Perseverance and Preservation
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. John 10:27-29
What has become clearer to me as I’ve preached this short series on TULIP is that the Reformed or Calvinist way of looking at salvation through Jesus Christ (though I would argue that the better term is the Biblical way of looking at things) is that it gives hope in a way its alternatives cannot. For the heart of the matter is this: either God is the ultimately decisive Actor in our salvation, or we are. Either God’s will is ultimately decisive or human will is decisive. Note that I am not saying the human will is not active in salvation. It is. The question is not which will (God’s or ours) is active, but which is decisive. Either God saves us, or we save ourselves. The doctrines of grace as they are expressed in TULIP say that God actually and decisively saves us; Arminianism says that God provided salvation but didn’t guarantee the salvation of anyone, so that at the end of the day it is man that saves himself.
But if I am the decisive link in the chain, then it is a weak chain indeed. How can I have hope? My will is fragile and my faith feeble. It would mean that I cannot have assurance of salvation – in fact, it is no wonder that many of those who do not believe in the doctrines of grace also do not believe you can have assurance because they really believe you can lose your salvation. The possibility of rejoicing that our names are written in heaven is lost, gone forever. The possibility of glorying in God’s unchanging love is no longer there.
Of course there are those who deny TULI and then affirm P, and I am glad they at least do that, but they are not being honest with themselves or with the Bible. On what basis can you say that it’s finally up to you to save yourself because free will is so important, and then say that it’s not up to free will to keep yourself saved?
The only path to real, expectant hope for future salvation lies in the reality that at the end of the day it is God, not man, that guarantees the salvation of any individual. And this is what is at the heart of these doctrines that we’ve been examining together. J. I. Packer, in his introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, puts it exactly right when he says:
For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners. God—the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners— and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the “five points” are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen.1
Today we will be looking at the last letter in TULIP, the P: Perseverance or Preservation of the saints. This doctrine is directly related to our hope of future salvation that we have in Christ. Do the saints persevere? Can they be lost? Can they lose their salvation? Well, I hope to demonstrate this morning that the answer of the Bible is that they cannot. But what we will also demonstrate is that this hope is not a hope that leads to carelessness about holiness. In fact, this is what the perseverance side of the equation emphasizes. It is both preservation by God to eternal life and it is perseverance in the faith to the end. So What I want to do is to look at both of these aspects with you, and then to look at the practical implications of them for our lives. Let’s start with perseverance and then look at preservation.
What do we mean by perseverance? We simply mean that the elect who are called by God to faith in Christ will never finally fall away from the faith. It means that those who have come to follow Christ will continue to follow him. It means that their lives are marked by a life lived for Jesus.
Now it is also important to understand what this does not mean. I fear that sometime people say they don’t believe this, but then when explain why, they proceed to knock down a straw man. So please hear me out when I say that we are not saying that perseverance means sinless perfection. We are not saying that the believer won’t sin or can’t sin. We aren’t even saying that they can’t sin grievously and harmfully. We are not saying that a true believer cannot for a time wander away from the faith or question their faith. What we are saying is that if they are really born again, God will never allow them to totally stop trusting in Christ or hoping in him. He will call them to repentance and bring back to himself again. We are saying that when at the end of the day you look at the totality of their life, it is a life of faith in Christ and growth in godliness.
This is what the Bible says; we’ve seen that. We recently went through Hebrews and saw that basically one of the fundamental arguments of that letter was that the saints must persevere if they are to be saved. Here are some examples from that book: “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end” (Heb. 3:14). “Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:38-39).
But how does this happen? What we will see is that the ultimate explanation is God’s preservation. We will look at that in a moment. But there is also a role that we play. We work out our own salvation because it is God who works in us to will and to work of his good pleasure. But we still must work! In other words, the Bible does not assume that perseverance is something that just automatically happens to us. There is something we must do. What is it that encourages and supports a life of faithfulness in the Christian?
Though the word perseverance doesn’t occur much in the KJV (cf. Eph. 6:18), the word patience does, and it amounts to the same thing. However, we shouldn’t think of patience as a passive sort of waiting; in the NT it denotes an active endurance, often through trials. When we look at this word, we see how we are to endure, how we are to persevere.
First, we do so by looking to Jesus: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). We look to him, not only as our example (3, ff) but also as the source of all our spiritual blessings. Without him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but with him we can do all that God has commanded us (Phil. 4:13). It is by his grace based on his redemption for us that we are enabled and given the strength to persevere. Indeed, as the Lord himself said to Paul the apostle, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Second, we persevere through hope in the promises of God. Paul writes, “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24-25). We wait with patience, or with endurance, when we hope for what we do not see. But how can I hope in what I do not see? The only thing that can ground this kind of hope is the promise of God. I think this is why Paul would also write, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (15:4). Note how patience and comfort of the Scripture go together to give and support hope. The comfort we get from Scripture is the comfort from the promises of God. We need to know what God has promised us. One of the reasons we get discouraged and want to give up is that we look at what the world promises and forget what God has promised. Let us not be like Demas who walked away from Paul and away from the faith because he loved this present world. But let us be like Moses, who “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward” (Heb. 11:24- 26).
