Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Following Jesus requires enduring to the end

Series: Following Jesus

Jesus said salvation is the end for his disciples, but what about everything before the end? He said it would require endurance.

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Well, we’ve come to the end of this series, and I can hardly think of a better way to end a series on following Jesus than discussing the matter of following Jesus to the end. When Christ himself spoke about the troubles his disciples would face in this world, he said in Matthew 24:

They [that is, the enemies of Christ] will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:9-13)

In the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel, he says:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mark 13:12, 13)

Jesus doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of the Christian life, does he? But it would be even more accurate to say the Bible doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the Christian life, at least not in terms of physical safety and well-being. In fact, the Bible sets us up to anticipate hardship. I often think about the way Jesus spoke to would-be disciples. He didn’t tell them, Follow me, and I can guarantee you health, wealth, and prosperity. Your life will be easy from here on out.” No, he said things like, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it (Lk 9:23, 24).

Enduring hardship

On another occasion, he was speaking to a crowd of people in Luke 14 and said:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-33)

In that passage, Jesus alerts us to the fact that (1) discipleship can be hard. It requires a self-sacrificial devotion to him. He compares it to going to battle against an army that’s twice the size of yours. It won’t be easy.

And (2) he alerts us to the fact that it’s all for nothing if we don’t finish what we started. In the first example, we’d be like a man who sets out to build a tower only to leave it unfinished. What’s the point of starting? In the second example, we’d be like a king going to war, sending his troops to the battlefield, but then realizing it was a mistake. So, instead of fighting, the king attempts to make peace with his enemy.

So, the Bible sets us up with an expectation of suffering and hardship in this world. Yes, there’s immense joy to be found in Christ despite the difficulties, but the Bible paints a very realistic picture regarding the Christian life in this fallen world. It doesn’t give us reasons to anticipate an easy life—quite the opposite.

And, you know, I feel like I’ve had this conversation a lot over the last few years, especially since 2020. I think the church grew very comfortable over the years, perhaps even complacent, living in a predominantly Christian culture. Then, as we’ve watched the culture deteriorate and largely turn against us, many have begun to panic. They feel the hostility rising and frantically ask, What do we do now?” And I have often replied with something Jesus said to his disciples just before his death. In John 16:33, he said, I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

There’s no need to panic. First of all, the Bible has always been very clear about the tribulations that Christians would face in this world. Perhaps we overlooked those warnings because they seemed irrelevant to us. Perhaps we failed to recognize that we’ve been living in an anomaly. The Lord has richly blessed us with peace and prosperity, but it hasn’t been this way for most of the church throughout most of history. It’s still not this way for many Christians throughout the world. So, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything we see happening in our nation today.

Second, I’ll say we don’t need to panic because Christ has overcome the world (Jn 16:33). Yes, in the world, we will have tribulation, but in Christ, we may have peace. It may not be physical peace, but even better, we have divine, supernatural peace. It’s the kind of peace that led martyrs of the past to literally sing God’s praises as they burned at the stake. What can possibly explain how a man can sing songs of joy while being burned alive? Well, only the peace of Christ can accomplish that.

But we talked about suffering last time. Today, our subject is perseverance. How do we follow Jesus all the way to the end? Again, Jesus himself says, The one who endures to the end will be saved (Mt 24:13). This excludes the person who seemingly receives the gospel with joy only to fall away when tribulation comes (Mt 13:20, 21). It excludes the person whose apparent faith gets choked out by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches (Mt 13:22). Jesus is speaking about those who persist in the faith, those who persevere, those who overcome the many trials and struggles of this life, and remain trusting, following, and resting in Christ until the very end.

Horatius Bonar, probably best known for the hymns he wrote, once preached:

The road to the Kingdom is not so pleasant, and comfortable, and easy, and flowery, as many dream. It is not a bright sunny avenue of palms. It is not paved with triumph, though it is to end in victory. The termination is glory, honor, and immortality; but on the way, there is the thorn in the flesh, the sackcloth, and the cross. Recompense later; but labor here! Rest later; but weariness here! Joy and security later; but here endurance and watchfulness—the race, the battle, the burden, the stumbling block, and oftentimes the heavy heart.

