May 6, 2013
i. They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally, nor finally, fall away from the state of grace: but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
Someone has said that a half-truth is often a great lie. Someone else quipped that you should beware of a half-truth, because you may have gotten ahold of the wrong half. Such is the case with the statement, "Once saved, always saved."
Often people say "once saved, always saved" in the context of making a decision for Christ. They mean that if you ask Jesus into your heart or pray to accept Christ as your personal Savior, then no matter what you do, you are going to heaven. Famously, one advocate of this view has said publicly that all one needs is thirty seconds of saving faith! Many people concerned for the health and holiness of the church object to such an idea. They are right to do so because it is not biblical truth. It is also not the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
Reformed Christianity teaches that God preserves His people so that they continue to follow Christ in faith and obedience all the way to glory. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the promise, grounds, and necessary watchfulness of perseverance in its seventeenth chapter. The first paragraph of WCF 17 states the promise of perseverance. Those in "the state of grace . . . shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved." To persevere is to persistently and patiently pursue Christ through pain and persecution, in spite of assaults, temptation, lapses into sin, and struggles with unbelief.
This promise is precious because you must persevere in order to be saved (Heb. 3:6, 14). Christ warned His disciples that they will face persecution. "He that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matt. 10:22; cf. 24:13). He said, "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (John 15:4). To abide is to continue in a vital relationship to Christ as your source of life. The apostle Paul wrote that you are reconciled to God and will be presented as blameless in His sight, "if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel" (Col. 1:23). Perseverance is not optional to salvation. Rather, it is one of the surest marks of true faith.
God's love therefore secures the perseverance of His people so they will enter the joys of His glory. As a term of the new covenant in Christ, He promises: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me" (Jer. 32:40). Everyone born again by God's grace overcomes the world by faith (1 John 5:3-4). Even as his faith is tested by painful trials, God keeps him safe by using His power to preserve and purify his faith (1 Peter 1:5-7).
God's grace creates a people who willingly persevere in faith. He does not drag people kicking and screaming into the kingdom or save anyone against his will: "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). Rather, He draws them to come to Christ in faith, and Christ will never cast them out or lose even one of them, but will raise every one of them up to glory on the last day (John 6:37-40). Even when many who have professed to be Christ's disciples turn back from Him, and some treacherously betray Him, true believers will not leave Him because they know only He can give them eternal life (John 6:66-71). They have a God-given appetite that only Christ can satisfy, and they will cling to Him forever.
Someone might object that both the Bible and experience show that some Christians do fall away from Christ. Yes, it is a sad fact that they do. The Confession wisely speaks of the perseverance of only those "whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit." This is not everyone who comes to church or responds positively to the gospel. Christ Himself teaches that some "receive the word with joy" and "for a while believe," but trouble or temptation cause them to fall away (Luke 8:13). However, they were not true believers, for in the same Scripture the Lord said that they "have no root"--the gospel never pierced their stony heart to create saving faith. They experienced God's truth and Holy Spirit as soil that receives the rain but produces thorns and not good fruit, and so they ultimately fall away (Heb. 6:4-8). Apostasy among professing Christians should grieve us but not shock us. The promise of perseverance belongs to those whom God has called, justified, and sanctified, in the outworking of His sovereign election in love (Rom. 8:29-30).
Another person might object that true believers still fall into sin. Again, we must agree. However, the Confession says that God's children cannot "totally, nor finally" fall from grace. Yet they may experience partial and temporary falls. David fell into adultery and murder until the Lord broke his heart with repentance (Ps. 51). Peter denied his Lord when Satan was sifting him as wheat. How frail we are! But we also remember Christ's words to Peter, "But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:32). Christ guaranteed that Peter's faith would not totally or finally fail, but would turn back in repentance (which is what "converted" means in this context). The intercession of our Mediator guarantees that not one of His people will be finally lost. We will discuss the rock-solid grounds for the perseverance of the saints in more detail when we consider the second section of this seventeenth chapter.
Dr. Joel Beeke is president and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.