Recently I was asked by a person about the Reformed (and I would argue ‘biblical’) claim that the elect cannot fall away and perish eternally. The Canons of Dort say that though the saints can and do oftentimes fall into grievous sins, suspend the exercise of faith, wound their consciences, and lose the assurance of grace for a time (COD V.5), they will never fall away completely for God promises to renew them to repentance:
For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely,even when they fall grievously. Neither does he let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by him, into eternal ruin. (COD V.6)
This person thought that this was a nice sounding idea, but felt there was no biblical evidence to back it up. After all, several passages of Scripture seem to state that the believer must meet certain conditions in order to persevere. Thus, the person claimed, we cannot defend perseverance of the saints as the Reformed have articulated it.
What do we do with these conditions? Is the Arminian correct? I appreciated Robert Reymond’s discussion of the essential conditions to one’s final salvation:
These several conditions – endurance to the end, abiding in Christ and his Word, continuing in or holding fast to the faith – are they not essential to one’s final salvation? And where they do not exist, can that professing Christian expect to be finally saved? To the first question, the Calvinist would answer emphatically in the affirmative, and to the second, he would respond just as emphatically in the negative. These answers may come as a surprise to some Arminian Christians, but Calvinist Christians, out of genuine concern to oppose the quietism and antinomianism within evangelical circles, are as zealous to insist upon these conditions as means to salvation as are Arminians. Charles Hodge, for example, whose Calvinistic convictions are not in doubt, commenting on 1 Corinthians 10:12 (“let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall”), writes:
This may refer … to security of salvation…. The false security of salvation commonly rests on the ground of our belonging to a privileged body (the church), or to a privileged class (the elect). Both are equally fallacious. Neither the members of the church nor the elect can be saved unless they persevere in holiness; and they cannot persevere in holiness without continual watchfulness and effort.
But where the Arminian contends that the true believer may in fact not persevere to the end and be finally lost after all, the Calvinist is convinced that the true believer will in fact persevere, and to that end will take seriously the Scripture warnings and conditions for salvation.
“But,” asks the Arminian, “if true Christians will in fact persevere to the end anyway, why are these admonitions, which often carry with them the threat of eternal destruction, even issued by the Scripture writers? Aren’t they really unnecessary if Christians can’t be lost?”
The Calvinist responds: “They are issued for the same reason that Paul, even though God had assured him on the occasion of the impending shipwreck recorded in Acts 27 that ‘there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship’ [27:22, 24, 34], warned the centurion and the soldiers that unless the sailors who were trying to escape in the lifeboat remained in the ship they who remained in the ship could not be saved [27:31]. Through Paul was assured of their ‘salvation,’ he knew too that the means of their salvation was for all to remain on board the ship. Thus he issued his warning, and it had the desired effect – ‘the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat, and let it fall away’ and in due course ‘they all were brought safely to land’ [27:44].” The Calvinist takes seriously the fact that God ordains not only the end but also all the means to the end, and one of the means to his final salvation is the Christian’s perseverance in the faith to the end, without which means the end is neither achieved nor is it achievable. The Calvinist clearly perceives that one of the ways whereby God effects this means of perseverance in the elect is to warn them of the consequences of their not persevering to the end. G.C. Berkouwer would never entertain any representation of perseverance that would eliminate the Christian’s responsibility to pursue holiness but he too insists that the purpose of scriptural admonition is that of insuring the saints’ perseverance. He writes:
Anyone who sees a contradiction between the [Reformed] doctrine of perseverance and the numberless admonitions of the Holy Scriptures, has abstracted perseverance from faith. Faith itself can do nothing else than listen to those admonitions and so travel the road of abiding in him. For admonition distinguishes the true confidence, which looks for everything from grace, and the other ‘possibility,’ which is rejected on the basis of Christ and the Church. So admonition is at the same time both remembrance and a calling. It points out the way of error to those who travel the way of salvation, and it exhorts them to keep going only in in the true way…. These admonitions, too, have as their end the perseverance off the Church , which precisely in this way is established in that single direction, which is and which must remain irreversible – the direction from death to life.
Reymond’s systematic theology is really one of my favorites. His exegetical work is always very detailed and robustly textual. The weaknesses of his section on the Trinity are well known (just Google reviews of the book and you’ll find several critical interactions), and there are other things with which I would quibble (like any book), but his presuppositional approach and his dependence on the Westminster Standards throughout makes this a useful volume on all the other loci when read alongside Turretin and Bavinck.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)