Part 4
Chapter 5—Of Perseverance

Section 7—Tertullian. A.D. 200.

Tertullian was no stranger to the doctrine of the saints' final perseverance. “Satan,” he says,[1] “cannot do anything against the servants of the living God, unless he permits, ut aut ipsum destruat per fidem electorum in tentatione victricem, aut homines ejus fuisse traducat, qui defecerint ad eum, ‘either that he may destroy him through the faith of the elect, which overcomes in temptation, or that he may openly show that the men were his, who fell off to him.” You have an example in Job. So he desired power to tempt the apostles, not having it but by permission; since the Lord in the Gospel says to Peter, Satan hath desired that he might sift thee as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; ne tantum Diabolo permitteretur, ut fides periclitaretur, ‘lest only it should be permitted to the devil, as that faith should be in danger;' whereby it showed, that both are with God, and shaking of faith, and the protection of it; since both are desired of him, shaking by the devil, protection by the Son; and seeing the Son of God has the protection of faith in his own power, which he requested of the Father, from whom he receives all power in heaven and in earth; how can the devil have the shaking of faith in his own hand?” And a little after he observes,[2] that “the legion of devils had had no power over the herd of swine, unless they had obtained it of God; tantum abest ut in oves Dei habeat, ‘so far are they from having any over the sheep of God.' The devil seems now to enjoy his own power, si forte in eos qui ad Deum non pertinent, though perhaps over them who do not belong to God.” Moreover, against the household of God he can do nothing of his own power; for when he is allowed, the instances in Scripture demonstrate from what causes it is; for either the power of tempting is granted to him, provoked or provoking, for the sake of probation, as in the cases above; or for the sake of reprobation, is the sinner delivered to him as to an executioner for punishment, as Saul; —or for the sake of restraint, as the apostle relates, that there was given him a staff, a messenger of Satan to buffet him. Nor is this kind permitted to the devil, for the humbling of the saints, by afflicting the flesh; nisi simul ut et virtus tolerantiae scilicet in infirmitate perfici possit, “unless that also, at the same time, the power of patience might be made perfect, namely, in weakness.” He elsewhere suggests,[3] that it is impossible the elect of God should be destroyed by Satan, notwithstanding all the signs and wonders done by him. “God forbid,” says he, “that we should believe that the soul of any saint, much less of a prophet, should be drawn out by the devil, who are taught, that Satan may be transfigured into an angel of light; not only into a man of light; yea, that in the end he will affirm himself to be God, and will do more wondrous signs, ad evertendos si fieri posit electos, to destroy the elect, if possible.” 

Moreover, Tertullian asserts, that the work of God cannot be lost, extinguished, or cease; “for what is of God,” says he,[4] “is not so extinguished, as it is overshadowed; for it may be overshadowed,, because it is not God;. it cannot be extinguished, because it is of God.” And if this is true of natural good, which God puts into men, of which he seems to speak, it must be much more so of supernatural good infused into them. And in another place[5] he asks, “How is it, that though Satan is always working, and adding daily to the wicked wits of men, opus Dei aut cessaverit aut proficere destiterit, that, either the work of God should cease, or stop going forward.” Vossius[6] indeed refers us to two places in this writer, in favor of the saints' defectibility from the grace of God. In the first of them are these words:[7] “And is this to be wondered at, that any who have been proved for the time past should afterwards fall? Saul, a good man, above the rest, is overthrown by envy; David, a good man, according to the Lord's heart, is afterwards guilty of murder and adultery; Solomon, endued with all grace and wisdom by the Lord, is by women induced to idolatry: for to the Son of God alone was it reserved to abide without sin. What if, therefore, a bishop, a deacon, a widow, a virgin, a doctor, yea, even a martyr, should fall from the rule, shall heresies on that account seem to obtain truth? Do we prove faith by persons, or persons by faith? No man is wise, but a believer; no man of great name, but a Christian; no man a Christian, but he who shall persevere to the end.” All which amounts to no more, than that the best of men may fall into sin; that none are exempt from it but the Son of God; therefore we should not think ill of the doctrine of faith, because of the falls of the professors of it; no man being a true Christian but he that shall persevere to the last; for such who do not, were never true Christians; to all which we heartily subscribe. Tertullian, both before and after this passage, says such things as are so far from destroying, that they serve to strengthen the doctrine of perseverance. Before it he observes, that “heresies prevail through the infirmities of some, which would not prevail at all, si in bene valentem fidem incurrant, had they attacked one whose faith was sound and well.” And after it he has these words, which gave great light into his sense and meaning; “The Lord knows them that are his, and the plant which the Father has not planted he roots up, and of the first shows the last, and carries the fan in his hand to purge his floor. Let the chaff of light faith fly away with every breath of temptation, as much as can fly, eo purior massa frumenti in horrea Domini reponetur, ‘so that the more pure mass of wheat may be laid up in the Lord's garners.' Shall not some of the learners, being offended, turn away from the Lord? Yet the rest should not therefore think of departing from following him; but they that know that he is the word of life, and came from God, perseveraverunt in comitatu ejus usque ad finem, ‘have persevered in his company unto the end,' when he mildly offered to them to depart if they would. It is a lesser matter if such as Phygellus, Hermogenes, Philetus, and Hymeneeus, leave his apostle. The betrayer of Christ was of the apostles. We wonder at his churches, if they are deserted by some, when these things show us Christians, what we suffer after the example of Christ himself; They went out from us, says he, 1 John 2:19, for they were not of us,” etc. In the other[8] place referred to stands this passage: “Do not many afterwards fall? Is not the gift taken away from many? These are they, namely, who creep in by stealth; who, attempting the faith of repentance, place their house, about to fall upon the sands.” But Tertullian is manifestly speaking of such who never had the true grace of God, or built upon a right foundation, from whom was taken away that which they seemed to have; having fallen, not from true faith they never had, but from a profession of it: so he sometimes[9] calls Simon Magus a believer, because he professed to be one; though he afterwards says, that he was cursed by the apostles, and cast out from the faith, that is, from the church of God, and a profession of faith in it. So when he speaks[10] of some ready to perish after baptism, he is to be understood of such who have not, and never had, oil in their lamps.” Or, when he speaks of true believers losing their faith, he does not mean that they shall finally and totally perish; “for,” says he,[11] “though such an one may be said to perish, it will be of such kind or perdition as to be recovered again; because the sheep perishes, not by dying, but by wandering, and the piece of silver, not by decaying, but by lying hid; so that may be said to perish which is safe; wherefore also a believer, falling into a sight of the charioteer's fury, the fencer's blood, the filthiness of the stage, etc., perishes;” yet he observes, that he ought to be sought after and fetched back.


[1] Tertull. de Fuga in Perscent. c. 2, p. 690.

[2] Ibid. p. 691.

[3] Ibid. de Anima, c. 57, p. 356.

[4] Ibid. c. 4,1, p. 342.

[5] Tertull. de Virgin. Veland. c.1, p. 192.

[6] Hist. Pelag. 1. 6, thes. 12, p. 567.

[7] De Praescript. Haerat. c. 3, p. 230, 231.

[8] De Poenitentia, c. 6, p. 144.

[9] De Idolatria, c. 9, p. 109.

[10] Scorpiace, c. 6, p. 623.

[11] De Pudicitia, c. 7, p. 722.