I received an interesting question—correction really—from a reader. He wrote:
I think you at GES are mistaken about the perseverance of the Saints. R. C. Sproul says it is God by His Spirit that helps us persevere in the Christian life until the end. Sproul said it should be called the Preservation of the Saints. God preserves us in our Christian walk until he takes us home to be with him.
I wrote my Master’s thesis at DTS on this very question. I am delighted to get a chance to interact on this issue.
I think the reader is mistaken. Steele, Thomas, and Quinn, in the Second Edition of The Five Points of Calvinism, say that in the first edition they emphasized eternal security under point five. But in the second edition they said that we should speak of the six points of Calvinism, with preservation and perseverance as two separate points.
Calvinists define preservation as eternal security. God promises that those who have been born again—well, they would say those who have been truly born again—are eternally secure.
Calvinists define perseverance as something God does too. God guarantees that the elect will persevere in faith and good works until death.
It is true, of course, that Calvinists see both preservation and perseverance as true. All who are eternally secure will persevere. Anyone who fails to persevere is not eternally secure.
Sproul and other Calvinists sometimes speak of the perseverance of the saints as though it were the preservation of the saints. However, what they mean is that if God has regenerated you, then He guarantees that He will preserve your salvation by causing you to persevere in faith and good works. They never teach that God has guaranteed to preserve your salvation whether you persevere or not!
Here are some quotes from Sproul, Piper, and MacArthur, all leading Calvinists, about the perseverance of the saints:
The old axiom in Reformed theology about the perseverance of the saints is this: if you have it, that is, if you have genuine faith and are in a state of saving grace, you will never lose it. And if you lose it, you never had it (R. C. Sproul, “Perseverance of the Saints,” see here).
We Must Persevere in Faith if We Are to Be Finally Saved…The Obedience or Holiness That Comes from Faith Is Necessary for Final Salvation…Those Whom God Has Justified Will Be Kept by God for Final Salvation…Falling Away from Faith and Holiness Shows that We Never Belonged to Christ…Therefore, Let Us Be Earnest to Make Our Calling and Election Sure (John Piper, section titles in his seminar on “The Perseverance of the Saints,” see here).
Those with true faith will not lead perfect lives, though some have attributed such a claim to proponents of working-faith salvation. The teaching of “once saved, always saved” may carry the false implication that after “accepting Christ” a person may live any kind of life and still be saved. That leaves out the doctrine of perseverance, which carries with it the need for a holy life. Peter in his first epistle furnishes six means through which God causes every Christian to persevere: by regenerating them to a living hope, by keeping them through His power, by strengthening them through tests of faith, by preserving them for ultimate glory, by motivating them with love for the Savior, and by saving them through a working faith. Quantification of how much failure the doctrine of perseverance allows is impossible, but Jesus did prescribe a way for the church to deal with a professing believer whose life sin had seemingly come to dominate (John MacArthur, “Perseverance of the Saints,” see here, emphasis added).
The idea that salvation is by working-faith is consistent with the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, though most Calvinists do not put it quite that bluntly. But that idea is not consistent with the teachings of the Lord or His Apostles. They taught salvation by faith alone, totally apart from works (John 3:16; 4:10; 5:24; 6:28-29; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Rev 22:17).
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. The Lord and His Apostles called believers to persevere in faith and good works until death or the rapture (Matt 24:45-51; Luke 8:13-15; 1 Cor 9:24-27; Col 1:21-23; 2 Tim 2:12; 4:6-10; 1 John 2:28; 4:17-19; Rev 2:26). But they did not teach that such perseverance is guaranteed. Nor did they teach the anyone who fails to persevere will miss out on Christ’s kingdom. They taught that perseverance was a condition for the eternal reward of ruling with Christ, not of everlasting life or so-called “final salvation.”
Salvation is final the moment one believes in Christ for everlasting life. Whether you will persevere is not a settled matter. You will need to abide in Christ and in His Word in order to persevere. But whether you persevere or not, if you have ever believed in Jesus for everlasting life, then you are secure forever.