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the doctrine of perseverance

Updated on April 23, 2011

Salvation is the greatest gift any man could ever receive. Through the gift of salvation eternal life has been given to those who deserved eternal death. Many people receive gifts for birthdays or holidays, but this gift supersedes all. A gift, however, can sometimes grow old or wear out. It may lose its value or effectiveness. The gift did not persevere. Perseverance is imperative for a great gift, especially the greatest gift – salvation. The question arises, “Will salvation last?” The perseverance of salvation has been questioned by many. Some apply the doctrine to the extreme side of a “Once saved always saved” mentality. This is the idea that nothing can make a believer stray from salvation. He can live as he wants and still be on his way to heaven. The danger here lies in a false sense of security. The other extreme is a mindset of “Repeated regeneration.” These extremists believe that every time you sin you become unsaved and must be saved again. This leads to a lack of assurance of salvation. The lack of assurance is a common problem.[1] The doctrine of perseverance must be understood to truly experience true assurance of salvation. The doctrine of perseverance is controversial, contained in Scripture, conditional, and comforting.

The doctrine of perseverance is very controversial. There are many views and abuses of this doctrine.[2] One must be careful not to avoid the doctrine simply because it is so easily abused. One scholar defines the perseverance of saints as their certain continuance in a state of grace, once justified and regenerated, the believer can neither totally nor finally fall away from grace, but will certainly persevere therein and attain everlasting life.[3] This doctrine has been applied many different ways to bring about different views. Perseverance can also be defined as lasting consistency, keeping on, and endurance.[4] Endurance speaks of longevity. God’s salvation will endure unto the end. The question is, “Will the believer persevere?” Most would contend that God will keep His part of the deal. However, the lines are divided on the finality of man’s decision to keep his end of the deal. God will not change His mind, but man is fickle. Men have a free will. The argument arises as to how free man’s will is once he is saved. There are two major lines of thought on perseverance. There are many more camps and denominations, but the two focused on in this discussion will be Calvinists and Arminians. Those who hold to Calvinist doctrine believe that once a man is saved (truly born again), he will persevere until the end. The Calvinists believe God’s plan takes precedence, and man’s decisions are mere consequences.[5] The Arminians believe that once a man is saved he still has the ability to choose to walk away from salvation. This does not mean God will not keep him. It simply means he mad e a decision to walk away from God. This is not an accidental sin, but a determined act to separate himself from God. Many would contend that this thought portrays God as weak or unable to keep His child. The truth is God is able and willing, but He will not overpower a man’s free will. The same can be said of salvation. God calls, but the choice is up to the individual. Once a person is saved God still will not make decisions for him. It is a choice to accept salvation, but it is also a choice to reject salvation. Arminius and his followers never made a clear conclusion on the matter of perseverance, but he did question whether Calvin’s assumption of necessary perseverance was truly biblical.[6]

Both camps have extensive arguments based on passages in Scripture. The Calvinists use passages such as Romans 8:35, 38 and John 10:27-30 to suggest that a believer cannot turn from the faith.[7] These passages only make the point that no outside force can affect the believer’s salvation. No person or power can “snatch” them away from God. There is nothing that can “separate” a believer from God.[8]

The Calvinist will also conclude from Philippians 1:6 that God is able and willing to keep the believer until the day of Jesus Christ. They contend that God would not say He is able to do something He is not capable of. II Timothy 1:12 is also used to validate this point. They contend that anyone questioning this idea is questioning the very power of God.

The Arminian holds to the idea that assurance is fully dependent upon the faith of the believer. The question is not of God’s power, but the believer’s faith. In Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:19-39the Bible warns against apostasy. Many Calvinists contend these readers were never truly believers. However, this passage describes a person who had “tasted the heavenly gift.” It also describes a person who becomes “partakers of the Holy spirit.” This would seem to clarify the person as a believer. Faced with this argument some Calvinists just explain that Hebrews 6:4-6 is simply a hypothetical situation that could never happen. Others claim it was simply a group of people who professed to be saved, but were hypocrites.[9] If this were a hypothetical warning from God to a believer, it would be the only time recorded in the Bible God warned against something that could not happen. The context of the passage also makes it clear that the writer is addressing true believers. Barnes states, “Such is the sense which would strike the great mass of readers. Unless there were some theory to defend, the great body of readers of the New Testament would consider the expression here used as describing true Christians.”[10]

The doctrine of perseverance is found in the Bible. In II Timothy 1:12 says, “…for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” This passage confirms that God will do all that He needs to in order to keep His children. However, there is a commitment that must be made by the believer. The Bible confirms that the believer will persevere, so long as there is faith. However, it does not confirm that a man is guaranteed to persevere. Perseverance is dependent upon faith. The passages the Calvinists use to display God’s keeping power are very powerful and comforting verses. They are true in what they state. There truly is no power that can separate a believer from God (Romans 8:35). The Bible clearly states in John 10:27-30 that no one can “snatch” a believer away from God.[11] The scriptures are explicitly clear. The forces and people referred to in these passages, however, are all exterior in nature. These passages do not mean to provide security against the consequences or possibilities of the believer’s own neglect, indifference, or unbelief.[12] No Arminian would deny that a believer is safe from all outside forces. However, the argument rests upon whether or not the believer can affect his position with God. The Calvinists would hold that no true believer would ever want to make that choice. They would argue that anyone who seemingly commits apostasy was merely a “rocky ground” hearer who was never truly born again.[13] They would contend that a true believer would never walk away from salvation. The question that Arminians then ask is, “Why was there a warning against such in Hebrews 6:4-6?” Both camps agree, however, that there is a doctrine of perseverance in the Bible. The issue is whether or not the doctrine is conditional.

