The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints has incited controversy throughout the history of the church. At the same time, it has been a source of joy and assurance for Christians who face trials and temptations as they run with endurance the race set before them (Heb 12:1-2). It teaches that true believers, whom God has effectually called and brought into union with Christ, will certainly persevere unto final salvation, obtaining their heavenly inheritance, and can neither totally nor finally fall away. Furthermore, the saints’ perseverance does not depend primarily or decisively upon their own free will, but upon the purpose, grace, and preserving power of God. Berkhof provides a helpful definition which rightly emphasizes the work of God in sustaining his people until their final eschatological salvation. He defines it as the continuous operation of the Spirit in the life of the believer that brings the divine work of sovereign grace, that began in the heart, to completion. Those who have been effectually called continue to hold fast because God has purposed to never abandon the work he began. If the believer were left to himself, he would surely fall away. However, the saints persevere because it is primarily God who perseveres in bringing his elect to glorification (Rom 8:29-30). From beginning to end, the believer’s salvation and preservation is grounded in the grace of God and his immutable, eternal, steadfast, covenant love (hesed).
Those who object to this doctrine insist that it leads to indolence and immorality, violates human free will, and blunts the warnings in Scripture. While it is generally true that God is faithful to preserve and sustain his people, they believe it is not always the case given the numerous instances of apostasy recorded in Scripture. All affirm that those who persevere to the end will be saved, but those who reject the doctrine of preservation also hold that believers can choose to walk away and abandon their faith, committing total and final apostasy. For a helpful survey of the terminology and positions in this debate, see the theological essay on Perseverance and Preservation by Luke Stamps.
The aim of this essay is to show that Christians will persevere to the end and be saved because they are being preserved by the power and grace of God. All true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, who have been effectually called have been “sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 1:13-14), are being guarded through faith by God’s power (1 Pet. 1:3-5), will be glorified (Rom. 8:29-30), and can never perish or be snatched from the Father’s hand (Jn. 10:28-29). While this can be a thorny topic, by looking at numerous texts from both Old and New Testaments it will become evident that the doctrine of the perseverance and preservation of the saints best accounts for the biblical material. It is not merely a handful of texts that support the doctrine, but the entire gospel message that sustains and confirms it. The believer’s hope of salvation is grounded in the infallible, Trinitarian, salvific work of God and his new covenant promises which are inviolable and irrevocable. This paper will attempt to prove that a proper and robust understanding of the unfailing work of God in the preservation of his saints provides the best support and defense of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It will also argue that the warnings and exhortations in Scripture, prayer, and the church serve as the means by which the saints are able to persevere.
Rather than presenting something new, my aim is simply to help our local church understand the biblical case for the doctrines of preservation and perseverance which are vital for the Christian life today. The first section will look at the biblical evidence for the perseverance and preservation of the saints. It will begin by considering the faithfulness of God in the Old Testament and the promise of the New Covenant. Then the evidence for the preservation of the saints from the New Testament will be presented, looking specifically at the writings of the Apostles Paul, Peter, and John. In the second section, the means employed to ensure saints’ preservation of the saints will be examined, namely warnings and exhortations, prayer, and the church. This second section will conclude with a brief look at some of the common objections to the doctrine of perseverance.
Preservation in the Old Testament
Any discussion of the preservation and perseverance of the saints must begin with an understanding of the faithful, gracious, and immutable character of God on display throughout the OT. While there are no explicit OT texts which articulate the doctrine of preservation, it is here that we first see God’s redemptive and preserving purposes unfold in the promise of victory through seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). Although it seems that the seed of the serpent is prevailing with the murder of Abel, the pervasiveness of sin (6:5), Noah and his family being the only survivors of the flood, and the tower of Babel (11:4), God takes salvific action in the election of Abraham. By calling the patriarchs God freely chooses a people to be the recipients of his saving and preserving grace and through whom all peoples would experience salvation (Gen. 12:3; cf. 26:3–4; 28:13–15; 35:11–12). His election continues to unfold as God redeems his chosen people from slavery in Egypt, brings them out from bondage under the leadership of Moses, and brings them to the Promised Land, establishing them as the nation of Israel (Exod. 3:6–10; 6:7; Deut. 6:21–23; Ps. 105).
