The Preserving Power of a Father's Love
In the seemingly endless debate over the perseverance of the saints, one often hears something like the following: “If a Christian chooses to abandon faith in Jesus Christ, a loving God would never work in his/her heart so as to guarantee that they remain in the kingdom.”
People who say this don’t deny that God is at work in our souls to influence us to remain faithful. What they deny is that God has the sovereign right to ultimately overcome or overrule our willful resistance and thereby ensure that we continue to exercise faith in Jesus. The idea seems to be that in exercising his will to influence our will, there is a point beyond which God cannot go. The idea, evidently, is that if you or I should turn from Christ and choose to yield to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that God will not keep us in relationship with himself against our will. He will, in effect, release us to our chosen ways. If we choose to wrench free of his grip, he will loosen his hold on our hearts and leave us to whatever path we will to walk.
I could try to be diplomatic and simply say that I find this notion untenable or unthinkable. But I’ve decided instead to be honest and say that I find it abominable. It is, I believe, an assault on the character and faithfulness and goodness of God. Yes, I know those are strong words, so let me try to explain my position with an illustration.
We lived in Dallas, Texas, for twelve years, from 1973 to 1985. Our daughter Melanie was born in 1978. Although it was an annual event, we had not taken her to the Texas State Fair until 1984. Even then, we were somewhat reluctant to go. There had been a rash of child abductions in the Dallas – Ft. Worth area during the course of the year and most parents, like my wife and I, were concerned for their children’s welfare. The Dallas Morning News issued a warning to parents that, should they attend the State Fair, they should be extremely cautious and keep close watch over their kids.
Needless to say, Ann and I were extremely careful with Melanie that day. She was only six years old, but she was pretty stubborn for her age. Everywhere we went on the midway she saw something she wanted. Whether it was cotton candy or a clown or a game throwing balls at milk cans, she ran toward it with reckless abandon. Each time I pulled her aside and said, “Melanie, you simply can’t do that. You must stay right here with me and mom. Don’t run off like that. It’s not safe.”
It worked for a while, but then we walked past another sideshow she wanted to experience, and off she went again. I could no longer afford to let her run free, so I took hold of her hand and applied a firm grip. On numerous occasions she tried to pull free. She yelled at me to walk faster. She struggled to break free of my grip so she could run first, into the Fun House, and then onto the roller coaster. She pulled and pulled, drawn as she was by the lights and sounds and promises of thrill rides and delicious candy.
Each time she sought to pull away, my grip intensified. I knew what possibly awaited her if I were to let go of her hand. Was I irritated by her demands to be set free? Yes. Was I disappointed that she so lightly regarded my commitment to protect her from obvious dangers and potential threats to her life? Yes. Was I, for those or any other reasons, in the least way inclined to let go of her hand and let her have her way? Not for a single, solitary second! My love for her and my commitment to her safety and my devotion to her welfare never altered, never wavered, never diminished in the slightest degree.
But let’s suppose I had chosen to do otherwise. Let’s imagine that in my growing frustration with her willful ways I finally reached the end of my patience and said: “O.K. Have it your way. I’ve done all I can. I’ve done all I’m allowed to do. After all, it’s your life. Go ahead and run off to your worldly pleasures.” And then I let go of her hand, releasing her to horrid possibilities that I had rather not describe.
What would you think of me then? What kind of father would you consider me to be? A reprehensible wretch? Yes! A heartless father unwilling to do whatever was necessary to overcome the resistance of his child and preserve her from fatal harm? Yes!
If I, being as I am a selfish sinner, would go to every length possible to preserve my precious little girl and protect her from fatal harm, how much more will your Heavenly Father, being as he is a glorious and loving and good savior, preserve and protect and sustain you in his arms! Am I more loving than God? Am I willing to do for my child what He is unwilling to do for His?
One of the greatest mistakes made by those who deny the perseverance of the saints is in focusing on the strength of our will to rebel rather than the strength of God’s commitment to preserve us in faith. Do you actually believe that in His infinite wisdom and love and kindness and grace that He cannot figure out a way to overcome whatever rebellious tendencies you might have and keep you safe in His arms? Do you actually believe that you are able to outsmart Divine Omniscience?
Now, all analogies and comparisons eventually break down. They are not capable of communicating everything about the truth they are designed to illustrate. In fact, if we aren’t careful, we can press an analogy too far and end up denying some other important or related truth. It isn’t uncommon for people to draw conclusions we never intended by the use of a particular analogy or illustration.
