Andrew Wilson on Perseverance

I posted a bit about perseverance a couple of years back, when I was running a course on the doctrine of salvation. One of the papers I read at the time as part of my preparation was a masters thesis by Andrew Wilson, who argued for a “loss of reward” interpretation of the warning passages in Hebrews, a position I find unconvincing (although I firmly agree with the first of his concluding points – that the warnings address Christians).

So I was interested to notice that he has a new paper out in the Tyndale bulletin, which focuses in on the interpretation of Hebrews 3:6b and 3:14, and seems to reflect a shift in his understanding of Hebrews. The verses in question are important because of their “if X then Y” grammatical structure:

And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. Heb 3:6b (NIV 2011)

We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. Heb 3:14 (NIV 2011)

Whilst the paper contains some fairly complex technical discussion, the basic issue boils down to whether these are “cause-to-effect” or “evidence-to-inference” conditionals. In other words, does holding firmly to the end cause us to be sharers in Christ (an Arminian approach), or is it evidence that we are already sharers in Christ (a Calvinist approach)?

Both options quickly run into problems – the first seems to make a present reality dependent on future event, while the second seems to undermine the warning passages later in the book.

I won’t attempt to summarise the whole argument, but the conclusion is that the evidence-to-inference interpretation is preferable, and that the objections to it can be answered by the possibility that the warnings are in fact a means to our perseverance. At this point he is in agreement with Schreiner, whose book I found very helpful. Anyway, it’s well worth a read if you get the chance, and you can join the discussion on the what you think matters blog.

Perseverance in 1 Thessalonians

There must have been serious questions in Paul’s mind concerning the long-term viability of the church in Thessalonica. The church had barely been formed before Paul and Silas had to move on to Berea due to great opposition (see Acts 17:1-10). This fledgling young church was left in a hostile environment, without anyone obviously qualified to be their pastor, and reliant on a very brief (but intensive) period of teaching from Paul for their Christian doctrine.

Hence there is a strong theme of perseverance running through 1 Thessalonians (and 2 Thess, although I have mainly used examples from 1 Thess). Paul fears that the devil may tempt them to fall away, yet at the same time he has confidence in God’s power to sustain them. This is the paradox of perseverance for Paul – it is assured, but not automatic. His confidence in God does not lead him to be casual about continuing in the faith.

Perseverance is assured

Several verses in 1 Thessalonians demonstrate Paul’s confidence in God to sustain the believers despite the attacks on their faith. He has seen in the work of the Spirit amongst them evidence that they have been chosen (1:4,5). He knows that his evangelism there was not in vain (2:1). The believers do not stand firm in their own strength, but in the Lord (3:8). He knows that their final destiny is not wrath, but salvation (5:9). Ultimately, their perseverance depends on God’s faithfulness, hence it is sure (5:24, 2 Thess 3:3).

Perseverance is not automatic.

Yet, despite this confidence in the faithfulness of God, Paul was greatly concerned, even fearful, that the devil could have got in, and everything that had been done would end up have being “in vain” (3:5). In particular, he knew that suffering and persecution, could be causes of failure to persevere (3:4). It was therefore a source of overwhelming joy and relief for Paul to discover that the Thessalonians were in fact standing firm (3:7-10). He also recognises that he himself cannot presume on his own strength and is also in need of prayer (5:25).

Perseverance is through means of grace

So if perseverance is not automatic, how is it obtained? Paul sees three things as being crucial means of grace, by which God has ordained to keep his people close to himself..

First is constant and persistent prayer on behalf of others. Several times in the letter he expresses his continual prayers for them (1:2, 3:10) as well as encouraging them to be constantly in prayer (5:17) themselves. When he expresses the content of his prayers, it is that they will continually grow in love and holiness, and most importantly, that they will be blameless on the day of the coming of Christ (3:12-13). In other words, he prays that they will not just keep going until the end, but that they would keep growing until the end.