It is important to note that the preservation of God’s people is inextricably tied to their election and his hesed, his eternal loving-kindness and steadfast covenant love bestowed particularly on his elect (cf. Num. 23:19; Deut. 7:6-9). Their election was not a capricious act of God with no particular end goal, but an intentionally loving act with the goal of eschatological salvation and the display and praise of his glory (Isa. 43:10-12; 20; 44:8.; cf. Pss. 79:13; 96:1–10). Therefore, the preservation of his people is necessarily required for his plan of redemption to be accomplished. Since God’s hesed is rooted in his nature, it goes beyond the covenant. So even when the people are unfaithful and disciplined (Isa. 54:8-10), the covenant of grace will not ultimately be abandoned. This is because the covenant does not rest upon the performance of the people, but in God’s compassion and mercy.
Of all the books in the OT, the preservation of the saints is alluded to most frequently in the Psalms. One of the many reasons David rejoices in the Lord is that “he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever” (Ps. 37:28; 97:10; 116:6; 145:20). God is declared to be the salvation of his people whom he upholds daily (68:19) and in Psalm 121 He is praised as the keeper of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps and will not let his people’s feet be moved (121:3-8; cf. Ps. 140:4). Those who put their trust in Lord are compared to Mount Zion, which can never be moved and abides forever, and are said to be surrounded by the Lord both now and forevermore (125:1-2). God is praised and glorified for his preserving power because it is one of the primary ways in which his hesed is made manifest. (Ps 106; 107; 118; 136).
Despite the fact that Israel was God’s elect nation, not everyone who was part of ethnic Israel was genuinely a part of God’s people. After the Northern kingdom was destroyed (722 BC) and the Southern kingdom was exiled (587 BC), the theology of the people of God developed a new aspect, namely that of the “remnant”. Even when the nation of Israel was at its lowest and most wicked point, God graciously preserved a small group of believers who were faithful (Is 10:20–21; 28:5; 37:31–32; Zeph 3:12–13; Mic. 4:7; 7:18; Zech 8:11-15; et al.). God’s faithful preservation of his true people is made explicitly clear by Isaiah when he contrasts the powerless idols they carried into exile with the omnipotent God who carries them (Isa 46:1-4). He reminds the remnant that he has carried them since their birth and will carry them “even to your old age…and to gray hairs” (46:4). This provides his people with an unwavering assurance that Lord’s preservation will never end and always be available.
After the exile, the prophets spoke to the remnant of God’s decisive intervention with the promise of a new covenant (Jer. 30-31; Ezek. 36-37; Isa. 40-66). The preservation of God’s people is once again on display in this everlasting and unbreakable covenant that he would make with them (Jer. 31:31-34). He promised to write his law on their hearts, to keep them from turning from him, and to give them his Spirit which will ensure their covenant faithfulness (Jer. 32:40; Ezek. 36:27). Furthermore, Hosea writes that God will betroth his people to himself forever in righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness (Hosea 2:19-20). Garret notes that faithfulness sums up these other four qualities because God’s consistent goodness (righteousness and justice) and grace (steadfast love and mercy) is the basis for Israel’s salvation.
If God was unable or unwilling to preserve his people, then the faithful covenant-keeping God would ultimately prove to be faithless. In other words, Israel’s formation, preservation, and final eschatological salvation are based solely upon God’s good pleasure to save his people and his own glory being made known to the world.
Preservation in the New Testament
Having considered God’s hesed and the preservation of his people throughout the OT, the foundation has been laid for understanding the biblical evidence for the preservation and perseverance of the saints in the NT. In this section, the biblical evidence for the saints’ preservation will be considered in the writings of Paul, Peter, and John.
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that genuine faith is necessarily a faith that perseveres because it is rooted in the hope that God will save those whom he has called from the wrath to come (Rom. 5:2-5; Col. 1:4-5; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). This is uncontested by both Calvinists and Arminians; those who persevere to the end will be saved (Col. 1:22-23; 1 Cor. 15:1-2). The question, however, is whether the truly regenerate believer can fully and finally fall away. For Paul, the answer must be in the negative because those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God are able to persevere because of the power of God. This is made clear in numerous passages throughout the Pauline corpus.
