This morning, our mind turns to the subject and usage of the term perseverance. While this term has – in recent years – actually gone up in usage frequency in popular culture, it remains a somewhat challenged piece of theological ground for many groups. The term basically means that steady, persistent behaviour keeps someone in a certain way. The persistence or continuation in that state generally yields results that are desirable to the person, thereby rewarding them for that action or determination. For example, the most popular usage today revolves around athletic and sporting competitions. If an individual or team perseveres in their athletic endeavour, they are said to persistently continue on and fight during the conflict to overcome any and all obstacles to achieve the desired result of winning the sporting event.
What makes this topic – and even the term itself – such a hot topic in theological circles is the fact that the term is Biblical but the general usage of it does not align with the Biblical usage. Quite often, the term perseverance is utlized alongside other terms to create phrases such as "perseverance in grace," "perseverance in faith," "perseverance in faith and holiness," "perseverance in righteousness and true holiness," or perhaps some other combination of these or other terms. While we will not try to investigate each used phrase in turn to prove its merit or demerit, we will seek to examine how the Bible outlines the term, and thereby we hope to show forth the proper usage of it.
The term perseverance is found one time in Scripture (Ephesians 6:18), and no other form of the word is located within the pages of Holy Writ. Therefore, the Bibilical, outlined usage of it is restricted to one particular context and its associated subject matter. Ephesians 6 lines out for us the armour of God, what each piece does, and how the Christian soldier should utilize it. Perseverance is found to help cover the legs as they remain bent in prayer and watching with all continuance and persistance (perseverance) in that activity. Simply put, this is the only context that the Bible defines for the word.
Quite often, people will interpose the term perseverance for preservation or vice versa. Instead of describing the preservation of the saints, people talk about the perseverance of the saints, meaning it in that way. While I understand what they mean (and try to exercise charity for the usage), we always play a dangerous game when taking a Biblical term and utilizing it in a different fashion from the Bible's presentation of it. For example, if I were to teach the word in a preaching way and always teach it as an alternate expression for preservation, what might happen to the hearers as their reading takes them through Ephesians 6? They might read through Ephesians 6 and think, "Well if I am not constantly praying and watching this way, I may not be preserved in God's hand."
On a related note, sometimes the expressions used above such as "perseverance in faith and holiness" are relayed with the very thought that people who are not doing such are not part of God's redeemed band. Perhaps the preacher might say, "If you do not persevere in faith and holiness, then you are not really a child of God." On a few occasions, I have had the experience to cross paths with ministers of this philosophy, and those conversations yielded some interesting conversation threads. Whether they preached perseverance in faith, holiness, righteousness, etc., their main points were the same: 1. these were necessary requirements to show forth a regenerated state, 2. those who were saved did these things, 3. those who did not were either unsaved or not yet regenerated.
While these dogmas are not new, there has been an increased rise in their belief across some broad spectrums of Christianity and different denominational groups. Yet, whether they are "trendy" ideals of the day among Christians or not, the fact remains that Scripture neither teaches those concepts nor should God's children be found engaged in such ill-adivsed observation trying to determine the "who ares" and "who ain'ts" in God's family. (II Timothy 2:19) Whenever I have engaged in conversation with ministers who believed and preached this dogma, one thing that I have always asked and not yet received clear answer about are a series of logical questions about the concept.
The first logical question is what happens if someone waffles back and forth between righteousness and unrighteousness, faith and apostasy, or holiness and filthiness? To persevere in something means to steadfastly, persistently continue in a certain thing. To return to something does not qualify as perseverance, as its meaning regulates the activity to staying in something rather than returning to it. For example, many teach that dogma using Job 17:9 as a prooftext for it. Yet, a further, closer reading of Job's thought does not say that the righteous will return to his way, but rather that the righteous shall hold on his way. Therefore, if that verse teaches that one must persevere to be a righteous man, any one of us who has ever departed – even for a season – from the right way would thereby fail the perseverance and righteousness test. Should that thought be true, not a one of us would pass the test, and heaven would be echoing in silence from the absence of redeemed people being there.
The second logical question is that if one must persevere in that way, how do we define and measure it? Are we simply talking about a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) test? If so, are we talking about one of the fruit, all nine, etc.? The term "perseverance in _____" is often used but never fully defined and scoped. Therefore, I try to get the defintion and scope of what they mean by the term. To date, none have ever given me a measurable definition that the Bible supports. Some attest to positive response to the gospel as the test, even though the Bible shows God's people at times did not respond positively to the gospel. (Galatians 1:6-9) Since Paul references "another gospel" as being "not another" but rather an "accursed thing," we cannot hope to define someone's righteousness and steadfast character on a response to something "accursed." Sometimes, they talk about the test being "measurable observance of fruit." When pressed on the measure (how much of it), I have yet to get a defined answer. They simply say that it is measureable but do not offer the benchmark.
Normally, the second question is about where the conversation falls apart, but the dangerous usage of the word as it departs from the Biblical outlined usage of it shows an even bigger and more dangerous hole that many have fallen into. When it comes to someone's home in heaven, only One persevered to accomplish it – Jesus Christ. As Paul so beautifully put it, if Christ died for us, then our condition in life gets trumped by His work. (I Thessalonians 5:9-10) What if someone is having a bad season showing forth filth and in a hole of unrighteousness? What if someone has departed from the faith and gone after the ways of the world? Truly, these are lamentable circumstances that we have all seen and all of us – self included – have been in at different times. Yet, Paul so wonderfully comforts us by saying that Christ's death trumps our behaviour. Waking or sleeping, well or not well, persevering or wallowing in misery, Christ's death assures that we shall live together with Him.
The proper mindset of the subject of perseverance is – as Paul describes it – the aim of the Christian soldier. With all the armour pieces rightly fitted around his person, the soldier adds the last element by consistent, fervent watching and praying to the Captain of the entire army. The Captain is the one that saved us after all. (Hebrews 2:10) Therefore, our watching and praying should be so consistent and persistent that our prayers really are "without ceasing." (I Thessalonians 5:17) By earnestly and continually fulfilling that task, we can say that we persevere in that activity. That is the goal. That is the aim. Yet, may we never ascribe that as the benchmark by which we describe God's family. To describe God's family as we should, we say that God's family is washed in His blood and preserved in His hand. (Jude 1, Revelation 1:6) To describe the goal of God's family while we are here, we should say that we try to walk in newness of life, showing forth His praises, persevering as we go.