Doodle: Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints

Persevering with the world on our shouldersIn my first year at theological college, one of my lecturers warned students away from beginning essays with dictionary definitions; let’s hope he doesn’t read this post. If you survey a few dictionary entries on perseverance you will notice the word is unmistakeably active, not passive. Perseverance carries with it the idea of persistence in spite of opposition or discouragement; the steady continuation on a course of action in the face of difficulties and obstacles.

I find this quite interesting because the resounding note of perseverance in faith is that it is guaranteed by God’s electing, redeeming and calling (Horton, The Christian faith, p683). In other words, Christians are assured of their perseverance because of God’s grace, which has already been experienced by the believer at conversion, a result of regeneration. Justification by faith announces an irreversible verdict in the courts of heaven and union with Christ, the communion mediated by the Holy Spirit, doesn’t merely signify that the glorious future of the gospel has begun in the creature’s present, but it also guarantees that future. Why then do we speak about perseverance?

Preserving ChristiansWouldn’t we be better off talking about preservation of the saints? If you’ll forgive another definition, preservation seems more consistent with what historic or confessional Reformed theology affirms: to keep safe from destruction and decay; to protect from harm and maintain unchanged, without injury and away from peril. Well, that doesn’t really cover it either, especially if preservation conjures images of jam jars and your kitchen pantry. I don’t think the doctrine can be understood as God simply hiding us away until glory. That being said, God’s preservation of the elect is, in my opinion, more assuring than my perseverance as a saint.

In conclusion the notion of preservation fails to give proper ground to a believer’s persistence, with saints being spared this life’s suffering from sin and the ongoing struggle with it. On the other hand, perseverance might overstate the believer’s effort in faith. Preservation moves us towards a kind of “quiescent passivity” (to steal John Murray’s phrase), yet perseverance could be seen to exaggerate the creaturely endeavour in faith. Both extremes undermine grace. For Calvin’s duplex gratia (double grace) emphasises God’s initiative which is first experienced in justification and then expressed in sanctification, positional before progressive. But the duplex gratia doesn’t render believers passive. Therefore, perseverance is both the call to cling to Christ in faith and the wonderful assurance that he will not lose anyone the Father has given to him.

Rob Bell and the Doctrines of Grace

The New Calvinism is the new fad. It’s easy for me to see why because I would see myself as a part of it. Now I find myself reading Wesley’s hymns and saying, “That one’s great! His Arminianism barely shows…” and am willing to sing it wholeheartedly. I have friends, though, who are still on the dark side, as it were; waving the Arminian flag with vigour.

The Doctrines of Grace are not the battleground of recent days though. Rob Bell has brought live heresy into the fray of doctrinal controversy. Never one to avoid such conflict (quite the opposite, in fact), I picked up the first copy of “Love Wins” (Rob Bell’s book) I’ve seen in South Africa and perused it. To my astonishment (and yet, not really) it seems that the Doctrines of Grace are indeed all pervasive because this is what I read:

If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs?

And aren’t verbs actions?

Accepting, confessing, believing – those are things we do.

Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart – that it wasn’t, in the end, a religion at all – that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?

Ka-ching! Bell’s question, “Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?” rings eerily true when the Doctrines of Grace are abandoned. The onslaught of questions that follows illustrates the necessity that salvation is not something I can do. Indeed, with Bell (and with some surprise that I’m agreeing with him) I say, “God has already done it through Jesus”.

What is the solution then? Because Bell goes on to argue that everyone is saved in the end; love wins after all…

Again, I agree. This time only in part though. Paul explains, “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16) just as Bell has eloquently shown is necessary. But Paul continues anticipating Bell (Rom 9:21-23), “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honoured use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory

So love does win: God’s self-love (which is the height of righteousness in God) wins in the end. He, the potter makes vessels for destruction and for glory. It doesn’t depend on something we do but we will be accountable for everything we do and as Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).