Church

“Once Saved Always Saved” or Perseverance of the Saints?

Joonas Laajanen

Christians are well aware that their beliefs affect their everyday life. Particularly, convictions regarding eternal security stand out in this regard. My experience in pastoral ministry is that a biblical understanding of this matter is vitally important for sober and flourishing Christian living. Certainly, then I am sad to say that Calvinistic and Reformed churches are the only ones that confess the doctrine commonly known as “perseverance of the saints.” I am convinced that this doctrine is one of the legitimate children of Mr. Grace Alone and Mrs. Faith Alone. I am of course aware, that many groups believe in what is called “once saved, always saved,” but that is not the same as the Reformed doctrine nor is it necessarily helpful for the Christian life, if indeed unbiblical.

In this essay, I will offer the biblical basis for why I believe that the P in TULIP is explicitly and necessarily thought in the whole of Scripture. I understand why that might sound arrogant for someone who is approaching this issue with carefulness. I do not want to sound arrogant. As I have indicated, I know the many Christian denominations and mighty theologians in church history, who teach the opposite. I once denied this belief. To this day I continue to sit down with people who disagree with this teaching, and believe me, I have heard the objections. I know the Lutherans’ fear of constantly looking inwards for fruit leading to no assurance because supposedly in Calvinism “I cannot objectively know that I am a true believer loved by God”. I know the Arminian and Roman objections, and I do not scoff, twist, or close my eyes to those texts.

If you are skeptical of this doctrine, could I ask you to approach this piece with prayer? What I write here are the very same things that I would say over a cup of coffee to a visitor in our church who seriously wants to know why I teach the “perseverance of the saints.”
I will now introduce you to the biblical basis of eternal security and perseverance of the saints. In a later article, I will explain the biblical doctrine of apostasy and how the popular scriptural objections against perseverance fall under that teaching.

God the Father Wills So

Biblically speaking, God’s will is often revealed or viewed from three different but harmonious categories. God wills something sovereignly or efficaciously so that what is willed certainly comes to pass. We can have certainty about the resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment (Heb. 6:2), because this is something God has willed to appoint (Acts 17:30–32). God’s preceptive will is different from this, where God reveals His laws and morals to men, often called God’s precepts. This will is in harmony and can overlap with the efficacious will, but is not the same. As to His power, God could sovereignly judge the breaking of His law, but for multiple reasons, he has willed to not do so immediately (Gal. 6:7). God’s preceptive will condemns the crucifixion of Christ, but harmoniously that event took place according to God’s efficacious and eternal will. Finally, there is the will of disposition. This simply means that God can reveal a disposition for a good thing that ultimately does not happen because God sovereignly decreed (willed) another good thing above this. God reveals actual goodness and longsuffering toward those who die in their sins, but in the end, God will deprive them of all mercy to reveal His just wrath in them which is His sovereign will (Compare Rom. 9:20–22 with 2:4–5).

The above has everything to do with eternal security for in the Gospel of John the will of the Father regarding it is revealed:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. 40 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:38–40 NKJV)

Those who deny the doctrine of perseverance will have to say that this text is merely talking of the will of disposition. I believe that this is not a possibility. Jesus says that He has come down to secure salvation for all given to Him by the Father. This means that we are talking about the efficacious will of God, which will certainly come to pass. As the second Adam, Christ, was obligated to submit to the will of the Father in every aspect. In reference to Christ, this will of the Father is also God’s preceptive or moral will. Trying His best will not do. If not fulfilled, Christ has sinned and that means we should all just go home.
Adam was supposed to pass a test that would have brought his offspring to eternal security. In this, he failed. Not so with Christ. Jesus can truly say: Behold, I have come to do thy will, O God (Heb. 10:9).

The Lord Jesus Promised So

Not long after the previous text in John 6, Jesus returns to the subject of eternal security. Christ viewed this question as very important! In John chapter 9 the Lord had healed a blind man that was consequently kicked out of the synagogue by the shepherds of Israel. Imagine that. Are shepherds kicking the sheep out? How blind the leaders were. No wonder that what follows in John chapter 10 is a precious teaching on how He is the Good Shepherd. After laying out His identity and sacrificial death for the flock, he looks at some of the evil leaders and says: “You are not of my sheep.” These were dreadful words, but they do not justify fear and terror in the wrong places. All who hear the voice of Christ and follow Him have entirely different words directed to them, a precious promise in fact:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone 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 My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one. (John 10:27–30 NKJV)

I know that our ears still fail to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice in many ways. But please hear Him loud and clear here. If you have eternal life, you shall never perish. He said so. There is no right to look at this promise and object in any way. Why? (1) We have been given eternal life, not eternal life which daily hangs in the balance. (2) The promises have a clear cause and effect. The sheep will hear and follow. Christ will give eternal life and they will never perish. (3) The Father is greater than all. (4) The Father and the Son are one. Christ is God. God never fails or lies.

