1:6 . . . being persuaded by this very thing, that he who has begun a good work in you will complete it until [the] day of Christ Jesus . . .
. . . This great verse is one of the great verses supporting the Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which doctrine Arminians condemned as one of the five essential and essentially false doctrines of Calvinism. But how can anyone eradicate the idea from this great verse? Christ will complete the work he began. As Neander said, “Gottes Art ist ja nicht, etwas halb zu thun.”
This then is the first point: The work of salvation in the heart or soul was initiated by Christ, not by the human person. The text does not say that because Christ began to work after the sinner had started a good work, he, Christ, would continue his efforts too. The text says that Christ began the good work. He also will perfect or complete it, continuing his work throughout the now regenerated sinner’s life.
One commentator, who somewhat grudgingly admits that this is so, hurries on to insist that nonetheless the regenerated soul, the saint, is not passive, but himself does a lot of work, too. This sort of statement needs to be examined for accuracy, distinctions, and exaggerations. In the first place, as already said, the sinner does not initiate the good work. As the Westminster Confession says, the sinner is “made willing by his grace”; and “this effectual call is of God . . . and not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein” (X, 1 and 2). Human depravity is so all inclusive (VI, 1-6) that „a natural man, being altogether averse from that [spiritual] good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto” (IX, 4).
But so anxious are many people to find some trace of initiative and merit in man that after they briefly mention the work of God, they expatiate on the work of man. In one way or another they side-step or obscure the point. For example, Motyer says that “Paul saw in the Philippians [ital. added] the feature of perseverance [ital. his] in that they had prolonged their fellowship ‘from the first day until now’ (verse 5) and endurance [ital. his] . . .” (21).
It is clearly false that Paul could see in their conduct that they would persevere. Some apparently sincere converts did not persevere—Demos for instance. Paul’s statement is not a deduction from empirical observation, but a revelation from God. Eadie rightly observes, “The apostle’s confidence . . . rested on his knowledge of God’s character and methods of operation . . .” (12). A few lines below he rejects the perversion: “He among you who has begun to do a good work will continue to do well until death.” Such violent mistranslations show to what lengths some Arminians will go.
Of course the Philippians not only believed the Gospel, they also cooperated with Paul by overt action. It is true that after regeneration, but only after regeneration, a saint can actively accomplish a modicum of spiritual good. Yet even his actions, as Paul will later indicate in 2:13, are God’s works. The perfecting process, which Christ initiated, is also controlled throughout by God’s working in us.
It is because of this that we may know that every regenerate person will persevere to the end. Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.
We have been talking about the perseverance of the saints until the day of their death. But, though it may seem strange, the verse says more. Christ continues the good work in us until the day of his return. Now, the Shorter Catechism says, „The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.” True, of course. But the present verse adds something: Christ continues the good work in us until he returns. It seems that though we are made perfect in holiness at our death, Christ’s blessings to us continue to multiply even in Heaven.
Because of the pervasive Arminianism among the relatively evangelical Christian groups in America today, a short historical note will help to show the importance of this doctrine. During the Reformation period of the sixteenth century the anti-Romish movement was unfortunately divided into Lutherans and Calvinists. Had Luther’s successor been someone other than Melanchthon this rift might have been closed. Early in the seventeenth century within the Calvinistic movement, Arminians revolted and retreated, not all the way, but a few steps back toward the Romish theology. In Switzerland, Holland, Great Britain, and even in Ireland Reformed confessions were formulated. These culminated in the Westminster Confession just before the mid-century mark. This Confession, and its accompanying two catechisms, in agreement with the Swiss and Belgic confessions, expressed what the English-speaking Protestants regarded as the central doctrines of the Bible. It was to have been the unifying position in the British Isles. But the English throne went to a secret Catholic, then to an open Catholic, and the hopes of the English puritans and Scottish Presbyterians were cruelly suppressed. A few lines from this last and greatest Reformed confession are now to be quoted with several paragraphs from the present writer’s What Do Presbyterians Believe?
The Westminster Confession, chapter XVII, says:
They whom God hath accepted . . . can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end and be eternally saved. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election. . . .
Here now are a few paragraphs from my previous publication.
One evening as I was conducting the mid-week prayer meeting, an elderly, white-haired gentleman asked for one of his favorite hymns: “How Firm a Foundation.” The hymn has six long stanzas, and as the meeting was very informal I wondered aloud which of the six we could omit. Not the first, of course – it speaks of the Word of God as the foundation of our faith; not the second because we need the strength of God’s omnipotent hand; the third or fourth? The old gentleman interrupted my wondering by insisting that this was a good hymn and that we could sing it all. We did, and as we reached the fifth stanza, everyone else in the room saw in it the picture of the grand old man who had requested the hymn:
E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love.
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.
