A SERMON ON THE DOCTRINE OF THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
The perseverance of the saints is the doctrine that teaches that the saints persevere: they cannot completely apostatize. They have in them an instinct of repentance. In the end they will always return to God and finish the race set before them (see Phil. 1:6). Some people prefer the term “the preservation of the saints” to emphasize the fact that if ever the saints persevere it is because God does not fail to keep them from falling. Others use the term “eternal security”, which is alright as far as it goes. But that term has been abused in the sense that people have understood it to mean that it no longer matters how we live because “once saved, always saved.”
Romans 8:31-39 is probably the classic passage on the subject of the perseverance/preservation of the saints. It is the conclusion of what is probably the greatest chapter in the greatest book in the Bible. The grandest doctrines of the Bible can be found in this epistle, especially in this chapter; for example, the doctrines of justification, sanctification, glorification, election, predestination, the sovereignty and providence of God, the person and work of the Holy Spirit; the substitutionary sacrifice, resurrection, ascension and intercession of God’s Son; as well as our subject for today’s message, the perseverance and preservation of the saints.
Before I expound to you the passage in detail let’s examine the preceding verses in relation to which our passage is the conclusion. The first part of the chapter deals once again with the doctrine of justification and discusses the role of the Spirit in our sanctification and eventual resurrection. It proceeds to discuss the doctrine of adoption and the eventual glory that awaits us as children and heirs of God, which should serve to comfort us in spite of our present sufferings. Next Paul discusses the role of the Spirit in prayer: the fact that he prays in us and for us. Then in verse 28, which is one of the most famous verses in the whole Bible, we encounter the doctrine of God’s providence in behalf of his called ones, who, as we learn in the next couple of verses, are none other than the elect. They were foreknown and predestined in eternity past, were called and justified in time, and will most assuredly be glorified in the future.
Then we reach our passage, which is the triumphant conclusion to all those great things that preceded it. And it begins with a rhetorical question that demands a response from us, i.e., in view of all these great things that God has done for us and has promised us, what now shall we say? We will answer this question in due time. In essence, the passage is about the fact that God loves us so much, i.e., with an everlasting, unfailing, and invincible love, so much so that nothing less than complete victory awaits us. Thus, the title of this message is entitled, “Love Conquers All.”
The passage can be divided into three parts: first, there is no opposition that can ultimately succeed against us – “If God be for us who can be against us?” Put another way, love conquers fear. Secondly, there is for us no condemnation – “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? Who is to condemn?” In other words, love conquers guilt. And finally, there is for us no separation – “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” In other words, love conquers all.
I. NO OPPOSITION – LOVE CONQUERS FEAR.
“If God be for us, who can be against us?” As far as appearances are concerned, there are many things against us: we are surrounded by threats and dangers all around. Actually verse 31 should be read in conjunction with verse 34, as the latter verse is actually an amplification of the things that are against us, such as, tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. Incidentally, I note here that the context seems to refer to threats made not only by human agents but also by demonic ones. In Psalm 91 the psalmist mentions many things that are against us: the snare of the fowler, the deadly pestilence, the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in darkness, the destruction that wastes at noonday. In Psalm 23, David speaks about the valley of the shadow of death, which can also be translated as the valley of deep darkness. And according to the ESV Study Bible, “Perhaps the idea is that in a valley in the desert (wadi) in Judah one can encounter deep shadows, and cannot know for sure who (bandits) or what (animals, flash floods) lurks in them…” I mention Psalm 23 because in a sense the whole of life is a dark valley full of unknown dangers and uncertainties. And it is therefore understandable that we sometimes, if not oftentimes, find ourselves in the grip of fear.
But Paul says, in effect, we should not be afraid of all these threats, dangers, and opposition, because God – the almighty, all-powerful Creator and sustainer of the universe – is for us! He is on our side. He is not only with us; he is for us, i.e., he loves us and will act on our behalf, to protect us and keep us safe. Thus, no matter how mighty the opposition towards us is, no opposition can ultimately prevail against us, no evil can ultimately harm us, because our Defender is mightier still. And because of his love for us, he is sure to put forth his almighty power to ward off and frustrate all opposition against us. I refer you to Psalm 91 for you to read on your own in relation to this point.
Are we saying then that God’s children will never experience opposition in their lives? That they are exempt from sickness, poverty, calamities, tragedies, accidents, violence, and the like? No; but we are saying that God causes all these things to work together for our good (see verse 28). I refer you to the case of Jacob. You remember that he thought his son, Joseph, was killed by wild beasts, when actually he was sold by his brothers to Midianite traders. Years later a famine struck all the known earth at that time, and Joseph’s brothers were forced to go to Egypt to buy grain. They returned to their father with the bad news that the lord of Egypt detained their brother Simeon and would release him only if they would bring Benjamin, their youngest brother, to Egypt with them. And Jacob, probably no longer able to bear his grief, said (although I imagine he probably cried out), in Genesis 42: 36 “All these things are against me.”
All these things are against me! Oh Jacob, if you only knew that all things were working together for your good! Joseph was sold to Eygpt so that, there, God could raise him up to become lord of the land, and so that when the famine struck he could preserve your family and save all of you! And so that the line from which the Messiah would come could also be preserved, and so that the world itself could someday be saved. Joseph understood the ways of God. That is why he said in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
But what is the proof that God is for us? The proof is verse 32. This is an argument from the greater to the lesser. If God could afford to give us his most precious possession, his most expensive gift so to speak, the gift of his own son, compared to which everything else is dung, so to speak, how could he not give us everything else? All the blessings of the Christian life, whether we talk of justification, sanctification, glorification, and yes, the perseverance of the saints, great though these gifts may be, the gift of God’s own Son is greater still. And the fact that God spared not his Son but delivered him up for us all is assurance enough that everything else that accompanies salvation, including the gift of perseverance and preservation, will be given to us as well.
