THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
John 10:28-30 “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one.”
I don’t think there is any difficulty in understanding the phrase, ‘the perseverance of the saints’? It means that all who have been truly born of God will keep persevering in the faith until they get to heaven. God has promised and covenanted to preserve every one of his people. He will hang in with us throughout our earthly pilgrimage, in all its ups and downs until we are safe home in glory. He is alongside us in the roller coaster even when we’re crying out in fear. God is like the very best father who is always there for his son even when he becomes prodigal and goes off to the distant city and lives like a wretch. Our heavenly Father never says to one of his children, “Well, that’s it. Enough is enough. Son, now you’re on your own.” He’s ever looking out for us on the way back to him and when he sees us he runs to greet us.
A friend was a student pilot and one day he was flying a small aircraft when a sudden emergency arose. What should he do to gain control of the plane? He could do nothing, but the instructor was in the plane with him. The plane had dual controls and the instructor immediately took command of the controls. Then my friend let go of his and he brought the plane out of danger. That is a picture of the wisdom and ability of Jesus at work in our lives. God is like a great coach who is very interested in the sportsmen under his care. The athlete might be accident-prone and uncoordinated, but the coach keeps faith with him and is full of suggestions and schemes to strengthen him and keep him going. I am saying that this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that God keeps persevering with us, keeps forgiving us, keeps picking us up and dusting us down. He never allows us to be tried and tempted above our ability to bear it. He’s always giving us a way of escape, or he dampens down the temptation, or he makes the sin revulsive to us, or he takes away our desire for it. When he often humbles us it is but to keep us going back to him for strength and mercy.
God keeps persevering with us so that the gates of hell can never prevail against one little Christian. God keeps persevering with us so that Satan cannot destroy us. God keeps persevering with us so that this wee Christian lassie is more than conqueror through God’s love. It is impossible for any of God’s children to lose their blood-bought redemption and end up in hell. Every Christian can sing the words of Toplady,
“Yes I to the end shall endure
As soon as the earnest is given;
More happy but not more secure
The glorified spirits in heaven.”
The archangels Gabriel and Michael may be happier than me, but I am as unlikely to end up in hell as either of them. I affirm this truth, and I am going to show you from the Scriptures that this is the plain teaching of the Bible. None of the cults believe in the perseverance of the Christian because they don’t believe in a sovereign God and they witness many of their adherents falling away. The Roman Catholics don’t believe this truth because of their commitment to the idea of man’s ‘free will.’ In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read, “Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destines by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray” (Part One, 311, p.92 Doubleday, 1995). Of course, the modernist doesn’t believe it for the same reason, and even the Arminian won’t accept perseverance. During these past weeks when some of you have been sharing these truths about the ‘Five Points’ with students attending other churches in the town they have surprised you by saying that the one point in the Five Points that they can’t accept is the perseverance of the saints. You would expect gospel Christians to believe this teaching because it is right on the surface of the word of God.
There are various reasons for this antipathy. One reason that the perseverance of the saints is rejected is the stress on man’s alleged ‘free will’ that some Christians have. They say that God’s hands are tied, and so heaven and hell all hang on the decision of man. If a man decides to walk away from Jesus then God can do nothing. Others may disagree with this but their suspicion about this teaching that a Christian cannot be lost is a fear that it will encourage presumption; a man who believes once saved always saved, they say, will think he can live like the devil and he will still go to heaven.
Let me say this, that I suppose every single Christian agrees with the words of Christ, that he who endures to the end will be saved. All of us are exhorting one another to endure, aren’t we? “Keep the faith . . . keep going sister . . . hang in there brother . . . Let’s go on following the Lord Jesus.” That is part of my ministry each Sunday. We take it on ourselves as 100% our own responsibility to look after ourselves, to watch and to pray. But we also believe that God is 100% faithful to us, that we are being kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. What are our grounds for believing this? I want to give you six grounds for believing in the perseverance of the saints.
John 10:28-30 “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one.” Jesus is speaking of those blessed people whom his Father has given to him, and yet the Father has never let go of them. It is like a child being given a helium balloon by his Daddy. In his excitement he lets go of the string, but the balloon doesn’t float away up into the sky because the father is also hanging on to the further end of the string. Here we are told that the hand of Jesus, that hand with the marks of the nail-print, the hand on which our names are written in marks of indelible grace, that hand so holds on to us that no-one can snatch us away. Then we are told that no-one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand. Two hands are holding on to every true believer, the Father and the Son have us with a grip that will never let us go.
