Dispensationalism and TULIP – The Perseverance of the Saints

We come to the final letter in TULIP: ‘P‘ = Perseverance of the Saints.  Again our question is not technically whether this doctrine is correct or incorrect, but whether the standard Reformed understandings of the doctrine can be sustained on the basis of dispensational hermeneutics.

Some Clarification

Much confusion arises because of the similarity of this teaching to what is known as “Eternal Security” which most dispensationalists hold tenaciously.  It could also be construed as close to what is often known by the phrase “once saved, always saved.”  I would like to address this well known phrase before going further.

As a phrase “once saved, always saved” would appear to state the simple belief that a saved person can never be unsaved; the saint cannot be relegated back into the ranks of sinners.  The trouble with phrases like this is that they like to dress up as definitions.  Another example might be “Christ’s death was sufficient for all, but efficient for the some.”  And what does that mean?  As it turns out it often means different things to different people.  So it is with “once saved, always saved.”  To many believers it is another way of saying that all a person has to do is assent to the propositions of the Gospel and they can be sent on their merry way.  They’ll be seeing you in heaven no matter what kind of life they will live from now on in.  Since the phrase has buoyed up the aspirations of many who think there is nothing wrong with what I just said and is intertwined with it, it is best to leave them to it and let them have “once saved, always saved” and see where it gets them.

Whether one upholds Eternal Security or Perseverance this idea of “salvation by assent” is definitely not what is meant.  There are some “Free Grace” dispensationalists (I have met them) who actually do say that mere mental assent is the essence of saving faith.  They often do this by confining their theology to John’s Gospel and noting that the apostle never once includes repentance as a necessary constituent of the mechanics of coming to Christ.  Not all Free Grace men do this by any means, but there are too many who do!  I do not think their version of salvation can be arrived at easily through the channels of consistent plain-sense hermeneutics either.

Definitions

But we are about the P of TULIP.  Here are two definitions (the emphasis is mine):

The saints are those whom God has accepted in Christ the Beloved, and effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit.  To them He has given the precious faith that pertains to all His elect.  The persons to whom such blessings have been imparted can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but they shall certainly persevere in grace to the end and be eternally saved, for God will never repent of having called them and made gifts to them… A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (in modern English), Chapter 17.1(a).

The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints asserts that God will preserve in saving faith those whom he has chosen and called and justified. Perhaps, then, we should refer to the doctrine of the Preservation of God, not in the sense that He needs preserving, but in the sense that He is committed to preserving and protecting and sustaining His elect people in faith and vital union with Jesus Christ. – Sam Storms, Perseverance of the Saints: An Introduction to the Debate.

What is often lost sight of with this particular doctrine is its reliance, not just on Scriptural texts which assert the eternal security of the believer, but (and this is crucial) its vital connection to the other points of Calvinism.  The two quotations above display this connection to a large degree by their linking final salvation to the “Dortian” formulation of election.

If we pull perseverance from election we are deducing one doctrine from another; we are not letting the Bible ground each doctrine we believe.  And if one’s doctrine of election is defined in terms of unconditional election as per TULIP, then problems ensue for a dispensationalist.  That doctrine, as we have seen, treats the elect as one people of God within the “covenant of grace,” thereby ignoring the Israel/Church dichotomy of dispensationalism.  This dichotomy teaches that the nation of Israel can expect future covenanted promises to be fulfilled literally in the eschaton.  It further teaches that the Church is a post-ascension phenomenon that does not include within itself all the saved from Adam to the Second Coming and the Millennium.  Thus, a dispensationalist cannot base preservation on such a foundation.

A dispensationalist will point to such passages as John 10:27-30 and Romans 8:28-39 to demonstrate eternal security, but these texts do not teach everything involved in the doctrine of perseverance.  For one thing, they do not speak to the perseverance of the saints, but rather of God.  They do teach eternal security, but that isn’t enough for Reformed Calvinists.  You will notice that both definitions above (and they are representative) explicitly tie security to effectual calling and unconditional election (these are assumed).   So the question must be asked, “How does one know they are one of the elect?”

You see, that question is not asked within the doctrine of eternal security.  That teaching certainly says that all true believers in Christ can never loose their salvation because it is secured by the power and grace of God.  Asking, “How do I know I am a true believer?” is a different question from “How do I know I am one of the elect?”  The answers to these questions are also very different.  In answer to the first one might say that a true believer in Christ is a person who believes that Jesus as Son of God shed His blood for their sins, taking their just punishment upon Himself so that the sentence of God passed from off the sinner on to Christ, and the righteousness of God passed by grace to the sinner’s account.  Thus, a person is eternally secure because they are esteemed as righteous as God Himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).  Moreover, since Christ satisfied the justice of God for all the sins of the believer his eternal salvation can never again be brought into question.  The issue of election is incidental to the fact of trust and need not be brought up.

But the answer to the second question cannot go like that. 

