The Perseverance of the Saints
Throughout this series of articles on the Canons of Dort, I have been emphasizing that they affirm two closely related and fundamental themes of the gospel. These are: God's sovereign and gracious work in the redemption of His elect people, and the comfort this work affords the Christian believer. Only the gospel of God's free grace and mercy toward His beloved people, the bride whom He has purposed to give to Christ, His Son, and whom Christ purchased with His own precious blood, can steel the Christian believer for whatever he might face in life and death. Only this gospel provokes from the believer's lips the exclamation, "to God alone be the glory" (soli Deo gloria). Only this gospel grants the confident strength and expectation with which to face the present and the future.
When we come to the fifth main point of doctrine, the perseverance of the saints, these themes are once again on open display. Here the question is whether God, Who has begun a good work of salvation in His people, is able and willing to bring it to completion. Is salvation truly God's work, His gracious doing, from its conception in His eternal counsel of election to its consummation in the glorification of the believer in the life to come? Is it God's work from beginning to end? After having confessed unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption), total depravity and irresistible grace, the authors of the Canons were inevitably confronted with this matter of the believer's perseverance or continuance in a state of grace.
During the period prior to the convening of the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619, the Remonstrant or Arminian party in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands had concluded that there could be no certainty as to the believer's continuance in a state of grace. Even though in the fifth article of The Remonstrance of 1610 they had declined to commit themselves one way or the other on this point, by 1611 and the subsequent period leading up to the Synod of Dort, they had determined that there was no Biblical warrant for affirming the perseverance of the saints1They were unwilling to say that God unfailingly secures the redemption of the elect by enabling them to persevere in grace. Just as the believer's election depends upon the conditions of foreseen faith and repentance, and upon the believer's readiness to cooperate with (not resisting) the gracious working of the Spirit through the gospel, so the believer's perseverance depends upon his own ability to continue in the course to the end.
The fifth main point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort provides quite a different answer to this question. Against the Remonstrant denial of the perseverance of the saints, the authors of the Canons affirmed that God sovereignly and graciously preserves those whom He has purposed to save. Salvation is God's doing — and that from beginning to end. Sovereign grace is the believer's comfort — and that both in life and in death.
The Position of the Canons
In the opening articles of the fifth main point of doctrine, the Canons of Dort acknowledge the presence and continuing conflict with sin in the life of true believers. Though those whom God according to His purpose calls into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ, are delivered from the dominion of the sin, they are not delivered "entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin" (Article 1). Believers continue to experience in this life "daily sins of weakness" and "blemishes" that cling even to the best of their works (Article 2). Such circumstances serve as an occasion for humility and a more earnest supplication of the help of the Spirit to remain on the course toward the goal of perfection. Indeed, it is even possible for believers to fall into serious sins, as was the case with David, Peter and other saints described in the Scriptures. All of this ought to stimulate believers to constant watchfulness and prayer, and to a recognition that no one is so strong as to be incapable of falling into grievous sin.
It is within the setting of this Biblically realistic view of the believer's daily and continual struggle with sin, that the authors of the Canons affirm the Triune God's gracious preservation of the believer. Believers, were they left to their own resources, "could not remain standing in this grace" for a moment (Article 3). Only as God, being faithful and merciful, strengthens and enables them, are believers able to continue in that state into which God has brought them through fellowship with Christ. The good news of the gospel is not only that God has provided an atonement through Christ for us and brought us by the Spirit through the gospel into fellowship with Christ. But it is also that God remains faithful and merciful in preserving us within that fellowship.
For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does he let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by him, into eternal ruin.
Upon acknowledging the believer's continuing weakness and liability to sin, and affirming God's gracious intervention and preservation of the believer in the state of grace, the Canons then highlight the comfort of this confession and the manner in which God provides for the believer's preservation.
The comfort of this confession resides in the certainty it grants of the believer's continuance in the way of salvation. Whereas the believer, left to himself, might easily stumble and fall irrevocably into sin, the preserving work of God in his life prevents this from occurring. The believer could no more fall out of favor with God and acceptance by Him than God's plan could change, His promise fail, His calling according to purpose be revoked, the merit of Christ nullified and the sealing of the Spirit withdrawn (Article 8). Of this certain preservation believers have a right to be confident, not because of any "private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which He has very plentifully revealed in His Word for our comfort" (Article 10). And, though there may be seasons of doubt or wavering in this assurance, the Spirit rekindles the assurance of this preservation in us and employs it to provoke us to steadfast endurance in the Christian life. Contrary to the suggestion that the confidence of preservation will become the occasion for carelessness and indifference, it is an incentive that the Spirit uses to revive us in constancy and hope.
