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“Doctrine of Perseverance: The teaching that those who are genuine believers will endure in the faith to the end.”—Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 153.
Although the noun “perseverance” occurs in the KJV and RSV only once (Eph. 6:18), the concept is frequent, being translated “continued steadfastly,” “devoted,” “constant,” and the idea of persistence, keeping on, patient endurance occurs very often. Perseverance was an essential virtue in face of persecution. Yet converts were never left to suppose their future depended wholly upon their own endurance. If Jude urges “keep yourselves in the love of God,” Peter declares that we “by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Final perseverance in a state of grace by no means depended entirely on the virtue of persevering.
Pastoral necessities dictated a dual approach. Converts needed assurance, and it was given: “He who believes has eternal life.… He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.… The will of my Father [is] that every one who sees the Son and believes should have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.… I give [my sheep] eternal life and they shall never perish, no one shall snatch them out of my hand, no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.… There is no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus.… Those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.… Nothing shall separate us from the love of God.… Christ will sustain you to the end.… God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength.… Holy Spirit the guarantee of our inheritance.… He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.… May you be kept sound and blameless.… Whoever is born of God overcomes the world.… You may know that you have eternal life.”
Upon such assurance could be based not only encouragement but a doctrine of the eternal security of every believer—“once a Christian, always a Christian.”
But pastoral experience demanded also warning: “Let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.… Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.… Watch and pray, lest you enter temptation.… Many will fall away, most men’s love will grow cold.… He who endures to the end will be saved.” Judas, Ananias, Demas, some who “by rejecting conscience have made shipwreck of their faith,” are remembered. The Colossians are promised presentation before God “provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting.” The church at Ephesus is warned that Christ may remove its lampstand, and Christ will vomit the lukewarm Laodiceans from his mouth. Most fearful were the warnings to Hebrew Christians: “lest they be judged to have failed,” “that no one fail by disobedience.” “For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment.… It is impossible to restore again to repentance those once enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account.… Bearing thorns … worthless … near to being cursed … burned.”
History of the Doctrine. In the dual stance of the NT there obviously lay opportunity for divergent views as to whether every Christian can be sure he will continue in a state of grace to the end. There was precedent in Judaism for a positive answer. Many believed that no Israelite could enter Gehenna; all had their portion in the world to come, and all the circumcised were assured of eternal life.
On the other hand, in the postapostolic centuries the baptized were urged, “Let none of you be found a deserter,” and the prevailing rigorism denied all comfort to those who fell from the purity conferred in baptism. Hermas and early Tertullian allowed postbaptismal repentance once, Cyprian and others not at all. By the fourth century some delayed baptism until late in life because postbaptismal sin incurred such dire responsibilities. The classification of apostasy with murder and fornication as unpardonable (later, pardonable only after public penance) shows the same deep awareness of the possibility of total defection.
With Augustine a new theme entered the discussion. Convinced of man’s utter helplessness through original sin, Augustine traced every thought and motion Godward to the operation of divine grace within those elected to salvation. Nothing was ascribed to man’s initiative or even to man’s response. Electing, effectual grace includes not only the call to salvation, the impulse of faith to respond, the inspiring of a good will, but also the donum perseverantiae, the gift of enduring to the end. Such being the decree of the unchanging divine will, backed by divine power, it is irresistible; the assurance of persevering in grace is therefore absolute and infallible. The elect, being born of the Spirit, can never finally fall from grace. Eternal security is freely given by God and is not due to human watchfulness, striving, or endurance.
Action or condition of steadfastness. OT Israel waited generations for fulfillment of promises which many believers never lived to see (Heb 11:1, 13, 21, 22, 39). The promise to Abraham sustained hope for centuries before Canaan was possessed. The lesson of the wilderness journey, when the waning of initial zeal prevented the people from entering the Promised Land, was never forgotten (Heb 3:16–19). Prophets looked constantly beyond failure and tragedy to distant horizons and nourished a patient faith (Jer 32:1–15; Hos 3:4, 5; Jl 2:28, 29; Hb 2:1–3; Dn 7; 12:11–13—“Blessed is he who waits …”).
The NT everywhere urges similar perseverance. Among several Greek expressions, the usual word, proskartereō, has the root meaning “to attend continually, adhere steadfastly” (Mk 3:9; Acts 8:13; 10:7; Rom 13:6), and is variously translated “devoted,” “continued,” “constant,” “(be) steadfast.”
This persistent patience is called for in prayer (eight times, Lk 18:1–8; Col 4:2); in well doing (five times, Rom 2:7; Gal 6:9); in Christian teaching (four times, Acts 2:42; 2 Tm 3:14); in “holding fast” (repeatedly, to the Lord, the Head, our confidence, the word, our confession, eternal life, “what we have”); in affliction (2 Thes 1:4); in grace (Acts 13:43; 2 Cor 6:1); in faith (Acts 14:22; Col 1:23); in divine love (Jn 15:9; Jude 21); and quite generally “standing firm” (seven times, 1 Cor 16:13; 2 Thes 2:15); “abiding in Christ” (Jn 15:4–10; 1 Jn 2:28); “running with patience” (Heb 6:12; 12:1); “not falling away … failing to inherit” (Heb 3:12; 4:1–10); “watching with perseverance” (Eph 6:18) and “zealous to confirm our call and election” (2 Pt 1:10).
