The Christian “Persevering”
In my last post, I explored the glorious passages in Scripture which describe the way in which God himself will preserve his people to the end. What then, of all of the passages in Scripture that seem to indicate the believer’s responsibility to remain faithful (Romans 8:13, 1 John 3:4-10, John 8:31, etc.)? There are passages that seem to indicate conditionality on the part of our obedience. Passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.” (see also, Colossians 1:21-23)
First, we should pay extra attention to what is being said with that little “if.” Is Paul saying, “If you remain faithful, you will be saved” or is he saying, “If you remain faithful, you show yourself to be saved?” I believe the latter is almost always the case; our acts of obedience are not the means by which we are saved, but rather the fruit that demonstrates that we have been saved. To say otherwise is to take any confidence we have of glorification from God, and place it squarely on ourselves.
Apparent “Problem Passages”
We can’t consider this doctrine of preservation/perseverance without handling those difficult passages that seem to indicate genuine Christians falling away into eternal destruction. Consider the hard words of Jesus in John 15:4-6).
First of all, I don’t think this text is describing some strange work of sanctification, like some desperate Calvinists have argued for; as if the removal of unfruitful branches were some sort of beneficial pruning (these branches are not merely removed; they’re left alone until they get withered and dry and crusty, so that they can burn quicker… seems like a strange way to describe sanctification). I think Jesus is absolutely describing eternal destruction here. However, I also think that Jesus–the perfect God-man–is not speaking out of both sides of his mouth by contradicting what he had just spoken five chapters earlier (John 10:27-30). So what is he saying?
When we consider the broader scope of the New Testament, I think Jesus is here referring to a phenomenon in which a non-believer has some sort of association with Christ (a branch of the vine) that is nevertheless not saving union. Consider the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30. Here, Jesus tells a parable in which a farmer planted some wheat into his field. Then, in the dark hours of the night, the farmer’s enemy came and planted some weeds among the seeds of wheat. The end result is that the weeds and the wheats grew together, in the farmer’s field, until the time of harvest, when they were separated. In other words, it is possible to be in the farmer’s field–in the shepherd’s flock, a branch on the vine–and not genuinely belong to him. And, tragically, this may not be recognized until the last day. Lest we doubt that this phenomenon actually occurs outside the scope of an imaginary parable, John explicitly documents one such occasion, “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 become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) Here, John not only affirms that the true mark of a believer is perseverance, but he also indicates that not all those who are among the household of faith actually belong to it.
All well and good, but what about those hard warning passages in Hebrews? The author of Hebrews warns his audience (his Christian audience) of the destructive results of drifting away from the gospel 5 times; 2:1-4, 4:12-13, 6:4-8, 10:26-31 and 12:25-29. These passages have been handled in many ways by many different Christians. There are three things I want to say about these warnings.
- They are absolutely genuine warnings to genuine Christians about the eternally destructive results of turning away from Christ. That is to say, they are notmerely hypothetical situations, or descriptions of what happens to non-Christians who act like Christians, or descriptions of the temporary effects of temporary apostasy. These warnings were issued to a Christian audience that was obviously tempted to convert back into a Christless Judaism; the author is addressing this temptation dead on and saying, “If you do that, you will go to hell!” Which is true. Strictly speaking, to reject Christ is to reject eternal life. Period.
- These texts must be taken in the broader context of the book of Hebrews as a whole; which is a profoundly encouraging, confidence-solidifying, gospel-drenched book. These warnings aren’t stand alone messages; they are bracketed by gospel assurance. Consider, for example, the most chillingly descriptive warning in Hebrews 6:4-8. Taken by itself, it offers no hope whatsoever. Yet what immediately follows this warning? “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” (Hebrews 6:9) In other words, the author of Hebrews fully expected for these warnings to land in a certain kind of way on his readers, which brings me to my last point.
- These warnings serve as one of the means of our perseverance, and thus one of the means of God’s preservation. It is true that rejecting Jesus is inviting wrath. It is also true that those who are saved by virtue of being justified by grace alone through faith alone will continue in that faith. Therefore, those who are truly saved will hear these genuine warnings, and will genuinely repent and cling to Christ. God will hold us fast until the end of our lives by enabling our continual faithfulness, and he will enable our continual faithfulness through (among other things) warnings like these. Our Shepherd will speak, and if we are truly his sheep, we will listen.
As a whole, this doctrine should produce a rock-solid confidence in our salvation, because we know that it is ultimately guaranteed by God himself. This rock-solid confidence is an obedience-inducing confidence, or else it’s not functioning properly.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.