Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eternal Security vs. Perseverance of the Saints

There was an interesting and very instructive exchange on Greg Koukl's "Stand To Reason" radio program (Sunday, October 18) regarding the doctrines of "Perseverance of the Saints" and "Eternal Security." I think Koukl really reveals some important things about Reform or Calvinist doctrine here, and I also think he demonstrates that he's unwilling to deal honestly with the opposition to "Perseverance of the Saints."

I should point out that having been a regular listener to his show for a couple of years now, I can say that Koukl does a fantastic job of pointing out "The World's" use of 'straw man' arguments presented against Christianity or other controversies related to Christian apologetics in general. But what you'll see from the excerpts is that Koukl himself employs two 'straw man' arguments as he defends the Reform doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints."

Koukl took a phone call from a listener who wanted to know what the difference is between eternal security and "Perseverance of the Saints" and he (Koukl) says this:

"The idea that you cannot lose your salvation can be expressed in two different ways, and they are a little bit different. One is eternal security, and that means "Once saved, always saved" and the other one is called "Perseverance of the Saints" which I think is a more precise and carefully characterized view…

[some cross-talk with caller here]

Here's the way I'd put it: When people say "Once saved, always saved" what often they mean is, "If you pray the sinner's prayer, you're 'in' no matter how you live or what happens after that. But when Reform folks talk about "Perseverance of the Saints" they're not talking about a sort of shallow understanding of praying the sinner's prayer and you get your fire insurance. They're saying, "Lookit, if you're genuinely regenerate, it is only because God reached out and rescued you by His sovereign grace, and His sovereign grace that rescued you will preserve you and preservation means that you persevere." So those who are genuinely called of God and the elect are those who persevere through all things, not just those who say a prayer and get their fire insurance and then are off doing other things."

Okay, so Koukl asserts that, at least in many cases, "Once saved, always saved" means that you believe praying the sinner's prayer saves you and that then you can go and do whatever you want. I'll acknowledge that some Christians believe this. But that's not my view nor is it the view of any of probably 20 pastors that I've listened to who teach Eternal Security.

That being the case, Koukl has erected a straw man here. Or, at the very least, he has only chosen to refute a subset of people who clearly do not have a Biblical understanding of Eternal Security or even salvation, for that matter. He's completely ignored the other group whose view is solidly Biblical and would be much more difficult for him to refute.

But that's just one straw man. Koukl puts up another one even in the same breath. That is, he's assuming that folks (like me) who reject the Perseverance of the Saints doctrine but believe in Eternal Security also believe that it's okay to continue living like a reprobate after you're saved. This is not an accurate characterization of my view, either. I don't think it's "okay". I don't understand the Bible to teach that there's no good reason for me to grow spiritually and avoid getting ensnared by "the World" after I'm saved. I believe I should "work" as a Christian, which entails learning Bible Doctrine and various kinds of service and living as uprightly as I can. It's just that I know this doesn't impact my eternal salvation, that's all. Why should it impact my salvation, if in fact salvation is by grace and not works?

Regarding the "Perseverance" thing, this is really very odd. I mean… I feel awkward saying this 'cuz, look, an Associate of Applied Arts degree is the extent of my formal education and yet even I can understand that perseverance is not in any way related to preservation. Just because the two words use a similar combination of letters doesn't mean that they go together or are synonymous. Why Koukl, who, let's face it, is far more educated than I will ever be, doesn't understand this is beyond me.

Preserve and persevere are two entirely different concepts, and this relates directly to the grace vs. works issue. Perseverance is thought of as something that people do. The saints, to be more specific. Those who have been saved.

The doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints" comes out of Matthew 24:13 in which Jesus says:

But the one who endures [perseveres] to the end, he will be saved.

It's rather easy to see, however, that Matthew 24:13 has nothing to do with eternal salvation. It's important to remember that "saved" doesn't always refer to eternal salvation. There are many examples in the Bible where the word "saved" is used to describe being delivered from a particular kind of danger or circumstance… it isn't always used to refer to salvation from Hell. But those who subscribe to "Perseverance of the Saints" believe that this passage pertains to eternal salvation. They ignore the context of Matthew 24.

