Posted by Mark Herzer

The Larger Catechism

Question 79

79.       Q. May not true believers, by reason of their imperfections, and the many temptations and sins they are overtaken with, fall away from the state of grace?

A. True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God,[342] and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance,[343] their inseparable union with Christ,[344] his continual intercession for them,[345] and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them,[346] can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace,[347] but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.[348]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[342] Jeremiah 31:3. The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. [343] 2 Timothy 2:19. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. Hebrews 13:20-21. Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. 2 Samuel 23:5. Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow. [344] 1 Corinthians 1:8-9. Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. [345] Hebrews 7:25. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. Luke 22:32. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. [346] 1 John 3:9. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 1 John 2:27. But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. [347] Jeremiah 32:40. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. John 10:28. And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. [348] 1 Peter 1:5. Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

 

Introduction

This instructive question ponders something we have all considered — “Will I make it to the end?” The question also assumes the sad failures all believers have experienced. Our imperfections, the numerous temptations that confront us, and the actual grievous sins into which we fall make us wonder if any one of us will make it unto the end. Given these experiences, the answer, if left to ourselves, would be an unequivocal NO! None of us will persevere.

The question addresses “true believers” and not gospel hypocrites. The Larger Catechism does not ask, “Will any of those who profess faith in Christ fall away from the state of grace?” If this were the question, then the answer would be an unequivocal YES. Some in the church will fall away from the state of grace. The question assumes the existence of true believers in the midst of many professors of faith (pretenders, self-deceived, ignorant, etc.).

 

Our Personal Observations?

For some, this question seems to contradict what appears to be patently obvious. Surely, we have all met with loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and members of the church who fell away from the faith. No one can deny these observations. But our observations cannot determine the genuineness of someone’s faith. Were they “true believers”?

Many have argued as a theological axiom that the possibility of apostasy (falling) always remains in believers. Philip Limborch stated,

We maintain that, notwithstanding divine grace, by which a believer may persevere in faith, there remains in man a power of falling away, and, therefore, that a believer may totally lose his faith and regeneration, and may continue in apostasy to the end of his life, and so eternally perish.[1]

 Limborch does not emphatically state “true believers” (though he no doubt had them in mind).  Other Arminian statements more emphatically affirm the genuine possibility of apostasy among true believers.

True believers may apostatize from the true faith, and fall into such sins as are inconsistent with true and justifying faith; nay, it is not only possible for them to do so, but it frequently comes to pass. True believers may by their own fault become guilty of great and abominable crimes, and may continue and die in the same, and consequently may finally fall into perdition.[2]

 No consolations can be gleaned from such statements. These Arminians fear carnal security so the threat and reality of apostasy must be published to warn believers. For some, the nature of being human (created in God’s image) necessitates the possibility of falling away (freedom of the will).[3]

 

True Believers and God’s Love

The LC begins the answer with, “True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God…” Those who are God’s elect, the true believers, will not totally and finally fall away because of God’s unchangeable love. The answer does not focus on the special powers of the true believers but on God’s unchangeable love. The temptations and falls of believers are sufficient enough to undo us. We do not keep ourselves in God; He keeps us. Jeremiah 31:3 states, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” God’s covenant faithfulness (his dRs`Dj) continues in spite of their unfaithfulness. God’s everlasting love stands in stark contrast to the other “everlasting” references in the previous chapters: “eternal dishonor” (20:11) and “everlasting reproach” (23:40) — these God threatened against those who opposed Him. But God’s everlasting love serves as the basis and reason for His people’s continuance — on account of his unchangeable love, they will not fall away.

