Dear Church Family,
In our most recent adult Sunday school class, we examined chapter 17 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of the Perseverance of the Saints.” For most Christians, when they hear of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, they immediately think of the popular saying, “once saved, always saved.” That phrase is a good summary of biblical doctrine of eternal security; however, it can also tend to fall short in two areas. First, out of context, the statement “once saved, always saved” has led people to deny the necessity of a changed life and the fruit of good works as evidence of salvation. Second, “once saved, always saved” is sometimes interpreted as ‘justification by decisionism’ – the idea that a person’s salvation is dependent upon their having ‘made a decision for Christ.’
WCF 17.1 – The Definition and Source of Perseverance
So, while “once saved, always saved” may be a good and simple definition of the perseverance of the saints, without further elaboration and explanation, it can lead to misunderstanding. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith begins its explanation of this doctrine by explaining the definition and the source of the perseverance of the saints.
The definition of the perseverance of the saints is relatively simple: a person perseveres to the end and is eternally saved, or has eternal life. As the Scriptures declare, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
The source of perseverance is God’s acceptance in His Beloved (justification), effectually calling, and sanctification by God’s Spirit. In this regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly roots the doctrine of perseverance not in a sinner’s response to the gospel, but to God’s saving work, alone. So, Jesus explains that He gives eternal life to His sheep and they will never perish; no one is able to snatch them out of His hand (John 19:27-29). The Apostle Paul explicitly roots God’s continuing work of perseverance to His initial work of salvation: “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good wok in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
For those whom God has accepted in Christ, effectually called to Himself, and set apart by His Holy Spirit, He will also persevere them to the end. They can never fall away. To deny this truth is to deny the power of God in salvation.
WCF 17.2 – The Grounds of Perseverance
With this understanding of the definition and source of the perseverance of the saints (perseverance in eternal life rooted God’s work of salvation), the confession goes on to list at least six grounds of salvation:
(1) The free and unchangeable love of God, from which flows the immutability (unchangeableness) of the decree of election. In love, God predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5).
(2) The efficacy of the merit of Jesus Christ. Because Christ Jesus is the One who died, was raised, and is at the right hand of God interceding for us, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:33-39).
(3) The efficacy of the intercession of Jesus Christ. The Son of God always lives to make intercession for those whom He has saved (Hebrews 7:15).
(4) The abiding of the Spirit within believers. God has given His Spirit to live in us forever (1 John 4:13).
(5) The abiding of the seed of God within believers. The Word of God takes root in the heart of those who trust in Christ; and the word of God endures forever (1 Peter 1:22-25).
(6) The nature of the covenant of grace. For those who belong to Christ, God’s covenant promises will never fail (Genesis 15; Jeremiah 32:40; 2 Corinthians 1:19-20).
These six grounds of the perseverance of the saints ought to produce in God’s people an assurance of salvation, but we shall examine that doctrine of assurance in the next lesson.
WCF 17.3 – The very real consequences of a believer’s sin
Unfortunately, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (aka “once saved, always saved”) has led some people to believe that God never disapproves of His people or their actions, that He can never be displeased with those who belong to Him. However, the Bible teaches that God disciplines those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).
Just so, the final paragraph of this chapter in the confession explains how the doctrine of perseverance does not negate the very real consequences of our sin. In his weakness, the Apostle Peter denied Christ three times (Matthew 26:70-74); the world, our own flesh, and the devil may entice believers into sin. And, just as king David sought to cover up his sin of adultery by murdering Uriah (2 Samuel 11), believers may continue for a time in their sin.
By their sin, believers also incur God’s displeasure (Isaiah 64:5-9; 2 Samuel 11:27), grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), become deprived of some graces and comforts (Psalm 51:8-12), have their hearts hardened (Isaiah 63:17; Mark 6:45-62), wound their own consciences such that they grieve over their own sin (Psalm 32:3-4), hurt and scandalize others (2 Samuel 12:14), and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (Psalm 89:31-32; 1 Corinthians 11:32).
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints must never be used as an excuse to sin – as if God doesn’t care how His children believe and behave. As we rest trust in the promise of God for eternal life, we also trust in promise of God to guide, correct, and discipline us.
Understood correctly, the biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints ought to give those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, great comfort, hope, and assurance. Indeed, God will complete that which He has begun in us!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch