Perseverance is a key idea in the Christian revelation. God’s unique love is known as a steadfast love. Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end. Paul’s ultimate word is that the love which the believer learns at the Cross “endures all things.” Judas betrayed his Lord. Demas forsook Paul. But in Revelation those who endure to the end are robed in white. Small wonder that Shakespeare calls perseverance a “king-becoming” grace.

In theological discussion, however, perseverance is used not in this ordinary sense but in a technical sense for the Calvinistic doctrine that God preserves to final salvation each of the elect whom he calls and regenerates. Popularly expressed, this is the doctrine of “once saved—always saved.”

Perseverance and Apostasy. In its technical sense perseverance stands opposed to the idea of apostasy, or the doctrine that it is possible for believers to fall from grace, either temporarily, so as to alternate from a state of grace to a state of lostness and back to a state of grace again, or finally, so as to have been once saved and yet finally be damned. Those who insist on the possibility of apostasy do not entirely eliminate the idea of perseverance. But they use the term in its ordinary sense only, thinking of perseverance as an obligation resting on the believer to persevere in believing. They deny its technical use.

Each of these doctrines claims to be rooted firmly in Scripture. Perseverance points to the passages underscoring the believer’s sure persuasion that God takes the initiative in perfecting as well as originating man’s salvation: he who has begun a good work in the believer performs it to the end (Phil. 1:6; cf. 1 John 3:6–9; 4:4); God keeps his own (John 10:28, 29; Col. 2:2 [note the strong expression, “full assurance”; cf. Heb. 6:11; 10:22]; 2 Tim. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:5); nothing can separate the believer from the love of God (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:24; 1 John 2:1; cf. Luke 22:31, 32; John 17:11–15); and the Holy Spirit seals the believer to the day of redemption (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13, 14; 4:30). From the perspective of the perseverance doctrine the mere initiation of a process without its consummation (e.g., Mark 4:16, 17; 2 Pet. 2:20; 1 John 2:19) should not be called salvation, since there is no salvation apart from endurance (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:6, 14; 10:38; Rev. 2:7, 10, 11, 17, 25, 26; 3:5, 11, 12, 21). Yet it is possible for believers to retard God’s work (1 Cor. 3:1–3; Heb. 5:12–6:8) and hence the repeated warnings and exhortations to Christians (Matt. 5:13; 1 Cor. 3:11–15; 9:27; 10:12; Gal. 5:4; Phil. 2:12, 13; Heb. 2:1–3; 3:12–14; 6:4–6, 9–12; 10:26–29; 2 Pet. 1:8–11). Defenders of this view, instead of interpreting such passages as Hebrews 6:4–6 and 10:26, 27 as teaching apostasy, understand these passages as referring either to a hypothetical possibility (see W. Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 15), or to the failure of those who were never genuinely converted. There is no easy interpretation of many of these passages.

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In the history of doctrine the perseverance-apostasy issue is best understood not merely as a difference between Calvinists and Arminians, but more fundamentally as a difference between Protestants and Catholics, whether Roman or Greek, and hence, broadly speaking, as a difference between Augustinians and Pelagians.

Pre-Reformation Views. Patristic thought (roughly A.D. 100–500) was largely an anticipation of or a practical agreement with Pelagius (ca. 360–420), the British monk who, in opposition to Augustine (354–430), minimized sin and overemphasized man’s freedom. By and large the possibility of apostasy was an assumption common to the earliest writers.

It was left to Augustine to speak a clear word for perseverance in pre-Reformation times. Starting with predestination, he saw that election to eternal life inevitably involves final perseverance. Since salvation is always God’s gift, he entitled his work on perseverance, On the Gift of Perseverance. He denied, however, that the believer can have any assurance of his final salvation.

