One of the arguments against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints centers around those who seem to have departed from the faith. For example, we all know people who once professed a faith in Christ — some even teachers or leaders in the church, who not only have stumbled into grievous sin but are continuing in that sin, showing no visible sign of repentance. What do we make of this?
There are two possibilities. Either their initial profession of faith was not genuine or, their faith was genuine and they will be brought back. The bottom line is that only God knows. While we are called to be an evaluating and discerning people, we must remember that only God can read the heart. In view of this, RC Sproul, in his teaching series, “What is Reformed Theology?” calls Christians to be in a posture of forbearance and grace in these situations. He reminds us of David, and Peter — both of whom, by the way, could have written a treatise on moral failure! What if we were to encounter King David before the prophet Nathan got to him? Or, what if we were to run into Peter as he warmed himself by the fire that fretful night he denied Christ? The truth is that not even our best actions can reveal what is in the heart. Indeed many of us will be surprised on that Day to see that our good works, which are supposed to be the evidence of our regeneration, have been rendered “wood, hay, or straw”. Only God sees the heart and He will render a final judgement. And so, “with the charity that covers a multitude of sins”, says Sproul, we are called, with sobriety, to hope for the best and pray for those who have become entangled in sin.
Below is an excerpt from Edwin Palmer’s “The Five Points of Calvinism”. It is the first of a two-part response to one of the traditional objections to the perseverance of the saints:
“It is true that Christians can backslide. We have all had that experience to some degree. At times we do not seem to be as close to God as we should. We become spiritually cold to a greater or lesser degree. And some Christians do some pretty bad things. You would hardly know they were Christians. There are adulteries and murders by Davids, denials of Christ by Peters, and the doing of things that ought not be done by Pauls.
But the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not mean that Christians are sinless. The Bible teaches us the Christian will sin and in some cases he will backslide a great deal. But if he is truly born again, if the Holy Spirit was really in him, causing him to believe, then the Spirit is a down payment of his full inheritance. Then he really does have eternal life, which means that he will be eternally saved.
The Bible does not promise that the Christian life will always be in a straight line upward. Rather it may be like a small boy climbing a snowy hill. He frequently slips, but he does manage to get to the top.
The Christian life is like a chart line of the American economy over a period of a hundred years. It begins in the lower left corner and rises to the upper right hand corner. There are ups and down, there are recessions and near catastrophic depression. The line is jagged and not straight in its upward climb; but when viewed over a period of a hundred years, it is easy to see that in spite of temporary setbacks there is ultimately a gain, and that our economy is far superior to that of the nineteenth century.
Or, as the great Calvinistic Baptist, Charles Spurgeon, put it, a man on board ship may be knocked down on the deck by the waves again and again, but he is never washed overboard.”
“In other words, the Christian may suffer temporary defeats, but sin will never gain complete control in him. There will always be a fighting against sin even though he is weak. This is true just because God has not taken his Holy Spirit from the Christian. Thus the fact that a Christian is still warring against sin and even falls does not mean that he will one day be abandoned by God to complete domination by sin. Paul says it plainly, “Sin will not have dominion over you.”
Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide, pages 91-92.