In their conclusion to this fifth main point of doctrine, the authors of the Canons focus their attention upon the manner in which believers are preserved in a state of grace. Believers are preserved only as they persevere in the way of faith and obedience. This perseverance is itself stimulated and provoked by those means God is pleased to use to keep the believer upon his gospel pilgrimage. These "means of grace" are the same as those God uses to produce faith.
And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in the believer by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by causing the hearing, reading and meditation upon that gospel by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.
There is, accordingly, an intimate interplay between God's initiative and faithfulness in preserving the believer in fellowship with Christ and the believer's responsible use of those means God employs to enable him to persevere. God's gracious gift of preservation issues in and provokes the believer's responsible task of perseverance.
The Scriptural Support for This Position
It would be tempting at this point to argue simply that the perseverance of the saints follows inevitably from the other points of doctrine summarized in the Canons of Dort. For example, one could argue that God would surely not permit His purpose of election to be frustrated by the inability of the believer to stay the course. Or one could argue that the irresistible and sovereign work of the Spirit through the gospel could not be stymied (successfully resisted) down the way of the Christian's life, when a fall from grace occurred. However, it is not simply the "illogic" of the Remonstrant or Arminian position that counts against it, but its failure to do justice to the Scriptures.
There are several lines of Scriptural support for the confession of the perseverance of the saints.
Kept by God's Power and Faithfulness
The first of these is Scripture's testimony to the power and faithfulness of God in keeping or preserving the believer in the way of salvation.
This testimony is found in a number of places. In 1 Corinthians 1:7-9, the apostle Paul expresses his confidence that the Lord will sustain the believers in Corinth "to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." The basis for his confidence is that "God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord" (compare 1 Corinthians 10:13). In Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, it is noteworthy that He prays, "Holy Father, keep them in Thy name which Thou hast given Me" (vs. 11). This petition is then supported by Jesus' declaration that He has kept those whom the Father has given Him so that "not one of them perished" (vs. 12).
This conviction that God will guard and keep His people, preserving them unto the day of their full redemption and glorification, is also expressed in the salutations, concluding prayers and benedictions of several New Testament epistles. Describing the believers to whom he writes, Jude begins with the greeting, "to those who are the called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ" (vs. 1). This brief letter concludes with the benediction, "Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy be glory, majesty, dominion and authority" (vss. 23, 24). In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24, the apostle Paul commends the believers to God's safekeeping when he writes, "may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass."
In these and other passages (e.g., 1 Peter 1:3-5), the believer's confidence of remaining in a state of grace and reaching the goal of his salvation is founded upon God's power and faithfulness in keeping him.
Recipients of "Eternal Life"
It is also interesting to note that, in the Scriptures, the believer's fellowship with Christ through faith means an entrance into and experience of eternal life.
This can be easily shown from a number of familiar Biblical passages. John 3:16 for example, declares that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." In the following verses, Jesus announces that those who believe in the Son have eternal life already (vs. 36; compare John 5:24; 6:47). In 1 John 2:19,25, the apostle John sharply distinguishes those who are truly of Christ and those who are not; those who failed to remain with us prove, he asserts, that they were not truly of Christ. Those who are truly of Christ have the "promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life." It belongs to those who truly enjoy fellowship with the apostles, and thereby fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:3), that they continue steadfast in their profession (compare 1 John 5:4, 11-13, 20). The believer enjoys by faith the assurance of eternal life, a life that begins even now and never ends.
Because the believer has entered through faith into the enjoyment of eternal life, it is not surprising that the Scriptures often speak of future blessings as either virtually the believer's already or certain to be given. Believers who have been justified by the blood of Christ, shall even more assuredly be saved by Him from the "wrath to come" (Romans 5:8-10). Those who through faith are engrafted into Christ are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1). For those whom God has called "according to His purpose," He has also justified and glorified (Romans 8:35-39). Just as God has raised Christ from the dead, so He will not fail to "raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you" (2 Corinthians 4:14). Believers who have died with Christ, and whose life is hid with Christ in God, will undoubtedly be given to "be revealed with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:3, 4). In each of these respects, the believer's present possession in Christ is but a guarantee of that which will in the future be his in full measure.
Indwelt by the Holy Spirit
This emphasis upon the believer's present enjoyment of eternal life and certainty of receiving in full in the future what he now enjoys only in part, is also underscored by the Biblical teaching that the Spirit who presently indwells the believer is a seal and downpayment of full redemption.
The Holy Spirit, through whom we have communion with Christ, has been given to believers as a kind of "firstfruits" of that full harvest which will be given to the believer in the future. Thus, the apostle Paul can write in 2 Corinthians 5:5, that the Spirit is a kind of "downpayment" upon the believer's future enjoyment of imperishable life. Or he can speak of the believer's being "sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the downpayment of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:13, 14; compare Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 9:15).
