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MANUAL OF THEOLOGY
SECTION VI. —FINAL PERSEVERANCE.
We have said, that the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify those whom he has regenerated. In consequence of this, they persevere in a course of holy obedience to the end of life. Whatever struggles it may cost, and whatever temporary departures from the straight line of duty may mark their course, they are graciously preserved from total and final apostasy. This truth may be proved by the following arguments:
1. By the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, that which is produced in regeneration is immortal. This is signified by the language of the Scriptures: “The hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible,” (1 Pet. 3:4). “Being born of the incorruptible,” (1 Pet. 1:23). “Whosoever is born of God, doth not commit sin, for his seed remaineth in him,” (1 John 3:9). Grace in the heart is here represented as incorruptible and abiding, and as securing its possessor from sin, that is, from a life of sin, such as unregenerate men pursue. The same truth is taught in these words of Christ:
“He that believeth, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life,” (John 5:24). The new life which grace produces, is in the present possession of the believer, and is here called everlasting. Its perpetuity is asserted in another form, in the words “Neither shall he come into condemnation.” If one who has been made a new creature, and justified by faith, can return to the state from which divine grace has rescued him, he will come again into condemnation; but this is declared in these words of the infallible teacher, to be impossible: “If they who have passed from death to life, may return again to death, their present life is not everlasting;” and the assurance, neither shall come into condemnation, is groundless. The same truth is exhibited in another light, in these words of Paul: “Knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dieth no more, death hath no dominion over him; likewise reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord,” (Rom. 6:9, 11). Here believers are taught to account the new life which they have received, to be like the life of Christ, raised from the dead. As death hath no more dominion over him, the resemblance would fail in a most important particular, if their spiritual life were not immortal. As death can have no more dominion over the risen Saviour, so, death can have no more dominion over those who, in regeneration, have passed from death to life, and have been raised up together with Christ.
2. The union of believers with Christ is indissoluble. His love holds them fast. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ,” &c. (Rom. 8:35-39). “Having loved his own, he loved them to the end,” (John 13:1). “His power holds them fast; neither shall any pluck them out of my hand,” (John 10:28). Such is their union to him, that their life is said to be in him, and he is called their life (Col. 3:3, 4). The life of the risen Jesus, is the life of his people, and such is their union with him, as to render this life operative in them.: “If when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life,” (Rom. 5:10). As his death was efficacious to bring us into a state of reconciliation with God, his life, now that he has been raised from the dead, and is ever living to make intercession for us, and is the source of our life, hid in the Godhead, will much more preserve us in this state of reconciliation, and secure our final and complete salvation.
3. The promises of God secure our preservation in Christ. When the new covenant is made with believers, by writing the law in their hearts, the accompanying promise is: “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people,” (Heb. 8:10). It is true that the Israelites were once accounted the people of God; and that they departed from God, and were rejected by him; and the same departure and rejection might happen to believers in Christ, if they were under the same covenant. But God found fault with the old covenant precisely on this ground, that it did not secure his people from disobedience and rejection: “Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not,” (Heb. 8:9). Having found fault with this covenant, which did not put the law in their hearts, and secure them from rejection, he abolishes that covenant, and makes a new one, founded on better promises:
“I will put my fear in their hearts that they shall not depart from me,” (Jer. 32:40). “Believers are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation,” (1 Pet. 1:5); and the power which keeps them through faith, keeps that faith in existence and exercise, or it would fail to preserve them. This preservation of their faith, follows from the intercession of Christ, (Luke 22:32), who prayed for Peter, that his faith should not fail; and as he ever liveth to make intercession, (Heb. 7:25), the preservation of faith is secured by the continued supplies of his grace, which otherwise would not be sufficient for his people. It is manifest that Paul entertained these views, when he wrote to the Philippians: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” (Phil. 1:6).
4. Final apostasy, when it does occur, is accounted for, in the Scriptures, on the ground that there was an absence of true religion. This is clearly expressed by John: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us,” (1 John 2:19). With this agrees the teaching of Christ, in the parable of the seed sown in different kinds of ground, and explained by him of the word in its effect on different classes of hearers. The stony ground hearers “in time of temptation fell away,” (Luke 8:13), because the seed had not much depth of earth. There may be much appearance of religion where it does not really exist. Some, the Saviour has informed us, will seek to enter in, saying:
“Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name have done many wonderful works?” These applicants are rejected, not on the ground that their plea was false. Their profession of Christ, and their prophesying, and working of miracles, in his name, are not denied: but the ground of this rejection is stated in these words: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity. I never knew you,” (Matthew 7:23). Now, if any of them had ever been true followers of Christ, he must have known them as such, and therefore he could not say: “I never knew you.”