As Jesus said, the end is salvation, but what about everything before the end? He said it would require endurance. That’s a word that means to bear up under some kind of weight. It’s to hold firmly when forces are working against you. Again, Jesus is not implying the Christian life will be easy. He’s suggesting the opposite. As Bonar says, Recompense later; but labor here! Rest later; but weariness here! Joy and security later; but here endurance.”

In short, we’re talking about the biblical teaching we often refer to as the doctrine of perseverance or perseverance of the saints.

Preservation of the saints?

Now, I grew up in a church that held to the five points of Calvinism. Those are the doctrines encapsulated by the TULIP acronym—Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited (or, I prefer, definite) atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. However, they had made a subtle change to the fifth point. Over the years, they stopped listing it as Perseverance of the Saints” and changed it to Preservation of the Saints.” Why?

As we read through the Bible, we might detect a degree of tension from one passage to the next. We might perceive apparent contradictions. To be clear, these contradictions don’t actually exist, but we might see them as contradictions at first.

For example, consider John 6:39. Jesus says:

This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:39, 40)

So, Jesus points to the sovereignty of God in salvation. Yes, we must believe, but those who believe were given to Christ by God the Father. And more to the point, they cannot fall away. Jesus says, I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day (Jn 6:39). This is what we might aptly refer to as preservation of the saints. God preserves his people by not allowing them to fall away. In another place, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)

This is eternal security. This is God preserving his people to the very end.

Maybe a year ago, I was talking with a man at a funeral, and he was telling me about this sermon he heard. He said the sermon was fantastic. He said it was theologically rich and biblically grounded. He said he had never heard someone expound Scripture so well. But he had one big complaint. He simply could not believe what the preacher said at the end. This preacher had the audacity to claim that once a sinner is saved, he or she is always saved.

This really bothered him. So, I asked, Don’t you feel secure in Christ?” And he said, Well, I do, but if I should turn away from him and stop believing, I won’t be saved.” So, I then asked, What makes you think Christ would ever let that happen?” And I cited John 6 and John 10. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (Jn 10:28).

This may have been one of the most contentious disagreements of the Reformation. In his book In Christ Alone, Sinclair Ferguson mentions a Catholic priest who once said, The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.”

Now, that might strike us as quite strange. Of all the doctrines to get upset about, how does eternal security, or more specifically, personal assurance of salvation, even make the list? Well, according to medieval church tradition, personal assurance was a sign of ungodly arrogance. Presuming you would be saved in the end was evidence of pride. You can’t possibly know,” they’d say, and it’s sinful to assume you will be saved. No one has that kind of guarantee.”

Well, I’ve just read a couple of passages that say we do have eternal security, and I’ll read a few more before we’re done, but why would anyone think we can’t have assurance? Why would anyone object to the doctrine of eternal security?

Perseverance of the saints?

Well, that’s where the apparent tension comes in. One passage effectively says we have eternal security, but then we read the book of Hebrews, for example, and it appears to say something else. For instance, Hebrews 6 says:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)

Flip over a few chapters to Hebrews 10, and we read this: For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries (Heb 10:26, 27).

I think I’ve made the point, but let me read one more from 2 Peter chapter 2:

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20, 21)

So, we have these passages that seem to contradict the doctrine of eternal security. They seem to give the impression that, to some degree or another, we are responsible for ourselves. Whatever role God’s sovereign grace may play, he does not preserve us to the end. We are, in fact, ultimately responsible for persevering to the end. So, that’s the tension.

And we see this kind of tension throughout the Bible regarding salvation in general. One of my favorite examples is found in John chapter 1. That’s where John says:

Jesus came to his own [that is, Israel, the Jewish people], and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)

So, if we were to read only the first half of that passage, we would probably assume that we are responsible for our own salvation because we are responsible for believing and receiving Christ. But if we were to read only the latter half of that passage, we might assume that God is altogether sovereign over our salvation, and perhaps there’s nothing for us to do. It says, We are born again, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, [that rules us out of the equation] but of God (Jn 1:13). We are born again because of the sovereign work of God.

God’s sovereignty versus man’s responsibility

So, we have this apparent tension in Scripture. It’s a battle, if you will, between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Do we come to Christ of our own free will and volition, or does God sovereignly draw us to himself? Do the saints persevere to the end, or does God preserve the saints to the end? Which is it?

