The Reformation gospel of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), as defined and confessed by the Reformed churches and as rejected by the Remonstrants (Arminians) was intended to produce and had the effect of giving comfort to weary and needy sinners. The Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius) before, during, and after the Synod of Dort rejected the Reformation doctrine and subtly undermined it because, like the Romanists and the Anabaptists before them, they were convinced that it leads to a licentious and dissolute lifestyle. In effect, from the Reformed point of view, the Remonstrants agreed with Paul’s critics, to whom Paul makes reference in Romans 6:1. They concluded that the gospel of free salvation does not lead to putting to death the old man (mortification) and the making alive of the new (vivification). Fortunately, however, the Reformed churches were not persuaded by the Remonstrants and rejected their proposed revisions of the faith just as the churches had rejected the Anabaptists, the Romanists, the Socinians and the the Antinomians, who agreed with the critics that grace and sanctification are mutually exclusive.
This teaching about the perseverance of true believers and saints, and about their assurance of it—a teaching which God has very richly revealed in his Word for the glory of his name and for the comfort of the godly and which he impresses on the hearts of believers—is something which the flesh does not understand, Satan hates, the world ridicules, the ignorant and the hypocrites abuse, and the spirits of error attack. The bride of Christ, on the other hand, has always loved this teaching very tenderly and defended it steadfastly as a priceless treasure; and God, against whom no plan can avail and no strength can prevail, will ensure that she will continue to do this. To this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen (Canons of Dort, 5.15).1
Gracious Perseverance Is A Biblical Doctrine
When the English Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–83) responded to the Arminians, he appealed to the distinction between law and gospel, because, as he noted, the Remonstrants want to put the Christian back under the covenant of works for his salvation. Rather, he noted, Christians are under a covenant of grace. Owen noted that the promises of the gospel are the foundation for our doctrine of perseverance and the the promises of the gospel are “free and gracious” and “given unto us merely through the good-will and pleasure of God. That which is of promise is everywhere opposed to that which is of doubt, or that which is any way deserved or procured by us: Gal 3:18, “If the inheritance be of the law” (which includes all that in us is desirable, acceptable, and deserving), “it is no more of promise,”—that is, free, and of mere grace” (John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 11.227–28, 230).
In other words, embedded in the gospel is the promise of perseverance. Owen cited Galatians 3:15; Matthew 20:15; John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10; Matthew 11:26; Romans 5:15–18. The doctrine of God’s gracious perseverance of his elect is woven throughout Scripture implicitly and explicitly. In the Aaronic benediction, with which Reformed churches often close their services, says: “Yahweh, bless and guard you; Yahweh make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up his face to you and give you shalom” (Nu 6:24–26). The subject of the verb is Yahweh, the sovereign Lord, who spoke into nothing and made that is, who sovereignly delivered his people out of Egypt, and who kept them in the wilderness. This is the God who guards or keeps his people. The Aaronic benediction is just that, a blessing that God speaks to his people through his minister. It is not prayer. It is a statement of objective truths, things that are said by God to be true of his people. These are benefits his gives to his people. One of them is his guarding or preserving grace and mercy.
Our Lord Jesus declared about the sheep for whom he was to lay down his life:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 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 (John 10:28; ESV).
The Remonstrant theology (as well as the doctrine of the Lutheran Book of Concord, 1580) is that we are able to snatch ourselves from God’s grace, that grace is resistible and therefore we are always in jeopardy of falling from it. In short, in the Remonstrant theology, we must always do our part to remain in a state of favor with God. Our understanding is that God has prepared good works before for his elect to “walk in,” and thus we cannot be lost. Indeed, our Lord Jesus said, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39; ESV). Jesus accomplished his Father’s will: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12; ESV) and “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: ‘Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one’” (John 18:9; ESV).