In his letters to the Thessalonian church, Paul prays for the believers there, asking that God would sanctify them completely and keep them blameless at the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:23). At the conclusion of his prayer, he provides them with the assurance that “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (5:24). For Paul, God’s calling is not arbitrary but aimed at eschatological salvation. God is not only powerful, but faithful to his promises. Paul knows that the future of the Thessalonian believers who are in Christ is truly secure. He goes on to tell them that Lord who called them and chose them (2 Thess. 2:13-14) is faithful and will guard them from the evil one (3:3). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians Paul praises God for the grace given to the believers in Christ Jesus and the spiritual gifts they have received as they wait for the coming Jesus (1:4-7). He says that it is Christ himself “who will sustain [them] to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). Not only is Christ their guarantee of being kept blameless, but the gifts of the Spirit that they have been enriched with are an assurance and a foretaste of the age to come.
One of the most powerful metaphors that Paul uses to describe the saints’ preservation is being sealed with the Spirit, who is the down payment that guarantees the believers’ destiny with their Lord and Savior (2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14; 4:30; cf. 2 Tim 2:19; 1 Cor 6:20). That they were sealed the moment they believed indicates that it was not a subsequent event and that what is in view is ownership and protection. This provides undeniable assurance that God will be faithful to his promises, that his hesed endures forever, and that God will certainly bring to completion the work he has started in the lives of believers (Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 5:24). Schreiner notes that the seal is irrevocable and indelible and this first installment of the Spirit is indissolubly linked with the saints’ eschatological inheritance (Eph 1:13-14). Furthermore, Paul says in Ephesians 4:30 that the believers have been “sealed for the day of redemption”, which suggests that this seal is incapable of being broken and makes certain the redemption of the saints.
Having begun by the Spirit, Paul rejects the notion that believers are perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:3) because he understands that salvation is solely a work of God’s sovereign grace. Their hope is laid up in heaven (Col. 1:5), their lives are hidden with Christ in God, and they will appear with Christ when he comes in glory (Col. 3:3-4). The command for believers to actively “work out [their] salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) is grounded in the unassailable truth that it is “God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Paul does not deny an active faith required in the lives of the believers for their sanctification and perseverance. In a sense, these aspects of salvation are indeed synergistic. However, it is not a cooperative enterprise with each side contributing fifty percent, but each side paradoxically contributing one-hundred percent! Gaffin rightly notes that sanctification is 100% the preserving work of God and, because of that reason, requires the 100% contribution of the believer. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Christians are the final and decisive agents in their perseverance. Rather, these synergistic works are a gift from God and have been guaranteed by him, unwilling to let his work of sovereign grace be ultimately ruined by the power of sin. Christians have nothing to contribute to their salvation that would endanger the final outcome if they failed to do so.
While the picture of believers being sealed seems to decisively settle the matter of the saints’ preservation, Paul provides even more concrete proof of the believer’s guaranteed preservation in the book of Romans. He tells the believers that they have been given the “first fruits” of the Spirit as they eagerly await the redemption of their bodies (Rom. 8:23). Moo states that the word “first fruits” alludes to not only the beginning of a process, namely the work of eschatological redemption, but to the indissoluble link between its beginning and guaranteed end. It is into this hope, according to the Apostle, that believers have been saved (8:24). They live with the certainty that they will experience the redemption of their bodies from sin and decay and with the assurance that they will be saved from the wrath to come on the day of the Lord (Rom 5:9-10).
In Romans 8:29-39 the believer is given what could be considered the most ironclad proof of the preservation and perseverance of the saints in all of Scripture. It is here that Paul provides the unbreakable chain of divine work that guarantees the salvation of all those who have been effectually called (Rom 8:29-30). He gives believers the complete assurance that “those whom [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (8:30). What is clearly evident in this passage is that there is no possibility of a link in this chain ever being broken. In other words, no believer who has been predestined, effectually called, and justified can fail to be finally glorified. The plan of redemption has been set before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:3-11). Because God is a faithful and immutable God, full of steadfast covenantal love for his covenant people (hesed), his new covenant promises and commitments are therefore infallible and irrevocable. Furthermore, Paul goes on to show that nothing could possibly separate believers from this steadfast love of God (Rom 8:31-39) and that the risen Christ is interceding for his elect (8:34). Schreiner concludes that we are “more than conquerors” as a result of God turning our enemies into his servants, using them for our ultimate good, and seeing that they never remove us from his love (8:35-39). Some object by saying that we can choose to separate ourselves from God’s love because the things listed that can’t separate us are only external. Schreiner, however, points out that this assumes the believer’s free choice to fall away is somehow disconnected from external circumstances in life and our experiences. There is nothing that can separate true believers from the preserving power of God.
