The Doctrine of Perseverance
The Doctrine of Perseverance
This past Friday, I had the opportunity to play golf in a charity tournament in Kalona. There were 11 or 12 teams playing at the same time, and just like all the teams playing, we wanted to put ourselves in a position to win something, so we played every hole with intention, taking our turns, talking through our shots, especially the close ones.
We started at 8:30 in the morning, and finished up around 1pm just in time for a second round of players to line up and tee off. So when we turned in our scorecard, there were still another 10 teams lining up to play. We would have to just wait and see if we played well enough to win some prizes. Of course, we tried to listen in on conversations around us to see where we stood, but there was no way to know fully because there were groups who hadn’t played yet. So it was a “do what you can, hope for the best” kind of thing.
Similarly, many years ago when Jodi and were doing photography, we photographed a Muslim couple. Over time, we actually became friends with them, somewhat, and then in one really bizarre situation, Jodi and I got to ride in a car with him for a 45 minute round trip, during which I asked him to tell me about Islam and what all is involved. Now he didn’t claim to be a good Muslim, but he told me about the 10 pillars of Islam and how the religion works, and when he was finished talking, I said, “So let’s say you do everything that’s required perfectly; are you a shoo-in to heaven? Are you guaranteed to get in if you nail it?”
And his reply was almost dejected, “No. You don’t really know until you get there if you did enough to get in.” I said, “wow, that sounds terrifying.” He goes, “yeah, and we’re not supposed to be excited about how well we’re doing, because that would be prideful, and we’re not allowed to be fearful either. We’re supposed to keep doing the best we can, and then wait and see.”
His faith was like my team at the golf tournament: Do what you can and hope for the best.
I looked at him and said, “I can give you better news than that.”
DID I DO ENOUGH?
But I think some Christians view their life of faith like my Muslim friend or my golf team. You may have even heard the doctrines of salvation and how Jesus left heaven to come to earth, not just to die for sinners, but to live for sinners and rise from death for sinners. You heard that Jesus took your sin on himself, and then put his righteousness on you, and because he has, Yahweh has justified you and declared you righteous, and that he didn’t stop there, but he is right this moment working in you and with you for the rest of your life to make you more like Christ.
You may have surrounded yourself with people who can encourage you and build you up, tried hard to read your Bible and attend church consistently and do what’s right, but, do I have to wait until I die to see if I made it? That sounds terrifying.
Or I’ve heard several folks say this recently, that I’m doing the best I can, but I’m just not 100% sure that I’m doing it right or doing enough. Or maybe you’ve heard or even said this, but I just don’t feel God’s closeness anymore. I used to get warm feelings or even get emotional when I sang in church or read the word, or I would just be overcome by thankfulness when I’d think about the cross… but now I don’t feel those things anymore, and I’m wondering if God isn’t letting go of me a little. Have I not done enough?
WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?
People have always wanted certainty about heaven, even approaching Jesus, asking, “What must I do to have eternal life?” What checklist can I work at to make sure I’m in? Show me the paper that says okay, you’ve done 8 of the 10. Two more, and you’re in. Our natural bent as humans is to ask the question, “What must I do?” It’s what we gravitate toward.
But if you were here with us for most of the summer as we studied these doctrines I hope you are already way ahead of me this morning, saying, No, no, no… There's no checklist, other than Romans 10:9-13. If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
As we’ve seen repeatedly this summer, my holiness, my perfection, my “getting the Christian life right”, was a gift to me from my Savior. Ephesians 2, my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, verse 4: But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. YOU ARE SAVED BY GRACE!
But then Jesus shows up in, and Matthew 7 offers this warning: Be on your guard against people who talk the talk, and walk the walk, but don’t have any fruit to show for it. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name? ’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers! ’
Sadly, not everyone who reads their Bible, or attends church, or casts out demons or prophesies or even does miracles is a true follower of Jesus. It is true that many people who call themselves believers, who everyone around them would say is a believer, are not actually saved. Jesus will say to them, you looked like you were filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but I have no clue who you are. That is not meant to make us all panic and look around the room, thinking is it me??? Is it him? Her?
SO HOW CAN I BE SURE?
But Doctrine we’re looking at today is the Doctrine of Perseverance, which basically means today I’m setting out to answer the question, “How can I be sure that my salvation is real, and that once I am saved that God won’t let me go?”
And remember, I said right at the very beginning… This is a controversial topic among Bible-reading, saved-by-grace Christians. Some of you may disagree with what I’m teaching today.
- Some church denominations teach that you are predestined or elected or chosen by God to believe, called to faith, adopted into God’s family, and filled with the Spirit… yet you can fall out of that saving grace and return to being lost.
- Other churches will teach that you cannot fall out of saving grace, and that if you’ve been elected, called, adopted, filled with the Spirit your salvation is secure. If you do fall away, it is a sign that you were never a true believer in the first place.
- Other “churches” will teach that everyone eventually gets to heaven no matter what they do or believe, no matter how they act or don’t act, and that this whole conversation really is a non-issue.
