As we consider all of our fears about being accused of teaching Calvinism, we finally get to the other tip of the TULIP: Perseverance of the Saints. Since we all know saints need to persevere, I think few of us will get too worked up about talking about saints persevering. However, it is very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater as we fear someone might think we are Calvinists. So, let’s examine the third alternative regarding this tenet as well. Keep reading to find out more.
You have stumbled across a series of posts in which I hope to explain a third alternative in a major religious debate today. Some seem to believe there are only two choices: 1) Believe we are not saved by grace or 2) Be a Calvinist. This series of articles proposes a third alternative: 3) Rely completely on God’s grace without becoming a Calvinist. For more insight to this series, click here to read the introduction. Click here to read the first true installment of this series on God’s sovereignty and glory. Click here to read the second installment on depravity. Click here to read the third installment on election. Or click here to read the fourth installment on atonement. Or click here to read the previous installment on irresistible grace.
Perseverance of the Saints
We need to understand that in the system of Calvinism, the perseverance of the saints is not merely the saints persevering. It is the tenet that since the elect cannot resist the saving grace of Jesus, the elect will by definition persevere in God’s grace unto ultimate salvation.
Allow a Calvinist to explain.
The simplest, shortest description of the perseverance of the saints is: Once saved, always saved. It is one of the grandest thoughts in the Bible: Once you believe, you can never be lost, you can never go to hell. Christ will always be your Savior. It is possible to get your eternal destiny settled once for all so that you never have to worry about it…The term perseverance of the saints emphasizes that Christians—saints, as Paul calls them in his letters—will persevere in trusting in Christ as their Savior. They will not turn on and then turn off, but they will continue believing forever. Thus they will always be saved…It is possible, however, to use another term to describe this fact, namely, the perseverance of God. For really the perseverance of the saints depends on the perseverance of God. It is because God perseveres in His love toward His church that the church perseveres in its love toward Him. (Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1972, p 68).
There is some confusion on this point because varying adherents to this tenet believe and teach it differently. Some believe this perseverance means God will draw His elect along a path of growth, keeping them faithful to Him throughout their lives. This seems to be the approach of Palmer in the quote above. However, there are some who teach this doctrine as if the perseverance is not that the elect saints will persevere in obeying Christ, but rather that they will persevere in salvation even if they do not persevere in faith and obedience. Charles Stanley in his book Eternal Security takes this approach. He relates salvation to a tattoo saying that once you have it, even if you want to get rid of it, you can’t.
We need to recognize these two different strands. Both claim the saved cannot fall from God’s grace or be severed from Christ. The former explains that people only appear to fall away. That is, if someone appears to be obeying God but then turns to rebellion, it only means they were never actually elect by God’s grace to begin with. Or if they really are God’s elect, God will bring them back to obedience at some later time before death. The latter believe that a moment of faith brings the grace of God into the lives of the elect and their later behavior has no bearing on their salvation because Christ’s atonement covered all their sins, past, present, and future. Be aware that the former position is that of Calvin; the Stanley position is a corruption of true Calvinism (at least so it seems to me).
Once again, we note that this tenet is the logical conclusion of the previous tenets. Up to this point, Calvinism has taught that election is unconditional. Man does absolutely nothing as a determining factor of whether or not he is elect. Additionally, the true offer of atonement is only made to the elect. But more than that, when that true inward call is given, the elect cannot resist it. They will be effectively drawn by it. That, of necessity, means the elect will persevere in God’s grace. There is simply no alternative for them. Since they can’t resist it, they will, of necessity, continue in it until it ultimately saves them in the end.
What Calvin Got Right
I know it may seem odd, but there are aspects of this doctrine that Calvinism gets right. And we shouldn’t be afraid to proclaim those and live by them.
- I need to put my faith in God to save me (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
- God does guard His saints (2 Thessalonians 3:3).
- I must trust God to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish me (1 Peter 5:10).
