Perseverance of the Saints: An Introduction to the Debate
Can a true believer, one who has been born again and justified by faith alone in Christ alone, fully and finally fall away so as to forfeit his/her salvation? This question has provoked seemingly endless debate in the body of Christ. Those who answer Yes and those who answer No are convinced they have the weight of biblical evidence on their side. Each position has its favorite proof texts. But each position also has its problem passages.
Those of you who have browsed my website are probably aware that I have addressed this issue in a number of places. I take up several of the more problematic biblical texts in the Deciphering Difficult Texts folder in the Biblical Studies section. It is also in the Biblical Studies section that one will find my treatment of passages in Romans and 1 John, among other biblical books. A variety of related themes is addressed elsewhere on the site.
I decided that it would probably be helpful if I were to combine all these articles in one place so that those interested in this debate wouldn’t have to go searching the site for them.
Please note: I am not for a moment suggesting that I have addressed all the relevant biblical texts. There are several texts on both sides of the debate that I hope to examine and make available as time allows. It isn’t that I am deliberately avoiding passages that you may think settle the argument. I simply haven’t had the time to study them yet.
As most of you know, I am a strong and vocal advocate of the belief that those who are sovereignly elected by God for salvation, that is to say, those who by the Spirit’s work are born again and justified by faith alone in Christ alone, will, by the work of that same gracious Spirit, persevere until life’s end. Yes, true believers can backslide and fall into grievous sin, but God the Father, on the basis of the work of God the Son, will, through God the Spirit, preserve them in faith and present them to Himself on that final day of judgment.
This is why I believe it is better to speak of the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints than of the doctrine of Eternal Security. The latter terminology has often been taken to mean that a person can profess faith in Christ, only later to turn utterly from Christ and live persistently in unrepentant sin, and still be assured of eternal life. I do not believe that is possible.
A quick aside: some of you may wonder, then, why I labeled this study, “Eternal Security” rather than “Perseverance of the Saints.” The reason is simply that most Christians are familiar with the former but less so with the latter. I asked myself how many would visit this folder if it merely said “Perseverance”. Not many, I fear. So, yes, I confess, the title is a hook to get you into the study.
The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints asserts that God will preserve in saving faith those whom he has chosen and called and justified. Perhaps, then, we should refer to the doctrine of the Preservation of God, not in the sense that He needs preserving, but in the sense that He is committed to preserving and protecting and sustaining His elect people in faith and vital union with Jesus Christ.
Yes, I know this raises many questions in your mind. But this is not the place to answer them. I hope and pray that my discussion of the many relevant biblical texts will accomplish that.
So, why do people doubt or deny the doctrine of eternal security? There are several reasons:
1) Tradition: "That's what I was raised to believe. I can't bring myself to believe that mom and dad and the preacher and my friends were wrong." This is a far more powerful influence, subtle and unconscious though it be, than most of us realize. To be open to being persuaded of another view seems like we are saying, “The past was all for nought. It meant nothing.” That is difficult for everyone to cope with.
2) Biblical passages such as Hebrews 6 and 10 that appear to assert explicitly that Christians can forfeit their salvation or fall from grace exercise a considerable influence on many people. I hope you will take the time to carefully read my exposition of them.
3) They fear that if people are told they can't lose their salvation, they will take advantage of this to indulge in gross immorality. They fear it will lead people to think: "If I can't lose my salvation, I'll do whatever I please" (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.). In other words, the legitimate concern for holiness leads some to an illegitimate rejection of security.
4) They have known people who they are convinced are Christians, who later fall away. Believing them to have truly been born again, the only explanation is that they have lost their salvation.
5) Certain religious leaders need people to be insecure in their salvation in order to retain control over them. Fear is a powerful means whereby to keep people under one's religious thumb.
6) Many believe that eternal security diminishes a person's moral responsibility. It places too much emphasis on God's sovereignty and not enough on human free will.
7) The exhortations in Scripture to be holy, to persevere, to endure, make sense only if the possibility exists that one may choose not to do so.
8) Finally, many fear that if perseverance or security is embraced, people will lose their motivation to pray and pursue holiness and avoid moral compromise. Note well: even if that were true, it isn’t a sufficient reason to reject the doctrine of perseverance. We must affirm or deny perseverance based on what Scripture says, not on what we fear may or may not be the practical consequences of a doctrine. I personally don’t believe that someone who truly understands the doctrine of perseverance will exploit it in this way. But even if they do, the question remains: What saith the Scriptures?
So, I encourage you to begin your study of this issue with the two articles entitled, “A Defense of Perseverance”. From there you can then examine the many biblical texts that are found in this folder. May God give you (and me) the grace to think biblically.