For the Reformation: Preservation and Perseverance of the Saints

Although “Perseverance of the Saints” is the last point of the five in Calvinism’s T.U.L.I.P. acronym, I’m starting with this because it’s widely considered the be-all-end-all of the system. Rocky Munoz also begins with it, recognizing that it is the logical conclusion of a theology that sees God, and not humans, as the enactor and sustainer of people’s faith.

Munoz rightly acknowledges that the Calvinist believes in the existence of stumbling or stubbornly sinful people who have already obtained salvation. Just as I’ve often seen, however, he frames the question about these same people’s eternal destiny in the wrong way. Rather than asking, “Can a Christian lose their salvation?”, the Reformed perspective would ask something more akin to the following: “Can Christ lose a Christian?”

Munoz goes on to bring up some of the typical Calvinist proof-texts for this idea (some of which are quite compelling), but he doesn’t deal with them exegetically or grammatically. Since he instead mostly focuses on the Scriptural passages concerning apostasy, this is where I’ll turn first.

He quickly suggests there might be instances throughout the New Testament of people obtaining salvation and then having it taken away. It’s important, though, to look at how he frames the Calvinist rebuttal of this.

“The typical Calvinist response,” he writes, “is that the person must not have ever really been saved. They went through all the motions. They may have even thought they were saved. But they must not have been part of God’s elect, and so, despite their conversion experience, they didn’t actually lose their faith because they never had it in the first place.”

This is, admittedly, a fairly accurate description of the Reformed position, except for the fact that Munoz appears to imagine a “conversion experience” that doesn’t include spiritual regeneration or true repentance. Yet to suppose this, that “conversion” just involves a head-acknowledgment that Jesus is real or historical or whatever else, is thoroughly unbiblical (cf. James 2:19). Despite this, his description still comports with 1 John 2:19 and the apostle’s idea there of people being part of an assembly and then leaving in an antichrist position:

“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

But notice what this verse does not say. John says absolutely nothing about these people having what Munoz calls “the full blown experience of being saved.” Neither is there a suggestion of any conversion experience on their part, let alone one that felt genuine to them. All that we see here, at most, is an example of people present within the church who are discussed as a living example of the antichrist spirit. It is quite telling, in fact, that John stresses how the rest of those in the faith “have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” (v. 20) in order to distinguish manifestly true faith from that which is obviously false on the part of apostates.

We see examples of this same thing throughout Jesus’ ministry, when people initially express belief in Him but then show their supposed “belief” to have no lasting effects. They no longer follow Him, thus proving that their “faith,” “love,” or “devotion” was temporary and only naturally motivated. In Matthew 13, as well, Christ describes what false profession and ultimate faithlessness looks like with the Parable of the Sower. We shouldn’t be surprised that this can and does happen; it is a tangible demonstration of Jesus’ teaching that “no one can come to Me unless the Father has granted it to him” (John 6:65).

And yet, it would be completely wrong to suppose that these people were ever “elected” to salvation and then somehow became non-elect. If someone “comes” to Jesus without ultimately staying there, then their coming can’t have been granted by the Father. That’s the only meaning that we can possibly draw from Jesus’ words.

Just moments before this, in fact, Jesus also declares, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” Looking at this, the Reformed position would argue that the person being drawn is the exact same person being raised up on the last day.

In turn, we must see the logic being implied by the opposing view. If the Father draws someone, and Christ fails to raise that person up on the last day, then Christ does not accomplish the Father’s will. If Christ does not accomplish the Father’s will, then the unity of the Trinity is completely broken. Not only are the persons of the Trinity no longer united in their purposes and accomplishments, but man’s will has overturned that of God. This is what the non-Reformed position inevitably teaches.

Regardless of what the text does or doesn’t say, of course, Munoz’s answer is to suggest that the passage in 1 John 2 may not even be representing a universal principle at all—that is, John is not actually expressing, without exception, that “everyone who leaves the faith was never truly in it in the first place.” I mean, come on! This is a private letter to someone other than 21st-century readers, for goodness sake!

But this prompts the question: how are we to differentiate this verse from other uses of “us” or “we” throughout this epistle’s same chapter, and shouldn’t we insist that they too have relevance only to those who received the letter directly? Not only is this clearly absurd, but it sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for Scriptural interpretation and the application of texts to non-first-century Christians.

