Posted by Robert Hood on May 12, 2016
Does eternal security or perseverance best describe the biblical teaching of the permanence of salvation? First of all, I need to explain a view that is clearly not supported by the Bible. This view may be identified, as an Arminian or free will doctrine, which teaches that salvation, is not permanent. This view teaches that a genuine believer may lose salvation by falling away from grace and no longer believing. The idea is once saved not always saved. Charles Stanley, a strong supporter of eternal security, explains this view, “The issue for proponents of this view is faith not faithfulness.” 1 This person would be a Christian who stops having faith in Christ. “There is room in their theology for temporary moral or ethical failure by a believer. The fact that a believer commits a sin is not necessarily a sign that he has lost his salvation. However, the man or woman who deliberately turns away from the church, Christ, and all that He stands for has stepped out of the kingdom of light back into the kingdom of darkness.” 2 This argument is based on a misconception that man has free will to choose or not to choose Christ. Thus, man’s faith is his own which is in contrast to Ephesians 2:8, 9 that says faith is a gift of God not from ourselves. Another misconception by those who hold to this teaching is that an “apostate” is someone who was genuinely saved. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines apostasy as “a deliberate repudiation and abandonment of the faith that one has professed.”3 Scriptures indicate that an apostate never truly believed because if he or she had, they would be eternally secure and would therefore not have departed from the faith. Scriptures overwhelmingly support the idea of once saved always saved. God the Almighty will lose no one whom he elects and calls to salvation. This discussion will focus on describing the difference between eternal security and the perseverance of the saints. I will explain the reasons for the difference and which view I consider to be more biblical.
A major difference is that certain schools of theology have associated themselves with a particular term because that term best fits their doctrinal position. The Westminster Confession uses “perseverance” to best express their viewpoint that salvation must impact the life of the believer. Eternal security is sometimes used by Dispensationalists to express their view that salvation does not necessarily impact the life of the believer. Of course, this line is not hard and fast. Some Dispensationalists readily embrace the doctrine of perseverance while some Reformed theologians see no difference between eternal security and perseverance of the saints. For instance, R.C. Sproul says that perseverance of the saints is sometimes called eternal security which gives attention to the enduring power of our salvation by the work of Christ. 4 There is reluctance on the part of some Dispensationalists to use the phrase the “perseverance of the saints” since it is so closely aligned with Reformed, Calvinistic doctrine. They most often choose to use eternal security. So is there really a difference? Or is it really a matter of semantics? If there is a difference, how important is it?
I believe that eternal security and perseverance have the same end result and that is eternal salvation. Those who have faith in Christ are guaranteed a home in heaven. Those who are saved are rescued from the eternal damnation of hell. Therefore one who is really saved shall never be lost and go to hell but will remain in a state of salvation and go to heaven. Chafer states, “The eternal security of the believer is revealed in a well-defined body of Scripture the interpretation of which is not subject to question as to its exact meaning, or as to the fact that it refers only to salvation, if the plain teaching of the Word of God is taken to be the final statement of truth.”5 God did not give us a deficient salvation. Everything God gives is good (James 1:17). The following passages clearly teach the security of the believer.
John 10:28 says the Lord gives us eternal life, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” Hebrews 7:25 states that Christ is able to save us to the uttermost for, “He ever liveth to make intercession for them.” John 5:24 says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation but is passed from death into life.” Eternal security is guaranteed by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. (Eph 1:13-14) The Holy Spirit is given by God as His pledge of the believer’s future inheritance. Every aspect of salvation from justification to glorification is certain to come to pass. “ More over whom He predestined, these he also called; whom He called, these he also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:30). These passages are agreed upon by both Reformed theologians and Dispensationalists to teach eternal security. These truths are the considered to be the objective basis for our salvation.
The Westminster Confession best expresses the doctrine of 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” (Chapter 17 section 1). John Murray says of perseverance, “The truth is that the faith of Jesus Christ is always respective of the life of holiness and fidelity.” Perseverance expresses the idea that the permanence of salvation affects the present life of believers now and ultimately in the future. God is holding us firmly in His hand and we are to hold onto Him at the same time. In other words, we persevere as He preserves. Yet our part in persevering is only accomplished by the grace of God. In the doctrine of perseverance, the objective truths of eternal security are united with practical sanctification in the believer's life on earth. Thus salvation is considered as a whole process from beginning to end.
