“Once a Christian, Always a Christian”

IN the Westminster Confession we find the following concerning perseverance: “They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternal!y saved (XVII, i:). There are some who claim that the Christian can fall totally from grace and can he reinstated. If one can fall totally, it also means that one can fall finally from grace, passing over into death without Christ and without hope of salvation. The Westminster Confession states, however, that those whom God has called, regenerated into newness of life, and justified by his grace are so held by the Holy Spirit that they cannot fall completely, but will remain in grace until the end.



This is the confession of the Calvinistic churches. It has also been inconsistently taken over by most Fundamentalist churches. I say inconsistently, because of the strong Arminian leaning of FundamentaLists. They have lost sight of the full meaning of Calvinism and the unity of its doctrine, so much so that some think they are Calvinists merely because they hold, and inconsistently, to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The Calvinists in their confessions, however, do not separate this doctrine from the others. In their confessions they rightly point back from this doctrine to the doctrine of election. It is because the Christian has been chosen by God, accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit that no one can take him from the hand of God. The Calvinist sees this doctrine as a part of the Scriptures as a whole. Perseverance does not stand alone.

The doctrine of perseverance is a statement of fact. It does not say merely that if one will persevere to the end he will be saved. To say that is Scriptural. The Bible does say that the one who perseveres to the end will be saved. But the Calvinist believes that the Bible goes farther than this. There are no “ifs” and “buts.” The doctrine of perseverance states that the one who has been regenerated actually will, as a matter of fact, persevere to the end and be saved. Perseverance points to the fact that we are saved by grace through faith not ‘by works, not even by a work of remaining constant in the faith.

The Bible is rich with the consolation which comes from perseverance. In John 10:27–28 we hear Christ speaking to the Pharisees and contrasting them with those who can hear his voice. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I live unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” Christ indicates here that those who follow him were his sheep even before he called them. It is the sheep who follow him, a flock set apart by God. It is these who will never be taken from his hand, not because of their strength, but because Christ and his Father are one, and no one can take them from his Father’s hand.

Another passage is found in Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ…” According to Paul in this passage, it is God who has begun a work in us. It is God who as the potter has taken the clay in his hand and has begun to mold it into a beautiful vessel. It is God also who is the faithful craftsman, who does not put his vessel aside until it is finished. God will continue and finish the work that he has begun in the heart of the believer.

The way of the Christian, however is not free from doubt, fear, wavering, and stumbling. He is beset with enemies, both within and without. But in this doctrine o( perseverance the Scriptures do not confess the stability of man, but the faithfulness of God. In 2 Tim. 4:18 Paul writes, “And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom.” The doctrine of perseverance is not intended to be a praise to man, but to be a testimony to the grace and the constancy of God, and to Christ, the author and the finisher of our faith.

There are Scripture passages, however, which at least on the surface seem to speak against this doctrine. I refer first of all to 2 Peter 2:20–23; “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them nat to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” Does this Scripture not say that one can escape the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of Christ and yet return to them?

In answer to this question we should remember several things. First there is a knowledge of the gospel which does not bring salvation. This may not be knowledge in the deepest sense which Scripture attaches to the word; nevertheless, there is a type of knowledge, called “historical faith,” which might even bring one certain benefits from association with things Christian, and yet not include that living faith which is necessary for salvation. Secondly, we should read a little farther into the context of these verses. There it says: “But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” This is not an elegant illustration, but it is very expressive. The idea appears to be that the one who has this knowledge of the gospel is unchanged in his basic nature. The dog is rid of his vomit, but then turns to it again. The sow has been cleaned, and yet it hastens again to its revel in the mud. It is still the dog and the sow that return. Their natures have not been changed.

We must spend more time on the third point. We must always recognize that the Bible approaches this question from two sides: on the one hand, it speaks from the side of the sovereignty of God; on the other hand, it speaks from the side of the responsibility of man. It is difficult, even impossible, for our minds to bridge this gap. On the one side we have the fact that God will hold us in his hand, and that no one will be able to snatch us from his protecting care. On the other side we are told that we must continually strive to persevere in the faith. We, must run the good race; we must strive for the crown; the one who endures to the end will be saved. We are not faced with a blatant contradiction, however, but rather with two facts of truth which our minds cannot comprehend. It is not a contradiction in that the same God who holds us fast in his hand gives the strength to persevere in the gospel. He does not operate in spite of us, as it were beside us; he operates through us. These two sides of the truth are clearly expressed in Scripture, where we are warned, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you…” (Phil. 2:12f). The very idea that the great God is working in us and through us should be a great incentive to work with might and main in his service. The two facets of truth are difficult if not impossible to comprehend; nevertheless, as it works out, a true and sincere belief that God works within us and causes us to persevere in the faith does not lead to passivity and impotence in our Christian lives. Instead, it leads to activity of the highest kind in working out our salvation. That God works in us—marvelous fact!—spurs us on because of the fact that it is God who works in us.

Those who deny the perseverance of the saints and claim on the basis of Scripture that one can fall completely and finally away from grace are forced to prove too much. In Hebrews 6:4–6 we read, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fa ll away, to renew them again unto repentance.” Here it indicates that those who have this historical faith of which we were speaking, and who fall away, are impossible to bring back to the faith. How then is it possible for one to fall away from the faith and be reinstated, perhaps time and time again? It according to Hebrews such apostates can never return to the faith, it would plunge all Christians into mortal despair. Who is there among Christians who has not sinned terribly and sometimes stubbornly after he believed? If we thus fall out of grace are we to believe that we can never be reinstated in the faith? Such a conclusion would eliminate everyone from the roll of the saved. Is it no, better to believe that some who have tasted have not truly partaken, that there is an enlightenment by close contact with the gospel that does not mean that one’s eyes have been opened by the new birth, and that there is a certain partaking of the Holy Ghost that does not include his sanctification? Those we were once enlightened and who fell away had. a form of faith, a form of righteousness; but they were not true believers. As the apostle John says,

“…if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).

The doctrine of perseverance has been objected to not only on biblical, but also on moral grounds. The claim is made that it leads to pride and carnal security. It kills the earnestness of the Christian life if we can rest in the assurance of salvation. The objections of the famous theologian, Karl Barth, are along this line. He says that such a faith stagnates the Christian life. It makes the Christian into a blessed possessor, a sort of spiritual coupon clipper who need not be concerned with the serious realities of the Christian life. With such a guarantee we skip over, and do not meet, the need for dependence in a living way an God from moment to moment. This idea that we may have nothing in our Christian lives on which to lean is typical of Barth’s thinking. He also says that we may have no Word of God which we can grasp, no sure word of prophecy to undergird our lives. The Word comes to us, he says; but as soon as we think we grasp it and have it in our possession it disappears. It is no longer the Word of God. The Word can only he coming to us; we can never have it. The same is true with respect to Barth’s idea of salvation. It is always coming to us; but we can never rest in the assurance that it is ours. That would he to kill the reality of the Christian life, Barth claims. What help the Word might possibly be if we could not grasp it, believe in it, and rest on it, I leave to your Christian judgment. The point we. wish to note here is that Barth and others make of perseverance something it is not, a mechanical operation apart from the activity of the believer himself. They think of our idea of perseverance as something as inexorable as a machine. But perseverance does not kill the energy of the believer. When we are saved we are not placed on the moving assembly line of a factory of salvation; we are given a new life in Christ. This life is active and productive. Without such activity there is grave doubt that there is life at all.

(Concluded in next issue)