My point is this: Munoz merely assumes the idea that people can be truly saved and then abandon loving God forever, to the detriment of their salvation. And that’s fine if he chooses to believe this. But what he doesn’t at all show is that this idea is present in the text of Scripture.

The Example of John 6 

Jesus’ words to His followers after walking on water are often cited as a clear indication of believers’ preservation, since it unambiguously appears to talk about this being the very will of the Father as it relates to saved people:

“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:38-39, NIV)

While a translation like the NIV renders the bolded section as “shall lose none,” something like the KJV reads “should lose nothing.” Many have claimed that the use of a subjunctive verb (a verb that expresses something wished for or that is possible) in the Greek means that the “not losing” on Christ’s part is uncertain, that the losing is still an open possibility.

This is to say, what’s suggested by opponents is that the true use of this verb here is an open-ended and uncertain one. Even though people are given to the Son by the Father, this is done so that they might have the possibility of not being lost.

What opponents ignore, though, is the additional presence of a hína (“for the purpose that”) clause in this verse. The hína clause provides an important exception to the rule that was just mentioned. Because the subjunctive mood is being employed alongside a hína clause, the action cannot be thought of any longer as just a possible or probably result. On the contrary, it can only be viewed as a stated outcome that will unavoidably happen (or has already happened) as a result of whatever action precedes it. Rendered more literally, the hína clause provides the following meaning to the last part of verse 39: “….in order that all which he has given me not I lose any of it.”

The will of the Father for the Son, in other words, is that He must lose none of those given to him, because this is precisely why he came down from heaven. Consequently, if any single person given to Christ is lost, then Christ will have failed to obey the Father’s will.

(Note: Nothing in the text even hints at the idea of a person “losing” themselves. And regardless of how someone is lost, they are still lost if they are indeed lost. This “out,” then, addresses none of the actual concerns with regard to salvation being lost.).

The same grammatical construction present here is used in John 1:7 and Ephesians 3:1, and these are only just a couple of examples. If what Munoz and others would suggest is true, then John 1:7 would have to be read in the following manner: “He [John] came for a testimony, so that he might possibly testify about the light.” This is obviously problematic. Either the verse is saying that John could have failed in testifying about Christ (which it isn’t), or we have to recognize that the subjunctive is functioning differently here—specifically, it is mentioned in order to emphasize John’s testimony as the ultimate reason for his coming into the world. Likewise, we know that Ephesians 3:10 isn’t talking about the “manifold wisdom of God … be[ing] made known through the church” as a mere probability or a possibility. Again, the grammar is functioning differently. The latter thing simply describes the purpose of the former thing.

Other Examples in John’s Gospel and Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Munoz goes on to argue that, while no other person or outside force can steal our salvation, we can still possibly forfeit it by thrusting ourselves out of God’s hand or deciding not to believe any longer. You see, he insists, these passages clearly “lack any mention of our own volition to remain within God’s mercy.” So, it must be true that the person possessing the faith can still freely choose to throw it away at any time.

To prove this, Munoz points out that in verses like “no man is able to pluck them out” (John 10:27-29) or “[nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), the person who possesses the faith is not listed.

But notice what the first passage cited also says. We’re not only told that “no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand,” but also that “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” and that “they shall never perish.”

Nothing could be clearer. Christ’s sheep hear Him, they listen to Him, they are in relationship with Him, and they follow Him. They never perish precisely because they will not cease in following him, and Christ is not such a poor, useless shepherd that He allows his sheep to leave the pen, at least not without going out Himself to retrieve them and bring them back again (Luke 15:3-6).

Thus, if none of the sheep can ever perish or permanently leave the flock, then the idea of an ability of people to “jump out” of the Father’s hand of their own accord is impossible. The principle here is that following a true conversion—and with it, a necessary, total devotion to Christ as Lord—no one will ever choose to jump out permanently. They will always endure to the end and will always be saved.

The problem, with a man-centered soteriology, of course, is that there is the allowance for someone to forfeit their faith because there’s no belief that this faith was given to them by God in the first place. In the non-Reformed view, the taking on of faith was also something of their own free accord, with no outside influence whatsoever on the part of God.