For example, I suspect that some will object to my analogy because it suggests to them the horribly unbiblical doctrine that a Christian can come to faith in Christ and subsequently live however they please, perhaps in repeated, unrepentant, and willful sin, and still go to heaven. Perhaps you are inclined to think that the analogy of my daughter and the State Fair endorses the notion that because I refuse to let go of her hand, no matter how incessantly she struggles to pull away, she can proceed to live in rebellion and unbelief but remain “eternally secure”. I assure you, if that is what you think I’m saying you have distorted the analogy and pushed it well beyond what it was intended to communicate.
So let me return to the analogy and add another dimension. If I am a loving father to my daughter and am committed to not letting her run off into fatal harm, I am equally committed to working with her once we have returned home so that she might learn the importance of being cautious at the State Fair and in other potentially dangerous places. If I love her I will devote my time and resources to teaching her common sense principles about survival in a fallen world and the truths about human nature. I will purchase books for her to read that will educate her in the basic realities of life. I will spend time with her encouraging, instructing, rebuking, directing, disciplining and loving her, all in view of helping her grow up out of her youthful and stubborn ways. My goal will be to employ every resource available and to use every ounce of my wisdom and experience to facilitate her maturity as a young woman so that she will recognize danger and deception and turn from them. But at no point in the process of education and growth will I ever let go of her hand!
My point is that the analogy is not designed to suggest that a Christian can continue to “press the envelope” and run from God and turn to self-indulgent and sinful ways while resting assured that no matter what they do or believe they will enter heaven once they die. The loving and gracious Heavenly Father who is determined never to lighten his grip on our hands and hearts is also determined to educate us in the faith and empower us to fulfill his will and encourage us to walk in wisdom and holiness and purity of heart. He is committed to do whatever is necessary and to employ every resource available to an infinite Deity to keep us secure and safe and saved.
And the remarkable thing about God’s determination in this regard is that he is able to do it without “violating” the integrity of the human will. In keeping us secure God does not reduce His children to mindless automatons or robots. He employs no coercive tactics, no compelling forces, but by the sovereign and persuasive power of His kindness and grace he effectually secures our obedience and preserves us in the faith which the Spirit first wrought in our hearts (1 Peter 1:5). This is the mystery and miracle of God’s saving, sanctifying, preserving grace in the human soul. For him to do anything less would be an abandonment not only of us, his children, but of his own loving and compassionate and covenant-keeping character as God.
This is what the apostle Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 1:5 where he describes the “elect” (1 Peter 1:1) of God as those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” We are kept safe and saved by God not apart from faith, not irrespective of faith, but only through and by means of faith. John Piper put it this way:
“What is the one thing that cuts us off from heaven? The answer is unbelief. Not trusting God. Not living ‘by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us’ (Gal. 2:20). So what does [1 Peter 1] verse 5 mean then when it says we are "protected [from losing our final salvation] by the power of God through faith." It means that God's power protects us for salvation by sustaining our faith. The only thing that can keep us from heaven is forsaking our faith in Christ, and turning to other hopes, other treasures. So to protect us God prevents that. He inspires and nourishes and strengthens and builds our faith. And in doing this he secures us against the only thing that could destroy us; unbelief, lack of trust in God” (sermon on 1 Peter 1:5, “The Elect Are Kept By the Power of God,” October 17, 1993, www.desiringgod.org).
God does not guarantee our perfection in faith in this life, but he does promise our perseverance in faith. Hear again the confidence of Paul in describing the Philippians: “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” (Phil. 1:6). Was it possible for these Philippian believers, and is it possible for you and me, to wander, for a season, from the shepherd of our souls? Yes. But the Good Shepherd will search for and rescue all of his sheep. “I give them [my sheep] 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 10:28-29).
We are eternally secure because God is eternally committed to keeping and sustaining us in that faith in Jesus apart from which there is no hope for life. My ultimate confidence is not in the power of my will to believe but in the promise of God to graciously cause me to persevere in faith in Jesus.
Do I believe in the “eternal security” of the elect? I most certainly do. Do I believe that those who are “once truly saved are always truly saved”? I most certainly do. But I believe they are eternally secure in their salvation because an infinitely wise and loving and powerful God is committed to working in them to do his will and good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13; Hebrews 13:21) so that they will persevere in the faith and trust and holiness of life that are essential for entrance into his eternal kingdom.
So, would you let go of your child’s hand? If not, what makes you think God will let go of yours?