Joshua Harris and God’s Preservation of his People4
I love the spiritually volcanic eruptions of doxology in Scripture. One such explosion of praise is 1 Peter 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
It’s perfectly ok to ask the question: Why is God “blessed”? Why is he worthy of such adoration? Peter says it is because he is infinitely merciful and kind and has caused us to be born again unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (v. 3).
What great mercy indeed! Although we deserved only death and destruction, although we were the spiritual equivalent to what Lazarus was physically, namely, dead, lifeless, hopeless, God in his great mercy has given us life, has granted us new birth, a new beginning, one that is filled with hope.
This “hope” is more than mere wishful thinking, more than intense desire that something might come to pass. It is the sure and certain confidence that God will provide us with an inheritance that is not subject to the ravages of time or decay or sin or death. This inheritance is under divine lock and key. It is sealed in the heavenlies, says Peter in v. 4. It is being kept in the safe deposit box that is God’s heart and no one can touch it, steal it, or destroy it.
But we have a problem, don’t we? We may speak with exuberant confidence and great joy at the notion of divine election and mercy and being born again. We may meditate upon and ponder the majesty of what is laid up for us in heaven.
But what about tomorrow? What about all the intervening days and weeks and months and years between now and the time that Jesus returns, however long or short that may be? What about the highly publicized defections of those we have always regarded as Christian brothers and sisters who now appear to have walked away? What about the disappointments I’ll experience next week? What about the physical suffering that I’m facing right now? What about the financial struggles that may come my way in years ahead? What about persecution and trial and hardship and temptations and all the times between now and eternity that I will experience greed and pride and lust and hate and bitterness? What about all the traps that Satan will lay for me, hoping to trip me up and convince me that God isn’t worthy of my devotion?
Will I follow in the footsteps of Josh Harris? Josh is my friend, and I’m devastated by his recent declarations of leaving his wife and his God. Honestly, I don’t think I believe him. I trust that in God’s grace and time he will come home. But the questions still remain.
Does God have any involvement in my life between the time that he caused me to be born again and the time that Jesus returns? What happens if I blow it? What happens if I turn away? Will my faith endure the test? Will my trust survive the trials and anguish of living in a corrupt and evil world?
Peter knows precisely what you are asking. He knows that those to whom he originally wrote this letter were facing incredibly difficult days. He knows that all of us worry at some point or other along life’s way whether or not we will persevere until the end.
There appear to be at least three possible explanations for why people like Josh walk down the path they do. Perhaps they once were truly saved, but lost it along the way, having turned from faith in Christ to unbelief. Or perhaps they once were truly saved, and still are, but have wandered away, backslidden. In such cases, God will deal with them, lovingly but firmly in discipline. As a result of such discipline, God will either eventually restore them to vibrant, loving fellowship with himself, or take them into heaven, as he did with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and certain believers in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:27-34). Or perhaps they were never truly saved but only professed some knowledge of the gospel, displayed a measure of commitment, but like Judas never were truly born again. We may never know. Ultimately, it is only important that God does.
The apostle speaks to that very point in 1 Peter 1:5. He turns here to address in glorious and confident terms the commitment of God to preserve his people, his elect exiles, until that final glorious day on which Jesus returns. Peter knows how important it is not only that you know and believe this truth but that you feel it deep down in the depths of your heart. So he tells us here in v. 5 that the God who is merciful is also the God who is powerful and that he will keep us through faith unto that day.
The first option I noted above is that people who are elect and born again may, at some point along the way, fall away from God and lose their salvation and fail ultimately to inherit the glory that God had prepared for them.
So, can a true believer, one who has been born again and justified by faith alone in Christ alone, fully and finally fall away so as to forfeit his/her salvation? This question has provoked seemingly endless debate in the body of Christ. Those who answer Yes and those who answer No are convinced they have the weight of biblical evidence on their side. Each position has its favorite proof texts. But each position also has its problem passages.
As most of you know, I am a strong and vocal advocate of the belief that those who are sovereignly elected by God for salvation, that is to say, those who by the Spirit’s work are born again and justified by faith alone in Christ alone, will, by the work of that same gracious Spirit, persevere until life’s end. Yes, true believers can backslide and fall into grievous sin, but God the Father, on the basis of the work of God the Son, will, through God the Spirit, preserve them in faith and present them to himself on that final day of judgment.
This is why I believe it is better to speak of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints than of the doctrine of eternal security. The latter terminology has often been taken to mean that a person can profess faith in Christ, only later to turn utterly from Christ and live persistently in unrepentant sin, and still be assured of eternal life. I do not believe that is possible.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints asserts that God will preserve in saving faith those whom he has chosen and called and justified. Perhaps, then, we should refer to the doctrine of the preservation of God, not in the sense that he needs preserving, but in the sense that he is committed to preserving and protecting and sustaining his elect people in faith and vital union with Jesus Christ.
Peter began in 1 Peter 1:1-2a with election according to the foreknowledge of God. The second link in his chain is the work of the Spirit in calling and consecrating the believer as God’s own possession (v. 2b). The next link in the chain is our obedience to Jesus (v. 2c), first in trusting him for our salvation and then of course living in obedience to him throughout the course of our earthly lives. The final link in Peter’s chain is inheriting on that final day the fullness of salvation.
