The Five Points of Calvinism – Part 5 by R. L. Dabney

V. Perserverence of the Saints.

Our Confession, in Chapter XVII., Sections i and ii., states this doctrine thus: ‘They whom God hath accepted in his beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.’ ‘This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own their own will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.’

I beg the reader to weigh these statements with candor and close attention. He will find that we do not ascribe this stability of grace in the believer to any excellence in his own soul, even regenerate, as source and cause, but we ascribe it to the unchangeable purpose and efficacious grace of God dwelling and operating in them. All the angels, and Adam, received from their Creator holy natures; yet our first father and the fallen angels show that they could totally fall away into sin. No one in himself is absolutely incapable of sinning, except the unchangeable God. Converted men, who still have indwelling sin, must certainly be as capable of falling as Adam, who had none. We believe that the saints will certainly stand, because the God who chose them will certainly hold them up.

We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, ‘have but a name to have while they are dead.’ They fall fatally be cause they never had true grace to fall from.

We do not teach that any man is entitled to believe that he is justified, and therefore shall not come again in condemnation on the proposition ‘once in grace always in grace,’ although he be now living in intentional, willful sin. This falsehood of Satan we abhor. We say, the fact that this deluded man can live in willful sin is the strongest possible proof that he never was justified, and never had any grace to fall from. And, once for all, no intelligent believer can possibly abuse this doctrine into a pretext for carnal security. It promises to true believers a perseverance in holiness. Who, except an idiot, could in infer from that promise the privilege to be unholy?

Once more. We do not teach that genuine believers are secure from backsliding, but if they become unwatchful and prayerless, they may fall for a time into temptations, sins, and loss of hope and comfort, which may cause them much misery and shame, and out of which a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition. Hence, so far as lawful self-interests can be a proper motive for Christian effort, this will operate on the Presbyterian under this doctrinal perseverance, more than on the Arminian with his doctrine of falling from grace. The former cannot say, I need not be alarmed though I be backslidden; for if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarm at these! But further, an enlightened self-love will alarm him more pungently than the Arminians’ will. Here is an Arminian who finds himself backslidden. Does he feel a wholesome alarm, saying to himself, ‘Ah, me, I was in the right road to heaven, but I have gotten out of it; I must get back in to it?’ Well, the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter. Which of the two men has the more pungent motive to strive?

As I have taken the definition of the doctrine from our Confession, I will take thence the heads of its Proofs :

  1. The immutability of God’s election proves it. How came this given sinner to be now truly converted? Because God had elected him to salvation. But God says,’my purpose shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.’ Since God is changeless and almighty, this purpose to save him must certainly succeed. But no man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace.
  2. The doctrine follows from the fact that God’s election is sovereign and unconditional, not grounded in any foreseen merit in the sinner elected. God knew there was none in him to foresee. But God did foresee all the disobedience, unthankfulness, and provocation which that unworthy sinner was ever to perpetrate. Therefore, the future disclosure of this unthankfulness, disobedience, and provocation by this poor sinner, cannot become a motive with God to revoke his election of him. God knew all about it just as well when he first elected him, and yet, moved by his own motives of love, mercy, and wisdom, he did elect him, foreknowing all his possible meanness.
  3. The same conclusion follows from God’s covenant of redemption with his Son the Messiah. This was a compact made from eternity between the Father and the Son. In this the Son freely bound himself to die for the sins of the world and to fulfill his other offices as Mediator for the redemption of God’s people. God covenanted on this condition to give his Son this redeemed people as his recompense. In this covenant of redemption Christ furnished and fulfilled the whole conditions; his redeemed people none. So, when Christ died, saying ‘It is finished,’ the compact was finally closed; there is no room, without unfaithfulness in the Father, for the final falling away of a single star out of our Savior’s purchased crown; read John xvii. It is ‘an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and is sure.’ (2 Sam. xxiii. 5.)
  4. We must infer the same blessed truth from Christ’s love in dying for his people while sinners, from the supreme merits of his imputed righteousness, and the power of his intercession: ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. For 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. v. 8-10.) ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’ (Rom. viii. 32.) Of Christ, the Intercessor, it is said: ‘Him the Father heareth always. But see John xvii. 20: ‘Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.’ If the all-prevailing High Priest prays for all believers, all of them will receive what he asks for. But what and how much does he for them? Some temporary, contingent and mutable grace, contingent on the changeable and fallible human will? See John xvii. 24: ‘ Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given Me be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given Me.’
  5. If any man is converted, it is because the Holy Ghost is come into him ; if any sinner lives for a time the divine life, it is because the Holy Ghost is dwelling in him. But the Bible assures us that this Holy Ghost is the abiding seed of spiritual life, the earnest of heaven, and the seal of our redemption. Believers are ‘born by the word of God, of a living and incorruptible seed, which abideth and liveth forever,’ The Apostle Paul declares that they receive the earnest of the Spirit, and that his indwelling is ‘ the earnest of the purchased possession.’ The same apostle says (Eph. iv. 30): ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.’ (See 1 Jn. 3.9).