Second is the importance of encouragement and exhortations. This was Paul’s regular practice with all the churches he founded or visited (e.g. Acts 14:22). He did not just “teach” them, but got alongside them and urged them onwards. He was like a father in the way he lovingly but firmly encouraged them (2:11,12). Several times in the letter he urges them to keep going (e.g. 4:1). He expects that there should be constant progress in the Christian walk (4:10). Like riding a bike, forward motion is what will keep you from falling. Paul also calls all the whole community of believers to play an active role in encouraging one another to continue in the faith (5:11).

Third, and most importantly, though it is only obliquely referred to in this letter, through the work of the Spirit. It is God’s work to sanctify us (5:23), which he does through the Spirit who is the one who empowers us to live in purity (4:7-8). Indeed, he understands the sanctifying work of the Spirit to be a crucial component of our salvation (2 Thess 2:13)

Book Review – Run to Win the Prize (Thomas Schreiner)

The question of “once saved always saved” has to rank as one of the trickiest theological issues to answer satisfactorily. On the one hand, you have the clear passages that teach the eternal security of the believer, and on the other, you have the dire warnings of Hebrews of the consequences of apostasy.

Evangelicals have typically gone in one of three directions on this issue:

  1. The Arminian position – it is indeed possible to lose your salvation, if by your own free will you walk away from God.
  2. Calvinist position 1 – Those who fall away were never truly saved, hence the warnings speak to false believers, or are only theoretical.
  3. Calvinist position 2 – The warning passages only speak of loss of reward, not salvation.

As a Calvinist, I am unable to accept the first position, but the second two also are unsatisfying, as they seem to rob the warnings of much of their force. As Mike Ovey points out in the foreword to this book, we must walk a tightrope. One the one hand, there is the danger of complacency regarding our salvation, and on the other is the danger of presenting perseverance as a way of earning our salvation.

In this book, Schreiner attempts to show, from a reformed perspective, how these warnings really do apply to believers, really do warn of loss of salvation, and yet do not compromise the reformed doctrine of assurance of salvation. The book functions as a condensed version of his larger work on the same subject The Race Set Before Us, and he also seeks to respond to some (in his view unfair) criticism of that book, which suggested he was teaching perseverance as works-righteousness.

The first chapter seeks to show that exhortations to persevere are commonplace throughout the New Testament. When a person becomes a believer, they are not told that they will inherit the kingdom no matter what they do. Rather, they are urged to remain and continue in the faith. For example, he cites the example of Barnabas seeing the grace of God, but nevertheless encouraging the recipients of that grace to persevere:

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose (Acts 11:23 ESV)

In a second chapter on how to understand the warnings, he points out that warnings directed at believers are also commonplace throughout the New Testament. Such warnings are not just found in Hebrews, but examples are to be found in the gospels and Paul’s epistles. The warnings in Hebrews, though strongly worded, function in exactly the same way as these other warnings. Schreiner argues that these are clearly warnings of loss of salvation. He gives a brilliant quote from Spurgeon who says that the Spirit had a very good reason for giving us these warnings. We do need to hear them, in order that we may cling to Christ, just as a child whose father warns him of the certainty of death if he falls off a cliff-edge responds by saying, “hold on to me daddy, don’t let me fall”.

The third chapter argues for what is unlikely to be a controversial point, that the call to persevere in faith does not mean that perfection is required. The believer may truly persevere despite occasional sin. Interestingly he suggests that the petition “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” in the Lord’s prayer, is a request that we be protected from falling into temptation in such a way that we apostatise. 

In the fourth chapter he seeks to set the record straight on works-righteousness. The need for perseverance should not in any way be understood as us earning our salvation. He argues that the NT teaches that obedience is necessary for salvation, but that obedience springs from faith – faith is the root, and works are the fruit. Works thus function as an indispensible ‘evidence’ of faith. However, we should beware trying to calculate ‘how much’ obedience is required as evidence. The Christian life is from start to finish a call to trust God. Perseverance consists in continuing to trust in the cross of Christ. Works-righteousness then is a form of apostasy just as much as denying Christ is, and it is this that Paul warns against in Galatians. Assurance, therefore, does not come from looking at how well we are obeying, but rather by continually looking to Christ.

