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The Perseverance of the Saints


The issue of whether or not a Christian can lose his salvation has been a matter of theological debate throughout the history of the church. During the time of Augustine’s controversy with Pelagius, the entire biblical concept of salvation was brought into the foreground. Pelagius held a man-centered concept of salvation in which grace was unnecessary and man’s heart was not affected by Adam’s fall into sin. Augustine set forth the biblical teaching that Adam’s sin was imputed to the race, that man did not have the moral ability to respond to Christ apart from the grace of God and, therefore, God was the initiator of salvation. Coupled with the idea that salvation was of the Lord was also the implication that God would carry out his plan and purpose in the life of each recipient of divine grace. Shortly after the time of Augustine, the Church moved away from his position and embraced a semi-pelagian concept in which man possessed an autonomous will that had the moral power to choose the gospel in and of itself. This laid the foundation for many of the Roman Catholic concepts of man contributing to his salvation through earning merit before God. Semi-Pelagianism focused on the power of man to choose the good; to make right moral decisions, and ultimately be able to choose Christ. This position denies the fact that Scripture teaches that man is dead in sin (Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13); that no one is righteous, understands, or seeks for God (Rom. 3:9-12); that man is hostile to the law of God and is incapable of submitting to it (Rom. 8:7); that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 63-65); and that regeneration must precede faith (Eph. 2:1-5; John 3:1-10; John 1:12,13; 1 John 5:1). Semi-Pelagianism, in giving great power to man, also gives man the power to receive and reject salvation repeatedly. A person’s salvation ultimately lies in the whims of that person’s will. This is the background to the debate of whether or not a Christian can lose his salvation. The Augustinian position and later the position of the Reformers in the sixteenth century was that if a person is truly regenerate, God will protect and sustain that person so that he will persevere unto the end and be saved.

CAUSES OF CONFUSION ON THE ISSUE

Before we go further, it is important to address some of the issues that cause confusion within this debate. One problem is that many people perceive and present the concept that a Christian cannot lose his salvation in an unscriptural manner. I have talked with many people who approach the Christian life in an antinomian (lawless) way and excuse their sin by saying, “It doesn’t matter what I do, because I can’t lose my salvation.” That is a distortion, not only of grace, but also of the concept of salvation itself. Many of the arguments I have heard against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints stem from understanding the doctrine in this way. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 6 to demonstrate that if a person is truly in Christ, he cannot sin in order that grace might abound. Union with Christ presupposes a new heart that desires to obey God.

Another reason for confusion comes from the tendency to accept almost without reservation any claim to faith. If a person makes a profession of faith, the disposition is to immediately consider them to be a true Christian. The result is that if they then depart from that profession, it is said that they have lost their salvation. However, Scripture warns us repeatedly that there are those who seem to have faith, who make a public profession of faith in Christ, but do not really have true saving faith. 1 John 2:19 states: “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, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.” John says that certain people left the assembly of believers and thus demonstrated that they never really belonged to the family of faith. However, while they were with them, they were indistinguishable from those who really believed. Their going out (leaving Christianity) was the evidence that they were never really true Christians. John also states that “. . . if they had been of us, they would have remained with us. . . .” If they had been truly regenerate, they would have remained faithful to Christ.

Jesus, in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23), stated that some seem to receive the word, but really have not and ultimately fall away. Out of the four soils mentioned in the parable only one is called “good soil” and only that good soil produces fruit, the evidence of true faith. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus said, “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And I will declare unto them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.'” Three times in this passage, these people said that “in Your name” we did certain things. Jesus said to them that he never knew them. It is possible for someone to make an outward profession of faith, to be involved in ministry activity, and even be orthodox in his theology, but not really savingly know Christ. The parable of the ten virgins in Matt. 25:1-13 also emphasizes this same point. The five foolish virgins profess to know the bridegroom, are waiting for his return, and are part of the company of those who really know him, but have no oil in their lamps. They are not truly saved. Scripture makes clear that it is possible for someone to know the gospel, give intellectual assent to it, make an outward profession of faith, but not really know Christ. Therefore, when someone seems to fall away from the faith, we must apply the above principles and not immediately jump to the conclusion that this is empirical evidence that a Christian can lose his salvation. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not mean that everyone who makes a profession of faith is eternally secure. The doctrine does affirm that those who are truly saved will persevere to the end and not lose their salvation.

