Perseverance

Perseverance (Greek proskarterēsis). The word itself is used only once, and then only as a recommendation for steadfastness in Prayer: “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the Saints” (Eph 6:18).

Perseverance is, however, strongly supported in Scripture and has had a long history in the theological debates of the Church. In John 10:29, in a continuation of the passage on Jesus as the great shepherd, Jesus said: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Paul wrote that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29); and again he gave assurance to the Philippians, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6; cf. 2 Thess 3:3; 2 Tim 1:12; 4:18).

Perseverance of the Saints

Perseverance has become an “umbrella term,” especially in the expression “the perseverance of the saints.” It is used to cover the biblical theme that, because God’s gift of Salvation is an eternal gift, Believers are to persist in their Christian commitment and life, whatever their circumstances, knowing that God is on their side (Rom.8.31).

On the basis of such promises, a strong position has been taken historically by those of the Reformed and Calvinistic tradition, where it is maintained that “once saved, always saved”; that those whom God has elected and upon whom He has poured out His Spirit effectually will persevere to the end.

Doctrine of Perseverance

The doctrine of perseverance maintains itself in those theologies where Election and Predestination are firmly and completely maintained. It tends to slide away in any Theology where man is considered to have any decisive part in his own Salvation. The Synergism and Semi-pelagianism that show themselves in the Church of Rome, in Lutheranism, and especially in churches of Arminian descent, naturally undermine the doctrine of perseverance.

Those who hold a complete view of perseverance emphasize that the persevering is God’s, not man’s; that salvation is all of God, “all of grace,” and that any persevering done by man himself is not because this would be normal or natural with him, or even desired by him, but is because the feeding in by the persevering God of His Holy Spirit makes the regenerate man hold fast. Man holds steady to the end because he is held by God.

Questions about the doctrine of perseverance

Questions concerning perseverance are perennial and end with two basic theological questions:

  • How does an absolutely sovereign God act and interact with a morally responsible man?
  • What Assurance does any man have in a universe where God is not completely in control; how sure is salvation if it depends on the undependability of the man’s will?
  • There are Scriptural reasons why perseverance is brought into question. The words of the writer to the Hebrews pose a constant threat to those who would rest in perseverance:

    For it is impossible to restore again to Repentance those who have once been 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 then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt (Heb 6:4-7).

    Or again,

    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, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries (Heb 10:26, 27).

    These are strong statements and give reason for those who point out that a man’s behavior even after his regeneration may destroy everything that God has done for him.

    However, those who argue for perseverance insist that what is said in John cannot in the consistency of the Bible be gainsaid in Hebrews.

    Two things must then be said about those portions of Scripture that seem to indicate a falling from Grace:

  • either the man was not saved in the first place in spite of any appearances to that effect;
  • or, the necessary fruit of the fact of regeneration will be the works that necessarily follow a new life principle, a “new birth,” and therefore a man will consciously strive for the things of Christ. If he does not, one can question the reality of his experience of Christ, which is really a variation of the first argument.
  • Even what appear to be cases of real Apostasy (1 Tim 1:19, 20; 2 Pet 2:1, 2; etc.) are faced by the same argument: the apostasy is impossible once a man has been saved, and if it takes place after he appears to have been saved, the apostasy proves that regeneration never really took place, to which is added the ever possible argument that no one really knows what has finally taken place in a man’s heart even up to death.

    Conclusion

    Scripture on the whole, by the manner and weight of its positive statements, favors a humble belief of the permanence, in the plan of God, of the once-given new life. It is as if it laid down perseverance" as the divine rule for the Christian, while the negative passages came in to caution the man not to deceive himself with appearances, nor to let any belief whatever palliate the guilt and minimize the danger of sin.

    In the biographies of Scripture, it is noteworthy that no person appears who, at one time certainly a saint, was later certainly a castaway. The awful words of Heb 6:4-6; 10:26,27 appear to deal with cases (such as Balaam’s) of much light but no loving life, and so are not precisely in point. Upon the whole subject, it is important to make "the Perseverance of the Savior" our watchword rather than "the Perseverance of the saint."

    Application in Pastoral Care

    Scripture on the one hand abounds with assurances of "perseverance" as a fact, and largely intimates that an exulting anticipation of it is the intended experience of the believer (see Joh 10:28 above all, and compare among other passages Ro 8:31-37; 1Pe 1:8,9).

    On the other hand, we find frequent and urgent warnings and cautions (see e.g. 1Co 8:11; 9:27). The teacher dealing with actual cases, as in pastoral work, should be ready to adopt both classes of utterances, each with its proper application; applying the first, e.g., to the true but timid disciple, the latter to the self-confident.

    Bibliography

  • A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1907), 868, 881, 886
  • L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1946), 545-549
  • J. Edwards, Works, III, 509, 532; C. G. Finney, Systematic Theology, 544, 619; ISBE IV, 2328, 2329