The Holy Spirit Works So

Salvation is trinitarian because it’s the gift of God who is Trinity. It is therefore to be expected that we can argue for eternal security from all divine persons. We have seen the Father’s will and the Son’s promise. When it comes to the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation history, great stress is put on His work as the sanctifying guarantee who helps us to keep Christ’s commands (John 14:15–16) or the purifying seal that keeps us safe for the final day (Eph. 1:13–14; 4:30). I want to highlight one clear text about this in Ezekiel.

The Old Covenant Church (Acts 7:38) was characterized by vast unbelief, lawlessness, and even apostasy. During the dark times of the Babylonian captivity prophet Ezekiel received a revelation of hope. There would come a time when God would save the members of His Church by causing a great change in its members. Yes, God had done this work in the remnant of the Old Testament, but not in the degree that He would do in the New Covenant when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all flesh. Notice the work which is especially attributed to the Spirit:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezek. 36:25–27 NKJV)

God is ultimately doing all the action here. God’s saving action does not however lead to a lazy and passive lifestyle in the saved. On the contrary, God’s actions cause us to act.
Through the Holy Spirit, we are washed from the debt of sin. We are also cleansed from our former desires toward filthiness and idols. A new heart is given. This metaphor signifies great change in our invisible nature or soul which Christ calls being born again from above. What follows is a life mastered by a new king of our affections, namely the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit efficaciously leads Christians to live a holy life, and to not lose faith or commit apostasy:

I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. (Jer. 32:40b)

God has not only willed that we would not be lost but He has also willed our sanctification. If a person is saved, he will be sanctified and so glorify God in their new life. This is why “Once saved, always saved” is unbiblical. It gives a false testimony about the nature of salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit, especially of regeneration and sanctification. Christ of the “Once saved, always saved” is not a whole Christ of the Bible:

But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30)

The Apostles Teach So

Perhaps the strongest apostolic argument (surprisingly overlooked!) for the perseverance of the saints is found in the third chapter of the First Letter of St. John:

He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:8–9 NKJV)

The context deals with false teachers who have left the faith and now teach a Christological heresy that denies the true humanity of Jesus. In addition to this John gives many objective tests by which a person can judge whether they are born again or deceived. Those who teach heresy and leave the orthodox faith they once professed were never truly of God (1 John 2:19). Those who walk in the light, confess their sin, have a sincere love for God’s people, and believe the truth about the person and work of Christ, can know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13)

Now the meaning of the text should become clear. John is comforting the genuine believer who has witnessed former friends become heretics and apostates. Could this happen to me? No, says John. You might think that your spiritual experiences are the same as theirs, because they talked a good talk or because their tares looked like wheat from afar (we can’t see inside). But what you indeed have, they never had. You can know that you have eternal life, and genuine fruit, which these people never had. Those who sin (commit apostasy, walk in darkness, or teach heresy) are of the Devil. Jesus of Nazareth however has destroyed these works of the Devil in them that are born of God. They categorically do not sin in this way. They cannot sin in this way. Why? His seed (new life by the Holy Spirit or the Spirit Himself) will remain in them.
Perseverance of the saints is clear, apostolic, and obligatory. This doctrine was the common faith of the apostles’ audience:

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. (1 John 5:18 NKJV)

Conclusion

I could continue with the biblical basis for a long time. Some readers might even be frustrated by how many other clear texts have not been covered. There are glorious texts such as the golden chain of redemption in Romans 8 and the following doxology. The Apostle Peter writes clearly about eternal security (1 Pet. 1:5–7) and the Book of Revelation is filled with comfort and precious promises about our perseverance. I appeal to William Perkins (1558–1602) and his book, The Art of Prophesying (Ch. 6, Rightly Handling the Word of God), where he lays out a wise principle on how truth should optimally be presented and received:

“Any point of doctrine drawn from a text by proper interpretation should be believed on its own authority. This is an adequate basis for believing it… Only a few testimonies of Scripture should be used for the proof of the doctrine.”

What is properly interpreted above is sufficient to establish the positive biblical basis for the Reformed doctrine of perseverance and security. To summarize I offer you the above in the form of a catechism:

Q. 1 How is the perseverance of the saints a biblical doctrine?
A. 1. Because God the Father has efficaciously willed that of all he has given to Christ, Jesus will not lose one.
A. 2. Because God the Son has promised to not lose one of his sheep.
A. 3. Because God the Holy Spirit has changed our nature, efficaciously rules us, sanctifies us, and seals us for the final day.
A. 4. Because St. John teaches that all who fall away are said to have been of the Devil and that all who are born of God are categorically unable to fall into apostasy or heresy unto death.

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