Against Perseverance of the Saints
It is appropriate in retrospect to say that the saints have persevered, but is it appropriate to say that all saints persevere? It would be appropriate to say this with the condition that if the saint falls he gets back up and therefore was a saint at the beginning and at the end of his Christian life. There is a teaching however that says that when someone becomes a saint they cannot fall away and deny the faith or apostatize. This means that once someone becomes a saint it is guaranteed that they will persevere without condition. Adherers to this belief also believe that one becomes a saint on the basis of his initial faith in Jesus alone. Is this teaching true? Well I believe that our own experience as Christians and historic witness as evidenced in Scripture and Christian tradition prove this teaching to be false.
If we look in Scripture we can see examples of the Apostles writing of the possibility of falling away from the faith and of them in fact guaranteeing that people will. We not only have admonition from the Apostles but also from Jesus in His teaching.
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” 1 Timothy 4:1
“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and, “The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”
2 Peter 2:20-23
“You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.” 2 Peter 3:17
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Hebrews 3:12
“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” Hebrews 6:4-6
“And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.”
“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” John 15:16
Not a Teaching Perpetuated by the Church
The big reason that the perseverance of the saints is categorized as a protestant teaching is because it is not the teaching of the more historic churches. John Calvin is one who is often credited with this teaching, while Luther is said not to have held to the teaching. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Church of the East, nor Eastern Orientals hold to this type of teaching. It can be said that it was introduced to the church and found prominence during the reformation period and following. Not only do the historic churches not hold to this, but we as Christians today also experience something in our daily lives that is much different to this teaching. What about our own Christian walk? Isn’t it true that we stumble, need repentance, and often have a hard time walking in His footsteps? Surely if it was guaranteed that we would persevere we would not have such a hard time nor would temptations ever get the better of us. After all aren’t there people out there who indeed once were in the church who now say they have renounced Christianity?
Why do some hold to this? Tradition and Necessity
The obvious reason to why some hold to this teaching is because of their church tradition stemming back from the reformation. “Reformed” Christians such as Presbyterians and such like to hold to it because of their tradition, but a lot of people who hold to a more “faith alone” type of justification will also invoke this teaching or its similar Baptist cousin “eternal security.” Of course they say they have Scriptural proof, but we will look at this in a moment. To these evangelicals and protestants such a teaching is necessary to uphold the faith alone schema. Of course traditional Lutherans do not hold to this teaching. The other protestant and evangelical argument often is that if one did not enter Christianity on the basis of works then neither will one ever be held to the standards of works by God in order to remain a saint.
Why the Teaching is Dangerous
If the teaching is not true, which I believe it also not to be, then there is danger that comes along with such a teaching. If we are indeed judged by our works and one is instructed that they will without a doubt produce the “right works” then the motivation of some will be stunned and a false confidence will be gained. One thing to keep in mind is that those who hold to this teaching also teach that “one’s fruit” or deeds prove whether one to be a Christian or not. To some extent this is good because they will often prod each other with the idea that someone may never truly have become a Christian (which to them means genuinely have had faith in Christ) because their deeds may not be good. In one sense this is good because they are calling each other to repentance and therefore achieve a similar outcome to those who know they are not guaranteed to persevere. On the other hand they make the error that one cannot genuinely believe the Lord Jesus or His work simply because they refuse to obey Him, which is false. They have to make this error in order to show the validity of their teaching, but in doing so they simply deny the reality that one can believe in Jesus yet not obey Him or remain committed to Him. In doing so they tend to confuse one another about what it really means to have assurance and faith in God. They also reveal a hole in their own argument and show that works indeed are a necessary continuation that doesn’t just happen because one is originally justified by faith. Although many who hold to this teaching will try to patch this up by saying God makes them do the works, so they aren’t the ones actually doing them.
An Unrealistic Model
So to continue on from the last section, this teaching sets up a model that says faith is followed by guaranteed works. If there is no works then it is guaranteed there was no faith to begin with. I think this corrupts the more accurate model that says faith is to be followed by works with the help of God. If no works follow the faith then that current faith is incomplete and can be said at the time to be disingenuous because of the lack of follow through. However the initial faith or profession to Christianity does not need to be slandered or said to have been disingenuous to begin with. I can slander my own profession of faith at the present time by laziness or choice of rebellion, but those lazy actions that happen in the present are in no wise indicative of my past profession or past continuation in the faith. This does not mean that initial false professions in Jesus cannot be made and that it can never be said that one “never truly believed in Jesus.” It does mean however that this is certainly not always the answer, nor is it probably even usually the case.
What about 1 John?
Our holy and poetic Apostle John says in his epistle that those who had gone out from them had not been of them and the proof that they were not is that they did not remain, or abide with them. So does this show John believed in this teaching? Hardly. John is the great teacher of ‘abiding in Christ.” In other words those who do Christ’s will remain in Him as he already wrote in the 15th chapter of his Gospel account and here in his own epistle. Speaking to those whom he believes to “have eternal life” and to be “born of Him” he also reminds them to continue to abide in Him so that they will not be put to shame when He comes (1 John 2:28). So looking at those whom are already abiding in Christ and therefore remaining born of him he tells them that those who left were indeed not of them, because of their current position of remaining in our Lord as opposed to the apostates position of not remaining in Christ. So no 1 John is not a good argument for this teaching, but rather the opposite; that being the necessity of remaining in Christ to attain eternal life.
Is the Protestant teaching of perseverance of the saints true? Not a chance. Is it harmful? Well yes it is still harmful in its efforts to give false assurance to those who are instructed to do their best to persevere until the end. One of the questions that I have for those who hold this teaching is If the church would persevere until the end how do the protestants have any justification for their claims that the church immediately became corrupted in the first place and that it needed reformed? Let us not forsake the warnings and admonitions of our Lord and of His Apostles. Instead let us continue on knowing who is worthy to be followed and who’s way it is that leads us unto Eternal Life. Continue in His ways and you will not be put to shame at His coming.