The usual way people refer to this next doctrine is with the phrase “perseverance of the saints.” I believe that for the sake of a fuller accuracy, we should make the phrase longer, a bit more cumbersome, but much richer and more complete. We should call it the “preservation and perseverance of the saints.”
We do persevere, but only because God keeps and sustains us. If He did not, then we would not persevere. We could not. And yet, at the same time, when God preserves His own, the thing He preserves them in is perseverance in holiness.
Put another way, God is the one who saves us from drowning, but not by leaving us on the bottom of the pool.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one” (John 10:27–30).
Summary of the Text
The sheep who belong to Christ hear and recognize His voice (v. 27). He is their shepherd, and they know it. They know Him. The still waters that He leads them to, the green pastures they are blessed to lie down in, are the gift of eternal life (v. 28). They are in His hand, and as a good shepherd He gives us this promise—no man is able to pluck them out of His hand. As Christ’s sheep, we are in His hand. But how did these particular sheep come to belong to Him in the first place? The good shepherd has a Father, and this Father is greater than all. The elect sheep were a gift to Christ from the Father, and were a gift going from the Father’s hand to Christ’s hand, without leaving the Father’s hand. And because the Father is greater than all, no man is able to pluck them out of the Father’s hand either. And this is why Christ then says “I and the Father are one.”
Exegetical and Systematic Grace
So you should see plainly that the idea of Christ purchasing the same individuals that were chosen by the Father is not some idea cooked up by theologians. The Father gave a gift to Christ (you), and as a result Christ gave you a gift (eternal life). And because there is no life apart from Himself, in order to give you eternal life, He had to give you Himself in the person of His Spirit. Your eternal life inside you is not some inanimate joy juice. He is a Person, and He is working inside you alongside the Father and the Son.
Distortions Are Real
This is the one aspect of the gospel which the natural man thinks he might be able to like. But like all spiritual truth, the natural man can only love the truth through a distortion of it. We should therefore make a point to outline a few misunderstandings of the doctrine:
- The Existence of Distortions: One distortion is to grant (perhaps) that the doctrine is true but object to any kind of emphasis being placed on it. “If you teach the security of the believer, then men will become complacent and careless about sin, etc.” Yes, some will twist the grace of God into a license for sin. But we do not decide what to teach on the basis of pragmatics. Look at what was done with Paul’s teaching, and notice what he says in Romans 3:8 about the accusation and his accusers. Their condemnation is just. “And not rather, (as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say,) Let us do evil, that good may come? whose damnation is just” (Rom. 3:8). As Martin Luther once responded when he was told that if you preach this kind of grace, certain men will distort it. His reply was, “Let them.”
- Once Saved Always Saved: What does this mean? It is a wonderful truth or a damnable heresy depending upon what is meant by saved. Take a look at 1 John 2:19. When this is a distortion, it separates preservation from perseverance, and says that Jesus can be Savior without functioning as Lord. But . . . “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).
- Losing Salvation: The question is not whether the elect can lose their salvation—as though salvation were a possession of ours, like car keys or something. The real question is whether Christ can lose a Christian or not. The Bible teaches us that salvation means that we are a possession of His. So, can a sheep lose the shepherd? Absolutely. But can a shepherd lose a sheep. And the answer is glorious—not this shepherd.
- Both Sides Have Their Verses: This approach dismisses the question as one not having any great practical importance. But wise pastors know that it is a question of great pastoral import. There are many Christians who have been distressed over whether or not they could have assurance of salvation. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5:13).
The passages of Scripture that talk about apostasy (and there are many) are talking about losing your covenant standing in the visible church. Someone can be covenantally a Christian without being numbered among the elect.
Man-centeredness causes some to talk about this as though it were a mere reversal of regeneration. But when salvation is understood biblically, i.e. as rooted in the eternal will of the Father in election, in the eternal blood of the covenant which secured their salvation, and the resurrection of the Spirit bringing them into life, the whole picture changes.
Man is mutable and what he does can be undone. God is immutable and what He effectually does cannot be undone. There are many passages which assert this, but one of the clearest is found in Romans 8: 28-39, which we have already considered several times.
But What About . . . ?
Let us look at just one passage which is commonly brought forward as evidence that Christians can lose their salvation.
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:26–29).
What does it say? It does not say anything about Hell or everlasting damnation. The context is that the author of Hebrews (in the mid to late 60’s) is trying to talk some Christians out of returning to the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. Obviously, they would have to go to Jerusalem to do this, and it was a masterpiece of bad timing, for Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. The Lord Jesus had prophesied that this would certainly happen within a generation, and that generation was almost up. The only thing they had waiting for them in Jerusalem was raging fire that would consume the adversary. They would not find in Jerusalem any sacrifice for sin. That was done, once for all, in the death of Christ.