But what if some link in the chain should break? What if there is a disruption in God’s purpose such that one of his elect fails to stay faithful to Jesus? According to Peter, the reason we know that the chain will never come unlinked is because God is guarding or protecting you by his infinite power through faith until that final day.
Do you see what Peter is saying? Here you are today, elect and consecrated and living in faith in Jesus. You’ve been born again and given a living hope. But your salvation isn’t complete. There is yet to come an inheritance, waiting for you in heaven (v. 4). But what guarantee, if any, is there that you will still be standing on that day to inherit what God has promised?
After all, as we’ve already noted, there are incredible dangers along the way that threaten to undo us, to destroy us, to lead us into unbelief and apostasy and death. What assurances do we have that we will be kept safe and secure and protected until that day?
Our protection comes from God. More specifically, from the power of God. So our security doesn't mean that there is no battle, or that we don't have to win it, but that God will fight for us with infallible skill and omnipotent power. And the means God uses to protect us is faith. “[We] are [now being] protected by the power of God through faith.”
Now ask yourself this question: What is God guarding or protecting us from? What is it, in the final analysis, that threatens to derail his purposes? What is it that threatens to sever the chain of salvation?
It’s not physical death, for when we die we go immediately into the presence of God. It’s not physical or mental or emotional suffering, because Peter will tell us in 1 Peter 1:6-7 that suffering serves rather to refine and purify our faith.
Perhaps it’s Satan from whom we need protection. Or perhaps it’s the many temptations we face each day to abandon God and turn our back on Jesus.
But these and every other kind of attack would succeed only if we fell into unbelief, only if we ceased to trust God, only if we failed to continue in faith in the Christ who loved us and gave himself or us.
There is something of a paradox here in v. 5. On the one hand it seems as if it is precisely our “faith” that puts us in spiritual jeopardy. Our faith is challenged and stretched and assaulted and undermined and we struggle to hold on to it. It weakens and wanes and at times we feel as if we’ve lost it altogether. We doubt God’s goodness. We question his decisions. We wonder if he is present. We accuse him of not loving us. We can’t figure out why he let a loved one die so early in life. We can’t figure out why he let a despicable degenerate live so long. The trials we face and the hardships and the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil are all conspiring to lead us to renounce our faith.
And yet, on the other hand, Peter says it is precisely “through” our faith that God keeps us secure. It is through our faith that we are preserved and protected for that final day when the inheritance he has promised us will be ours.
The picture is that of a military fortress or camp, inside of which are the elect exiles. Outside the forces of evil launch relentless assaults. But surrounding the fortress is the power of God. They are preserved and protected simply by putting their confidence and hope and trust in what God has said he will do for them.
The protection that God provides is not from suffering or trials but from the possibility of falling away because of them. The “faith” that is under attack is the “faith” that in v. 7 is being refined by trials. Obtaining our final inheritance or entering into the fullness of that salvation does not bypass or ignore us, as if we had no part or responsibility. The elect must continue to exercise faith, not simply that initial act of trusting Christ but the on-going, daily trust in God.
But if experiencing that final salvation is dependent on our continuing and persevering in faith, is it possible that some of those who were “elect according to the foreknowledge of God” might fail to attain it? Is it possible that some of those who were “sanctified” or set apart for God by the Spirit might come short of that faith which is required for final salvation? Is it possible that some who were chosen and set apart for obedience to Jesus might fail to “obey” him in that they cease to have faith, and thus fall short of inheriting that final salvation?
No! It is precisely God’s power, not yours but God’s, in the service of God’s purpose, that sustains God’s people in their faith in him. God’s power protects us from unbelief.
The fact that God’s purpose is to put his power at work on behalf of his people to guard them for the final salvation does not mean we can respond by saying, “Well, if God’s power is protecting me, I can live like hell. I can indulge in sin and enjoy the world and not worry about losing my salvation, because God’s power is at work to keep me safe.”
It means that God's power protects us for salvation precisely by sustaining our faith. The only thing that can keep us from heaven is forsaking our faith in Christ, and turning to other hopes, other treasures. So to protect us God prevents that. He inspires and nourishes and strengthens and builds our faith. And in doing this he secures us against the only thing that could destroy us; unbelief, lack of trust in God.
This truth had to have been especially precious to Peter. On the night when he betrayed Jesus, the Lord said to him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat [in other words to press Peter through a sieve of temptation to try to strain out his faith]; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32).
Jesus prayed that Peter's faith not fail utterly. That is why Peter wept bitterly and returned from his sin. But to whom did Jesus pray? To God, his Father. And what did he ask God to do? To not let Peter's faith come to an end. So who forged the link of faithfulness in Peter that awful night? God did. And who brought him back from the precipice of unbelief and gave him tears of remorse? God did.
Peter knows first hand what he is talking about. Those who are born of God “are protected by the power of God through faith”—through God's sustaining their faith—for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. He caused us to be born again by creating our faith; and he protects us on the way to heaven by preserving our faith.
That is why Peter can say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Blessed, indeed!