Preservation of the Saints (1)
April 16, 2023 / No. 4189M
We are studying what are commonly called the Five Points of Calvinism. It was the Synod of Dordt that originally defined these five points. Today we come to the last of those five points, the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, a point that has much to do with our assurance of salvation.
The Arminians, at the time of the Synod of Dordt, explicitly taught that there could be no full assurance for the child of God, because their teaching was that true believers can fall from true faith, true believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, and to persevere and to die in them and, finally, to perish. Though many Arminians today teach eternal security (a very different doctrine from the preservation of the saints), one never knows if it is I who am eternally secure, since it depends upon my wavering will and work. This is always the bitter end of any teaching that salvation ultimately depends upon me.
The Arminians, at the time of the Synod of Dordt, really had to teach that there could be no full assurance for the child of God if they were going to be logically consistent. If election is conditioned upon what I do, if the atonement of Jesus Christ is not effective unless I first make it effective, if by my free will it is up to me to make God’s grace something that is meaningful in my life, then I can never be fully assured, for I may wake up a few years from now and ruin it all by a failure of my will. The result is that any theology that teaches that salvation depends upon man, in the final analysis, is doomed to leave God’s people who give it any serious thought in terror.
Instead, the Canons of Dordt, in the fifth chapter, lay out the biblical truth of the preservation of the saints, that is, that a true believer, who believes as the result of the sovereign work of the Spirit in his heart, will also be kept, by that same sovereign Spirit, in the faith, as one of Christ’s sheep, all the way to glory. This is the sweet end of the teaching that salvation depends in its beginning, middle, and end upon a sovereign and unchanging God. If salvation is rooted in an unconditional election of God, if it is accomplished by an effectual atonement of Christ, if it is granted by an irresistible grace of the Spirit, then here is the payoff for the child of God: He may be assured that no one, nothing, can pluck him out of his Father’s hand.
The Lord Christ teaches this doctrine in John 10:28. There the Lord teaches the preservation of the saints by a use of three phrases. Any one of these three phrases would be enough in and of itself to teach the doctrine, but the Lord heaps up three phrases to teach this sweet and glorious truth. “And I give unto them eternal life,” number 1. “Neither shall any of them perish,” number 2. “And no one shall pluck them out of my hand,” number 3.
The first phrase in verse 28: “And I give unto them eternal life.” This is the Lord’s explanation of the salvation that is given to His own as a gift. It is the gift of eternal life, eternal life starting already now in this life. Notice that the Lord does not say, “And I will give to them eternal life in the future,” but “I give them eternal life now,” in the present, “I give My sheep now, in this life already, an eternal life.” That is what salvation is. It is to be given the gift of eternal life already here in this temporary life. That says two things. First, it says something about what type of life this is that is given to me in salvation. In regeneration, the child of God becomes a possessor of a type of life that is altogether different from a life in this world. It is heaven’s life, and heaven’s life is eternal life. It is this eternal, heavenly life that is planted into him in regeneration. Literally, it is the life of the age to come, the life of heaven that is brought back and planted in the heart of God’s child by an irresistible grace.
That the life we receive in salvation is eternal life says something also of course about how long this life lasts. It is a life that is eternal, never-ending. Eternal, by definition, means never-ending. If it does not go on forever, then it may not be called eternal life. Therefore, if Jesus gives His people eternal life in salvation right now, it is a life that is going to last forever. It is not going to be lost, for it is, by definition, eternal life. If the possibility exists that they would lose it, it should never have been called eternal life in the first place. It is eternal, and it is given now and cannot be extinguished. Hence, the preservation of the saints. That is the first phrase.
Then there is the second phrase in verse 28: “And they shall never perish.” Naturally following from the fact that Jesus gives to His own eternal life in salvation is the fact that they, then, will never perish. Never perish. Never perish in hell. It is not possible, says the Lord. They will not ever bear the wrath of God for sin. Their sins have been paid for. Their salvation is secure. On their deathbed they may recall to mind this promise of Christ: Never perish. And they may be comforted by this that for them to perish in hell upon their death, Christ would have to be a liar, for He said it, He promised: never perish. If, on my dying breath, I am translated to hell, then the Lord Jesus Christ would lose His honor, lose His divinity, would turn into the devil. And that shall never happen.
That means, too, that they will never lose their regeneration in this life and then have to get it back again by another work of their free will. To lose one’s regeneration is to perish for the time that they do not have it. And Jesus is saying that they shall never perish. When the Spirit plants that new life, eternal life, in the heart, the same irresistible grace that planted it will preserve it so that nothing is able to destroy it. The Spirit who has given that life has committed Himself to bringing us to glory.
And nothing can stay the hand of the sovereign Spirit of God.
So secure are we, then, in our salvation that the Lord adds a third statement to teach the preservation of the saints. A beautiful, beautiful picture. “Neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand.” Number 1: I give them eternal life already now. Eternal life. Number 2: They shall never perish. And now, number 3: Neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand. And then, as though it is not good enough that Christ Himself holds us secure in His hand, He adds in verse 29: “And no one is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” So that the picture that Jesus presents is that Father and Son together have wrapped their mighty hands around the sheep in the power of the Spirit.
If you ever played the game “Red Rover” as a child, you know that it was quite possible to pluck apart the hands of your friends as they lined up hand tightly in hand. But with God it is not like that. It is not possible to break the grip of the Father’s hands upon His children. These hands, Jesus says, are the hands of One who is greater than all, verse 29. These are My Father’s hands, the hands that have created and sustained the universe. These are the hands that hold the stars in the sky, that hold back the sea in its boundaries. These are the hands that pointed to the elect with all the force of an unchanging, irresistible will and said, “You will be Mine.” Who can turn back the sovereign counsel of the sovereign God who chose His saints to glory? His hands were around us from all eternity and they will never let go unto eternity future.
