Can people who are saved lose their salvation? If not, then how do we explain those people who have fallen away? In this message, Dr. Sproul thinks about these questions as he looks at “Perseverance of the Saints.”
We come now to our last session in this series on the nature of Reformed theology. We’ve been looking at the acrostic TULIP, and we’ve made adjustments to the terms that are incorporated in it.
A Bridge to the Final Letter
In our last session, we looked at the concept of irresistible grace and I mentioned that I preferred the term effectual grace. Before I leave that altogether, I want to add a concluding unscientific postscript to it by reading a brief entry from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is a historic doctrinal standard of Reformed theology dating back to seventeenth-century England. In it, we have this reference to the doctrine of effectual calling. It reads as follows:
All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace. (WCF 10.1)
I make this reference to the efficacy of the grace of regeneration not to continue holdover from our last session, but as a bridge, a transition to the final point of the acrostic TULIP.
The Saints Preserved
This brings us to the P in TULIP. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that I’m not going to change this letter. The letter stands for the “perseverance of the saints.” However, even though I’m not changing the letter, I’m going to change the word. I think the catchphrase, perseverance of the saints, is dangerously misleading because it suggests that the persevering is something that we do, perhaps in and of ourselves.
I believe, of course, that saints do persevere in faith, and that those who have been effectually called by God and reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit endure to the end. They do persevere, but not simply because they are so diligent in making use of the mercies of God. The only reason we can give for why we continue in the faith until the last day is not because we have persevered so much, but because we have been preserved.
So, I prefer the term preservation of the saints because this process by which we are kept in a state of grace is something accomplished by God.
We read the statement from the Westminster Confession about God effectively calling us to faith, that regeneration which we call the “divine initiative.” This refers to the first step in our transformation. Just as we enter into this world through the process of biological birth, rebirth does not refer to the whole of the new Christian life. Rather, rebirth refers to the beginning, the very first step, which is accomplished by God’s initiative when He quickens our souls from spiritual death to spiritual life. This divine initiative is the beginning point—a beginning that is performed by God.
Now, what does Paul write to the Philippians? He says that He who has begun a good work in you will perfect it to the end (Phil. 1:6). Therein is the promise of God that what He starts in our souls, He intends to finish.
“I Never Knew You”
The old axiom in Reformed theology about the perseverance of the saints is this: if you have it, that is, if you have genuine faith and are in a state of saving grace, you will never lose it. And if you lose it, you never had it.
We know that there are many people who make a profession of faith but then turn away and repudiate that profession of faith. In the New Testament, there were those who left the company of the disciples. John says of them, “Those who went out from us were never really with us” (1 John 2:19). Now, they were with them in terms of outward appearances before they departed. They had made an outward profession of faith, and Jesus makes it clear that’s possible to do, even when you don’t possess what you’re professing.
Jesus says, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Mark 7:6). He even warns at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that, at the last day of judgment, many will come to Him saying, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this in your name? Didn’t we do that in your name?” And He will send them away saying, “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you” (Matt. 7:21–23). He doesn’t say, “I knew you for a season and then you went sour and betrayed me.” No, He says, “You never were part of my invisible body, the invisible church.” Christ makes the same kind of comments with respect to Judas, whom He calls a “son of perdition” (John 17:12) and whom He knew would betray Him from the beginning (John 6:64).
Not upon Our Strength
In His high priestly prayer, Jesus prays that those whom the Father had given Him would never be lost and that no one would ever snatch them out of His hand. He thanks the Father that all whom the Father gave to Him came to Him, and that not one of them had been lost (John 17:11–12).
We could enumerate for the next several minutes a host of similar passages in the New Testament where the Apostles give the assurance that the people who are dwelling in Christ have a future. We have a future inheritance that has been established from the foundation of the world. Someday we will hear the Father say, “Come, my beloved, inherit the kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But the point I want to stress is that this enduring in the faith is not something that rests upon our strength.
Radical and Serious Falls
Even after we’re regenerated, we still lapse into sin—and not only sin, but serious sin. It is possible for a Christian to be engaged in a very serious fall. We talk about backsliding, moral lapses, and so on. I can’t think of any sin, other than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that a truly converted Christian is incapable of committing.
We look, for example, at the model of David in the Old Testament. David was surely a man after God’s own heart. He was certainly a regenerate man. He had the Spirit of God in Him. He had a profound, passionate love for the things of God. Yet, this man not only committed adultery but also was involved in a conspiracy to have his lover’s husband killed in war, which was really conspiracy to murder. That’s serious, serious business. And we see the serious level of repentance to which David was brought as a result of the words the prophet Nathan spoke to him.
The point is that David fell, and he fell seriously. The Apostle warns us against having a puffed-up view of our own spiritual strength by which he says, “Let him who thinketh he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
We fall, not that we fall out of grace entirely, but we do fall away from grace into very serious activities, none of which are more serious than that of the Apostle Peter. Publicly, with cursing, even after being forewarned, Peter rejected Jesus Christ, swearing that he never knew Him. It was a public betrayal of Christ. He committed treason against His Lord.
Before that occasion, when he was being warned of this eventuality, Peter said that this would never happen—he would never behave in such a manner. Do you remember the warning of Jesus? “Simon, Simon, Satan would have you and sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, so when you return, strengthen the brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). And he fell, but he returned. He was restored. His fall was for a season. That’s why we say that true Christians can have radical and serious falls, but never total and final falls from grace.
Discipline and Repentance
In the church, when people profess faith and become involved in serious and egregious sin, it can be so serious that they are involved in church discipline. That process goes through several stages, the final stage of which is excommunication.
