Perseverance of the Saints in Reformation Anglican Theology

Ever since the great Reformed church council, the Synod of Dort (1618-19), Reformed theologians have agreed that the doctrine of the “Perseverance of the Saints” is an essential part of biblical Christianity. This doctrine teaches that all those who genuinely experience Christian conversion (regeneration) will invincibly persevere in their faith to the end of their lives, at which point they will enter God’s kingdom. This isn’t a statement of confidence in human ability but in God’s faithfulness to his promises. It is based on the Bible’s teaching that God guarantees the salvation of his chosen people, and thus when He regenerates someone by His Spirit, that is the down-payment and guarantee of God that He will hold onto that person and preserve them in their faith for the rest of their lives (Ephesians 1:13-14).

That doesn’t mean Christians are merely passive observers of God’s work. In fact, the point is that God’s Spirit works in us to enable us to persevere in the faith. And God doesn’t generally do this in a mystical way detached from the shape of ordinary life. Rather, God calls us to make use of the means which He gives us to be nurtured, fed, and built up in the faith. Such means include the fellow-believers who make up our church communities, the Bible, the sacraments, and a host of other things that direct us to Jesus and to His gospel. These “means of grace” enable and support the perseverance of God’s people since God’s Spirit actively works through these things to preserve us in the faith, and to enable us to persevere in it “firm to the end” (1 Cor 1:8). I have previously highlighted how this truth is taught in 1 John and 1 Thessalonians.

A Contentious Doctrine?

In an excellent recent book, Debating Perseverance (OUP, 2018), Jay Collier discusses both how Perseverance of the Saints is a distinctly Reformed doctrine, however, until the Synod of Dort some Reformed theologians rejected it. Leaving aside individuals, the confessional statement of the Church of England did not explicitly assert this doctrine, which made space for disagreement among English theologians on this point. And disagreement there was! Part of my research on William Perkins focuses on the Cambridge Predestinarian disputes of 1595 in which a vocal minority of theologians rebelled against the mainstream Reformed view of predestination, perseverance, and assurance. In managing this dispute Archbishop Whitgift refused to support the idea that there was an “official” English position on perseverance of the saints. He held that official English theology allowed for both views.

I believe Whitgift was mistaken. Whether for reason of his own personal convictions, or with an interest of keeping the peace (both I think), he was unwilling to take the Articles’ teaching on these themes seriously. In a recent article ‘The Perseverance of the Saints in Reformation Anglicanism’ (in The Global Anglican, 2021) I argue that the official Anglican position, as expressed in the official materials of the English Church, implicitly affirmed the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. To that end, I examine the place of this doctrine in the official Anglican theological statement, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563, 1571), the approved sermons of the two Books of Homilies (1547, 1571), and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer (1559 [1662]). For full discussion, see the article; a short and basic version follows.

Perseverance in The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion

The Articles teach the Reformed view of sin and grace, namely that man is bound to sin and unable to choose God until God first regenerates him by His Spirit (articles 9-10). From that point onward, God is perpetually active in enabling the regenerate person to follow Jesus. Thus, initial conversion is God’s work without our input, but all subsequent acts of the Christian life involve both God and us working together. Christian living involves human effort, but this itself takes place by God’s enabling (Phil 2:12-13).

However, sin remains in Christians even after conversion, and so Christians are capable of sinning and backsliding, and often do so. Mercifully, the opportunity for repentance remains to all who fall into sin, and regenerate people can make use of God’s enabling to turn to him once again (articles 9 & 16). Thus, the Christian life involves a contest between sin and grace. Christians should expect that they will need to repent of sin regularly. They should also expect to find that God willing to forgive them, and enabling them to repent and newly receive his forgiveness.

Article 17 ties together Christian experience using the “golden chain” of Romans 8:29-30, namely that God elects, calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies a people for himself, guaranteeing that every last one of his elect people will attain the salvation planned for each one of them.

It is notable that this article expresses the mainstream Reformed view of this passage (held by Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, Hyperius, Musculus, Ursinus, Beza, and many others). More to the point, this is precisely the underlying logic of salvation that amounts to the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. Each step in God’s work in individuals is unbreakably linked to the next. Such is the theological ‘theory’ of the Anglican doctrine of salvation.