The text last considered, may assist us in explaining a passage in which many have found difficulty: “It is impossible for those who were one enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the power of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance,” (Heb. 6). Apostasy, after great attainments in religion, is here supposed; but these apostates had never been true disciples of Christ, distinguished by love to him, and works of holy obedience. In immediate connection with this account of them, Paul addresses true Christians thus:
“Beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things which accompany salvation, though we thus speak, for God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love,” (Heb. 6:9). The work and labor of love will be acknowledged by him in the great day, when the workers of iniquity will be rejected, whatever knowledge of divine things they may have possessed, and whatever miraculous gifts they may have been endowed with. The superiority of love to all knowledge, miraculous gifts, and all outward works, however costly and self-denying, is clearly taught in 1 Corinthians 13, and we are assured that all these, where love is wanting, will avail nothing. Hence all these, if without love, will not preserve from apostasy in this life, nor from rejection in the last day.
In a practical use of this and some other passages, the minds of many have been distressed with the apprehension that they had committed the unpardonable sin. For their relief, it is important to observe, that the difficulty in the way of the salvation of the apostates here described, consists in the impossibility of renewing them again to repentance. No humble penitent, therefore, has any ground to fear. Whatever his backslidings may have been, if he now truly repents of his sin, and implores pardon through the blood of the cross, he may feel assured that the way of salvation is open to him. The renewal to repentance has, in his case, been accomplished; and he may therefore know that he is not in the number of those, to whom this renewal is impossible.
The confessions of men eminent for piety, prove that they are not free from sin; and the cases of David, who committed adultery, and Peter, who denied his master, prove that true saints have sometimes fallen into gross sins. But David was renewed to repentance, and the record of his penitential acknowledgments has been transmitted to us in the 51st Psalm. A look of Jesus melted Peter’s heart, and he went out, and wept bitterly. But the apostates, who are described in the passage which we have been considering, are given over to hardness of heart: “It is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” The difficulty is, not that the blood of Christ is insufficient to atone for sins so atrocious, but that it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. God never bestows the grace of repentance on such characters. But when one who has been born of God, falls into sin, this impossibility of renewing of repentance does not exist; but his seed remaineth in him; and divine grace brings him back form his wanderings, and restores him to the paths of righteousness. The fire of divine love in the heart, though its flame may be smothered for a time, is more easily rekindled than when first produced; and it is never true of him, as it is of an unregenerate man who falls away, that the last state is worse than the first.
Several other passages of Scripture, which have been understood to imply the apostasy of true believers, require consideration.
“Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, he taketh away,” (John 15:2). This figurative representation, which the Saviour has employed, teaches that there is a sense, in which persons are “in” him, who do not bring forth the fruits of holiness. Such persons do not abide in him, (John 15:6). Their connection is not vital, but professional. They are among his disciples, but not of them; for if they had been of them, they would no doubt have continued with them. The process of separating them, described by the words, “he taketh away,” corresponds well with the removing of a branch which has been grafted into a stalk, but has failed to become vitally connected with it. The perseverance of true saints is taught in the remaining part of the verse: “Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.”
“If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins; but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries,” (Heb. 10:26, 27). This passage has sometimes severely tried the faith of weak believers. When conscious of having committed sins to which their will has consented, these words present themselves in dreadful array, and seem to deter them from all further approach to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, from which they once obtained peace. In such times of trial, the language of faith is, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” (Job 13:15). While this awful text fills with terror, the existence of an humble abiding trust in God is thus demonstrated, and, in view of it, other texts authorize encouragement and hope. With these encouraging and consolatory texts, the passage now under consideration, if properly understood, cannot be inconsistent. It describes the sin of those Hebrews who, after embracing the gospel of Christ, forsook the assembly of Christians (Heb. 10:25), and turned back to Judaism. To them no efficacious sacrifice for sin remained, in the abolished ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation; and if that of Christ were renounced, no other could be found. But these words were never designed to deter any humble penitent from free approach to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, whatever sins he may have committed. The assurance that Jesus has given, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out,” (John 6:37), is sufficient to banish all fear from those who put their trust in him. The same invitation which first made them welcome, and the same assurance which first gave them peace, remain to encourage their continued confidence in this power and grace.