Now, I probably don’t have to tell you that many Bible-believing Christians are prone to jump to one side or the other. The church of my upbringing took an eraser to the phrase Perseverance of the Saints” and replaced it with Preservation of the Saints.” As you might expect, they preached a lot of sermons on John 6 and John 10, but far fewer on Hebrews 6. Then, we find others rejecting any notion of once-saved, always-saved. They’re skeptical of any mention of God’s sovereignty. They’ll gladly preach John 1:12 but, conveniently enough, never get around to addressing John 1:13.

These days, we also find a strange and dangerous— Well, I’m tempted to call it middle ground, but it’s really not. It’s more like a mixed theological bag. You see, some will say that a mere profession of faith is good enough for salvation, and perseverance is really a moot point because once saved, always saved. After your profession, you have eternal security no matter what. Well, if you want to hear my thoughts on that, go back to the previous lesson on the subject of holiness. God saves us to change us.

So, where’s the truth? Is God sovereign, or is man responsible? Does God preserve the saints, or do the saints persevere?

Well, here’s where I get to quote my all-time favorite line from Charles Spurgeon yet again. Preaching on faith and regeneration, he said:

Brethren, be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth. Rise above the babyhood which cannot believe two doctrines until it sees the connecting link. Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly?

To give you a little context, Spurgeon was preaching about faith, which presents the same dilemma as perseverance versus preservation. On the one hand, faith is an act of man. If we are to be saved, we are responsible for putting our faith in Christ—that is, trusting in him for salvation. Romans 10: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Ro 10:13). On the other hand, the Bible teaches that faith is a gift of God. Ephesians 2: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8, 9).

And Spurgeon responds to the objection that he’s preaching a contradiction. It can’t be both,” they say. It must be one or the other. Which is it? Is faith the responsibility of man or the sovereign work of God?” And that’s when Spurgeon says, Brethren, be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth. … Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly?”

Listen to what Spurgeon said in another sermon titled Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility.” This is a longer quote. He said:

The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once. I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. [Listen to this] Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other. These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

So, I’ll ask again. Is God sovereign, or is man responsible? Does God preserve the saints, or do the saints persevere? Well, the short answer is yes, all of the above.

Two sides of the same coin

Preservation and perseverance, just like God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, are really two sides of the same coin.

Look at the coin, and you’ll see the Christian person following Jesus to the best of his ability. He’s reading and studying the Bible. He’s diligently learning. He’s equipping himself more and more as he goes. He’s fighting temptations along the way. At times, he doubts, and he stumbles, but he appears to pick himself up, dust himself off, and press on. He’s slowly but surely growing in holiness. In short, he perseveres. He endures. And at the end, we find every reason to congratulate him and say, Well done, good and faithful servant. You have fought the good fight and finished the race. You have kept the faith (Mt 25:21; 2Ti 4:7).

But now, flip the coin over, and you’ll see the same Christian and the same life but from a very different perspective. Now, you see God watching over that Christian. You see him walking alongside that Christian every step of the way. You see him teaching the Christian. You see him equipping the Christian with every gift and every grace he needs to continue. You see him protecting the Christian. You also see him disciplining the Christian at times. As the Christian veers off the path toward destruction, God reaches out and pulls him back. In short, God is preserving him. And at the end, as you look back over the life that unfolded, you realize that God wasn’t just walking alongside the Christian. God was carrying him all the way through the finish line.

In his book Following Jesus, Andrew Randall says, The heart of the Bible’s teaching here is this: whatever it might feel like, in reality, I am not saved from sin, death, and hell because I have taken hold of God, but because God has taken hold of me.” He goes on to write, Which is why it is so important for Christians to be governed, not by their feelings, but by faith.”

Do the saints persevere, enduring to the end, or does God preserve the saints? Which is it? Well, it’s positively both. The saints persevere precisely because God preserves them. Again, Andrew Randall says, The reason I can never lose my salvation is not my holding on to God, but his holding on to me.” But I will also add that, to some degree or another, though never perfectly, because God holds on us, we hold on to him. Because he will not let us go, we endure to the end.