 

True Believers and God’s Decree and Covenant

In God’s great everlasting love, He decreed that genuine believers would persevere. This gift of perseverance comes to us as true partakers of the covenant of grace: “True believers, by reason of … his decree and covenant to give them perseverance…” In 2 Tim. 2:19, Paul declares something that can be easily downplayed or overlooked (because the context is neglected): “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal:  “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”” The false teachers were upsetting the faith of some (v. 18) but God’s foundation stands, namely, His church (cf. 1Tim. 3:15) or most likely His eternal decree (as our divines seems to have taken this verse to mean): “The apostle’s assertion is, that, notwithstanding the existence of such cases as he had just mentioned of defection from the truth and the consequent loss of salvation, there is a firm or strong foundation of God which remains steadfast.”[4]

That foundation bears God’s seal — “Seals were used commonly to identify legal ownership of property and, like signatures in modern practice, to guarantee authenticity, genuineness and integrity or to preserve the secrecy of the contents of a letter or of some product.”[5] In this context, God’s seal represents those who are His and those who are not. The phrase Paul uses echoes Numbers 16:5 (Korah’s rebellion) — in the midst of defections, God’s eternal foundation will stand bearing His seal which states that God knows who are who are not His people.

God’s known people are in an “everlasting covenant” through Christ’s shed blood (“Now  may the God of peace  who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,  the great shepherd of the sheep, by  the blood of the eternal covenant,  equip you with everything good that you may do his will,  working in us  that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ,  to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Heb. 13:20-21; cf. 2Sam. 23:5) and God will enable them to live holy lives well pleasing to Him. God has made them His through Christ who died and rose again for them in terms of the everlasting covenant — the fruit of which is that they would be sanctified (equipping them to do His will). Believers will not fall away from the state of grace because the eternal covenant will enable them to persevere by equipping us “with everything good that [we] may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight…

 

True Believers and the Union with Christ

“True believers, by reason of … their inseparable union with Christ” will not fall away. God has called them into fellowship with His Son and will them us to the end (1 Cor. 1:8, 9, “who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”) Believers have fellowship or union with their Lord and on account of that, Paul taught that they will be sustained to the end and “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God will sustain them to the end because He is faithful — faithfully enabling them to have fellowship with Christ. This vital fellowship with Christ will keep believers — Ridgley states that in this union, Jesus is the believer’s “vital head, from whom they receive spiritual life and influence; so that as long as they abide in him, their spiritual life is maintained as derived from him.”[6]

 

True Believers and Christ’s Intercession

“True believers, by reason of … his continual intercession for them” will not totally and finally fall away. Our living Lord intercedes for us. [See our study of Christ’s intercession in previous studies on the LC.] Verses used to support this are Heb. 7:25 and Lk. 22:32: “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Luke records these words of our Lord, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

We will not fall away since God will save us to the uttermost. We are told what means God uses: “because Christ intercedes for us.” “The direct result of his intercessory activity is the sustaining of the people and the securing of all that is necessary to the eschatological salvation mentioned in the previous clause.”[7] John MacArthur helpfully stated the following:

 The security of our salvation is Jesus’ perpetual intercession for us. We can no more keep ourselves saved than we can save ourselves in the first place. But just as Jesus has power to save us, He has power to keep us. Constantly, eternally, perpetually Jesus Christ intercedes for us before His Father. Whenever we sin He says to the Father, “Put that on My account. My sacrifice has already paid for it.” Through Jesus Christ, we are able to “stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). In His Son we are now blameless in the Father’s sight. When we are glorified we will be blameless in His presence.[8]

 

True Believers and the Holy Spirit and the Seed of God

“True believers, by reason of … the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them” cannot finally fall away. God’s seed remains in us (1Jn. 3:9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”) as does His Spirit (1Jn. 2:27, the Holy Spirit is the “anointing”). The principle of life (“seed”) exists in us on account of the new birth (“he has been born of God”). We have all received the Spirit (1Jn. 2:27, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”).

The “seed” language suggests parentage and genealogy. A new life principle from God came into us and now operates within us. Boice says that “God’s seed” (spe÷rma aujtouv) refers to “the very nature of God abiding in the Christian.” MacArthur writes of “the principle of His divine life.” He says, “Just as a human birth results from an implanted seed that grows into new physical life, so also spiritual life begins when, at the moment of regeneration, the divine seed is implanted by the Spirit within the one who believes.” God would not give birth to children He will not keep; He neither has bastards nor rejects. If we are born of God, then we will endure unto the end.