In Matthew 24, Jesus is describing events of The Great Tribulation. In verse 13, He's saying that anyone who lives through the Tribulation will be delivered from it, into the Millenial Kingdom which follows. It has nothing to do with salvation from Hell.

At any rate, preservation is something that God does for us, It's not something that we do for ourselves. God preserves. You might say God "perseveres" in preserving us. But if we are the ones who must "persevere" until the end, then guess what? Our salvation becomes dependent on our own performance, on our perseverance, and not on Christ's work. This is salvation by works.

Koukl also says that the elect "persevere through all things." Oh really? Who does this, literally? Koukl admits that he sins. I admit that I sin. How can we say we "persevere" when we admit that we sin frequently, if not almost constantly?

What I think is interesting about this doctrine is this: The Reform guys believe that sin in your life might mean that you're not really saved. And yet, they will admit that they sin. From this we can infer that there is a threshold of some sort. If you sin past a certain point, then you should question your salvation. But since no threshold is defined in the Bible, determining when a person has sinned enough that their salvation is in question becomes very subjective. Well… seems to me, and I'm sorry to have to say this, but it seems to me like these men are taking advantage of this subjectivity and placing this threshold conveniently outside their own personal envelope of sin. That way they're safe.

See, it all comes back to human viewpoint versus divine viewpoint, doesn't it? With respect to salvation, God doesn't see degrees of sin at all… a tiny sin (from our perspective) is just as significant in God's eyes as the most egregious sin. This is why no threshold is defined… to the extent that there is a threshold, we're already way past it. The Reform guys seem to want to define a threshold based on what sins they think they can resist and then say that everyone who surpasses that threshold (sins more than they do) is not saved. I think this is extraordinarily bad.

I don't think there is any issue more important than getting soteriology exactly right. If a person trusts in Christ (and that entails the belief that Christ is who He said He was, etc) then that person is given, at that point in time, eternal life and eternal life, by definition, lasts forever. It can never be lost. The "sinner's prayer" has nothing do with anything, except that most versions of the sinner's prayer I've ever been exposed to, in fact, do seem to contain the nuggets of truth one must accept. But no matter… praying the "sinner's prayer" doesn't save anyone. Trust in Christ results in eternal salvation whether it's accompanied by the "Sinner's Prayer" or not. And it's true… for the sake of eternal salvation, it doesn't matter what you do downstream of that. If it did, then salvation wouldn't be by grace. God preserves me. I do nothing.


  1. Many Christians have said the following to themselves during a very difficult period in their life: “Am I really saved?” Here are the thought processes on this issue for an Evangelical and a Lutheran:

    The Evangelical's Assurance of Salvation:

    1. At age ___ I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. At that moment I asked Jesus to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior and to forgive me of my sins.

    2. But since I am currently questioning my salvation, maybe I didn't "do it" correctly. Maybe I didn't fully understand what I was doing. Maybe I didn't fully repent. Maybe I didn't really have complete faith. Maybe I did it just because my friends were doing it. Maybe...

    3. I don't know...maybe I should "do it" again, just to be 100% sure.

    The Lutheran's Assurance of Salvation:

    1. Have I been baptized into the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, thereby receiving God's promise of the forgiveness of my sins, salvation of my soul, faith, and eternal life?
    Answer: Yes.

    2. Have I outright rejected Christ as my Lord and Savior?
    Answer: No.

    3. Am I living a life of ongoing sin in willful disobedience and defiance of my Lord?
    Answer: No.

    Therefore, I know I am saved!

    When your assurance of salvation is based on what GOD did and not what you did, it makes all the difference in the world!

  2. Conflating Eternal Security with Perseverance of the Saints is error in that the former speaks to assurance where the latter does not.

    The latter in fact has more to do with the doctrine of False Conversion.