“Augustine taught that the only way anyone ever perseveres to the end after beginning the Christian life is by virtue of the grace of God. Since that time, perseverance has been understood as a gift of divine grace.
That’s why, when discussing the perseverance of the saints, many English-speaking theologians have found it preferable to speak of the preservation of the saints — that is, God preserves His own” (R.C. Sproul, “Can I Lose My Salvation?”, page 41; bold emphasis mine).
We’ve mentioned that R.C. Sproul’s interpretation in Hebrews, though sounding Arminian, ends with the false Doctrine of Eternal Security as its conclusion and how the context of Hebrews concerns saved Jewish Christians, not those who are “in the middle of the life of the church” but aren’t saved and don’t have the Holy Spirit. But Sproul doesn’t just fumble when it comes to a proper interpretation of Hebrews — he does it as well in his discussion of the perseverance of the saints and professions of faith.
One of the major discussions in theology and the Christian world at large concerns those who come to faith in Jesus, carry on in Christ for a little while, only to turn around before long and walk away from their profession of faith. The answer that the church has given for the longest time in its history is that professions of faith aren’t always genuine: that is, the person making the profession of faith isn’t always serious about their profession. He or she may not make the profession of faith in a sincere manner, but do it for the wrong reasons.
According to the words of my own mother, my father did something similar: the night that he accepted Christ and walked the aisle of the church at its annual revival to follow Jesus, mom was there in the audience. She’d never considered my dad as a potential date because she was raised in a Christian home and wanted to marry a Christian. But that night, she saw my father in a new light for the first time.
And years later, he confessed to her that he did it all in order to win her over because, “had you known who I really was, you would’ve never married me.” I asked my mom, “Was Dad right when he told you that? Would you not have married him had you known?” And she looked at me, with sincerity in her eyes, and said, “Yes, your father would’ve never been on the radar to begin with.” So, false professions, even of love, do happen in the world and the church today. Jesus Himself said that not everyone who calls Him “Lord” will enter Heaven (Matthew 7:21).
And yet, Sproul’s claim above is in tension or conflict because he espouses two concepts that, like oil and water, don’t mix. What are they? I’ll get into them now.
Perseverance and Preservation of the Saints
Dr. Sproul has said that perseverance of the saints is seen by some to be preservation of the saints because, as much as we work, it is God working in us (he quotes Paul’s words in Philippians to that effect). And “preservation” pertains to God keeping believers such that they don’t fall away. This is why Calvinism espouses “preservation of the saints” instead of “perseverance of the saints”: because it sees God as responsible for persevering believers to the end. That is, God is responsible for whether or not man ultimately makes it to Heaven.
R.C. Sproul was certainly a Calvinist in his lifetime; though he wasn’t as consistent a Calvinist as his son, who espouses 5-point supralapsarian Classical Calvinism (“supralapsarian” means that God decreed to save certain individuals before the Fall of man; that is, as Sproul Jr. would write it, “God ordains sin”), he still believed in the Calvinist interpretation of all five doctrines of Calvinism — including perseverance. But to rename the doctrine “preservation” says that it is God’s responsibility to persevere believers.
The problem with divine responsibility
And yet, to call the doctrine “preservation” says that it is God’s responsibility, the divine responsibility, to ensure that every believer who makes a profession of faith makes it to glory. And yet, think about those who’ve made false professions of faith that left the faith just a few years or even a few decades after the fact. Were they genuine? When they accepted Jesus, did these former “professors” (not to confuse them with university teachers) mean what they said? Were their confessions sincere? Were they contrite and humble in heart? That’s the question that seems to grab every Christian, including R.C. Sproul.
However, his response is contradictory and in conflict because of his commitment to “preservation of the saints.” Sproul has already said that “Augustine taught that the only way anyone ever perseveres to the end after beginning the Christian life is by virtue of the grace of God” (page 41). So, what this says is that, if anyone will endure to the end to be saved, it is only because of God’s grace. In other words, it is God’s responsibility to ensure the Christian’s victory. God is the one who does it, divine preservation says.
However, if it’s God’s responsibility to persevere everyone to the end, then what does this say about those who made professions of faith but then walked away?
This is where Sproul replies in another chapter with the following words:
“People can stand up and make a profession of faith or walk down an aisle at an evangelistic meeting for all kinds of reasons apart from having been genuinely converted. We don’t have the ability to read people’s hearts. We don’t know whether their professions of faith are sincere and genuine. We work on the basis of the outward manifestations and evidences, but we don’t know for sure what’s going on inside their hearts” (page 49).
How does this make sense with Sproul’s commitment to preservation of the saints?
Two conflicting statements
First, Sproul says that the only way man ever endures to the end and is saved is because of God’s grace, but then he replies that people who walk the aisle to profess Jesus may not be sincere in their profession. But, to play the Devil’s Advocate here, if God is the only one that can preserve believers, why is it that He would let any believer fall away and walk away from Him?
