The doctrine of perseverance in the New Testament is often misapplied and misinterpreted. While the doctrine has been met with hostility and fear by some, to others it's simply confusing or irrelevant to real life. What does the Bible really say about perseverance?
Thomas Schreiner looks at the New Testament's collective exhortations and warnings to persevere. As he addresses misunderstandings and difficult passages, a fuller picture of perseverance emerges and we see that there is great assurance and joy for believers who hold to the truths of this precious doctrine.
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About the Author
Thomas R. Schreiner (MDiv and ThM, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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EXHORTATIONS TO PERSEVERE
Let me begin with two stories to illustrate the concerns of this book. Years ago a young woman and her husband came to a Bible study I was leading. Two days after the Bible study they visited our house for dinner, and she expressed a keen desire to become a Christian. I was hesitant because she knew so little about the Christian faith. Nevertheless, I concluded that I might be resisting the Holy Spirit, and one thing led to another, and she confessed Jesus as her Savior that night in our living room. I assured her after her confession of faith that she was securely saved forever, that nothing she did could remove her from the eternal life that was hers. Her husband shortly thereafter followed her in the same faith. They both grew rapidly in the faith during the next year, and we were regularly involved in Bible studies with them. But a year after her confession of faith, she changed dramatically. She decided to divorce her husband, quit attending church, and ceased going to Bible studies. I pleaded with her to at least go to counseling, but to no avail. All of this happened many years ago, and I have since lost all contact with her, though I know there was no change of mind or repentance in the next fifteen years.
The other story also relates to a friend who prayed with me to become a believer. I saw the radiance and joy in her life. She began to grow in remarkable ways. And yet in a year or two the early bloom of her faith began to fade. She began to get drunk on a fairly regular basis. She ended up living with a person who was an adherent of Buddhism. On one occasion I said to her, "By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments" (1 John 2:3). A number of years passed. She broke off the relationship with the first man and ended up getting married to another. Still no desire for the things of God and Jesus Christ manifested itself. And yet, after a few years of marriage, a change began to take place. Her desire to follow the Lord resurfaced, and she began to read Scripture, pray, and take her church involvement seriously. Once again she began to talk to me about spiritual matters. She gave every indication that she belonged to Jesus Christ and that she loved him. A significant period of time had intervened between her first confession of faith and the return to her first love. Was her first experience a sham, so that she was truly saved the second time? Or did she lose her salvation and regain it later? Or was she a believer the entire time, with a temporary lapse in her faith and obedience?
In this book I intend to offer some advice as to what we should say in the situations I have described above. But I am not only speaking to these particular situations, for the argument of this book is that all believers everywhere need the warnings and admonitions of Scripture.
WHAT DO WE SAY TO NEW CHRISTIANS?
In the first story I related above, I told the new believer that she was saved no matter what she did. Is this a proper way to speak to new believers? When we look at the NT, what did the apostles and early Christian teachers say to new believers? Surely their words function as paradigms and models for us. When Barnabas arrived in Syrian Antioch, after hearing that many Gentiles in Antioch had embraced the gospel and turned to the Lord, he responded with joy. "When he [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (Acts 11:23). Barnabas recognized that the conversion of the Gentiles in Antioch was a work of God's grace and could not be finally attributed to human agency. Still, a focus on God's grace does not preclude the need for warnings and admonitions but is the foundation for calling upon believers to persevere. Barnabas summoned his hearers to remain and persevere (prosmenein) in their relationship with the Lord. Indeed, they were to do so "with steadfast purpose." The focus is on the commitment required of these new believers.
A similar scenario played out when Paul and Barnabas evangelized in Pisidian Antioch. Once again a number of people responded positively to the proclamation of the gospel. What advice did Paul and Barnabas give to these new converts? "And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43). Two parallels to Acts 11:23 stand out. First, the new believers are "urged" to persevere. In Acts 11:23 the verb "exhorted" (parakalein) is used, whereas here we find the word "persuade" (peithein), translated "urged" by the ESV. In both instances, the seriousness of the admonition is underscored by the verb, showing that vigilance is mandated for new believers. Second, the same verb used in Acts 11:23 is repeated. Believers are "to continue [prosmenein] in the grace of God." The ongoing commitment of believers to their newfound faith is emphasized. Third, both texts refer to God's grace. Believers are not exhorted to trust in themselves or to continue in the faith by virtue of their own efforts. They are to continue the Christian life in the same manner they began it: by the faith given to them by God's grace. Hence, the perseverance called for here should not be understood as works-righteousness. Instead it is nothing other than a continual reliance upon the grace of God. We are reminded of what Paul taught in Galatians 3:3. We continue in the Christian life the same way we began, for we do not initiate the Christian life in the Spirit and then progress in it by means of the flesh.
