Why Use Perseverance?
Perseverance of the saints provides a clear understanding of the two-fold nature of eternal security. It first indicates all those who are truly “born again” by the Spirit of God, will be kept eternally by the the Spirit\ of God. Secondly, perseverance reveals that there is a need to continue in faithfulness, obedience, and fruitfulness by the believer who is given the grace and power to do so by the indwelling Spirit of God. This definition is important because it already undermines the “easy-believism” notion that many espouse to the doctrine. As John MacArthur notes, “Any doctrine of eternal security that leaves out perseverance distorts the doctrine of salvation itself.”
Biblical Argumentation for the Perseverance of the Saints
The Teachings of Jesus in the Gospel according to John.
In the gospel of John there are many passages that allude to believers being secure in their salvation, but two main passages provide the most clear support for perseverance: John 6:35-44 and 10:27-30. John 6 opens with a powerful passage of Jesus feeding the five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish (1-15), followed up by his walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (16-21). The following day the crowd once again goes to look for Jesus, but are only looking for him in order to attain more bread (22-26). This launches Jesus into his teaching of the “bread of life.” Jesus tells the people that “whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me wiil never thirst again (35). In verse 37, he states that all those who have been given to him by the Father and come to him, “I will never cast out.” He continues that he came to do the will of the Father, and that the will of the Father was that he would lose nothing that the Father gave him, and raise it up on the last day (39). He reiterates this statement in v. 40 that “whoever looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus is clearly portraying, the secure and lasting nature of the salvation of those who come to him and believe in him as Savior. Jesus presses the preservation of the believer hard in this passage. In verse 37, he states that he will never cast out those who come to him, and vv. 38-40 explain why. In these verses Jesus is telling us that believers will not be cast out because it is the Will of the Father they none of them ever be cast out. John Murray, in commenting on these passages writes, “Are we to entertain even the remotest suspicion that the will of God will be defeated? Jesus here assures us that it will not.”
John 10:27-30 also provides one of the strongest arguments for the doctrine of perseverance. In John 10, Jesus is teaching that he is the good shepherd. He discusses how he lays his life down for his sheep (11), and how him and his Father are one in the purpose of bringing about the eternal salvation of the sheep (27-30). Jesus states that he gives his sheep “eternal life and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (28). He then elevates the assurance for the believer by stating that not only will he prevent the sheep from being lost, but so will the Father (29). The believer is being told that as one of Christ’s sheep they can be confident in their eternal life because the Father and the Son are one in attaining the security of the sheeps salvation.
The Golden Chain of Redemption in Romans 8
Romans chapter 8 is considered by some as the high point of all of Paul’s writings, if not the whole New Testament. For in it Paul describes the the believer’s life in the Spirit (1-11), their union with Christ (12-17), the future glory they will one day experience (18-30), and concludes with a doxology over the everlasting love of God (31-39). The primary passage regarding the eternal security or perseverance of the believer is 8:28-30. V. 28 begins with a powerful statement that tells of the knowledge the true believer has that “all things” are working together for their good because they have been called according to God’s purpose. Paul then in the following two verses outlines what the purpose of God is. He outlines a redemptive chain that expresses the stages of salvation for the believer. “For those whom God foreknew he predestined…those whom he predestined he also called, those he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (29-30).
A note of vital importance in this passage is that the one who is securing each step of redemption for the believer, is not the believer, but God. As R.C. Sproul notes, “this passage shows eternal security being less about the perseverance of the believer, but about the preservation of the believer by the triune God.” The chain reaches back to the electing work of the Father in eternity past, and covers each successive redemptive step until the final glorification of the believer. What is essential, is that there are zero breaks in this chain, there is not a single remark regarding how the believer must sustain their place in this chain, but that it is an already accomplished task in the mind of God. This can be recognized in the fact that each successive state of redemption is given in a past tense form. The eternal salvation of those whom God has foreknown is not only secure, but is an absolute certainty established within the purpose of God. As Murray notes, “A Christian cannot be defined in any simpler term than one who is ‘called and justified,’ therefore, the question on whether or not one who is called or justified can lose their salvation is answered by Paul with an inescapable no.” This remarkable assurance for the true believer leads Paul into a powerful doxology regarding the overwhelming love of God. J.I. Packer notes that in this 9 verse doxology Paul remarks that, “God is adequate as our savior, adequate as our keeper, and adequate as our end.”
Other Biblical Passages on Perseverance of the Believers
Many passages of Scripture in the Bible seem to point one to an understanding of perseverance or eternal security. In Philippians 1:6, Paul writes, “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.” Once again, the reader is shown the preserving power and purpose of God in the salvation of true believers, and the certainty of the apostle Paul regarding the matter. Peter also writes on the preservation of believers by God in his first epistle. The apostle is writing on the living hope that the believer has been born again to, and that the inheritance promised to them is being “kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Peter 1:4-5). This verse illustrates the two sided reality of perseverance. God is going to forever protect and guard this inheritance and the beliver will continue in steadfast faith. The apostle John furthers his teaching on the perseverance of all true believers in his first epistle when he explains that professing believers who apostasize and leave the faith “were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 JN 2:19). John’s first epistle is packed with these time of assurance statements; so much so, that one scholar notes that assurance is the “interpretive key” for understanding the epistle.