The doctrine of perseverance must be conditional. The verses used to combat the Arminian view only reiterate God’s keeping power. He is able and willing to protect the believer. These truths are not in question. The issue is whether the believer wants to persevere. No one would dare question God’s keeping power (though some want to shift the argument that way). The perseverance in question is that of the believer. The key to this belief is the conviction that salvation is conditional. Thus continuing to possess salvation is continuing to meet the biblical condition for salvation, which is faith.[14] One must agree that to be saved there must be faith. Thus to abide in salvation there must be abiding faith. The condition is nothing more than faith. Many would have one to believe that conditional perseverance is based upon works, but it is simply based upon faith. If conditional perseverance is ruled out the only other option is unconditional perseverance. This is a very dangerous line of thought. If there are no conditions it would seem that the believer is free to do as he pleases. Thiessen argues that to make this statement shows that the nature of regeneration is not understood. He concludes that the change in nature is so drastic that he will live as a new creature.[15] However, all would agree that some Christians backslide from time to time. Some genuinely saved people are backslidden. If Thiessen is correct, there would be questions about the backslider. He obviously experienced this life changing event, but is now in a state of dangerous living. If perseverance is unconditional there is no need to seek a change in the backslider’s heart. If he can not commit apostasy there is no point in warning him. However, God did warn against apostasy, therefore revealing the conditionality of perseverance.

Conditional perseverance is a much safer doctrine for the believer. Faith is the foundation for salvation as well as perseverance.[16] It is not dangerous to conclude that faith is necessary to stay saved if it is necessary to be saved. This condition sets up a safety net for the believer. The believer should examine his faith regularly. This does not mean he is unsure he is saved. He simply realizes how important his faith is. Without this condition he would have no need for a spiritual check-up.

Perseverance is a comforting doctrine. The doctrine may be controversial, but both sides agree that the believer can have the assurance of salvation. The word “believer” emphasizes belief. If he believes, he can know that he is on his way to heaven. This is stated very clearly in I John 5:13. Perseverance is the basis for assurance. One can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God will perform His part and protect His child. God has showed that He is capable and willing to keep His children. However, if a child chooses to walk away from salvation, God will not overpower the child’s will. Salvation is a personal choice. Perseverance, likewise, is a personal choice.

Perseverance is a comforting doctrine because it erases misguided fears from the believer’s mind. The devil loves to plague a believer’s mind with worries and fears of things that many times could not happen. Such is the case with assurance of salvation many times. Satan would love to make a believer think that an outside force can affect his relation ship with God. This false notion has even crept into the church today. Many religions and cults have given power to a few men to make spiritual decisions for their brothers and sisters. In some sects a follower can be excommunicated for a number of unbiblical reasons. These actions make it seem as though men have the power to decide another man’s eternal destiny. These fears were never meant to be. A believer’s salvation is not determined by other people.[17] This is why God wrote in Romans 8:35, 38, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come.”

The conditional perseverance taught in the Bible is no less comforting than unconditional perseverance. If a person is seeking assurance, it shows they have a desire to know that they are saved. An unbeliever or even an apostate would have no such desire. Conditional apostasy actually raises the bar. It is good for a believer to examine his faith.[18] It shows the believer how vital faith was to his coming into salvation. It also shows the believer how vital faith is to his perseverance in salvation. He is exhorted to spiritual development, which is presented in II Peter as the only way of being sure one will not apostatize.[19] Conditional perseverance does not refer to God. It refers to the believer. God has met all the conditions required. The argument boils down to whether or not man is confirmed in his position at the point of salvation. Calvinists hold that the believer can never (would never desire to) come out of salvation. Arminians contend that man has a free will before he is saved, and thus must have a free will in salvation.

Conditional perseverance does not make it easier to fall away from God. It simply states that the danger is real and possible. The believer who desires to persevere and continues in faith will persevere. The Bible is quite clear. The perseverance in question is in regard to the one who stops believing. A believer made a choice to be saved. He may also make a decision to walk away from salvation. This does not make God weak or powerless. It simply shows that God has given man a free will, and He will not overstep man’s freedom.

God has given the believer many verses to assure Him of salvation. The New Testament contains countless passages seeking to give the believer assurance of salvation. There are also many verses in which the writer describes his assurance.[20] These verses are all dependent upon one thing, however. Faith is the source of all assurance and hope for the believer. The same is true in regard to the doctrine of perseverance. There is one condition. Works and deeds are not what qualify a man. It is all based upon faith. Conditional perseverance is a much debated doctrine, but it is also biblical. The Bible confirms that faith is the necessary ingredient in salvation and perseverance. Without faith no man will enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Bible exalts faith as the one condition upon which salvation and perseverance rest.

[1] Michael C. Bere, Bible Doctrines for Today. (Pensacola: A Beka Book, 1966), 229.

[2] Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 294.

[3] Matthew Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary on PowerBible Cd. (Bronson, Missouri: Online Publishing, 1999), 1.

[4] Karen Dockrey, The Student Bible Dictionary. (Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing Inc., 2000), 181.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 354-355.

[6] Robert E. Picirilli, Understanding Assurance and Salvation. (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2006), 1.

[7] Thiessen, 294-295.

[8] Albert Barnes, Albert Barnes’ New Testament Commentary on PowerBible Cd. (Bronson, Missouri: Online Publishing, 1999), 1.

[9] H. L. Wilmington, Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1984), 519.

[10] Barnes, 1.

[11] Thiessen, 294.

[12] Picirilli, 9.

[13] William Evans, The Great Doctrines of the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 278.

[14] Picirilli, 3.

[15] Thiessen, 297.

[16] Picirilli, 3.

[17] Bere, 231.

[18] Bere, 229.

[19] Picirilli, 20.

[20] Bere, 231.


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