To get a grasp of a central Reformed doctrine such as perseverance one needs to understand both its grammar, and its operational logic. By grammar is meant what the doctrine means, what is a correct statement of it, and what it makes sense to say in explication of it; and (I don’t mind saying) what it means from God’s point of view. By its operational logic is meant how this doctrine is to be appropriated by a professing believer. So – in a nutshell – this helps to handle the doctrine, and to avoid some pitfalls.
What perseverance is
Is it true that ‘once saved almost saved’? (OSAS) If so, this must imply ‘once justified always justified’. This in turn must imply ‘once an exercise of saving faith, always an exercise of such faith’, and ‘once regenerate always regenerate’. When we draw these inferences what are we doing? We are limning the logic of OSAS, indicating its grammar. There’s more, such as: ‘once Christ died for a person he always died for that person’. And no doubt even more.
This is what OSAS means, at least that is what it means according to the tenets of the Reformed faith. About all the gracious acts of God in the soul, and some more, it can be said that there is a permanence, an unconditionality. Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The ‘once…always….’ Formula applies to the exercise of God’s decree in this particular.
Someone I talked to
These thoughts have been prompted by the remarks of someone I was talking to recently who observed that those who denied the tenets of Calvinism were not altogether at odds with the Reformed faith, since many of them upheld OSAS. So there is, he implied, this much common ground. As he talked it came to mind that this is also a case of ‘unconditional’ perseverance, OSAS no matter what. But also that there are many people around who don’t simply affirm unconditional OSAS at a point of theological grammar, but who readily apply it their own case, and that of others, as a consequence of a past profession of faith. In other words such people extend the grammar to its functional logic, to the personal appropriation of perseverance. I don’t know whether my interlocutor meant to say or imply this: that there are people around who understand the doctrine of perseverance in this way.
Owen on Apostasy
We can get further at what I am trying to say by thinking a bit about ‘apostasy’, an ugly word for an ugly malady. Think of that well-known passage in Hebrews 6.
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God, and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm, and holding him up to contempt. (v.4f)
In his commentary on Hebrews John Owen takes each of these conditions – (1) being enlightened, (2) having tasted of the heavenly gift, (3) have shared in the Holy Spirit, (4) have tasted the goodness of the word of God, and (5) (have tasted of) the powers of the world to come – as each and together not amounting to the effectual work of regeneration, but only take a person as far as the conviction of sin. Such a person may fall away. And if they do, the author of the Letter says that it is impossible to be restored to repentance. Owen thinks that the entire passage applies to ‘fruitless professors’. He does not see the prospect of apostasy from true faith in Hebrews 6, only of a depiction of a fate of a barren professor. So Owen takes the passage to apply only to professed believers.
But at first glance it is difficult to see how the writer can make such a case as a warning to his readers who, he assures them later on, give evidence of regeneration, but who are sluggish. (v.12)
It seems churlish to ask Owen for more, given the seven volumes he has already given, but nevertheless I was surprised that he does not refer to the clause which mentions crucifying Christ again: ‘they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’. (v.6) What do those words contribute to the argument? Owen does not tell us. Do these strong words only apply to the tribe of Judas? To the person that is without charity, whose life is nothing ? (I Cor. 13)
Treating the apostasy as affecting ‘fruitless professors’ only, means that the words do not apply to the Hebrew Christians. For they are not fruitless, as the writer goes on to say (v.9f.)
Well, mercifully (I think), Owen is not altogether consistent. He does (despite this) see the passage as perhaps a mild warning to his readers. He says (Vol. V of the Goold edition, 71-2)
Only it was necessary to give them this caution, that they might take due care not to be such [i.e. like the people he was characterising, ‘fruitless professors’]….he lets them here know the danger that there was in continuing in that slothful condition.
Not so much a warning but a ‘caution’.
If Owen and the first readers of the Letter to the Hebrews knew that those being referred to in v.4-8 are ‘fruitless professors’ then there’s no problem. We remember the parables of the seeds in the ground. There seems to be allusion to that parable in the language of 7-8. There are fruitless professors. But in fact the writer goes on to say that he believes better things of his readers, and proceeds to say why. But then why is he mentioning this case of the sower if it may not apply to them?
Conditionality and perseverance
We need to try to get clear on what this passage doing. What is its operational logic. Is it not a ‘warning passage’? For whom then is it a 'caution'? Presumably those being written to. Maybe the answer is to think some more about perseverance. So we must think about what it is like to persevere. It is to attend the means of grace and contend against sin and weakness in the strength of the Christ who the professed believer is united to. It is keeping on, enduring to the end, keeping on keeping on. Not to ‘fall away’ (Heb. 6. 6) The way to persevere is simply to persevere, and the assurance of one’s perseverance is provided by the evidence that one is persevering. Doesn’t the New Testament write about fighting, running, contesting? The boxer is only as good as his latest fight. And what about other warnings, to ‘take heed’, not to look back, and so on. All such activities are highly conditional.
It is natural for the holder of OSAS to hold that view unconditionally, an insurance policy with a paid-up premium. So then what Hebrews 6 would be saying is that no one ever does fall away from true faith, only from fruitless faith. The ‘if they shall fall away’ is a condition never to be fulfilled by any professed believer. Once enlightened always enlightened. Once a taster of the heavenly gift always a taster. And so on.
But that is stretching things, I think. Here’s what I think instead. That there is certainly an unconditionality to perseverance, to OSAS. This is the God’s point of view that I had the temerity to mention earlier. Aside from this there is in the church a mixed multitude of people who, in the early stages of their profession are indistinguishable the one from the other. So, if you think that the words of warning/caution in Hebrews 6 apply to you, they do. If the cap fits, wear tt.
In general the assurance that the professed believer will persevere to the end is grounded in the fact that he able (or enabled) to persevere. Present perseverance is the only guarantee for the processed believer of future perseverance, of ‘standing’. The professed believer must not take it for granted that he stands, but to take heed lest he fall. He must exercise watchfulness. Paul said on one occasion, ‘I discipline my body, and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified’. (I Cor. 9.27) Was he only referring to his role as a preacher?
This is what I called the functionality of passages like Hebrews 6. The professed believer must ask what this and similar warning passages are intended to do. How are we to treat them in real time, living as professed Christians? The answer is obvious, at least to me!
[Owen has more to say on this matter in his Commentary on Hebrews 6, some of it rather surprising. I shall try to reproduce it in a later post]