“The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof… Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose it. But the bride of Christ has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure…” (Canons of Dort, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Article 15)
Not only is this doctrine impossible for the unregenerate to comprehend, but it is often confused in the mind of the regenerate as well. Let us look at some of these difficulties.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not teach that Christians never fall into sin. Christians do sin and they “backslide” to various degrees. We should understand what we mean by “backslide.” We are not to interpret this as a sin that needs no repentance, as though “backsliding” is something other than a sin and can even be tolerated. On the contrary, the sin of backsliding is one that calls for heartfelt repentance as we see with the saints in the Scriptures (cf. David’s and Peter’s confessions).
Backsliding is not a falling away completely from the faith or the state of grace into which God has placed the believer. Some sins are so grievous that it might appear that a person has departed from the faith completely and has never been regenerated. We might think of it as a child who may wander morally far from his parents. He may seek to depart from the love of his parents. But the parents have not ceased to love the child. In the case of our heavenly Father, he will continue to love His children and to work repentance in them so that they will return to Him in repentance and faith. Recall the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.
The Canons of Dort state in the Fifth Head of Doctrine, Articles 6 and 7, “But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction. For in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for theirs sins…”
God may allow the saints to fall very deeply into sins before he brings them back through loving chastisement. The purpose of this is that they will have learned a valuable lesson which “renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord, which He has ordained, that they who walk therein may keep the assurance of persevering” (Canons of Dort, 5th Head of Doctrine, Article 13).
The return from a period of backsliding into sin is entirely by the grace of God who draws them unto Himself in repentance and renewed faith. The Canons of Dort put it this way: “Thus it is not in consequence of their own merits or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they neither totally fall from faith and grace nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings…” (Canons of Dort, Fifth Head of Doctrine, Article 8).
Passages Cited by Arminians
The Arminian rejects the idea of “backsliding” within the faith. Rather, he would say that a person has fallen out of the faith and the grace of God. There are two Scripture passages in particular which they refer to in order to substantiate their position: Hebrews 6:4-6 and Galatians 5:4.
Hebrews 6:4-6 says, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” On the surface it may appear to say that Christians can lose their salvation, but it does not.
First, all Scripture must be seen in its context. The broad context is the whole Bible which in so many places, as we shall see later, presents to us the comfort that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:31-39; see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 28: “no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.”) The Scriptures are never contradictory. The overwhelming evidence of Scripture legislates against an interpretation which suggests that a Christian, once saved, could ever lose that salvation.
Secondly, we need to take this passage in the context of what the writer of Hebrews had been teaching previously. In chapters 3 and 4 we are taught about the Israelites who enjoyed the blessings of the covenant with God, who were instructed concerning the Promised Land, who were fed and guided through the wilderness, yet who did not trust God (Heb. 3:711). In addition, Heb. 3:12 speaks of these Israelites as having “an evil heart of unbelief.” The writer of Hebrews warns his hearers not to enjoy the covenant blessings (as the Jews had done), but fail to trust in God with true faith. Just as the Israelites without faith could not enter the Promised Land, but perished in the wilderness, so too, the covenant people he was writing to would not enter the Promised Land of heaven if they did not believe in God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. To be numbered among the Covenant people of God does not guarantee salvation, but it guarantees them the promise of salvation if they believe.
Again Heb. 3:14 says, “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” The proof that we are partakers of Christ rests on whether or not we remain faithful (contrast also Heb. 4:3, 6; see also I Jn. 2:19). This is different from saying that we actually are partakers of Christ and then lose it in the end. Many within God’s covenant enjoy the promises, and yet do not believe them. “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel…” (Rom. 9:6).
In Chapter 5 the writer is telling the people that Christ is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (vv. 6-10), rather than a priest after the order of the Levitical priesthood. It was because of their lack of faith that they still could not grasp this truth, choosing rather to follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws. The writer would like to give them some meaty teaching, but he could not because of they were “dull of hearing” and “unskilled in the word of righteousness.” Therefore he must still give them “milk, and not of solid food” (5:12-14).
Finally, we must look carefully at the words used in this passage. These professing Hebrew Christians were in the danger of being led away by Jewish heresies. They had all the background of the covenant, they were included in the covenant of their fathers and therefore were “enlightened,” and had “tasted of the heavenly gifts,” and were “made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” What the writer is saying is that these Jews had been influenced by the covenant blessings of God (“tasted”) but were not partakers of them in faith. The presence of God’s Spirit was with them, yet not in them. If they did not partake of the covenant promises in faith, but “fell away” from them and remained in unbelief, it would be impossible for them to be restored by repentance once God’s judgment was passed (as in the case of the Israelites who had to perish in the wilderness). If the Hebrews rejected the promise of God in Jesus Christ there would be no other savior – they would be guilty of crucifying the Son of God again and bringing shame on Him.
The Arminians, in using this passage to prove that it is possible to fall away, may being saying more than they want to. You notice also that if the hearers of this Epistle to the Hebrews fall away, as Arminians teach, it is “impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” This they do not teach (ie. once fallen away, always fallen away). They teach that one could be a regenerated believer, fall away, and then be regenerated again. If they interpret this as saying that the Holy Spirit could depart from a person, they would also be forced to say that such a person could never again be saved. One of the early church fathers, Tertullian (in his book, Homily on Baptism) consistently taught that if anyone sinned after being baptized, he could never again be saved. He was wrong in this, but is more consistently wrong than the Arminian of today.
The other passage often used by Arminians to teach that the regenerated person may be lost again is Galatians 5:4 which says, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
The context will help us again. Paul is writing to the Galatians who had been taught the true gospel, but were now in danger of leaving that teaching and reverting to the false teaching of a justification by works (Gal. 3:1-3). Gal. 4:9 warns against turning to the law as a way of justification (ie. “weak and beggarly elements”) and says that these people did not actually “know God” in true faith, but were more realistically “known of God.” Paul is simply teaching in Gal. 5:4 that if you follow a doctrine of being justified by the law, you automatically depart from a doctrine that teaches us that we are justified by grace through faith. One may know of God without truly knowing God by true faith. Anyone who commits that error is not entitled to say that they are under the grace of God, rather they are fallen away from it.
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.