistibly drawn the elect to put their faith in himself for salvation by regenerating their hearts and convincing them of their need. Therefore, they continue, since God has made satisfaction for the sins of the elect, they can no longer be condemned for them, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, they must necessarily persevere as Christians and in the end be saved.

Calvinists also believe that all who are born again and justified before God necessarily and inexorably proceed to sanctification. Indeed, failure to proceed to sanctification in their view is evidence that the person in question was not truly saved to begin with (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 788). Proponents of this doctrine distinguish between an action and the consequences of an action, and suggest that after God has regenerated someone, the person's will cannot reverse its course. It is argued that God has changed that person in ways that are outside of his or her own ability to alter fundamentally, and he or she will therefore persevere in the faith.

Theologian Charles Hodge summarizes the thrust of the Calvinist doctrine (Systematic Theology, 3.16.8):

Perseverance...is due to the purpose of God [in saving men and thereby bringing glory to his name], to the work of Christ [in cancelling men's debt and earning their righteousness ], to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit [in sealing men in salvation and leading them in God's ways], and to the primal source of all, the infinite, mysterious, and immutable love of God.

On a practical level, Calvinists do not claim to know who is elect and who is not, and the only guide they have are the verbal testimony and good works (or "fruit") of each individual. Any who "fall away" (that is, do not persevere unto death) must not have been truly converted to begin with, though Calvinists don't claim to know with certainty who did and who did not persevere.

Free Grace doctrine

The Free Grace or non-traditional Calvinist doctrine has been espoused by Charles Stanley, Norman Geisler, Zane C. Hodges, Bill Bright, and others. This view, like the traditional Calvinist view, emphasizes that people are saved purely by an act of divine grace that does not depend at all on the deeds of the individual, and for that reason, advocates insist that nothing the person can do can affect his or her salvation. The Free Grace doctrine views the person's character and life after receiving the gift of salvation as independent from the gift itself, which is the main point of differentiation from the traditional view, or, in other words, it asserts that justification (that is, being declared righteous before God on account of Christ) does not necessarily result in sanctification (that is, a progressively more righteous life).

The doctrine sees the work of salvation as wholly monergistic, which is to say that God alone performs it and man has no part in the process beyond receiving it, and therefore, proponents argue that man cannot undo what they believe God has done. By comparison, in traditional Calvinism, people, who are otherwise unable to follow God, are enabled by regeneration to cooperate with him, and so the Reformed tradition sees itself as mediating between the total monergism of the non-traditional view and the synergism of the Wesleyan, Arminian, and Roman Catholic views in which even unregenerate man can choose to cooperate with God in salvation.

The traditional doctrine teaches that a person is secure in salvation because he or she was predestined by God, whereas in the non-traditional view, a person is secure because he or she has believed the Gospel message (Dave Hunt, What Love is This, p. 481).

Evangelical criticism

Proponents of the Free Grace view sometimes label themselves as moderate Calvinists, by which they usually mean they drop at least one of the five points of Calvinism (most often, the third and most controversial point of limited atonement) and make some other modifications to the Calvinistic system. In this context, the modification they advocate is that a person's status before God does not necessarily influence his or her life, a belief which is sometimes referred to as carnal Christianity.

Traditional Calvinism has uniformly asserted that "no man is a Christian who does not feel some special love for righteousness" (Institutes 3.6) and has rejected carnal Christianity as a form of antinomianism. Thus, these Calvinists claim that moderates deviate too widely from Calvin's own theology and the accepted Reformed tradition to rightly be called "Calvinists." Arminianism has rejected the Free Grace view for the opposite reason: namely, that the view denies the classical Arminian doctrine that true Christians can lose their salvation by denouncing their faith (see conditional preservation of the saints).

History of the doctrine

The traditional doctrine is one of the five points of Calvinism that were defined at the Synod of Dordrecht during the Quinquarticular Controversy with the Arminian Remonstrants, who objected to the general predestinarian scheme of Calvinism. Wesleyanism agrees with Arminianism that true Christians can fall away, but they disagree over whether or not such fallen Christians can return again to salvation (Wesleyans believe they can, and Arminians deny that they can).

The traditional doctrine of perseverance is articulated in the Canons of Dort (chapter 5), the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XVII), the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Chapter 17), and may also be found in other Reformed Confessions. Nonetheless, the doctrine is most often mentioned in connection with other salvific schemes and is not a major locus of Reformed systematic theology (for instance, it does not even get a subheading in the three volume Systematic Theology by Hodge). It is, however, seen by many as the necessary consequence of Calvinism and of trusting in the promises of God.

