God’s Grace of Perseverance is the Foundation for Church Community
April 16, 2015 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Perseverance is a Community Project: Part 1
The Westminster Confession of Faith 17.2 states, “Perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.”
The next paragraph quickly follows, highlighting the potential inconsistency of perseverance of saints, “Nevertheless, they may through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.”
I reproduce these paragraphs of the Confession here because I want to discuss the role of the church community in the perseverance of the saints. While the Confession states that perseverance does not depend on the free will of the saints, but upon God and his grace, it does acknowledge that there are means of their preservation. The Confession is reflecting on Scriptural teaching like 1 Peter 1:5 where we learn that the saints “are being guarded [preserved] through faith by God’s power.” The perseverance depends on God and his power; the means of their preservation is faith. We would probably quickly agree that this faith is sustained by a regular diet of the Word and Sacrament (cf. Rom. 10:17).
What else would be included as a means of their preservation? The Confession and its accompanying Catechisms do not specify. In this first of three part series I would like to make the case that the church community (more specifically, the membership of the local church) is one of the necessary means that God uses to preserve the saints, thereby giving the local church the responsibility to strive for the perseverance of her saints.
Let’s focus our time on the teaching of Hebrews 3:12-14:
Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (ESV)
Over the next three weeks I will make three observations from this passage that support the idea that the church community is a necessary means of the perseverance of the saints. I’ll work backwards through the passage, starting with verse 14.
1. God’s grace of perseverance is the foundation or ground for church community.
Notice verse 14 begins with the conjunction “for.” The commands of verses 12 and 13 are given because of the truth stated in verse 14. We “take care” and “exhort one another” because “we have become partakers of Christ” (NAS).
Now the conditional structure of verse 14 is challenging. The main clause is in the perfect tense: “we have come to share in Christ.” This tense highlights a completed work in the past that has present significance. This statement is a picture of our salvation. By professing faith in Christ as our Lord and savior we are redeemed from our sin, made a new creation, united with Christ, and sealed for the final day of redemption. The challenge comes when the writer to the Hebrews makes this glorious statement of our salvation conditioned upon our holding of our “original confidence firm to the end.” How can a past reality (we have already become partakers of Christ) be conditioned on a future reality (if we hold fast firm until the end)? What seems to be illogical and poor grammatical structure in English, turns out to be sound theology.
The saints’ ability to hold fast, to persevere in faith, “depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election.” The faithfulness and immutability of God and his promises (cf. Phil 1:6, Heb. 13:8) led the Westminster divines to state that there is a “certainty and infallibility” with the saints’ perseverance. The writer to the Hebrews can use this unusual conditional sentence because the saints’ perseverance (still future) is as certain as their salvation (past and present). This sentence structure also serves to emphasize the necessity of perseverance, one of the main themes of Hebrews. Saving faith necessarily must persevere.
In the writer’s logic of verses 12-14, since perseverance of the saints is both certain and necessary, the saints ought to “take care” and “exhort one another.” Perseverance is the ground for such church community life (within the scope of these three verses; certainly the ultimate ground is the glory of God). Since perseverance is a necessary part of our salvation, the church (specifically, the individual Christians) has the responsibility to fight for that perseverance as a means of God’s grace.
More next week.