by Joel Beeke
Genuine perseverance and assurance are sorely lacking among Christians today. The fruits of perseverance and assurance — diligent use of the means of grace, perseverance in heartfelt obedience to God’s will, desire for fellowship with God, yearning for God’s glory and heaven, love for the church and intercession for revival — all appear to be waning. We desperately need rich, doctrinal thinking about perseverance and assurance coupled with vibrant, sanctified living.
What is “perseverance of the saints” and what is “assurance of faith”? How do perseverance and assurance assist each other in the Christian life?
Perseverance of the Saints
We first must ask, who are the saints? Many would extend “eternal security” to all baptized persons, or to all who have made decisions for Christ at evangelistic meetings. Scripture and the Reformed Confessions speak only of the perseverance of “saints,” defined as those “whom God calls, according to his purpose, to the communion of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit” (Canons of Dort, fifth head, article 1). And, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith (17.1), saints are defined as those whom “God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit.” By the preserving work of the triune God (1 Cor. 1:8–9), such persons will persevere in true faith, and in the works that proceed from faith, so long as they continue in the world.
Some theologians prefer to speak of the preservation of the saints while others prefer to speak of the perseverance of the saints. These two notions are closely related, but not the same. The preserving activity of God undergirds the saints’ perseverance. He keeps them in the faith, preserves them from straying, and ultimately perfects them (1 Peter 1:5; Jude 24). We may be confident that God will finish the work of grace He has begun in us (Ps. 138:8; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:2). Believers are preserved through Christ’s intercession (Luke 22:32; John 17:5) and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 2:27).
Perseverance itself, however, is the saints’ life-long activity: confessing Christ as Savior (Rom. 10:9), bringing forth the fruits of grace (John 15:16), enduring to the end (Matt. 10:22; Heb. 10:28–29). Saints do this, of course, only because of the preserving activity of God at work in them (Phil. 2:13). Even so, perseverance includes but extends beyond preservation.
Assurance of Faith
Assurance of faith is the conviction that by God’s grace, one belongs to Christ, has received full pardon for all sins, and will inherit eternal life. One who has true assurance not only believes in Christ for salvation but also knows that he believes.
Such assurance includes freedom from guilt, joy in God, and a sense of belonging to the family of God. Assurance is also dynamic, varying according to conditions, capable of growing in force and fruitfulness.
Assurance is known by fruits such as close fellowship with God, childlike obedience, and longing to glorify Him in all things. Assured believers view heaven as their home; they long for Christ’s return and their translation to glory (2 Tim. 4:6–8).
Assurance, then Perseverance
The fruits of assurance promote perseverance. The Canons of Dort affirm that believers “may and do” obtain assurance of their perseverance. That assurance, however, is grounded in “the preservation of the elect unto salvation.” Take away those words, and every conscientious believer would despair. Failures in duty would overwhelm whatever fruits we might discover, and destroy all assurance. By speaking first of God’s election and preservation, the Canons show that assurance is rooted in God’s sovereign grace and promises — yes, in God Himself.
Assurance helps the believer persevere, first, by encouraging him to rest on God’s grace in Christ and His promises in the Gospel; and second, by presenting these as a powerful motive for Christian living.
Perseverance, then Assurance
The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) also presents the close relationship between assurance and perseverance. However, it works from perseverance of the saints (Chapter 17) to assurance of grace and salvation (Chapter 18). This order implies three things: First, perseverance opens the way for assurance. If one does not believe in the perseverance of the saints, he cannot be sure he is going to heaven. Assurance is wedded to the doctrine of perseverance.
Second, perseverance serves to confirm and increase assurance. Those who persist in doing the works that spring from faith will attain high levels of assurance (see WCF, 17.2 – 18.4).
Third, perseverance causes the believer to live in hope. As believers persevere, they become increasingly confident of victory in Christ and their future with Him in glory (Rom. 5:1–11).
Some claim assurance without manifesting the fruits of perseverance, saying glibly, “once saved, always saved,” regardless of how they live. Such people are deceiving themselves. The Baptist theologian John Dagg rightly declared, “It is a wretched and fatal perversion if men conclude that, having been once converted, they will be saved, whatever may be their course of life.”
“Once saved, always saved,” as promoted by many today, teaches an incomplete notion of salvation, as if the justification of the sinner were the whole salvation of God, to the exclusion of the “things that accompany salvation,” such as repentance unto life and growth in grace.
Advocates assert that Christians should not test their profession by their lives; nothing subjective, apart from the bare fact of faith itself, is needed to confirm the reality of salvation. This view teaches that faith can exist in a vacuum and that the believer doesn’t need the law as a rule of life. The result is “antinomianism” (anti = against; nomos = the law).
Either Way, It Is All by God’s Grace
Perseverance and assurance are two sides of one coin. You cannot persevere in grace without growing in assurance, and you cannot grow in assurance of faith without perseverance.
This growth isn’t easily attained, but it is attainable through God’s grace.
With a comfortable assurance of persevering, we, with John Newton, can sing of God’s amazing grace:
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.