Following is a short piece requested of me for publication in a Christian magazine. Inexplicably, the piece never reached publication.
The Race Set before Us—
God’s Warnings and His Promises:
The Necessity of Perseverance for Salvation
Once a friend asked, “If you forsake the gospel, turn to sexual immorality and theft, rob banks, and then die in a police shootout, what will be your eternal destiny?” I replied, “I will perish in my sins!” My friend objected, “Well, then, you don’t believe in eternal security! You believe that it is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation! Haven’t you corrupted the gospel with legalism and perfectionism?” I responded, “No. I believe that God preserves his children unto salvation in the Last Day by warning and admonishing us to persevere in faithfulness to him, so that none of his children will perish. Consider the question you posed. Romans 8:12-13 foretells the eternal consequence to the way of life you posed: ‘So then, brothers, we are under obligation not to the flesh, to live in keeping with the flesh, for if you live in keeping with the flesh, you will die, but if you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will live.’”
My friend’s question and objection illustrate prevailing confusion that persists among Christians concerning God’s requiring us to persevere in loyalty to Jesus Christ in order that we may be saved from his wrath in the Day of Judgment. Each of the following five assumptions, fears, or failings contributes to misunderstandings of Christian perseverance such as my friend’s question and objection exhibited. Sometimes it is advantageous to present biblical truths by directly addressing common misunderstandings. In this brief presentation, I seek to offer important clarifications concerning the gospel’s call for us to persevere in faith in order that we might be saved in the day we stand before Christ in judgment.
Christians tend to focus upon the past aspects of salvation to the exclusion of the New Testament’s dominant future focus upon our need to persevere in faith unto the end for salvation. We easily exploit the past reference of Ephesians 2:8-9 and ignore the future orientation of Romans 5:9. Also, Christians routinely fail to account for the fact that the Bible portrays God’s salvation of his people as a seamless whole entailing both God’s saving work “already” accomplished for us and in us and the culmination of his saving work “yet to come.” The Bible presents salvation as God’s great work of redemption through Jesus Christ within history. This entails the Son’s incarnation, his crucifixion on behalf of sinners, his resurrection for us, his exaltation, and his dominion over all things created. Our brief personal experience of God’s saving grace does not define salvation. Biblically speaking, Jesus Christ’s history, disclosed in his first creation on the First Day unto the consummation of redemption in the new creation on the Last Day, defines God’s salvation and our participation in his saving work. The Bible itself lays out the great framework. The Old Testament foreshadows God’s promised salvation in the Coming One. The New Testament announces fulfillment of God’s promise in the One who has come, Jesus Christ. Redemption comes in two phases: Christ has already come as the sacrifice for sin, and he will yet come to bring us salvation (Heb 9:29).
Because the Day of Salvation approaches, Paul admonishes, “You know the time, that the hour has already come for you to awaken from sleep, for now salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). This is why Paul cautions, “if you live in keeping with the flesh, you will die,” and he admonishes, “but if you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will live.” Paul’s paradoxical statement—live in keeping with the flesh now and you will die; put to death the deeds of the body now by the Spirit and you will live—draws attention to two divergent actions in the present and to their distinct consequences in the age to come. The life to which Paul admonishes us is the life that partakes of the powers of the coming age (cf. Heb 6:5). This life is the consequence of inflicting death, by the Spirit’s power, upon sinful deeds in this present age. Notice that Paul does not say, “If you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, this will be evidence that you are saved.” This is true, but it does not correctly capture Paul’s admonition which calls for us to engage vigorous extermination of sinful deeds now, by the Spirit, so that we may attain unto life in the age to come that dawns with resurrection of the body. Eternal life is already ours by faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, if we would accurately speak of eternal life, we must also represent it as the prize and promise for which we strive as we persevere in this faith (Rom 6:22). Scripture lays an obligation upon us: “For you have need of perseverance in order that after you do the will of God you may receive the promise” (Heb 10:36).
Against common misconceptions, the Bible’s demand for steadfast loyalty to Jesus Christ is not a matter of sustained sinless devotion. Perseverance is persistent belief in Christ that entails killing sinful deeds by the Spirit’s power. Everyone who has the Spirit of God resides in the Spirit and has the mind of the Spirit, which is life and peace (Rom 8:5-9). The perfection of God’s salvation already begun is assured but not yet complete as we await the Day of Resurrection. Paul says, “Now if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life also to your bodies that are subject to death, through the Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). God does not complete salvation within this present age (Phil 3:12-21). God perfects us incrementally through means, by mortification of sin by the Spirit in the present age which culminates in the age to come when God will raise us from the dead through the Spirit who already dwells within us.
