«TMSJ 4/1 (Spring 1993) 5-24 PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS1 John F. MacArthur, Jr. President and Professor of Pastoral Ministries Peter's life ...»
TMSJ 4/1 (Spring 1993) 5-24
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS1
John F. MacArthur, Jr.
President and Professor of Pastoral Ministries
Peter's life exemplifies what the doctrine of the perseverance of the
saints means in the life of a faltering believer. Christ's present intercessory
prayers assure that genuine believers will be saved to the uttermost. This is
the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Those with true faith will not lead perfect lives, though some have attributed such a claim to proponents of working-faith salvation. The teaching of "once saved, always saved" may carry the false implication that after "accepting Christ" a person may live any kind of life and still be saved. That leaves out the doctrine of perseverance, which carries with it the need for a holy life. Peter in his first epistle furnishes six means through which God causes every Christian to persevere: by regenerating them to a living hope, by keeping them through His power, by strengthening them through tests of faith, by preserving them for ultimate glory, by motivating them with love for the Savior, and by saving them through a working faith. Quantification of how much failure the doctrine of perseverance allows is impossible, but Jesus did prescribe a way for the church to deal with a professing believer whose life sin had seemingly come to dominate.
***** In order to place the doctrine of perseverance in proper light we need to know what it is not. It does not mean that every one who professes faith in Christ and who is accepted as a believer in the fellowship of the saints is secure for eternity and may entertain the assurance of eternal salvation. Our Lord himself warned his followers in the days of his flesh when he said to those Jews who 1This essay is adapted from chapter 11 of John F. MacArthur, Jr., Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Dallas: Word, 1993).
believed on him, "If ye continue in my word, then are ye truly my disciples, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31, 32). He set up a criterion by which true disciples might be distinguished, and that criterion is continuance in Jesus' Word.2 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955) 151-52.
Perseverance of the Saints 7 The above explanation by Murray of the doctrine of perseverance is an elaboration of what Peter meant by his words "protected by the power of God" when he wrote his first epistle (1 Pet 1:5).3 If any biblical character was ever prone to failure, it was Simon Peter. Judging from the biblical record, none of the Lord's disciples`excluding Judas the betrayer`stumbled more often or more miserably thanhe. Peter was the disciple with the foot-shaped mouth.
He seemed to have a knack for saying the worst possible thing at the most inappropriate time. He was impetuous, erratic, vacillating`sometimes cowardly, sometimes weak, sometimes hotheaded. On several occasions he merited strong rebukes from the Lord, none more severe than that recorded in Matt 16:23: "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." That occurred almost immediately after the high point in Peter's experience with Christ, when Peter confessed, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16).
Peter's life is proof that a true believer's spiritual experience is often filled with ups and downs, but Peter illustrates another biblical truth, a more significant one: the keeping power of God. On the night Jesus was betrayed, He gave Peter an insight into the behind-thescenes spiritual battle over Peter's soul: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail" (Luke 22:31-32, emphasis added).
Peter was confident of his willingness to stand with Jesus, whatever the cost. He told the Lord, "Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death" (Luke 22:33). Yet Jesus knew the truth and sadly told Peter, "The cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me" (Luke 22:34).
Did Peter fail? Yes, miserably. Was his faith overthrown?
Never. Jesus Himself was interceding on Peter's behalf, and His prayers did not go unanswered.
The Lord intercedes for all genuine believers that way. John 17:11 gives a glimpse of how He prays for them: "I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to Thee.
Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou has given Me, that they may be one, even as We are" (emphasis added).
I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
3All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.
The Master's Seminary Journal Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in the truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou has given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me (John 17:15-23, emphasis added).
Notice what the Lord was praying for: that believers would be kept from the power of evil; that they would be sanctified by the Word; that they would share His sanctification and glory; and that they would be perfected in their union with Christ and one another. He was praying that they would persevere in the faith.
Was the Lord praying for the eleven faithful disciples only?
No. He explicitly includes every believer in all succeeding generations: "I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word" (v. 20). That includes all true Christians, even in the present day!
Moreover, the Lord Himself is continuing His intercessory ministry for believers right now. "He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb 7:25). The King James Version translates Heb 7:25 thus: "He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (emphasis added).