If God is Almighty, with all power, as Christians often say, and He can do anything, why is it that He refuses to keep the person who walks away? This is where Sproul would reply, “It’s not about preservation; it’s about sincerity of heart.” But, wait a minute: how can the sincerity of one’s heart matter if God is the one who “unconditionally elects” some to salvation? To “unconditionally elect” someone to salvation is to select them on no basis whatsoever except the divine whim. In the Calvinist system, God preserves those that He “unconditionally elects.” So, if Johnny comes to the Lord and then walks away five years later, and God keeps those He elects, then, to complete the thought, Johnny wasn’t elect by God and thus, Johnny remains in his sin and is lost in the end.
Preservation of the Saints and Unconditional Election
When Calvinists refer to “preservation of the saints,” they’re saying that God preserves those He elects. Many Calvinists today believe that the doctrine of perseverance refers to anyone who professes faith in Jesus, but consistent Calvinism only refers to the unconditionally elect, chosen not out of their sincerity of heart or faith but out of the mere whim of God. God chose to save them for His own reasons, though mysterious ones, and so He does — even if, to use a phrase I heard once, “kicking and screaming” while “being dragged” into the kingdom of Heaven.
If Johnny above doesn’t make it into Heaven, it isn’t because of his sincerity in the Calvinist system. Though Sproul wants to place blame at Johnny’s feet for his insincerity, factoring in the heart stance of the individual only makes sense within an Arminian system.
Calvinism says that sincerity of heart in salvation is irrelevant, only divine whim matters
Within Calvinism, God chooses certain individuals for salvation apart from any conditions: that is, He chooses them apart from whether or not they have faith, whether or not they are sincere, whether or not they will refuse to remain with Him, and so on. Since they are elect “unconditionally,” without conditions, nothing matters in Calvinism except the divine whim. If God wants the drug dealer saved, He will save the drug dealer, even if the drug dealer fights the idea. Eventually, God will win the drug dealer over and give him or her eternal life because that’s the one God wants.
Even if someone sincere in heart wants to be saved, Calvinism says that the sincere individual may never be saved because “God may not elect that person for salvation.” Yep; in Calvinism, God literally passes over those who have sincere hearts and want to be saved if they are not elect, if they are not the elect ones He wants to save. Calvinism allows for sincere hearts that can never be saved because “God didn’t want them.”
Arminianism allows for divine election and sincere hearts
In contrast to Calvinism, there is Arminianism, a system that factors in sincere hearts into the salvation process. In Arminianism, God elects those to salvation who come by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. Election is for salvation, and anyone who comes through the salvation process with sincerity of heart is saved. In Arminianism, God desires sincere hearts to come to Him by faith, and He honors those sincere hearts by saving them. God “conditionally elects” those to salvation whose hearts sincerely receive Him as Lord and Savior, who confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9).
There is biblical warrant for the Arminian approach here, and it comes from Peter’s words to the Jerusalem Council in Acts:
6 Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. 7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, 9 and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:6-9)
Acts 15:8, just quoted, seals the deal on how one is saved. God “acknowledged them,” acknowledged their hearts, honor their full belief of heart by giving them the Holy Spirit of promise. In other words, sincerity of heart matters, and God allows the sincere of heart to be saved. God knows the hearts of men, and those who are sincere are saved when they come to Him by faith in His Son, Jesus.
Sproul’s double-tongued theology: a classic faux pas of Calvinism
Sproul wants to “have it both ways,” so to speak. First, he wants to sound Calvinist and say that God is the one who preserves men and women. Then, when so-called believers walk away, he wants to deny the logical conclusion. This is Sproul logic:
God preserves believers.
Johnny is a believer.
Johnny falls away from faith.
Conclusion: Johnny falls away because of his own fault.
But this is what the logical argument and conclusion should be:
God preserves believers.
Johnny is a believer.
Johnny walks away from faith.
God didn’t preserve Johnny.
When God is responsible for Johnny’s preservation, God is blameworthy and guilty of failing to preserve Johnny so he wouldn’t fall away from faith and salvation.
However, when it is the human responsibility of every man to persevere in the faith, then God is off the hook and Johnny is truly blameworthy for his failure to endure to the end.
Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
There’s a reason the debate is called “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility”: It assumes that the human is responsible for his or her choices, not God. God is not at fault because we make bad decisions or we choose not to persevere in the faith.
Where’s the divine sovereignty? It comes in when we realize that 1) God purposes to save the world, despite the fact that mankind committed sin of its own free will; 2) God gives Jesus, His Son, the best He had, to save the world; 3) God establishes the salvation process “by grace through faith in Jesus”; 4) God gives us faith: as Peter says, we are “kept by the power of God through faith for salvation” (1 Peter 1:5); and last but not least, in every temptation, God gives believers “a way of escape” so that we can bear it (see 1 Corinthians 10:13).
As can be seen above, God is for us and for our good (sanctification and salvation); and yet, God is not responsible for what we do with the divine aid because He has given us all that we need that pertains to life and godliness, to use it to do what’s right and well-pleasing in His sight (2 Peter 1:3). He has divinely aided us; now, it’s up to us what we do with the divine aid. This is human responsibility, our responsibility, not God’s.
When your viewpoint makes God responsible for “false” professions of faith or apostasy, like Calvinism does, it’s time to find a new theological system to embrace.