And the hands of the Savior that are around us are the hands of our Redeemer. The hands of the Lord Jesus are the hands that took the nails of the curse of sin for His people, the hands that were pierced for our transgressions, hands that insure that all sin is paid for, that there is no wrath abiding upon us. The hands that created us and the hands that redeemed us in the power of the Spirit are ever holding the child of God, tightly secure in his salvation, pressed close to the side of God. How completely, how beautifully the Lord teaches the preservation of the saints in John 10:28! “I give them eternal life now. They shall never perish. Neither shall any man pluck them out of My Father’s hand.”
Let me quote from a commentator of a couple of centuries ago:
How anyone can deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints as the Arminians do and say that a true believer may fall away and be lost in the face of this text is very hard to understand. It is my own deliberate opinion that it would be almost impossible to imagine words in which a saint’s perseverance could be more strongly asserted.
Now, to say that no one can pluck us out of our Savior’s hands and our Father’s hands does, of course, imply that there are beings trying to pluck us out those hands. You would not put the preservation of the saints that way, that no one is able to pluck us out of those hands, if it were not the case that there were beings trying to pluck us out of those hands. There are. And not just human beings, either. It is not: “No man shall pluck us,” but “no one being,” for the Lord knows full well there are many beings, many of which are not human beings, who are constantly trying to pluck the saints out of the hand of their Father. The devil and the host of his demons are working to take us out of the hands of our God. They use the world and its wickedness to make their attacks upon the children of God—the world with all of its appeal to the old man of sin, the offer of a life of pleasure before pain. The devil uses the apostate church in its attacks on the truth of God’s Word to try to pry the sheep out of God’s hands. The devil and the world are against us continuously.
Not only that. There is our old man of sin, the enemy within, of self-love, of pride, of earthly mindedness. That is the greatest threat to our preservation. There is a part of us, inside of us, trying to get out of these hands, trying to pluck ourselves. And, if it were not for the sovereign grace of God constant in our life, it is not just that we might perish, we would perish—all of us! We would be like the child who is trying to break free of his parents’ hands and run across the street into the park, not knowing that he runs right into oncoming traffic. But these hands, the hands of our Father, are so strong. They do not let us go. They hold us, they preserve us, even against our own selves.
They do that, child of God, in this life, primarily by means, by means of grace. The reading and the preaching of the Word primarily, the sacraments, too, and the discipline of the church its officebearers graciously work to shepherd God’s sheep, to care for them, to steer them back to a right path if they wander. And the secondary means of grace too, our own reading of the Word, our life of prayer and fellowship with each other. We may not tempt God and neglect the means of grace and say, “Well, it’s no problem. He will preserve me.” He preserves me by the means of grace in my life. “My sheep hear my voice,” John 10:27, the verse just previous to this. And not just once do they hear My voice, My sheep keep hearing My voice as I teach, as I admonish, as I call through those means. My sheep keep hearing My voice. And that is what keeps them close to Me. They are preserved by that means and by no other means. Yes, it is grace that gives us to use those means, too. We must use them. The voice of Christ, the good Shepherd, calling us ever to life in Himself—different, distinct from this world, called out unto Him, life in His fold and with His sheep.
Because, you see, when He preserves us through that means, He preserves us in holiness before Him. The preservation of the saints is the preservation of us as saints. The way the elect are preserved is by the means of grace continually growing and sanctifying the child of God throughout the course of his life.
That does not mean that the child of God is preserved in perfection. Absolutely not! Neither does it mean that the child of God never falls into sins, even great sins, like David and Peter. Nonetheless, the general pattern of his life is one of progressive growth in grace and holiness of life. For God preserves His people as His sheep in His fold. The Word of God knows nothing about the idea that everyone who merely professes to be a Christian is preserved to glory, or that if someone just says a prayer accepting Christ or raises his hand in a service, saying that he wants to go to heaven, that that is the end of it. It does not matter if he lives headlong after the world without a care after that, that he is preserved to heaven. Absolutely not. He preserves His people as His people. He preserves His sheep as His sheep. He preserves His saints as His saints in the way of the general pattern of sanctifying, holiness in their life so that they follow Him, as He says in verse 27—a part of His sheepfold. All of His own will. They will. They do not persevere in order to be His children. We do not persevere in order to be preserved. But we persevere precisely because we are His children, precisely because we are being preserved. And He sees to it.
What have you to fear, then, child of God? O, so many fears we have. But we need not fear falling away. And if we need not fear this, does it not take the bite out of all the other fears, too? That life in you is eternal life, it will not be extinguished. And He will see to it that we end in glory. It does not depend upon us. It did not depend upon us in the beginning. It does not depend upon us now, ultimately. It never, ever will.
Do you see what the Lord Jesus is saying in John 10:28 with these three phrases culminating in that last one: No one can pluck you out of the hands of the triune God? It is not that you are holding onto Him at the end of the day. It is that He is holding on to you. It is not that my grip upon Him is the deciding factor, ultimately. It is His grip upon me that is the deciding factor. And though He calls me to faith and gives me faith, and that faith is actively holding on to Him, it is not my faith at the end of the day that is like a string tying me to Him, that holds me from falling into the pit of hell. It is His Almighty hand, reaching down and holding me in its three-Persons’ grip.
Breathe it in, child of God, and rest in the assurance of the gospel of sovereign, saving grace. This is the inestimable treasure of the children of God. He preserves me all the way to the end, and I am free to serve Him not out of fear but out of love for Him who does it.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we are thankful for the truth of the preservation of the saints. Give us comfort by it and strength by it and assurance by it, that we may live our life out of love for this God who has done so much for us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.