At the conclusion of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13–14), they revisited the cities in which they had planted churches. The instruction given to such new converts, which Luke records in a compact manner (Acts 14:22–23), is surely significant. Besides appointing elders and praying for them, we are told that they strengthened the new disciples by "encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). We receive insight here into why these new believers were exhorted "to continue" (emmenein) in their recently confessed faith, for entrance into the kingdom will be preceded by many difficulties and sufferings. Such "tribulations" may deflect believers from continuing in the faith they embraced, enticing them to a life that promises comfort and relief. A pattern is evident in the exhortations given to new believers, especially when we recognize the brevity of what Luke includes in his account. Recent Christians are not told that they will inherit the kingdom no matter what they do. Rather, they are urged to remain and continue in the faith.
Another window into what the apostles and early Christian leaders taught new believers is provided by 1 Thessalonians 3:1–5. What Paul teaches here accords with what Luke includes in the text we just examined (Acts 14:22–23), for the tribulations encountered by the Thessalonians raised concerns about whether they continued to believe. Paul sent Timothy to the newly established Thessalonian church, for he knew they were disturbed by the trials and difficulties that they had experienced since their conversion. In verse 5 Paul explains why he sent Timothy: "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain." Paul was worried that the Thessalonians had abandoned their faith in Christ because of the intensity of persecution. Satan, he feared, had subverted their faith, and his "labor" in planting the church would have been wasted if the Thessalonians had forsaken their faith. Paul did not assume that the Thessalonians were truly believers merely because they had embraced the faith when he first preached to them. The authenticity of their faith manifested itself in their response to trials, so that their persistence in faith demonstrated that their faith was genuine.
Other texts could be included at this point, but no attempt is made here to be comprehensive. What I hope is clear is that new believers were regularly instructed after their conversion about the need to persevere in the faith.
WHAT DO WE SAY TO EXPERIENCED CHRISTIANS?
We have seen above that recent converts are exhorted to continue in the faith, but such an exhortation is not limited to new believers. The exhortation to persevere until the end is a staple of NT teaching. It is part of the warp and woof of NT exhortation. For example, Peter sums up his entire letter in 1 Peter 5:12, remarking that he has declared to them "the true grace of God." Then follows the admonition addressed to churches facing persecution: "Stand firm in it." In other words, they are to stand fast in God's grace in the midst of their troubles. The devil is on the prowl, attempting "to devour" and destroy believers (1 Pet. 5:8). And the devil aims to shatter the faith of believers by inducing them to commit apostasy. Believers will not commit apostasy and fall away if they "resist" the devil by being "firm in [their] faith" (1 Pet. 5:9). Peter does not exhort the readers to do something unusual or surprising at the onset of persecution. Rather, they are to continue trusting in God for strength to face the pressures and persecution that afflict them. Some of the same themes considered earlier appear again here. Believers in the Petrine churches may be tempted to disown Christ because of the intensity of persecution. Hence Peter admonishes them to remain vigilant and faithful.
Similarly, Jude commands believers to "keep [themselves] in the love of God" (Jude 21), responding to a situation in which false teachers had slipped into the church undercover and were promoting destructive teachings and licentious behavior. In the context of Jude, keeping themselves in God's love functions as the opposite of apostasy. Either believers remain in God's love, or they fall away from the faith and follow the lifestyle and teachings of the interlopers. No other option exists. Jude does not merely give helpful advice on growth in the Christian life. Keeping oneself in the love of God is essential for receiving eternal life on the final day.
The need to persevere also appears in Hebrews, and indeed the call to continue in the faith informs the entire letter. Hence many texts could be selected from the letter in support of what is argued for here. Here I cite only one verse: "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God" (Heb. 12:15). Such failure cannot be restricted merely to a lack of vitality or fruitfulness in the Christian life, for the author immediately considers the case of Esau (vv. 16–17) as an example of someone who repudiated the blessings he enjoyed. To fall short of God's grace, then, is another way of describing apostasy — irrevocable separation from God. A very similar command is directed to the Corinthians in Paul's second letter. They are "not to receive the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor. 6:1). We can be quite sure that final salvation is in view here. First, the word "vain" (kenos) in Paul is regularly associated with final judgment and destruction (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10, 14, 58; Gal. 2:2; Eph. 5:6; Phil. 2:16; Col. 2:8; 1 Thess. 2:1; 3:5). Second, I would nuance what Edwards says a bit differently, but he rightly sees that persevering faith is required for final salvation. In context, the Corinthians are exhorted to "be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20), which is defined in terms of the forgiveness of sins (2 Cor. 5:19). Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 6:2 Paul immediately follows up the need "not to receive the grace of God in vain" with the claim that "now is the day of salvation." Hence there are good reasons to think that the exhortation relates to final salvation. In both Hebrews 12:15 and 2 Corinthians 6:1, readers are implored to continue to respond to God's grace in order to obtain the final reward on the last day.