THE UNIVERSAL DISCOURSE OF SCRIPTURE: PRESENT SALVATION IS CONNECTED TO FUTURE RESURRECTION AND GLORIFICATION

As with the consideration of any doctrine, it is crucial to examine the universal discourse of Scripture concerning the issue. Therefore, we will first of all look at those Scriptures which are used to support the doctrine and then consider the passages that are used to say that a true Christian can become unregenerate. Chapter XVII, Art. 1 of the Westminster Confession of states: “They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.” The Scripture proofs for the above statement are numerous. Philippians 1:6 explicitly confirms this concept, “For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” In John 6:37-40, Jesus states that all who the Father gives to him will come to him and the ones who come will not be cast out. Verses 39 and 40 say, “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that he has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I myself will raise him up on the last day.” Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe and he immediately connects the giving of eternal life to the resurrection; those who come to him will be raised up on the last day (see also: John 5:24; 6:44). Just as Philippians 1:6 says that God will perfect the work which he began to the day of Christ Jesus, so also Jesus ties coming to him and receiving eternal life with the idea of a future resurrection. Receiving eternal life is concomitant with being raised on the last day. The two ideas cannot be separated. Eternal life is not eternal if it can be lost in the morning and regained in the evening only to be lost again at some future date; it is not eternal if it lasts only five days or five years. When Jesus promises eternal life and connects the receiving of eternal life with a future resurrection, he is teaching that the true believer is eternally saved.

This same idea is reiterated in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Again, Jesus states that he gives his sheep eternal life and emphasizes this by the statement that no one is able to snatch them out of either his or his Father’s hand. Concerning this passage, some contend that although others cannot snatch a man out of God’s hand, the man himself is free to do so. However, the verse states that no one can do this. That is a universal negative which certainly includes the man himself. The passage does not qualify the “no one” by saying that the regenerate man himself may make himself unregenerate and translate himself from the kingdom of God back into the kingdom and family of the devil. Another attempt to discount this passage argues that Satan can snatch a man out of the hand of God. This passage blatantly contends that the Father is greater than all and no one can snatch them out of his hand. That certainly includes the devil and man. This passage also demonstrates that the perseverance of the saints is actually a preservation by their Savior; their coming (being drawn by the Father) and their perseverance are grounded on God and not man (see: John 6:53,63-65).

Another important Scripture in this regard is Rom. 8:30: “. . . and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified, and whom he justified, these He glorified.” This passage says that all of those whom God predestined, he called and justified and all whom he called and justified are glorified. Without examining all the issues involved in the doctrine of predestination, simply observe the connection that all of those who are predestined are called and all those who are called are justified and all those who are justified are glorified. Just as Jesus tied receiving eternal life to the future resurrection, this passage also ties being justified with being glorified. All who are justified are glorified. This passage grammatically is an unbreakable chain both in English and Greek. It also affirms that the security of a person’s salvation ultimately resides in the immutability of the decree of election: all who are predestined will ultimately be glorified.

1 Peter 1:3-5 sets forth this same idea: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Notice the language of this passage; the inheritance is sure and reserved for a people who are protected by the power of God. This passage also emphasizes again that those who are saved are living for another age: it is a salvation to be revealed in the last time.”

1 Corinthians 1:7-9 also brings out this same idea of God sustaining and protecting his people until the day of Jesus Christ: “. . .so that you are not lacking in any spiritual 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 fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Again, the Christian’s perseverance is based upon the sustaining power of God and the security of his present salvation is connected to the day of Jesus Christ (see also: Eph. 1:5,13,14; 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:23,24; 2 Tim. 4:18; Rom. 11:28,29).

The benediction in the last two verses of Jude sets forth this idea forcefully: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless 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)

In all of the above passages the concept of receiving eternal life or salvation is tied to the fact that believers will be resurrected and their bodies glorified at the coming of Christ. This future resurrection is inseparably linked with the receiving of eternal life in the present. However, if it is possible for someone to receive eternal life only to lose it at a future date, this connection with future resurrection and glorification would not be possible.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XVII, Art. 2, states: “This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.” Four items are mentioned as the foundation for perseverance. Let’s examine each of them.