The failure in perseverance of Judas, Demas, and Hymenaeus must be kept in mind, and the dread possibility of neglecting so great a salvation (Heb 2:3), being disqualified (1 Cor 9:27), falling while we think we stand (1 Cor 10:12), and committing apostasy (Heb 6:1–8). For, as the Master said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22; 24:13).
Such extraordinary emphasis cannot be accidental. The pressures of pagan society, the danger of persecution, emotional reaction after a wonderful initial experience, and the apparent implication of “instant salvation,” made it imperative for Christians to understand that “by your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk 21:19; Rom 5:3; Col 1:11).
Yet Scripture never implies that perseverance depends entirely upon human effort. In the OT, the redeeming purpose of God is unswerving; God’s covenant stands, though it needs to be renewed (Jer 31:31–34); divine love (hesed) connotes changeless loyalty; God “will never fail nor forsake” for “his own name’s sake.” The NT assurance is that Christ will raise his own at the last day—none shall pluck them from his hand or the Father’s. Christ will keep us from falling. God is faithful, who works in us to will and work for his good pleasure, and will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. Nothing, in heaven or earth, present or future, shall separate us from divine love. We are already sealed by the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of eternal salvation, and kept by the power of God unto salvation still to be revealed.
This scriptural tension between exhortation and assurance gives rise to debate between those who hold to the eternal, unchangeable salvation of every believer, and those who concede that salvation is all of God but not despite man’s God-given freedom. The intellectual paradox is resolved only in the spiritual experience of utter dependence that yet knows itself fully responsible for seeking and accepting divine assistance.
The obvious fact that not all Christians did persevere led, by hard logic, to the denial of earlier views (Origen) that God willed all men should be saved and to the limitation of election, and so of the gift of perseverance, to some men only. Though Augustine held that “infallible perseverance” did not violate human freedom, others (as Tomasius) contended against the veiled fatalism for human responsibility. In consequence, the later Council of Trent stated Augustine’s position more cautiously and obscurely.
Meanwhile, Calvin reaffirmed that Christ died only for the elect and their salvation was guaranteed. God would never allow any to fall away; they are kept in the faith by the almighty power of God. All the regenerate are eternally secure: they have been predestined to eternal glory and are assured of heaven. They do fall into temptation and commit sin, but they do not lose salvation or suffer separation from Christ. The Westminster Confession declared, “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.”
Such dogmatic assurance provoked the Arminian arguments (1) that election itself was conditional, depending upon God’s foresight of who would respond in faith of their own free will, and (2) that believers, truly saved, can lose salvation by failing to maintain their faith—the regenerate can by grieving the Spirit fall away and perish.
A twentieth-century mediating statement (A. S. Martin) stressed (1) the given religious factors in Christian experience—God’s sovereign will, faithfulness, and love; Christ’s pattern; the Spirit, the fellowship of saints; and the heavenly inheritance; (2) the moral endeavor, steadfastness, diligence, zeal required: “the great predestinarians were the most Christian men of their generation”; “no perseverance without determined persevering”; (3) all endeavor depends upon the given factors; man cannot be himself except in entire dependence on God for all good initiatives—“the life of perseverance is just the Spirit in the soul.” This leaves undefined what happens if the moral endeavor proves insufficient.
One more recent discussion (Steele and Thomas) restates the Calvinist position with vigor, ignoring NT warnings and examples but conceding that perseverance does not apply to all who profess faith, only to those given true faith. Those who fall away were never in grace. This is almost circular: the assurance of perseverance belongs only to those who show their sincerity by persevering.
Another recent discussion (Volf) emphasizes that in Paul the question of perseverance involves the faithfulness of God, the assured completion in stages of the gift of salvation (“he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion”), and the certainty of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes. Yet the church remains a mixed community (Matt. 13:24–30), because church membership is not to be equated with salvation. The perseverance of God’s electing purpose applies also to Israel (Rom. 9–11), who will ultimately believe and be saved.
Value of the Doctrine. Difficult as it is to frame a defensible statement, the Christian values here at stake are precious. Every devout Christian knows that he would not have continued in the faith (as also he would never have begun) but for the unmerited, invasive grace of God, shown to him in innumerable ways. Who has not found wondering comfort, repeatedly, in the words, “He did not begin to love me because of what I was, and he will go on loving me in spite of what I am”? If we fall, we know that is our fault; if we are upheld, we know it is thanks to God’s grace. The warnings, exhortations, and tragic examples of the NT do still speak directly to our hearts; had it depended upon us, our waywardness would long ago have snatched us out of God’s hands, separated us from God’s love. But it has not depended upon anything in us, except our desire to be saved. In this sense God himself, in his freedom, has made perseverance, like salvation, dependent upon human response—so most modern Christians would probably say. But the condition is simply wanting to endure: thereafter, “the perseverance of the saints is nothing else but the patience of God.”
By R. E. O. White
- Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988)