The expression eternal security is sometimes used to indicate that a person can accept Christ then live any way they please without fear of hell. R.T. Kendall, a Dispensationalist, states, “Whoever once truly believes that Jesus was raised from the dead, and confesses that Jesus is Lord, will go to heaven when he dies. Such a person will go to heaven when he dies no matter what work (or lack of work) may accompany such faith.”6 This is the idea that a one time act of faith secures heaven but offers no guarantee that the believer’s earthly life will be changed. Reformed theology readily takes issue with this view of eternal security. Reformed theologians say that the believer is not eternally secure if his life is characterized by sin and unbelief. Murray states, “It is not true that the believer is secure however much he may fall into sin and unfaithfulness.”7 Perseverance of the saints according to Charles Horne, “is a much more adequate term than eternal security.”8 The Reformed view of perseverance is that a true believer cannot live a subsequent life of sin and unfaithfulness and be secure in his or her salvation. Such a life would demonstrate that this person was unsaved. Many Reformed theologians shy away from using the expression eternal security, which seems to de-emphasize sanctification. Most Dispensationalists prefer eternal security since perseverance emphasizes the human aspect. Ryrie would prefer not to use the reformed expression of perseverance. Ryrie acknowledges that, “a believer may come to the place of not believing.”9 Ryrie is the modern-day leading proponent of Dispensationalism. (Dispensationalism is a fundamentally correct system because it is a result of a normal grammatical-historical method of interpretation). The result of these theological differences is that eternal security is the preferred expression by Dispensationalists because it emphasizes objective positional truth. Perseverance is the choice among Reformed theologians because it encompasses both objective truth and practical sanctification.
Today, even Dispensationalists are divided about which expression is more Biblical. Two sides have emerged and for better or worse have been labeled Lordship Salvation and No-Lordship Salvation. Zane Hodges in “Absolutely Free”, an argument against Lordship salvation, clarifies the dividing issue in regards to Eternal Security and perseverance. “A single, one-time appropriation of God’s gift results in a miraculous inward transformation that can never be reversed. Since this is true, we miss the point to insist that true saving faith should continue. But the claim that it absolutely must, or necessarily does, has no support at all in the Bible.”10 According to Hodges, a believer may not persevere. He may come to the place where he does not believe, yet, he is still saved. John MacArthur argues for the Lordship camp with these words, “All true believers will be saved to the uttermost. Christ’s high priestly prayer guarantees it. We have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we shall be glorified. No true believer will miss out on any stage of the process.” 11 According to MacArthur, a true believer will continue to persevere in his faith until he is glorified. Both these men are Dispensationalists who sharply disagree about this issue. There seems to be a fundamental disagreement about salvation and how it impacts a believer’s life. So which side is more biblical? Can believers “unbelieve”? Do true believers persevere so as to never lose faith totally or finally? Are these two sides mutually exclusive without a middle ground?
The Lordship controversy is a major issue and has brought with it some contrasting views, especially in the area of eternal security versus perseverance. Faith in the Lordship view is that salvation is all of God’s work. Those who believe are saved utterly apart from any effort of their own. Faith is a gift of God not a work of man. Real faith therefore cannot be defective or short-lived but endures forever. The No-lordship view is the whole of salvation, including faith, is a gift of God. But faith might not last. A true Christian might completely cease believing. Some No-lordship supporters view faith as a human act, not a gift from God. It occurs in a decisive moment but does not necessarily continue. True faith can be subverted, be overthrown, collapse, or even turn to unbelief.
Does faith continue to affect a believer’s life? The Lordship position says real faith inevitably produces a changed life. The unbroken pattern of sin and enmity with God will not continue when a person is born again. The No-lordship position says some spiritual fruit is inevitable in every Christian’s experience. The fruit might not be visible to others. Christians can lapse into a state of permanent spiritual barrenness. The No-lordship view is that spiritual fruit is not guaranteed in the Christian life. Some Christians spend their lives in a barren wasteland of defeat, confusion, and every kind of evil. Their faith might not persevere.