The Problem of Assurance

The answer to the question “How do I know I am one of the elect?” cannot be “I believe that Christ died for my sins.”  It must go further and inquire about the assurance, not just of faith, but of election.  As the 1689 Confession goes on to say, though saints may falter, yet, “being saints their repentance will be renewed…” (17.3).

This same note of necessary repentance for the backsliding Christian is found in many Reformed writings.

Now it is indubitably true that all believers slip and fall into sin.  But the truth of the matter is that no believer stays down…God picks the fallen saint up and works repentance in his heart so that he repents and continues in the Christian Life… – Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism, 415.

Endurance in faith is a condition for future salvation.  Only those who endure in faith will be saved for eternity. – R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown, 198. (See also J. Murray, Redemption, Accomplished & Applied, 154-155, who says that a Christian has to make continual “strenuous efforts” to examine his life to see whether he is really elect).

Notice that a person who dies in sin cannot be a Christian!  He may have thought he was depending on the righteousness of Christ alone to get him to glory, but since he didn’t persevere his “faith”, in the end,was not true faith.

Check the way 1 Timothy 1:18-19; 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 9:27 are often used in Calvinistic literature (e.g. read Charles Hodge on that last verse).  You will discover that Calvinists often use 1 Timothy 4:16 for ministerial charges.  I have twice heard prominent Reformed Baptists in the UK hold the live threat of eternal damnation over the head of an incoming pastor.  I have asked myself, “if they believe there is a possibility that a pastor they are recommending to the ministry might loose their salvation, how can they hold to the eternal security of anyone?”  In my course “The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the Church” at Veritas School of Theology, in a lecture on “Assurance” I play a snippet from a lecture about “Ministerial Backsliding” by A. N. Martin, where he very clearly warns his hearers at his Pastors Conference that they could loose their souls if they didn’t “take heed” according to 1 Timothy 4:16.
Under such terms it is a wonder if a Reformed Calvinist can have assurance of their salvation! (I have wondered if that is the reason why they write so many books about assurance).  But that is part of the package which is the 5 Points of Calvinism as explained by their Confessions and books.

This state of affairs introduces the issue of itemizing which sins threaten to keep one from salvation and which obedient practices maintain it (“maintain” is the apt word since one has to persevere).  Often this leads to checklists whereby ones present standing can be divined.  Equally often these lists exclude such besetting sins as pride, arrogance, covetousness etc.  Be that as it may, I do not understand how such a doctrine as Perseverance can be arrived at through dispensational channels.

Again, just to be clear.  I am not at all saying (nor implying) any form of easy-believism concerning matters of salvation and assurance.  I am saying that the NT does not support this idea of perseverance but rather of God’s preservation of those who embrace the Gospel and are born-again.  Such a verse as Philippians 1:6  does not refer to our persevering at all.  Neither does 2 Peter 1:10 mean “make sure you are truly one of the elect” (see below).  It means something like “make sure you build on the foundation of your election by God.”

Addendum on 2 Peter 1:10

As I have admitted to a friendly commenter I was somewhat rash in my commentary on 2 Peter 1:10 above and I need to do better.  That is what this short addition is for.

Firstly, it should be said that the verse may indeed be interpreted to mean”make sure you are truly one of the elect.”  I was too fast on the buzzer before, wanting to finish a post before getting slammed by a welter of work (as per right now).  It is quite biblical to examine oneself (2 Cor. 13:5).  Howbeit, i still do not believe this verse supports the notion of perseverance.  Self-examination does not imply such a doctrine, and the 2 Peter passage can be interpreted as self-examination without requiring all the issues involved in the TULIP  approach.  I shall not defend my view here, but I think it is the superior interpretation.

Anyway, enough has been said for the purpose I have set myself.  I shall write one more post of Concluding Thoughts on this topic.  I know that better men than me will disagree,and they are welcome to lodge their complaints in the combox.

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15 comments

  1. It would be interesting to see more on your interpretation of 2 peter 1:10. A plain reading of the verse sounds as if it is speaking about verifying your election, doesn’t it? Not trying to start an argument – just wondering how you arrive at your understanding of the verse.

  2. Paul,

    You are right. I was far too cavalier with my thrifty explanation. Can’t stop now. Just to say Calvin seems to adopt this view (Institutes, 3.6.1), and I’m sure Lloyd-Jones does in his “Spiritual Depression,” but I’ll have to check. The old Expositor’s Greek NT (ed. Nicol), also seems to take this position (based on the legal meaning of ‘bebaios’).

    I shall have to nuance my answer more so that I do not mislead. I’m slammed right now so this will probably have to wait a few days.

    Thanks for prompting me to do better!

    P.

  3. One question that arises here is one time faith required here or continuous faith? If one time faith there is a danger of holding the position that someone can have faith once and then live as they want. If it is continuous then there is remains a question of whether one can lose their salvation by ceasing to believe. I would hold the best solution to this is seeing faith is a gift of God and therefore preserved by God (Acts 13:48; John 1:12,13; Ephesians 2:8,9). Is this your opinion or do you have another perspective?

