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WHOSOEVER WILL: The perseverance and assurance of the saints

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–At a symposium honoring Dale Moody, I. Howard Marshall recited the old saw that Arminians know they are saved but are afraid they cannot keep it, while Calvinists know they cannot lose their salvation but are afraid they do not have it. Aside from being witty, this highlights the two components of the question about assurance.

First, is it possible to know absolutely or even confidently that one is saved, and second, is it possible for those who currently believe they are saved to have assurance that they will remain in a state of grace until the day of redemption?

Paul gives the two aspects of assurance of salvation when he states, “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim 1:12). The apostle affirms that (1) a person can know with certainty he is presently saved (“For I know whom I have believed”), and that (2) he can know with certainty he will remain saved (“and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day”). This chapter argues that the basis of assurance is the same as the basis for salvation itself: Jesus Christ — who He is; what He has done; and what He has promised. In other words, assurance is found in our justification in Christ rather than in our sanctification.

The doctrine of forensic justification is crucial for assurance of salvation. “Forensic” means that justification is the legal act where God declares a sinner righteous through Jesus Christ. This is in contrast to sanctification, which is the lifelong work of grace whereby God makes a sinner righteous. It is this distinction between justification and sanctification that liberated Martin Luther from the bondage of attempting to merit salvation. Luther tells of meditating on Romans 1:17 (“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.'”) and coming to the realization that God’s righteousness was a gift given to sinners rather than a standard that sinners must meet.

Luther wrote, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith…. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.”

With Luther, this chapter argues that one finds assurance when he trusts the justifying work of Christ alone. In addition, it also contends that the gift of faith remains (i.e. perseveres), and it inevitably manifests itself in the life of a believer. However, the level of manifestation varies from saint to saint. Abraham and Lot were both justified (2 Peter 2:7-8) but they evidenced it very differently.

The model for assurance offered here is very close to the Once-Saved-Always-Saved view. However, it differs in that it simultaneously affirms both God’s preservation of the redeemed and their persistent, persevering faith, so it is more accurately described as a variant of the Evidence-of-Genuineness view.

First, the only basis for assurance is the objective work of Christ. Any doctrine of assurance that includes introspection as a component will produce anxiety in the hearts of the very people it is intended to encourage. No doctrine of perseverance that has a Christological beginning and an anthropological ending can provide genuine and sustained assurance. When it comes to providing assurance, Christ is the soloist and good works are just members of the back up choir.

A close corollary to the premise that Christ is the only basis for assurance is the necessity to reaffirm the doctrine of sola fide. Perseverance cannot be understood in terms of good works and great effort without having the result of dismantling the Reformation. The doctrine of perseverance must be formulated so that it does not create the impression that Scripture contradicts itself about grace and works.

Second, assurance is the essence of saving faith. The very nature of conversion and regeneration guarantees that certain knowledge of salvation is simultaneous with being saved. Subsequent doubts and fears may come, but a core conviction about one’s relationship with God will remain.

Good works and the evidences of God’s grace do not provide assurance. They provide warrant to assurance, but not assurance itself. Perhaps a good analogy is how a Christian knows the love of God. He experiences the love of God every day in a myriad of ways. However, all those countless blessings merely affirm what the Christian already knows — God loves him. Even during those times when the good favor of God seems to be circumstantially absent and that Christian’s confidence is tested, he still knows that God loves him the same way he has always known this — by the promises of God. So it is with the assurance of salvation. Good works play the mere supporting role of confirmation.

Third, saving faith perseveres or remains until the day when it gives way to sight. Perseverance should be understood as a faith that cannot be annihilated and therefore persists. This persistent faith inevitably and eventually exhibits itself in the believer’s life in such a way as to bring glory to God. The point of Hebrews 11 is that saving faith manifests itself by the journey of discipleship. One may stumble and falter but never leave the trail. Perseverance should be viewed as much as a promise as it is a requirement.

Some passages teach that past behavior can be an indicator of genuineness. The genuinely saved person hungers and thirsts for righteousness, even when he is struggling with temptation or even if he stumbles into sin. In fact, this writer is not overly concerned with the destiny of those who struggle nearly as much as he is about those who do not care enough to struggle. Indifference is more of a red flag than weakness.

The absence of a desire for the things of God clearly indicates a serious spiritual problem, and a continued indifference can possibly mean that the person professing faith has never been genuinely converted. God is infinitely more dedicated to our salvation than we are, and He will not fail to finish that which He has begun. If a believer engages in willful disobedience or deliberate indifference, our heavenly Father promises him decisive and appropriate action. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit ensures that no peaceful backslider exists.

Fourth, there are rewards that are subsequent to salvation for the believer to win or lose. For example, 1 Cor. 3:12-15 speaks of one Christian’s work remaining while another Christian’s work burns. The believer whose work remains receives a reward while the other believer suffers loss. We will be judged and rewarded according to our service.

In the end, assurance comes from depending on Christ alone. I agree with Calvin’s retort to the Catholic controversalist Albert Pighius, “If Pighius asks how I know I am elect, I answer that Christ is more than a thousand testimonies to me.”
Ken Keathley is the senior vice president for academic administration, dean of the faculty and professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • Ken Keathley