The second passage, too, includes verses before and after the section in question that show the elect to be incapable of becoming faithless. To begin with, God is the one who singularly justifies His elect people (Rom. 8:32-33). Christ is also the member of the Trinity at the present moment “who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (v. 34). Not only this, but we see Paul in the very next chapter affirming, in total anguish, that “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.” Was Paul, then, not actually capable of forfeiting his faith if only he chose to do so? He certainly doesn’t seem to think so. Or perhaps he didn’t truly love his fellow Jews as much as he claimed he did.

Wow! What implications!

The problem, as should be obvious, is that Paul knew he was chosen in some fashion by God’s decree and was willed beforehand to be an apostle (2 Corinth. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 2 Tim. 1:1). It was divine force, and not a free will decision of Paul’s, that brought Christ directly to Paul in the first place, and changed his heart from that of a murderer to a lover of God.

Some Additional Passages Showing Preservation by God

In order to emphasize the Reformed concept of God preserving people’s faith to the very end of their lives, I offer the following verses for reflection, many of which were never even brought up by Munoz:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (John 5:24-25)

So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to themI am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.'” (John 10:7-9)

“…so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:7-9)

The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Tim. 4:18)

“But when Christ[a] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb. 10:12-14)

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

Is God more powerful than even the believer’s own stumbling or doubt or resistance to obeying His commandments? I am fully confident and entirely persuaded that Scripture teaches nothing else.

Wonder-Working Power Vs. Human Power

Ultimately, regardless of what one believes about eternal security, no one would deny that such a thing would require a power that is even capable of producing people who persevere. But this is the very thrust of the issue. If we believe that there is a power in humans alone that makes them capable of persevering in anything—and that whether this occurs or not decides someone’s eternal fate—then we aren’t just denying one of the tenets of T.U.L.I.P. What we’re also doing is advocating a performance-based salvation (i.e. “If you don’t do this, you can’t have that.”). There’s simply no other way to understand this.

The Reformed perspective has a wholly different understanding. It is only God who has the power to produce a person who can persevere in faith and righteousness. Furthermore, the fact that salvation is an inter-Trinitarian action means that someone’s failure to be perfectly saved after coming to true faith means a failure on the part of some member of the Trinity. Scripture is explicit about the idea that the Father has given certain individuals to the Son from eternity past (John 6:37, 10:29; Acts 13:48). In response to this, the Son was obligated to fulfill the Father’s will by dying on their behalf and absolutely ensuring that they would receive everlasting life (John 3:16-18, 17:2). Once they respond in faith to the work that has already been accomplished, they are simultaneously “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph.1:13).

The implications of Christ’s failure to save these people completely, then, is far more serious of a problem than Munoz or others seem willing to admit.

Again, these are just some of the unambiguous and explicit statements to this effect throughout Scripture. There is nothing analogous to these statements for any idea that Christ’s sheep could at any time “jump out” of the sheep pen, or that someone who has been justified by Christ becomes unjustified before death.

The only way to demonstrate such a theology would be to alter the very text of Scripture. For instance, Romans 8:30, which reads “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified,” would have to become something this:

“And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; some of those he justified, he also glorified. But some became unjustified because of their own free volition. They chose to no longer be justified, so they could not ultimately be glorified.

I would submit that Paul never mentions such a counterfactual conditional reality, in any of his epistles, because it doesn’t exist.

So, Munoz is absolutely right when he says the doctrine of Eternal Security flies in the charming but quite-made-up face of autonomous free will on the part of humankind. But at the same time, he also seemingly misunderstands what the Calvinist is teaching. While Reformed Theology sees God changing human hearts to the point that not choosing to love Him and obey His commands becomes utterly illogical, Munoz envisions a violently coercive and warped God who forces us to stay saved even against our will as we’re desperately searching for an exit.

As an antidote to this image, Munoz instead talks about humans who are powerful enough to resist the power of God to preserve them in faith after they’ve already come to it. But then, of course, he already denies the validity of the four preceding points of Calvinism. And all this leaves us with is humans who, for whatever reason, have had the ability enough and righteousness enough to freely align themselves with God’s desires in the first place. It is each individual person, not Christ, who is now viewed as “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

The Question Revisited

Can Christ lose a Christian? No, He cannot. And the reason for this goes back to another point in T.U.L.I.P., which is the idea of Irresistible Grace and the actual starting point of salvation being enacted in the present in any person’s life. For if God is completely incapable of bringing someone to salvation just because of their hardness of heart, then He is also completely incapable of keeping them from reversing that decision later on. We’ll look into this aspect of Calvinism next time.

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