The Warning Passages and Perseverance of the Saints

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I have been in dialogue with a friend on the topic of perseverance of the saints. It was what prompted this post HERE. My basic thesis is that all true believers are kept by God’s power, and continue in faith until the end. There is nothing that can separate God’s people from his love, because God, by his power, keeps his people faithful and believing. I affirmed that apostasy is in fact a leaving-of-the-faith; however, this does not demand that those who leave the faith are truly regenerate believers (for texts which affirm this fact, see the link above).

However, my friend objected to my position. His largest beef was that my position doesn’t take the “warning passages” seriously. He argued that the warning passages warn true believers of the dangers of leaving apostasy. After considering these texts a bit further, I do agree that the warning texts are addressing believers.

The question then becomes, how should one view and interpret these texts? To put another way, does that fact that the warning passages address believers demand that they can forfeit their salvation?

Thomas Schreiner, in his book Run to Win the Prize, attempts to wade this issue. As a Calvinist, Schreiner adheres to perseverance of saints. However, at the same time, Schreiner agrees that the warning texts address regenerate believers. He admits that the Arminian reading (that the warnings are addressed to believers) of the warning passages is not at all “far-fetched”, and actually takes “the warnings… seriously”.

However, Schreiner disagrees with the Arminian conclusion that believers can lose their salvation. The reason is because while Schreiner wishes to deal with the warning texts fairly, he also wants to deal with the assurnance texts fairly. In essence, he concludes that Arminians are too one-sided when it comes to the passages on the believer’s security in Christ. He says,

The problem with the Arminian reading is that those adhering to [conditional security] do not have a persuasive reading of the assurance texts in Scripture… For instance, Paul assures the Philippians that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). Arminians read this text to say that the good work will be completed, provided that one continues to believe and if one does not fall away. Such a reading, however, drains the verse of virtually all comfort…

…The same line of argument applies to Romans 8:35-39, where Paul promises that nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ. Again the Arminian argues that nothing external can separate believers from Christ’s love, but believers may be detached from Christ by their own choices. Such a reading of the text is unconvincing… The very point Paul makes here is that even the most terrifying experiences will not move one to forsake Christ. The reason for believers’ faithfulness does not lie in the strength of their will but in the love of Christ, which keeps them even through agonizing sufferings.

I totally agree. The security passages are incredibly clear. The question then becomes, how can the warnings texts address believers concerning the dangers of apostasy, if believers cannot/will not apostatize?

Schreiner answer this question by look at the the purpose of the warning texts. He explains, saying:

[The warning texts do in fact warn believers] against falling away, for those who do so will be damned forever. It is precisely at this point that we must [explain]…the function of the warnings in the NT. The writers in the texts we have examined do not accuse their readers as if the latter have fallen away. They admonish them so that they will not fall away. The warnings are prospective, not retrospective. They are like road signs that caution drivers of dangers ahead on the highway. They are written so that readers will heed the warnings and escape the threatened consequence… The purpose of warnings in the NT is redemptive and salvific. The Lord uses them as means so that believers will escape death…

This is an interesting way to observe the warnings. What Schreiner means to explain is that the NT warnings are a means by which God keeps his elect in the faith. Those in the Reformed camp would all agree that God uses means to infallibly save and keep his people. Schreiner argues that the warning texts are one of God’s main ways of doing so. Another important observation is that the warnings are prospective, not retrospective — in other words, the warnings do not address those who have already left the faith — they warn believers of what would happen if they did apostatize.

Schreiner continues:

I would contend that all true believers (all the elect, all those who have the Holy Spirit and enjoy the forgiveness of sins and are members of the new covenant) heed the warnings and are thereby saved. In other words, the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in the faith until the end… The warnings in the NT, then, do not rebuke believers for falling away. They urge them most earnestly not to do so…

The main objection that is raised against this reading of the warnings is that the warning is drained of all significance if it cannot be fulfilled. If the elect always and inevitably fulfill the warning, then what is the point of giving the admonition? [To answer by way of illustration], the other day I was driving my car in reverse and almost hit a parked car behind me, but my son cried out, “Dad, stop!” His warning caused me to put on the brakes and prevented me from hitting the car. In the same way, because, when my children were small, I threatened punishments if they ran into the street, they never ran into the street. Warnings are not abstractions. They are the means God uses to keep believers from falling away.

Schreiner ends his argument by making this helpful clarification:

God has promised that his elect will persevere, just as he promised to grant faith to his chosen ones. Such a promise does not eliminate [responsibility]. Both the summons to persevere and [the call to believe] in the gospel are conditions that must be fulfilled to be saved, but in both instances God grants the grace so that the conditions will certainly be fulfilled in those who belong to him.

