Perseverance: Preserved by God
From the mid-70s to the later-80s Walter Payton was one of the most exciting running backs in the National Football League. Over a thirteen year career with the Chicago Bears he gained nearly twenty-two thousand all-purpose yards...this despite being small of stature and having been drafted from a college program that no one would confuse as being a major powerhouse.
During a Monday night televised game between the Bears and the New York Giants, one of the announcers noted that Payton had accumulated over nine miles of career rushing yardage in his career. The other announcer quickly responded, “Yeah, and that’s with somebody knocking him down every 4.6 yards!”
Inevitably, whether it is on the playing field or in any other position in life, when we get knocked down—and we will—we must get back up again if we hope to succeed.
TobyMac set that thought to music a few years ago when he sang,
We lose our way,
We get back up again
It’s never too late to get back up again
One day you’re gonna shine again,
You may be knocked down
But not out forever.
The New Testament refers that kind of attitude as “perseverance.” At times the Greek term (“‘υπομονη”) is translated “endurance,” and in other places “patience” or “steadfastness.” From its earliest usage, the word was used to speak of “bearing up under difficult circumstances.” Today we encourage one another with words like, “Don’t quit!” and “Press on!” The idea of “waiting patiently for a desirable outcome” is in view. We find these being illustrated in James 1, verses 2 through 4 (NIV), where we are encouraged to “Consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
It is this kind of “perseverance” that is an essential mark of the Christian life. As we near the top of the Ordo Salutis list, we arrive at the doctrine that logically falls between “sanctification” (where we were last week) and “glorification” (where we will be next Sunday). Those whom the Lord has chosen and effectually called to Himself, He has also regenerated, converted, justified, and adopted. If you are His child by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then these blessings are yours. You will, therefore, persevere and be glorified.
Some of you will recognize this as the fifth of the “doctrines of grace,” which is labeled as “the perseverance of the saints.” In other words, it relates to the fact that “saints”—that is, those who have truly been elected and called by God—will and must persevere in faith and obedience to the Lord.
We see this in our own church’s statement of faith, which reads...
We believe that such only are real believers as endure unto the end; that their persevering attachment to Christ is the grand mark which distinguishes them from superficial professors; that a special Providence watches over their welfare; and they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Therefore, as we speak of the doctrine of “perseverance” today, we are referring to the fact that “all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.” To state it more concisely, God will most certainly bring to completion the salvation of His elect.
All too frequently, this doctrine is equated with the familiar phrase “eternal security,” which is often defined as “once saved-always saved.” Technically, the concepts-- “perseverance of the saints” and “eternal security”—can be synonymous when employed correctly. Unfortunately, many times they are not, and the result is confusion and even distortion of the biblical teaching on the subject. We’ll come back near this at the end of this message.
While there is a great deal we might say about the doctrine of “perseverance” today, I want to leave for us three thoughts for our consideration...thoughts that will hopefully get us thinking about the certainty of our salvation. The first of these is that...
Everyone who is truly a Christian will “persevere” to the end.
One’s faith in Christ must and will endure to the end of a person’s life if he or she is to be saved. That is because the Gospel is God’s instrument in the end of faith as well as in its beginning. Or to put it another way, the faith that justifies is also the faith the “perseveres.” Take, for example, two passages from John’s Gospel. The first is from John 6, verses 37 through 40, where Jesus says,
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
And then there is John 10, verses 27 through 29. Again it is Jesus speaking:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-29).
“Persevering” in faith does not imply the attainment of “spiritual perfection.” Most saints will at times go through seasons of doubt and spiritual darkness, as well as periods of unbelief in the promises of God. But as Augustine wrote, “Grace may be shaken with fears and doubts, but it cannot be plucked up by the roots.”
What the doctrine of “perseverance” teaches is that true faith will not be lost. It must and it will persist without renouncing Christ with such hardness of heart from which there is no, thus proving that the one professing faith was merely being hypocritical. To put it another way, “if you have it, you cannot lose it; and if you lose it, you never had it.”
The fight for faith will be fought by those who are genuinely saved, and although that fight will never fully end this side of heaven, it is a fight that will not be finally lost. Charles Ryrie, expressed it this way: “Occasional lapses in faith are stages of immaturity on the road to maturity.”
Nevertheless, the New Testament repeatedly affirms that those who belong to Christ will persevere to the end. In writing to the church in Philippi, Paul said,
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will ring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:3-6).
Peter shared similar words in the introduction to his first epistle, when he wrote,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, ho by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
And then there is Jude, who is his closing benediction reminded his readers,
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25).
There is perhaps no clearer passage that speaks to the “perseverance” of the saints than Romans 8. That chapter begins with this word of assurance: “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), and it concludes with these:
“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39).
My fellow believer, as you hear those words, I trust you are filled with encouragement to press on in your walk with the Lord. They are in the Bible for you, and they are there to remind you that everyone who is truly a Christian will “persevere” to the end.