Medieval Romanism was the heir, not of Augustinian predestinarianism, but of a semi-Pelagian optimism regarding man’s freedom and ability. According to the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1563), man freely cooperates with justifying grace. God does not forsake those who have been once justified by grace “unless he be first forsaken by them.” This leads to a doctrine of apostasy, “By every mortal sin grace is lost,” and of restoration, “Those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of Justification, they may be again justified.” Believers “ought to fear for the combat which yet remaineth.” On the latter point J. S. Whale says, “The medieval Church came to trade on this insecurity” (The Protestant Tradition, p. 67).

Reformed Views. Against this semi-Pelagianism of Rome, the Reformers rediscovered the Augustinian and Pauline stress on grace. Luther (1483–1546), carrying out only partially the implications of this rediscovery, failed to develop a doctrine of perseverance (see Martin Luther, “The Greater Catechism,” ed. and trans. by Henry Wace and C. A. Buchheim, Luther’s Primary Works, pp. 141 f.). Lutheran symbols are agreed in allowing for the possibility of apostasy (The Augsburg Confession [1530], Art. XII; The Formula of Concord [1576], Art. IV, Negative III; The Saxon Articles [1592], Art. IV, III). Melanchthon’s (1497–1560) synergism, or his teaching that the human will cooperates with the divine will in salvation, reflects a more semi-Pelagian emphasis within Lutheran theology.

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Calvin (1509–1564) worked out the Reformation stress on grace with greater logical consistency. He may be said to be the first to develop a full doctrine of perseverance. Subscribing to “the inflexible constancy of election,” he affirms the believer’s sure persuasion of present and future salvation (Institutes, Beveridge translation, III. xxiv. 10; III. ii. 16, 40). Strict Calvinistic orthodoxy received its classical definition at the Synod of Dort (Netherlands, 1618–1619). In answer to the moderate Calvinism of the Arminian Remonstrance (1610), Dort formulated its position in five canons: unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the final perseverance of the saints. Under the last or fifth head of doctrine, which follows logically from the first, Dort summarized in fifteen articles the definitive statement of perseverance. Strict Calvinism tended to dwell on the mystery and the theological, as over against the inner or psychological, certainty of the divine preservation. According to the Westminster Confession (1647), “This perseverance of the saints depends, not upon their own free-will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election,” etc. (Chap. XVII, II).

The most significant development of an Arminian or moderate type of Calvinism was the original Wesleyanism. Repelled by the antinomian extremes of some hyper-Calvinists, John Wesley (1703–1791) stressed the necessity of human perseverance and allowed for the possibility of apostasy. Yet he more than any other recaptured the New Testament emphasis on the believer’s joyous inner or psychological certainty of salvation. Wesley even allows that a full conviction of future perseverance is possessed by some (see The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. by John Telford, 1931, Vol. III, pp. 305 f.). Later Methodism tended toward semi-Pelagianism, as indicated in its neglect of grace and preoccupation with freedom (see R. E. Chiles, “Methodist Apostasy: From Free Grace to Free Will, Religion in Life, XXVII [Summer, 1958] pp 438–49). By an irony of history Arminianism came to stand for this later semi-Pelagianism rather than for a moderate type of Calvinism.

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Modern Developments. Until about the third decade of the twentieth century the Calvinistic-Arminian controversy dominated the theological scene within Protestantism, particularly in America. On the Calvinistic side ranged the Reformed, Presbyterian, Free, Puritan, Congregational, and most of the later Baptist groups. On the Arminian side, in the limited sense of defending the possibility of apostasy, stood the Lutheran, Anabaptist (Mennonite), General and Free Will Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and Disciple groups. The position of the Anglican communions remained ambiguous.

Today many of the older issues are being superseded. As P. T. Forsyth foresaw, “The centre of majesty has passed, since Calvin, from the decrees of God to his Act of redemption in Christ” (Faith, Freedom, and the Future, p. 277).