I heard one man huffing and puffing at this verse and objecting, “Yes, no one can snatch them out of God’s hand . . . but they can walk out of it themselves . . .” Then what would happen? They would perish, but what does the Lord Jesus say in this text? “And they shall never perish.” Four great words . . . “They shall never perish.” It would seem to me that the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is secure merely in the plain promise of those four words. Jesus does not give temporary life, or spasms of life, or a wee taste of life. Whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Surely the lucidity of the teaching of the Bible is telling us one truth, that all true Christians will persevere to the end.
The relationship of Paul to Jesus was a very close one. It was a relationship of love. Paul said in tones of wondering joy, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” So Paul would find it emotionally impossible to contradict what his Lord taught. He could never oppose or misrepresent the beliefs of his Saviour. The whole authority for his ministry had come to him from the Lord Jesus. He had commissioned him to be his apostle and plenipotentiary. “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said, “ . . . so I’m sending you, Paul.” So what Paul says, the Lord Christ endorses. “He who receives your words Paul, receives my words,” says Jesus. There is not a membrane that you could put between the teaching of Jesus and Paul. So what does Paul say about the perseverance of the saints? In Philippians chapter one and verse six Paul says, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Consider a domestic appliance like a vacuum cleaner. It has to be switched on before anything can happen; the power has to come. So it is with us. The power that raised Jesus from the dead must be applied to us or we’ll be strangers to eternal life. God is the one who switches this on. God joins us to Jesus Christ. Or, as Paul says in our text, God begins this good work in his people. In other words, he is not a spectator, hanging around watching and waiting to see whether we will set off by ourselves in the Christian life. He initiates our spiritual concerns, our hunger, yearning, enlightenment, trust, repentance and commitment. He begins this good work. He is the one who introduces us to real Christians. He persuades us to go to a gospel church. He gives us a taste for the Bible. He bends our wills to do what the Bible teaches. He gives us faith in Jesus Christ. He is the one who starts the good work in us. More! He will carry it on to completion until when? Until we are grown up and mature? No. Until we get a job? No. Until we are married? No. Until we can think for ourselves? No. Until the day of Christ Jesus, that is, until the day when he comes and all his holy angels are with him. The one who began the good work in us all those years ago doesn’t leave any job half done. He does a good and proper job in all his people. He goes on to complete the work he started. How different from ourselves. Our lives are full of half-completed work, half-made garments, half-written books, half-finished do-it-yourself tasks. We begin, yes, it is so easy to begin a work and not complete it. God never does that. The God who began the work of creation day by day and finally completed it and said “Very good,” also works in all those who are his new creation and he will say about every one of them in the day of Christ, “Very good!”
In the old days there was such difficulty with our second hand cars to start them on wet wintry days. Could we get them started? If we could only start them then we could nurse them along until we got back home. I am saying to you that God has no starting problems. If he had then none of us Christians would have been here tonight. But he could start the work in each of us. Spurgeon heard the tale of the Roman Catholic religious man whose head was cut off but who then proceeded to pick up his own head and walk with it for a hundred miles. Spurgeon’s response was to say, “I would have no problem believing that as long as he could take the first step.” God comes to us when our hearts were like stones, and we were living at enmity with him, and the whole gospel seems foolishness to us. But God was so powerful that he had no difficulty in taking the very first step and beginning this glorious metamorphosis in our lives, making us new creations. Today, when we have the indwelling Christ and the knowledge that our sins have all been forgiven, how much easier it seems, humanly speaking, for him to complete what he began in such unpromising circumstances.
In Peter’s first letter and in the first chapter and the fifth verse Peter says these familiar words (from the New King James Version), “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” You will remember the author of these words once warmed himself by a fire on a dark night in the midst of enemy territory. No one else around him was a believer in Jesus Christ who had just been arrested and was threatened with death. It was the dark night of the soul for Peter. Three times he was challenged to confess that he was a follower of our Lord. Three times he denied any knowledge of Jesus, the last time with cursings; “I never knew the blasted man. How many times do I have to tell you?” If you were there you would have been shocked. You might think, “That Christian is lost. Gone for ever.” But before us is a letter Peter wrote forty years later, a letter full of pastoral wisdom and hope. Peter who then swore he was not a Christian is still a Christian. How come? He had been kept by the power of God. What power is that? It made the universe. It sustains the cosmos. It raises Jesus from the dead. It consigns the devil to the bottomless pit. It is greater than all the powers in heaven, earth and hell. That power surrounding each beleiver is like a platoon of armed guards, each one is utterly omnipotent, and they surround little Miss Christian. Anything that approaches and threatens to destroy her has to first to pass the platoon. “Stop! Who goes there? Identify yourself!” Each Christian is kept by divine omnipotence. Not each super-Christian, not each hyper-Christian, not each second blessing Christian, but the mere believer. Peter says that it is “through faith” we are kept by the power of God. In other words, as we keep trusting in Jesus we are being kept.