The Spirit implanted the principle of life and also dwells in us. His presence means He is the “down payment” of the eternal inheritance to come. If we have Him in us, we will endure unto the end. Ridgley offers further reflections on what is implied from having the Spirit dwell in us.

We may add, that there are several fruits and effects of the Spirit’s dwelling in the soul, which afford an additional proof of this doctrine. Thus believers are said to have ‘the first-fruits of the Spirit;’ [Rom. 8:23] that is, they have those graces wrought in them which are the beginning of salvation; and as the first-fruits are a part of the harvest which will follow, these are the foretastes of the heavenly blessedness which God would never have bestowed upon them had he not designed to preserve them from apostasy. Moreover, believers are said to be ‘sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of their inheritance.’ [Eph. 1:13, 14] The earnest, as given by men, is generally deemed a part of payment; and upon any receiving it, they are satisfied that they shall, at last, receive the full reward. And shall believers miss of the heavenly blessedness, who have such a glorious pledge and earnest of it? Again, if we consider ‘the Spirit’ as ‘bearing witness with their spirits, that they are the children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ;’ and that ‘they shall be glorified together’ with him; [Rom. 8:16, 17] is this testimony invalid, or not to be depended on? Yet it could not be depended on were it possible for them to fall from a state of grace.[9]

 

Neither Totally nor Finally

The last part of the answer states, “can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.” Why do the divines state “totally and finally”? Why not one or the other? Believers can fall partially but not totally. They can go away for a time (or temporarily) but they will not finally fall away. Johannes Geerhardus Vos said,  “These words imply that true believers may partially and temporarily fall away from the state of grace. As a matter of fact, this partial and temporary falling away is taught in the Bible as a possibility,
and it can be observed among Christian people in our own day.”

John Dick says that these two phrases counter the Arminian scheme: “but they are intended to oppose the doctrine of Arminians, who affirm, that although a saint may fall totally from grace, he may be restored by repentance; but that since this is uncertain, and does not always take place, he may also fall finally, and die in his sins.”[10] Whether the divines had this in mind or not, we cannot be certain but the two words are required to explain the final preservation of the saints.

God’s everlasting covenant ensures that we cannot totally and finally fall away — “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.  And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” (Jer. 32:40) The verse first teaches us not that we won’t turn away but rather, God will not turn away from us. And in turn, as God does us good, God Himself will enable us not to turn from Him. Jesus’ statement irrefutably teaches us that believers will never perish: “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (Jn. 10:28) We are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (1 Pet. 1:5).

The LC answer emphasizes God’s role in preserving us. We should be comforted and encouraged by these truths. If this truth produces laziness and carnal ease and security, then we can be assured that we have not rightly understood this doctrine. We may be in danger of indicating that we are not true believers. “Let us endeavour not only to persevere, but to grow in grace. These two blessings are joined together; as it is said, ‘The righteous shall hold on his way, and he that hath clean hands shall be stronger and stronger.’[Job 17:9]” (Ridgley, 2:193-4)



[1] Limborch, Theol. Lib. v. cap. lxxx, cited in Dick’s Lectures on Theology, 2:283.

[2] Confession of Remonstrants, as quoted in Brandt’s History of the Reformation in the Low Countries, vol. iii. p. 89, cited in Dick’s Lectures on Theology, 2:283.

[3] See F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 314ff.

[4] Patrick Fairbairn, The Pastoral Epistles: The Translation With Introduction, Expository Notes, and Dissertations (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1874), 348.

[5] Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 531.

[6] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 172.

[7] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8 (WBC 47A; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 190.

[8] John MacArthur, Hebrews (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 201.

[9] Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity, Volume 2 (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 174.

[10] John Dick, Lectures on Theology, 2:284.


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