The preservation and perseverance of the saints is affirmed and clearly seen in Peter’s letters to the elect exiles. He begins his first letter by praising God who, in his mercy, causes believers 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 [them], who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5). The first thing to notice is that believers are born again for a purpose, namely, to a hope and an inheritance. Second, this inheritance is eternal and pure, unable to be defiled or to ever fade away (1:4). The word for imperishable is also used to speak of the incorruptible Word of God (1:23). Peter gives no hint that this inheritance can be forfeited or lost by any true believer. Third, the believer’s inheritance is kept in heaven for them (Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:8). The passive form of “kept” employed by Peter is a divine passive, which refers to God as the one doing the reserving of the inheritance. This emphasizes the security and certainty of the believers’ eschatological reward in the strongest possible terms. Fourth, not only is the inheritance kept by God, but he is also guarding the believers by his power, ensuring that they receive it on the last day (1:5). Fifth, the text does not say that God merely protects believers as they passively sit and wait for their final salvation. Rather, God is guarding us “through faith.” Achtemeier rightly concludes that God’s shielding is visibly appropriated by the trust of the Christians, which becomes the means by which his sovereign protection becomes a reality. In other words, the Christian’s faith is the visible evidence of the invisible reality arousing their trust. It important to note, however, that God’s power cannot be separated from our responsibility to believe. If his divine power plays no part in our perseverance, it becomes rather difficult to see what his power actually does since Peter informs us throughout his letter that believers will face persecution, suffering, and death. The point of 1 Peter 1:5 is that God’s preserving power is the means by which we persevere in our belief. 
The Johannine corpus also speaks directly to the issue of preservation and perseverance in several passages. The first and most popular passages come from John’s gospel in which he records the promise of preservation from the words of Jesus himself. He tells us that all the Father gives him will come to him, that he will never cast them out (John 6:37), and that the will of the Father is that he loses nothing that has been given to him, but to raise it up on the last day (6:39-40). The Good Shepherd graciously gives eternal life to his sheep, assuring them that they will never perish or be snatched from the Father’s hand (10:28-29). In Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 he says that he guarded them while he was with them (17:11-13) and prays that God would keep them after he had left (17:15, 17). These passages concerning those given to the Son by the Father (6:37-39; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 9, 24) and the work Jesus was given to do (17:4) point to a plan fixed from eternity that is not contingent upon the faithfulness or work of man.
In 1 John it is said that God preserves his elect from temptation and inner weakness as well (1 John 5:18). While we commit daily sins as we are being sanctified, John assures us that God will keep us from the evil one so that we are not overcome by sin to the point of full and final apostasy. In fact, throughout the whole letter, John has been reminding his little children of the unshakeable truths that provide the grounds for their confidence. Jesus was made manifest and incarnate (1:1-2; 4:2-3), was the propitiation for sins by his atoning blood (2:2; 4:10), rose from the dead in order that “we might live through him” (4:9), and is coming again to make us like him (2:28-3:2). Assurance of salvation is not just in what Christ has done, but also in what the Spirit is currently doing in the believers’ lives, namely their confession of the truth (4:13-15; 5:10-13), their obedience (2:3-6; 3:10), and their love for each other (3:14, 19-20). The believer is assured that just as God acted in Christ, the first Paraclete, to make the believer his beloved child, he will continue to act decisively through the Spirit, the second Paraclete, to bring his work to completion (cf. 1 John 5:4).
John also considers the preservation of the saints in the book of Revelation using figurative language. Christ is to be in the midst of the lampstands, which represent the church, holding the seven stars in his right hand, which are the angels of the church that possibly are a picture of the church’s heavenly existence (Rev. 1:12, 16, 20; 2:1). Like the Apostle Paul, John also employs the use of the powerful metaphor of believers being sealed (Rev. 7:3; 9:4;). This shows that those who have the seal of the living God on their foreheads are not guaranteed physical security, but protection of their faith and salvation from the persecution and tribulation that they face throughout the present evil age (Rev. 3:10). It is this divine seal that empowers the believers to persevere and remain faithful to Christ. Because the angel is sealing the servants of God, this seems to suggest that they are already believers. Therefore, Beale concludes this likely refers to a divine decree of sealing all who will believe throughout the church age. The 144,000 who are sealed are not literal, ethnic Israelites living at the end of history during a seven-year tribulation, but all believers in Christ throughout the ages. This is supported by the fact that similar language is used to describe the group of people around the throne in Rev 5:9 and 14:3-4. The Lamb is said to have “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9), and the 144,000 around the throne in Rev 14:3-4 are said to have been “redeemed from the earth” and “from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (cf. Rev 7:9). This understanding would also fit perfectly with Paul’s theme of all believers being sealed with the Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Tim. 2:19; Rom. 8:23).