Now we turn to how this doctrinal foundation relates to the public expression of religion in its official sermons and liturgy.

Perseverance in the Homilies

The Homilies urge people against complacency and backsliding, warning all against forsaking God which leads to eternal ruin. Especially important on this theme is the homily “Of the Declining from God,” which warns against presumptuous security and passivity. Here and elsewhere the homilies echo biblical warnings, such as that of Hebrews 6:4-12, that we earnestly attend to our own continuation in the Christian faith. These homilies are not making formal theological claims (such as that the elect can fall away) but are simply urging all who follow Jesus to take care to continue firm in him, just as the New Testament does.

Perseverance in the Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) lays out a liturgical script for church services which follows a twofold pattern of law and gospel. In the service, sinners are first confronted with their moral failings before a holy God, before being led into expressions of repentance and faith in Christ, and then consequently to assurance and thanksgiving for salvation in Christ. This pattern was to be repeated weekly, and even up to twice a day, leading professing Christians through a pattern of spiritual renewal, and thus a practice of perseverance in Christian profession.

The BCP also builds perseverance into the pattern of life. Medieval Christianity structured all of life according to the seven sacraments, beginning with Baptism as an infant through to Extreme Unction immediately before death. The English Reformers retained the rhythm of life that was familiar to the English people, but thoroughly “Protestantized” it. The BCP therefore retains the biblical and medieval sense that life is a pilgrimage to heaven, and that Christian travellers undertake this journey as members of the local parish church and through the sustenance provided by its ministry.

Protestants hold that there are only two sacraments: baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the marker of the beginning of the Christian life, a journey from baptism to glory. Baptised children are to be catechised (instructed in the faith) until such a time at which they can give a credible profession of Christian faith for themselves. At that point they are to undergo Confirmation (a spiritual ‘coming of age’), in which they give public expression to their faith. Only those confirmed may then partake of the second sacrament, the Lord’s Supper.

As with Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 15-18), Christians require food and drink to sustain them on their journey to the heavenly Promised Land. The wilderness of this world is harsh and inhospitable to faith. The Lord’s Supper represents the spiritual sustenance perpetually available to God’s people in Christ. In the Supper, the Christian spiritually (i.e. by faith) “eats and drinks Christ” as the food and drink that will sustain them on the ongoing journey. Likewise, the BCP lectionary set out a public reading schedule for church in which parishioners hear the Bible read in its entirety over the course of the year, including the entire New Testament three times and the Psalms twelve times. By continually feeding of Christ and his promises, God’s people are sustained for their journey of perseverance to God’s Kingdom.

Scholars have noted that whilst Thomas Cranmer (the principal author of the Anglican formularies) held to the Reformed doctrine of predestination, he was cautious about the way it was presented. He primarily aimed to present people with the promises, warnings, and admonitions of Scripture rather than emphasise the undergirding doctrinal theory, especially on points that can easily led to speculation and anxiety if not handled carefully. We can observe a similar dynamic in Cranmer’s handling of perseverance of the saints. He plainly believed it to be true, but he took care in the way it was expressed to the English people lest it lead to passivity or fatalism. Cranmer would never have allowed people to hide behind simplistic theological slogans, like “once saved always saved,” that, whilst expressing a particular aspect of truth, are unbalanced and misleading in practice. Instead Cranmer sought to capture the New Testament’s combination of confident assurance and the need to set one’s eyes on the kingdom ahead, trusting in God’s enabling to arrive there. For example,

Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we running to the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

BCP, Collect for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday

In sum, we might say that official Anglican theology places less emphasis on describing the doctrine of perseverance than it does on building the means of perseverance into the patterns of church life. God’s people are preserved in Christ primarily by means of the ministry of the local church, where “the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly administered, according to Christ’s ordinance” (Art. 19).

See further: Matthew N. Payne, ‘The Perseverance of the Saints in Reformation Anglicanism.’ The Global Anglican 135/4 (2021): 329-46.

On Perseverance in historical Reformed theology in England, see: Jay T. Collier, Debating Perseverance: The Augustinian Heritage in Post-Reformation England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

On Perseverance in the New Testament, see: Thomas R. Schreiner & Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001).