The single most frequent way to corrupt the doctrine of perseverance has been to turn it into a covenant of works. This happens regularly outside the Reformed churches. E.g., the Romanists teach that, in baptism, sins are graciously washed away, initial justification is given, and regeneration is imparted. From there, it is essential for the Christian to exercise his free choice, to do his part, and to cooperate sufficiently with grace in order to become sufficiently sanctified so as to be finally justified. The Protestant churches rejected this system because it confuses the law and the gospel, because it denies the grace of God, and because it denies the finished work of Christ for sinners. It make Christ, as we say in the Belgic Confession (art. 22), “but half a Savior.” Orthodox Lutheranism verged back in this direction by agreeing with the (Romanist) Council of Trent that grace is resistible, that baptism necessarily regenerates (unless one places an obstacle in its way) but that one can resist grace so as to fall away. Thus, implicitly, cooperation with grace (in the form of not resisting) becomes of the essence of remaining in a state of grace. One will not hear Lutherans saying this, of course. Such a doctrine is a departure from what Luther taught in his catechisms (1529) and in On the Bondage of the Will (1525). The Reformed preserved Luther’s doctrine of unconditional grace and salvation and defended it in colloquies (formal discussions) with the Lutherans in the 16th century, e.g., the Colloquy of Montbeilard (1580). On this see Jill Raitt’s excellent work. The so-called “evangelical Arminians” (e.g., Wesleyans) also departed from the Reformation doctrine of perseverance so that it becomes, in their system, what the Reformed called a covenant of works. The believer must do his part in order to remain in a state of grace.
At the Synod of Dort the Reformed churches reaffirmed that Christians persevere and are preserved sola gratia, by grace alone, sola fide, through faith alone. Even within the Reformed churches and within broader evangelicalism influenced by some aspects of Reformed theology (but not themselves Reformed nor members of Reformed churches) many have been tempted to modify Reformed theology in similar ways. E.g., it is popularly taught in some quarters that sinners are initially justified (declared righteous with God) sola gratia, sola fide but they are said to be finally justified and saved “through works.” This is their language. For more on this error see these resources.
The first indicator that such teaching is a departure from the theology and piety of the Reformation is distinction between “initial” and “final” justification (or salvation). This is not a biblical way of speaking nor is it a Protestant way of speaking. It is, however, a Romanist way of speaking. Scripture says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1; NASB). Scripture says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8; NASB). The Holy Spirit has said nothing in Holy Scripture about an initial justification and nothing about an initial salvation as distinct from a final justification or final salvation.
The older Reformed theologians did distinguish between gaining title to salvation and taking possession of it but both were said to be by grace alone, through faith alone. Good works were consistently said to be fruit and evidence of salvation not the instrument of salvation. Faith is the alone instrument of justification, sanctification, and glorification (the three aspects of salvation).
The confession of the Reformed churches is clear about this and no particular confession is more clear about the graciousness of perseverance and salvation than the Canons of the Synod of Dort.
So it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace totally nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost. With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen, but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen, since his plan cannot be changed, his promise cannot fail, the calling according to his purpose cannot be revoked, the merit of Christ as well as his interceding and preserving cannot be nullified, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be invalidated nor wiped out (Canons of Dort, 5.8).
In the previous section (articles 5–7) we saw the Pauline/Augustinian/Reformed realism about reality of sin in Christians in this life (as distinct from the Pelagian/Wesleyan doctrine of entire perfection). Christians sin, sometimes grievously. Only because God restrains the consequences of our sin (mercy) and only because he is unconditionally (as far as we are concerned—Christ met the conditions of the covenant of works for us to make possible for us to receive the benefits of the covenant of grace) favorable (gracious) toward us are we preserved and thus persevere.
Were it up to us to cooperate, by free choice, with grace unto salvation, we would never be saved because our cooperation would never be sufficient. We could never produce the quality nor the quantity of cooperation. Thus, as we say in CD 5.8, we rest on Christ’s merits (not our, we have none of ourselves). We trust in God’s purposes. We are preserved because of Christ’s intercession.
Concerning this preservation of those chosen to salvation and concerning the perseverance of true believers in faith, believers themselves can and do become assured in accordance with the measure of their faith, by which they firmly believe that they are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Canons of Dort, 5.9).
Because perseverance is God’s free gift, in Christ, to believers and because it flows out of his unconditional, electing grace, we “can and do become assured.” In this life, our assurance is never perfect but it should be solid. The ground of our confidence is not our performance, nor our cooperation with grace, nor our growth in sanctification. The ground of our assurance is outside us (extra nos). Christ is the ground of our assurance. His performance for us and his promises to us make certain our perseverance.
Just as the ground of our assurance are outside of us so too is the revelation of those promises.
Accordingly, this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony “of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs” (Rom. 8:16–17), and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works. And if God’s chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable (Canons of Dort, 5.10).
There are traditions within the Reformed world and particularly among the Dutch Reformed which, despite these clear words in the Canons, are determined to distinguish between two classes of Christians, those who have had “the blessing” (of assurance) and those who have not. From where does this tradition look for assurance? Essentially it is from a private revelation that is confirmed by the elders (the consistory).
This approach to assurance is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Scripture as summarized in Heidelberg 21, that true faith is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust that Christ and his promises are for me. Any such doctrine of the “second blessing” relying on a special revelation (outside of Scripture) is a contradiction of this article of the Canons. It owes more to the nineteenth-century holiness movements and to other traditions that distinguish two classes of Christians (the so-called “second blessing” traditions) than it does to the Reformation. In these traditions, only a handful of people attend the Lord’s Table, because most in the congregation have not had “the blessing.” Thus, most of the congregation misses out of the divinely offered and instituted blessing of assurance and comfort offered and given in communion. This is a tragedy with terrible consequences for the spiritual life of the believer, for families, and even congregations.
Assurance is not grounded in a private revelations but in the public Word of God written, read, preached, and made visible in the holy sacraments (Heidelberg 65). Reformed Christians are not Pentecostals or Charismatics. As Protestants we are convinced that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is God’s Word. It is for all believers, not just for the “select of the elect” (as my professor, Derke Bergsma used to say).
Scripture says that believers are now God’s children, heirs of the promise. It says that there is now no condemnation (Rom 8:1) for those who are in Christ Jesus. Either one believes or one does not. There is no third category, i.e., believers who need special revelation from God to confirm the promises of Scripture. The quest for such extra-canonical revelation is itself a form of unbelief inasmuch as it denies the sufficiency of Scripture. The gospel says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heaven burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). It does not say, “wait for the second blessing and I will give you rest.” Augustine said about communion, “Why make ready teeth and stomach? Believe and you have already eaten” (Tractate, 25). We might well say too, “Believe and you already rested.
It is only on that basis that we may confidently pursue the Christian life, putting to death the old man and the making alive of the new. In the unconditional grace of Christ we are no longer under the law for salvation (Rom 6:14). Sanctification flows from grace not the law. Under grace the Christian life is guided by God’s moral law (to deny that is antinomianism) but only grace assures, only grace empowers sanctification and assures perseverance.
The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.