Big Words: Perseverance

Pastor Craig Carter

Throughout our current sermon series, we’ve pointed out that, as Methodists, most of our theological views are similar to other denominations, but in some areas we differ. 

Pastor Terry ended his recent message on ecclesiology by discussing how we, in the church, hold to one baptism. But he pointed out that as United Methodists we believe baptism can be administered through three methods – immersion, pouring, and sprinkling. Some other denominations feel differently. 

Today we’re going to look at another subject that Methodists view differently than some other denominations, although we use the same big word – perseverance. 

Volumes of theological books have been written on this important Christian doctrine, but I’m not going to approach it from that perspective. Instead, I want to discuss what perseverance means to me personally. It is one of two primary reasons why I’m a Methodist today. 

The first is a purely pragmatic reason that I’ve shared in previous sermons and writings. When I was in a lost and backslidden state, I wandered into a United Methodist Church and was warmly welcomed and received. But once there, I stayed a Methodist and even felt called to be a pastor in this denomination because of our understanding of perseverance. 

Before discussing its significance for me, I first need to share about the origin of the term. To do so, please forgive me but I’ll need to recount some church history and talk in theological language. 

The classical Reformed view of salvation was developed in the early 17th century. It was based on the theology of an early church leader, Augustine, and 16th century French theologian, John Calvin. Translated in English, it became known by the acrostic, TULIP: 

Total Depravity: Humankind is utterly ruined by the Fall and because of sin, we can do nothing good.

Unconditional Election: We can do nothing to save ourselves nor can we in any way merit God’s goodness, so in His sovereignty the Lord chooses whom to save and whom not to save. 

Limited Atonement: Since only some are elected for salvation, Christ died on the Cross as payment for those people’s sins, but only for them. 

Irresistible Grace: Since God does what God chooses to do and since we are powerless as humans due to our sinful state, those elected for salvation cannot resist God’s gracious offer. 

Perseverance of the Saints: The end result of all this is that those who receive salvation will necessarily endure to the end, be saved, and granted an eternal home in home (i.e. persevere in the faith). 

Very few Christians currently hold to every tenet of five-point Calvinism. Most have eliminated or modified “double predestination” of unconditional election, de-emphasized limited atonement (knowing Christ died for all), and rejected the notion of irresistible grace by acknowledging we all have some measure of free will. At the same time, they’ve held on to total depravity and perseverance of the saints. 

That’s an approach that surely causes Calvin to roll over in his grave since he saw all points logically flowing from one to the other. 

Nonetheless, the final conclusion has become, “once saved, always saved.”

I heard that phrase frequently in the tradition in which I was raised and even as a youngster it troubled me greatly. Let me explain.

I grew up in a wonderful Southern Baptist congregation in Joplin, Missouri. We had an active campus ministry at a nearby college. When I was about junior high age, a young man was marvelously converted through it. Jim had been a former drug addict and a prominent part of hippie culture, but he gave his life to Christ and was wonderfully transformed.

I idolized Jim because he was so cool and he showed an interest in me. He grew as Christian and expressed a desire to go into the ministry. One Sunday evening he was invited to preach and I was mesmerized. But then, in the following months, he fell away from the Lord and ultimately resumed his old, worldly ways. In fact, he became openly antagonistic of Christians. 

This change was devastating to me and I wondered how it could happen. When I asked my dad, a faithful deacon, about it, he had to make it fit in his established theology, so he simply replied, “I guess that means Jim was never really saved”

That made absolutely no sense to me and I stated as much. When no good answers could be provided, I was left wondering, “If Jim wasn’t saved, how do I know that I am?!”

John Calvin had an answer to that question, but it’s not a very satisfying one. He claimed we cannot know that we are part of the elect until “our eyes close in death.” 

If we’re still saved then, our doubts and fears will vanish, but until then, there will always be uncertainty about the validity of our faith. 

I don’t know about you, but that’s not very comforting. As a result, I went through my teenage and early adult years with wavering faith. I wondered if what I had was real and oftentimes figured that since my behavior didn’t always match up with my beliefs, I must not really be saved. I spent a lot of time and energy considering whether even to try living as a Christian anymore. If I wasn’t a part of those elected for salvation, I may as well not waste my time and just go “eat, drink, and be merry” instead. 

And if I was truly saved, then maybe I should go ahead and “eat, drink and be merry” anyway since it wouldn’t affect my eternal destiny.

So guess what I did? I ate, drank, and was as merry as I could be (in a miserable state). 

Then, I wandered into that Methodist Church in Fort Walton Beach and found out there was an alternative to “once saved, always saved” theology. I didn’t fully understand it until I went to seminary but it answered so many questions. 

Here’s a synopsis of our view of salvation based on the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, and Jacob Arminius, a 16th century Dutch theologian. 

Prevenient Grace: Yes, we’re totally depraved and born sinners, but God doesn’t give up on us. He is at work in our lives even before we’re aware of it and awakens our free will. 

Conditional Election: Prevenient grace gives us “response-ability” so we can repent and believe. And God decides if we are saved or not based on His foreknowledge of our choice. 

Universal Atonement: Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Resistible Grace: Because of the free will that God has given us, we can resist God’s offer of salvation so we should listen to His voice and not harden our hearts (Hebrews 3:8).