Perseverance of the Saints 9
SAVED TO THE UTTERMOSTAll true believers will be saved to the uttermost. Christ's High Priestly ministry guarantees it. They have been justified, they are being sanctified, and they will be glorified. Not one of them will miss out on any stage of the process, though in this life they all find themselves at different points along the way. The truth has been known historically as the perseverance of the saints.
No doctrine has been more savaged by the system of theology that advocates merely intellectual faith as the condition of salvation,4 because the doctrine of perseverance is antithetical to the entire system that is so oriented. In fact, what proponents of this system have pejoratively labeled "lordship salvation" is nothing other than the doctrine of perseverance!
Perseverance means that "those who have true faith can lose that faith neither totally nor finally."5 It echoes God's promise through Jeremiah: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me" (32:40, emphasis added).
That flatly contradicts the notion entertained by some who teach that faith can evaporate, leaving "believers" who no longer believe.6 It opposes the radical easy-believism teaching that genuine Christians can choose to "drop out" of the spiritual growth process7 4Those who follow the system of merely intellectual faith for salvation have pejoratively assigned the label "lordship salvation" to the system that insists on a faith that works as the condition for salvation. They invented the title "lordship salvation" to convey the impression that the system so labeled contradicts the doctrine of justification by faith alone, because it adds another condition for salvation. That does not accurately represent the working faith position which clings to the justificationby-faith doctrine while noting that a submissive heart is not extraneous to saving faith. Though elsewhere I have employed the expression "lordship salvation" for the sake of argument, here I am using the more accurate expression "working-faith salvation" (cf. Jas 2:17). A faith that is void of submission is a merely intellectual faith, sometimes appropriately called "easy believism." "Easy believism" is the view that saving faith is a solely human act. Those who adopt such a view must then scale back the definition of faith so that believing is something that even depraved sinners are capable of.
Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1989) 141.
Hodges, Absolutely Free! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 79-89.
7Zane The Master's Seminary Journal and "cease to confess Christianity."8 It is the polar opposite of the brand of theology that makes faith a "historic moment," a one-time "act" that secures heaven, but offers no guarantee the "believer's" earthly life will be changed.9 The Westminster Confession of Faith has defined perseverance
They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved (chap. 17, sec. 1).
This definition does not deny the possibility of miserable failings in one's Christian experience, because the Confession also said, Nevertheless [believers] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein; whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit: come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts; have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (sec. 3).
Sin is a reality in the believer's experience, so it is clear that insistence on the salvific necessity of a working faith does not include the idea of perfectionism. Nevertheless, people steeped in the merelyintellectual-faith teaching often misunderstand the issue with regard to perseverance.
A Christian layman who has embraced easy-believism teaching wrote me a very graciously worded seventeen-page letter explaining why he rejects the working-faith doctrine. His complaint is that the latter theology "does not seem to allow for anything but highly successful Christian living."
Hodges makes a similar charge:
The belief that every Christian will live a basically successful life until the end is an illusion. It is not supported by the instruction and warnings of the New Testament.... It is not surprising that those who do not perceive this aspect of New Testament revelation have impoverished their ability to motivate both themselves and other
No advocate of working-faith salvation I am aware of teaches that "every Christian will live a basically successful life until the end."
Hodges is quite right in saying the NT does not support such a view.
Murray, defending the doctrine of perseverance, acknowledged
the difficulties it poses:
Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scripture pas-sages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine....
Is not the biblical record as well as the history of the church strewn with examples of those who have made shipwreck of the faith?11 Certainly Scripture is filled with warnings to people in the church lest they should fall away (cf. Heb 6:4-8; 1 Tim 1:18-19; 2 Tim 2:16-19). Hodges suggests such warnings prove Christians can fall away: "If anyone supposes that no true Christian could quit, or would quit, they have not been paying attention to the Bible. They need to reread their New Testament, this time, with their eyes open."12 But God does not contradict Himself. The warning passages do
not negate the many promises that believers will persevere:
Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).13 I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6:35).
You are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you in the end, blameless in the day
Murray, Redemption 151.
Hodges, Absolutely Free! 83.
Ironically, Hodges continually cites Jesus' words to the woman at the well in John 4 as support for his system, but he neglects the truth of perseverance that is included in this promise.
The Master's Seminary Journal of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:7-9).
May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely: and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass (1 Thess 5:23-24).
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19).