Perseverance of the Saints

Introduction

Although related to another article (Can Someone Fall from Grace?), in this article we will study and respond to Calvin's explanation of the "Perseverance of the Saints" . This fifth and final tenet of Calvinism teaches that Christians cannot fall from God's grace, but they will "persevere" to the end. This implies that no Christian can revert to a lost condition regardless of his or her actions.

The Real Question

What makes this topic confusing is that passages referring to the confidence and security of the Christian are often interpreted as proof that the Christian cannot change, become wicked, and be lost - the impossibility of apostasy. The Bible does teach that the diligent and honest Christian should have confidence in his or her own salvation (II Timothy 4:6-8; I John 4:17-18; Philippians 4:4-9); however, the Scriptures nowhere teaches that the disobedient or willfully ignorant Christian may enjoy the comfort of an assured home in heaven. This is the real question, not "Can a Christian give his everything to the Lord, study day and night, be faithful in prayer, be honest in all his self-evaluations and still end up lost?" The real question is, "What happens to the saint who ceases to care, returns to his former sinfulness, and dies with a heart hardened to the blessings that he once enjoyed?"

Calvinistic doctrines would answer this question as follows:

"They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit can neither totally nor finally fall away from the status of Grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved." The Confession of Faith, Chapter XVII, Section 1

Calvin taught that the Christian cannot completely fall away. He may stumble and leave the faith for a while, but eventually the Lord will always bring the elect back. This must be maintained else the doctrine concerning the election and all of Calvinism will be destroyed. This certainly harmonizes with Calvinism as a whole, but does it harmonize with Scripture?

A Real Danger of Apostasy

If according to Calvin, the Christian cannot completely fall away, then there is no real danger of the saint apostatizing. However, the Scriptures teach that there is an ever-present and threatening danger of apostasy:

"Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called 'Today', lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin."  Hebrews 3:12-13

"Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.  For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? ..."  Hebrews 2:1-3

"Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.  Therefore, let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."  I Corinthians 10:11-12

Now if there is no danger in the Christian falling from grace, then what is the meaning of these warnings? These passages teach that Christians can become hardened through the deception of sin, which is that "One more time won't hurt...". They also teach that the saint may drift away and eventually fall. If these warnings are not real, then what other meaning could they rationally denote?

Examples of Apostasy

Not only does the Scriptures provide us warning to avoid apostasy, but we also have examples of those who fell away. These warnings were actually intended as warnings for us that we might not fall away (I Corinthians 10:11-12):

"... Having faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymaenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme."  I Timothy 1:19-20

These Christians had "suffered shipwreck" concerning the faith, and had even been "delivered to Satan". Were these people still in a state of grace and pleasing to the Lord? How else could God more concisely say that these people were lost at that time, and would be in danger of hell if they did not repent? Would He have to actually use the words "fallen from grace"?

Please read the following judgment that Paul issued to the Galatian Christians:

"You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace." Galatians 5:4

How more plainly can it be stated? Those who were once in a relationship with Christ have been separated from Him and fallen from grace. Now, some may desperately suggest that in spite of all this language, these people had not lost their justification and continued in their status of election and righteousness before God. If you are so inclined to think, kind reader, please consider the following passages:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ , just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" Ephesians 1:3-4

"being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," Romans 3:24

If someone is without Christ, with whom lies all spiritual blessings, and fallen from the grace that justifies them, then how can they stand justified before God? We might have an answer, if God had promised to justify us contrary to Jesus and the Scriptures, but what kind of god makes promises inconsistent with himself? Dear friend, faith without foundation in scripture is a faith without promise and hope, which is no kind of faith at all (Romans 10:17). Will you trust in Calvin or in Christ?

"But, not 'Totally' or 'Finally'"

The Calvinist might also fairly point out that the creed only states that the saint may not 'totally' or 'finally' be lost. This implies that one may fall away for a while, but then return back to Christ. Although this may certainly happen (II Corinthians 2:6-11), the creed demands out of logical consistency that this person not lose his justification, or election. If he or she became truly lost or reprobate, then the unalterable, eternal edict of God, issued before time began, would be altered. Therefore, to be consistent, the saint may stumble but not fall. If he falls, then the eternal edict is altered.

With this in mind please revisit our last point. The Galatian Christians had "fallen from grace" and become "estranged from Christ" by which they forfeited "all blessings in Christ" and their "justification by grace". At least for that moment, they reverted to an unjustified and reprobate state before God. It does not matter whether it was total or final. They had lost their justification, altering the unalterable election of God. When God's plan was altered, absolute predestination became inaccurate, and God's election was defeated - if Calvinism be true. If Calvinism is not true, then the Galatians were simply in a dangerous state, from which they could repent and be saved, if they chose to comply with God's conditions (I John 1:9).

Conclusion

The question that we must answer, and whose Bible answer we must accept, is, "Can the saint willfully return to sin and be lost?" The clear warnings of Jesus' and His apostles teach that not only is the possibility of apostasy real, but it is dangerous. "Therefore, let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall." The examples of those who fell from grace show not only that it is possible for the saint to fall from grace, but some saints did fall from grace, losing their justification. In the Scripture, not only do we see Christians who lost their justification, but we also see strong and faithful Christians, who diligently struggled so that they would not fall - for example, the apostle Paul (I Corinthians 9:27). With these warnings and real examples of fallen saints and struggling Christians, how can we honestly and rationally affirm that all the saints will persevere, even if they are wicked? We must each examine our own hearts; do we seek to maintain a creed and tradition? Will we answer our questions with Scripture, or question Scripture with our answers? God knows and will judge (Hebrews 4:12-13; Matthew 7:21-23).

Next: A Personal Defense: Why I am not a Calvinist

If you have any questions or comments about this article or this series, please contact the author. Be sure to consult our FAQ on Calvinism: Responses to the Calvinist.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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