I’m obviously going to take a side today in what I teach, and if you disagree with me, you’re still welcome at River City, you don’t have to leave. But you will hear this doctrine come up fairly often around here.
CONFESSION OF FAITH
Here is how the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1649, answers the question “How can I be sure I will be saved?”:
“Those whom God has accepted through his beloved Son, [those he has] called, declared righteous, and those who are being made holy by his Spirit, [can never] fall away from grace, but will persevere in that grace until the end and be eternally saved. This persevering of the saints does not depend on their own free will, but on God the Father’s eternally wise and glorious choice, which flows from his unchangeable love, the effectiveness of the work of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit within them, and the covenant of grace God made with us.
However, though the corruption of sin still remains, and the temptation of Satan and the world still exists, these same saints may temporarily neglect the grace that saved them, fall into grievous sins, even continuing in those sins for a time, incurring God’s displeasure and grieving the Holy Spirit. Some of these saints’ comforts and blessings may be taken away, their hearts hardened, and temporary judgments may be brought on them.
Yet, in these saints, that seed of God, the life of faith, the love of Christ, is never finally lost. The sincerity of heart, led by the internal operation of the Spirit, will in due time be revived and in the meantime, guard them from utter despair” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/westminster-confession-faith)
In my own words: The persevering, or not falling away, of those who trust in Christ (This perseverance of the saints) does not depend on your commitment to doing right. Your staying the course rests on the three-legged stool called God’s eternally wise and holy will. The three legs to that stool are a) The unfailing, steadfast, and unchangeable love of the Father, b) the power of the cross of Christ the Son, and c) the internal presence of the Spirit. The seat on top of those three legs, where you can 100% rest your weight, is God’s covenant promise of grace.
JESUS WORDS ABOUT PERSEVERANCE
So to answer the question “How can I be sure that God won’t let go of me…how can I be sure I won’t let go of him?!”, we turn to three scriptures from the book of John, all three Jesus’ own words, to understand this Doctrine of Perseverance.
"Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.”
- If there is no more judgment for sin or condemnation for those who are in Christ, then what would ever cause you to fall back into a place of spiritual death? “Well, I keep sinning,” you might say. Yes, but Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection happened long before you were born. Was his death only good for a certain number of sins you would commit? Like 5,000, and then you’re on your own? Was the blood of Christ only good for certain kinds of sin, like he forgives you on a case by case basis? Or was Christ’s sacrifice good for ALL of them?
- Anyone who believes has no threat of judgment for sin in their future. The Redeemer, Jesus, has spoken: His word, his declaration, guarantees that there is only eternal life ahead for those who believe. (Tripp, 386).
"I am the bread of life," Jesus told them. "No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again… Every meal we eat is temporary, right? We have Vision Sunday coming up in a couple weeks, a catered lunch here after church, and it’s going to be delicious as it is every time. But even the best food is good for what, 3-4 hours? Unless you are a boy between the ages of 9 and 19, then each meal is good for 3-4 minutes. But look at Jesus’ words there:
When you come to Jesus in his word, and believe that he is who he says he is, that meal never wears off! We are so used to things wearing off and wearing out… wood siding needs repainted, tires wear out and need replaced, shingles become brittle, the gas tank gets used up and empty. But with Jesus, the process goes the other way. Even in suffering, we are being made more and more like him. More and more filled with his presence. Less and less hungry for anything else but him. That’s the process of sanctification.
37 Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes I will never cast out. Jesus is so absolutely zeroed in, laser focused on doing the Father’s will, he will see to it that no one the Father calls to himself is ever lost. Why?
Jesus says in verse 38: I didn’t show up on earth to do whatever I wanted. I came on assignment. And here was the Father’s assignment:  that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."
So what God the Father wanted from humans was for us to see the Son and believe in him. What God assigned the Son to do was to purchase the salvation of those who would believe, give them eternal life, and then make sure they would rise again on the last day, making sure that everything necessary for them to enter the fully realized kingdom of heaven when Christ returns one day, would be secure. No doubts. No questions. No slipping through the cracks.
Then in verse 40, it’s like Jesus says, how do you know if you’re one of those the Father has given me?: Everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
Jesus is 1010%, absolutely committed to doing the Father’s will more than anything else, and the Father’s will is that everyone who he has called to see and believe in Jesus will never hunger again. No one who is brought from death to life will ever return to death. No one who sees and believes in the Son of God will be on the outs on the last day.
"The works that I do in my Father's name testify about me.  But you don't believe because you are not of my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.  I and the Father are one.”
I’m not a shepherd, but our family tried our hand at raising chickens a few years ago. We built a little chicken house for them out in the yard, although I’m pretty sure when we set it up, I think I even heard one of the chickens say, “no that doesn’t look right.” We had a little fenced off area for them to run around outside, and all that… I think we started with 50.
