Conditional Perseverance

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Many who call themselves “Arminian” also hold to the doctrine of Eternal Security, even though this has not historically been the case. This fact has recently granted that Arminianism no longer stands or falls with the doctrine of Perseverance. Arminius himself notes that “at no period have I asserted that believers do finally decline or fall away from faith or salvation,”1 though he left open the possibility for such. The charge against him to the contrary, he writes, is “another offense against historical veracity.”2

His successors, the Remonstrants, agreeing with him, state that, as long as a believer remains a believer, then he or she cannot fall away; accordingly, “he who perseveres to the end will be saved.”3 However, they acknowledge the possibility of those who remain constant for a time, but finally, “whether by the enticements of the world, the flesh or Satan, or conquered and broken by some violent tyranny, they defect and desert from the faith.”4 One is reminded of the apostle Paul’s co-worker in the Gospel, Demas, who fell in love with the world and deserted Paul by retreating to Thessalonica (2 Tim. 4:10) — as well as to those whom Jesus refers: “this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy [cf. Acts 8:14]; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (Matt. 13:20-21 NRSV).

Conditional Perseverance, then, is the assurance of final salvation to those who abide and continually trust in Christ Jesus. He Himself teaches: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” (John 15:1-2a NRSV). If every initial believer were going to be saved by necessity, then the Father would not have to “remove” any branch in Christ, for every single branch would necessarily “bear fruit” in keeping with repentance (cf. Matt. 3:8). If it were impossible to be removed from being in Christ, then this warning itself is fruitless: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” (John 15:2, emphasis added).

Jesus continues: “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:2b-4 NRSV). Though the disciples had been cleansed of their sins, they were warned by Christ to continue abiding in Him, so that they would continue to bear more fruit. Those disciples in Christ Jesus who continue to bear fruit, the Father will prune, so that they can bear more fruit. However, those disciples in Christ Jesus who do not continue to bear fruit — because they cease to abide in Him — the Father will eventually “remove” them from being in Christ (John 15:2). Thus one’s perseverance (and final salvation) is conditioned upon abiding in Christ.

Abiding in Christ by a true and living faith is not a work of one’s own doing, for faith itself is not a work (Rom. 4:4-5). Nor does the motivation to abide in Him come from one’s own self, for “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13 NRSV). Note, however, the warning prior to this promise: “Therefore . . . work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12 NRSV). Fear and trembling? What is there to fear and tremble in a system which promises a final salvation by necessity?

Moreover, the author of Hebrews warns, “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1 NRSV). First, this warning is written to believers. Second, there are dire consequences to drifting away from what one hears of God: such will not escape a just penalty for neglecting so great a salvation (Heb. 2:2-3). He continues: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:12-14 NRSV).

First, this warning is written to believers. Second, there are dire consequences to developing an evil, unbelieving heart: such turns away from the living God. Third, therefore we are encouraged to exhort other brothers and sisters in Christ, for we come to be partners in Christ only if (i.e., on the condition that) we hold to our confession firmly to the end. If it were not possible to drift away from the faith, or develop an evil, unbelieving heart, then these scriptures make no sense whatsoever. Thus a believer in Christ can have absolute assurance that he or she is in Christ and will be saved by abiding in Him (Col. 1:23). Jesus warns, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6 NRSV).

Assurance belongs to the one who is abiding in Christ. But no assurance is given to the one who does not abide in Him — only a “fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27 NRSV). If you need assurance that you will necessarily, by God’s irresistibility, endure to the end, and you think such is found in Calvinism, I do not think that you will find any comfort in St. Augustine or John Calvin. The former, in his Rebuke and Grace, admits, “It is, indeed, to be wondered at, and greatly to be wondered at, that to some of His own children — whom He has regenerated in Christ — to whom He has given faith, hope, and love, God does not give perseverance also.”5 Augustine holds out less assurance than even the Wesleyan or Holiness adherent who thinks that a person can lose his or her salvation merely by committing a sin!

Calvin is no less encouraging: “Perseverance is the gift of God, which he does not lavish promiscuously on all, but imparts to whom he pleases. If it is asked how the difference arises — why some steadily persevere, and others prove deficient in steadfastness, we can give no other reason than that the Lord, by his mighty power, strengthens and sustains the former, so that they perish not, while he does not furnish the same assistance to the latter, but leaves them to be monuments of instability.”6 How Calvinists find any assurance, from Augustine’s or Calvin’s view, that God will grant them perseverance is beyond me. The irony, at least for Calvin, is that he emphasized the doctrine of Unconditional Election in an effort to grant the believer assurance of salvation. Such is entirely undermined, however, by suggesting that God does not grant perseverance to all.

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1 James Arminius, “Apology Against Thirty-One Defamatory Articles: Articles I & II.,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, London edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:741.

2 Ibid. However, Arminius admits: “On the other hand, if believers fall away from the faith and become unbelievers, it is impossible for them to do otherwise than decline from salvation, that is, provided they still continue unbelievers” (742). This he admits because an individual is only justified by faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 5:1). If a believer becomes an unbeliever, then he or she cannot be saved.

3 The Arminian Confession of 1621, translated and edited by Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 113.

4 Ibid., 112.

5 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 2002), 58.

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 2:5:3, 199.