What is the extent of salvation? The Lordship position is that the “gift of God” eternal life includes all that pertains to life and godliness, not just a ticket to heaven. The No-lordship view says only the judicial aspects of salvation—such as justification, adoption, imputed righteousness and positional sanctification—are guaranteed in life. Practical sanctification requires post-conversion dedication. The No-lordship view is that heaven is guaranteed to believers but Christian victory is not. Deliverance, obedience, submission, and confession are all post-conversion efforts of the believer.
How is someone assured of salvation? The Lordship view says behavior is a test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one’s faith is real. The person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith. The No-lordship view says disobedience and prolonged sin are no reason to doubt the reality of one’s faith. The No-lordship view says if people are sure they believe, their faith is real, even those involved in serious prolonged sin—should be assured that they belong to God come what may.
Do the saints really persevere? The Lordship view says genuine believers may stumble and fall, but they will persevere in faith. Those who later turn completely away from the Lord show that they were never truly born again. The No-lordship view says a believer may utterly forsake Christ and come to the point of not believing. God has guaranteed that He will not disown those who thus abandon their faith. Those who have once believed are secure forever, even if they turn away. The No-lordship view says it is possible to experience a moment of faith that guarantees heaven for eternity, then to turn away permanently and live a life that is utterly barren of any spiritual fruit. Genuine believers might even cease to name the name of Christ or confess Christianity. The Lordship view says “Any doctrine of eternal security that leaves out perseverance distorts the doctrine of salvation itself. Heaven without holiness ignores the whole purpose of God in choosing us for salvation.” 12 From those contrary positions, it is clear that the differences focus on the effects of salvation in the life of the believer. The No-lordship view readily embraces the expression eternal security since it is related to positional truth, which does not necessarily impact the experience of the believer. The Lordship position holds on to the expression perseverance since it is related to the outworking of salvation in the life of the believer. Ryrie explains the difference, “Perseverance seems to focus on the believer as one the one who perseveres through the power of God. Security and preservation seem to focus on God as the One who secures our salvation.”13
Closely related to eternal security and perseverance is the assurance of salvation. The Lordship and reformed view is, “A subjective confidence in both our present salvation and, by extension our future salvation.”14 The No-lordship position would say that assurance of salvation has nothing whatsoever to do with how a believer lives. The believer could stop believing and still have assurance. Chafer states, “The evidence underlying a positive conviction, or assurance as to personal salvation, is primarily the fact of the faithfulness of God as revealed in His word.”15 Most No-lordship supporters approach assurance solely on objective grounds while the Lordship view approaches assurance from both objective and subjective grounds. MacArthur states, “In contemporary Christianity assurance is too often either ignored, or claimed by people who have no right to it. Too many people believe they are saved merely because someone told them so. They do not examine themselves; they do not test their assurance by God’s Word; they are taught that doubts about their salvation can only be detrimental to spiritual health or growth.”16 The No-lordship position would say that the promises of God are sufficient for assurance and as long as a person clings to the objective promises of God’s word, no amount of sin can trouble that person’s assurance. Hodges, arguing against the Lordship view of assurance, says, “By stripping us of the unconditional certainty that we possess eternal life, it dangerously erodes the solid ground we need beneath our feet.”17 Charles Ryrie acknowledges that assurance has both an objective and subjective ground, “The objective ground is that God’s word declares that I am saved by faith. The subjective ground relates to my experiences.”18 But Ryrie and MacArthur do not agree about assurance. MacArthur as well as other Lordship proponents claim that many professing believers have false asssurance. Ryrie and other No-lordship adherents would deny any false assurance. They would say assurance itself is proof that one has believed unto salvation. A lack of assurance is just someone’s subjective experience and does not indicate whether or not someone is really saved. The Lordship position would teach that one must cultivate assurance and not take it for granted. The Lordship position would say those who are truly born again have been given a new nature, which gives evidence of itself. Those who do not display characteristics of the nature, demonstrate they never had it, so were never truly born again. So the question is raised, does the possibility of false assurance eliminate the possibility of genuine assurance?
