The Internet Monk
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
Perseverance: That Most Neglected Doctrine
The Upsetting Discovery That I Could Still Go To Hell
by Michael Spencer
As I write this article, I am upset. Not angry at some new version of liberal nonsense or the follies of further cultural disintegration, but upset because what was certain and comfortable in my own Christian experience has been turned upside down without my permission. Like a man who comes home from work to find the furniture in his favorite room rearranged, books moved and pictures replaced, I am looking for someone to blame. The problem is, there's no one to blame but the Holy Spirit, and I know it
The rearrangement of furniture in my beliefs and experience is due to the sudden arrival of a rather large item I previously thought was in the room somewhere, probably covered over with unread books from Discerning Reader. But now I discover that this important furnishing wasn't here at all, and I had mistaken something completely different for the real thing. The recently discovered, previously misplaced furnishing? The Biblical doctrine of perseverance.
In an age when Christians have abandoned theological language and classic Biblical terms, the doctrine of perseverance has the advantage that it is not, at least in the simplest sense, a theological term. To persevere is to stick with a matter until it is concluded. Runners persevere to the finish line. Marriage partners persevere through good times and bad, staying together when others give up. Students persevere with assignments until they are done. Successful political candidates persevere until the victory is theirs. Perseverance is not simply persistence and it is not identical to preservation, both related (and important) words that have their own place in the Christian vocabulary.
Unlike many classic theological terms, the word perseverance is rarely used in the Bible. In fact, it only occurs once in the English Standard Version. The related root word is used frequently in Acts and several times in the epistles, usually translated as some form of "continuing" with a task such as prayer. Bible dictionaries are split between defining perseverance as preservation by God, and the somewhat more accurate, but rarely unpacked, definitions such as the ISBE: "...a special persistency, the undying continuance of the new life (manifested in faith and holiness) given by the Spirit of God to man." Books on perseverance are rare, and sermons that tackle the subject head on are rare as well. What's the problem here?
The problem is that perseverance comes at the end of the theological train, and the engines of Calvinism, Arminianism, denominationalism and various other theological pre-commitments pull the doctrine of perseverance wherever the rest of the train is going. It is no surprise, therefore, that perseverance gets very little attention, and most of us are woefully ignorant of what the Bible actually says on the subject. When we come across passages that deal with perseverance in the Christian life, we are spring-loaded to interpret them in line with previous commitments, and therefore these passages seem to suffer considerably at the hands of our theological pride.
So, my Baptist upbringing taught "once saved always saved," and perseverance didn't matter. If you once walked the aisle, you were going to heaven. And any passages that seemed to say otherwise simply needed to be ignored, painted over or surgically altered. (Hence the amusing Baptist fear of the book of Hebrews.) Perseverance was completely irrelevant, since abandonment of the faith didn't cancel your reserved seat in heaven. I've heard some of my Baptist friends defend the salvation of hate-filled, homosexual, anti-Christian atheists, on the basis of a one time trip to the altar as a child. How people who don't generally believe in election arrive at this sort of conclusion is beyond me.
It seems readily apparent now that scripture's assurances that nothing can take salvation away from us, or us away from the Father, has little to do with the issue involved with those who abandon Christ altogether. However, at the time I was defending this position, I was quite convinced that the honor and achievement of the cross was at stake. It never occurred to me that the achievement of the cross might also include perseverance of the believer, or that faith might have a present and future dimension, and not just a past existence.
Across the street, my Methodist, and later Charismatic/Pentecostal, friends, seemed convinced that perseverance mattered more than faith itself, and some seemed perfectly content to present a system where Christ achieved nothing more than the possibility of forgiveness based on my own attempts at holiness. In this situation, perseverance replaced everything else, and so ceased to be related to election, calling, regeneration, atonement or any other part of the work of the Trinity. Such a system appears to many of us to make salvation so much our own work that it is impossible. As I often say to my Arminian friends, if the promises of God are that conditional and you can lose salvation so easily, I will lose mine- frequently.
Once I became Reformed, it seemed that perseverance was handled more straightforwardly. God did it all. God chose who would be saved, he gave them faith, and he kept them to the end. The Reformation position lined the path of discipleship with all the promises and guarantees of God that one could not and would not be finally lost. Perseverance really became preservation, with a constant affirmation that we were safe in the care of Him "who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy..."
As anyone who is reformed knows, there are several different practical emphasis within the family on the issue of perseverance. Some so emphasize the work of God that thoughts of personal repentance and personal Holiness are almost heretical. Others are so concerned with the various stipulations of pre-ordained, non-negotiable sanctified behavior that they win the Nobel prize for legalism. I have never seen as much concern with the myriad details of holiness as in some reformed circles, yet with the emphasis on what God is doing in the elect, and not on what must be done in order to receive eternal life.