    1. Mike, I would absolutely agree with you here. I would not use Eph. 2:8-9 for the “Faith as gift” thing, but I do think your other texts, plus one or two others, are clear enough to draw the conclusion you have drawn.

      I see what you are saying regarding the “one time faith.” I reply that true saving faith is a one-time thing in its necessary relation to one-time justification. However, if it is true faith it will not be simply justifying faith but sanctifying faith too. I hope that’s clear.

      Thanks for an important clarification.

      Your brother,

      Paul

  4. I am glad you are thinking critically about the Calvinistic doctrine of perserverance, though being a Zane Hodges fan, I would have liked you to go further.

  5. Matthew, I knew Zane Hodges and respected his faithful service in the small church in Dallas he attended and his stress on personal holiness. I cannot agree with his view of faith, but we would, I think agree on the importance of eternal security not perseverance.

    God bless,

    P.

  6. I started reading Culver’s systematic theology. It does not seem like he covers as many topics as some other systematic theologies; it does not look like he is going to say much about charismatic issues.

    I was disappointed to read his quick dismissal of those of us who are concerned about Lordship Salvation.

  7. I’d like to offer a thought on the idea of “mere mental assent.” I don’t think there is any such thing. That is, I think that true mental assent does not actually occur in the event that one makes a mere “nod” to a verity. Another way of saying it is that mental assent did not actually occur unless in involves an enduring quality that affects subsequent thinking and attitude.

    One might say they assent to something (orthodox propositions, for example), but unless that is followed by incorporating that as a verity in subsequent thought, attitude and so action, I’d have to say that assent did not occur. Now I admit that one can waver and doubt in true mental assent. But true assent will eventually assert itself.

    I guess I’m saying that the particular brand of “Free Gracers” who speak of saving faith being mere mental assent don’t know what they’re talking about.

    1. Eric, what are you talking about?

      If I am told that a savings account offers me 2% interest on my investment and I am persuaded this is true, then I have mentally assented to that proposition.

      I might well be persuaded at some later date that this claim was untrue, but this would not alter the fact that I had mentally assented to the proposition about the rate of interest.

      I fail to see any relation between my mental assent to the proposition and any future thought or action on my part.

  8. Eric,

    Thanks for posting your comment here. I think Matthew has a point with his example, but you are right in the theological sense of the term. What I have in mind is the old distinction between notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). Matthew’s illustration would exemplify the former. Your position satisfies the second, while I believe true saving faith, linked as it must be with a real, though not necessarily whole repentance, demands trust.

    Thus, assent may move a person to do something (listen to sermons say), but it does not constitute real trust in the Gospel.

    My experience comes from talking and listening to some of the leaders in the GES and one or two pastors at its conference, but I stated above that other Free Gracer’s do not fit the category.

    God bless you and yours,

    P.

    1. I think it’s worth pointing out that Free Gracers are not unique in denying a distinction between mental assent and notitia and fiducia.

      Reformed theologian Gordon Clark had previously argued that these distinctions regarding faith are invalid and that essentially faith is assent to the truth of a proposition.

  9. The Dallas Theological Seminary doctrinal statement in my opinion provides a good definition of Eternal Security.

    We believe that, because of the eternal purpose of God toward the objects of His love, because of His freedom to exercise grace toward the meritless on the ground of the propitiatory blood of Christ, because of the very nature of the divine gift of eternal life, because of the present and unending intercession and advocacy of Christ in heaven, because of the immutability of the unchangeable covenants of God, because of the regenerating, abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of all who are saved, we and all true believers everywhere, once saved shall be kept saved forever. We believe, however, that God is a holy and righteous Father and that, since He cannot overlook the sin of His children, He will, when they persistently sin, chasten them and correct them in infinite love; but having undertaken to save them and keep them forever, apart from all human merit, He, who cannot fail, will in the end present every one of them faultless before the presence of His glory and conformed to the image of His Son ( John 5:24; 10:28; 13:1; 14:16–17; 17:11; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 6:19; Heb. 7:25; 1 John 2:1–2; 5:13; Jude 24 ) . ( Article X—Eternal Security , DTS Doctrinal Statement )

    Lewis Sperry Chafer in Volume 3 of his 8 volume systematic theology provides a great and intresting discussion on Eternal Security and sound reasons for holding to it based on the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

  10. “A great example of the difference between the biblical doctrine and Perseverance. Thanks Bryan. ”

    Welcome. I can’t wait until your next article on this issue is posted. The sad part in this is that the late Dr. John Gerstner considers what I posted from the DTS doctrinal statement on eternal security as being ” antonominanism ” in his anti-dispensational book Wrongly Dividing The Word Of Truth. We see that very same mind set in many Covenant theologians and lay persons today in discussions on dispensationalism.

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