The other day I came across some notes that I had handwritten on a topic I consider extremely important and relevant to the Christian life. They were probably written when I was being questioned on this topic by someone. Anyway, I thought I might as well clean them up and publish them.
One of the great thinkers of the Reformation was John Calvin. His magnum opus was his Institutes of the Christian Religion. I have personally read it a number of times and have loved to wrestle with the deep thinking therein. It used to be found on the bookshelves of many a theologian. It probably still is today though I don’t believe that many have read it. It was not required reading when I attended seminary and I doubt if it is now.
Many today either refer to themselves as Calvinists (I don’t) or accuse others derogatorily of being Calvinists (again, I don’t – usually). For many, the doctrines of Calvinism can be boiled down to five points, known as TULIP.
• T – Total Depravity: Man is unable to save himself. He is incapable of choosing good.
• U – Unconditional Election: God’s choice of those whom He will save is not due to anything in them.
• L – Limited Atonement: Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save only those whom God has chosen.
• I – Irresistible Grace: The inward call of the Spirit inevitably brings the elect to salvation.
• P – Perseverance of the Saints: “All who were chosen by God, redeemed by Christ and given faith by the Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of the Almighty God and thus persevere to the end.” – Steele & Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism, page 18.
It was fashionable when I was in seminary to identify oneself as either a 4-point or a 5-point Calvinist. If you weren’t one of these you must be an Arminian! The point in dispute was the L – Limited Atonement.
While that point is usually the disputed one, and I still fret over it, the one that really bothers me is the P – Perseverance of the Saints.
The definition above sounds really good! It sounds biblical! It should give assurance to those who have placed their faith in Christ. But quite often it has the opposite effect. It is often taught in such a way as to imply that one can never be assured of his/her eternal salvation unless he/she perseveres. A true believer can never lose his/her salvation, we are told, but the problem is that one cannot know if he/she is a true believer unless he/she perseveres “to the end.” If one “backslides,” he/she obviously wasn’t saved in the first place! Somehow I don’t see much difference between this and the Arminian teaching that one can fall from grace, that “Those who believe and are truly saved can lose their salvation by failing to keep up their faith, etc.” (Steele and Thomas, page 18.)
To quote a modern Calvinist, “Superficial appearances to the contrary, this does not imply that true saints can lose their salvation … It does imply that one can be called a ‘brother’ on the basis of appearances but in the end prove not to be a brother because of failing to persevere in faith.” (John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, pages 108, 109.) He goes on to say, “What is at stake in pastoral admonition and in preaching is not merely the church’s progress in sanctification but its perseverance in final salvation.”
Huh? With all due respect to Mr. Piper, this is double-talk. It is circular reasoning. It ends up being a works-salvation. It forces the believer to look to himself and not to Christ. He can never be sure if he’s saved till his dying breath, and then has to evaluate his salvation by his works.
This is not simply a quibble among professional theologians about irrelevant esoteric issues. It goes right to the heart of the gospel. Any doctrine or teaching that forces the believer to look for his final salvation to himself or any thing or person other than to Jesus Christ and His finished work, is a works-salvation. We don’t persevere! God does! “Being confident of this very thing, that the One who began a good work in you, will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6.)