Perseverance of the Saints Anathematized

Readings in the Christian Theological Tradition  (This is a repost from April, 2012).
On December 13, 1545, the first session of the Council of Trent took place under Pope Paul III.  This council was an official council of the Roman Catholic Church which met to discuss, among other things, the teachings of the Reformation – the teachings which most Roman Catholics of the day considered heretical.  Obviously there is a lot to discuss about the Council of Trent, but in this blog post I simply want to focus on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints which the Reformers taught and Rome rejected outright.

Here’s Canon 16 of the Sixth Session of the Council:

“If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema [accursed].”

The Reformed teaching, later agreed upon in the Confessions (Reformed and Presbyterian) can be summarized by these words from the Canons of Dort (Article 5.8-10).

“Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which, with respect to themselves, is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since his counsel cannot be changed, nor his promise fail, neither can the call according to his purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated”

The Canons of Dort go on to talk about assurance of salvation and perseverance, stating that assurance is attainable:

“True believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.”

So far we see a stark difference between Rome’s anathema of perseverance and the Reformed affirmation of it.  One more difference is found in how a Christian can be assured of perseverance.  Rome says “by a special revelation.”  The Reformed, however, say, “this assurance…is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God,” but it comes from faith in God’s promises revealed in the Word, from the Spirit’s work within us, and from a holy desire to obey the Lord (emphasis mine).  In fact, the Canons of Dort even say that true Christians have an “infallible pledge of eternal glory” – again, God’s revealed promises and the Spirit’s work in our hearts (Canons of Dort, 5.10).

To summarize, Rome has anathematized (accursed) any the Christian who believes that he or she will undoubtedly persevere in the Christian faith by God’s grace.  Reformed theology teaches that Christians will persevere in the faith – and can be assured of that perseverance by God’s Word and Spirit.

This is one of many reasons why I am Reformed and not Roman Catholic: I do not believe the Scriptures throw us into a whirlpool of uncertainty when it comes to God’s promises of salvation in the gospel.  In Paul’s words,  I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6; cf. John 10:28-29 and Romans 8:28ff).

shane lems
hammond, wi

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