By which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
—1 Corinthians 15:2
Each doctrine within the Christian faith must be held in a balance. We are in great danger of error whenever we overemphasize the importance of one truth to the demise or neglect of others. However, it is impossible to overstate or overemphasize the preeminence of the gospel. We cannot become too extreme with the gospel. This truth is seen in the fact that the gospel is the greatest revelation of God to man, and it is the only message by which men might be saved. Consequently, it is also the one message we must hold onto tenaciously. Although even the most minor departure from biblical truth is dangerous, we may misunderstand many things without putting our eternal destinies in jeopardy. However, to be wrong about the gospel is to be wrong about everything! Not giving the gospel preeminence is to misunderstand it altogether!
A GOSPEL THAT SAVES
In our text, the phrase, you are saved is translated from a present tense verb which describes both a “present process and a future reality.”1 It may be translated: “by which you are being saved.” It is important not to forget that the Scriptures describe salvation in three tenses—past, present, and future. To ignore any one of these tenses or aspects of salvation will cause us to have a skewed or unhealthy view of salvation as a whole. In the past, God saved the believer from the condemnation of sin. This occurred at the moment of conversion, when the Christian believed God’s testimony concerning the gospel and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.2 Scripture commonly refers to this as justification.3
In the present, the believer is being saved from the power of sin. This is a gradual process known throughout the New Testament as progressive sanctification. The believer is God’s workmanship, and God is working in him both to will and to work according to His good pleasure.4 Through the Word and the Spirit, trials and tribulations, blessing and discipline, God is transforming the believer and bringing the whole of his or her life into conformity to the image of Jesus Christ.5
In the future, the believer will be saved completely and eternally from the power and presence of sin. This final stage is commonly known as glorification and is as certain as the others because He who began a good work will perfect it.6 As the apostle Paul declares in what has come to be known as the golden chain of salvation: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”7
We live in a day in which the temporal and the trivial are exalted to a prominence they should not be given among God’s people. We desire these momentary pleasures as though they were actually worthy of such affection. However, we must hold to a singular truth: the greatest promise of the gospel is salvation. All other promises and all other benefits pale in comparison to this one thing: the gospel is the power of God for salvation, and whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.8
According to the apostle Peter, salvation is the very outcome or goal of the believer’s faith.9 It is the purpose behind all that Christ has done for His people, and it ought to be the believer’s great longing and the goal toward which he strives. God can give no greater gift and the believer can have no greater hope or motivation than that of final salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When we realize what we were before Christ and what we deserved in that state, it further magnifies the enormity of the gospel for us. We were sinners by nature and deed, and we were corrupt to the point of depravity. We were lawbreakers and criminals without excuse or plea before the bar of God’s justice.10 We deserved nothing less than death and eternal condemnation, but now the blood of God’s own Son saves us. While we were helpless sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for the ungodly.11 Through Him, we who were far off have now been brought near.12 In Him, we have redemption through His blood, and the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.13 We are saved from our sin, reconciled to God, and brought into fellowship with Him as sons! What more could we desire, or what more do we need? Is not the gift of salvation through the blood of God’s own Son enough to fill our hearts to overflowing for an eternity of eternities? Is it not enough to motivate us to live for Him who died? What need do we have of other promises? Will we live for Him with great zeal because He promises us not only salvation but also healing, ease of life, wealth, and honor? What are any of these things compared to the gift of salvation and of knowing Him? Away with those who would seek to coax us to devotion by promising us things other than Jesus Christ. If everyone you have ever loved was taken from you, and your body lay rotting on a dung heap, and your name was slandered by friend and enemy alike, you should still find all the devotion you need to love, praise, and serve Him in this one thing: He shed His own blood for your soul. This one holy passion fuels pure and undefiled religion.
Why is it then that the promise of eternal salvation alone no longer seems to have as much power to attract men to Christ? Why is modern man more interested in how the gospel can help him in this present life? First, it is because preachers are no longer preaching about the certainty of judgment and the dangers of hell. When preachers teach these things biblically and clearly, men begin to see that their greatest need is to be saved from eternal condemnation, and the more “practical” needs of this present age become trivial in comparison. Secondly, we must understand that the great majority of men on the street and in the pew are carnal, and carnally minded men cherish this world above the next. They have little interest in the things of God and eternity.14 Most would sooner attend a conference on self-esteem and self-realization than listen to one sermon on sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord.15 Many would cross land and sea to find their best life now, but they would not walk across the street to attend a series of meetings on the infinite worth of Christ or the sufferings of Calvary!
Although it is true that the gospel can and often does improve one’s station and condition in life, as stewards of the gospel, we must shun the temptation to attract hearers and congregants with any promise or prop other than Jesus Christ and eternal life. Although it would be beyond radical in this modern age of evangelism, we would do well to cry out to the masses, “Jesus Christ promises you two things: an eternal salvation in which to hope and a cross on which to die.16 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’”17
HOLDING FAST THE GOSPEL
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is one of the most precious truths to the believer who understands it.18 It is the greatest comfort and encouragement to know that He who began a good work in us will finish it.19 However, this doctrine has been grossly perverted, becoming the chief instrument of false assurance for countless individuals who are yet unconverted and still in their sin. This is a “hard saying” but is true nonetheless.