The 17th-century Puritan theologian, John Flavel, expressed this confidence in the form of a question and an answer: “Did Christ finish His work for us?” he asked. And in reply he answered, “Then there can be no doubt but He will also finish His work in us.”
In order to bolster that thought, we must further recognize that...
Only those who “persevere” to the end are truly elect Christians.
John Owen offered the following syllogism in response to those who taught that Christians could lose their salvation:
- The first premise: “The elect cannot fall away.”
- The second premise: “Some who profess to believe fall away from the faith.”
- The conclusion: “Therefore, professors who fall away are not elect believers.”
The reason we can say that is because the security of the believer is based upon God’s promise of Himself to be God to His people. And because God binds Himself to His promise, “perseverance” in the end is not ultimately founded upon the will of the believer but rather on the will of God. In R.C. Sproul’s words, “The doctrine of perseverance does not rest on our ability to persevere; rather it rests on the promise of God to preserve us.”
That being said, obedience to God is necessary for salvation. John Calvin wrote that “Where the grace of God reigns, there is also the readiness to obey.” There are many passages in the New Testament that bear this out. We see this in the fact that many of God’s eternal promises are stated conditionally. For example...
- Hebrews 12:14 – “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord
- Romans 8:13 – “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
- Galatians 5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are evident: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” We find similar statements in 1 Corinthians 6 and Ephesians 5.
- 1 John 2:3-6 – “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Similar statements are repeated in chapters 3 and 4 of this same epistle.
- And then there are Jesus’ own words in John 8:31 – “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Jonathan Edwards took this to mean that the very definition of a Christian is the one who continues in the Word of Christ.
We can say with confidence that God’s elect cannot be finally lost. Although there will at times be a “falling away” on the part of some believers, if it persists it demonstrates that their faith was not genuine and they were never truly saved. I believe that we can see this in the parable of the four soils spoken by Jesus in Luke 8(:4-15) which pictures people who “hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.”
The fact that such a thing is possible is precisely why the ministry of the Gospel in every local church must make certain to contain admonitions to church members to “persevere” in the faith and not become entangled in those things that could possibly strangle them and result in their condemnation. No pastor can know infallibly who of his listeners are the good soil and who are the bad. That is why warnings and exhortations are the means by which he helps his people to endure. The manner in which they receive them either authenticates the genuineness or exposes the fallacy of their faith.
Among the warnings that professing believers are called upon to heed are these:
- Colossians 1:22-23 where, after reminding his readers that their security is based on the finished work of Christ, Paul tells them that they will one day be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach.” And then he adds this conditional phrase, “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”
- In Hebrews 3:12-14, that author warned his readers, saying, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Those “if”-clauses are significant because they leave open the possibility that not every “professing believer” will persevere. If fact, John the Apostle spoke of some who were actually engaged in ministry but subsequently fell away from the truth. Writing in 1 John 2:19, he said of them, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
By falling away from fellowship with Christ and His Church, these people demonstrated that their faith was not real and that they never were a part of the true Body of Christ. They may have believed in “eternal security” and even claimed that “once saved, always saved,” but their lack of “perseverance” in their walk with the Lord revealed that they never knew Him at all. Their kind remain with us to this day. If you are basing the assurance of your salvation on a “decision” you made or a “walk down the aisle” or a prayer that you prayed years ago, that is not sufficient. The true test is if you are continuing to trust Christ and that you are walking with Him in the present.
Just as everyone who is truly a Christian will “persevere” to the end, it is equally true that only those who “persevere” to the end are truly Christians. Even though they may give many of the “external” signs of conversion, those who fall away demonstrate that they were never elected, called, regenerated, converted, justified, or adopted into God’s family.
In 2 Corinthians 13:5 we are counseled to “Examine (ourselves), to see whether (we) are in the faith.” We also have the warning found in 1 Corinthians 10:12 that says, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” The point is that we should never presume that we are truly saved if our lives are bearing no fruit (cf. John 15:1-8). There will be observable signs in the life of every true believer, and those signs will become more and more evident with the passing of time.
Perhaps by now you may be wondering if it is possible for anyone to know if they are genuinely saved. I not only believe that it is possible, but necessary to know with certainty that one has been truly “born again” (cf. John 3:3). And that takes us to our third and final point. We have said that everyone who is truly a Christian will “persevere” to the end, and that only those who “persevere” to the end are truly Christians. In addition, you need to be aware that...
Those who are truly Christians can, by their “perseverance,” have genuine assurance of salvation.
As he brought to a conclusion his Gospel account of the ministry of the Savior, John wrote: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
In a similar way, he ended his first epistle with these words: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
R.C. Sproul has pointed out that there are four possible positions with respect to one’s assurance of salvation. There is first, those who are unsaved and know they are unsaved. Second, there are those who are unsaved, but believe they are saved. Third, there are those who are saved, but don’t have assurance that they are saved. And fourth, there are those who are saved, and know for certain that they are saved. What makes the difference is how well one understands the doctrine of “perseverance” as it is revealed in the Scriptures. The easiest way to have a “false assurance” of salvation is to have a faulty doctrine of salvation. And that drives us back to the Ordo Salutis. God will complete what He starts.