THE IMMUTABILITY OF THE DECREE OF ELECTION

The perseverance of the saints is grounded upon the immutability of the decree of election. The Scriptures are filled with references to this. Ephesians 1:3-14 is one of the more explicit passages. It states that God chose a certain group of people before the foundation of the world and predestined them to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (verses 4,5). These predestined people obtain an inheritance in accordance with the purposes of God. Ephesians 1:11 states: “also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” We have already observed the connection between predestination and glorification in Romans 8:29,30. All those who are predestined are ultimately glorified. God’s eternal and immutable purpose in election to redeem a people unto himself will surely come to pass. Some have argued against this point and said that predestination is based on God foreknowing an individual’s faith or good works and then predestinating them according to foreknown faith or deeds. It is then argued that since it is a person’s free will that brings him into salvation, his free will can take him out of salvation. However, the term “foreknew” in Romans 8:29 does not refer to foreknown faith, repentance, or good works. Those items are not mentioned in this passage as being foreknown. In fact, the object of the verb, foreknown, is “whom.” The “foreknew” in this verse refers to a certain group of people that God was predestinating; it is a particular foreknowledge that is being spoken of in this Scripture. Everyone who is foreknown in the sense of the verse is predestined and everyone who is predestined is called and everyone who is called is justified and everyone who is justified is glorified. Therefore, this is not a general foreknowledge of actions, but of individuals. If every individual that God foreknew in a general sense were elected, then all would be saved because God foreknew everyone in a general sense. Romans 9:11,12 clearly states that election is not based on God foreknowing faith or any good work: “for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.'” This passage mentions Jacob and Esau who were conceived at the same time, in the womb at the same time, and born at almost the same time. It is emphasized that the pronouncement of blessing on Jacob is not because of anything he would do, but only because of God purpose in election. If ever the concept of foreknowledge would be introduced as a basis for election, this is the place where we would expect to find a qualifying statement that election is grounded on foreseen faith or good works. Romans 9:14 anticipates an objection: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” Paul answers this objection in verses 14-21 by saying that God is free to be merciful or bring judgment. It is important to recognize that the objection of verse 14 would never arise if the election mentioned in verses 11 and 12 were based on foreknowledge. Therefore, verse 14 supports the idea that it is God’s free and eternal counsel that is the basis of election that is being set forth in Romans 9:11,12. God has decreed before the foundation of the world those who are to inherit eternal life, and therefore, their subsequent perseverance is based upon the immutability of this decree. Those predestined by God will be glorified (see also: Rom. 9:6-26; 11:1-7; 1 Thess. 5:9; 2 Thess. 3:13,14; 2 Tim. 1:9; 2:18,19; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Pet. 3:3-10). It is fitting to conclude this section with one final Scripture, Romans 11:2829: “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

THE EFFICACY OF THE MERIT AND INTERCESSION OF CHRIST

Scripture also approaches this issue from the perspective of the atoning work of Christ. In Hebrews 10:10-18, the Scriptures teach that Jesus, through the offering of his body once for all, perfected for all time those who are sanctified (vs. 14); he obtained an eternal redemption in this work (see also: Heb. 9:12-15). Jesus offered himself as a propitiation in his sacrificial death (Heb. 2:17; Rom. 3:25,26) thereby removing once and for all the wrath of God from his people (Rom. 5:9-11). Consequently, it is impossible for the believer ever to experience condemnation from God (Rom. 8:1). This idea is stated in Romans 8:31-39. No one can lay a charge against or condemn God’s elect because of the work of Christ. Therefore, Christ removed forever the possibility of a Christian coming under the wrath of God and, consequently, insured that the Christian has an eternal salvation. It is also important to note that this passage couples Christ’s work on the cross with his continual intercession for his people. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus is “able to save forever those who draw near to God through him since He always lives to make intercession for them.” His ability to preserve their salvation ensues from his intercessory ministry (see: John 17:11,23,24; Luke 22:31,32). Therefore, these passages teach that the perseverance of the saints is assured through the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ.

THE ABIDING OF THE SPIRIT AND THE SEED OF GOD WITHIN THEM

The third item mentioned in the Westminster Confession as a foundation for the perseverance of the saints is “the abiding of the Spirit and the seed of God within them.” John 14:16,17 says that the Holy Spirit will abide within the Christian forever: “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you.” This passage is similar to 1 John 2:27 which also speaks of the continual abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer. The indwelling Spirit will guide the Christian into truth and will abide with him forever. Therefore, the Christian can never be separated from the presence of God. 1 John 3:9 speaks of the seed of God abiding within the one born of God and keeping him from sin. Without examining all the meaning of this verse, let it suffice to point out again the keeping and abiding presence of God in the Christian.