Then one morning, we realized we had a problem. There were feathers scattered around the yard that were no longer attached to a chicken. A quick head count revealed that we were a couple chickens less than the day before. A fox or raccoon or something had found its way into our little chicken house and snatched a couple away. By the time we got to butchering them, we had only had 35 left.
That will never happen to Jesus. He will never wake up and realize one of his sheep has been lost in the middle of the night. It’s his promise from his own mouth: They will never perish, no one will snatch one of my sheep out of my hand.
- They believe. Anyone who does not believe is not one of his. Hebrews 11:6 Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. So his sheep will have some measure of faith.
- My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. A shepherd doesn’t keep his sheep safe by sitting in the fold with them all day. They need water, they need pasture, etc. He keeps us by leading us, as Psalm 23 says, to still water, to good pasture. The sheep endure to the end by listening to and following the shepherd who gives them life! This tells us how God keeps us to the end: He uses the ordinary means of those regular habits and rhythms of hearing, and knowing, and following to keep us.
- I love how Paul Tripp says this: “You are not kept because you have regular personal devotions, reading and hearing his voice in his word, but the Savior employs that regular habit to keep you. You are not kept because you faithfully participate in the gathering of your local church for public worship, but the Lord uses that commitment to keep you. You are not kept because you commit yourself every day to follow him and live inside the boundaries of God’s commands, but God uses that discipline and obedience to keep you. You are not kept because you abandon your own personal kingdom and give yourself to the work of God’s kingdom, but God employs that surrender to keep you” (Tripp, 388).
- Those good habits in themselves don’t keep us, because we could never do enough good on our own to achieve a right standing with God. But with God working in them and through them, with the purchasing power of Christ’s blood behind them, and filled with the very Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus, “we work to stay the course, we fight to endure, we resist sin, we obey, we confess, we repent, we worship, we study, and we do it all over and over again…remembering that these things he’s called us to do are his means of drawing us close and keeping us safe… [so in the end] our confidence is not in our commitment to God, but in his commitment to us” (Tripp, 389, 397, 414).
To wrap this up, Jesus will never lose one of the sheep his Father gave him to redeem. Those sheep will never fall away. So the question everyone wants to know is, am I one of those sheep?! Right?
This is not a checklist of things you must do, but here are some questions you can ask yourself?
- Do you have a present trust in Christ for salvation? Do I today have confidence that he has saved me? Do I today trust that Christ has forgiven my sins and will bring me without any sin/guilt into heaven? If I were to die and stand before God today, and he would ask me why he should let me in, would I reach for things I’ve done and depend on them? Or would I without hesitation say I am riding 100% on what Christ has done for me? You might have said that years ago when you first believed, but do you believe that today?
- Is there evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life? Do the people closest to me see the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control growing in my life since they’ve known me? Do I continue to read and delight in God’s word? Do I continue to accept sound doctrine? Am I eager to obey God’s commands? Am I forgiving, generous… Do I love the local church? Am I quick to own and confess and repent of my sin?
- Am I seeing a long-term pattern of growth in my life? Am I more confident and certain of salvation through Christ than I was when I first believed? (Grudem, 803-806)
If you can answer yes to those questions, then you are one of his sheep, and the doctrine of perseverance will be a tremendously comforting doctrine. You are able to say “I am truly born again; therefore I know for sure that I will persevere to the end, because 1 Peter 1:5 says I am being guarded by God’s power working through my faith, and I will never be snatched out of his hand or lost. Jesus guarantees to raise me up on the last day and I will enter his kingdom forever.
Of course, because Satan and the world and our flesh still exist, there will be times we ignore or forget God’s will, and we have moments of disobedience… some of which people may persist in for long periods of time, but “the doctrine of Perseverance…of the saints teaches us of the presence and unrelenting redemptive activity of our Savior” (Tripp, 414).
If your answer to all of those questions is no, and it doesn’t bother you a bit, then you are currently not one of those who are being saved. I say currently, because repentance and forgiveness are still offered to you as long as you are drawing breath, but you stand under the wrath of God, not the blood of Christ, and if you continue in this hardness toward Jesus, you will be eternally lost.
On the other hand, if you cannot answer those questions with a yes, and it troubles you, you feel shame, you feel conviction, that is your marker that God is drawing you to himself right now, either because you have stepped away from him for a minute or because you have never been close. In either case, I plead with you to not waste this invitation from him today. Repent and believe! See the Savior, his body broken for you, his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sin…
“On the cross, Jesus took our rejection so that nothing ever again would separate us from the Father’s love. On the cross, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, so that every sacrifice he calls us to in this life would be for our rescue now and our glory to come. On the cross Jesus suffered, so that as we suffer with him now, we are progressively formed into his likeness and will someday reign with him in glory. Jesus died so that he would not only live in us now, but so that we would live with him forever.
“So with the cross behind us and glory in front of us, we press on. We submit to his call, we resist the enemy, we follow him by faith, we fight to endure, and we do it all with joy, knowing what we have been given and looking forward to what is to come” (Tripp, 420).
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994)
Paul David Tripp, Do You Believe? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021)