One other thing I would recommend to you are what are called the means of grace. What I mean by that is not only the Scriptures, which we have just mentioned, but also prayer, the preaching of the word, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (which we as Baptists don’t emphasize as often as we ought), and the fellowship of the saints. Paul writes to Timothy, “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). I think you have all these things implied in that phrase “with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” Prayer, preaching, the sacraments, fellowship and discipleship: these are the things that encourage us to keep on keeping on. God has given them to us for our good and his glory; let us use them accordingly.
But thank God, though there is a part for us to play, the bedrock of our hope and confidence is not in ourselves but in God and his grace to us through Christ, ministered through the Holy Spirit. This is the promise in John 10. Christ promises that “I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.” Now I know that some people argue that you can pluck yourself out of God’s hand. But that seems to me to undermine the very thing our Lord was seeking to establish. If we can pluck ourselves out of the Father’s hand, then we can perish, which is the very thing our Lord says will not happen.
This is also the point of the apostle Paul in Romans 8. In fact, you could say that the entire chapter is about the preservation of God’s people in his love (see esp. verses 29-30). But this is certainly the way the apostle ends: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (38-39). Surely “any other creature” includes ourselves. This is about as comprehensive as you can get. All the people of God will be saved. All whom God has chosen will be glorified. Not one will be lost.
God preserves his people – he preserves them in faith. He preserves them through the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. The final reason why we persevere is because God is at work in us. The apostle Jude wrote, “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (24). If God is able to keep his people from falling, don’t you think he will do it? He will: “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Perseverance and Preservation
There has sometimes been a debate over which term to use. Which better describes how God’s people are kept secure for final salvation? I’ve heard some say that it’s just the preservation of the saints and that to insist on perseverance is to put man in the equation in a way that is not Biblical. I find it interesting therefore that when the Synod of Dort first dealt with these issues systematically, they used both terms. For example, in Article 9 of the Fifth Head of Doctrine, they write, “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life” (italics added).2
This is Biblical. The Bible insists that the saints will persevere to the end. You see that implied in John 10. Who are Christ’s sheep? They are those who follow him. Not those who used to follow. Not those who once followed but fell away. No, in fact, it could be translated: “those who go one following him.” And this is what the Bible as a whole says. Who gets saved? Those who endure to the end: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Mt. 24:13).
Listen to the way the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister” (Col. 1:21-23). The apostle says that continuing in the faith is the necessary evidence that one has been reconciled to God. Those who fall away were never saved.
The apostle John explicitly says this. He writes, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:18-19).
But we are not to take from this the idea that our final salvation depends ultimately and decisively upon our faithfulness. The reason why the saints persevere is because God preserves them in the faith. In other words, you can’t have perseverance of the saints without preservation by the Savior. God preserves us so that we persevere.
Where do we get this? Well, it is all over Scripture. For example, the apostle Peter writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5). We are kept or guarded by the power of God to salvation. The idea here is that you cannot lose it. If you could lose it, you wouldn’t be kept for final salvation! Yes, it is through faith, and yes, this is our faith, but the point is that the reason our faith doesn’t crack or break is not because of the strength of our will but the power of God.
I think the classic Biblical example of this is our Lord’s prayer for Peter: “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32). And we see that is exactly what happened. He was converted, he did come back, and he did strengthen his brothers. What is to explain that? Our Lord’s preservation of Peter is what explains that!
I love the illustration of this in Pilgrim’s Progress, where you have the devil pouring water on the fire, and yet it grew bigger and brighter. And the reason for it was that on the other side, the Lord was pouring in oil! The devil will do what he can to quench our faith. But the devil isn’t the only one in the equation. The coals of our heart are not the only thing in the equation. God is at work in us and for us determining that the righteous will hold on his way. Don’t we sing it?
There are at least two great and wonderful implications stemming from the fact that God preserves his saints so that they will persevere. One has to do with hope, and one with holiness.
Implications for Hope - Assurance of Salvation
If it is true that God will keep his people in the faith and that they will be finally saved, then it is also true that you can know you are saved. Assurance of salvation is a possibility. Those who deny that the saints will always persevere can of course have no assurance. And actually, many of them think this is good. One of the complaints you will sometimes hear from those who deny this is that if you believe in the security of the believer, you will have no reason to pursue holiness. They argue that the only motivation for holiness comes from the insecurity of final salvation.
However, not only does the Bible teach that God will preserve us, but it also teaches that you can know that you are saved. We have examples of this in the Bible. The apostle, for example, said of himself, “I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). This is the simple expression of assurance of salvation.
He not only knew this of himself but of others as well. For example, he writes to the Philippian Christians, “And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3). Our Lord told his disciples, “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20).