THE NATURE OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE

The nature of the covenant of grace is a basis for the perseverance of the saints. One of the most straightforward Scriptures concerning this is Jeremiah 32:40: “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me.” Based upon God’s everlasting covenant with his people he so effects their hearts so they will never turn away from him.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PERSEVERANCE IN SALVATION

One of the questions that arises concerns the issue of continued perseverance. Matt. 10:22 states that he who perseveres until the end will be saved. The question is, “Will every true Christian persevere to the end?” It is because of this question that I have used the theological name for this doctrine, “the perseverance of the saints” throughout this discussion. Perseverance is vital if a person is to be saved. However, as we have observed, Scripture teaches that every true Christian will ultimately persevere, not because of their strength of will or determination, but because of the power of God working in their lives (see: Phil. 1:6; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; John 10:27-29). One passage sets this idea forth clearly. Col. 1:21-23 states: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” The conditional clause in verse 23 is obviously the focus of our attention. This phrase emphasizes the need for perseverance in the faith. This clause, however, does not introduce the idea that one can lose his salvation. In fact, this clause is a first class conditional sentence in Greek. This grammatical structure introduces a conditional clause which the author assumes to be true. In other words, continuance in the faith is not called into question, but rather assumed to be true of every Christian. Again, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not say that everyone who makes a profession of faith is saved, but that every true Christian will, through the sustaining grace of God, persevere to the end.

The implications of not holding this position are serious in terms of the whole conception of salvation. If a person does not hold to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, he cannot know that he is going to heaven. He may know that at one moment in his life he is in a state of grace, but he cannot know if he will remain in that position. The possibility exists that in the future he may fall away from that state of grace and ultimately perish. It is only the person who holds to this biblical doctrine who can say, “I know I am going to heaven.” Therefore, assurance of salvation at any point in a believer’s life is based upon the concept that God will preserve his people and cause them to persevere. The universal discourse of Scripture teaches that if a person is truly regenerate, that person is kept by the power of God and that God so moves in that person’s heart so that he will never depart from the faith or renounce Christ, but will persevere unto the end.

PASSAGES THAT SEEM TO TEACH AGAINST THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS

It is now necessary to consider some of the passages that are used against this doctrine. Probably the most crucial passage in regards to this is Hebrews 6:1-8. This passage is often set forth as an “unshakable proof text” against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Having seen that the universal discourse of Scripture shows that the Christian will persevere to the end, all that is necessary in order to answer an objection based on this Scripture is to present a viable, exegetically sound interpretation that fits into the whole discourse of Scripture. Several approaches to this passage have been proposed. Some hold that this is speaking of an unbeliever falling away from the community of faith such as is mentioned in 1 John 2:19 (John Murray’s position). Others have looked at it in terms of an argument ad absurdum. I am the most comfortable with viewing it as an exhortation against spiritual immaturity.

The immediate context of the book of Hebrews is important for a proper interpretation of this passage. Hebrews was probably written before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70. Present tenses are used to describe the temple rituals (Heb. 7:8; 4:6-9,13; 13:10). Also, no mention of a catastrophe such as the destruction of Jerusalem is mentioned. If Jerusalem were already destroyed, it seems likely that the writer would have used this fact in his argument for the cessation of the old cultus. The epistle was written to Jewish Christians who were in danger of embracing Judaism once again. This can be supported by the fact that the writer constantly shows the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant. This aspect of the epistle is important in regards to the passage in question. Hebrews 6 is right in the middle of a series of comparisons between the old and new covenants. In Hebrews 1, Jesus is shown to be better than angels. He is also said to be better than Moses (Heb. 3:3). Hebrews 7 and 8 contend that Jesus is better than Abraham, Aaron, and the Levitical priesthood. Jesus has established a better covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6f) and as high priest, he offers a better sacrifice once for all time (Heb. 10:1f). Consequently, the writer of Hebrews is urging these Jewish Christians that the old covenant shadows have been fulfilled in the new covenant realities. Within this overall context of the epistle, the immediate context of Hebrews 6 is a diatribe against immaturity. Hebrews 5:11-14 rebukes these Jewish Christians because they should have been teachers at that time, but still needed to be taught themselves. Therefore, the Hebrews 6:1-8 passage is in the context of an exhortation against immaturity and the problem of these Jewish Christians failing to see the proper relationship between the old and new covenants.