Traditional Calvinism voiced its opposition to carnal Christianity and the non-traditional doctrine in the recent controversy over Lordship salvation.

Biblical evidence for the doctrine

In addition to fitting neatly in the over-arching Calvinist soteriology, Reformed and Free Grace advocates alike find specific support for the doctrine in various passages from the Bible (all quotations are from the English Standard Version):

  • John 6:37-40: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
  • John 10:28-29: "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."
  • Romans 5:9-10: "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."
  • Romans 8:1: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Some later manuscripts append "[and] who walk not according to the flesh (but according to the Spirit)")
  • Romans 8:31-39: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who 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? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
  • Romans 11:29: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4-9: "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
  • Ephesians 4:30: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption."
  • Philippians 1:6: "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."
  • Hebrews 7:25: "Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them."
  • 1 Peter 1:5: "[The elect] by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."
  • Jude 1:24: "Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy...."

Difficult passages

Some Calvinists admit that their interpretation is not without difficulties. One apparent consequence is that not all who "have shared in the Holy Spirit" (Acts 10:44-48) are necessarily regenerate. This is a consequence Calvinists are willing to accept since the Bible also says that King Saul had the "Spirit of God" in some sense and even prophesied by it (1 Samuel 19:23-24; 11:6; etc.) but was not a follower of God. Calvin says, "God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate.... But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts" (Commentary on Hebrews 6:4).

Some challenge the Calvinist doctrine based on their interpretation of the admonishments in the book of Hebrews, including Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:6,12-14; 4:12-13; 12:25-29, but especially Hebrews 6:4-12 and 10:26-39 The former passage says of those "who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" that, when they "fall away," they cannot be "restored to repentance." The latter passage says that if one continues in sin, "no sacrifice for sins" remains for that person but "only a fearful expectation of judgment" (vv. 26b-27a). The author of Hebrews predicts grave punishment for one who has "has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace" (v. 29).

The debate over these passages centers around the identity of the persons in question, and while opponents of perseverance identify the persons as Christian believers, Calvinists suggest several other options:

  • These passages are not clear enough to describe a regenerate person (or "true Christian"), and thus they do not describe the situation of a true believer. Instead, the persons in question may well have been part of the church community and had the advantages concomitant with that membership (citing the benefits of being a member of the covenant community in the Old Testament mentioned in Romans 3:1-4; 9:4-5) without being truly "saved" — as with King Saul. In an effort to corroborate this interpretation, they also cite such passages as I John 2:19: "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."
  • These passages can refer to a regenerate person, but what is described is not a loss of salvation (because they believe other scriptural passages say that this is impossible), but instead a loss of eternal (or millennial) rewards.
  • The author is employing hyperbole to effect positive change in his audience's behavior, possibly referring to Christians leaving fellowship in 10:25
  • The passages refer to Jewish Christians who were reverting to Judaism.
  • The passages refer to the rejection of the covenant community as a whole, not individual believers (Verbrugge).

Some other passages put forth against the Calvinist doctrine include:

  • Romans 11:22: "Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off."
  • 1 Corinthians 9:25-27: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So...I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."
  • 2 Peter 2:20: "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first."
  • Colossians 1:21-23: "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death...if indeed you continue in the faith."
  • Revelation 3:2-5: "Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.... Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels."

In general, proponents of the doctrine of perseverance interpret such passages, which encourage the church community to persevere in the faith but seem to indicate that some members of the community might fall away, as hortatory rather than objective in character. That is, they view the prophets and apostles as writing "from the human perspective," in which the members of the elect are unknowable and all should "work out [their] own salvation" (Philippians 2:12) and "make [their] calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10), rather than "from the divine perspective," in which those who will persevere, according to Calvinism, are well known. The primary objection to this approach is that it might equally be said that these difficult passages bear the objective meaning while the passages urged to support this doctrine of perseverance are hortatory in a positive sense, revealing God's perpetual grace towards believers.

Objections to the doctrine

The primary objection lodged against the doctrine is that such teaching will lead to license. That is, objectors contend that if people know they can never lose their salvation they will feel free to sin without fear of eternal consequences.

Traditional Calvinists see this charge as being justly leveled against the Free Grace doctrine, which doesn't see sanctification as a necessary component of salvation, and in the controversy over Lordship salvation, traditional Calvinists argued against the proponents of the Free Grace doctrine. Traditional Calvinists, and many other non-Calvinist evangelicals, posit that a truly converted heart will necessarily follow after God and live in accordance with his precepts, though perfection is not achievable, struggles with sin will continue, and some temporary "backsliding" may occur.