While I believe that my last post is still in harmony with this position, I think Schreiner has a helpful discussion, especially considering the nature of the warning passages in the NT.

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A Biblical Defense of the Perseverance of the Saints

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I’ve had a lot of interaction on this site recently regarding perseverance, or eternal security; so I thought it would be helpful to write a response as to why I hold to perseverance of the saints, and why I reject conditional perseverance.

First, I want to start with some terms:

Grace: Grace, by definition is unmerited favor. Meaning, favor that is given regardless of merit or demerit . The New Testament is fraught with this theme. Grace is given to God’s people. And what this means, to me at least, is that for grace to be grace, there cannot be anything can do to earn or lose it. Grace, by definition of being unmerited favor, ceases to be grace, if I can lose or forfeit salvation.

Justification: Biblically, the doctrine of justification means to be declared “not guilty”. Put in the framework of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, it means that God’s wrath has been turned away (Rom 3:25), and that we are already at peace with God (Rom 5:1). It doesn’t mean that we must keep peace with God — it means we have peace with God. The conclusion that Paul draws from this is that we can be assured of glory (Rom 5:2). Paul’s reasoning here is that because we have already been declared “not guilty”, then we can rest assured that we will never be found guilty once again. Someone who has been acquitted no longer has to fear being re-condemned. Justification, by nature, means that I don’t have to fear falling out of God’s good grace.

Regeneration: Paul tells us in Ephesians that we have been made new “and sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph 1:13-14). What Paul means to convey is that the Spirit is God’s downpayment of glory to the Christian. God ensures us future glory by giving us part of that future glory: the Holy Spirit. More than that, the Spirit makes us a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) with new desires and new abilities. We are literally recreated in Christ. What this means is that because we have been created anew, surely we cannot be uncreated. New creations are made for God’s future creation.

I bring all these terms into the discussion, because most people are accustomed to them. People preach on these terms. However, in my opinion, you can’t hold to these essential doctrines and hold to conditional perseverance. How can an acquitted “not guilty” sinner, become guilty again? What is grace if grace can be lost? How can a new creation become uncreated? The Bible portrays these terms in a specific context, which indicates that salvation cannot be lost.

At this point, I want to bring in several texts which point out that a Christian, who is truly justified and regenerated, cannot lost their salvation:

John 6:38-40: For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
John 10:27-29: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 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.
John 3:36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life
Romans 8:39: 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.
Ephesians 1:13-14: In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Philippians 1:6: And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:3-5: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Jude 24-25: Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

There are more, but I’ll stop there. The point that I want to make, is that as much as there might seem to be passages which negate final perseverance, there are many, many more which support it.

The question, to me, then becomes, in light of the aforementioned passages, how do we address other passages which seem to indicate that a Christian can lose or forfeit their salvation?

For instance, Colossians 1:22-23 says, “he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard“. Or what about Hebrews 10:23, which commands us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering”?

I want to first make clear, that I believe in apostasy. Meaning, I believe that people can leave the faith. And those people who leave that faith are not secure. If they die without having repented, they will go to hell. This is why I prefer that the historic doctrine of “perseverance of the saints” not be called “once saved always saved”. What this term implies is that it doesn’t matter what you do, you will always be saved. This isn’t true.

I believe in the historic Protestant doctrine of perseverance, which Wayne Grudem aptly defines: “all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again”. In other words, if you have been born again, you will persevere. Contrastly, if you don’t persevere, it reveals that you have not been born again. In other words, there are a lot of professing Christians, who aren’t really Christians — their falling away proves it.

Now, where is this line of reasoning in the scriptures? I first want to point out that all of the passages which exhort Christians to persevere never say that regenerated, Spirit indwelt believers can lose their salvation. They only command Christians to persevere. We might assume that what the writers are implying is that a true Christian can lose their salvation, but there is no New Testament passage which outright states that.

With that said, below are several scriptures which indicate that if you don’t persevere, you were never saved in the first place. I’ve stressed parts of the verses which explain my point:

1 John 2:18-19: Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 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
Hebrews 3:14: For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end
John 8:31-32: So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth
Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Mark 4:16-17: And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
2 Corinthians 13:5: Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!]
Romans 8:8-10: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness
2 Timothy 2:17-19: Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”

What all of these verses indicate is that if you have been truly saved, then you will endure. But, if you aren’t legitimately born again, it stands to reason that, as Jesus said, you “have no root” in yourself, and will fall away. Hebrews 3:14 tells us that we know we have already come to share in Christ, if we hold fast. He doesn’t say we will come to share in Christ if we hold fast. In other words, our holding fast reveals that we have come to share in Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians to test themselves, and to see whether they pass as legitimate believers. Why would they have to test themselves? Why wouldn’t Paul just tell them that all their sins have caused them to lose their salvation?