Mr. Arthur Pink lived through the war on the Isle of Lewis and he would take a brief walk from his flat to the harbour to purchase some fish. On one such walk he was greeted by a man who knew him; “Good morning Mr. Pink. How are your keeping?” “Not keeping, being kept,” was his terse reply and the hard-working Mr. Pink kept walking. How did the power of God keep Peter? Not from his fall. There is no promise in the Bible that a Christian will never fall. Rather the opposite, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (I Jn. 1:8- 2:1). We are kept by the ministry of our advocate at God’s right hand side. We are kept as we confess our sins to him, the one who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. That is what kept Peter. Jesus looked at Peter and he wept bitterly. One look from Jesus and our hearts are broken; another look and our hearts are healed. There was no fun in swearing and denying that you knew Christ if it was going to be followed by days of guilt and depression. That was one of the ways God kept Peter and how he keeps all his people. Soon the Lord recommissioned Peter, challenging him as to whether he loved him. Of course Peter loved him, more than anyone else in the world. So the keeping Lord restored Peter and used him mightily on the Day of Pentecost. The keeping Lord has brought you here tonight and he is putting your life together for the full salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. Until when will he keep you? Until you get his full salvation! Until the last time. Let us move on to a more sublime level . . .
I am quoting from the majestic eighth chapter of the epistle to the Romans and verses 29 and 30. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” These words are called the ‘golden chain.’ God has loved people before they loved him. When hanging on Golgotha’s cruel cross our Lord was loving Saul of Tarsus. That was a couple of years before Saul began to love Jesus in return. On the cross he fore-knew Paul and later the apostle realised that, writing; “He loved me and gave himself for me.” What was that love of God going to do? It was going to predestine Paul to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son. God had made up his mind that this old persecutor who for so long had kicked against the goads would be like Jesus. Paul was going to be transformed morally and spiritually and even physically so that every vestige of sin would be removed from him and all the beauties of every single grace would fill him and make him a transcript of Christ. How would God do it? He tells us in that great text in Romans eight; he would summon him to himself, calling him by name, “Saul, Saul,” and stopping him short on the road to Damascus. Then he would declare him righteous in Jesus Christ, all his sins forgiven and justified freely through the Saviour, and finally he would glorify Paul. Calling, justification and glorification – the three pivotal elements in the conversion of any Christian - and they are all done by God in grace to us.
Glorification? But surely that is a future work, and Paul was far from being in a state of glory when he wrote this letter probably in the year 55 to the congregation in Rome. He was still doing battle with the world, remaining sin and the devil. Glorification is the consummation of salvation, but Paul wrote it in the past tense which intimates the certainty of its accomplishment. We shall be glorified as certainly as we are now justified. Future glorification is so necessary and certain that it appears to the Christian as already given and completed. Where is the mere Christian today? The Bible gives us a staggering answer, an incredible reply to that question in the second chapter of the Ephesians and in the sixth verse. We could not believe it unless we had it plainly written before us in this verse; “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephs; 2:6). What is Paul talking about? The union of the people of God with their Saviour – “us with him.” The church, the body of Christ, is always joined to its Head. You cannot conceive of the people of God without their Head. What God has joined together let no man put asunder. They are joined to their Head for ever by bonds of unbreakable love. Where their Head is there you will find them too. Their Head once fulfilled all righteousness as he walked this earth, and so they are righteous in him. Their Head once suffered the anathema of God on the cross of Calvary and they also suffered that condemnation in him there. Their Head lay in the grave but then rose and ascended to heaven, and they also rose and ascended with him. Now their Head is seated at the right hand of God in glory and they are seated there in him. They are forgiven in him; more than conquerors in him; righteous in him; ascended in him; glorified in him. God has predestined them to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, and so they shall all be.