Arminian view

The central tenet of the Arminian view is that believers are preserved from all external forces that might attempt to separate them from God, and further that God will not change His mind about their salvation, but that these same believers can themselves willingly repudiate their faith (either by a statement to that effect, or by continued sinful activity combined with an unwillingness to repent). Thus, their salvation is conditional on remaining faithful.

Traditional Calvinists do not dispute that salvation requires faithfulness, and the point of difference between these Calvinists and Arminians is over whether God allows true Christians to fall away. Free Grace advocates agree with traditional Calvinists that salvation cannot be lost but with the Arminians that true Christians can backslide or fall away. However, the Free Grace advocates and the Arminians do not define repudiation in the same way: the former sees backslidden believers as merely "carnal," hindering their sanctification process, whereas the latter sees them as having fallen from the saving grace they once possessed.

Roman Catholic view

Calvinists, in common with most other Protestant groups, rely on sola scriptura, a doctrine which sees the authority of tradition as derivative and secondary, rather than on par, with that of the Bible, whereas the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Bible rests on the teaching of the Magisterium. Thus, Catholics often argue against the doctrine of perseverance because it seems to originate outside the received tradition of the Church. During the Counter-Reformation, Jansenist Catholics put forth an alternate understanding of the accepted tradition and especially of St. Augustine's doctrines of original sin and predestination, but the Jansenist interpretation of the scriptures and tradition, which naturally results in a doctrine of perseverance similar to the Calvinist's, was ultimately rejected by the Church.

The twenty-second Canon of the Decree Concerning Justification of the Council of Trent (Sixth Session, 13 January 1547) has this to say regarding perseverance: "If anyone says that the one justified either can without the special help of God persevere in the justice received, or that with that help he cannot, let him be anathema." The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the doctrine as synergistic (rather than monergistic): "[T]he power of perseverance is neither in the human will alone nor in God's grace solely, but in the combination of both, i.e., Divine grace aiding human will, and human will co-operating with Divine grace."

The Catholic view differs from that of the Calvinists less than it may first appear, for Calvinists claim that they do not reduce man to a volitionless puppet and can thus agree that, after regeneration, divine grace aids human will and human will cooperates with that grace (compare Phil. 2:12b-13). The point of distinction is in whether God permits men to "fall away." Roman Catholics affirm that they can, and Calvinists, as described above, deny that they can if they are truly regenerate because, it is claimed, God keeps them from it.

Lutheran view

Like both Calvinist camps, confessional Lutherans view the work of salvation as monergistic in that "the natural [that is, corrupted and divinely unrenewed] powers of man cannot do anything or help towards salvation" (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, art. ii, par. 71), and Lutherans go further along the same lines as the Free Grace advocates to say that the recipient of saving grace need not cooperate with it. Hence, Lutherans believe that a true Christian (that is, a genuine recipient of saving grace) can lose his or her salvation, "[b]ut the cause is not as though God were unwilling to grant grace for perseverance to those in whom He has begun the good work... [but that these persons] wilfully turn away..." (Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration, art. xi, par. 42).

References

Traditional Calvinist view

  • Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday (2001). The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance. Inter-Varsity Press. (ISBN 0-8308-1555-4)
  • D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Romans 8:17-39: The Final Perseverance of the Saints. Banner of Truth Trust. ISBN 0-85151-231-3
  • A. W. Pink (2001). Eternal Security. Sovereign Grace Pub. ISBN 1-58960-195-5

Free Grace view

  • Charles Stanley (1990). Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure?. Nelson Books. ISBN 0-8407-9095-3
  • Robert N. Wilkin (2005). Secure and Sure: Grasping the Promises of God. Grace Evangelical Society. ISBN 0-9641392-7-8
  • Joseph C. Dillow (1992). The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man. Schoettle Publishing Co. ISBN 1-56453-095-7

Arminian view

  • Fidelis Nwaka. The Absurdity of Eternal Security Doctrine. ISBN 1-4134-0452-9
  • Daniel Corner. The Believer's Conditional Security: Eternal Security Refuted. ISBN 0-9639076-8-9
  • Daniel Corner. The Myth of Eternal Security. ISBN 0-9639076-6-2
  • Benny Prince. Once Saved, Always?: The False Doctrine Of Eternal Security. ISBN 1-4184-9855-6
  • Robert Shank. Life in the Son. ISBN 1556610912

Confessional Lutheran view

  • Theodore G. Tappert(editor). The Book of Concord. ISBN: 0-8006-0825-9

Multiple views

  • J. Matthew Pinson, ed. (2002). Four Views on Eternal Security. Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-23439-5

External links

Traditional Calvinist view

Non-traditional Calvinist view

Non-Calvinist Free Grace View

Arminian view

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