Paul told Timothy “by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). This “good deposit” that Paul was referring to is the gospel, and this supernatural message, Paul says, must be guarded with supernatural power. The church has been entrusted with the good news of salvation by grace through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we must protect that good news from corruption at all costs.
Considering the weight of this responsibility, I feel it would be beneficial for the church to consider a doctrine that has fallen on hard times lately—the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Put simply, this doctrine states that those who are genuinely converted will maintain their profession and persevere in their faith until the end. There may be some moments of rebellion and waywardness, but the overall trajectory of a truly regenerated person’s life will be one of perseverance and growth.
But how often do we hear of the opposite? ““Yeah my son/daughter/niece/nephew/brother/sister/mother/father/cousin/friend has forsaken the church; has engaged in continual, unrepentant immorality; and bears no spiritual fruit, but I know they are saved because they were baptized and claimed to believe in Jesus that one time years ago at church camp.” Is this the testimony and witness of someone who has supposedly been eternally rescued from their sin, cleansed of all unrighteousness, and been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13)? Does this truly do justice to the wonderful realities of regeneration, conversion, and salvation that we see in the Bible?
Perseverance is an essential element of salvation that is often neglected or ignored. If we are to protect the integrity of the gospel, then we must insist that what the gospel claims to accomplish in the lives of those who believe, it actually accomplishes. Let’s look again at what the Bible puts forward as necessary for salvation.
In Acts 20:21, Paul says that his message consisted of “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” So we have two elements to our message of salvation, repentance, and faith.
In regards to repentance, I like Grudem’s definition: “Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ.”[i] Repentance is something that God commands all people everywhere to do (Acts 17:30). There is no salvation if there is no repentance. It is necessary.
In regards to faith, saving faith is composed of knowledge of Jesus (Romans 10:14), and approval and personal trust in what He has done for us (John 3:16). Both aspects of this definition are required. If you do not know Jesus, you can’t be saved (Romans 10:14), but just merely knowing about Him does not save you (Romans 1:32; James 2:19; see also the admissions of Nicodemus in John 3:2, and King Agrippa in Acts 26:27). You must acknowledge Him rightly as Lord as well as place personal trust in His saving work on your behalf (Romans 10:9). Both are necessary.
Typically, that’s where discussions of the requirements for salvation end. But this is unfortunate because the Bible has a wealth of passages that speak of another element that is required for our salvation, which is perseverance. Perseverance is put forth as a requirement in many places in the Bible, but just to note a few:
- “He who endures to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 10:22
- “We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” – Hebrews 3:14
- “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in Him, ‘If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.'” – John 8:31-32
Notice in particular the full weight of the passage in John. Jesus is speaking to the Jews “who had believed in Him.” So faith was already present in the Jews (repentance is safely implied); and to these Jews who had already believed, Jesus gives an additional condition: “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.” Their authenticity is proven by their persevering obedience to Jesus. In other words, like repentance and faith, perseverance is necessary and demonstrates the reality of saving faith.
This always raises the question about those who once exhibited signs of conversion but have since fallen away. Are they still saved? Doesn’t the Bible teach eternal security of the believer? Indeed it does! But that assurance is only for those who continue steadfast in their profession of and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. The eternal security of the believer applies to believers, not those who once said they believed but are now by all intents and purposes functional unbelievers.
The Scripture addresses this situation directly in 1 John 2:19, saying that “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” Jesus also mentions this unfortunate reality in the Parable of the Soils, noting that there are those who “hear the word and immediately receive it with joy, yet have no root in themselves, but endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately fall away” (Matthew 13:20-21). The first category of people “were not of us,” and in the second, the gospel did not take root in their heart. So both of these passages prove that those who “fall away” didn’t lose their salvation, they were never saved, to begin with.
The entire testimony of Scripture is explicitly clear about this issue. Eternal life is exactly that: eternal. Without perseverance, without endurance, without persistence, it doesn’t matter what you professed years ago, it wasn’t a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And when we assure the one who has fallen away from the faith that they are secure because of a past profession or baptism, despite all present evidence to the contrary, we are literally damning them to hell.
This is a hard truth to receive for a lot of us, and I include myself in that group. Odds are we all know many people who lack perseverance, and we don’t want to entertain the idea that their past profession wasn’t genuine. But might I encourage us not to let our desire for emotional coddling prevent us from reckoning with what the Scripture says about those who fall away.
Jesus emphasizes the importance of considering this doctrine in Luke 14:28-30: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” If we are to be disciples of Jesus, we must be committed to ensuring that we finish what we start, lest we bring reproach upon ourselves and the name of Christ.
But praise God He has not left us on our own to do this! Jesus has not placed any demand upon us that He has not also richly provided the means for. Our confidence that we will persevere until the end does not come from within us, but we are “sure of this, that He who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). By grace we are saved, and by grace we are kept. God has made good on this promise by giving us the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:14).
For the glory of God, the reputation of Christ, the integrity of the gospel, and love for our neighbor, let us insist on this truth. It is not loving to encourage someone who is a practical unbeliever to trust and rely upon something they said or did years ago. This has dangerous, eternal ramifications. Instead, let us allow that anxiousness to fuel our urgency in sharing the Gospel and let it push us to continue pursuing Christ with all we have.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.” – Jude 24-25
[i] Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 713.