I have some concern with the Lordship position concerning personal commitment to the Lordship of Christ as a pre-condition for salvation. A new believer may not fully comprehend the Lordship of Christ at the moment of faith but neither will the Lordship of Christ be rejected by a new believer. I affirm that salvation is a result of faith, trusting Christ as one’s personal savior and believing that His death paid the price for our sins. I affirm that faith is a gift from God and not something man is capable of in his depraved and lost condition. However, I do not believe that a true believer will reject the Lordship of Christ once he comes to understand what it means. Believing in Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has accomplished, results in eternal life and forgiveness of sins. Yet I am in agreement with the Lordship view of perseverance of the saints. I believe that the view of perseverance as presented by the lordship position has solid biblical support. The No-lordship view presents an incomplete picture of the permanence of salvation. It divorces the judicial elements of salvation from the resultant change manifest in a true believers life. Eternal security is a valid expression, if, it refers to those who are true believers.
I accept the teaching that there can be persons in the local church whose faith is not real. They are not eternally secure nor will they persevere. The No-lordship position presupposes that a profession of faith in Christ, by itself, assures one of eternal security and that there are no false professors just believers who have backslidden or are carnal. This type of believer may even fall into settled unbelief or permanent unbelief yet, remain eternally secure and go to heaven. I believe that Scripture clearly teaches that some people are false professors. They claim to know Christ but in reality what they do contradicts their claims. The Bible also teaches that those who depart from the faith, those who no longer believe, are apostates and have never truly believed. A reprobate lifestyle also provides evidence that a person was never truly born again.
That there exist false professors is clear from the teaching in the book of James. James expressed the difference between speculative faith and real faith. James characterizes a spurious faith as mere hearing. This is the idea of hearing God’s word without doing God’s word. It is empty religion (James 1:22-27). James also talks about an empty profession (James 2:14-26). This discussion is about a person who only asserts that he has faith. A faith, which consists of mere words, is not real faith. “What use is it my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but has not works? Can that faith save him?” The answer that James expects is no that a faith of mere words is of no use. Then James discusses the fact that demons believe in one God. They are monotheists. But they also shudder with fear. The context is clearly one of faith. Faith is mentioned nine times in this passage of fourteen verses. The contrast is of faith that saves and a faith that does not save. Then James discusses dead faith. James is contrasting two kinds of faith: one that saves and one that does not. In verse 26 James gives a formula. He says that a body minus the spirit equals death, so faith minus works equals death. This also points out just as a professed compassion without action is phony. Faith that is real saving faith goes beyond a mere profession. Some people say they have faith but do they have evidence of faith’s reality in their lives?
What about people who at one time claimed they believed but later renounce their faith? Those who turn completely away from the Lord show that they were never truly saved. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us; they would have continued with us, but they went out that they might be manifest, that none of them were of us” (I John 2:19). The departure of people from the truth and the church is their unmasking. They prove they never belonged in the first place. These people totally and finally depart from the faith. They have not been preserved so they do not persevere. The book of Jude describes apostates as “marked out for condemnation” and “ungodly men” (Jude 1:4). They are certainly not saved!
What about a “believer” who continues in sin as a habitual lifestyle? Is his faith real or is it a sham? “Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers shall inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9-11). Chronic behavior reflects what a person really is inside. Other Pauline passages echo the same theme. Galatians 5:19-21 says that those who habitually practice the works of the flesh shall not inherit the kingdom of God. These people are not children of God. They don’t belong to His family and as a result have no inheritance. Ephesians 5:5 says “For this you know that no fornicator, unclean person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of God.” The following verse calls these people “sons of disobedience.” Again such “believers” profess to know God, but in deeds they deny Him.” (Titus 1:16). The scriptures discourage anyone whose lifestyle demonstrates a continual pattern of sinful behavior from having assurance of salvation. Not only should they not have assurance, in fact, their salvation is in question because they are reprobate.
Perseverance seems to be a better description of the permanence of salvation because it encompasses both objective facts of Scripture and subject experience. The objective grounds are the promises in God’s word to keep us secure. The subjective grounds are the outward evidence in the lives of believers. This by no means implies sinless perfection or that any sin means one is not saved. Christians can and do sin. They may fail miserably. But as the Westminster Confession suggests they cannot totally and finally fall into settled unbelief or permanent reprobation. Charles Horne states, “God’s grace insures our persevering—but this does not make it any less our persevering.”19 As we work out our salvation, we find that it is God at work in us. (Philippians 3:12, 23). An example of this kind of tension is the doctrine of election. The elect will believe and the elect must believe. God guarantees their election, yet they have to exercise personal faith. Perseverance has the same idea. The saints will be preserved, yet they must persevere. Positional truth must not be divorced from practical Christian living. Eternal life is not only a future inheritance but it is a quality of life which the believer possesses now.