I believe that, taken all that evidence, any and every truly saved believer will endure. God will keep them, and they will stay faithful. I have one last verse to make my point: Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:10, talks about the why of his faithfulness. And he says this: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”. By God’s grace we are secure. We work hard, but at the end of the day, it is not us, but the grace of God with us. Yes and amen!

Perseverance of the Saints? Part 2: Paul’s Answer from Romans 5-8

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Following on the heels from my last post, I thought I’d include a bit of commentary from Douglas Moo on the issue of assurance and final perseverance. Douglas Moo makes the argument that in fact the issue of assurance and perseverance runs throughout Romans 5-8 in the form of a chiasm.

Moo explains,

Both [Romans] 5:1-11 and 8:18-39 affirm, against the threat of tribulation and suffering, the certainty of the Christian’s final salvation because of God’s love, the work of Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This theme, the “hope of sharing in God’s glory” (cf. 5:2 and 8:18, 30), “brackets” all of chapters 5-8. Assurance of glory is, then, the overarching theme in this second major section of Romans (Romans 5-8). The verdict of justification, which Jews relegated to the day of judgment, has, Paul proclaims, already been rendered over the person who believes in Jesus. But can that verdict, “hidden” to the senses, guarantee that one will be delivered from God’s wrath when it is poured out in judgment? Yes, affirms Paul. Nothing can stand in its way: not death (5:12-21), not sin (chap. 6), not the law (chap. 7) — nothing! (chap. 8). What God has begun, having justified and reconciled us, he will bring to a triumphant conclusion, and save us from wrath.

As 8:18-39 shares a common theme with 5:1-11, so 8:1-17 has much in common with 5:12-21. And sandwiched in between these passages is 6:1-7:25. Here Paul focuses on the situation of the Christian in this life — a situation of some tension and conflict because, while transferred through our justification into the new realm of God’s kingdom, the powers of the old realm to which we no longer belong nevertheless continue to influence us. Temptations to sin, the sufferings that are a part of our sin-sick world, and the last enemy — the death of the body — must still be faced. But, proclaims Paul, the God who has provided for the beginning of spiritual life (justification) and the end (glorification) also provides the “between”. In union with Christ, we have been delivered from the tyranny of sin (chap. 6) and the law (chap. 7). At the risk of oversimplifying a complex section and obscuring many other significant connections, we may view the main development of chapters 5-8 as a …chiasm:

A. 5:1-11 — Assurance of future glory

B. 5:12-21 — Basis of this assurance in the work of Christ

C. 6:1-23 — The problem of sin

C’. 7:1-25 — The problem of the law

B’. 8:1-17 — Ground of assurance in the work of Christ, mediated by the Spirit

A’. 8:18-39 — Assurance of future glory

… In chapters 5-8, then, Paul invites the Christian to join with him in joyful thanksgiving for what the gospel provides — a new life given to God’s service in this life and a certain, glorious hope for the life to come.¹

¹ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo. pp 293-294

Perseverance of the Saints? Paul’s Answer from Romans 5

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Can a Christian lose their salvation? I think the biblical answer, from every biblical author, is an emphatic no.

I can’t think of any better passage to examine in light of this question than Romans 5. Paul writes Romans 5 after having examined our helplessness in sin in Romans 1-2, and God’s method of salvation in Romans 3-4. Paul finishes his argument in Romans 3-4 by saying that God saves through Jesus’ wrath satisfying death on the cross. Because Jesus suffered the wrath of God, we who practice faith are saved from this wrath.

Paul begins chapter 5 by giving the “therefore” of this justifying death. Paul starts out by saying that because Jesus suffered the wrath of God, we “have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). Before the cross, we were at enmity with God. Paul tells us in Romans 1:30 we were “haters of God”, rebellious and at war with him. Because of this, God’s wrath was upon us. His anger toward our sin was directed at us. But, because Jesus took our sins on his body, and suffered God’s just wrath, this puts this cosmic war to rest. It means that we are at peace with God. It means our enmity with God is put to death.

More than this though, Paul tells us that because we are at complete peace with God, we can “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2b). When Paul says hope, he doesn’t mean in the same way we do. He is using the word hope like we use the words promise or guarantee. RC Sproul rightly says that biblically, hope is “faith merely looking forward”. So what Paul is meaning to communicate here, is that because God’s wrath has been dealt with, we have a sure hope, or guarantee of sharing and enjoying God’s glory in eternity. In essence, the peace with have with God now is a guarantee of the glory we will have with God in the future. Paul is talking about the assurance of final salvation.