It is possible for a person who is truly regenerate, a true Christian, to be so caught up in sin that they are called to the church, involved in discipline, and suspended from the sacraments, but still don’t repent. Then comes excommunication, where they are shut off from the fellowship of the body of Christ, to be treated as an unbeliever, and to be declared as an unbeliever by the church. Even that act of excommunication is done with the hope that the person is a true believer who is engaged in a very persistent state of sin, and that this final discipline of being cut off from fellowship in the body of Christ will be what the Spirit of God uses to bring them to repentance.
We see an example of this in the New Testament in the Corinthian situation with the incestuous man (1 Cor. 5:1). The church was doing nothing about disciplining this man who was living a scandalous life until the Apostle had to rebuke them, admonish them, and command them to excommunicate him. What happened when he was excommunicated? He repented. Then, when he applied for readmission to the church, the church wouldn’t let him back in (2 Cor. 2:3–11). So Paul had to go back again and say: “Look, the whole purpose of that excommunication was to provoke him to repentance. Now that he’s repented, let him back in, even as Christ welcomed Peter back into the fold after his treacherous act of treason.”
Discerning and Wise
The sin of the Christian can be radical and serious, but never total and final. So how do we judge people who have made a profession of faith, in our presence perhaps, and who then later repudiate it?
The first thing we do is make a judgment of charity because we don’t know the real state of their souls. That’s one disadvantage we have. I can’t read anybody’s heart. You can’t read my heart, and I can’t read your heart. We’re called to be discerning and wise. We’re called to look at each other’s actions and evaluate and discern accordingly. But even by the best of your actions, I don’t know what your soul is, and you can’t know what is in my soul.
So, we are called to be exceptionally forbearing with one another and to have that charity which covers a multitude of sins among ourselves in the fellowship of the church. But God does read the heart, and when God says that a certain person never was in a true state of faith, we can rest assured that that person never was in a true state of faith.
What if we happen to encounter somebody who is in the midst of a serious, protracted fall where they have repudiated the faith publicly? Can we then know that they’re not Christians? No, because we don’t know tomorrow. We don’t know if they’re still like David was before Nathan came to him.
If anybody would have been by that bonfire when Peter said, “I never knew the man,” they certainly wouldn’t have made the judgment that Peter was a Christian because they were catching him while he was in the midst of this serious, protracted fall. But we can still hope with people who have left us that it’s temporary and that they’ll be back. We have to acknowledge that one of two things can be the case. Either their initial profession was not authentic and not genuine—it was an empty profession of faith—and they never were believers, or their faith profession was genuine and they’ll be back. But we leave that to God at this point.
The Preserving Spirit
The New Testament teaches us that it is the Holy Spirit who alone raises us from the dead, and He raises us unto eternal life. The purpose of God’s election is to bring His people safely to heaven. What He starts, He promises to finish. Not only does He initiate the Christian life, but the Holy Spirit is the sanctifier, the one who convicts, and the helper who is there to help in our preservation.
There are two important terms with respect to the work of the Spirit in the Christian’s life that are related to this idea of preservation. The first is that we’re sealed by the Holy Spirit and the second is that we are given the earnest of the Spirit. Let’s take the second one first.
The term earnest of the Spirit is drawn from the commercial language of biblical days. The only thing I can think of that’s a parallel in our own day would be what we call “earnest” money when somebody is going to purchase a home. When you make the initial contract, you give a little bit of money as a down payment, which is a promise that you intend to get your loan, close the deal, and pay the rest of the balance due. To show that you’re in earnest, you give this down payment.
Now, I know there are people who have paid earnest money who fail to follow through. Maybe they weren’t earnest in the first place, or maybe circumstances came along that made it impossible for them to go the rest of the way. But beloved, when God the Holy Spirit is given to you by the Father as an earnest, when the Spirit Himself who is indwelling you is the Father’s earnest for your future, do you really doubt that the Father is going to fail to bring the final payment? We possess not a handful of dollars but the indwelling Holy Spirit of God Himself as God’s promise to finish the job.
Not only does He give us the earnest of the Spirit, but He seals us in the Holy Ghost. When God writes our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life, He doesn’t do it with an eraser handy. He does it for eternity, and He seals us in the beloved for all time.
Our Great High Priest
One of the reasons we have confidence in our future is not only because of the ministry of the Holy Ghost that I’ve mentioned in passing, but most importantly because of the ongoing work of Jesus.
Sometimes we have the tendency to think that when Jesus came and lived His life of perfect obedience, fulfilled all of the demands of the law that we have failed to fulfill, and then by His passive obedience paid the price for our sins with His perfect atonement, He did everything that we ever need Him to do for us. But we forget that when He ascended into heaven, was seated at the right hand of God, and enthroned as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, He was not just going for His royal realm, but He also entered into heaven as our great High Priest.
The chief function of our High Priest is to intercede for us daily before the Father (Heb. 7:25). Jesus prays for me and for my ultimate salvation. Not only did He pray for His disciples in John 17 that they would never be snatched out of God’s hand, but He prays for us that we would be preserved.
Look at Judas and Peter—both betrayed Christ. One was a believer and the other one wasn’t. Both of their actions were repugnant in the extreme. They were both a total betrayal of Christ. Both were predicted by Christ. And when He told Judas what he would do, he ended those comments by saying to Judas, “What you have to do, do quickly” (John 13:27), and He dismissed him. But when He made the same type of prediction about the behavior of Peter, as we’ve already mentioned, “Satan would have you and sift you like wheat,” and so on, do you remember what He said? “But Simon, I have prayed for you so that when you return (not if you return), strengthen the brothers.”
My confidence in my preservation is not in my ability to persevere. My confidence rests in the power of Christ to sustain me with His grace. It is confidence that, by the power of His intercession for us, He is going to bring us safely through.