An earnest, or earnest-money, is a smaller sum paid in cash when a contract is finally closed, as an unchangeable pledge that the future payments shall also be made in their due time. A seal is the final imprint added by the contracting parties to their names to signify that the contract is closed and binding. Such is the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit in every genuine believer; a deathless principle of perseverance therein, God’s advanced pledge of his purpose to give heaven also, God’s seal affixed to his covenant of grace. This, then, is the blessed assurance of hope which the true believer is privileged to attain: not only that God is pledged conditionally to give me heaven, provided I continue to stick to my gospel duty in the exercise of my weak, changeable, fallible will. A wretched consolation that to the believer who knows his own heart ! But the full assurance of hope is this: Let the Holy Spirit once touch this dead heart of mine with his quickening light, so that I embrace Christ with a real penitent faith; then I have the blessed certainty that ‘this God who hath begun the good work in me, will perfect it unto the day of Jesus Christ’ (his judgment day), (See Phil. 1.6) that the same divine love will infallibly continue with me notwithstanding subsequent sins and provocations, will chastise, restore, and uphold me, and give me the final victory over sin and death. This is the hope inexpressible and full of glory, a thousand-fold better adapted to stimulate in me obedience, the prayer, the watchfulness, the striving, which are the means of my victory, than the chilling doubts of possible falling from grace. Again, the Scriptures are our best argument. I append a few texts among many: See Jer. xxxii. 40: ‘And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from Me.’ My Sheep never perish, and none shall pluck them out of my hand (Jn.10.27 ff). 2 Tim. ii. 19:’ The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his.’ Christ himself implies that it is not possible to deceive his elect. 1 Peter I. 5 : Believers ‘ are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.’ The same apostle thus explains the apostasy of final backsliders. 2 Peter ii. 22: ‘The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.’ She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.

The apostle (1 John ii. 19) explains final back slidings in the same way, and in words which simply close the debate: ‘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.’

My affirmative argument virtually refutes all objections. But there are two to which I will give a word. Arminians urge always an objection drawn from their false philosophy. They say that if God’s grace in regeneration were efficient, certainly determining the convert’s will away from sin to gospel duty, it would destroy his free agency. Then there would be no moral nor deserving quality in his subsequent evangelical obedience to please God, any more than in the natural color of his hair, which he could not help. My answer is, that their philosophy is false. The presence and operation of a right principle in a man, certainly determining him to right feelings and actions, does not infringe his free-agency but rather is essential to all right free-agency. My proofs are, that if this spurious philosophy were true, the saints and elect angels in heaven could not have any free-agency or praise-worthy character or conduct. For they are certain and forever determined to holiness. The man Jesus could not have had any free-agency or merit, for his human will was absolutely determined to holiness. God himself could not have had any freedom or praiseworthy holiness. He least of all! for his will is eternally, unchangeably, and necessarily determined to absolute holiness, If there is anything approaching blasphemy in this, take notice, it is not mine. I put this kind of philosophy from me with abhorrence.

It is objected, again, that the Bible is full of warnings to believers to watch against apostasy, like this in I Cor. x. 12: ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.’ The sophism is, that if believers cannot fall from grace all these warnings are absurd. I reply, they are reasonable, because believers could fall from grace if were left to their own natural powers. In this sense, they naturally might fall, and therefore watchfulness is reasonably urged upon them, because God’s unchangeable purpose of grace towards them is effectuated in them, not as if they were stocks or stones, or dumb beasts, but rational free agents, to be guided and governed by the almighty Spirit through the means of rational motives. Therefore, when we see God plying believers with these rational motives not to back slide, it is not to be inferred that he secretly intends to let them backslide fatally, but rather just the contrary. I will close with a little parable: I watch a wise, intelligent, watchful, and loving mother, who is busy about her household work. There is a bright little girl playing about the room, the mother’s darling. I hear her say, ‘take care, baby dear, don’t go near that bright fire, for you might get burned.’ Do I argue thus? Hear that woman’s words ! I infer from them that that woman’s mind is made up to let that darling child burn itself to death unless its own watchfulness shall suffice to keep it away from the fire, the caution of an ignorant, impulsive, fickle little child. What a heartless mother! But I do not infer thus, unless I am a heartless fool. I know that this mother knows the child is a rational creature, and that rational cautions are one species of means for keeping it at a safe distance from the fire; therefore she does right to address such cautions to the child; she would not speak thus if she thought it were a mere kitten or puppy dog, and would rely on nothing short of tying it by the neck to the table leg. But I also know that that watchful mother’s mind is fully made up that the darling child shall not burn itself at this fire. If the little one’s impulsiveness and short memory cause it to neglect the maternal cautions, I know that I shall see that good woman instantly drop her instruments of labor and draw back her child with physical force from that fire, and then most rationally renew her cautions to the child as a reasonable agent with more emphasis. And if the little one proves still heedless and willful, I shall see her again rescued by physical force, and at last I shall see the mother impressing her cautions on the child’s mind more effectually, perhaps by passionate caresses, or perhaps by a good switching, both alike the expressions of faithful love.

Such is the Bible system of grace which men call Calvinism, so often in disparagement. Its least merit is that it corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy. Its grand evidence is that it corresponds with Scripture. ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar.’ This doctrine exalts God, his power, his sovereign, unbought love and mercy. They are entitled to be supremely exalted. This doctrine humbles man in the dust. He ought to be humbled; he is a guilty, lost sinner, the sole, yet the certain architect of his own ruin. Helpless, yet guilty of all that makes him helpless, he ought to take his place in the deepest contrition, and give all the glory of his redemption to God. This doctrine, while it lays man’s pride low, gives him an anchor of hope, sure and steadfast, drawing him to heaven; for his hope is founded not in the weakness, folly, and fickleness of his human will, but in the eternal love, wisdom, and power of almighty God. ‘O Israel, who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord!’ ‘The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ (Deut. xxxiii. 29, 27.)

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