One idea I saw a lot of growing up goes along with the “once saved, always saved” doctrine. I think the doctrine has good intentions towards assurance of salvation, but expects way too little from the faithfulness of God. The implications can lead to what seems like a double life. Assured that praying “the prayer” gives you your permanent ticket to heaven, the necessity of becoming an actual disciple who is being transformed into the image of Christ becomes a mere suggestion. Many opt to maybe get to that part later, and really don’t wrestle with sin. Perseverance isn’t like a race at all (Heb. 12:1-2), but a confidence in one’s own words, and maybe the way they felt when they prayed them.
But God is faithful to finish what he began (Phil. 1:6). If he has drawn a sinner to himself in repentance to salvation, this faith will produce fruit. This fruit includes a love for righteousness, and a hatred of sin. It looks a lot like a wrestling match in the believer’s life.
As I began mingling with other Christians in my early twenties, I saw a different idea regarding perseverance. Some of my new friends did not believe in assurance of salvation. This teaching also has a low view in the faithfulness of God. It’s focus is on the faithfulness of the believer. These friends of mine believed that their sin would forfeit their salvation. I noticed they had a very deceiving idea about their own righteousness. While they often talked about how wonderful the Lord is, they had some very strict, legalistic boundaries to “keep them in the faith.” I wondered, what kind of God was this? Does our God give his promises with conditions attached? I knew I wasn’t righteous enough to keep my salvation going on my own. If this view of perseverance were true, I would be living my life in the wrong kind of fear.
And yet I think both of these views have a piece of truth in them. God’s promises are real; he never goes back on them. We can be assured of this. And, once you have faith, you will not be the same. You will love righteousness and persevere.
But both of these views of perseverance are man-focused. The first one focuses on the words that I pray, and maybe in the sincerity or feeling I had when I prayed them. The second focuses on my faithfulness, my avoidance of sin, and my own works of righteousness.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains beautifully that “he who truly believes can never fall away” (3,24.7). Calvin goes to God’s Word, and explains how “Paul [cf. 1 Cor. 10:12] does not discourage Christians from simple confidence but rather from crass and sheer confidence in the flesh, which bears in its train haughtiness, arrogance, and contempt of others, snuffs out humility and reverence for God, and makes one forget grace received…He also requires fear, not that we may be dismayed and waver but that, as we have stated elsewhere, in preparing us humbly to receive God’s grace, our trust in him may be no wise diminished” (3,24.7).
Perseverance is humbling. We desire righteousness, but we fall on our faces. We look forward to the promise of eternally dwelling with God in holiness and yet we know how far we are from it. We receive God’s grace knowing that we are so utterly undeserving. But we don’t persevere by looking to ourselves. And this is where Calvin’s teaching on the matter is so comforting. “Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.” Sure, we will doubt that we have what it takes to persevere to the end. That’s because we don’t.
But Christ has already done the work for us, as the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2 ). All of our promises are in Christ, praise God! He had the fitness to persevere, and he is now preserving his own through his Holy Spirit to run to the end. We will fall as we battle the flesh. But we get back up again. Because of the grace we have been given in Christ, we look to him and love righteousness. We see his work on the cross and we hate sin. We can confidently run into our Father’s arms in repentance.
In Christ, we do have a ticket to ride. We have the ticket to run the race in the first place. When we look to our Savior, we see him sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. We can be assured that we will persevere because we see our preservation as a gift. And all that the Father has given him, he will not cast out (John 6:37).