Even in the Old Testament before the fullness of God’s salvific plan was revealed, the preservation and security of God’s people was established. David writes in Psalm 37, “Our steps are established by the Lord…though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand” (v. 23-24). David continues a few verses later, “he (Yaweh) will not forsake his saints, they are preserved forever” (v. 28). Even for the Old Testament believer, there was a clear recognition that it was not their own doing that was preserving their hope of redemption, it was Yahweh’s doing. Jeremiah also reveals the security of salvation given to God’s people. The prophet writes that God will save his people in such a way that they will “not turn from me” (32:40).
But What about the Warning Passages in Scripture?
Two passages, Hebrews 6:4-6 and 2 Peter 2:1, 20 stand as the two strongest proof texts used against the doctrine of perseverance and for the doctrine of conditional security, therefore, addressing these two passages will suffice for the argument as a whole. However, many interpreters have underlined how such proof texts have ultimately been plucked out of their surrounding contexts. John Owen in his commentary on Hebrews 6:4-6 provides a powerful rebuttal against the interpretation that these verses are speaking of true Christians falling away. Defending against the conditionalist interpretation he writes: 1) There is no explicit or implied mention of true saving faith in the passage, 2) there are no terms that belong specifically to true believers (justified, called, regenerate, born again), 3) the context of v. 7-8 shows the incompatibility of comparing true believers with thorns and thistles, 4) in v. 9 the author list “salvation” as one of the better things which the apostates in v. 4-6 lack, 5) the whole point of the passage with the context that follows is to contrast the apostasy of v. 4-6 with true belief in v. 9-12.
The argument that 2 Peter 2:1, 20 is talking about true believers is shown to be a misunderstanding of the text with the way the passage ends in v. 21. As Oropeza notes, these false teachers are those who proclaim that they are apart of the body of Christ, “yet turn to things that clearly mark them as false teachers.” Oropeza points to v. 22 which concludes chapter 2 of 2 Peter, where Peter writes, “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” Oropeza comments, “This is true of the best bred dog, and of the prize blue-ribboned sow, because their natures remain unchanged.” Through this he argues that Peter is clearly showing that these false teachers are those who in every way portrayed themselves as Christians, and were surrounded by the evidence and work of the Holy Spirit, but were never born again to a new nature, and ultimately remained in their old nature.
It seems overwhelmingly clear that the best interpretation of the Scriptural testimony is that true believers will persevere in their faith as they are kept and protected by God. There are four primary supports that provide the tipping point for this great truth. First, the security of the believer is established by the will of God. In John 6:39, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the will of the Father is not only to not lose any believer, but to ensure that they be raised with Christ on the last day. Jesus destroys any argument that the text is only talking about the commitment of God, not the status of the believer. God’s will is clearly to preserve believers and raise them on the last day. Secondly, the security of the believer is maintained by the power of God. Peter reveals a powerful claim that the true believer’s security is not established by their own power, but by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:4-5). This argument is girded by the fact that every act is seen as a work of God, “he has caused us to be born again,” amd “kept in heaven for you by God’s power.” The will of God and the power of God will fully bring about the eternal salvation of true believers.
Thirdly, the security of the believer is established by a proper understanding of eternal life. This life is eternal, and it begins at the moment of conversion. John 5:24, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” This eternal life has already begun for the true believer, and there “is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The true believer has been sealed by the Holy Spirit “until the day of redemption” ( Eph. 4:30). The seal of the Spirit means the arrival of the true believer in heaven is guaranteed. Finally, a fourth support for the security of the true believer comes from simple but profound words of John that “they went out from us (true believers), because they were not us; for if they were of us they would have continued with us” (1 JN 2:19). John is stating that true believers never fall away, and that “believers” who do show that they were never truly born again.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991.
Chafer, Lewis P. “The Eternal Security of the Believer.” Bibliotheca Sacra 106, no 423 (Sep, 1949): 260-290.
Grudem, Wayne. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Edited by Jeff Purswell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
MacArthur Jr., John F. “Perseverance of the Saints.” The Masters Seminary Journal 4, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 5-24.
Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdman Publishing Company, 1955.
Oropeza, B.J. “The Warning Passages in Hebrews: Revised Theologies and New Methods of Interpretation.” Currents in Biblical Research 10, no.1 (2011): 81-100.
Owen, John. Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.
Packer, J.I. “The Adequacy of God.” In Knowing God, 253-279. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973.