After examining the biblical evidence for the doctrine of preservation, it becomes clear that the whole of the gospel message confirms this doctrine, rather than a mere handful of proof-texts. God preserved the patriarchs and their offspring to fulfill his promises their descendants (Gen. 28:15; Num. 6:24; Deut. 32:10; Ps. 105:8-15). The NT writers believe that God decisively acts in a similar manner to protect his flock through Jesus (Jn. 6:37-40; 10:27-30; 17:11-19), and preserve them through this present evil age (Rev. 12:6; 13-16). Spencer notes that believer’s grounds for confidence in the “hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23) is Trinitarian in nature. The Father chooses the saints from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), ordaining them to be conformed to his Son’s image (Rom 8:29), and eventually brings about their calling, justification, and glorification (8:29-30). Christ, the obedient Son, dies for all those given to him by the Father to give them eternal life (17:2, 6, 12), promising that they will never be snatched from his hand (10:28-30), and intercedes for them at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34). The Holy Spirit regenerates and seals believers for the day of Redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor 1:22). God promises to complete the work that he has begun in them (Phil. 1:6), not letting any of his children be tempted to the point of perdition (1 Cor. 10:13; 1 Jn.5:18). Believers rest assured knowing that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
The Means of Preservation
Warnings and Exhortations
The Bible is filled with warnings and exhortations to believers and those who profess faith in Christ that must be evaluated and held in tension along with the gospel promises outlined so far in this essay (cf. Heb. 6:1-4; Col 1:21-23; 1 Cor. 15:1-2, et. al.). At first glance, these passages suggest that believers who fail to persevere in the faith will lose their salvation, be disqualified from their inheritance, and face eternal judgment and separation from God. Of all of the views on these difficult passages, it seems best to understand these passages not only as a warning to professing believers but one of the means God uses to preserve the elect, known as the “means of salvation” view. It is this view that sees the divine promises of preservation and warnings of falling away functioning in harmony because the warnings and exhortations prompt perseverance in believers. In other words, God secures the believer’s perseverance through the influence of the Spirit and by various means, including warnings and exhortations. Not only has he sovereignly ordained the end, but means as well.
Paul employs such means throughout his writings, especially his letter to the Corinthians, warning the believers that God will destroy those who destroy God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:17), to “take heed lest he fall” (10:12), and encouraging them to run so that they obtain the prize (9:24). In Galatians, he warns believers of returning to Judaism and falling away from grace (Gal 5:4), and to not grow weary in doing good (6:9). Peter also makes use of exhortations, encouraging the elect exiles to make their calling and election sure so that they never fall (2 Pet. 1:3-11). In the book of Revelation, the churches are reminded that the one who conquers will be saved (Rev. 2:7, 17, 25-26; 3:5, 11-12, 21). If believers were to apostatize, rejecting the hope in which they were saved, and were somehow able remove the seal of the living God which has sealed them for the day of redemption, then they would truly be lost. However, the Spirit, by the means of these threatening statements, graciously and infallibly secures them from falling away fully and finally.
In order to understand how the warnings function as the means by which the saints persevere, Christopher Cowan asserts that it is helpful to view them as analogous to the initial gospel call that goes out to all the world. While those who embrace Reformed theology understand that salvation is a divine act of election (Eph. 1:1-14; Rom. 8-9), they do not ignore or reject the means employed by God to call sinners to believe in Jesus. God’s unfailing purposes to elect people from before the foundation of the world do not invalidate the essential requirement of faith in Jesus on the behalf of the sinner in order for him to be saved. Furthermore, it must be remembered that the warning passages in Scripture are prospective and do not rebuke believers for having actually fallen away, but to urge them not to. They are like signposts, warning drivers not to proceed lest they drive off of a cliff, or like the warning labels on a bottle of poison, warning people that they will die if they consume it. The warnings aren’t negligible because true believers will not fall away. Rather, they are the God-appointed means by which they persevere.