He too sang it with vigor, and he sang the sixth stanza too:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
Now it was a bit strange that this gentleman should have requested this hymn and should have sung it with such praise and devotion. For he did not like Calvinism; all his life he had been an Arminian; he did not believe in “eternal security,” as he called it; and he had been telling his friends so for years. Even now he would have disowned the name of Calvinism. But could it be that without realizing it he had now come to believe, and that his earlier Arminian views had changed with the color of his hair?
If it is strange that this lovely Arminian saint could become at least somewhat of a Calvinist without knowing it, it is far more strange that anyone who bases his faith on the firm foundation of God’s Word could ever be an Arminian.
The Scripture verses are too numerous to mention.
But some may be puzzled at the doctrine of perseverance and think that it ascribes too much will power to frail humanity. Such an objection rests on a misunderstanding. Section ii of this chapter clearly says that “this perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election.” I remember a conversation with another Arminian. He had been fulminating against the doctrine of election and I replied that election was the basis of our assurance of salvation. The Arminian’s contempt rose in his face as he charged me with substituting the doctrine of election for the crucifixion of Christ. Well of course, our salvation is based on the active and passive obedience of Christ; but our assurance requires some reason to believe that the benefits of Christ’s work are permanently applied to ourselves. Small comfort it is indeed if we are saved at breakfast and lost at noon. Let us emphasize the fact: The Arminians can have no sure hope of entering Heaven. They must always entertain the uncomfortable feeling that they will finally be lost. Obviously no man can depend on his own power to persevere in grace; for, first, human nature is weak, and, second, grace is not something we can earn or keep. And if the Arminian refuses to admit that God causes his elect to persevere, what reasonable expectation can he have of Heaven?
The Roman Catholic doctrine, to which the Arminians reverted in the revolt against the Reformation, is expressed in the decrees of the Council of Trent. One section reads, „If anyone maintain that a man once justified cannot lose grace, . . . let him be accursed.”Only a massive ignorance of the Scriptures allows for such a position.
If Philippians 1:6 is as clear as it is possible for language to be, John 10:28-29 are still clearer. “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of the Father’s hand.”
How some people have squirmed to avoid these verses. Those who insist on a free will independent of God say that although other men cannot pluck a child of God from the Father’s hand, the man himself is free to do so. But this verse says no man can do so: This includes the man himself. Another act of desperation is to argue that although no man can pluck the child from the hand of God, the devil can do so. But once more, the phrase no man in the King James Version is in the original “no one.” So it is translated in the American Revised Version. And in any case the verse says that Christ gives his sheep eternal life. Would it be eternal if it ceased after five days or five years? The verse also says that they shall never perish. How long and how sure is never? It would seem that no one could misunderstand this language.
Then for good measure we shall add 1 Peter 1:5, which speaks of the regenerate as those “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Why belabor the obvious? And still the Scriptures, addressed as they are to stubborn rebels against God, repeat the same idea time after time. Compare 2 Timothy 2:19; Jeremiah 31:3, and 32:40; 1 John 2:19; and Isaiah 55:11.
Of course, the perseverance of the saints does not mean sinless perfection or a life free from struggle and temptation. Eradication of our corrupt nature is a long and difficult process and will not be completed until we are glorified. As long as the present life continues, we may become careless of the means of grace, our hearts may be temporarily hardened, we may fall into grievous sins. Thus we may harm others and bring temporal punishment upon ourselves. God does not promise to carry us to the skies on flowery beds of ease. But praise his name, he promises to carry, drag, or push us there. So, and only so, we arrive.
What should be particularly noted in this section is how the doctrine of perseverance fits in with all the other doctrines. God is not irrational or insane. What he says hangs together; it forms a logical system. Election, total depravity, effectual calling, sovereign grace, and perseverance are mutually consistent. God does not contradict himself. But Arminian saints do. They may be grand old men, loved by all who know them. But not until the message of the Bible persuades them of God’s sovereign, unchangeable love, can they really sing,
The soul, though all Hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake.
Because of the great importance of this subject, this has been a long exposition for a single verse. Even so, a footnote seems to be in order. It is this: The subject has been perseverance, not assurance of salvation. Like any other two topics in theology, they are related, and much more closely related than some other pairs. Yet assurance and perseverance are not the same thing. Arminians, at least some I have met, assert assurance but deny perseverance. One [sic] one occasion a very Arminian college invited me to give a lecture on philosophy. The lecture stayed within the bounds of the advertised topic. But afterward the head of the Philosophy Department took me to lunch and we talked about assurance. He assured me that he was assured of his salvation. I am sure, he said, that if I should die right now, I would go to Heaven. But as I tried gently to tell him, he was not assured that if he did not die until the following week he would get to Heaven. He might “fall from grace” in the interval.
Note that being assured of salvation does not mean that one will be saved. Aside from Arminians there was the Catholic plumber who was sure the Church would get him past the pearly gates. Many people are assured that God is too good to punish anybody. Others are assured of many things that are not so—for example, that a forked branch can point out a good place to dig a well. Assurance may be delusional, but the perseverance of the saints is God’s truth.
Gordon H. Clark, Philippians. (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1996), 10-7.