Gracious Perseverance Is A Comforting Doctrine
Long ago, before mp3 downloads, before CDs, before cassette tapes, and before 8-track players, there were mini-vinyl records. Like LPs they had two sides, the A side, with the hit, and the B side, or the flip side. The Reformed doctrine of perseverance is the flip side of the doctrine of assurance and for us they are both hits. The doctrine of assurance says that believers can and should trust that Christ’s promises are true for believers generally and true for this believer in particular. Martin Luther used to say that Christians need to learn to say the words for me. In Heidelberg Catechism (1561) 21 we confess that the gospel is true “not only to others, but to me also” and thus it is true that I too have the “forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation,” which are “freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”
We need this comfort because we sin. Sometimes we sin grievously. As believers saved sola gratia, sola fide, we confess our sin openly and honestly to the Lord (and, where appropriate to those whom we have offended) and seek to amend our lives as necessary. Still, however, we wonder and worry whether this sin is the one that might finally separate us from the Lord. Such thinking, of course, is just what the Evil One intends. He intends to put us on a works footing because that is his playground. There we are like an American football player on a European football pitch. We try to grab the ball with our hands and he scoots by us with a deft kick of the ball. It is only when we remember that we are still in a covenant of grace do we have the resources to say to the Evil One: “Take a hike! I have been bought with the righteousness and blood of Jesus. You have no power over me.” We should also say this to persisting temptations and sins. Sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom 6:14).
Contra the Remonstrants, the doctrines of assurance and comfort do not make Christians lazy or indifferent to piety and to sanctification, they are the very power and essence of growth in the Christian life. I am free to die to sin and to struggle against it only because I have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus, who alone is my Mediator and my Substitute before the righteous judgment seat of God. Because I am saved by God’s free favor, for Christ’s sake alone, I can call my sin what it is and trust that I still belong to God. Our sins do not turn what was a covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
Gracious Perseverance Is A Spiritual Doctrine
The Remonstrants did not understand this doctrine because they were (and are) rationalists. Though they professed to follow Scripture, in fact, beginning with Arminius himself, they put human reason where Scripture should be. The Socinians, who absorbed quite a few Remonstrants into their movement, used the same rhetoric: “We are only following the Bible.” In their case, that meant denying the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the atonement for starters. Those who, consciously or not, place reason ahead of Scripture as their authority will never accept the mystery of the doctrine of perseverance. A rationalist says that in order to get people to persevere we must put them under the whip, we must attach the carrot of final salvation to a stick and place it just outside their reach. After all, this is how things go at work. If one wants to keep his job and make progress he must be productive and successful. If one will keep the civil magistrate happy, he must refrain from crime and positively obey the law. Of course, these are all examples of the covenant of works principle: “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). Perseverance is a fruit of the covenant of grace not the covenant of works. The covenant of grace says: You must obey and you can obey because Christ has paid your debt and because God freely accepts you for Christ’s sake alone. The Spirit operates within sinners gradually to conform them to the image of Christ.
The Christian doctrine of perseverance is paradoxical. God preserves those who cannot preserve themselves. He does not reward the good. He blesses the dead and helpless with new life. The well have no need of a physician. Only the sick need one (Matt 9:12). Paul did not find grace until, by God’s grace, the Spirit showed him the greatness of his sin and misery. We see this in Romans 7–which the Remonstrants quite misunderstood–where he explains that, before we was given new life, he thought that he could keep the terms of the covenant of works. Once the Spirit opens his eyes, he realized that, in Adam he was actually dead in sins and trespasses and condemned by the law. He had to learn the greatness of his sin and misery in order to begin, sola gratia, sola fide, in union with Christ, as an adopted son, begin to make some small progress toward sanctification in this life.
The Christian and Reformed doctrine of perseverance is not a natural doctrine, derived from reason. It is a gracious doctrine derived from special revelation, from Holy Spirit. It is those to whom God has sovereignly, graciously, freely given new life and true faith who are able to understand and accept it. Our paradigm here is Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 2:14–16: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” Thus, if you see how gracious your perseverance is, how it is God the Spirit, God the Son, and God the Father preserving you—despite your sins and false starts—then you have been given a great gift indeed and yet another reason to rejoice in the grace of God.
- The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.