Hebrews 6:1-3 sets forth some basic teachings about Christ and the relationship between the old and new covenants. The writer, after rebuking them for their immaturity, states that he needs to lay a basic foundation in their lives once again. Hebrews 6:4,5 contain a series of aorist participles describing a certain group of people. The force of the aorist tense coupled with the descriptive language of verses 4 and 5 provides every indication that those being spoken of are true Christians.

The heart of this section is verse 6 and the interpretation of this verse determines the interpretations of the entire passage. The meaning of three crucial phrases in the verse 6 is essential to the interpretation of this passage: 1) “and then have fallen away;” 2) “it is impossible to renew them to repentance;” 3) “While they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.”

The first point of interpretation is the meaning of the phrase: “and then have fallen away.” The important question is from what have they fallen away? The context of the passage provides the answer. The writer is confronting these Jewish Christians about their spiritual immaturity and states their need to have a proper understanding of the elementary teachings about Christ reestablished in their lives. Therefore, it is logical to assume that the phrase, “fallen away” refers to them having fallen away from the elementary teachings about Christ. This best fits the immediate context of the passage.

The second phrase is: “it is impossible to renew them to repentance.” Remember that this epistle is written to Jewish Christians. It is written in a very Jewish style and quotes the Old Testament more than any other book in the New Testament. Some commentators have argued that it is written in rabbinical sermon form as an extended sermon on Psalm 110. It would, therefore, not be surprising to see Jewish literary customs used by the writer. The Jews had a practice of naming only the first or second words of a list when referring to an entire list of items. An example of this is found in Luke 24:44 when Jesus referred to the Old Testament as “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” The common Jewish name for the Old Testament was “the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Jesus mentioned only the first book of the section of the Writings in his reference to the entire section. Sometime he would refer to the Law and the Prophets when he was alluding to the whole Old Testament. The naming of many of the Old Testament books themselves also demonstrates this practice. For example, what we call “Genesis” is named in Hebrew Berashith (In the beginning). The first word is used for the name of the entire book. The same thing occurs in the Hebrew name for Exodus: “Now these are the names” (the first two Hebrew words in the book). Again, the first words of the book are used to represent the entire book. Leviticus is named in Hebrew, “and he called;” the first word being employed to signify the entire book. This practice can be observed in other books as well. In Hebrews 6:6, this same practice of naming the first or second word of a list to name the entire list is being used in the phrase, “it is impossible to renew them to repentance.” In Hebrews 6:1, the first item in the list of elementary teachings about Christ is “repentance from dead works.” Since the writer is concerned that these Jewish Christians have fallen away from the elementary teachings, it follows logically, in light of Jewish literary customs, that the word, “repentance” in verse 6 is a shorthand reference to the entire list of the elementary teachings about Christ.

This brings us to the final phrase of the verse: “While they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” Before considering the meaning of this phrase, a point of translation must be considered. Many translations translate the Greek participle anastaurountas with a causal idea. For example the King James Version translates it as, “. . . seeing they crucify. . . .” This tradition of the KJV is reflected in the NASB and NIV. However, anastaurountas is a present, active, participle, accusative, plural, masculine and, unless one has some exotic reason for doing so, a present, active, participle should not be translated with a causal idea; a present, active, participle is more usually translated with a linear idea. It is interesting that even though the NASB and NIV both follow the KJV in their texts, they both footnote their translations with the linear translation of “. . . while they crucify. . . .” It is strange that a causal idea would be insisted upon because neither the Reformed nor the Arminian theologian would want to force this arbitrary translation. The Reformed theologian would not desire a causal idea because he would want to affirm the perseverance of the saints. The Arminian would not want a causal idea because then the passage would prove too much for his system; once a person had lost his salvation there could be no restoration. Consequently, the only reason that can be speculated as to why this participle is rendered in a causal sense is that traditions die hard. Dr. J. Oliver Buswell described such traditions as “intellectual scar-tissue.” Therefore, anastaurountas should be translated with the usual linear translation of a present, active, particle: “. . . while they crucify. . . .”

