Totally depraved man who is chosen by God unto salvation, redeemed by the atoning blood of Jesus, and brought to faith by the irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit, is also kept in the faith unto everlasting life by the power of God. This is the doctrine which is called the perseverance of the saints.
Preservation and Perseverance
The commonly used title of this point of Calvinism should not confuse us – especially the word “perseverance.” It is not the work of the saints under their own power who bring about this perseverance in the faith, but it is the work of God. Some prefer to use the word “preservation” of the saints.
We can make an important distinction here. The saints actually do persevere in the faith. They are very much active in sanctification. Phil. 2:12, 13 explains the balance between man’s responsibility and God’s enabling power. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (cf. also II Tim. 2:19; Titus 3:58).
But it is God who preserves Christians and keeps them from ultimately falling into perdition. I Pet. 1:3-5 clearly teaches, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
I John 5:18 states in the NKJV, “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.” It might appear from this verse that the believer must “keep himself” in the faith. There is a variant reading of the word “himself” in the Greek that I believe is more accurate. Instead of “himself” the word is “him” (in the Greek manuscripts, there is a one letter difference which causes this change). The reading should be something like we find in the New International Version (and also the New American Standard Version), “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.” In these translations, the subject of the sentence is not man, but Christ (“the one who was born of God”). It is Christ who keeps the believer safe from the Devil, not man himself. Even if the NKJV translation is correct, it is saying that man must persevere, but it does not eliminate the preservation by God.
The beauty of this doctrine is how God sovereignly works within His elect people, preserving them and causing them to persevere unto the end. It is God who has removed all dominion of sin from His people (Rom. 6:14) and He indwells and dominates their hearts and wills so that their desire is to daily repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting His promise that all who believe have “everlasting life” (as opposed to a temporary life with hopes of making it to everlasting life). When the Bible uses the word “everlasting,” that is exactly what it means (cf. John 3:36; 6:47).
Preservation and perseverance are not in conflict, but they actually are the two aspects of the same doctrine by which God saves. It is God who preserves His elect people by causing them to persevere in the faith.
The Arminian Position
The doctrine taught by the Arminians is consistent with their previous teachings on the matter of salvation. As are their other doctrines, it is centered and dependent on the work of man. According to them, man is not completely dead in sin and he can choose by himself to be saved. It then follows that he could also lose that salvation due to his own weakness and bad choices.
In their system, someone whose sins are atoned for and who is born again could lose that faith and ultimately go to hell. As long as he remains faithful, all is well. But it is up to man, by his own free will, to hold on to his faith without which no one can be saved.
Herein lies the danger of a man-centered religion. There can be no comfort, no assurance, and no complete and abiding joy since all might be lost when a man falls from “true faith” back into unbelief. What this says is that saving grace is not abiding grace. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not an abiding presence (because man can always “resist” this power even after the Holy Spirit has come to man). Notice how different this teaching is from that of Jesus in John 14:16, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.”
Romans 7 and the Struggle of the Christian
The picture presented by Arminianism is of someone who is “in and out” of salvation with the hope that at death they will be “in.” Much of the assurance of salvation depends on the ability of man.
It is natural that the Arminian would interpret Romans chapter 7:15-25 as speaking of the unregenerate state of man instead of the struggles of man as a Christian. The Arminian is wrong at this point. Paul clearly states that he sins even as a regenerated person (cf. v. 22 – the use of the term, “the inward man,” which indicates the new nature in Paul), “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Rom. 7:15, 19). Paul is not saying here that he loses his salvation or gains it back at any time. He is simply saying that even as a believer, sin still clings to him and he falls into it. “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:17, 20). The real “I” is Paul’s new nature in Christ. But the sin that continues to dwell in him is the old nature of Adam that clings to all of us as long as we dwell in this world.
Such sin as Paul refers to in Romans 7 would condemn any man – even the least sin against any of the commandments of God would be sufficient to condemn (as Paul alludes to in 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”). We would perish if it were not for the grace of God who has given us His Holy Spirit who works repentance in us. Romans 8:1 fittingly belongs to the conclusion of Romans 7 which says, “I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:25, 8:1). In The Canons of Dort, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Article 1, we read, “Those whom God, according to His purpose, calls to the communion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by His Holy Spirit, He also delivers from the dominion and slavery of sin, though in this life He does not deliver them altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh.”
As we observe the excruciating agony of Paul’s struggle (or as we look at the struggles with sin in our own lives) what a comfort it is to realize that the outcome of this struggle is never left in doubt for those who are “in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” The “flesh” here refers to the old nature in Adam that once enslaved and dominated us. That nature is gone, along with the curse that accompanied it. Now the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us – the very one who has made us “new creatures” (see II Cor. 5:16-17).
It should be noted that there is intense opposition to this most comforting doctrine by the Arminians who base salvation on the sovereignty of man. As one TV evangelist once said, “Calvinism is born in the pits of hell… and has condemned thousands to hell.” The basis for this and other statements contrary to this doctrine rests on a total misunderstanding of the foundation for it – God’s eternal elective decrees. Calvinism is often falsely depicted as teaching a doctrine that once chosen for salvation, one can sin with abandon and still be saved. Nowhere does it teach this! What it does teach is that God will bring His erring child back to Himself, by way of repentance.
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.