Now some would argue that the only way one can know they are finally saved is through special revelation (which we do not teach), and that the examples I’ve cited above are just instances where people received such assurance through special revelation. However, this is not the case. We know that because the Bible encourages us to hope, and the hope to which we are called in the Bible is not some kind of weak, flimsy “I hope I get there” kind of wish, but rather a confident expectation of the future enjoyment of glory. It is not surprising, therefore that the apostle Peter tells us to “give diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10).
However, we do have to be careful here. Assurance is not automatic, and we need to recognize that there are those who have false assurance. This is why Peter tells us to make our calling and election sure. Make sure, he is saying, that your assurance of salvation is real and genuine, and not just something you are giving yourself.
So the question is, how do we obtain assurance of salvation? I would say there are three legs the stool of assurance rests on.
First of all, there is the leg of the promises of Scripture. The apostle tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), and we are to take God at his word. If we are in Christ Jesus by faith in him, then we are not condemned. There is the promise of Rom 10:13, that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Do you believe that is true? Have you called upon his name? Is it not right to take God at his word? That is the first ground of assurance. You take God at his word.
The second leg is the character of our lives. This is what the apostle John is getting at in his first epistle. He gives several evidences of the new birth. Those who are born again are saved and will be saved. How then do you know you are born again? John answers, Does righteousness characterize your life? “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn. 2:29). Have you stopped living in sin? “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (3:9). Do you love other Christians? “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (4:7). Do you believe in Christ? “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (5:1). Are you overcoming the world? “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (5:4). Though it is certainly wrong to say assurance isn’t possible; it is also wrong to give assurance to those who are not showing any evidence that God has given them a new heart and new nature. On the other hand, when these things are true of us, it is not wrong to conclude that we belong to the Lord and will be finally saved.
The third leg is that of the witness of the Holy Spirit. This is what the apostle Paul is talking about in Rom. 8:15-17, “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” It’s not that the Spirit whispers in our ears some special revelation. Rather it is that he gives us the heart of a child of God; he gives us a filial nature, one that approaches God as Father and loves and looks to him as a son or daughter would to their father. Of course, this is not something that we give ourselves; it is something that is given to us. It is also something that can be dimmed and diminished through sin, when we grieve the Holy Spirit. One of the clearest evidences that someone is not a true believer is one who lives in sin and yet remains totally confident of their salvation. But it is also a wonderful encouragement when we, despite all our failures and regrets, can through faith in Christ approach the throne of God with all the familiarity a child can with his father. As the hymn puts it:
Ultimately however, the ground of our assurance must be in the character of God. Even when we are confident that we can find genuine fruit of repentance in our lives and feel the draw of the Spirit toward God in love as our Father, what is far and away most sure is the promise of God in Christ, resting not on our faithfulness but his, not on our works but his grace, not on our will but his good pleasure. In other words, the bedrock confidence of the Christian must rest finally in a God who saves – not just makes salvation possible but who actually saves: “That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (Heb. 6:18-19).
Implications for Holiness - our struggle with sin
What about the implications for holiness? Some say that if you believe the Christian can have assurance of salvation, then there is no motivation for holiness. Now I’m not saying that the Scripture never calls us to consider the seriousness of sin in light of future judgment. But it’s just wrong to think that the assurance of God’s love in Christ will lead to a life of spiritual carelessness. In fact, in my reading of church history, what I have found is that those men and women who were the most confident of God’s special and saving love to them in Christ were also the most holy, the most sacrificial, and the most fruitful in the kingdom of God.
Listen to the way the apostle John puts it: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:1-3). Everyone who has the hope that they will appear with Christ in glory does what? They purify themselves. This is hope and assurance, but it doesn’t make one spiritually laze; it makes them holy.
How does it make one holy? I think Paul gives us some insight in his letter to the Colossians: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience” (Col. 3:1-6). Those who know they are risen with Christ, who know that their life is hidden with Christ in God, who know that they shall appear with him in glory, are not people who are living for or according to the values of this world. They are living according to the values of the age to come, of heaven. They are praying and desiring that God’s will be done in earth as it is in heaven. This is the reason why the apostle says, “Mortify therefore.” Hope leads to holiness.
We hope ultimately because we believe God will in his grace preserve us to his heavenly kingdom. But far from scuttling the pursuit of holiness, it fuels it. It makes us want to persevere, and through God’s grace we do persevere in the faith to the end.
Are you weary, brother or sister? Are you tired? Are you discouraged? Are your hangs hanging down, are your feet out of the way? Then remember the doctrine of the perseverance and preservation of the saints. You must persevere to the end, but you can persevere because God is with you and for you. You are kept by the power of God through faith to final salvation. Let us therefore commend ourselves to him who is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before his presence with unceasing joy.
1 See https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/packer_deathintro.html
2 See https://prts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Canons-of-Dort-with-Intro.pdf