Eternal security is based on the objective truths in God’s word. Thus the objective basis for our assurance includes the truth of justification by faith, baptism by the spirit, and all the truths in God’s word about the finished work of Christ. Yet if a believer is disobedient, he will be unsure of his relationship with the Lord, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (I John 2:3). A disobedient believer should ask himself if his faith is real.
If a believer is not growing spiritually, as he ought to, he will have difficulty with assurance and feeling secure, “But he who lacks these things (the virtues previously mentioned) is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble;” (2 Peter 1:9-10). A professing Christian may be unable to discern his true spiritual condition, and therefore have no assurance of salvation. A person’s experience of assurance is connected to his sanctification. A growing, obedient Christian is an assured, secure Christian. If a person refuses to conform to, or cares nothing for the Holiness of Christ they have nothing to be assured of. Listen to this warning in I John, “The one who says ‘I have come to know Him’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar and the truth is not in Him” (2:4). If you hate your brother you walk in darkness (2:11). If you deny the Son, you do not have the Father (2:23). If you practice sin you are of the devil (3:8). If you do not love, you do not know God (4:8). These warnings speak of a habitual lifestyle or practice of these things. Obstinately ungodly people can have no assurance of eternal life. Freedom from sin is not only a future certainty but also should to some extent be a present reality in the lives of all true believers. Sin is no longer the true believer’s master.
I hold firmly to a Dispensational theology, yet I applaud the Reformed view on perseverance of the saints. I am convinced that it is biblical and does no damage to Dispensationalism. I believe scripture holds forth a balanced view of the permanence of salvation. The saints are preserved by God and therefore will persevere in the faith. Within Dispensationalism the differences between those who now prefer to use the expression eternal security and those who prefer perseverance are an outgrowth of the Lordship/No-Lordship debate. This debate has become refined and seems to leave no doctrine untouched. Labels can be misleading but they can also cause people to carefully formulate their doctrine. Accuracy of expression is important in theology. I believe perseverance to be more accurate in expressing the total concept of the permanence of salvation. Salvation and its enduring quality in the life of a believer are taught in I John 3:6-7, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” There seems to be too much biblical evidence for us as Dispensationalists to avoid or even dismiss perseverance from our theological vocabulary. Of course, true believers are eternally secure and it will be evident in their lives. But those who are false professors should have no sense of security. A conviction of assurance should be based on the truth of God’s word and a transformed life of the new birth. No-lordship doctrine should not minimize the subjective ground for assurance. Obstinately ungodly people or those who have rejected Christ after an earlier profession should not rest secure that heaven is their final destination because maybe it is not their final destination. These people have never truly believed and it is now evidenced by their lives and their complete rejection of Christ. Hodges states, “If the gift of eternal life is ours forever, then the act of faith which appropriates the gift is definitive and final.”20 This is an accurate statement. The only problem is that Hodges considers only the future aspect of eternal life. Hodges also says it is, “an inward transformation that can never be reversed.”21 This again is an accurate statement but Hodges is considering only the future consummation of our salvation. He seems to either ignore or minimize the impact of salvation on an individual’s behavior. If salvation is a work of God, it cannot be defective. Salvation is not only the granting of eternal life, but also the liberating of a sinner from the bondage of his sin. Of course we are not completely transformed until we receive our glorified bodies, but the effects of salvation will be present and must be present in the life of the believer. Perseverance of the saints seems to be the best biblical description of salvation’s enduring quality in a believer’s life.
Chafer, Lewis Sperry. Salvation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1917.
Henry, Carl F.H. Basic Christian Doctrines. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.
Hodges, Zane C. Absolutely Free. Dallas: Academic Books, 1989.
Horne, Charles. Salvation. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
MacArthur Jr., John F. Faith Works. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993.
Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955.
Ryrie, Charles. So Great Salvation. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989.
Sproul, R.C. Grace Unknown. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997.
Stanley, Charles. Eternal Security. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1990.
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