The Need for Restatement. Some suggestions pointing toward a contemporary restatement of the doctrine should include the following. (1) The urgency of reconsidering the problem can hardly be overemphasized. Seen in its biblical perspective, the perseverance issue strikes at the heart of one of the most dire problems of Christendom, the tragedy of uncommitted church members. When perseverance is conceived in its ordinary sense as heroic, self-sacrificing constancy in the face of bitter opposition and despairing discouragements, how can we speak of the perseverance of today’s saints?

This is obviously no light matter. Nor is there significant evidence that nominal Christianity is any less an inadequacy of either the Calvinists or the Arminians. Presbyterians are hardly more or less courageous than Methodists. Baptists are hardly more or less inwardly confident of God’s certain victory over all his enemies than Lutherans. Puritan hyper-Calvinists agonized over assurance of personal salvation, while it was Luther, with his belief in the possibility of apostasy, who wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

As evangelicals we glory in our freedom in Christ. But is it really the liberty we have in Christ, Forsyth asks, “when we feel more free than obedient, and more released than ruled?” (op. cit., p. 291).

(2) Christian experience involves both the divine initiative in grace and man’s free response, and in this order. Because of the former, Christian theology affirms that though hypothetically man can fall from grace, since he remains free as a Christian, experientially the grace of God prevents it. A biblically grounded faith is confident that God’s faithfulness prevails over our faithlessness. We have assurance, J. S. Whale says, because “God is trustworthy and unchanging.… The grace of God is not capricious, and therefore intermittent and precarious; it abides, even though we still fail and fall” (op. cit., p. 83; Whale calls the assurance that our salvation is untouchable by human weakness the glory of Protestantism and describes it as “fatal to all papal, hierarchical and sacerdotal pretensions” [p. 144]).

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Yet because Christian experience is also man’s free response, this security is always the security of the believer. God secures through man’s faith, not without it.

(3) Since there is no state of final perfection in this life, it follows that neither is there any final inner security. The believer can never simply sit back as though the full experience of his faith were already realized. He has Christ, yet he needs Christ. He has salvation, yet he needs salvation. On the one hand, his confidence in Christ is intimately real.

Martyrs have sung triumphantly as they faced torture and death. On the other hand, his confidence needs repeatedly to be re-won. Man is never freed from the causes of anxiety and the threats to his security, a fact contemporary existentialists have helped us to see more clearly. But as a believer, man no longer faces these threats alone. Now there is Another who stands with him.

(4) Two other aspects of the doctrine of perseverance can be only mentioned. First, God honors the believer’s perseverance with an increased spiritual capacity for receiving the divine blessings. This is Jesus’ principle that to him who has is given. Second, perseverance as preservation has its corporate aspect. As God preserves the individual, so he preserves the church as the fellowship of believers in the Holy Spirit. Again and again God resurrects the church to a new life of victory over its would-be destroyers. (According to Roman theology the church cannot apostatize but believers can. According to Calvinistic theology the institutional church can apostatize but individual believers cannot.)

In conclusion, perseverance is no easy doctrine. God preserves, the believer perseveres. God preserves through the believer’s perseverance. The believer’s perseverance is God’s gift.

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It is not an easy doctrine, nor is it a soothing doctrine. It probes the soul that is at ease in Zion with a holy disquiet, asking whether a believer has been to the Cross, whether he knows the quality of love that is there laid bare, whether he has learned the basic fidelity that in the end includes all other marks of Christian character, until he has persevered.

Speaking of the quality of the dedication of the men and women who lived from Peter to Polycarp (c. 69–155), Guy Schofield declares that no triumph has been like their triumph, and then he explains: “They were clothed in flesh no less sensitive than is our own to heat and frost and blade and whip. But they endured all things and never quit the field” (It Began on the Cross, p. 244).

Bibliography: G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Perseverance, trans. by R. D. Knudsen; J. F. Green, Jr., Faith to Grow On; G. S. Hendry, The Westminster Confession for Today; R. Shank, Life in the Son; J. S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition; A. S. Yates, The Doctrine of Assurance.

Professor of Theology

Southwestern Baptist Seminary

Fort Worth, Texas

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