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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But what about those who fall away...

One of the most common objections to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints relates to those people who fall away from the faith.  Most of us have known people who made a profession of faith, were “on fire” for the Lord, and were faithful for a time, but who returned to a sinful lifestyle while either claiming to still be a believer or outspokenly denying the faith.  If one can never lose his or her salvation, how are we to explain the many personal examples of people who seem to do just that?
To begin to answer that question, let’s be reminded of our definition of perseverance, as given by Wayne Grudem: The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.
(As a side note, systematic theologians like Wayne Grudem do not pull their definitions out of the thin air and then go to the Scriptures to prop them up.  Rather, they assemble all of the relevant passages and study to discern what those passages teach regarding the doctrine at hand.  The theologian then attempts to formulate a definition of that doctrine that takes into account all of the relevant biblical teaching on that doctrine.  Therefore, Scriptural interpretation dictates the definition, not the other way around.)
The key to answering this objection is found in the last part of Grudem’s definition – only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.  What we are seeing when we observe a person who has made a profession of faith, lived for Christ for a time, and then fell away is someone who was never born again to begin with. 
Now we could arrive at that conclusion just based on the Scriptures we have already looked at in this series.  For examples, John 6:40: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Those who believe have eternal life and are raised up on the last day.  Therefore, if someone does not have eternal life, he never truly believed. 
However, we do have even better passages from which to answer this objection.  One such passage is found in John 8:30-59.  The passage begins with Jesus speaking to a group of Jews who “believed in him,” and ends with those same Jews seeking to stone Him to death. 
30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.  31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Joh 8:30-32 ESV)
The Bible speaks of these people as believing in Christ.  Because the scene ends with these same people wanting to kill Him, this must refer to a nominal belief.  They believed the facts about Jesus, but there was no surrender to that truth.  Jesus’ words in v31 give us the framework for understanding the passage, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…”  Jesus goes on to speak about man’s slavery to sin, a concept that offends those listening.  He then gives an a critical assessment of the state of their souls in v37, “…you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.”  Christ’s word found no place in them.  In other words, they did not abide in His word, therefore according to v31, they were not truly His disciples.  That they did not remain in His word did not indicate that they were at one time disciples, but then fell away.  Rather, it indicated that they were never His disciples.
1 John 2:19 teaches the same truth.  Speaking of those who were at one time in the church but who became false teachers, John writes this: 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.  That these false teachers left the church proves that they were never members of the church.  If they had been true members of the body of Christ, they would have stayed.  Therefore, a lack of perseverance in the faith is an indication that such a person was never saved. 
Likewise, we have Hebrews 3:14, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  A knowledge of the Greek text is helpful here.  “Become” is in the perfect tense, which describes a past action that has continuing results.  So, a more wooden rendering would be, “we have become partakers of Christ in the past.”  The interesting thing is that the conditional clause describes a future condition – “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  When we put these two halves together we see that this verse does not state that if we hold fast to the end we will become partakers of Christ.  Instead, the perfect tense indicates that if we hold fast to the end, it will show that we became partakers of Christ in the past.  Said another way, our perseverance proves our salvation; it doesn’t earn it.  What does that have to say to the objection at hand?  Those who do not hold firm until the end are proven to have never been saved. 
The context of this verse is important.  This passage contains one of several exhortations in Hebrews for self-examination.  Describing how the Israelites perished in the wilderness due to their unfaithfulness, the writer of Hebrews warns the reader in v12 to take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  Like the Israelites, those who fall away are shown to have evil, unbelieving hearts. 
So all of those people we’ve known who appeared to be saved and to love the saints and to do the Lord’s work but who failed to persevere were never true believers.  Only those who persevere were ever truly born again.
Next time, we’ll start to deal with some of the stronger proof-texts against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  Until then, ponder this: if Christ said of believers in John 10:28 that “no one will snatch them out of my hand,” how is it possible that someone could be His and then be lost?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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