Those who fall away

Now, briefly, let me say something about those passages that seem to suggest we can, in fact, fall away. What do we do with those? Well, I’ll read from two places in the Bible to answer that question. The first is 1 John 2:19. John is talking about those who have fallen away—they’ve left the faith and, worse yet, have come to oppose the faith—and he says:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)

You see, John says the very fact that they fell away—they apostatized—indicates they were never saved. Obviously, they had the appearance of Christians. They talked the talk for a while. They walked the walk. But their faith was never genuine.

The other passage I’ll draw your attention to is found in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7, he says:

Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Again, we see people who had the appearance of godliness. They preached the name of Christ. They did works in his name. But what does Jesus say to them at the very end? I never knew you (Mt 7:23). Despite all appearances, they never had union with Christ. They were not once saved only to become unsaved. Sadly, they were never saved in the first place.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love

God always preserves his people. Jesus did not die in vain. Jesus died to save. Period. End of discussion. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me [they persevere]. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish [never], and no one will snatch them out of my hand (Jn 10:27, 28).

We desperately need to see this side of the coin. I’ll say more about our responsibility to persevere in a moment, but if we don’t embrace God’s preservation of believers, we can’t have a sense of security. We can’t have assurance. And without assurance, following Jesus becomes a life of dread and uncertainty. Hope would cease to be glad anticipation, as the Bible defines it. It would become wishful thinking at best. I hope I make it to heaven.

When we struggle in our Christian lives, I strongly recommend we return to Romans 8 again and again. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Ro 8:28). That verse alone teaches us that God is sovereign. How could all things work together for good if God is not in control of all things?

But Paul continues:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:29-39)

That’s as emphatic as it gets. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39). Absolutely nothing.

The author and finisher of our faith

But it was precisely this that caused the medieval church to object. They reasoned that if believers have eternal security, if God preserves his people all the way to the end, what’s to stop us from doing nothing at all? Why even attempt to persevere?

At this point, I realize I could use another hour. But I don’t have another hour, so I’ll do my best to be concise.

In short, we persevere because God preserves. You’ll notice even in Romans 8 that Paul writes about eternal security with the full expectation that those who are secure will persevere. At the start of the chapter, he says, There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Ro 8:1, 2). Then, he proceeds to talk about those same people walking not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Ro 8:4). In fact, he goes on to say, You, believer in Christ, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you (Ro 8:9).

I’ll say again God saves us to change us. Preservation and perseverance are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. God preserves the Christian, equipping him, teaching him, and providentially leading him. According to Hebrews 12, Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). I’m partial to how the King James Version translates that verse. It says Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith.” He the beginning of our faith, and he will sustain our faith to the end.

Confirm your calling and election

Now, having said that, let me draw your attention to 2 Peter chapter 1. I don’t have time to read it in full, but if I did, you’d see that Peter has the same expectations as Paul. The believer will press on. The believer will endure to the end. At the same time, Peter, like Paul, is more than willing to instruct Christians about our responsibilities. So, when we talk about God preserving his people, we’re not talking about some sort of hyper-grace soteriology. As paradoxical as it seems to our finite minds, man has responsibilities, even though God is sovereign. ‌Be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth.”

Well, Peter tells believers to add to their faith continually. He says:

Supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

In verse 10, he says:

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10, 11)

You are called and elected,” he says. Now, confirm it. Prove that it’s certain.” And what will the result be? Will you finally be saved as a result of your efforts? No, as Paul tells the Galatians, Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:3). No, but you will have assurance. And without assurance, hope is little more than wishful thinking.

You know, someone once asked me why we would ever teach people about eternal security. Wouldn’t it be better,” he asked, just to let people assume their salvation depends on their own works? Wouldn’t they strive harder to be better Christians?”

Arguably, they might, but first of all, that isn’t the truth. Clearly, God wants us to know that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39). That’s what his word tells us many times in many ways.

Second, while the Bible clearly lays the responsibility on us to endure to the end, it does not leave us to think we can achieve this on our own, even in part. And that’s good news because we all struggle at times to persevere. And rather than look to ourselves in the midst of those struggles, undoubtedly leading to discouragement if not complete hopelessness, we can look to Christ, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). As Andrew Randall says:

This is the key thing. The true source of Christian assurance is a gaze that is fixed upon Jesus himself, the one who gave us faith in the first place and the one who has promised to bring it to completion.