A few weeks ago in a cutting room floor post, I argued in favor of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints based on the covenant-keeping nature of God. Because God is a covenant-keeper and our redemption is based on the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, we can be sure that those who have been redeemed are certain to spend eternity in His presence in heaven. Since writing that post, I have received a couple of questions regarding texts in the Bible that at first glance seem to indicate that a person can lose his or her salvation. Having written a series of blogs answering the major objections to the doctrine of unconditional election, I thought it might be helpful to do a similar series on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
We’ll start out this series by looking at a positive case for this doctrine. Then in subsequent posts, we’ll address the typical objections and prooftexts.
People have spoken of this doctrine - that a believer is eternally safe in his or her salvation – using a number of different terms or phrases. The most common are “once saved, always saved,” “eternal security,” “security of the believer,” and “perseverance of the saints.” Which one of these phrases is to be preferred? I do have my own preference. Let me explain why.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist denomination, for which I am grateful to God. (Had I been raised in another tradition, it is possible that I would not have embraced the inerrancy of Scripture as the foundational principle of my biblical understanding.) The Southern Baptists have always affirmed the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and in my neck of the woods, the phrase “once saved, always saved” was used. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this phrase, however, over the years some have taken that phrase (as opposed to the text of Scripture) and extrapolated from that phrase that a person can be saved and then continue to live in unrepentant sin without losing that salvation.
Let me clearly state that this is not what I mean when I speak of this doctrine. As we will see, the idea that one can be truly saved and then walk away from the faith or live in unrepentant sin is completely unbiblical. If someone professes belief and then fails to show the fruit of repentance, it is not that that person has lost his or her salvation. Rather, we will see from Scripture that such a person was never saved to begin with. It is because of that unbiblical connotation carried by the phrase “once saved, always saved” that I think the phrase “perseverance of the saints” is a more accurate and helpful way to refer to the doctrine. Perseverance indicates standing firm in one’s faith and conduct, which the Bible tells us is the inevitable result of a genuine conversion. Therefore, by using “perseverance of the saints” we prevent the misconception that someone can be saved and never live like it.
Before we begin looking at any specific texts, I’d like to show why the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is a natural result of the doctrine of unconditional election, and conversely, why it is inconsistent to uphold the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints while also denying the doctrine of unconditional election. The reason I’m taking the time to do this is because there are many people who do not believe that God chooses who will be saved, but that God prevents people from losing that salvation. In my own experience, there are far more people like that than who deny both election and perseverance.
In a sense, every biblical text that teaches the doctrine of unconditional election unto salvation also teaches the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. How can that be? Well, if God has predestined someone to salvation, then they are predestined to salvation. Predestination is the act whereby God makes it the certain destiny of an individual to be saved. To my knowledge, Scripture never speaks of salvation as a temporary reality, but as a present and eternal condition. So if God has predestined some to eternal salvation, it is impossible for those people to lose that salvation.
Further, the doctrine of unconditional election is founded upon the absolute sovereignty of God. It teaches that salvation is of the Lord, that we are His workmanship (Eph 2:1-10). If God is sovereign over our salvation, He is sovereign over all of it, from regeneration to glorification. God does not give up His sovereignty once we have been saved. He has made every part of our salvation sure.
Now, what I’ve just argued by deduction, Romans 8:28-30 teaches explicitly. These verses are a classic text on the doctrine of unconditional election, and they tie election conclusively to glorification: 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Vv29-30 are sometimes called the “golden chain of redemption.” There is an unbreakable link between the foreknown, the predestined, the justified, and the glorified.
What does it mean to be glorified? To be glorified is to receive an eternal, heavenly resurrection body. In 1 Cor 15:12-58, Paul discusses the importance of Christ’s resurrection for the believer. He teaches that the bodies of dead believers will be raised at Christ’s return and transformed into imperishable bodies. Those who are still alive at Christ’s return also will have their bodies instantly changed into new, resurrection bodies. This is presented as the inevitable destiny of the believer. It is the last phase of the redemption of God’s people.
Having understood that, we can see the significance of the link between election and glorification in Romans 8:28-30. All those who are elect will be eternally saved. Therefore, using Romans 8:28-30 as our key, we can rightly take any passage that teaches the doctrine of election and understand that it also supports the doctrine of perseverance.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints fits perfectly with and is the natural outworking of the doctrine of unconditional election. On the other hand, the doctrine of perseverance is fatally inconsistent with the denial of unconditional election. Those who deny unconditional election believe that election is conditional, that is, that God chooses to save those whom He foreknows will choose to believe in Him. What that means is that God is not sovereign over the salvation of men. Man himself determines his own destiny in regard to salvation. Man is in control. His condition is not determined.
The reason this is inconsistent with the doctrine of perseverance is that perseverance is based on the notion that God is sovereign over salvation in that He by His divine power keeps us in Christ. In other words, the doctrine of perseverance teaches that God is in control. So for someone to reject unconditional election but accept perseverance is to say that God is not sovereign over salvation until the unbeliever freely chooses to become a believer. At the point of conversion, then God becomes sovereign and the believer has no control over whether or not he retains his salvation. This creates a preposterous and unbiblical picture: prior to conversion, man is sovereign and God is not; after conversion, God is sovereign and man is not. This is an excellent example of wanting to have your theological cake and eat it, too.
In future posts, we will look at a Scriptural case for perseverance. Let me leave you with this. If God does not providentially guard us for eternal salvation, but it is up to us to keep ourselves in Christ, how then can we say that salvation is by faith and not by works?