A few months ago, many of us in the church read through Charles Stanley’s book Eternal Security. For some, it was the first time the doctrine had been studied in any thorough way. Stanley did a good job of hitting the major components of the doctrine. In the main, I prefer the term “perseverance of the saints” over “eternal security”. Without intending to do so, “eternal security” dulls the edges of good works in the Christian life. Faith without works is dead, and God is not mocked.
There will be many who convinced themselves they were good people, even Christians, who will one day hear “I never knew you.” There is only one promise made to those who are in reality “carnal Christians”, or those who claim the name of Christ but live as though he were meaningless to them—they will be cast outside with the other goats. Eternal life is offered to the one who conquers and perseveres till the end. By no means do I think our works have any role in our salvation; but I do believe perseverance is the fruit of salvation. It’s a paradigm shift from how we often think of good works. Scripture makes no compromise here.
The Confession states this position clearly. Those who God has elected will not be lost, and yet God requires perseverance.
The Confession begins, “Those whom God has accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, from which source he still begets and nourishes in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality;”
Perseverance will be the final fruit and test of true faith. Since faith is a gift of God, ultimately, so is perseverance. Some pastor-teachers have even argued that a better term is the “preservation” of the saints. From beginning to end, faith is a gift of God. The lease never gets turned over to us. It is always God’s work in us.
The most beautiful reminder in this passage is that “the gifts and callings of God are without repentance”. It’s a 17th-century way of saying God does not change his mind. Since he called us, he never un-calls us. He never un-adopts his children. This is a radical departure from the popular way of thinking about salvation. All we have to do is give God a reason for leaving us, and he will, we fear. The presence of sin in my life is evidence I’m not saved. But through the biblical witness, in places such as John 17 and Christ’s priestly prayer, we know that he will never leave us nor forsake us. But that does not mean we will always feel such a way.
The Confession continues, “and though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon; notwithstanding, through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraved upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity.”
When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophecies in Luke 1, he speaks of God giving “the knowledge of salvation to his people” (v.77). Salvation is surely an experience, but it is not primarily a feeling. Sometimes the things that make us doubt and question are purely outside forces. These are persecutions and mockery. But our own sin can have a similar effect. We may not “feel” God’s presence as an act of discipline upon us. But we must remember that he disciplines those he loves. The lack of our feeling is not the lack of his presence. As the Confession says, he is still the same.
It is the power of God that keeps the believer, not our own. It is he who keeps us; we do not keep ourselves. As God tells Israel, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). God will not forget us, even at our death or at the end of the age.
What is it that causes God to act in such a way toward us? The Confession continues, “This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father, upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ and union with him, the oath of God, the abiding of his Spirit, and the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace; from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.”
God redeems us and preserves us because we are in union (in covenant) with his Son. The Father loves the Son and all those who the Son has redeemed. The Father’s love of the Son is unchanging, and so we are saved in that unchanging love. We are in the Son (union with him), and the Spirit is in us (the abiding of his Spirit). What more could we need!
A covenant is always how God relates to his creatures. The covenant of grace is another important component of our perseverance and preservation. It also addresses the issue of perseverance across time and between Israel and the church. Some theological reflection results in seeing two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is that covenant in which God entered into with Adam before the fall. Should Adam, the head of the human race, keep his covenantal obligations (fill the earth and subdue it, and keep the garden), God would keep his obligations (the gift of eternal life). Adam broke that covenant by not keeping the garden free from rebels (the serpent and eventually himself). The covenant of works was broken, so God entered into a covenant of grace with his people. He covered them with the skins of animals and cast them out of the garden. And yet, he made another covenantal promise, unconditionally, that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the snake and therefore break the curse. The subsequent covenants (with Noah, Abraham, David, and Christ) are various administrations of that one covenant.
Next week, we’ll look at the final paragraph of this important article of faith. We’ll get some greater detail about why perseverance and assurance can sometimes be elusive.