I am thinking of some great familiar words in the letter to the Hebrews about our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ; “He is able to save completely those who come to God through him because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebs. 7:25). You will remember that when he led a group of disciples in Galilee he would pray for them. There was a time when Satan came and tested Simon Peter. It was the worst experience that Peter had gone through. It was cowardice and failure and shame and guilt and despair. More than that it was an experience Peter had been prepared for by the Lord Jesus. The danger had been made clear, but Peter was too full of his ability to keep standing to pay attention to those ‘needless concerns’ of his teacher. “I can cope with anything,” he was telling Jesus. “I will follow you to death if that should be required.” But Peter fell cataclysmically and afterwards broke his heart.
When Judas betrayed Jesus he became suicidal, but Peter repented and was restored because he went to God through Jesus Christ. Judas went to the chief priests and tried to give the money back, but Peter ran to the empty tomb on the first day of the week and later was recommissioned by Jesus. What kept Peter through his failure? The intercession of Christ. He warned Peter of the trials ahead, and that Satan had him, and then Jesus added, “but I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” This is what kept Peter.
The writer to the Hebrews tell them that our Lord Jesus Christ has not changed. Now exalted and seated in the midst of the throne of God he lives to intercede for everyone who comes to God by him. We earnestly pray for a missionary friend but then we get weary and the weeks go by and we have stopped praying for them. Jesus stops never! He always lives to intercede for us. Nothing can stop him. If the United Nations sent rockets with nuclear warheads against him they could not remove him. If all the powers of hell ganged together and declared a Jihad against him he could not be dislodged from his place as the supremo of heaven, earth and hell. While many things stop us praying for one another he never ceases to pray for you and me. He knows all about us and the troubles we’ve seen.
Our great High Priest cries to God on our behalf, “Father, there’s a lonely, guilt-filled sinner in Abersytwyth and he is in despair. He feels there is no hope for a Christian having done what he has done. Flood his heart with a knowledge of your great forgiveness, Father. Bring his eyes to promises from Scripture that tell him that though sin abounds grace does much more abound. Fit the sermon he will hear on Sunday to his needs.” Then Christ prays for someone growing cold, stopping attending church, starting to doubt again. He intercedes for a house-bound person feeling so lonely and troubled. He prays for a those with no understanding asking that they might see, and those with no assurance that they might know that God loves them, and for those passing through sore temptation that they will be kept from the evil one. He is praying for each one of us that our faith will not fail and that we be brought safe home to glory to see him as he is, and know him wiping the tears from our eyes. He longs that all whom the Father has given him will be with him in heaven and see his glory, and when he prays that prayer he doesn’t begin it by saying, “If it is possible . . .” or “If it is your will . . .” He knows that our salvation is possible and that our glorification is God’s will and so there are no qualification at all when he asks for us to get to glory. How can God deny his Son anything he asks him for?
I refer you to Ephesians chapter four and the 30th verse; “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” If you had an aunt living in Australia from whom you annually receive a one line Christmas card, and then meet once every ten years when she visits the UK and spends a day or so with your family then your parents would not worry too much about your conduct grieving her, because you hardly ever meet her. But if your bad manners constantly grieved your own mother then your parents would be broken-hearted at your conduct because you all resided in the same little house and you were breaking your mother’s heart.
Paul’s plea that Christians should behave in a godly and holy way is based on the fact that the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, permanently indwells the believer. Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. He has moved into your life for ever. God has sent him individually and personally as the divine seal that announces to men and angels that henceforth you belong to God. A seal is a mark of ownership and authenticity. The deeds of a property have a wax seal that state whose house it is. Sheep in the hills around us are marked by their masters as belonging to them and not the farmer across the valley. Such seals are all external but God’s seal is the Holy Spirit himself and he indwells our hearts marking us as his own for ever. This seal is God’s ‘guarantee’ or pledge by which he undertakes to bring his people safely to the tremendous day of full redemption that lies before us. We now have the Holy Spirit as a wonderful foretaste of future glory.