Conditional Perseverance: Those of us who are saved will endure to the end and find our way to heaven if … we continue to trust in Christ and follow God’s will and ways. 

So perseverance for us, as United Methodists, means “once saved, always saved when we go on to perfection/sanctification and live into our Christian faith.”

Like all of salvation, perseverance is a cooperative effort between ourselves and God. Yes, God is the primary actor, but we have a role to play. 

The same decision that brought us to Christ can take us away from Him as well. So daily, you and I have to choose whom we will serve – God, ourselves or the world. 

When we continue to choose Christ, we can be certain that we will persevere. 

But what about the scripture when Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish … No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.” (John 10:28-29 NLT)

That’s absolutely true – no one can snatch us away, but we can turn and walk away. That perspective seems to be completely in line with the whole tenor of Scripture. It’s the warning Jesus gives in His parable of the soils in Matthew 13:20-21 NLT.

“The seed on the rocky soil represents who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long.” 

Or, why else would the Apostle Paul express this idea, “I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NLT)

Don’t you think Paul considered himself a Christian, part of the “elect”?

And here’s the clearest word on the subject in Scripture to me: “For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened – those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come – and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance. (Hebrews 6:4-6a NLT)

This Scripture clearly refers to someone who is saved. And the issue isn’t whether “once saved, always saved” is true or not. What this scripture makes obvious is that it is not necessarily so. The real issue seems to be whether or not a person who turns away from God can then be restored to salvation. That’s another sermon for another time.

In any case, the message for me is clear: don’t turn away, don’t backslide, don’t dabble in sin. Keep keepin’ on! Press on! Go on to perfection! Become all God wants you to be!

Our Methodist understanding of perseverance guards against Christian complacency. Don’t settle for staying where you are because the Christian life is never static. You’re either moving forward and toward God or backward and away from Him. 

Perseverance also takes seriously another big word we have covered in this series, sanctification. God made each of us for a purpose: to be holy even as He is holy. 

So let’s make sure we are becoming who we were created to be. We might not get there today and we might not get there tomorrow, but if we continue to repent and surrender [repeat], we’ll get there some day. If not in this life, in the next when we achieve glorification (next week’s “big word”).

Let me share why this doctrine is so important and meaningful to me.

For one, it reminds me of the danger posed by temptation and sin. 

When I was living under the pretense of “once saved, always saved” I was always afraid that the existence of sin suggested I wasn’t saved at all. Or, on the other extreme, that it really didn’t matter if I truly was saved. 

But armed with the Methodist understanding of perseverance I now see sin as it is. 

Calvinists will try and argue against our position and say, “You need to careful not to ‘lose’ your salvation. If you sin, don’t immediately repent, and get hit by a car, you may end up in hell.”

But God isn’t playing “now you have it, now you don’t” with our eternal destiny. Our salvation isn’t an object that can be lost. It’s a relationship with the Living God which can be abandoned. So one sin isn’t going to cause us to forfeit our salvation and condemn us to hell. But left unchecked, sin does damage the relationship and can take us to a place we never intend to go. 

It’s the condition caused by “turning away” from God as the writer of Hebrews suggests … to the point of no return. It’s what he refers to later when he writes, “Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer a sacrifice that will cover these sins. There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment…[because we] have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us.” (Hebrews 10:26, 29 NLT)

Notice that the key phrase is “if we deliberately continue sinning.” It’s a pattern of behavior, it’s getting on the “slippery slope” of sin. 

So if we want to persevere, we must treat sin as dangerous and deadly. And it must be. If it’s not possible to sin away our salvation, why in the world would Satan bother tempting Christians? (and he does!)

The answer then is to avoid sin, in any form, at all costs because it threatens our eternal salvation.

A final reason I am so fond of the way we view perseverance is because of the peace it brings. Perseverance is not the same thing, but it is related to another big word, assurance, which means being sure of your salvation, knowing you are saved. 

As I’ve already mentioned, the Calvinist way of thinking that leads to “once saved, always saved” brings little certainty and a whole lot of doubt. I remember after I surrendered my life fully to God as a young adult having a conversation with my “dyed in the wool” Baptist mom (who later died as a United Methodist!). 

Knowing that I spent a number of years living in sin and rebellion, but also aware that I had been saved and baptized as a youngster, she asked, “So you’re telling me that if you’d have died during that time, you’d have gone to hell?”

I replied, “Mom, I can’t say that for sure. But what I can say is that I’m sure glad I didn’t die then. Because I really don’t know where I’d be.” 

In contrast, from the day I gave myself wholeheartedly to the Lord at the age of 24 to the present, I’ve had an assurance that I’m heaven-bound. That’s because I know that I know that I know that I’m saved. And I also know I’m “once saved, always saved” as long as I continue to trust in Christ, keep keepin’ on, and “pursue…holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14 BSB)

What does this big word, perseverance, mean? It means you and I don’t have to wonder if we’re part of the elect and will be saved. We are if we have repented of our sins and believed the gospel. 

It also means you and I don’t have to worry if we’re going to make it to the end and enjoy our eternal reward in heaven. If we do our part — continue to trust and obey, repent and believe, surrender and be holy — God will surely do His part and see us to the finish line of faith.

Now all glory to God, who is able to keep [us] from falling away and will bring [us] with great joy into his glorious presence without a single fault. All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. (Jude 24-25 NLT)