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There Is No Eternal Security for the Unbeliever

The biblical concept of the perseverance of the saints was a foreign concept to me growing up. That’s not to say that I thought believers could lose their salvation. I was taught that we are secure in Christ, no matter what. “Once saved always saved.” I took it to mean one would be forgiven even if ultimately faithless and fruitless, as long as he had said the prayer, raised the hand, or walked the aisle. When I did finally hear the language of perseverance, I thought it was essentially another way (albeit a confusing way) of describing the security of the believer.

Actually, it’s not. The two are inseparable, to be sure. But whereas the doctrine of eternal security teaches that God will not forsake those who have truly believed, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that those who have truly believed will not forsake God—not utterly and finally. The Westminster Confession puts it this way:

“They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved (chap. 17, sec. 1).”

In other words, all who are preserved (God’s perspective) also persevere (the Christian’s perspective). To teach that it is otherwise is worse than unbiblical; it’s damning. Take the kid I worked with at a warehouse years ago. He would perpetually wow our co-workers with tales of his sexual exploits. His eyes sparkled as he rehearsed the details of the girls he had been with this time, or how many he’d had this week, or how he couldn’t wait for his drunken bender next weekend.  Burdened, I took him aside and told him that if he didn’t turn from his sins and trust in Christ he would perish. Not to worry, I was told. He’d prayed the prayer when he was five. At VBS or Sunday School. He was covered. Once saved always saved, after all. He’d been taught a caricature of the beautiful doctrine of eternal security, and it was contributing to his damnation.

The Bible does indeed teach that once one is saved he is always saved. Praise the Lord it is so. But that assumes that he has been once saved. There’s the rub. Too often we give assurance to those who have never been truly saved, as their lack of perseverance demonstrates (1 John 2:19). And just as their falling away demonstrates that they were never “of” the true church, our fruit demonstrates that we are. We know we are God’s children by (a) our faith in Christ, (b) our love for the church, and (c) our imperfect but progressive obedience, as John teaches in cycle after cycle through his first epistle. Sure, we who have been born again are secure, but not secure to sin without regret or consequence. Those who do so indicate that they are outside of Christ (1 John 1:6; 2:4, 11, 15, et al). The perpetual and unrepentant sinner has a dead faith (James 2) and is (to use the strong language of the KJV) a bastard and not a son (Heb 12:8).

I’m not denying eternal security. We are, to quote a favorite security passage of mine, “guarded (or kept) by God’s power” (1 Peter 1:5). But that text goes on to emphasize that it is those who are believing who are being kept: “we are being guarded by God’s power through faith.” True Christians persevere specifically because they are preserved, but they do persevere. “Once believing always believing.”

Even John 10, probably the most common passage for teaching our safety in Christ, ties preservation with perseverance. We who are Christ’s sheep are kept in His hand, and also in His Father’s hand (John 10:28-29). But what are the marks of Christ’s sheep? That’s the whole point of the passage—the differences between true and false shepherds and true and false sheep. True sheep are marked by faith in Christ. The religious hypocrites to whom Christ was speaking were not His sheep, as their unbelief attested (v. 26). Christ’s sheep, in contrast, hear Him and know Him and follow Him (vv. 27 and 14). So those who have no faith in Christ and no desire to hear or follow Christ have no basis for security.

As I said, I spent years believing in an eternal security that left no need for perseverance. When Scripture offered warnings against turning back (as throughout Hebrews) or promises to those who overcome (as in the Gospels and Revelation), I read right past them. When Scripture described the inevitable results of saving faith (as in 1 John), I didn’t pay attention. If I heard sermons explaining the need for perseverance (and I think they were few and far between), I missed them. I misunderstood the radical, life-altering result of the new birth and I embraced a potentially damning partial truth. I urge you not to do the same. I urge you to understand the necessity of perseverance and to teach it to those under your spiritual care.

Rejoice in our security through Christ. And don’t stop believing.

(This post is a summary of a message I preached in July 2010 on Perseverance. You can download it here.)

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9 Responses

  1. Well said, Chris. My background is similar, and this was a struggle for me. When I began to understand perseverance as different from “once having made a decision, always saved,” it changed my whole understanding of salvation.

    Like all Truth, there is a ditch on both sides of the road. Some teach perserverance in such a way that it sounds like works salvation. It is important to emphasize, as you stated, that perseverance is the fruit of God’s grace at work in the lives of His children.

    I have also learned that even when you preach it straight, some will hear you as if you are teaching works salvation. The problem may be with the bias of the listener, not the error of the preacher.

    I appreciate your excellent posts. Keep up the good work.

  2. Excellent. Thanks. jms

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful and kind comment, Greg. I understand the tension you’re talking about. We need to try to make it impossible to be misunderstood. (Good luck with that.) But our generation certainly errs on the side of bogus assurance, and the consequences are eternal.

    Blessings to you, friend.

  4. […] M’man Pastor Chris Anderson has blessed us with a brief, pointed look at the Biblical doctrine of security and perseverance of the believer […]

  5. So many of us share the same progression of understanding of this doctrine. I often wonder whether maybe the preaching and teaching was there, but I was too immature to grasp it, favoring what seemed to be simpler (just the quaint “once saved always saved” motto), or (what I sadly suspect) that sound, biblical teaching of perseverence was all but absent when I was young.
    Many times, pastoral counsel to those struggling with assurance has been that they need to just ignore the doubts because, after all, they prayed the prayer. How many souls die without Christ, holding on to a pastor’s assurance?

  6. […] please read this brief and timely article on the perseverance of the saints […]

  7. Same here Pastor Chris. It was not till we sat under solid teaching for awhile that I was faced with the end point of what I had swallowed when we all wrote our names and dates in our Bibles or walked the aisle at church or VBS or threw a log into the fire at camp. How many of my friends over the years have misunderstood this?…frightening for the eternal ramifications. Thanks for helping us think through this and writing it down.I will share this with others.

  8. I agree 100%. That is why I shy away from saying I believe in eternal security. Only because that means to most “so I can trust Christ and still sin like the devil.”

  9. Thank you, Pastor Anderson for this encouraging post on eternal security. I often struggle with lack of assurance due to times where I have felt hatred or anger towards other Christians. I have since repented as best I know how of such wickedness, but I wondered if I was saved during the time I felt rage against my brother in Christ. When it says that one who hates his brother knows not God, is this referring to an ongoing, unrepentant hatred?
    I also was encouraged by your post on Dan’s page to Sir Aaron. To run to Christ was something I overlooked for so long when reading 1 John, and only focused on the tests, forgetting that without the blood of Christ and his propitiation, the faith that produces good fruit would never be mine.

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