But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Cor 9:27).
The fifth point of Calvinism is the perseverance of the saints. It says that all whom God has elected will persevere in faith and good works until death. At least that was the way that Calvinists formerly taught perseverance. More on that in a moment.
Arminians also believe that only those who persevere in faith and good works will get into Christ’s kingdom. In their view, salvation can be lost.
The apostle Paul indicated that he did not know if he was going to persevere or not (1 Cor 9:27). If he did not know he was going to persevere, we can’t either, right?
Not so fast, say some Arminians and even Calvinists. Some say that God revealed to them by special revelation that they were going to persevere and hence it was guaranteed that they were going to heaven.
Decades ago, Dr. James Dobson’s father was hospitalized and nearly died. But during his recovery, God revealed to him that he was going to persevere and that his salvation was sure. I remember Dr. Dobson saying on his show Focus on the Family how wonderful that was.i
Arminians and Calvinists who believe that God gives special revelation today may claim to be sure they will persevere. However, as one leading Calvinist pastor and seminary professor once told me, “If the apostle Paul was not sure that he was going to persevere, I can’t be sure either. No believer can.”
The issue in perseverance is not eternal destiny, but eternal reward. Paul said that “if we endure, we shall reign with Him” (2 Tim 2:12). John said that if we did not abide in Christ, then we’d experience shame at His coming (I John 2:28). Paul said that we’d win an imperishable crown if we finished the race (1 Cor 9:24-26; 2 Tim 4:6-8). All believers have everlasting life, but only some believers will be coheirs with Christ (Rom 8:17b).
I find it startling that many Calvinists today say believers must endure in the Christian race in order to win everlasting life. In their book, The Race Set Before Us, Calvinists Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday write, “The racetrack represents salvation. If one abandons the race, one will not receive the prize. The prize is salvation, eternal life” (p. 40). Read that again. For most Evangelicals today, salvation is a prize for perseverance in running the Christian race.
Similarly, Calvinist John Piper wrote, concerning 1 Cor 9:24-27, “The running and the fighting of the Christian life is a running and fighting for eternal life” (see here). Concerning the prize, he added, “The word for ‘prize’ is used one other time in the New Testament, namely, in Philippians 3:14: ‘I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ii To not get the prize is to not go to heaven. So when Paul says, ‘Run in such a way as to win the prize,’ heaven hangs on this running.”
Statements like those from Piper and Schreiner and Caneday seem more like statements from Arminians. Such statements show that both systems say one must persevere in order to gain, or win, everlasting life.
I’m so glad someone (Warren Wilke) shared with me that everlasting life is a free gift. It is not a prize to be won. The moment any of us believed in Jesus for everlasting life, we became eternally secure. We are not guaranteed that we will rule with Christ. But we are guaranteed that we will be with Him forever (1 Thess 5:10).
I hope you find opportunities to share the promise of everlasting life with friends and loved ones who are not sure of their eternal destiny because they think they must persevere in order to win everlasting life as a prize. How liberating it is to be sure that you are part of God’s forever family. How wonderful it is to be given the opportunity to share that amazing message with people we love.
I do not know if I will persevere. No one can know that because perseverance is not guaranteed. But everlasting life is guaranteed to whoever believes in Him for it. Anyone can know that he has everlasting life that can never be lost because once one believes in Christ, he knows itiii.
i Years before I heard that broadcast, I heard the same claim. After I came to faith in Christ through the ministry of Athletes in Action, I joined the track team at UCI. AIA started a Bible study with athletes. A pole vaulter attended after I invited him. He believed that salvation could be lost. But the Bible study showed from Scripture that salvation could not be lost. I remember talking with him about it after class one day. He was charismatic and he told me that while he was not persuaded that the Scriptures teach eternal security, he said that God had told him that he would persevere. So he claimed to be sure, not on the basis of the Bible, but a special word from God.
ii Philippians 3:14 is a rewards text as well. See here for an article on Phil 3:11-14.
iii Assurance of everlasting life can be lost. But the salvation itself is secure forever regardless of whether the believer retains his faith or not.