In a fifth chapter he returns to the question of assurance. If these warnings are to be taken seriously, how can we have assurance? He begins by rejecting the Arminian position that salvation can be lost, looking at texts such as Phil 1:6. But then he moves to what perhaps is his key argument – the warnings function as a means by which God keeps us trusting in him to the end.

the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in faith until the end.

He anticipates the objection that if no one will actually be lost, then the warnings are rendered void, by giving several examples of how a warning that is heeded does not make the warning pointless. For example, in Acts 27, Paul is told by God that no one on the ship would be lost. However, that does not stop him warning soon afterwards, that if the sailors fled the ship, the remaining passengers would not be saved. The warning did not contradict the promise of God that all would be saved. However, the means of the passengers being saved involved the sailors staying on board.

He argues that this is very similar to what Calvinists believe about evangelism. Just because our salvation is based on the sovereign grace of God, it does not follow that the means of preaching the gospel become unnecessary. Similarly, though our perseverance is also based on the sovereign grace of God, the warnings which are one of the means of that perseverance do not become unnecessary. The book closes with a sermon on Gal 5:2-12, developing several of the themes of the book.

Ultimately then, he does take the Calvinist position that those who fall away prove they were never truly saved, citing, for instance, 1 John 2:19, as evidence for this position. But he still maintains that the warnings are intended for the ears of true believers, that by our hearing them, we will be stirred to keep trusting in Christ.

Overall I have to say I thought this book presents a very persuasive argument, perhaps the clearest I have heard on this subject. His approach seems to me to do justice to the solemnity of the warnings presented to us throughout Scripture. It avoids making the warnings in Hebrews “special cases” to be explained away, but treats them as of a piece with many other warnings and encouragements to persevere throughout the New Testament.

I found as I read it that it drove me to pray that God would keep me faithful to him, and keep trusting in Christ alone. It made me wonder whether we have failed in our duty to impress the importance of perseverance on new Christians and established believers alike. When we understand that such exhortations are not contrary to grace, but in fact the means by which God graciously enables us to persevere, then these warning need not be seen as an enemy of either assurance or salvation by grace.

Persevering Love

I have been reading an excellent book on the perseverance of the saints by Tom Schreiner (review will follow soon). He shows just how pervasive the call to persevere and endure is throughout the New Testament as well as warnings of the solemn consequences of apostasy. This morning I was struck by the closing words of Ephesians:

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible (Eph 6:24 ESV)

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love. (Eph 6:24 NIV)

As Schreiner points out from a study on Galatians, perseverance is not to be confused with works-righteousness, where we are required to perform acts of obedience in order to earn our salvation. Rather, we persevere by continually trusting in the cross of Christ.

Apostasy in Hebrews, then, as in Galatians, occurs when believers cease clinging to Christ and his atonement. Believers persevere by continuing to find their forgiveness and final sanctification in Christ instead of themselves.

Despite the Bible translators all translating Eph 6:24 in terms of our love for Jesus being undying, many commentators (e.g. Peter O’Brien, John Stott) seem cautious about accepting this as the meaning of the verse. Would it not undermine Paul’s message if grace were only applied to those who keep on loving Christ?

Having read Schreiner, I am inclined to think not. Just as we are called to persevere in holiness, and to persevere in faith, so here we are called to persevere in love for Christ. Jesus himself links apostasy with our love growing cold in Matt 24:12,13

"And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. "

If this is true, there can be no greater priority for us than to guard our hearts that our love doesn’t grow cold. Prioritise spending time in God’s word and in his presence. Prioritise spending time in worship with his people. The good news is, he is able to keep us from falling:

Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. … To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 21, 24, 25)