If God has predestined to save some from the foundation of the world, if he stepped into human history and shed his own blood to purchase them as a prized possession, and if he irresistibly applies that saving work in the miracle of regeneration, it follows that those individuals will faithfully reach the end of their lives and will be glorified. A sovereign God–one who controls whatsoever comes to pass–who means to save a people for himself, will save a people for himself. In other words, this last question of whether or not a saint will persevere–be preserved–until the end is really a question of whether or not God’s plan can be thwarted. To ask the question is to answer it (Job 42:2). However, as I have said about the previous doctrines of grace, logical coherence isn’t enough when it comes to affirming major doctrines; we need to find justification for our doctrine from the text of Scripture.
Before I dive into this doctrine, a word needs to be said about my apparent cowardice in refusing to take a side on (in my estimation) a rather silly, in-house debate: should our “P” stand for Preservation or Perseverance? To some degree, I understand the impulses from either side. Those who insist that the doctrine should be designated as Preservation of the saints are worried that perseverance is too man-centered, and that it is misleading with respect to God’s sovereign, preserving work in salvation. Those who insist on the alternative are worried that preservation might lead to a sort of fatalism, in which Christians who are commanded to be holy neglect their responsibility to obey. I can certainly empathize with these concerns, but the teaching of scripture links these two concepts together; God preserves his saints to the end by enabling them to persevere. One is the end, the other is the means. God will hold fast to his own by enabling his own to hold fast to him. So yes, I refuse to pick a “P,” but only because one “P” doesn’t adequately describe the what and how of the Christian’s faithfulness to the end.
The Christian “Preserved”
So what do we mean when we say that Christian’s are preserved? This is the aspect of the Christian life that deals with God sustaining work. More specifically, this concept is answering the question, “Can a Christian lose his salvation?” Interestingly enough, Jesus answers this question directly, though he frames it in different terms:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27-30)
So apparently, the question, “Can a Christian lose his salvation?” is poorly phrased. The question should really be, “Can a Christian ever perish?” or better yet, “Can a Christian be snatched out of the hand of Christ, or the hand of the Father?” Jesus doesn’t leave a lot of guesswork. It can’t be done. To be a Christian means to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd. To be a Christian means to be a gift from the Father to the Son; it means that the Christian’s salvation isn’t something to be lost, it would need to be snatched out of the hand of God, and that will never happen. Another helpful place to look is the conclusion of Romans chapter 8, in which Paul brings up a seemingly intimidating list of potential enemies of the Christian, to see how big of a threat they pose on Christ’s saving love for his own:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Now, before I became a Calvinist, I tried pretty desperately to poke holes into the holy logic of this text; I wanted to preserve the possibility of losing my salvation (which I now know was out of a sinful desire to take some credit for my faithfulness to the end). Most of the “loopholes” I came up with are so lame they aren’t even worth mentioning; but my crown jewel zinger went something like this, “Ah, the text says any other created thing, which doesn’t include my free will!” To which Calvinist-Sam has two responses. (1) If the human will isn’t “a created thing,” it must therefore be “uncreated.” But this poses a huge problem, because if my will is uncreated, then it takes on the characteristic of “eternally existing,” which is something that, as a Christian, I can only say of God. Human wills are mirrored creations of God’s will, bound by time and space, ontologically derivative of God himself. So throwing human volition outside the scope of Paul’s sweeping statement (any other created thing) is philosophically unacceptable for Christians who understand the “Creator/creature distinction.” (2) The text leaves no room for volitional caveats; it’s concerned with the question, “What can separate us from the love of God?” And the answer it gives is “Absolutely nothing!” To slip in some sort of loophole into this passage is to obstruct Paul’s intent, which is to give the Christian absolute confidence in God’s love; his Never-stopping, Never-giving up, Always and Forever love (as Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible). In other words, the text is concerned with God’s role in sustaining the Christian through things that threaten to harm his soul; which is precisely why this passage comes on the heels of that breathtaking description of God’s activity in salvation found in verse 30 (He predestines, He calls, He justifies, He glorifies).
This should really come as no surprise when we think about the nature of salvation. To be saved is to be declared righteous by the imputation of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 3:22, 5:1). To be saved means to be adopted as a child of God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5), it means to be raised from spiritual death (Ephesians 2:4-8), it means to be qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints of light by the Father, who delivers from the domain of darkness and transfers into the kingdom of Jesus (Colossians 1:12-14). Need I go on? Are we to believe that the Christ’s righteousness imputed to us can possibly be removed? Or that our Father will turn back on his decision to adopt us? Or that we who have been raised from the dead will once again become dead in our trespasses? Or that the qualifying work of the Father can be undone, and that we might possibly be taken back to the domain of darkness? To answer in the affirmative is to contradict God’s promises.
