By Rev. Bill Harrell, Senior Pastor, Abilene Baptist Church, Martinez, Georgia. A native of Tifton, Georgia, Rev. Harrell came to Abilene in January of 1981. He is married to the former Carolyn Gibbs, also of Tifton. They have three daughters.
Recently, while in a discussion about the pervasive influence of Calvinism in our Southern Baptist Zion, I was surprised when I heard the term “preservation” when referring to the fifth point of that theological model. I had noticed that others also made this mistake and didn’t seem to notice the error. In a very subtle way, I brought the error to the writer’s attention, and he was most grateful for the fact that I had done so. Some might ask why get so picky about such a thing? Everyone knows what my friend was referring to and trying to say.
Not so quick. There is a world of difference between perseverance and preservation and we must not confuse the two. The core difference is that perseverance is a MAN work and preservation is a GOD gift. One is earthly and the other is heavenly. One is a work and the other is a gift. One man can do, and the other only God can perform.
If a person is a “dyed-in-the-wool” 5-point Calvinist, he cannot give a positive answer when asked if he knows whether he is saved or not. The simple fact of the matter is that his theological model does not afford him the assurance of salvation so he is clinging to perseverance and hoping that he is one of the elect. Someday they will know if they persevered to the point that they were acceptable to God, but in the meantime they cannot say for sure if they made the grade or not. So, they have to die to find out if they were saved. They cannot know for sure that they are a saved person. John says in 1 John 5:13, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God that ye many know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” Why would John say such a thing unless one can know for sure that they are a saved person? John is writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and from the perspective of assurance brought by God’s promise of preservation, and the Calvinist is speaking from the perspective of perseverance which man must accomplish himself.
Calvinist R.C. Sproul said this about his lack of assurance:
“A while back I had one of those moments of acute self-awareness…and suddenly the question hit me: ‘R.C., what if you are not one of the redeemed? What if your destiny is not heaven after all, but hell?’ Let me tell you that I was flooded in my body with a chill that went from my head to the bottom of my spine. I was terrified…began to take stock of my life, and looked at my performance. The more I looked at myself, the worse I felt. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s really true. Maybe I’m not saved after all’…Then I remembered John 6:68. Peter was also uncomfortable, but he realized that being uncomfortable with Jesus was better than any other option!” (R.C. Sproul, “Assurance of Salvation,” 20, Tabletalk, Ligionier Ministries, Inc., November 1989.)
I have two comments concerning this quote. First, there is no reason to be uncomfortable with Jesus where salvation is concerned. I would hate to think that my assurance was because I was willing to be uncomfortable with Jesus because that was my best option. Second, the citing of John 6:68 is weak. There is no way that Peter was addressing the same issue that Dr. Sproul was addressing. Here again we have a Calvinist trying to make Scripture fit the situation in order to try to make the Word fit their model.
The problem with perseverance is that it is relative. Who is to say when one has reached the point of proving their salvation and being acceptable to God? When is God satisfied? One might say that going to church, tithing their income and providing a good living for their family is enough. Another would say that living a good life, not using profanity, giving to missions, reading the Bible and showing mercy is what it will take to prove their salvation by perseverance. Even another might say that 40 years of perfect Sunday School attendance would prove they were a genuine Christian. The point is made that perseverance is relative. What suffices for one is not enough for another. That is because it is a man work and must satisfy a man’s point of view whatever that point of view might be.
When one is to persevere in any endeavor, it is meant that they will strive and work until they finish the job. It is a work viewpoint of proving salvation. That is why many Calvinists will say, “I am hoping” instead of “I know.” They live in the world of wondering when or if they have done enough to please God. At what point did they achieve that magic level of achievement which will assure them of eternal life with God? The problem is that perseverance is a MAN work and man cannot assure himself of heaven.
Preservation is something quite different. Man cannot preserve himself. It must be done by someone else and God is quite clear that He is the one who finishes the good work in us, not we ourselves, (Eph. 1:6). Those who give their lives to Jesus in simple faith and commit their lives to Him in repentance receive the promise given in Romans 10:9-10. He can have assurance of his salvation and know of his saving relationship to God because he trusts Jesus to do all that is needed to save him and he doesn’t have to do anything himself. Jesus provided all that was needed when he died on the cross and was resurrected for our justification. I rest in Him and not in my ability to prove anything much less that I am a genuine Christian.
My life of obedience is the best evidence of true salvation having taken place in me. The fruits of a life that is in a redemptive relationship with Jesus Christ is evidence of true salvation as Jesus tells us in John 15. But, those fruits are a byproduct produced in my life by the indwelling Holy Spirit and not fruits produced by me as I persevere to the end. Actually, these fruits become works if they are a part of my persevering. They are fruits when trusting Jesus and the validity of His promises are the foundation for my assurance of salvation. So, when Jesus’ promises prove my salvation as I trust in them, I will show evidence as fruits emerge from my life by His power. When He does it, it is fruits. When man strives to persevere is results in works.
This could go on and on, but the New Testament, and particularly the writings of Paul, are replete with the truth of what I am saying. Anyone with even a modicum of familiarity with Paul’s writings knows that assurance was one of the hallmarks of his faith in Christ. And they will also know that he rested in the unfailing promises of God concerning salvation. God produces the evidence when He has worked salvation in a person through their personal belief in and commitment to Jesus for salvation. Man produces works when he has something to prove and is hoping that he persevered enough to get into heaven when he dies.
To reiterate and summarize: Preservation is a God gift, (Eph. 4:30). Perseverance is a man work. That makes the salvation of one who is persevering a works salvation. One who is preserved is preserved by their saving relationship to Jesus Christ which is grounded upon His promises to us when we trust in Him.