“Of how much sorer punishment suppose ye shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing; and hath done despite to the spirit of grace?,” (Heb. 10:29). The difficulty in this passage is found in the phrase “wherewith he was sanctified.” Do these words teach that persons who have been sanctified may apostatize? Let it be observed that the word sanctify, among the Hebrews, was used to denote external consecration to God (Ex. 13:2; 19:10, 22, 23, &c). This consecration, under the former dispensation, to which the Hebrews had been accustomed, was by the blood of animals. In professing Christianity, they had turned from the blood of animals to the blood of Christ; and their consecration to the service of Christ was by professed faith in his blood. In returning to Judaism, they rejected this precious blood, and accounted it an unholy thing, as if it had been the blood of a vile impostor. But it is better to interpret the phrase by referring the pronoun “he” to the last antecedent, “the Son of God.” The Son of God was sanctified and sent into the world (John 10:36); and as the priests of the law were consecrated with blood, Jesus, as our great High Priest, may be said to have been consecrated with the blood of the new covenant.
“The just shall live by faith; but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him,” (Heb. 10:38). In this verse our translators have supplied the words, “any man,” which have no corresponding word in the Greek. The regular translation would be, “If he draw back,” &c. Thus rendered, the pronoun “he” naturally refers to the just man, mentioned in the preceding clause; and the words seem to imply that a just man may draw back, so that God will have no pleasure in him. An argument for supplying the words “any man,” may be drawn from the fact that these words are quoted from the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 2:6, in which the last clause occurs first; and the man who draws back is manifestly distinguished from the just man. The same distinction is made by Paul in the words which immediately follow: “We are not of them who draw back to perdition, but of them who believe to the saving of the soul.” The introduction of the words “any man,” may therefore give a correct exposition of Paul’s words: still, they are an exposition, and not a translation. Paul has inverted the order of the two clauses written by the prophet: and, in so doing, he was doubtless guided by the Holy Spirit, for some wise purpose; and it becomes us to learn from his words, as they have been given by the Spirit for our instruction and admonition. The prophet’s warning was, “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” This warning Paul places in such order, as to make it apply to the just man. What is true of any man, must be true of the just man; and Paul will not deny to the just man the benefit of this admonition. Such admonition, in the apostle’s view, was not inconsistent with the doctrine of the saints’ final perseverance.
“When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done, shall he die,” (Ezek. 18:26). These words are to be understood in the same manner as the words of Paul which have just been considered. The terms “just” and “righteous” are of like import, and are descriptive of those who obey God’s commands, and enjoy his favor. Such persons need the admonitions contained in these passages; and they are given in language precisely adapted to the case. To all, except the Searcher of hearts, there is an uncertainty respecting man’s character in his sight; and, on the ground of this uncertainty, opportunity is given for the needed admonition. Paul spoke with confidence, that the Hebrews whom he addressed were “of those who believe to the saving of the soul:” yet, without relying on his own estimate of their character, or deriving from it an assurance of their perseverance, he warned them earnestly against apostasy.
“If, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning,” (2 Pet. 2:20). These words describe men who have been reformed in their conduct by the influence of the gospel, but without a thorough change of heart. This appears from the proverb applied to them: “The dog has returned to his vomit, and the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire,” (2 Pet. 2:22). As the temporary change of the dog and the sow had not altered their natural propensities, so it was with these men. Their change, though a reform, had not made them new creatures.
“Whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace,” (Gal. 5:4). These words describe a change in their doctrinal views as to the method of salvation. They had turned from salvation by grace to salvation by the law. But how far the state of their hearts was influenced by their doctrinal creed, either before or after the change here described, the passage does not inform us.
“Concerning faith having made shipwreck,” (1 Tim. 1:19). “Overthrow the faith of some,” (2 Tim. 25:18). Wrong views had been inculcated by these men respecting the resurrection of the dead. It may be that neither they, nor those who were misled by them, had ever received the love of the truth. On this point the passage says nothing.
“Through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish for whom Christ died?,” (1 Cor. 8:11). When the stronger Christian will not, for the sake of a weak brother, deny himself a carnal indulgence, he exhibits a criminal disregard of his weak brother’s interest. The tendency of this conduct is the ruin of his weak brother; and the criminality is to be judged by its tendency; and is the same, whether the tendency goes into effect, or is prevented by the interposition of divine grace. The question propounded does not affirm what the result will be; but impressively exhibits the guilt of the offender by contrasting his conduct with that of Christ. Christ died for the weak brother; and would you cause him to perish, rather than deny yourself a trifling gratification?
“I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway,” (1 Cor. 9:27). These words contain a manifest reference to the Grecian games, in which the herald, who announced them, took no part in the contest, or the previous preparation for it; and therefore did not receive the crown Paul was not only a herald, making the gospel proclamation, but he entered the lists as a combatant, and made diligent preparation for the conflict, by keeping under his body. He did this, knowing that his preaching, or acting the herald, to others, would not secure a crown to himself. He prepared diligently for the combat, that he might receive the crown, and not be a castaway, or one rejected by the Judge.