II. NO CONDEMNATION – LOVE CONQUERS GUILT.
But then the objection might arise, “What about the fact that I remain up to now a great sinner? Many and grievous are my sins. I am already a Christian; I have put my trust in Christ; but I keep sinning again and again. Yes, I repent with tears; yes, I am grieved by my sins, but I keep committing them again and again. How could God continue to love me? Satan has every right to accuse me.”
This is a very sensitive issue and should be handled carefully. We are not encouraging anyone to continue sinning. In fact, Paul says in Romans 6:1-2, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? How can we who died to sin still live in it?” There are those who are over-bold when it comes to sinning; who say that, “Anyway once saved, always saved, I might as well live as I please.” To them the Bible says, “Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith.” (II Corinthians 13:5). But the fact remains that Christians are not exempt from sinning, and if I understand Romans 7 correctly, they will be struggling with sin up to their very last breath. Incidentally, to struggle is not necessarily to be overcome. The difference between them, however, and hypocrites is: they cannot completely abandon themselves to sin. There will always be in them a fighting, repenting and returning tendency. The seed of holiness implanted in them cannot die.
But going back to the sins of believers, can they again fall under the righteous wrath of God for these? And the answer is they cannot. And here I will introduce a legal concept, which is very much applicable to our subject: the concept of double jeopardy. Christ died for us; he has already paid the penalty for all our sins. This includes sins past, present and future. This payment has become effective in time for those who believe. God can no longer condemn us for our sins because it does not agree with the justice of God for him to demand payment twice for the same debt.
Moreover, Christ was raised from the dead, which is proof that his sacrifice on the cross for our sins was accepted by God the Father. The wages of sin, i.e., death, have been satisfied. The proof of this is the fact that death could no longer hold him. And in the same way death ultimately will not be able to hold all those who put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Also, Jesus Christ our Lord has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, which is indicative of his sovereignty, authority, and power over the cosmos and all that is therein. Christ is in control; no rogue power in the universe can destroy those for whom he died. As Jesus says in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
And finally, he intercedes for his people at the right hand of God. Every time the accuser of the brethren points out to the Father our sins, our Lord spreads out his hands and shows his Father his scars and says, “I died for him; I died for her.” And I imagine tears welling up in the Father’s eyes, upon seeing the wounds of the Lamb who was slain. And he will say to the devil, “Go; your charge is dismissed with prejudice. The accused is not guilty!”
One more thing: the intercession of Christ is also the reason why we cannot completely apostatize, why we will assuredly persevere. You remember that Jesus prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail. He does the same for us now in heaven. And if it is the Son of God himself who prays, how can it not be answered?
III. NO SEPARATION – LOVE CONQUERS ALL!
Finally, Paul makes mention of specific adversities that might cause us to doubt God’s love for us. And truly this is our regrettable tendency: to doubt God’s love when hardships arise. The adversities mentioned by Paul are not to be taken lightly. They are not called tribulation and distress, etc. for nothing. They are well-nigh able to break not only a person’s body but also his spirit. But Paul reminds us (and by the way this is a quotation of Psalm 44:22) that in a sense this is what we are destined for. This is what it means to be a Christian: to be persecuted, even to be killed. But all this is for the sake of Christ. He died for us; let us be willing to die for him!
Then we come to verse 37, which is the key verse of the passage. And here Paul is saying, don’t let these things defeat you. Don’t think for one moment that God no longer loves you just because you are experiencing these things. The thought is unthinkable. After all that God has done for us, after all that Christ has suffered for us, how can you even entertain even for a single moment the thought that God no longer loves you? Instead say to all these things God loves me! Shout it at the top of your lungs. While you are slowly dying of cancer shout, God loves me! While tears are welling up in your eyes because of the pain and you have no strength to speak, then whisper, “God loves me.” Whatever our sufferings may be, the martyrs of old have suffered more than we, and they did not flinch! Burned at the stake! Killed by the sword! Fed to lions! Women, children, old people. Stand up to these things. Be a conqueror. Shout in faith, God loves me! He will not stop loving me. I do not understand what is happening, but I know all these things that seem to be against me are working for my good, because God loves me. And if ever I love him, it is because he loved me first.
I remember reading a book a long time ago, which made an impression on me. I read of this person who had cancer of the face. And little by little, the surgeon had to cut out pieces of his face. And through all this he never complained, but said, “God has been good to me.”
I remember my father, suffering from kidney failure, preaching from his wheelchair. According to my sister, she saw him staring blankly at something, maybe at the sky; then suddenly she heard him say, “Thank you, Lord.”
We are more than conquerors through him who loved us! He loved us before we were born, he loves us now, and he will love us to the very end.
He will never stop loving us, all those who have put their faith and trust in him. Paul now provides us with a broad and more or less comprehensive list of all the things which, if it were possible, might prevent God from loving us: everything from the realm of human experience, comprehended in the phrase death and life; everything from the supernatural realm, i.e., angels and rulers and powers; everything from the realm of time, i.e., present and future (he no longer mentions the past, because it has obviously failed to separate us from God’s love); everything from the realm of space, i.e., height and depth; everything else in the cosmos, i.e., all creation And he concludes, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
I end with this anecdote about the famous theologian, Karl Barth. He was once asked what was the profoundest theological truth he had ever encountered. And he said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
What about you, do you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge? Let us pray.