If I’m buying a house for the first time I am unlikely to be able to raise all the payment. What I do is give a down-payment as a pledge that I fully intend to pay off the rest of the price month by month. Now our Saviour tells us that in his Father’s house are many mansions or rooms, and one of them is for each of us, but the wonder is this, that God doesn’t ask us to make a down-payment on that mansion. He doesn’t say, “Give ten thousand pounds to a missionary society,” or tell us to work in an AIDS hospital for five years in South Africa, or preach on a street corner every Saturday for a year. He asks for no seal or pledge from us. It is he who gives us a pledge that he is going to keep us until the day of redemption, and the seal is not an experience of his love, the seal is God himself, God the Holy Spirit indwelling our lives. If he has come then we are safe until the day of redemption. So do not grieve him by your sins. Walk in the Spirit; thank God for the Spirit. You have this hope of being found blameless on the day of redemption so purify yourselves in heart, mind and affection.
These six Scriptures (and there are many more) teach two great principles; the first is that all that are savingly joined to Christ are kept by him until the day of redemption. The second is that only those who do not quench the Holy Spirit but who persevere in faith and holiness and obedience have any grounds to believe that they are being preserved. We are back with that great statement of Jesus that he who endures to the end shall be saved. There is a sevenfold refrain in the letters to the seven congregations in the book of Revelation chapters two and three; promises of blessing are made “to him that overcomes.” If you capitulate to unbelief, reneging on your faith in Christ and thus show that you have been overcome by the world then you will go to hell. God’s preserving work comes to light only in our persevering in trusting and obeying the Saviour. I have no grounds to claim, “God is preserving me because ‘once saved always saved’” if I am not persevering in trusting in Christ and resisting temptation and asking God for mercy and grace to help me in every time of need. I may be just stony ground hearer; I may just have historic faith not saving faith.
How is any one of us going to persevere in a world full of evil influences? Our hope can only be in the promises of God that sinners like me whose trust is in his Son shall be divinely kept until the end. That is the ground of my confidence, and so I keep plodding on. Only thus can I have confidence that I am infallibly going to heaven. That is my certain destination, and so I purify myself as God is pure in preparation for arriving in that happy place. There are two enemies facing me; the first is presumption, but to deliver me from that I know I have to keep on persevering in holy living. The other enemy is despair and to deliver me from that are the wonderful promises of God to take all his people to heaven, even if their faith is as thin as a spider’s thread, just as long as it is lodged in Jesus. Then I shall be safe!
A student approached a friend of mine called John who had just preached a message like mine. She listened carefully and said to him, “You don’t believe in eternal security.” “What do you understand to be ‘eternal security’” he said to her. So she turned to our text, chapter John ten and verses 28 through 30 and she read them to him; “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one.” She emphasized the words ‘eternal life’ and ‘never perish.’ “Do you believe that?” she asked him. John said, “Are you telling me that these words of Christ mean that not one of his sheep can ever perish because they are all guaranteed eternal life?” “Exactly,” she said, nodding her head. John asked her again, “Do you mean that God gives to every one of his sheep, without a single exception, eternal life and it is absolutely impossible for even one of them to perish?” The young lady said, “That is what the text says.”
There was a little pause, and then John asked her this question, “Who are his sheep?” She frowned a little and asked him what he meant. He said, “Who are these sheep who can never perish? Are they everyone who walks down the aisle in a big campaign when the evangelist gives the invitation? Are all those hundreds of people going to heaven without one exception?” “No . . .” she said. “Is it everyone who has been confirmed in the Church of England by a bishop’s hands laid on his head?” “No,” she said. “Is it everyone who has been baptized by immersion in every Baptist church?” “No,” she said. “Is everyone kept by the power of God who has made any kind of claim to be a Christian?” She said again slowly, “No.”
“Then who are these sheep that have everlasting life and cannot possibly perish?” She was confused, and so John took her to another part of John chapter ten, verse 27. My preacher friend said to her, “Jesus said that these sheep of his who have everlasting life and who will never perish, have two distinctive marks that identify them as belonging to him. They have one mark on the ear - they keep on listening - and they have a mark on their feet - they keep on following. This is what the text says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ Literally, they keep on listening to me and they keep on following me.” Those are the sheep that never perish. We have to take all the teaching of Jesus in John chapter ten. We affirm the perseverance of those alone who are always listening to their great Prophet Jesus Christ and always following their great King Jesus Christ. That is very different from claiming that anyone who once had a vague profession of faith is safe. We dare not preach the eternal security of the wicked and godless and profane. There is no security in sinful unbelief. All true Christians will keep on believing, but if you quit believing what hope do you have of everlasting life?
29th April 2008 GEOFF THOMAS