The explanation which has been given to this passage, removes all appearance of inconsistency between it and the doctrine of the saints’ final perseverance; yet it admits that Paul was stimulated to activity and perseverance in the Christian conflict, by the belief that his obtaining of the crown depended on his perseverance and success in the struggle. Those who understand the doctrine of perseverance to imply that God’s people will obtain the crown without the struggle, totally mistake the matter. The doctrine is that God’s people will persevere in the struggle; and to suppose that they will obtain the crown without doing so, is to contradict the doctrine. It is a wretched and fatal perversion of the doctrine, if men conclude that, having been once converted, they will be saved, whatever may be their course of life. God’s work plainly declares, that “he who soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption:” and every man who does not keep under his body, and bring it into subjection, and who does not endure to the end, in this spiritual conflict, will assuredly fail to receive the crown. Without this, no conversion which he may have undergone, and not even a call to apostleship, will secure the approbation of the final Judge.
We have said that the new creature produced in regeneration, is immortal; but this immortality is dependent on the will of God, and is secured by means which God has provided. Adam, in his primeval innocence, was immortal; but his life was sustained, under God, by the fruits of the garden which had been assigned to his use. So God has appointed necessary means for preserving the divine life in the soul, and the use of these means is as indispensable to the accomplishment of the purpose, in this, as in all other cases in which he has chosen to work by means. The doctrine of final perseverance, when properly understood, does not teach that God’s people are in no sense in danger of final apostasy. Paul tells us that he had often been in perils of waters (2 Cor. 11:26). One of these times of danger was the shipwreck which he experienced in his voyage to Rome. He, and all his companions in the vessel, were in great danger; and they could not have been saved, if the necessary means for their preservation had not been used. Yet God had both purposed and promised their deliverance. The righteous, notwithstanding the purpose and promise of God, are scarcely saved, (1 Pet. 4:18). They succeed at last, as by a narrow escape. Through danger, imminent danger, they are at last delivered: and, in order to that deliverance, the use of the appointed means is as necessary as the appointment itself;—as necessary as the purpose of God.
The warning which the Scriptures give to the people of God, constitute an important part of the means which God has appointed for their perseverance in holiness to eternal life. As the rock in the mariner’s chart guards him from being dashed to pieces, so these warnings preserve the spiritual mariner from destruction. The awful warnings given by Paul to the Hebrews, were designed to guard them against final apostasy. They therefore imply that there was danger of such apostasy. The heirs of promise might have strong consolation, in the hope founded on the oath and promise of God, that they would be brought safely through the danger. In the wisdom of God, the warnings are so given, as to secure their proper effect, without destroying that confidence in God, which is the Christian’s hope and joy. To make this clear, and to derive the proper benefit from these warnings, let us briefly review them.
The warning given in Hebrews 6:4-7, was designed for real Christians. Every clause in the description of the persons, whose apostasy is declared to be fatal, would in other connections be understood to denote true Christians. The Hebrew Christians are elsewhere described as persons “illuminated,” (Heb. 10:32). The first particular in the description here, is, “who were once enlightened.” Other particulars are added, agreeing with well-known peculiarities, which distinguished the followers of Christ. These words, therefore, contain a general description of Christians; and the warning which they contain was applicable to Christians, and designed for their benefit. With these features of the Christian character, which are so vividly portrayed, and which were so well known in the days of primitive Christianity, there was generally connected a love to the truth, which was necessary to the full and proper effect of divine instruction. When this operated, the warning here proposed had its proper effect. These persons were like the fruitful ground, which received blessing from God, (Heb. 6:7); and this love the apostle believed to exist in those to whom his epistle was directed (Heb. 6:9-10). They who possessed this love were moved by his warning, to make advance in spiritual attainments, according to his exhortation in the beginnings of the chapter. But this result did not invariably follow the instructions and warning, which were given to those who possessed the general features of the Christian character. Apostasy sometimes occurred; and apostasy which was final and hopeless. This fact gave just occasion for the warning.
Similar remarks may be made on the passages in the 10th chapter of Hebrews. That they were designed as warnings to true Christians may be seen in the fact that Paul includes himself in the number. “If we sin wilfully,” (Heb. 10:26), &c., and in the further fact that the just “are warned against drawing back,” (Heb 10:38). All these consequences were set before the Christians, who are addressed, and the apostle again expresses his confidence, that they, with himself, will, in the belief and love of the truth, receive the warning and be saved.
