The idea of perseverance often speaks to determination, resolve, and diligence. Despite obstacles, setbacks, failures, and shortcomings, perseverance means persistence and steadfastness to attain the ultimate goal.
The idea of perseverance in the Bible is not far removed from this understanding. The greatest difference between the idea of perseverance in the modern era and perseverance in biblical teaching is on human ability: while the modern idea of perseverance places the ultimate ability of attaining that end-goal on the individual person, the biblical notion of perseverance places the ultimate ability of attaining the end-goal in the sovereign hands and power of God. Human beings respond by submitting to the Holy Spirit rather than resisting his work—that itself being a work of grace—which in turn enables and fuels perseverance.
Perseverance Bible Definition
Just as perseverance can be used in a variety of ways in English, so too can the idea of perseverance have various meanings and ways of being applied in the Bible.
A thoroughly biblical and theological understanding of perseverance primarily carries with it not the idea of a virtuous work ethic but rather a commitment to keep the faith, clinging to God’s promises and trusting in his finished work on the cross to keep those who belong to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who have been effectively called by God and are united to Christ will persevere in the faith—despite setbacks, failings, sin —not by their own strength but by the God who is committed to himself and his promises.
The perseverance of the saints is a theological doctrine, commonly associated with the theological system of Calvinism, which maintains that all those who are elected to salvation, saved by grace, and raised to new life in Christ through faith will inherit the promise of eternal life with God. When rightly understood, the perseverance of the saints emphasizes the power of God to accomplish his work of salvation, remaining faithful to his promises as described throughout the whole of Scripture.
In other words, those who are truly united to Christ by grace through faith will persevere to the end. They cannot “lose” their salvation any more than they can “gain” their salvation by their own efforts. From start to finish, salvation is a work of grace.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646, emphasizes that the perseverance of the saints is not bound up in hard work to keep oneself saved, and that it “depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability [or, unchangeableness] of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father, upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace…” (WCF, Chapter 17.2).
While many interpreters of the Bible, though not all, have found within the pages of Scripture the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, the doctrine should in no way be twisted to mean that a person can, after a profession of faith in the gospel, live for himself or herself in unrepentant sin, without regard for God and his word. As Paul answers in Romans:
And yet true believers, those persevering in the faith, are yet tempted and at times are characterized by disastrous sins, causing pain, grief, sadness, and sometimes physical harm to others as well as themselves, and are disciplined by God as a result.
The Bible speaks in many places about the importance of persevering in prayer. Perseverance in prayer is not about convincing God to act or hear us in prayer. He delights in the prayer of his people. Rather, perseverance in prayer is more about teaching our hearts to depend on, trust in, and respond faithfully to God’s faithful presence and power to act in our lives in accordance with his character and promises.
In Luke 11, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray and then tells a parable about asking God for the things we need and persevering in prayer. God gives graciously to those who seek him and persevere in prayer.
In Hebrews 11, the author gives us a beautiful picture of perseverance in the faith when describing the so-called heroes of the faith who trusted in the promises of God. Despite setbacks, besetting sins, failures, attempts to circumvent the promises of God or bring them about by their own means, attempts from the outside to destroy God’s promises—God’s promises go forth and the people of God, by means of faith, participate in and become conduits of bringing God’s blessings to all the world. The people of God persevere through faith.
The author of Hebrews uses the examples from the past, from the Old Testament, to encourage his readers to persevere. The author then turns to Jesus, who is no doubt the example of perseverance par excellence in the Bible:
Many others in the New Testament could be mentioned whose perseverance and faithfulness to the gospel in the midst of great adversity: Paul, Stephen, Peter, John, James, et al.
To understand the importance of perseverance in the Bible, it may be helpful to understand first what perseverance is not: perseverance is not human ability or strength of will to create, keep, or maintain a relationship with God. Nevertheless, believers are exhorted throughout Scripture to put sin to death (Colossians 3:5), to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1), and many other imperatives to that end that speak to the necessity of holy living.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, perseverance is more about the continual outworking of what God has already done in the lives of those who have been effectively called and united to Christ through faith. In other words, what God has done in Christ enables Christians to do and persevere in that which God requires.
For this reason, warning passages in the Bible are genuine warnings to believers (to confirm their calling and election) as well as those who are part of the covenant community but who do not embrace the truth of the gospel from the heart (to trust in God). Those who fall away from the faith, from the community of the saints by rejecting the truth of the gospel, prove that they were not true and actual adopted members of the family of God, but more like fans and observers (1 John 2:19; Matthew 13). But even this sobering reality may be the means God uses to call such a one into his family.
Thus there is a genuine call to persevere in the faith, to persevere in prayer, and to persevere in the mission of God, to spread the gospel and bring the knowledge of God to the ends of the earth (Habakkuk 2:14).