(These are essentially the notes I wrote in preparation for a bible study I did on Romans 8:28-31.)
Perseverance of the Saints is to be preferred over the term eternal security because the former includes the latter without doing away with the reality that the saints do persevere and will persevere. The saints persevere because the Lord preserves them, and the Lord preserves them in and through their perseverance.
A digression is in order at this point in order to see the connection between perseverance and the broader salvation of which it is part. It is necessary that we adopt a cosmic perspective on salvation: we must see it as something that spans the whole of eternity. We must realize that it is so much bigger than we are and involves divine determinations and incontrovertible exercises of divine power that make the possibility of losing one’s salvation simply unthinkable. Without this cosmic perspective, i.e., if we confine our limited, finite, and puny minds only to the consideration of earthly things, wherein we find so much human weakness, frailty, and sin, we cannot help entertaining the possibility that salvation might be lost. The solution is to enter, as much as is granted to us, into the vastness of the divine mind and see salvation as the great and glorious thing that it is, determined by God in eternity past, executed by him in time, and now awaiting certain completion when Christ returns, the results of which will last throughout eternity. All throughout, our salvation is upheld by Almighty God who watches over it from beginning to end to ensure that “not a single hair of our head will perish.” It is for this reason that in verse 31 Paul makes the triumphant statement, “If God is for us, who can be against us!”
Perseverance is strictly speaking not a condition for salvation; it is a description of those who are saved. Perseverance is the natural outcome of the new life implanted in those who are saved. Salvation is by grace through faith from first to last, but in the natural order of things, given the nature of the case, given the nature of salvation as new life, perseverance comes into play as means towards an end. For example, the extension of Hezekiah’s life was a free gift and was in no wise earned or merited by Hezekiah. But once granted, the means towards the fulfillment of that extension included diligence and continuance in engaging in life-preserving measures that cannot simply be ignored or set aside.
The “these things” in Romans 8:31 (“What then shall we say to these things?”) that prove that God is for us are those mentioned in the preceding verses, particularly verses 28-30. In these verses we find that God controls all circumstances and all events in such a way, that together they ensure that God’s elect will be glorified, i.e., conformed to the image of his Son. This is the good towards which all things are working together. And God’s plan to make this happen goes all the way back to eternity past when before time he already loved (foreknew) his elect (Jeremiah 31:3) and predestined them to salvation (Ephesians 1:4-6). In accordance with this predestination unto adoption, Christ came and died for our sins, thereby redeeming us with his blood (Ephesians 1:7) Then at the right time, God called us: not only through the external call of preachers but more importantly, through the internal call and prevailing grace of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:22-27; note that this passage ultimately applies to the church, the new Israel, as indicated in Hebrews 10:16-17). Consequently, the Holy Spirit regenerates the elect (John 3:5-8) by virtue of which they exercise saving faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Spirit’s indwelling presence and power serves as a vaccine to the virus of remaining sin in the elect; for which reason, indwelling sin’s days are numbered, it having been struck a mortal blow. Sin however will fight back even more violently than before, which accounts for the perplexing conflict that believers go through all their lives (Romans 7:14-25), but in the end the Spirit will prevail (Romans 8:1-2, 9-11). The Spirit will therefore preserve the new life in us (thus ensuring our perseverance in holiness, 1 John 3:9) and ensure that we will be glorified; thus fulfilling what has been determined in eternity past.
It is interesting that the word “glorified” in verse 30 is in the past tense, even though this event is still future. The meaning is, in God’s mind, the salvation of his elect is already as good as completed; for which reason, stating the future glorification of the elect in the past tense is appropriate.
Finally, verses 28-30 are often referred to as the golden chain of salvation, consisting of unbreakable links. The unbreakability is a matter of logic: If the predestined fail to be eventually glorified, then predestination is a sham. Besides, as already pointed out, “glorified” is in the past tense despite its being a future event which has not yet occurred. And the glorified surely includes all those who have been justified, which means that none of the justified will fail to be glorified.
Incidentally, something must be said about verses in the Bible which seem to teach that salvation can be lost (for example, Hebrews 6:1-8; 10:26-31; 2 Peter 2:20-22, and 2 Timothy 2:12). These verses seem to teach that if a Christian does not persevere, he cannot be saved. True, as far as it goes, but this possibility will never be converted into reality because, given all that has been already discussed, it is impossible that a true Christian will fail to persevere. (In fact, if a professing Christian does not persevere to the end, that might be taken as proof that he was never saved in the first place; see 1 John 2:19.)
The following examples are intended to show that an event may be granted freely as a matter of grace and never by merit or works and may be made absolutely certain while at the same allowing for hypothetical uncertainty if the means towards the attaining of the certain event are not carefully observed. Thus –
(a) The case of Hezekiah has already been mentioned (2 Kings 20:1-11). The extension of his life was a matter of free gift and was in no wise earned or merited. It was also absolutely certain. Nevertheless, hypothetically but truly speaking, failure to exercise proper care to avoid mortal harm would, in the nature of the case, result in his death. But by virtue of God’s promise this possibility (although it remains such in the nature of the case) has become impossible. Still it does not do away with the need to observe proper means to ensure that the extension promised is indeed attained.
(b) The same may be said of the storm incident involving Paul in Acts 27. In verses 22-26 Paul encourages his companions with the revelation given to him by an angel that God has graciously decided to spare the lives of all of them. But in verse 31, he tells them, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The resolution to this apparent conflict is found in verse 34, “I urge you to take some food. For this is for your survival, since none of you will lose a hair from your head.” The argument is counter-intuitive. It is precisely because their salvation (freely given to them) is certain that they must observe all diligence to ensure that the certain promise made to them will come to pass.
Conclusion: In the nature of the case, perseverance is a necessary means towards the end of attaining the promised final salvation/glorification. But it remains that salvation is by grace all throughout, never by works. Salvation is freely given to us and its certain completion is freely promised to us even before we have lifted a finger to exercise perseverance. In line with Paul’s counter-intuitive argument, “It is because your freely given salvation is certain that you must persevere!”
“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)