Two NT passages are helpful for understanding how means are used when the end is certain. In Acts 27, during a horrendous storm at sea, Paul received a promise from an angel of God assuring him that everyone on board the ship would live (27:21-26). Despite Paul’s assurance that there would be no loss of life, Paul warns the centurions and the soldiers that if they left the ship, they would surely die (27:30-32). Paul’s warning functioned as one of the means that ensured the survival of the men aboard the ship, thus fulfilling the promise he received. The warning was not meaningless because no one died. It was precisely because the warning was heeded that no one died. In Mark 13, Jesus confirms the promise that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13) and that unfathomable tribulation and suffering was coming (13:19). However, God shortens the days so that the elect will be saved (13:20). The Lord sovereignly orders the events so that elect will be kept from perdition. He goes on to say that the false prophets coming will perform such great miracles that even the elect would be deceived if it were possible (13:22). However, it is not possible for the elect to be deceived. Nevertheless, in the very next verse Jesus commands his disciples to “be on guard” (13:23). It is by heeding the warnings that the disciples will be saved on the last day.
Prayer is another one of the means by which the saints are preserved and persevere. Throughout his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul prays that God would make them worthy of his calling (2 Thess. 1:11-13), comfort them and establish them in every good work (2:16-17), that they would love one another and be blameless in holiness (1 Thess 3:10-13), and that they would be sanctified completely and kept until the coming of Jesus (5:23). Throughout Scripture it is made clear that God preserves and believers are called to persevere and Paul prays that God would help believers to endure. Schreiner notes that prayer can be considered to be in between these two poles, because Paul acknowledges that perseverance comes from God in his prayers. He prays for God to intervene and change the mind and behaviors of his people. While the work of God and the actions of humans are considered, it is obvious that God’s work is decisive, because prayer is fundamentally acknowledging that God is capable to change the actions of people. The certainty of Paul’s prayers being answered is the foundation of his praying.
The covenant community of believers also functions as a God-appointed means of preserving the saints. In Galatians 6, Paul tells the believers to restore any brother who has fallen into sin (6:1-2; cf. 1 Cor. 5:12-13; Jas. 5:19-20; Heb. 3:13). It is through believers admonishing, exhorting, and warning fellow believers who have fallen into serious sin that they are restored. Paul also tells Timothy that he endures everything “for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:10; cf. Tit. 1:1; Col. 1:24). The doctrine of preservation and perseverance does not claim that believers will never fall into serious sin and, for a time, appear to have fallen away. However, those who have been truly regenerated will by no means remain in that fallen state and will be brought back to repentance and perseverance until the end.
One of the most common objections to the doctrine of preservation and perseverance is that Scripture teaches that believers can indeed fall away. That God preserves and sustains his people is generally, but not always true. It seems that these passages, considered in isolation from the rest of the biblical material, appear to indicate that true believers can and do fall away. For example, in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 Paul says that some have swerved from the faith and “upset the faith of some”. The subsequent verses, however, prove that this is not actually the case. He immediately adds, “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (2 Tim. 2:29). Since God has ordained, from before creation, who truly belongs to him and who does not, these defections do not cause God’s church to waver. Their total apostasy proved that their faith was never genuine to begin with (cf. 1 Jn. 2:19), because the seal on those who belong to God is incapable of being broken or removed. Regarding the rather difficult passage in 2 Peter 2:1, it would seem that this passage, read without context, proves that believers can reject the Master who bought them. However, in light of the overwhelming evidence in support of the preservation and perseverance that saturates the entire canon of Scripture, especially from Peter himself (1 Pet. 1:3-5), another interpretation must be considered. Schreiner convincingly argues that Peter is simply using phenomenological language because of how convincing the false teachers were in pretending to be believers. In other words, Peter describes them as believers because they had made a convincing profession of faith and gave every appearance initially of being genuine believers.
