On July 1, Trinity Church heard Paul's words in Colossians 1:21-23.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 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, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
The second half of this paragraph in particular raises a lot of questions. Why does Paul clarify that only those who continue in the faith will be presented holy and blameless before God? Doesn't he know that there are many Christians who struggle with doubts about their salvation and are scared to death by this kind of statement? Isn't he just throwing fuel on the flame of our natural insecurities? Because the biblical teaching about the perseverance of the saints is often misunderstood in ways that lead to anxiety rather than comfort, we need to be sure we have a proper framework for thinking about perseverance in our own lives and the lives of those believers around us.
Reformed theology has historically taught that those who are born again to believe the gospel will be preserved in the faith by God's grace. To put it simply, this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints says that genuine Christians will not ultimately forsake Christ, but will keep on believing the gospel of Jesus because of the Spirit's work in their hearts. This kind of language is probably familiar to many of us, but it is subject to many misrepresentations.
For many, the familiar slogan "once saved, always saved" summarizes just about everything we need to know about the security of our salvation. But this motto gives the superficial impression that everyone who has ever professed faith in Jesus is eternally secure, even though they might not show any evidence of the Spirit's work and eventually completely reject the gospel. "Once saved, always saved" often has the unfortunate effect of confirming those who have never actually believed the gospel that they are just fine. On the other extreme, some suggest that the perseverance of the saints means that you (in your own power) have to keep yourself faithful to Jesus and can possibly lose your salvation. While this view emphasizes the importance of continuing in the faith, it puts all the pressure on weak and sinful people who, apart from the empowering grace of God, are unable to keep our hearts fixed on the cross, and it makes impossible the kind of confidence and hope and assurance that Scripture gives those who belong to God.
So what does the Bible basically teach about Christian perseverance? Here are five statements that can help shape the way we think about this issue and direct us to rightly rest in Jesus.
1) God promises to preserve his people in faith by his grace
Though we often talk about the perseverance of the saints, it might be more helpful to talk about this doctrine as the preservation of the saints. Why? Because the language of preservation correctly suggests that our perseverance is the product of what God does in preserving us by his grace.
Jesus promises his followers that "all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out...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 6:37, 40). Elsewhere the Savior states, "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 10:27-29). Paul assures believers that "for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:28-30). Those chosen by God from before the foundation of the world will be brought to glory with Christ. And Paul also says that he is sure that "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).
In these passages and many others, God proclaims to his people that the salvation and life he begins when we are made alive by his Holy Spirit to look to Jesus in faith will reach completion. "They will never perish." "No one will snatch them out of my hand." Those are words of security and promise because Jesus tells us God will not allow anyone or anything to interrupt or obstruct his saving purposes for his people.
We must always recognize that saints persevere because God preserves. The Christian's continued trust in Jesus is upheld by God's grace, and the believer's continuing faith is sustained by God's keeping power, because God is the one who commits himself in Scripture to finishing what he started and guarding his covenant people. If God did not preserve his people, we would wander and throw ourselves into the deadly traps of deceitful idols. We would turn our backs on the gospel and indulge in our worship of lesser things without a second thought. Praise God that he calls us to himself by grace, and that he also keeps our hope fixed on Christ by grace. Our understanding of perseverance has to be absolutely saturated with God's commitment to carry his people to completion because his preserving grace makes possible our perseverance.
2) Christ's cross purchased a complete salvation
Jesus didn't live, die, and rise again to accomplish a halfway redemption. When he went to the cross, he purchased a people for himself so that he could finally bring them into the glorious presence of the Triune God. Many times, we live and believe as if Jesus' work was sufficient for our conversion, but now it's our duty to keep ourselves in God's grace through effort, striving, and works. But Jesus didn't just die for your conversion; he died for your entire salvation: your regeneration, your conversion, your union with Christ, your justification, your sanctification, and your glorification. God's promise to preserve his people in grace and bring them ultimately to his eternal kingdom is grounded in the fact that Jesus accomplished everything necessary to ensure the complete salvation of his people.
Fear about one's salvation is frequently linked to a deficient understanding of the cross. If the Holy Spirit has made you alive to hear and believe the good news of Jesus, you can take comfort in the fact that the cross which granted you righteousness before God is the same cross that guaranteees God will finish your salvation by preserving you in faith until the day of glory when you join all God's people in the consummated kingdom. God redeemed you through the blood of his Son, and he will not allow any obstacle to get in the way of applying to you all the benefits of the salvation that Jesus purchased. So when anxiety is abundant and assurance is nowhere to be found, look again to the cross (and not to yourself) for the hope that Jesus has done all that's required for your entire salvation.
3) God's preserving grace should be a source of joy, not anxiety
All too often, discussions of the perseverance of the saints conjures up a lot of doubts and anxieties in believers who recognize that they are unable to keep themselves trusting Jesus. But for the believer, the promise of God's preserving grace is a liberating truth, a blessedly freeing word indeed. God's promise to keep us means you don't keep yourself. It means your continuing faithfulness is not the product of your own power. It means your perseverance isn't merely conditioned upon your ability to stir up passion and zeal in your own heart for Jesus. It means that your continuing in the faith and standing steadfast in the hope of the gospel is ultimately the gracious and undeserved work of God.
What sweet rest we can enjoy when we recognize that the God who declared us righteous and free from condemnation in Christ Jesus will not change his mind about us or revoke his word! What extraordinary thankfulness we can experience when we see that Jesus' work on our behalf guarantees not only our conversion, but our sanctification and final glorification on the last day! What confident security we can know when we hear God's word to us say that he will not let us fall away completely and leave the gospel of Jesus! The reality of God's preserving grace strips the doctrine of perseverance of the normal questions and fears and replaces them with humble assurance in the Father's ability to make good on his promises.
4) Christians persevere because Jesus is the sole redeemer
Our perseverance in the faith is rooted in the finished work of Christ in his death and resurrection. To say it another way, the uniqueness of Jesus' cross is the motivation for our standing firm in the gospel. That's the way Paul encourages perseverance in Colossians 1: he points out that nothing else in all the world possesses Jesus' authority (verses 15-17) or can bring about the salvation that Jesus has accomplished (18-20). Then and only then does he charge the Colossians to guard themselves from wrong teaching and hold fast to their confession. The fixed, immovable, certain nature of our hope in Christ and the fact that there is no real life or joy or peace or salvation apart from Jesus empower the daily battle to fight false gospels and imposter saviors and keep on believing Christ.
5) If all Christians will persevere, it is right and good for us to encourage one another to persevere
The Bible calls us to hold fast to our hope in Christ too many times for us to be timid about encouraging perseverance. A lot of the time, we don't want to talk about the necessity of perseverance because we fear it will cause anxiety or a lack of assurance in those who hear us (or maybe because thinking along those lines raises the same kinds of feelings in us). But when we see Christian perseverance within the framework of God's preserving grace and the sufficiency of Christ's gospel to meet all of our needs, we will understand that the call to persevere is not a call to try harder or to make sure you don't lose your salvation or to single-handedly guard yourself. The call to persevere is the call to keep trusting the only Savior who is able to bring you to God; it is the call to rest in the one who has purchased your life; it is the call to live in the joy of what Jesus has already accomplished for you.
Only those who continue in the faith will be presented blameless before God. And all who are hoping in Jesus today will be kept, maintained, and preserved in the faith by God's grace.
T'was grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.