In these passages, there is a clear and unbroken link between the believer's present enjoyment of the comfort of the indwelling Spirit and his future inheritance. The Holy Spirit's presence now is to the fullness of salvation in the future, what the first ingathering of the harvest is to the full ingathering. Not only is our present enjoyment of the Spirit of a piece with what will someday be ours in full, but it guarantees the believer's participation in that bountiful harvest!
Inseparable from God's Love
Consistent with these preceding lines of Scriptural support for the perseverance of the saints, there is also the Biblical theme of God's unfailing love in Christ for His people.
It is this unfailing love that undergirds the history of God's faithful and patient dealings with His covenant people. Isaiah 54:10 "For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but my loving-kindness will not be removed from you..." (Compare with Jeremiah 32:40.) It is this unfailing love that motivated Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, to lay down His life for His sheep and assure them that "no one shall snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-30; compare John 6:35-40). And it is this unfailing love that is celebrated in the well-known words of Romans 8:35, 37-39:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Once Saved, Always Saved
Before concluding our consideration of this fifth main point of doctrine, it is necessary to answer a common caricature of the perseverance of the saints. Though I have addressed in previous articles other ways in which the teaching of the Canons is often caricatured, at no point is this more common or acute than in respect to the fifth point.
For example, I once heard a "sermon" by a televangelist who was criticizing the "five points of Calvinism." At one point in his sermon, the televangelist described what he regarded as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Imagine — he cued his listeners — a view which teaches that anyone who professes to be a Christian cannot fall from grace. Imagine someone teaching concerning believers that "once saved, always saved." And he proceeded to describe a person who, though professing to believe and be a Christian, spent his life in an ungodly way. According to the teaching of the perseverance of the saints, the preacher alleged, this ungodly fellow would be safely ushered into heaven either upon death or at Christ's return! The implication was clear — surely no one could seriously believe such a thing!
I mention this televangelist because his description of the doctrine of perseverance is a piece of fiction, bearing no relation to what the Canons set forth as the Scriptural view. I also mention it because this misrepresentation of the doctrine was already being used by the Remonstrants and Arminians when the Canons were first written.
What needs to be emphasized, in reply to this misrepresentation, is that the Canons speak of the perseverance of the saints. They affirm that those whom God preserves in the way of salvation, He preserves through the use of means by which believers persevere in faith, hope and love. Consequently, the language used to describe this fifth main point of doctrine, "the perseverance of the saints," places considerable emphasis upon the responsible use of those means God has given to produce and to preserve faith. Not just anyone who professes to believe, however much he may deny this profession by an ungodly life, is said to be preserved in the way of salvation. Not at all. The Canons expressly reject this misunderstanding and underscore the believer's responsible use of the means of grace as indispensable to his perseverance.
It is important to recognize this point, because some contemporary expressions of the doctrine of "eternal security" permit a kind of easy "once saved, always saved" complacency.2 But this is not the doctrine of the Canons. In the Canons there is a strong insistence upon the responsibility of the true believer to live a life worthy of his calling, persevering in faith and obedience, using every available means to be strengthened in the course.
The Faithfulness of Our Triune Redeemer
Lest I conclude on a defensive note, allow me once again to emphasize that it is the majesty and the splendor of our Triune God's grace and faithfulness that is at stake in this part of the confession. The "God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction" (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4) is this God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only has He loved us with a perfect love in Christ, from before the foundation of the world, without any merit or deserving on our part; not only has He granted us a perfect atonement for our sins through Christ's death; not only has He joined us in fellowship with Christ by the Spirit through the gospel — but He wilt always keep us in that perfect love!
One of the greatest errors anyone could commit would be to treat the confession given us in the Canons of Dort as though it were merely addressed to some fine point of doctrine, some hair-splitting but rather insignificant point. Nothing could be further from the truth. This confession deals with our knowledge of God as our sovereign Redeemer and of ourselves as poor and needy sinners. This confession deals with God's grace toward us in Christ, His invincible, surprising and matchless grace. This confession deals with our comfort for today and for tomorrow, in life and in death.
Allow me, then, to conclude with these stirring words from Article 15, the final article in this part of the Canons:
This teaching about the perseverance of true believers and saints, and about their assurance of it — a teaching which God has very richly revealed in his Word for the glory of his name and for the comfort of the godly and which he impresses on the hearts of believers — is something which the flesh does not understand, Satan hates, the world ridicules, the ignorant and hypocrites abuse, and the spirits of error attack. The bride of Christ, on the other hand, has always loved this teaching very tenderly and defended it steadfastly as a priceless treasure; and God, against whom no plan can avail and no strength can prevail, will ensure that she will continue to do this. To this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.