Perseverance of the Saints
by John de Witt
What are we to make of the stunning words of Hebrews 6:4–6 with their fearful warning against apostasy, a falling away from the faith and from the Lord? They have often been a source of puzzlement and dread to Christian believers across the centuries. A connection has frequently been drawn between this passage and other pronouncements in the New Testament that speak of unpardonable sin: the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30; Matt. 12:31–32) and the “sin unto death” (1 John 5:16–17). Differences are to be noted, but also striking similarities. I have known people who were convinced that they had committed this sin and for whom the candle of hope had flickered and died away.
The truth is that the Christian must live in a careful balance between the poles of presumption and despair.
The first of these poles is presumption. I have met many people over the years whose besetting sin was presumption. One example stands out in my memory, perhaps because the woman involved has a place at the head of a long list to come. When I was a theological student I did some door-to-door canvassing for a church whose constituency was moving to the suburbs and whose minister was determined to do what he could to reach people in the neighborhood. I rang the doorbell of a certain house. After a short wait an elderly woman appeared. Our conversation was brief. I asked her whether she was a Christian, whether she had placed her trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Her response was immediate. “O yes,” she assured me, “I am a Christian.” I then asked her where she went to church. That proved to be another matter entirely. She claimed to be a Christian, but for years she had not darkened the door of a church. Her thinking struck me then as peculiar and skewed. The ground on which she claimed to be a believer was her action in the remote past when she responded to a gospel invitation given by Billy Sunday during an evangelistic crusade in her native city. She had been “saved” once. Nothing more could be required.
Perhaps this older woman was putting a young man in his place. That interpretation of our brief exchange has occurred to me. I rather think, however, that she meant exactly what she said. In the third century of the Christian era Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote: “Outside the church there is no salvation.” With this dictum the Protestant Reformers, among them John Calvin, emphatically concurred. The Westminster Confession of Faith modifies this language a little, without compromising the sense: Outside the church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
This is not the place, nor is Hebrews 6:4–6 the platform, for a discussion of “eternal security.” Those who hold that no believer ultimately falls from grace have said that when a person has once been “saved,” nothing more can be required. Expressions such as “eternal security” and “once saved always saved” are seriously deficient. I say that for several reasons, but chiefly because they violate biblical teaching. Another description is far more dependable and profound: it is “the perseverance of the saints” with its clear implication that the believer is one who leads a life of disciplined obedience by the grace of God. Christians should be able to gather around the term “perseverance” and make common confession of it.
The solemn words of Hebrews 6:4–6 are a chilling and profound warning against presumption, of such spiritual carelessness as may lead to the death of the soul.
The second pole — and this is of great importance as well — is despair. Those who know and love Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan will remember some of the experiences of Christian on his journey from the City of Destruction to the Desired Country, the heavenly City of God. Especially memorable are Doubting Castle and its proprietor the Giant Despair. It was only when Christian awakened from his torpor in the dungeon and discovered in his bosom the key called Promise that he and his companion Hopeful were able to escape what had seemed to them inevitable disaster.
Some professing Christians — whose character gives no reason to doubt the authenticity of their faith — live in a constant state of anxiety. They may not question the mercy of God, but they doubt that His mercy extends to them. Their daily walk is often in the darkness rather than in the light. They seem unable to lay hold of the bright promises of God because to do so, in their view, is to draw unwarranted conclusions with respect to their standing before Him. Our passage, Hebrews 6:4-6, strikes fear in their very souls.
It is essential to understand that the writer of this grand epistle has a very specific end in view. The objective is not to leave believers bereft of comfort and hope. It is in no sense to induce an unremitting sense of foreboding, as though at any point along the way the ground can crumble under a believer’s feet. It is rather to summon all who trust in Christ and follow Him to press on with all diligence and care. The way of faith is obedience. “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2).
To those who doubt the power of preaching, I can offer an illustration to the contrary. I was a mere lad when I heard a sermon, but in the course of more than fifty-five years it has never left me. Perhaps part of the reason for its lingering influence was the currency then of interest in and concern about the “sin unto death.” A single sentence from that long ago discourse has helped me, and helped me to help others along the way. In the sermon, the pastor said: “The unpardonable sin is constant, willful, and persistent impenitence.” That definition, I have long thought, is exactly right. I do not know how it could be made better.