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.)