Paul goes on to tell us that this hope allows us to suffer in a different manner than others. We can suffer, and go through trials (Rom 5:3-4), knowing that this isn’t the end. We have a hope that one day we will share glory with God, enjoying and worshipping him forever. In fact, Paul says quite emphatically that we have a hope that “does not put put us to shame” (Rom 5:5). In other words, God doesn’t promise us eternal glory without giving us eternal glory. God will never go back on his word. And because of that, we know that our hope won’t put us to shame. And so Paul emphatically argues for final perseverance. God will keep those whom he has saved.

And if that wasn’t argument enough, Paul adds another layer in Romans 5:6-11. The climax of his argument is in verse 10, where he says, “for if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life”. What an incredible verse! In essence, what Paul is telling us is, “if God is able to save us at our worst, what is stopping him from keeping us until the end?”. The answer, of course, is nothing. If God saved us while we were still enemies of him, how much more can he keep us and save us until the end? The point is, God has saved us, and he will keep us.

What Paul is arguing through this whole passage is the fact that if God has made peace with us through Christ, he will keep us until the end, into glory. Final salvation is something guaranteed by God, and kept by God.

I think a lot of times, when Christians argue about whether a Christian can lose their salvation, the only thing that comes to mind is whether a Christian can forfeit salvation. But this is not at all how Paul sees the question in Romans 5. Paul posses the question in a totally different light. Instead of asking, “can lose my salvation?”, Paul asks, “Can God lose my salvation?”. And he emphatically answer no on several different levels. I believe we need to look at this question the way Paul does.

Douglas Wilson says it this way, “Christians cannot lose their salvation, for the simple reason that their salvation does not belong to them. It belongs to Christ. If anyone is to lose it, it must be he. And he has promised not to”. Jesus is the securer of our salvation. This means that it is he who has it, and it is he who keeps it. This is Paul’s point through the entire passage of Romans 5.

And in fact, he will argue this point from Romans 5-8, ending with the weight conclusion, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

Perseverance and the Gospel

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Timothy Paul Jones, co-writer of PROOF, articulates well why perseverance is a gospel issue. If a Christian can forfeit or lose or reject their salvation, then grace by definition is lost. Consequently, the gospel itself is lost.

Jones describes how many today perceive that salvation begins with God’s grace, but is kept by our own effort. He continues saying,

Seen this way, our salvation begins by God’s grace — but then it’s up to us to stay saved. Whether or not we remain in God’s good graces depends on our choices. Perhaps there are certain unpardonable sins that must be avoided or certain levels of growth that must be maintained or even religious rites that must be performed. Jesus starts it, but we finish it. But God, according to the scriptures, doesn’t only start our salvation; he plans it and guarantees it from beginning to end…It’s clear throughout the scriptures that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are working together at all times to sustain our salvation to the very end of time.

  • The Father plans our salvation to the end, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)
  • The Son promises to carry out our salvation to the end: Jesus is both “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Jesus doesn’t start our faith as the pioneer, but then leave us to finish the project. Jesus is the one who brings it to completion as “the perfecter” of our faith as well.
  • The Spirit guarantees our salvation to the end: God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

That’s good news for believers in Jesus Christ because it means you don’t have to keep up the payments on your salvation! If you’ve trusted Jesus, it’s not because you planed that faith in your fleeting and faulty wisdom. It’s because God set his heart on you from eternity past; God made this choice knowing everything about you — past, present, and future! As a result, nothing can change his choice to pour out his grace on you.

Not your sin.

Not our fears.

Not the darkness that gnaws at your heart that no one else knows about.

Nothing in your future.

Nothing in your past.

Nothing in all creation.

Nothing at all can separate you from God’s love.

God proved his love for you once and for all through the cross of Jesus and the empty tomb — and nothing can change his determination to save you by his grace. That’s the promise of forever grace. Forever grace means that God preserves us in his grace and that we persevere by this same grace. Both of these realities are rooted in God’s gracious work. Neither one is a work that originates in us, and both truths are essential. We can glimpse both of these truths at the same time in the same verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (that’s a command to persevere) “with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30) — that’s an assurance that you will be preserved… God’s planning never writes a check his power can’t cash!

What a comfort to know that if God has saved us in Christ, he will keep us in Christ. He will preserve us, and ensure that we will persevere until the end. As Douglas Wilson once said, Works-righteousness “is a barren mother; she will never have any children, much less gracious children. Grace is fruitful; her children are many, and they all work hard“.