What is common to both these approaches is an agreement that the parts of scripture that seem to warn believers to be faithful and holy were actually meant to expose those who appear to be Christians, but really aren't. Real believers look back to the cross and the work of Christ, not to the warnings. The warnings were there to expose the phonies. The warnings served no practical purpose in the life of faith because God is fully taking care of work of holiness. He gives us holiness and sanctification as a gift, and only an unbeliever would be terrorized by those warnings. Reformed people may be fearful of whether they are elect, but they are rarely concerned about perseverance. (There are marvelous exceptions to this, such as John Bunyan, and of course, C.H. Spurgeon.)
So does anyone understand perseverance? I think there is real help on the way. In their provocative book, The Race Set Before Us, Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Canaday write convincingly that perseverance is a matter of how we respond to means used by God to effectually guide his chosen people through this world and to heaven. Warnings, commands, examples- they all are markers and signs God has placed on the road to the kingdom. Those who belong to him heed the examples, pay attention to the warnings and obey the commands. Not perfectly, and certainly along a unique personal pattern of growth that is also God's work, but Christians do not finally or consistently abandon, ignore, repudiate or reject these "means of grace" God uses to bring us to heaven.
Schreiner and Canaday, who write as part of the reformed camp, fault the reformers for not reflecting enough on perseverance, but they also note that the reformation was primarily a battle over justification. The result, however, was an unfortunate confusion over the "already and not yet" aspects of salvation, particularly on the subject of salvation. In their eagerness to say that the judgment of God had been brought forward, carried out at the cross and pronounced in our favor, the reformers misplaced the eschatological, final, future aspect of salvation. Salvation is past, present and future, and the pronouncement that I am not going to hell is a past event, a present experience and a future reality, all flowing from the same work of grace through faith. Perseverance is the bridge between these three, for if my past faith is not a present experience of faith, it will not yield a future reality of faith's sure reward.
Schreiner and Canaday agree with the reformed that those who abandon the faith were never genuinely Christians, but they disagree with the notion that the warnings are only there to expose the false professor. (MacArthur and John Owen get taken to the woodshed. Gutsy guys!) They convincingly show that the warnings, commands and examples are there to guide, shape and shepherd the true Christian to a gracious acceptance in the Kingdom, and not just as part of a divine plot to expose false professors.
(I thought this was especially helpful in the area of church discipline. Many evangelicals have abandoned church discipline entirely, but isn't the premise exactly what Schreiner and Canaday are saying? If behavior indicates a person has abandoned the faith through refusal to obey the clear commands and warnings of scripture, discipline within the local church is in order. If the person responds positively, then discipline has furthered perseverance.)
With extraordinary kindness, the authors take us on a tour of the various strange circumnavigations and avoidance strategies that have been used to remove and distort the plain and obvious meaning of passages like:
Colossians 1:22-23 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard...
Matthew 24:13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Luke 8:13 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. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
Luke 22:32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers."
John 8:31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples...
Acts 14:22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
Romans 2:7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
Hebrews 3:14 For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
1 Corinthians 9:27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Frankly, it is embarrassing to think how often I have read these passages and said they only existed to 1) describe the unbeliever or 2) describe a hypothetical apostasy that could not occur. In my pre-reformed days, these passages were all interpreted the same way: "Well, of course, this can't mean....." God's gracious provision of salvation includes ends and means, and it is now as obvious as possible that these warnings and many, many other warnings, examples and commands in scripture are the signs along the road that God uses to keep me where I should be.
As I said at the beginning, the discovery that real, Biblical perseverance was actually nowhere to be found in my theology was a shock. But it has been more than a shock. It has been a spiritual gang tackle, with the Holy Spirit in the role of 350 pound linebacker. I have been thrown for a loss, and frankly, I am saddened, brokenhearted and grieved by some of the things I have allowed to have a place in my life on a misplaced understanding of grace. The free and complete and uncompromised grace of God in justification through Christ is the foundation of all I treasure, but I have learned that the faith God gives as a gift is faith that responds actively to the commands, warnings and examples of scripture. Not perfectly, and in a growth pattern that is uniquely mine. But perseverance is as much grace as anything else, but it meets me in an unexpected and unanticipated way.
I cannot help but think the doctrine of perseverance is the area where modern reformers need to preach and labor deligently. This is a field that has been neglected, and frankly, our lives and churches bear the evidence. Grace is not an excuse, it is a liberating, transforming experience. Grace inspired faith embraces Christ at every place and in every way he is presented, and continues doing so throughout life, all the way to heaven.
I recall in Pilgrim's Progress, one of the characters discovered there was a door to hell, right at the very entrance to the heavenly city. That always bothered me. Now I know why.