The Christian “Persevering”
What then, of all of the passages in Scripture that seem to indicate the believer’s responsibility to remain faithful (Romans 8:13, 1 John 3:4-10, John 8:31, etc.)? There are passages that seem to indicate conditionality on the part of our obedience. Passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.” (see also, Colossians 1:21-23)
First, we should pay extra attention to what is being said with that little “if.” Is Paul saying, “If you remain faithful, you will be saved” or is he saying, “If you remain faithful, you show yourself to be saved?” I believe the latter is almost always the case; that our acts of obedience are not the means by which we are saved, but rather the fruit that demonstrates that we have been saved. To say otherwise is to take any confidence we have of glorification from God, and place it squarely on ourselves.
Apparent “Problem Passages”
We can’t consider this doctrine of preservation/perseverance without handling those difficult passages that seem to indicate genuine Christians falling away into eternal destruction. Consider these hard words of Jesus,
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:4-6)
What could Jesus possibly mean by this? First of all, I don’t think this text is describing some strange work of sanctification, like some desperate Calvinists have argued for; as if the removal of unfruitful branches were some sort of beneficial pruning (these branches are not merely removed; they’re left alone until they get withered and dry and crusty, so that they can burn quicker… seems like a strange way to describe sanctification). I think Jesus is absolutely describing eternal destruction here. However, I also think that Jesus–the perfect God-man–is not speaking out of both sides of his mouth by contradicting what he had just spoken five chapters earlier (John 10:27-30). So what is he saying?
When we consider the broader scope of the New Testament, I think Jesus is here referring to a phenomenon in which a non-believer has some sort of association with Christ (a branch of the vine) that is nevertheless not saving union. Consider the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30. Here, Jesus tells a parable in which a farmer planted some wheat into his field. Then, in the dark hours of the night, the farmer’s enemy came and planted some weeds among the seeds of wheat. The end result is that the weeds and the wheats grew together, in the farmer’s field, until the time of harvest, when they were separated. In other words, it is possible to be in the farmer’s field–in the shepherd’s flock, a branch on the vine–and not genuinely belong to him. And, tragically, this may not be recognized until the last day. Lest we doubt that this phenomenon actually occurs outside the scope of an imaginary parable, John explicitly documents one such occasion, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) Here, John not only affirms that the true mark of a believer is perseverance, but he also indicates that not all those who are among the household of faith actually belong to it.
All well and good, but what about those hard warning passages in Hebrews? The author of Hebrews warns his audience (his Christian audience) of the destructive results of drifting away from the gospel 5 times; 2:1-4, 4:12-13, 6:4-8, 10:26-31 and 12:25-29. These passages have been handled in many ways by many different Christians. There are three things I want to say about these warnings.
- They are absolutely genuine warnings to genuine Christians about the eternally destructive results of turning away from Christ. That is to say, they are not merely hypothetical situations, or descriptions of what happens to non-Christians who act like Christians, or descriptions of the temporary effects of temporary apostasy. These warnings were issued to a Christian audience that was obviously tempted to convert back into a Christless Judaism; the author is addressing this temptation dead on and saying, “If you do that, you will go to hell!” Which is true. Strictly speaking, to reject Christ is to reject eternal life. Period.
- These texts must be taken in the broader context of the book of Hebrews as a whole; which is a profoundly encouraging, confidence-solidifying, gospel-drenched book. These warnings aren’t stand alone messages; they are bracketed by gospel assurance. Consider, for example, the most chillingly descriptive warning in Hebrews 6:4-8. Taken by itself, it offers no hope whatsoever. Yet what immediately follows this warning? “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” (Hebrews 6:9) In other words, the author of Hebrews fully expected for these warnings to land in a certain kind of way on his readers, which brings me to my last point.
- These warnings serve as one of the means of our perseverance, and thus one of the means of God’s preservation. It is true that rejecting Jesus is inviting wrath. It is also true that those who are saved by virtue of being justified by grace alone through faith alone will continue in that faith. Therefore, those who are truly saved will hear these genuine warnings, and will genuinely repent and cling to Christ. God will hold us fast until the end of our lives by enabling our continual faithfulness, and he will enable our continual faithfulness through (among other things) warnings like these. Our Shepherd will speak, and if we are truly his sheep, we will listen.
As a whole, this doctrine should produce a rock-solid confidence in our salvation, because we know that it is ultimately guaranteed by God himself. This rock-solid confidence is an obedience-inducing confidence, or else it’s not functioning properly.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.