(Continued from last issue)
Moreover we should note that it is only with the security and rest offered by perseverance that the productive Christian life is possible at all. Let us imagine for a moment that we see a gallant troubador serenading his lady outside of her window. The poor fellow is outside. If he is at all serious, and the young lady at all coy, he is probably in anguish of soul. He must enlist all his powers in trying to win the affection of his beloved and bind her to himself as his wife. But once he has married her, he is no longer outside the window. He is inside. His friends no longer see him distraught and dismayed; he is aglow with the joy of the possession of his beloved. Now he is relieved from the uncertainty he experienced and he is free to build his marriage and his home. Just because he possesses his wife it does not mean that he will be a poor husband. He need not always be storming the portals to be a good husband; in fact, while he is still outside he is no husband at all, but a suitor. When he possesses his bride his love for her will insure that his powers will be directed to building up their home. While his love glows, it is an assurance that he will devote all his power to their communion of love.
This is an analogy of our Christian faith. When we are once saved, we are free to labor for our God in his kingdom. If we were constantly in doubt of our salvation, instead of freeing us for service, it would merely serve to make us pre-occupied with whether or not we were saved. Our Christian lives are such that, resting in the assurance of our salvation, we should leave the first principles of our faith and go on to perfection (Heb. 6:1).
Perseverance and Morality
The doctrine of perseverance is not against good morals in the Christian life; it upholds them. I think I can illustrate this point in a new way if I refer to the system of John Wesley. The followers of Wesley are some of the foremost opponents of perseverance. This hangs together with their whole system of doctrine. They say that sin is a willful transgression of a known law of God. This idea of sin allows them to think highly of the possibility of one’s keeping the commandment of love in this life. So long as one is not willfully, thus consciously, transgressing a law of God known to him, he is perfect in h is life before God. On the other hand, however, if one willfully transgresses a known law, he can fall away from grace and be as if he had never been regenerated. Through repentance the wayward Christian can be reinstated in the faith; but if he should die unrepentant, he would be lost forever from God and from Christ. Some such ideas underly most of the systems which deny the perseverance of the saints. But we should notice some things about this Wesleyan doctrine. In the first place, it sees sin only as a willful transgression of a known law of God. Does this exhaust the Biblical idea of Sin? What of the secret sins, of which we ourselves are not aware? Is all sin an overt transgression, a sin of willful commission?Are there not also sins of omission? In the second place, in this doctrine it would seem that perfection is demanded for perseverance. Any willful sin, thus according to their definition any sin at all, is enough to cast the Christian from grace, until he is reinstated by confession. But shall we make our perseverance depend upon our own characters, which if we are truthful we must confess to never entirely rid of the grave-clothes of sin, so that each moment we are guilty of serious transgressions? If this doctrine knew a deeper view of sin, it would result in despair. The sins of the Christian are not only those willful and stubborn acts of disobedience which mar the lives of each of us. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the will of God.” The opposition of the Wesleyans to perseverance are linked with an inadequate idea of the depth of sin; but if this is true it follows that their idea of divine grace must also be. inadequate. Will this doctrine then be more conducive to good morals than the Calvinistic view, which does not see the seat of sin only in the will but in the heart of man, which thus sees the radicalness of man’s need and of the operation of God’s grace, and which also says that the God who has begun this radical work of grace will bring it to completion?
In rejecting the theology of Wesley and his followers, however, we must issue a warning. Wesley was disgusted with the mechanical, lifeless Christianity of his day. Then as now it was true that the sins of the church made fertile ground for the sects. If we look at the doctrine of perseverance in a mechanical way, we are not persevering in the full biblical sense of the word. We can say the same for the covenant, infant baptism, election, predestination, and our other doctrines. If we make our doctrine an occasion for the flesh and an excuse for idleness, we lay ourselves open to the charge that our religion is vain. One who truly understands the doctrine, one who is suffused with love and devotion to God, can not make his doctrine an excuse for irreligion. We work because God works in us, both to will and to perform his good pleasure.
The doctrine of perseverance may not lead to licentiousness. It does not mean that we are saved and kept in spite of everything we may will and do. One might say, “I shall be saved anyhow, I am going to persevere; therefore, I shall do my own will and go my own way.” This is not something new. The apostle Paul, who speaks so much of our assurance of salvation, also says, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that: are dead to sin, live any longer therein” (Rom. 6:1–2)? There is a security that is carnal; but that is a far cry from the active trust in God that confesses that we are his and he is ours, and that rests in the fact that his true sheep shall not be plucked from his hand. We do not confess a fatalism. as relentless as a machine. We rather confess the faithfulness of God, who keeps us, and empowers us to a life of service in his kingdom.
Temporary Falling into Sin
Our confession that God causes the Christian to persevere so that: he can neither totally nor finally fall away from the faith am! be lost does not exclude temptations and falling for a time. In the Canons of the Synod of Dort we find that Christ delivers the saints from the dominion and slavery of sin, “…though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world” (V, art. 1). It speaks of the “weakness of the flesh,” “enormous sins,” “melancholy fall,” and “carnal doubts.” It says also that the Christian may for a while even lose sight of the countenance of God. That is far from say· ing, however, that these falls will be final. The confession of perseverance does not wish to pass over the realities of the Christian life; but on the other hand it does not pass over the realities of the faithfulness of God’s grace.
