“And to forsake all others, till death do us part.” One would think, that with the decades-old trend in the broader culture of “personal marriage vows,” wherein husband and wife fill in the blanks and speak their own words, that the above would be the first to be ditched. It’s not so much the language as the sentiment that is archaic. Competing mathematical theories, combined with actual divorces tell us that between one third and one half of all marriages end in divorce. Strangely enough, most couples still triumphantly march away from the altar having vowed life-long fidelity. It seems even the most coarsened consciences still so long for happily ever after that, while they can actually live without the fidelity, they can’t live without the illusion. No one dresses up and hires a photographer when they decide to move in together.
That illusion is so powerful, however, that in the face of the statistics, it might better be called a delusion. The sad truth is that whatever is the true number, the divorce rate among professing evangelical Christians is virtually identical to the world around us. We pledge our undying love, only to have the pledge die. Which may explain why we have such a hard time understanding the perseverance of the saints. I have heard it said that the proclamation of the glory of the Father won’t carry a great deal of evangelistic freight in many inner-city neighborhoods. When we present God as our father, too many assume that this means that He is irresponsible, that He is absent, that He cannot be counted on. While I think avoiding biblical truths because of cultural sins is folly, I understand the sentiment. How are we to understand Christ as our Bridegroom, in a world where nearly half of all bridegrooms, just like inner-city fathers, skip town when convenient?
The answer within the church is simple enough. Our culture has changed. We are now those of whom Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2: 9–10). Our standards for understanding the relationship between a man and a wife come not from the world around us, but from the Word beneath us, the very Word that upholds and sustains us. We are the bride of Christ. And rather than having our vision of our Bridegroom besmirched by adulterous brigands, we ought instead to have our own vision of our calling as husbands be transformed by the image of the faithfulness of Christ. We don’t change Him; we don’t change our language. No, we change our behavior.
Once we grasp that we are His bride and that He will never let us go, we begin to loosen our grip on that cultural picture of perseverance, a white knuckled grip. That is, the perseverance of the saints isn’t ultimately about our tenacious clinging to the Gospel as much as it is the sovereign clinging of the Gospel to us. I will persevere not because of me, but because of Him, not because I am a faithful bride, but because He is a faithful Husband. Perseverance isn’t about bootstrap effort; it’s about cross-bearing effort, which means it’s not about our effort now, but His effort then.
We do not have then merely a handsome groom dressed up for the crowd. The tears shed by our Husband are not simply for the moment of the ceremony, but are for all our lives. When I struggle with the ugliness of my sin, when I grow impatient with the slow process of my sanctification, I like to remind myself of this sound biblical truth — God loves me today as much as He ever will. I am not part way in, laboring to get all the way in. I am in. As comforting as this is now, however, how much more comforting is it forever? That is, not only does God love me now as He will forever, but He will love me forever as He does now.
Let us never forget either that it is love. When we translate biblical truth into formulae, something is always lost in the translation. It is good and proper that we should affirm with all conviction the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. It is good likewise to suggest in turn that preservation might be the better term, as it is what God does for us, not what we do for Him. But such can make the whole process sound, well, like a process. We tend to turn the ordo salutis, the order of salvation, into a kind of production line. We who are Reformed rightly defend this doctrine in terms of His sovereignty. Nothing, the Bible tells us, can take us from His hand. But what drives God isn’t simply the hope of a perfect record. It isn’t merely a display of power. The promise is that He will sanctify His bride, that He will remove every blot and blemish. Perseverance is a love story beginning and ending in the marriage of power and beauty, as our strong groom finishes the work He has begun in us, beautifying us, precisely because He is faithful and true.
His obedience shows forth our wickedness. We in turn, turn from our wickedness, to embrace His obedience. And then He holds onto us into eternity. This is not just good news now, but good news forever. For this is the one story that rightly ends … “and they lived happily ever after.” Cue music.