In the text at the beginning of the chapter, the apostle Paul writes, “You are saved, if you hold fast that word.” The word if introduces a conditional clause that we must not ignore and we cannot remove. The logic is clear: a person is saved if he holds fast the gospel, but if he does not hold fast, he is not saved. This is not a denial of the doctrine of perseverance but rather an explanation of it. None of those who truly believe unto salvation will ever be lost to eternal destruction. The grace and power of the God who saved them will also keep them until that final day. However, the evidence that they have truly believed is that they continue in the things of God and do not turn away from Him. Although they will still struggle against the flesh and be subject to many failings, the full course of their life will reveal a definite and notable progress in both faith and godliness. Their perseverance does not save them or make them objects of grace, but it reveals that they are objects of grace who are truly saved by faith. To put it plainly, the proof or validation of genuine conversion is that the one who professes faith in Christ perseveres in that faith and grows in sanctification throughout the full course of his life. If a person professes faith in Christ and yet falls away or makes no progress in godliness, it does not mean that he has lost his salvation. It reveals that he was never truly converted.
This truth runs throughout the full course of the Scripture’s teaching on salvation. Jesus taught that the one who endured in his faith until the end would be saved.20 In the parable of the sower, He explained that though many would seem to embrace the gospel of the kingdom, most would fall away because of affliction, persecution, the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of wealth.21 The apostle John, referring to those who had left the church in Ephesus, wrote, “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 they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.”22
It is important to note once again that these Scriptures are not a denial of the believer’s security in Christ. The truly regenerate child of God will continue in the faith until the end because of the faithfulness and power of the One who began a good work in him.23 However, these warnings have an important function in the Christian faith and should not be ignored. They help us to discern the difference between true and false conversion, and they function as a warning for the believer to apply all diligence in making his calling and election sure.24
These warnings are especially relevant in light of the present state of evangelicalism in the West, and they have tremendous and far-reaching implications for many who profess faith in Christ. There are many who believe they are saved and thoroughly Christian because they once prayed a prayer and asked Jesus to come into their hearts. However, they did not continue on in the faith. They never came out of the world, or if they did, they quickly returned. They possess no practical reality of the fear of the Lord. There is no fragrance of divine grace in their lives. They show no outward evidence of inward transformation. There is not even a hint of the divine discipline that God provides to all His children.25 Yet they stand assured of their salvation because of one decision in their past and their belief that their prayer was truly sincere. No matter how popular such a belief may be, it has no biblical grounds.
It is true that conversion happens at a specific moment in time when men pass from death to life through faith in Jesus Christ.26 However, biblical assurance that a person has passed from death to life finds a basis not merely upon an examination of the moment of conversion but also upon an examination of his or her life from that moment on. In the midst of great carnality, the apostle Paul did not ask the Corinthians to reevaluate their conversion experience in the past, but he admonished them to examine their lives in the present.27
We would do well to follow Paul’s lead in the counseling of supposed converts. They must know—and we must teach them—that the evidence of a genuine saving work of God in the past is the continuation of that work into the present and until that final day. We are saved if we hold fast to the word that was preached to us. We can have little or no assurance of salvation if such is not the case. This one simple biblical truth, if properly preached with conviction and compassion, would demolish the false assurance of countless multitudes in the pew and result in the salvation of many.
Oh, that God would raise up men who understand that false assurance is one of the great maladies of the age and the blight that all but ruins the testimony of the church. When will we realize that one of the greatest mission fields in the West is the pews of our churches every Sunday morning? When will we acknowledge that our superficial treatment of the gospel, our ignorance of the nature of true conversion, and our refusal to practice compassionate church discipline led to this great and deadly deception?
This is chapter three from Paul Washer's book The Gospel's Power and Message, available at Monergism Books. Also available in Kindle format.
1. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 682.
2. Romans 4:20–22
3. Romans 5:1
4. Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13
5. Romans 8:29
6. Philippians 1:6
7. Romans 8:28–30
8. Romans 1:16; 10:13
9. 1 Peter 1:9
10. Ephesians 2:1–3; Romans 3:10–19
11. Romans 5:6–10
12. Ephesians 2:13
13. Ephesians 1:7
14. Romans 8:5
15. Hebrews 12:14
16. This call did not originate with the author, but he heard these words many years ago while attending a series of meetings held by Leonard Ravenhill.
17. Revelation 22:17
18. The Abstract of Principles, the first confession Baptists officially endorsed, describes the doctrine of perseverance: “Those whom God hath accepted in the Beloved, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere to the end.”
19. Philippians 1:6
20. Matthew 24:13
21. Matthew 13:21–22
22. 1 John 2:19
23. Philippians 1:6
24. 2 Peter 1:5–10
25. Hebrews 12:8
26. John 5:24
27. 2 Corinthians 13:5