The Question of Perseverance in Philippians 1:6

, posted by Matt O'Reilly

Arminians are not of one mind with regard to the doctrine of perseverance. Some Arminians see perseverance as a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. These Arminians believe that a true believer will not finally fall away from grace. Other Arminians believe that perseverance is conditional on the continuing faith of the believer, and that it is possible for a truly justified person to be cut off from right relationship with God and perish eternally. For many years I held the former view. This was not necessarily because of rock solid exegesis of scripture. Rather, it was based on the comfort that comes with the idea that the truly converted will certainly be finally saved.

In recent years, though, my mind was changed about this doctrine, and I moved over to the position that one could lose their justification. I felt that, if I were to be intellectually honest, the New Testament clearly teaches that the people of God are liable to judgment for unfaithfulness. One of the clearest texts on this (and the crucial text that changed my thinking) is Romans 11:17-25 where Paul warns the Gentiles who stand by faith (pistis) against becoming proud. He then holds up unbelieving (apistis) Israel as an example saying to the believing Gentile, “if God did not spare the original branches, he will not spare you, either” (21, NASB). This is no picture of a believer wrenching his salvation from God’s fist. No, this is an image of God judging the believer who has become faithless. I resisted this reading for a while. But ultimately I must be honest about what Paul says no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

At this point, the reader may be wondering why this post is dealing with Romans when the title clearly indicates that the content will focus on Philippians. Well, here it is. Philippians 1:6 was the text on to which I held in order to maintain that my former position on perseverance was biblical. Even after I changed my mind I wasn’t quite sure what to do with Philippians 1:6. Recently, though, I began to work through the Greek text of Philippians 1 and was struck by what Paul actually says. I’ve always taken this text to mean that God would complete his good work in me as an individual. The problem with this reading is that it neglects the fact that the English pronoun “you” can be either singular or plural. In Greek, though, there are two different words for you – one singular and the other plural. In Philippians 1:6 Paul uses the plural word for “you” (humin). The pronoun is the object of the preposition en which is often translated “in” but is able to function in a variety of other ways. One of the chief functions of this preposition is to indicate the location or sphere in which an event or action occurs. Thus, Paul could mean that the location where God’s good work will be brought to completion is the plural “you” that is the Philippian church.

If that is the intended sense, the verse could legitimately be translated: “The one who began a good work among you all will complete it until the day of Christ” (cf. NRSV) The community of believers is the sphere where God is at work, and it is the sphere where his good work will be brought to eschatological fulfillment when Christ returns. This is a different matter than whether or not the good work is brought to completion in the life of an individual, a matter that is simply not addressed in Philippians 1:6. Paul’s confidence that God is at work in the Philippian church and will complete that work is grounded in that church’s participation in the ministry of the gospel (5). Even if some individuals fall away from the work, it does not mean that God’s purposes for the church as a whole corporate community will not be brought to perfection.

To sum up, Philippians 1:6 is not speaking to the issue of the final perseverance of individual Christians. That question is not in view in this text. Rather, Philippians 1:6 is evidence for the Arminian view of corporate election. God has chosen his church and will complete the work that he is doing in his church. One comes into the church through faith and, according to Romans 11:17-25, out of the church through non-faith. But even if some fall away, it does not mean that God’s work in the church is thwarted. Indeed, it is he who breaks of the branches because of their unbelief (Romans 11:20).

Matt O’Reilly is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Union Springs, Alabama, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Gloucestershire, and an adjunct member of the faculties of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @mporeilly or connect at www.mattoreilly.net .