Perseverance (or preservation) of the saints is also known as “eternal security.” The word saints is used in the Biblical sense to refer to all who are set apart by God, not in the technical sense of one who is exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven (see Saint). The doctrine asserts that, since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with or will return.
This doctrine is slightly different from the Free Grace or “once saved, always saved” view advocated by some evangelicals in which, despite apostasy or unrepentant and habitual sin, the individual is truly saved if they accepted Christ at any point in the past; in traditional Calvinist teaching, apostasy by such a person may prove that they were never saved.
Perseverance of the saints is a controversial Christian teaching that none who are truly saved can be condemned for their sins or finally fall away from the faith. The doctrine appears in two different forms: (1) the traditional Calvinist doctrine found in the Reformed Christian confessions of faith, and (2) the Free Grace or non-traditional Calvinist doctrine found in some Baptist and other evangelical churches. In a sense, both can describe Christian believers as “once saved, always saved”, but the two forms attach a different meaning to the word saved — namely, whether or not it necessarily involves sanctification, the process of becoming holy by rejecting sin and obeying God’s commands. Because of this difference, traditional Calvinist Christians tend to prefer the historical term “perseverance of the saints”, which is one of the five points of Calvinism, and advocates of the Free Grace doctrine usually prefer the less technical terms “eternal security”, “unconditional assurance”, and “once saved, always saved” to characterize their teaching.
The two views are similar and sometimes confused, and though they reach the same end (namely, eternal security in salvation), they reach it by different paths. Free Grace advocates seek to moderate the perceived harshness of Calvinism as it is found in the Reformed confessions and to emphasize that salvation is not conditioned on performing good works. Traditional Calvinists maintain that the Free Grace doctrine ignores certain key Bible passages and would be rejected by Calvin and the Reformed churches, which have both firmly advocated the necessity of good works and with which Free Grace has sought to align itself historically to some degree. Other Christians such as Catholics, Orthodox and Arminian Protestants reject both versions of the doctrine.
The Reformed tradition has consistently seen the doctrine of perseverance as a natural consequence to its general scheme of predestination in which God has chosen some men and women unto salvation and has cleared them of their guilty status by atoning for their sins through Jesus’s sacrifice. According to these Calvinists, God has irresistibly drawn the elect to put their faith in himself for salvation by regenerating their hearts and convincing them of their need. Therefore, they continue, since God has made satisfaction for the sins of the elect, they can no longer be condemned for them, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, they must necessarily persevere as Christians and in the end be saved.
Calvinists also believe that all who are born again and justified before God necessarily and inexorably proceed to sanctification. Indeed, failure to proceed to sanctification in their view is evidence that the person in question was not truly saved to begin with (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 788). Proponents of this doctrine distinguish between an action and the consequences of an action, and suggest that after God has regenerated someone, the person’s will cannot reverse its course. It is argued that God has changed that person in ways that are outside of his or her own ability to alter fundamentally, and he or she will therefore persevere in the faith.
Theologian Charles Hodge summarizes the thrust of the Calvinist doctrine (Systematic Theology, 3.16.8):
Perseverance…is due to the purpose of God [in saving men and thereby bringing glory to his name], to the work of Christ [in cancelling men’s debt and earning their righteousness ], to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit [in sealing men in salvation and leading them in God’s ways], and to the primal source of all, the infinite, mysterious, and immutable love of God.
On a practical level, Calvinists do not claim to know who is elect and who is not, and the only guide they have are the verbal testimony and good works (or “fruit”) of each individual. Any who “fall away” (that is, do not persevere unto death) must not have been truly converted to begin with, though Calvinists don’t claim to know with certainty who did and who did not persevere.
Free Grace doctrine
The Free Grace or non-traditional Calvinist doctrine has been espoused by Charles Stanley, Norman Geisler, Zane C. Hodges, Bill Bright, and others. This view, like the traditional Calvinist view, emphasizes that people are saved purely by an act of divine grace that does not depend at all on the deeds of the individual, and for that reason, advocates insist that nothing the person can do can affect his or her salvation. The Free Grace doctrine views the person’s character and life after receiving the gift of salvation as independent from the gift itself, which is the main point of differentiation from the traditional view, or, in other words, it asserts that justification (that is, being declared righteous before God on account of Christ) does not necessarily result in sanctification (that is, a progressively more righteous life).
The doctrine sees the work of salvation as wholly monergistic, which is to say that God alone performs it and man has no part in the process beyond receiving it, and therefore, proponents argue that man cannot undo what they believe God has done. By comparison, in traditional Calvinism, people, who are otherwise unable to follow God, are enabled by regeneration to cooperate with him, and so the Reformed tradition sees itself as mediating between the total monergism of the non-traditional view and the synergism of the Wesleyan, Arminian, and Roman Catholic views in which even unregenerate man can choose to cooperate with God in salvation.
The traditional doctrine teaches that a person is secure in salvation because he or she was predestined by God, whereas in the non-traditional view, a person is secure because he or she has believed the Gospel message (Dave Hunt, What Love is This, p. 481).
Proponents of the Free Grace view sometimes label themselves as moderate Calvinists, by which they usually mean they drop at least one of the five points of Calvinism (most often, the third and most controversial point of limited atonement) and make some other modifications to the Calvinistic system. In this context, the modification they advocate is that a person’s status before God does not necessarily influence his or her life, a belief which is sometimes referred to as carnal Christianity.
Traditional Calvinism has uniformly asserted that “no man is a Christian who does not feel some special love for righteousness” (Institutes 3.6) and has rejected carnal Christianity as a form of antinomianism. Thus, these Calvinists claim that moderates deviate too widely from Calvin’s own theology and the accepted Reformed tradition to rightly be called “Calvinists.” Arminianism has rejected the Free Grace view for the opposite reason: namely, that the view denies the classical Arminian doctrine that true Christians can lose their salvation by denouncing their faith (see conditional preservation of the saints).