With this translation point noted, we can now proceed to examine the meaning of this last phrase and set forth the meaning of this verse and passage. As we considered earlier, the overall context of the book of Hebrews is the supremacy of Christ and the new covenant. These Jewish Christians were struggling with the concept that the rituals of the old covenant have been fulfilled in Christ. Consequently, they were in danger of continuing to embrace the sacrificial system. This is especially significant since they were living before the destruction of the temple and were constantly being exposed to the offering of sacrifices. This is why the writer of Hebrews emphasizes the once and for all aspect of Christ’s work. Therefore, from this context, it is logical to interpret the phrase, “crucifying to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” as these Jewish Christians’ embracing of the sacrificial system. When they were engaging in offering sacrifices, they were proclaiming that Christ was not the fulfillment of the old covenant and that his sacrifice was incomplete. Therefore, verse 6 teaches that as long as these Jewish Christians are not realizing the superiority of the new covenant and are embracing the sacrificial system, it is impossible to instruct them in the elementary teachings about Christ; they are failing to see that the old covenant shadows have their fulfillment in Christ. This does not mean that they have lost their salvation, but rather are persisting in immaturity. Whey they are continuing in this state, it is impossible to renew them to the basic teachings about Christ.

Verses 7 and 8 support this interpretation. If they persist in immaturity, they will not bring forth anything of value in their Christian lives. Verse 8 states: “but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” The ground is close to being cursed and ends up being burned because it does not produce good fruit. This is similar to 1 Corinthians 3:15: “If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer lose; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” His works are worthless and are burned up, but the man himself is saved, yet through fire. If these Jewish Christians continue in their fluctuation between the old and new covenants, they will never have a good comprehension of the work of Christ and their lives will not produce any works of lasting quality (1 Cor. 3:13). They will be saved, “yet so as through fire.” This entire passage then is a sobering warning to Christians against immaturity, but it does not teach that a Christian can lose his salvation.

Another set of Scriptures that are used to attack the concept of the perseverance of the saints are those which introduce clauses of probability. We have already considered one of these passages, Col. 1:21-23, and demonstrated that it is simply emphasizing the need to persevere and assumes that a true Christian will persevere. These “if” statements in Scripture all speak of the importance of persevering, but do not directly teach that the possibility of losing one’s salvation exists. Probably the most famous of these passages is 1 Cor. 9:27 where Paul says, “. . . but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” Here Paul is emphasizing the need for perseverance. He is saying that if he ceased to serve Jesus Christ, he would not be a Christian. This is similar to what Paul says in Galatians 1:8: “But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” Paul is here saying that if I preach any other gospel other than that which I have preached, let me be damned forever. The question is, could Paul have preached another gospel or abandoned his body to sin? A true Christian, because he has a regenerate heart, cannot ultimately forsake Christ. The point Paul is making is if a person ever did that, then he is no Christian at all. Does that mean that it is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation? No. This is a grand “if.” Paul is saying that if I become enslaved to sin, I am no apostle; if I become a heretic, then I am no apostle and no Christian. He is not saying that he ever would do it. This argument of Paul is similar to a statement of Jesus in John 8:55: “. . . and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word.” If Jesus, the eternal Son of God ever said that he did not know God, he would be a liar. Does that mean that it is possible for him to lie and say that he doesn’t know God? Obviously that is an impossibility. Jesus is simply saying that if he did deny that he knew the Father, he would be a liar. In the same way, Paul is saying that if he gave his body over to sin, he would not be a Christian. Therefore, these passages are not saying that a Christian can fall from grace and lose his salvation. They are merely speaking in a hypothetical manner to emphasize a point. Jesus is emphasizing that he knows the Father and Paul is emphasizing the importance of perseverance against sin and heresy. The teaching of Scripture is that it is important to persevere. Unless a person perseveres, he will not be saved. However, the Scriptures also clearly teach that if a person is truly regenerate, because of the grace of God working in his life, he will persevere unto the end. As Philippians 1:6 states: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The predominant teaching of Scripture is that the believer is eternally saved. The rejection of this position means that assurance of salvation is impossible. The most anyone could say is that at a present moment in their life they are in a state of grace, but they could not express assurance toward ultimate salvation; they could not say that they knew they were going to heaven because the possibility of falling from that state of grace sometime in their life exists. Those who hold that the true Christian can lose his salvation find themselves in disharmony with a preponderance of Scriptural evidence.


Next article in this series: The Final Act of Redemption: Glorification

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.