Perseverance is not a matter of perfectionism. Perseverance is living in the Spirit. Because Paul makes it clear that to live in the Spirit entails putting sinful deeds to death, perseverance does not involve a state of perfection. Perseverance is engaging a life and death struggle against sin by God’s Spirit. All who do this will attain eternal life in the Last Day.
Some caricature perseverance as accumulating enough good acts to outweigh remaining sinful failures on God’s judgment balances. Christians are under obligation. Yet, our obligation is not a matter of self-salvation, for our obligation is not to the flesh but to the Spirit. We are not obligated to establish our standing before God by paying off our debt of sin. We are debtors to our Father because he has secured our right standing before him by his grace in Christ’s sacrifice. Paul’s words in Romans 8:12-13 make it clear that ours is not the obligation that falls upon slaves but the obligation that descends to children, to Christ’s fellow heirs (Rom 8:14-17). God ended sin’s mastery over us, for he has adopted us as sons by giving us his Spirit.
Putting to death the deeds of the body is achieved only “by the Spirit.” Paul joins together our “putting to death” and the Spirit’s working (“by the Spirit”) as wholly compatible. Thus we can neither be passive, as if the Spirit bypasses our obligation, nor can we boast, as if we persevere under our own power. We “put to death the deeds of the body” only because God works in us “by the Spirit” (see Phil 2:12-13). Jesus’ solemn affirmation—“the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22)—does not ground our salvation upon our own achievements. Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf is the only ground. Perseverance to the end is faith’s protraction, namely loyalty to Christ who saves us.
Against the assumption that warnings and admonitions destroy assurance of salvation, Paul makes it clear that killing sin by the Spirit is an essential aspect of being assured that we are God’s children. For only people who do this are led by the Spirit. These alone have received the Spirit of adoption and to whom the Spirit bears witness with their spirits that they are God’s children (Rom 8:14-17). The Spirit breaks the power of sin in us and is God’s pledge of our adoption as his children. This same Spirit instills assurance within our hearts so that we confidently call God “our Father.” Thus, the Spirit assures us that we are God’s heirs and Christ’s fellow heirs. We are heirs who await the inheritance which will be ours, if we suffer with Christ that we might be glorified with him (Rom 8:17). Thus, all that belongs to Christ will be ours (Rom 8:32).
God’s warnings complement God’s promise of salvation. Without contradiction, the Apostle Paul insists that assurance that we are God’s children now and forevermore is rightly ours and that perseverance in the way of the gospel is essential to being God’s children. God does not require us to doubt that we are his children so that we might heed his strong warnings and be saved. Warnings and admonitions are complementary and compatible with bedrock assurance that we are God’s children. Paul, who warns and admonishes us with the urgency of Romans 8:12-13, also develops a powerful argument for resolute assurance that we who are in Christ will stand justified in the Day of Judgment (Rom 8:33-35).
Objectors to the teaching called “the perseverance of the saints” regularly set the Bible’s warnings against God’s grace in one of two ways. Some insist that Scripture’s warnings and admonitions, if concerned with salvation, would require faith plus works, nullifying grace. This reflects both a diminished concept of saving belief and a separation of perseverance from belief. To affirm that perseverance is necessary to receive promised salvation in the Last Day only affirms that we must persevere as believers in Jesus Christ in order that we might be presented “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (Col 1:22-23; nrsv). We cannot quit following after Jesus Christ and simultaneously have hope of salvation. Saving faith does not exist in empty form, devoid of its fruit. Faith works by love (Gal 5:6). We show ourselves to be believers by steadfast loyalty to Jesus Christ by way of the Spirit’s fruit that adorns our behavior (Gal 5: 22-23).
Others insist that Scripture’s warnings and admonitions show that God initiated our salvation by choosing and predestining whom he knew in advance would persevere in belief. The Apostle Paul expresses the matter differently. He warns Christians against pursuing the flesh that leads to eternal death (Rom 8:12-13), and also he insists that all who live in keeping with the Spirit do so because God set his love upon them in advance for this purpose, that they might be conformed to Christ’s image (Rom 8:28-30). It is as the Apostle John says, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Our perseverance in faithfulness to Jesus Christ is not the cause for God’s choosing us unto salvation. Rather, God’s setting his love upon us and his predestining us to become conformed to the likeness of his Son is the ground and cause of our persevering in loyalty to Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29-30). Therefore, all glory belongs to God, for by his power he has already begun his work of salvation in us, he sustains our salvation in Christ, and he will save us from his wrath in the Day of Wrath (Rom 5:9; 2:5).
A. B. Caneday
Professor of New Testament Studies & Biblical Theology
Co-author of The Race Set before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001.