The late Eugene Peterson described Christian perseverance as “long obedience in the same direction.” He observed that we live in an instant society, in which results are expected with immediate effect, but that the Christian walk doesn’t work quite that way. To be sure, Christians undergo a radical change at the moment of justification, but the fruit of that change is seen in slow, consistent obedience over the long haul. This obedience is evidenced even in the face of great pressure, and its source is divine. This truth is clearly taught in the Bible and is the focus of Confession 5.6.
Those whom God has regenerated, enabled to believe, justified, adopted and sanctified will certainly persevere in the state of grace to the end and be eternally saved (Romans 8:28–39; Philippians 1:6). Believers may be severely tested by the world, the flesh and the devil, and may even, for a time, fall into grievous sins whereby they incur God’s fatherly displeasure and grieve the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:3–12; Matthew 26:70, 72, 74). Yet they will certainly be kept by the power of God, who continues to nourish in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope and all the graces of the Spirit (John 10:28–29; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24; 1 Peter 1:5). This wonderful assurance is no encouragement to sin, for the Lord clearly warns that those who persist steadfastly in apostasy prove themselves never to have been true believers (Colossians 1:22–23; Hebrews 10:26–27). (Sola 5 Confession 5.6)
The Confession states: “Those whom God has regenerated, enabled to believe, justified, adopted and sanctified will certainly persevere in the state of grace to the end and be eternally saved.” Note that it begins with God’s generating, enabling power in justification. This serves to instruct us that perseverance is a divine act. Ultimately, Christians persevere because they are divinely preserved. The God who justifies is the God who intends to glorify all those whom he has justified (Philippians 1:6), and therefore our perseverance is guaranteed.
Romans 8:28–39 is offered as a rather lengthy support text for this affirmation. It is significant that v. 28 is included in this extended proof section. We often like to quote Romans 8:28 when bad things happen and suggest that God will bring “something” good out of it, but the “good” that Paul has in mind, contextually, is not some random, temporal good outcome of a bad situation, but our ultimately glorification. In other words, our every circumstance—good and bad—in some way contributes to our sanctification and makes us more like Christ. A bad circumstance resulting in the salvation of a loved one is not what this verse envisions; it promises us that the bad things that happen to us make us more like Christ.
This understanding of Romans 8:28 helps us to see that we should not abandon ship in the face of hardships, because those very hardships are the instrument that God uses to make us more like Christ. We can persevere in difficulty because our difficulties further our sanctification.
There are always those who think that historical theological terminology can be improved. Some have suggested that “preservation of the saints” is a better description of what the Bible teaches than “perseverance of the saints.” Philippians 1:6 certainly highlights the truth that God ultimately secures our final Christlikeness. We persevere, then, because he preserves us. Ultimately, both terminologies are accurate, depending on the emphasis that one wishes to highlight in discussing the theological truth.
The language of perseverance implies struggle—and even a degree of temporary failure—as the Confession goes on to highlight: “Believers may be severely tested by the world, the flesh and the devil, and may even, for a time, fall into grievous sins whereby they incur God’s fatherly displeasure and grieve the Holy Spirit.”
Psalm 51:3–12 is supplied as support for this affirmation. David wrote this psalm, according to its inscription, “when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.” In addition to the sexual sin that he committed, David also fell into sloth, because the sin occurred during “the time when kings go out to battle,” but David was still home. He was certainly guilty of lust, adultery, deceit, and murder. These are sins that we might not ordinarily associate with Christians, but we do well to remember that David was a man after God’s own heart. This reminds us that the only sin a Christian cannot commit is outright rejection of core gospel truth. Such rejection of truth is sure evidence that a person was never saved, but Christians can and have committed all manner of other sins.
Psalm 51:3–12 speaks to a truly Christian view of sin. According to this text, Christians are aware of and feel the weight of sin (v. 3). Christians are not shy to admit that their sin is “evil” in God’s sight (v. 4–5). Christians know what God expect and therefore where they have failed (v. 6). Christians desire purity and fellowship with God (vv. 7–11). Christians want to live in joyful and willing obedience to their Father (v. 12).
Matthew 26:70, 72, 74 shows us that Christians can even—in the heat of the moment—deny affiliation with Christ. Like Peter, however, our failures will produce in us deep contrition. Those who reject Christ’s authority without batting an eyelid are those about whom we should be concerned. The presence of conviction and concern is often a healthy sign of true life.
The struggle is real, but the outcome is secure: “Yet they will certainly be kept by the power of God, who continues to nourish in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope and all the graces of the Spirit.”
According to John 10:28–29, God’s people will not “perish” because they are held secure in God’s hand. It is God who ultimately preserves those whom he saves. We are accustomed to thinking that sanctification in terms of the effort that we must exert in cooperation with God’s grace. Scriptures like 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24 suggests something different. Paul showed here that even our sanctification is ultimately a work of God when he prayed for God to sanctify his people in Thessalonica completely. This does not deny the need for God’s people to cooperate with his grace. The same Bible that tells us that God will sanctify his people completely tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
Ultimately, all whom God’s power guards will end up being completely sanctified at the day of judgement. God will not fail to glorify those whom he justifies (1 Peter 1:5). Lest the glorious truth of God’s preserving power tempt us into complacency, the Confession reminds us: “This wonderful assurance is no encouragement to sin, for the Lord clearly warns that those who persist steadfastly in apostasy prove themselves never to have been true believers.”
Colossians 1:22–23 tells us that we must be “stable and steadfast” and “not shifting.” This is not an expectation of sinlessness. The shifting spoken of here is clearly identified as “shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” There is a difference between falling into sin while holding firmly to your hope in Christ and giving yourself over to sin because you have abandoned all faith in the gospel and therefore all hope in Christ. Those who hold to the gospel despite their sin have hope that forgiveness and reconciliation is possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 10:26–27 warns those who “go on sinning deliberately” after their professed conversion that “a fearful expectation of judgement and a fury of fire” awaits them, which “will consume the adversaries.” To “go on sinning deliberately” describes a pattern of unrepentant, persistent sin, not the occasional (or even frequent) falling into sin, experiencing contrition, and looking to Christ for forgiveness, that believers experience. Such unrepentant, persistent sin is evidence that the person was never a believer to begin with.