This week I’m pointing you to three helpful blogs I’ve found this past week. Today, the post is a post from William Edgar on the Westminster Theological Seminary blog. It is below for you to linger on:
Reformed theology has always underscored the certainty of the perseverance of the saints, but not as a cheap eternal security. Believers will persevere, because nothing can separate them from God’s love. At the same time, though, they must persevere. Many warnings are given to us about the dangers of being disqualified or falling away. So perseverance is never independent of human effort. But that effort is energized by God. We are kept through faith by the Lord, who cannot fail (1 Peter 1:4–5). We want to avoid two dangers. The first is double jeopardy, that is, that once having saved us, God would condemn us again. The Bible speaks in the strongest terms against this view, arguing that if we could be lost again, then the work of Christ would have been ineffective. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ…nothing (Rom. 8:39). The second danger is antinomian security. It is deluded to think that our journey to the new heaven and new earth is without regard to our faithfulness and obedience. We will persevere, as we must persevere.
We persevere only because Jesus Christ…intercedes for us with the Father, who in turn gives us the Spirit.
How do we keep the balance? Many non-Reformed types of theology claim that salvation once gained may be lost. They will point to passages such as Galatians 5:4 or Hebrews 4:1 and 12:15, which imply that one may fall from grace or fail to keep it to the end. Those views begin properly with a concern to avoid antinomianism, but they end up sacrificing the full effectiveness of God’s grace for us. The passages are not saying that once saved you can become unsaved. Galatians 5:4 is a warning that relying on the law for justification disqualifies you from grace, because you are not relying on grace. You have “fallen away” from the whole principle of grace if you are trying to come to Christ by works. In verse 10, Paul expresses confidence that true believers will understand this and will confute those who teach otherwise. Similarly, Hebrews 4:1 and 12:15 are reminders to be careful not to miss the principle of standing in the gospel of grace, nor to listen to “bitter roots” who try to teach another principle. But, still, what do we make of those people who begin well but for various reasons never finish in the faith? The sobering truth is that the grace given to some is not effectual to begin with. There may be certain temporary signs of the work of the Spirit in a person’s life, ones that may be remarkable. Still, that is far different from true regeneration.
The parable of the sower is insightful (Matt. 13:1–9). The same seed may fall on good ground or on rocky ground. It may be snatched up by the crows. Similarly, people may respond to the gospel with preliminary signs of the new birth. But they may not persevere because the ground is not regenerate. Jonathan Edwards wrote powerfully of the different types of true and false religious experiences one may have but still not truly be awakened by God’s saving work. The list of signs of apparent Christian experience is extensive and includes many patterns good in themselves, like prayer, a forgiving spirit, church attendance, and theological correctness. But only true Christians will continue in the faith.
The possibility of such false manifestations is a warning, but it is not meant to scare us away from assurance. If anyone is in Christ, nothing can tear that person away. Very simply, all who come to Christ by faith will be kept by him. He will lose nothing that the Father has given him, but he will raise it on the last day (John 6:39). Otherwise, as we said, his work would be insufficient, ineffectual, incomplete. No, even though the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, God’s steadfast love shall never depart from us. He has promised it and sealed it by covenant (Isa. 54:10).
If we are in Christ, no matter how dark the journey, no matter how deep the fall, we will be restored.
How will we persevere? What is the guarantee? We persevere only because Jesus Christ, sitting at God’s right hand, intercedes for us with the Father, who in turn gives us the Spirit for our perseverance. The Book of Hebrews has a particularly rich teaching on the heavenly high priesthood of Christ, as it is called. From his place, because he himself was tempted, he can help us in our temptations (Heb. 2:18). We must persevere (Heb. 3:14; 4:11), but we will persevere because of our high priest (Heb. 4:14). His prayer for us, his children, takes the form of advocacy. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). He is the lawyer for the defense, as it were. His plea is not, “There he goes again; please forgive him yet one more time.” Rather, his plea is, “He is forgiven because of my finished work of propitiation; sanctify him now in your truth, until the day of glory.” Jesus’s high priestly prayer, recorded in John 17, is the proof for the unshakable argument of his advocacy: “I have glorified you on earth, now glorify me in my people, and keep them in your name.” If Jesus had not glorified his Father on earth, then there would be cause to worry. But he did, so there is not.
If we find ourselves overcome by sinful patterns, the temptation is to short-circuit the process and wonder, are we elect, am I God’s child? But while caught in sin’s web we should not be distracting ourselves with speculation about our election; rather, we should be turning to God for forgiveness and restoration. If we are in Christ, no matter how dark the journey, no matter how deep the fall, we will be restored, because no true child of God can ever be orphaned. God will drive us back into the light.
This piece is adapted from William Edgar, Truth in All Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 207–9.