The warning against apostasy and the exhortations to perseverance were not addressed to false professors, as such. The apostle was not solicitous that these should persevere in their false profession. Those, to whom his epistle was directed, were all exhorted to hold fast their profession, on the supposition that it had been honestly made. All had exhibited the appearances of true religion, and were treated accordingly. The plant which springs from seed sown in stony places, does not differ from that which is sown in good ground, except in not having much depth of earth; and this defect becomes manifest, when it withers under the beams of the sun. So those who afterwards apostatize, agree in the profession which they make, and all the appearances of religion which they exhibit, with those who endure to the end. The difference is, that the word has not a deep place in their hearts; and this is discovered only by their apostasy. “They went out from us, that they might be made manifest, that they are not all of us,” (1 John 2:19). Hence, until their apostasy occurs, the same means of spiritual cultivation are employed for their benefit, as for others; the same hopes are entertained for them; and the same language is used in describing them. The tendency of this spiritual cultivation is to render them fruitful, like the rest; but it fails to produce this effect, because they have no sincere and abiding love of the truth.
The doctrine of final perseverance, properly understood, gives no encouragement to sluggishness or negligence in duty; much less does it lead to licentiousness. He who takes occasion from it to sin against God, or to be indolent in his service, not only misunderstands, and misapplies the doctrine, but has reason to fear that his heart is not right before God. Perseverance in holiness is the only infallible proof that the heart is right; and he who ceases to persevere, on the presumption that his heart is right, believes without the proper evidence, and is woefully hazarding his eternal interests on his presumption. The doctrine is, that grace in the heart will produce perseverance to the end; and where the effect is not produced, the cause does not exist. Every man, therefore, whatever his past professions and attainments may have been, has reason to take alarm, if he finds his heart inclined to depart from Christ: and the greater his past attainments may have been, the greater is the occasion for alarm; because his case, if he falls away, will so much the more resemble that in which renewal to repentance is impossible.
To reject the doctrine of final perseverance tends to fix the hope of salvation on human effort, and not on the purpose and grace of God. If, in God’s method of salvation, no provision has been made, which secures the safe-keeping of the regenerate, and their perseverance in holiness, their salvation is left dependent on their own efforts, and their trust must be in that which success depends. All that God has done for them, will fail to bring them through, if this effort, originating in themselves, be not superadded; and the eye of hope is necessarily directed to this human effort, as that on which the momentous issue depends. Thus the denial of the doctrine draws off the heart from simple trust in God, and therefore tends to produce apostasy. The just shall live by faith, (Heb. 10:38). Simple trust in God is necessary to preserve the spiritual life; and to trust in man, and make flesh our arm (Jer. 17:5), is to fall under the curse, and draw back to perdition. In our first coming to Christ, we renounce all confidence in self, and put our entire trust in the mercy and power of God: and in the same faith with which we began, we must persevere to the end of our course. Worldly wisdom may encourage self-reliance, and regard it as necessary to success: but the wisdom that is from above teaches us to renounce and avoid it as ruinous to the soul.
Convinced of his weakness and helplessness, the believer learns more and more in this life of faith to trust God, and to have no confidence in himself. He learns, by daily experience, the treachery of his own heart, and is increasingly weaned from the folly of trusting in it. It becomes his more earnest prayer, as he makes greater progress in the knowledge of himself and the way of salvation. “Hold thou me up,” (Ps. 119:117). He looks forward to the temptations and trials through which he has to pass; and, unwilling to trust himself in the least degree, asks God, earnestly and importunately to keep him to the end. This prayer he may hope that God will answer, if the doctrine of final perseverance be true. If the grace to persevere is a gift of God, it is a proper subject of prayer; and that doctrine best accords with God’s method of salvation, which teaches us to come boldly to the throne of grace, for the mercy and grace to help in every time of need. We cannot now ask with confidence, for grace to help us through all future times of need, and to incline and strengthen us to persevere to the end, if the bestowment of such persevering grace is not within God’s plan of salvation.
The doctrine of final perseverance is full of consolation to the believer, when ready to faint in his spiritual warfare. So far as he finds, in a careful examination of his heart, evidence that the love of God has been shed abroad there by the Holy Spirit, he is enabled to regard this grace as an earnest of the future inheritance, and to rejoice in hope of obtaining that inheritance in full possession, at the time appointed of his heavenly Father. If doubts arise, they spring not from a view of incompleteness in God’s method of salvation, but they refer exclusively to the question whether his heart has been brought to put simple and exclusive trust in that divine method, and the provision of mercy which it includes. As the best termination of these doubts, he views the way open for him to come now, if never before, and cast himself on this mercy, so richly provided, and so gloriously adapted to his necessities.
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