A second objection is that the doctrine of preservation leads to lassitude and immorality in believers. Unfortunately, to many believers who object to this doctrine, the idea of “eternal security”, or “once saved, always saved”, seems to imply indolence and license to sin. Glodo notes that while “eternal security” is true in itself, it is nevertheless dangerous by itself. For the Scriptures make it clear that believers must persevere and will persevere in holiness and watchfulness in order not to fall away from God. It is hard to see how God’s preserving power, which conforms us to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29), and the seal of the Spirit, leading to the growth of the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22-23), could lead someone to a life ultimately characterized by sin and sloth. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that a doctrine which guarantees believers of perseverance in holiness could be an incentive for sin.
This essay has attempted to argue that that the perseverance of the saints is ultimately rooted in God’s purposes to preserve them and enable them to persevere. By looking at biblical texts from both Old and New Testaments it is evident that this doctrine best accounts for the biblical material and that the whole of the gospel message confirms it. God’s decisive action is always anterior to the actions of human beings and his sovereign, unfailing preservation operates through the believer’s perseverance. The believer’s hope of salvation is grounded in the infallible, Trinitarian, salvific work of God and his new covenant promises which are inviolable and irrevocable. They are safely kept in God’s hand, guarded through faith, and have been sealed by the Spirit for the day of the redemption. This essay has also shown that God uses various means, along with the efficacious work of the Spirit, in order to ensure the saints’ preservation, namely warnings and exhortations, prayer, and the covenant community of believers. Common objections to the doctrine have also been addressed in order to show that other interpretations, which reject the doctrine of preservation, cannot sufficiently account for the abundant biblical evidence affirming God’s preserving power that enables the saints to persevere.
- See James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 425-436; Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 547.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 546.
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 269.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Election”, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 452.
- W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, “Loving-Kindness”, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Nelson, 1985).
- Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, 269.
- Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 290.
- Scholars disagree on the nature, extent, and reception of the work of the Spirit in the lives of Old Testament believers. It is clear, however, that God’s purposes of election and preservation prevailed unquestionably. See James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006); Robert V. McCabe, “Were Old Testament Believers Indwelt By the Spirit?”, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 9 (2004), 215-264; John de Hoog, “The Holy Spirit’s Work in the Old Testament”, Vox Reformata 77 (2012), 19-46; Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “The Indwelling Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament”, Evangelical Quarterly 82.4 (2010), 308-315.
- Duane A. Garret, Hosea, Joel. New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1997), 94.
- J. I. Packer, “Election,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 307.
- D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, vol. 33, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 190.
- Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 44.
- David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 107.
- Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 120.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2006), 275.
- Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Paternoster, 2006), 74.
- Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, 267.
- J. M. Gundry-Volf, “Apostasy, Falling Away, Perseverance” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 40.
- Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 520.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal“, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2 [Spring 1998], 44.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 63.
- Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 97.
- Schreiner, “Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal“, 42
- Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 547. This intra-Trinitarian plan is known by Reformed theologians as the pactum salutis (i.e., the covenant of redemption). This doctrine provides one of the strongest proofs to the preservation and perseverance of the saints. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 359-262; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 212-216; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 77-80.
- Paul A. Rainbow, Johannine Theology: The Gospels, The Epistles and the Apocalypse (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 347.
- Ibid., 349
- Ibid., 347. See also, G. K. Beale and David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 50.
- Beale and Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 147.
- Ibid., 148.
- Rainbow, Johannine Theology, 366.
- Stephen R. Spencer, “Hope” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, eds. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, et al. (London; Grand Rapids, MI: SPCK; Baker Academic, 2005), 306.
- Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation, 269-270.
- For a detailed survey of the views on the warning passages and a persuasive treatment of the means-of-salvation view, see Christopher W. Cowan, “Confident of Better Things: Assurance of Salvation in the Letter to the Hebrews” (Ph.D. diss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012); Schreiner, “Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal“; Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews. Edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger and T. Desmond Alexander. Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 480-490.
- A. B. Caneday “‘If You Continue in the Faith’ (Colossians 1:21-23): An Exegetical-Theological Exercise in Syntax, Discourse, and Performative Speech”, Southern Baptist Theological Journal 17.3 (2013), 29
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 112–113.
- A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged, 545.
- Christopher W. Cowan, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews and the New Covenant Community” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course Between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, eds. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 208.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 93.
- Ibid., 96.
- Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 294.
- Ibid., 276.
- Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 331.
- Michael Glodo, “Numbers” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. Miles Van Pelt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 130
- Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 548.
- Rainbow, Johannine Theology, 346.