We see this distinction between falling and final falling in the stories of Peter and Judas. Judas denied Christ. He fell from an apparent closeness to his Lord and apparent belief in him. Judas sold Christ for the price of a slave, and then filled with remorse went and hanged himself. Of him Christ said that it were better that he had never been born. The case of Peter is superficially similar, but basically very different. Peter approached the fire and he was confronted in a serving girl who identified him with Christ, who was being judged. He was tempted by one who should have had no influence on him whatsoever. But it takes only a small push to dislodge a large rock that is balanced on a small point and to send it crashing into the canyon below. Peter feared, and his unbalance was great. enough so that he fell because of the simple questions of a humble serving girl. Before this the Lord bad said, “…Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not…” (Luke 22:31–32). Peter fell; but we understand that Christ had prayed. We fall; but Christ is praying for us. Christ was working with Peter to bring him back. He prayed for Peter; be gave Peter the sign of the cock crowing; and he gave Peter a look, a look of pity, of understanding, but also of judgment. Peter did not go and hang himself. We read that he went out and wept. There was a difference between Peter and Judas. Of the one Christ said it were better than he had not been born. Of the other he said, “I have prayed for you.” The one died unredeemed; the other returned by the way of repentance. Without the Christ all of us would fall and be lost. When we confess perseverance we are confessing more the faithfulness of God in Christ than the stead· fastness of human faith.
Perseverance and Human Striving
The doctrine of perseverance is also not without human striving. As we have seen, the Bible approaches things from two sides. God decrees; but man is commanded to respond, to work. The Bible says, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). Both God and man are active, and we can not separate these activities so that where God’s sovereignty leaves off man’s free will begins. If we could do this, then all God could do would be to make salvation possible, and it would be up to us to make it actual by an act of will and active perseverance in faith. QQQ works, but in and through our wills. Perseverance is active, therefore, involving our wills, our acts, our constancy; but it is ultimately dependent upon the activity of God. We are told, “…give diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). We are thus to work. We are also told that the servant is not above the master, and if the master has suffered, we should also be prepared to endure through tribulation. The Bible says, “…he thai endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22). No one speaks of election more than Paul and yet it is he who speaks with such emphasis concerning the activity of the Christian in the kingdom of God. He says, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Perseverance may not be misinterpreted and misunderstood to mean passivity. It is in line with and is productive of the highest form of Christian work.
Perseverance is also not without penitence and daily confession. We must constantly have a concern for our sins. We must confess them penitently, and reckon them as having been satisfied for by the finished work of Christ. We should take care not to fall into the illusion that we can be raised to some higher plane of Christian life on which all sin and desire for sin are taken away. Such a view of the “higher life” as it is called must be based on the low view of sin which we mentioned earlier when speaking of Wesley. Despite the evident piety of many who are associated with such doctrine, we must claim that they haw a fundamentally erroneous idea of the nature of sin and of sanctification in the Christian life. Before his glorification the Christian will constantly be falling short of the perfect standard of righteousness found in Christ. There is no plane the Christian can find that will absolve him from the need of daily penitence and remission of sins. There is no plane that will remove him from the daily temptations which beset him, nor is there a plane on which he will be free from daily falling and even conscious neglecting’ of the commands of God. Turning again to the Canons of Dort we read concerning the body of sin, “Hence spring daily sins of infirmity, and hence spots adhere to the best works Df the saints, which furnish them with constant matter for humiliation be· fore God, and flying for refuge to Christ crucified; for mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety, and for pressing forward to the goal of perfection” (V, ii.). As the Scriptures tell us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:8–9).
The Stability of the Converted
That we are Christians then demands that we are constantly turned to God in our very heart of hearts. God has said it is such whom he wishes to serve him. He seeks those who will serve him in spirit and in truth. That we are Christians involves that we are engaged in a living faith, which means a living actively in the things of God. If our worship is not in spirit and truth, it is vain, and we tread the courts of God amiss. If our love becomes cold, we are as sounding brass and the tinkling cymbal. If we confess a faith and have no works, it is no true faith at all. If our works are no longer from a full heart, they are hollow, and we descend to the plane of a brittle moralism. Do we know what our Christian calling involves? Do we act as if it were a small thing, an indifferent thing, a mechanical thing? Or do we come in contrition, humbly, knowing that our salvation and our persevering therein to the end are all of God? There is no boasting here; it is excluded by the law of faith. We work from a heart of gratitude and love for the one who has purchased us with his own blood. In our confession of perseverance we must always focus on God, in trusting faith for salvation and in joyful, loving service.
If the doctrine of perseverance is not apart from activity, it is also a great stabilizing force and a great consolation in the Christian life. There may be no carnal security; yet, there is the confidence that we are in the hand of the everlasting God, and that our Savior is all power, himself God manifest in the flesh. Without assurance our Christian lives would be miserable. With assurance the way is opened for a life of bountiful service in the kingdom of God. We go forth, not with trust in our own wills and our own deeds, but with trust in the almighty hand of God, which upholds us. We can sing the anthem with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of God…tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (Rom. 8:35–37).