There are any number of reasons for people lacking the assurance of their salvation. Some of those doubts are whether they followed the “necessary steps” in asking the Lord to save them. Others deal with the person’s inability to remember the date when they prayed to “receive Christ.” If you happen to be in one of those two categories, then I want to remind you that neither of those things has to be a reason to doubt your salvation. The only matter of concern is that you have repented of your sins, have committed your life to Christ, and that you are trusting Him now to save you. Are you basing your hope of eternal life solely on what Christ has done for you and not on anything you may have done?
Eternal life, by its very definition, cannot be terminated. Therefore, the real question is not whether one will finish well, but did he start well. In other words, did he enter into a saving relationship with God solely through the blood of Jesus, which was poured out on the cross where He died for the innumerable sins committed by humanity from the Garden of Eden to the end of this present age. If you are “in Christ” then you should be zealous to “confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). As Paul reminded the believers in Philippi, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Allow me to put forth to you three questions that, I believe, serve as evidence of genuine conversion. I’ll state them in the first person because they apply to me as well.
- First, do I have a present trust in Christ for salvation? Am I today trusting Christ to forgive my sins and take me without blame to heaven where I will live with Him forever? Do I have confidence in my heart that He has saved me? If I were to die tonight and stand before God and He were to ask me why He should let me into heaven, would I begin to think of my good deeds and depend on them, or would I say without hesitation that I am depending on the merits of Christ and am confident that He is an all-sufficient Savior. The emphasis must be on the “present” and not on some past “conversion experience.” If the testimony of saving faith is genuine, it should be a testimony of faith that is alive and well this very day.
- Second, is there evidence of a work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit in my heart? I am not speaking of “miraculous signs” or many years of labor in the church, but rather a subjective but real witness of God’s Spirit at work within my heart. Is “the fruit of the Spirit” (cf. Galatians 5:22-23) being produced in me? Am I continuing to believe the Bible and adjusting my life according to its teaching? Do I long for intimacy with God and the fellowship of God’s people whenever the church gathers? What is it that you can say has changed and continues to change in your life since you first trusted Christ? In other words, how is God conforming you “to the image of His Son” (cf. Romans 8:29).
- And third, am I able to chart a long-tern pattern of growth in my spiritual life? In 2 Peter 1, verses 5 through 7, we are told, “Supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” As the next verse tells us, the way to confirm our call and election is to “grow in these qualities.” This implies that our assurance of salvation will be something that increases over time. As we have come to the end of an old year and enter into a new one, now is the time to take stock.
By asking these questions of ourselves on a regular and periodic basis we should be able to assess whether or not our faith is genuine. In this way, the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints” will be a tremendously comforting doctrine. No truly “born again” child of God should ever have to ask, “Will I be able to ‘persevere’ to the end of my life and therefore be eternally saved?” Everyone who has this assurance through this self-assessment should rather think, “I am truly born again; therefore, I will certainly ‘persevere’ to the end, because I am being preserved by God’s power working through my faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:5) and, therefore, I will never be lost.”
On the other hand, the doctrine of “perseverance,” if rightly understood, should be a source of worry—and even fear—to those who are “backsliding” or straying from Christ. Such persons must clearly be warned that only those who “persevere” to the end have been truly “born again.” If they fall away from their profession of faith in Christ and life of obedience to Him, they may not actually be saved. In fact, the evidence that they are giving is that they are not saved and never were saved.
Far too many “professing Christians” are content to settle for an “easy believism” that grossly oversimplifies and misrepresents the doctrine of “perseverance.” A proper understanding of what is meant by “the perseverance of the saints” focuses on a balanced perspective of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
If, on the one hand, we proclaim “once saved, always saved” without any significant call to “persevere” in following Christ to the end, we encourage or reinforce a false sense of hope grounded on self-deception. But if, on the other hand, we teach that believers cannot know if they will go to heaven, then we deny the sovereignty of God and throw our hearers back on their own efforts to attain salvation.
Correctly understanding the doctrine of “perseverance” enables the Church of Jesus Christ to walk both in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
That being said, you and I must realize that “perseverance” is a community project. God never meant for us to fight the fight of faith alone. Paul’s interesting statement in 2 Timothy 2:10 is worthy of mention. As the time of his execution drew near, he said, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” In one sense “the elect” will surely enter into eternal glory. Salvation is certain for God’s elect. It cannot fail. But the way God has ordained to make it certain is by the means of empowering human cooperation in the fight for faith. We must bear in mind that the Lord is just as sovereign over the means of our salvation as he is over the ends.
God will triumph in the end...for His glory but also for the good of those who are His. In this regard, John Piper has written:
God is God. He is absolutely sovereign. And He is gracious beyond all human analogy. He has not left the world to perish in its sin. He has planned, is performing, and will complete a great salvation for his people and his creation. He has done this with infinite wisdom and love. Which means he has done it so that He gets the glory in us and we get the joy in Him.
other sermons in this series