- If I will persevere in God’s promises, I must rely on God’s perseverance in keeping His promises (Romans 4:20-21).
The fact is if I’m going to persevere as a saint of God, it is going to be through relying on God’s power to carry me through. It is going to be by relying on the grace of God poured out on me through His Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). I will not persevere in the faith apart from God’s strengthening grace.
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Calvinist
Having conceded what Calvin got right on this one, you may be surprised that I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Why? Because while I must rely on God’s perseverance if I am going to persevere in Him, the Scripture continually points out that this is a cooperative between God and us. We will not persevere because God programs us to. We persevere in God by His persevering grace when we continue to turn to Him and continue to rely on Him.
Galatians 5:4 is absurdly clear. People can be severed from Christ. They do fall from God’s grace. I know some Calvinists argue against this by trying to point out who it is that falls and is severed. But that really doesn’t matter, does it? No matter how you define who the fallen and severed are, you still have people who fall and are severed. No amount of fancy word play changes that. Common sense knows that we can’t fall from a place we aren’t standing, and we can’t be severed from something we aren’t connected to.
2 Peter 2:20-22 explains that some who escaped from the defilements of the world may end up going right back to them. Peter explains that is ridiculous and gross, but nevertheless it happens. Notice they escaped those defilements by the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Calvinistic system, how can an unelect person be claimed as having knowledge of Jesus? Additionally, note that this passage proclaims a punishment for this person who escaped and then went back. The latter state is worse than their first. Remember, their first state was lost and separated from God.
Hebrews 6:4-6 explains that people who have shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted His goodness and power can fall away from this experience. In fact, it will be impossible to renew them to repentance. The point is not, of course, that someone can sin so badly that no matter how much they repent they won’t be forgiven. The point is once a person has experienced all that the grace of God has to offer and then turns their back on it, there is nothing you can say that they don’t already know about. You have no leg to stand on. Everything you can offer they’ve experienced and turned their back on. You will not be able to renew them to repentance.
Thus, in the New Testament, the point of knowing that God is working on us and is persevering in His promises toward us is not seen as an explanation that really we are doing nothing. Rather, it is the motivation for continuing to rely on God and His grace. Philippians 2:12-13 explains that we should work out our salvation because God is working on us. Our work matters because God is working. Therefore, we are to make our calling and election sure by growing in the virtues that come from God (2 Peter 1:5-11). Thus our eternal reward is guarded by God for us, but God guards this for us through faith (1 Peter 1:3-5).
People can abandon God. And God will not carry someone into His bosom against their will. If someone starts holding God at arm’s length, at some point He will say, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get.”
An Illustration of the Third Alternative
Isn’t Peter a great illustration of this third alternative? In Matthew 14:28-33, Peter walked on water by the grace of Jesus Christ. Christ didn’t irresistibly call him out on to the water. Peter accessed the grace to walk on water by his faith in Jesus and His command. Surely none of us believes Peter walked on water because he was just so good at walking on water.
However, at some point in this, he looked away from Jesus. He abandoned his faith in Jesus’s ability to walk him on the water. What happened? He fell from grace. He sank. But what did he then do? Did he simply try to swim back to the boat? Did he holler for Andrew to cast him a rope? No. He turned back to the one who walked him on the water. He turned back to Jesus. He cried out to Jesus for help. Peter put his faith back in Jesus, not himself, not the boat. Jesus reached out His hand and lifted Peter up. That means Peter walked on water again to get back to the boat with Jesus.
Peter persevered but not because he was incapable of falling, but because even after he fell, he put his faith back in the only one powerful enough to walk him on the water.
I want to rely completely on God’s grace, because I know I can’t walk on water. I need His power to walk me in His good works. But I don’t want to be a Calvinist, because I know I must choose to keep my faith in Him. He won’t do that for me. He hasn’t programmed me to do it. He wants me to cooperate with Him. And I will. After all, His grace is the only thing that will save me. Why would I do anything but listen to Him and cooperate with Him?