What Does Perseverance Of The Saints Mean?

by Dr. Michael L. Williams · Print Print · Email Email

My first life experience with someone who held to the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints” was during the time I served in my first pastorate. I learned of a woman who struggled with addictions. She was taught by those who held strong Calvinist beliefs that if God chose her to be saved she would persevere over her addictions. Therefore, she rejected Biblical counseling as not relying on God’s will to deliver her. As her addictions persisted, she told her family that it must not be God’s will to be delivered so she must not be saved so why even try. She went on to live her life as an addict until she was involved in a horrific DWI crash. This led many in the church to wonder, “What does perseverance of the saints mean?”

Where did the phrase perseverance of the saints come from?

Perseverance of the saints is a phrase that is used to describe one of five cardinal doctrines of a theological teaching known as Calvinism as follows (1):

“The five cardinal doctrines expounded in the chapters of this book are known to many as the Five Points of Calvinism, and to others as the “doctrines of grace.” While these doctrines, though certainly not originated by John Calvin, were re-emphasized and taught anew by him at the time of the Reformation, it remained for the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, which was convened to settle the Arminian controversy in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, to formulate these truths with great clarity and in painstaking detail. This official formulation was accomplished in a creed which represented the consensus of all Reformed churches of that day, the Canons of Dordrecht.”

These five cardinal doctrines are:

  • Total depravity
  • Unconditional election
  • Limited atonement
  • Irresistible grace, and
  • Perseverance of the saints

These are often referenced to as TULIP theology and founded in the teachings of Augustine, John Calvin, and A.W. Pink.

What Does Perseverance Of The Saints Mean

What does the phrase perseverance of the saints mean?

Perseverance of the saints means different things to different people. It is often confused with preservation of the saints. To persevere mans that one may “continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success (2).” Preservation means “the action of preserving something or the state of being preserved, especially to a specified degree.(3)”

Preservation of the saints is different from perseverance of the saints. The saint, or believer, who has trusted Christ as their savior is sealed unto the day of redemption or “preserved” by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:30). This sealing is by God and is kept by God (John 6:37-40; John 14:16-17; John 10:27-29; Hebrews 10:14; 1 Peter 1:3-5). This is often called “once saved always saved.”

Calvinism

To those of the Calvinist or reformed theology, perseverance is proof of “preservation” or your election by God to be saved as follows (4):

“When one speaks of the perseverance of the saints, there is one element that renders this perseverance of the saints absolutely sure, an element which may never be forgotten. One always perseveres because he is preserved by the living God — and there is no other possible reason for perseverance.”

“When I am concerned, as I am, of my salvation; when I am concerned with the fact that I am a sinner unworthy of any blessing; I then see already the fruit of the work of the Spirit in me. The concern, real spiritual concern, for sin; the hope and longing for salvation is the work of the Spirit. The fruit of the work of the Spirit in me is proof that I also am one of those preserved to the end. He who begins the good work in us will complete it unto the end.”

For the Calvinist, like the lady I encountered with the addiction, the fact that she was not persevering over her addiction was evidence that there was no Spirit of God working in her. This left her discouraged and confused, despite believing that Jesus died for her sins, and ultimately was cause of great destruction and sorrow in her life.

Arminianism

Another group holds to an Arminian or Methodist theology. This teaches that there is no eternal security or perseverance in salvation and a person must continue to persevere in works that demonstrate faith that is not “shipwrecked” as follows (5):

“If the oracles of God are true, one who was purchased by the blood of Christ may go thither (Hell). For he that was sanctified by the blood of Christ was purchased by the blood of Christ. But one who was sanctified by the blood of Christ may nevertheless go to hell — may fall under that fiery indignation which shall forever devour the adversaries.”

“Can a child of God, then, go to hell? Or can a man be a child of God to-day, and a child of the devil to-morrow? If God is our Father once, is he not our Father always?” I answer,

1.  A child of God — that is, a true believer — (for he that believeth is born of God,) while he continues a true believer, cannot go to hell.

2.  If a believer may  make shipwreck of the faith, he is no longer a child of God; and then he may go to hell, yea, and certainly will, if he continues in unbelief.

3.  If a believer may make shipwreck of the faith, then a man that believes now may be an unbeliever some time hence; yea, very possibly to-morrow; but if so, he who is a child of God to-day, may be a child of the devil to-morrow. For,

4.  God is the Father of them that believe, so long as they believe; but the devil is the father of them that believe not, whether they did once believe or no.”

For the Arminian, perseverance of the saints is a continual seeking of holiness that must be pursued, not necessarily out of a love for God, but so that one may not lose their salvation. For the lady with the addictions, this belief system would have led her to become discouraged and give up, much like the Calvinist teachings.

Which group is right?

In comparing these two approaches, they both seek good works in the believer. The prior, as a demonstration of God’s election to salvation. The latter, as a requirement for God’s continued grace. While many people may argue with these simplistic summaries; it is not the point of this article to debate the points of each.

There is a definite danger in all man made theological structures, because the focus of study and debate centers on the theology and writings of their proponents. A quick review of both camps reveals that they both came into being as movements that had very holy and unholy men in their ranks. For this reason, studying the Word of God without preconceived theological perspectives is in order.

When this approach is taken, a third way that simultaneously embraces and rejects positions held in high regard or disdain by either theological perspective will be gained along with clearer understanding. Ironically, when you come to this understanding, the Calvinist will label you as an Arminian and the Arminian will label you as a Calvinist. Fortunately, God will label you as His child by grace though faith.

Conclusion

Perseverance of the saints is one of five cardinal doctrines or points of Calvinism. For the Calvinist, it is the demonstration of a person’s election by God to salvation. For the Arminian, it is the continual seeking of holiness so that they may not lose their salvation. Sadly, one leads people who are struggling with doubt about salvation while the other leads people who are struggling with doubt if they have been good enough for salvation. Studying the Word of God must be done without any preconceived theological perspectives in order to discern the truth.

Related article: What are the Main Differences Between Calvinism and Arminianism?

Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. (1) Herman Hanko, Homer Hoeksema, and Gise J. Van Baren, (1977). The Five Points of Calvinism by Reformed Free Publishing Association. (Forward). Retrieved from http://www.prca.org/fivepoints/index.html. (2) Google. (2014). “Persevere”. Retrieved from Google, https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=persevere. (3) Google. (2014). “Preservation”. Retrieved from Google, https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=preservation. (4) Gise J. Van Baren, (1977). The Five Points of Calvinism by Reformed Free Publishing Association. (Chapter 5). Retrieved from http://www.prca.org/fivepoints/chapter5.html. (5) Thomas N. Ralston, (1924). Elements of Divinity by Abingdon-Cokesbury Press. (Page 495). Retrieved from http://www.imarc.cc/br/pdf/Bk_10001.pdf





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