“If you have it, you never lose it; if you lose it, you never had it.” This pithy adage gives expression to the doctrine in the church that some call the doctrine of eternal security, while others refer to it as the “perseverance of the saints.” Among the latter group, the perseverance of the saints makes up the fifth point of the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” that are encapsulated in the acronym TULIP—the “P,” the final point, standing for “perseverance of the saints.” Another way of expressing the doctrine in pithy categories is by the phrase, “once in grace, always in grace.”
The idea of the perseverance of the saints is distinguished from the doctrine of the assurance of salvation, though it can never by separated from it. There are those Christians in church history who have affirmed that a Christian can have assurance of his salvation, but that his assurance is only for the moment. One can know that he is in a state of grace today, but with that knowledge, or assurance, there is no further guarantee that he will remain in that state of grace tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or unto death. On the other hand, those who believe in the perseverance of the saints believe also that one can have the assurance of salvation, not only for today, but forever. So again, we see that perseverance is distinguished from assurance but can never be divorced from it.
Now we face the question, why is it that reformed people, classically and historically, have hung so tenaciously to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints? What are the reasons given for holding this particular doctrine?
The first reason that is given is based on reason itself. That is, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints may be seen as the logical conclusion to, or as a rational inference from, the doctrine of predestination. At this point, many theologians demur saying that we should not construct our theology on the basis of logical inferences drawn from other doctrinal premises. However, if such inferences are not only possible inferences but necessary inferences, then I think it’s legitimate to draw such inferences. However, such inferences ought to be drawn from the truth of the Bible, as our doctrine consists not only of what is explicitly set forth in Scripture but what, by good and necessary consequence, is deduced from the premises of Scripture. Perhaps the danger of drawing the doctrine of perseverance simply as a logical inference from predestination is that the vital, visceral significance of the doctrine could get lost in theological abstraction. But despite that danger, we must see that if we have a full understanding of the biblical doctrines of predestination and election, we would understand that the whole purpose of God’s divine decree of election is not to make salvation a temporary possession of the elect but to make that salvation a permanent reality for those whom He predestines unto salvation. Again, predestination is not unto part-time, or temporary, faith but unto full-time and permanent faith.
The second basis for our holding the doctrine of perseverance is the actual and explicit promises of Scripture. The Scriptures teach us that what God begins in us, He will complete. Peter tells us that we are to praise God who, according to His great mercy, regenerated us for a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible, unspotted and unfading inheritance that has been kept in the heavens for you, who are guarded by God’s power, through faith for salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3–5). The promises of God, as Peter indicates here, are unspotted, and they are incapable of fading away. The inheritance that we have is secure.
When we look at the work of Christ on our behalf, we not only see His atonement, which has secured the payment for our sins, we see the ascension of Christ and His ministry at the right hand of the Father as our great High Priest. Here we see in the ministry of Jesus an intercession for those whom the Father has given Him, and a taste of that type of intercession is given to us in the High Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, where Jesus prays that none whom the Father has given to Him would ever be lost.
Despite the promises of the New Testament, the intercession of Christ on our behalf, and the doctrine of election that point to the certainty of perseverance, we still must take seriously the warnings of apostasy that frequently occur in the New Testament. Paul himself talks about how he has to pummel his body to subdue it, lest he, in the final analysis, becomes a castaway. He speaks of those who have departed from the faith.
At the end of Paul’s ministry, in his final letter to Timothy, he decried the departure of Demas, who had forsaken Paul, because Demas, a previous co-worker alongside the apostle, loved this present world. And so the assumption is that Demas, as well as others who started out with a vital profession of faith, ended in the destruction and the abyss of apostasy. How else do we understand the urgent warnings given in the sixth chapter of Hebrews? Here we have to say, without straining the text, that the New Testament, despite these warnings of apostasy, makes it clear that those who commit such acts of full and final apostasy were never really believers in the first place. John writes in his epistle: “Those who went out from us were never really among us” (1 John 2:19).
We read in chapter 6 of Hebrews, at the end of the most chilling warning against apostasy: “But we are persuaded of better things from you, things that accompany salvation” (v. 9b). People within the visible church, as was the case in Old Testament Israel, certainly do fall away from the profession of faith that they have made and end in destruction. The same is true in the New Testament community. People can join themselves to the visible church, profess faith in Christ but under duress fall away—in some cases fully and finally. We must conclude from the teaching of Scripture that such cases of apostasy are wrought by people who made a profession of faith, and whose profession was not authentic.
Finally, our basis for confidence in perseverance is really not so much in our ability to persevere as it is in God’s power and grace to preserve us. If we were left to ourselves, in our human weakness, not only could we fall away, we most certainly would fall away. However, the reason we do not fall away, the reason we do endure to the end is because of the grace of our heavenly Father, who by grace called us in the first place. He sustains us by preserving us, even unto our glorification.