I conclude this initial foray by considering Philippians 2:16. Believers must "[hold] fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain." Believers are exhorted to hold fast the gospel they initially embraced until the day of Christ. The general nature of the command suggests that the admonition to persevere applies to all believers, and thus the exhortation here cannot be limited to the Philippian situation. Some scholars maintain, however, that the participle "holding fast" (epechontes) should be translated "holding forth" instead of "holding fast." In other words, the verse relates to evangelism instead of perseverance. Vern Poythress has argued that we cannot exclude either meaning, with the result that the term includes both the idea of evangelism and perseverance. Poythress may be correct in arguing that both meanings are in view. I want to defend here the idea that perseverance is also in view. First, twice Paul speaks of working "in vain" in the verse. As noted previously, the idea of a vain or futile ministry occurs when Paul considers the possibility of believers not continuing in the faith. Second, the warning against grumbling and complaining (Phil. 2:14) harks back to the OT and the grumbling of the wilderness generation (Exod. 16:7–9, 12; Num. 17:5, 10) and their failure to enter the promised land. The land promise in Exodus becomes a type of the future inheritance in Paul, and hence a connection is forged between Israel's failure to enter the land of promise and the warning directed to believers.
Third, the words "blameless," "innocent," and "without blemish" are in the same semantic range and are used elsewhere in Paul to denote the godly character needed to obtain the final reward. Fourth, the expression "that you may be ... children of God" (Phil. 2:15) has an eschatological reference, designating the truth that those who continue to believe will be God's children on the day of Christ. Such an interpretation is confirmed by the allusion to Deuteronomy 32:5, which again considers the rebellion of Israel: "They [Israel] have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation." Notice that Israel's sin demonstrates they are not God's children, but Paul admonishes the Philippians to hold fast to the word of life so that they will be God's children. Moreover, Israel was blemished, but the church should remain unblemished. Finally, Israel was "a crooked and twisted generation," but the Philippians are to distinguish themselves as righteous in the midst of an evil generation. The many points of contact between Deuteronomy 32:5 and Philippians 2:15 indicate that we have a call to perseverance in these verses.
Finally, the call to "shine as lights in the world" probably alludes to Daniel 12:3, where believers are to shine like lights. Those believers who shine like lights will "be delivered" (Dan. 12:1). They will rise "to everlasting life" (Dan. 12:2). Hence we have another piece of evidence supporting the claim that Paul exhorts the Philippians to continue in the faith to the end in order to receive the end-time reward of eternal life.
I have argued briefly here that we have indications in exhortations given to both new believers and experienced believers that perseverance is required to obtain eternal life. NT authors did not promise an eschatological reward regardless of how someone lived in the future. Instead we have seen that both new believers and experienced believers are urged to persevere to receive eternal life. The varied examples given here suggest that this was commonplace in NT teaching. In the next chapter we are going to consider the many exhortations given to believers in the NT in which they are warned that if they fall away they will face eternal judgment.CHAPTER 2
HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE WARNINGS IN SCRIPTURE
I shall attempt to show in this chapter that warnings threatening final judgment are pervasive in Scripture. Severe warnings cannot be restricted to Hebrews, though the warning passages in Hebrews are particularly bracing and emphatic. Before analyzing the biblical text, we should survey the scholarly landscape relative to the warning passages. First, many scholars maintain that the warnings in Scripture threaten believers with damnation if they fall away from the faith or apostatize. On this view the warnings are addressed to believers who have truly embraced Jesus Christ. They threaten final damnation if one apostatizes, and it is argued that true believers may indeed fall away from the faith.
If apostasy were not possible, they maintain, then why would the warnings be included? Warnings are superfluous if it is impossible to fall away. In the history of interpretation this view is identified as the Arminian interpretation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Run to Win the Prize"
Copyright © 2010 Thomas R. Schreiner.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Mike Ovey 9
1 Exhortations to Persevere 15
2 How to Understand the Warnings in Scripture 25
3 Persevering in Faith Is Not Perfection 51
4 Persevering in Faith Is Not Works-Righteousness 69
5 Faith and Assurance and Warnings 87
Appendix: A Meditation on Galatians 5:2-6 115
Scripture Index 123
What People are Saying About This
“The twin doctrines of assurance and perseverance are defined by our understanding of the gospel of Christ. In Run to Win the Prize, Tom Schreiner presents a masterful and faithful case for the doctrine of perseverance as set forth in the New Testament. The book is a must read for these times. A master New Testament theologian, Tom Schreiner offers an education in biblical interpretation and sound words of pastoral counsel. This concise book will help all believers run the race together.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Mature insight. Control of the sources. Satisfying interpretations. Schreiner takes a difficult topic and makes it look easy. Like the work of a master craftsman, this book will enrich understanding and inspire interpreters to see what is there.”
James M. Hamilton Jr.,Professor of Biblical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment
faith to be saved has proved not only difficult, but has often led to excesses and imbalances. One imbalance ends up arguing that true believers can forfeit their salvation and be lost if they don't persevere; the opposite imbalance suggests that professing believers are saved regardless of whether or not they persevere in belief and good works. Tom Schreiner has done a masterful job of charting a course through rich biblical teaching that avoids both of these excesses. Here readers will encounter both the joy of knowing that God will not fail to save those whom he has elected and brought to true saving faith, while at the same time they will face squarely the necessity of persevering faith, love and good deeds that mark those truly saved through Christ and His Spirit. Here is biblical balance, and more important, biblical fidelity. All who long to understand better the nature of Christian faith and good works will benefit greatly from this lucid and biblical treatment.”
Bruce A. Ware,T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary