I. Notice the different kinds of certainty.
Every thing must be certain with some kind of certainty. There is a way in which all things and events either have been, are, or will be. All events that ever did or will occur, were and are as really certain before as after their occurrence. To an omniscient mind their real certainty might and must have been known, as really before as after their occurrence. All future events, for example, will occur in some way, and there is no real uncertainty in fact, nor can there be any real uncertainty in the knowledge of God respecting them. They are really as certain before they come to pass as they will ever be, and they are as truly and perfectly known as certain by God as they ever will be. They are as truly present to the Divine fore-knowledge as they ever will be. Whatever of contingency and uncertainty there may be respecting them in some respects, yet, in point of fact, all events are certain, and there is no real uncertainty in respect to any event that ever did or will occur. This would be equally true, whether God or any other being knew how they would be or not. The fore-knowledge of God does not make them certain. He knows them to be certain simply because they are so. Omniscience is the necessary knowledge of all objects of knowledge, past, present, and future. But omniscience does not create objects of knowledge. It does not render events certain, but only knows how they certainly will be, because it is certain, not only that they will be, but how and when they will be. All the free actions of moral agents are as really certain before they occur, as they ever will be. And God must as truly know how they will be before they occur, as he does after they have occurred.
1. The first kind of certainty that I shall notice, is that of absolute necessity; that is, a certainty depending on no conditions whatever. This is the highest kind of certainty. It belongs to the absolute and the infinite, to the existence of space, duration, and to the existence of God; and in short to everything that is self-existent, infinite, and immutable in a natural sense; that is, to everything infinite that does not imply voluntariness. The natural attributes of God are certain by this kind of certainty, but his moral attributes, consisting as they do in a voluntary state of mind, though infinite and eternal, do not belong to this class.
2. A second kind of certainty is that of physical, but conditional necessity. To this class belong all those events that come to pass under the operation of physical law. These belong properly to the chain of cause and effect. The cause existing, the effect must exist. The event is rendered certain and necessary by the existence of its cause. Its certainty is conditionated upon its cause. The cause existing, the event must follow by a law of necessity, and the events would not occur of course, did not their causes exist. The causes being what they are, the events must be what they are. This class of events are as really certain as the foregoing class. By speaking of one of them as certain in a higher sense than the other, it is not intended, that one class is any more certain than the other, but only that the certainty is of a different kind. For example, the first class are certain by a kind of certainty that does not, and never did depend on the will of any being whatever. There never was any possibility that these things should be otherwise than they are. This, it will be seen, must be true of space and duration, and of the existence and the natural attributes of God.
But all other things except the self-existent, the naturally immutable and eternal, are certain only as they are conditionated directly or indirectly upon the will of some being. For example, all the events of the physical universe were rendered certain by creation, and the establishing and upholding of those physical and necessary laws that cause these events. These are, therefore, certain by a conditioned, though physical necessity. There is no freedom or liberty in the events themselves; they occur necessarily, when their causes or conditions are supplied.
3. A third kind of certainty is that of a moral certainty. I call it a moral certainty, not because the class of events which belong to it are less certain than the foregoing, but because they consist in, or are conditionated upon, the free actions of moral agents. This class do not occur under the operation of a law of necessity, though they occur with certainty. There is no contingency predicable of the absolutely certain in the sense of absolute certainty above defined. The second class of certainties are contingent only in respect to their causes. Upon condition that the causes are certain, the events depending upon them are certain, without or beyond any contingency. This third class, though no less certain than the former two, are nevertheless contingent in the highest sense in which anything can be contingent. They occur under the operation of free will, and consequently there is not one of them that might not by natural possibility fail, or be otherwise than it is or will in fact be. This kind of certainty I call a moral certainty, as opposed to a physical certainty, that is, it is not a certainty of necessity in any sense; it is only a mere certainty, or a voluntary certainty, a free certainty, a certainty that might, by natural possibility in every case, be no certainty at all. But, on the contrary, the opposite might in every instance be certain by a natural possibility. God in every instance, knows how these events will be, as really as if they occurred by necessity; but his foreknowledge does not affect their certainty one way or the other. They might in every instance by natural possibility be no certainties at all, or be the opposite of what they are or will be, God's foreknowledge in anywise notwithstanding. God knows them to be certain, not because his knowledge has any influence of itself to necessitate them, but because they are certain in themselves. Because it is certain in itself that they will be, God knows that they will be. To this class of events belong all the free actions of moral agents. All events maybe traced ultimately to the action of God's free will; that is, God's free actions gave existence to the universe, with all its physical agencies and laws, so that all physical events are in some sense owing to, and result from the actions of free will. But physical events occur nevertheless under the immediate operation of a law of necessity. The class now under consideration depend not upon the operation of physical law as their cause. They are caused by the free agent himself. They find the occasions of their occurrence in the providential events with which moral agents are surrounded, and therefore may be traced indirectly, and more or less remotely, to the actions of the Divine will.
Concerning this class of events, I would further remark that they are not only contingent in such a sense, that they might in every case by natural possibility be other than they are, but there may be, humanly speaking, the utmost danger that they will be otherwise than they really will be, that is, there may be danger, and the utmost danger, in the only sense in which there can be in fact any danger that any event will be otherwise than what it turns out to be. All events being really certain, there is in fact no danger that any event whatever will turn out differently from what it does, in the sense that it is not certain how it will be. But since all acts of free will, and all events dependent on those acts, are contingent in the highest sense in which any event can in the nature of things be contingent; and in the sense that, humanly speaking, there may be millions of chances to one that they will be otherwise than they will in fact turn out to be, -- we say of all this class of events, that there is danger that they may or may not occur.
Again: I remark in respect to this class of events, that God may foresee that so intricate is the labyrinth, and so complicated are the occasions of failure, that nothing but the utmost watchfulness and diligent use of means on his part, and on our part, can secure the occurrence of the event. Everything revealed in the Bible concerning the perseverance and final salvation of the saints, and everything that is true, and that God knows of the free actions and destinies of the saints, may be of this class. These events are nevertheless certain, and are known to God as certainties. Not one of them will, in fact, turn out differently from what he foresees that they will; and yet by natural possibility, they might every one of them turn out differently; and there may, in the only sense in which danger is predicable of anything, be the utmost danger that some or all of them will turn out differently from what they in fact will. These events are contingent in such a sense, that should the means fail to be used, or should any event in the whole chain of influences connected with their occurrence, be otherwise than it is, the end or event resulting, would or might be otherwise, than in fact it will be. They are, nevertheless, certain, every one of them, together with all the influences upon which each free act depends. Nothing is uncertain in respect to whether it will occur or not; and yet no free act, or event depending upon a free act, is certain, in the sense that it cannot by natural possibility be otherwise, nor in the sense that there may not be great danger, or, humanly speaking, a probability that it will be otherwise, and that, humanly speaking, there may not be many chances to one that it will be otherwise.
When I say, that any event may, by natural possibility, be otherwise than what it will in fact be, I mean, that the free agent has natural power in every instance to choose otherwise than he does or actually will choose. As an illustration of both the contingency and the certainty of this class of events, suppose a man about to attempt to cross Lake Erie on a wire, or to pass down the falls of Niagara in a bark canoe. The result of this attempt is really certain. God must know how it will be. But this result, though certain, is conditionated upon a multitude of things, each of which the agent has natural power to make otherwise than in fact he will. To secure his safe crossing, every volition must be just what and as it will be; but there is not one among them that might not, by natural possibility, be the opposite of what it will be.
Again, the case may be such, and the danger of failure so great, that nothing could secure the safe crossing, but a revelation from God that would inspire confidence, that the adventurer should in fact cross the lake, or venture down the falls safely: I say, this revelation of God might be indispensable to his safe crossing. Suppose it were revealed to a man under such circumstances, that he should actually arrive in safety; but the revelation was accompanied with the emphatic assurance, that the end depended upon the most diligent, cautious, and persevering use of means on his part, and that any failure in these would defeat the end. Both the revelation of the certainty of success, and the emphatic warning, might be indispensable to the securing of the end. Now, if the adventurer had confidence in the promise of success, he would have confidence in the caution not to neglect the necessary means, and his confidence in both might secure the desired result. But take an example from scripture: --
Acts xxvii.21: "But after long abstinence, Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss.22. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, 24. Saying, Fear not, Paul: thou must be brought before Cæsar: and lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.25. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.26. Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island.27. But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the ship-men deemed that they drew near to some country; 28. And sounded, and found it twenty fathoms: and when they had gone a little further, they sounded again, and found it fifteen fathoms.29. Then fearing lest we should have fallen upon rocks, they cast anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day.30. And as the ship-men were about to flee out of the ship, when they had let down the boat into the sea, under color as though they would have cast anchors out of the fore-ship, 31. Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved." Here the end was foreknown and expressly foretold at first, without any condition expressed, though they plainly understood that the end was to be secured by means. Paul afterwards informed them, that if they neglected the means, the end would fail. Both the means and the end were certain in fact, and God therefore expressly revealed the certainty of the result, and afterwards by a subsequent revelation secured the use of the necessary means. Here was no uncertainty, in the sense that the thing might, in fact, turn out otherwise than it did, and yet it was uncertain in the sense that, by natural possibility, both the means and the end might fail.
I remark, again, in respect to events that are morally certain, that if they are greatly desired, they are not the more, but all the less, in danger of failing, by how much stronger the confidence is that they will occur, provided it be understood, that they are certain only by a moral certainty; that is, provided it be understood, that the event is conditioned upon the free acts of the agent himself.
Again: it is generally admitted, that hope is a condition of success in any enterprise; and if this is so, assurance of success, upon the proper conditions, cannot tend to defeat the end.
I remark, again, that there is a difference between real danger, and a knowledge or sense of danger. There may be as great and as real danger when we have no sense or knowledge of it, as when we have. And on the other hand, when we have the highest and the keenest sense of danger, there may be, in fact, no real danger; and indeed, as has been said, there never is any danger in the sense that anything will, as a matter of fact, turn out differently from what God foresees it will be.
Again: the fact that anything is revealed as certain, does not make it certain; that is, the revelation does not make it certain. It had been certain, had not this certainty been revealed, unless it be in cases where the revelation is a condition or means of the certainty revealed. An event may be really certain, and may be revealed as certain, and yet, humanly speaking, there may be millions of chances to one, that it will not be as it is revealed; that is, so far as human foresight can go, the probabilities may all be against it.
II. State what is not intended by the perseverance of the saints, as I hold the doctrine.
1. It is not intended that any sinner will be saved without complying with the conditions of salvation; that is, without regeneration, and persevering in obedience to the end of life, in a sense to be hereafter explained.
2. It is not intended that saints, or the truly regenerate, cannot fall from grace, and be finally lost, by natural possibility. It must be naturally possible for all moral agents to sin at any time. Saints on earth and in heaven can by natural possibility apostatize and fall, and be lost. Were not this naturally possible, there would be no virtue in perseverance.
3. It is not intended, that the true saints are in no danger of apostasy and ultimate damnation. For, humanly speaking, there may be, and doubtless is, the greatest danger in respect to many, if not of all of them, in the only sense in which danger is predicable of any event whatever, that they will apostatize, and be ultimately lost.
4. It is not intended, that there may not be, humanly speaking, myriads of chances to one, that some, or that many of them will fall and be lost. This may be, as we say, highly probable; that is, it may be probable in the only sense in which it is probable, that any event whatever may be different from what it will turn out to be.
5. It is not intended, that the salvation of the saints is possible, except upon condition of great watchfulness and effort, and perseverance on their part, and great grace on the part of God.
6. It is not intended, that their salvation is certain, in any higher sense than all their future free actions are. The result is conditioned upon their free actions, and the end can be no more certain than its means or conditions. If the ultimate salvation of the saints is certain, it is certain only upon condition, that their perseverance in obedience to the end of life is certain. Every act of this obedience is free and contingent in the highest sense in which contingency can be predicated of any thing whatever. It is also uncertain by the highest kind of uncertainty that can be predicated of any event whatever. Therefore there is and must be, as much real danger of the saints failing of ultimate salvation, as there is that any event whatever will be different from what it turns out to be.
But here it should be distinctly remembered, as was said, that there is a difference between a certainty and a knowledge of it. It is one thing for an event to be really certain, and another thing for us to have a knowledge of it as certain. Everything is really equally certain, but many things are not revealed to us as certain. Those that are revealed as certain, are no more really so than others, but with respect to future things, not in some way revealed to us, we know not how they will prove to be. The fact that a thing is revealed to us as certain does not make it certain, nor is it really any the less uncertain because it is revealed to us as certain, unless the revelation tends to secure the certainty. Suppose the ultimate salvation of all the saints is certain, and that this certainty is revealed to us; unless this revelation is the means of securing their salvation, they are in just as much real danger of ultimately failing of eternal life, as if no such revelation had been made. Notwithstanding the certainty of their salvation, and the fact that this certainty is revealed to them, there is just as much real, though unknown, certainty or uncertainty, in respect to any future event whatever, as there is in respect to this. All events are certain with some kind of certainty, and would be whether any being whatever knew the certainty or not. So all events, consisting in or depending upon the free acts of free agents, are really as uncertain as any event can be, and this is true whether the certainty is revealed or not. The salvation of the saints then, is not certain with any higher certainty than belongs to all future events that consist in, or are conditionated upon, the free acts of free will, though this certainty may be revealed to us in one case, and not in the other.
7. Of course the salvation of the saints is not certain by any kind or degree of certainty that affords the least ground of hope of impunity in a course of sin. "For if they are to be saved, they are to be saved upon condition of continuing in faith and obedience to the end of life."
Moreover, their salvation is no more certain than their future free obedience is. The certainty of future free obedience, and a knowledge of this certainty, cannot be a reason for not obeying, or afford encouragement to live in sin. So no more can the knowledge of the conditional and moral certainty of our salvation afford a ground for hope of impunity in a life of sin.
8. The salvation of the saints is not certain by any kind or degree of certainty that renders their salvation or their damnation any more impossible, than it renders impossible any future acts of sin or obedience. Consequently, it is not certain in such a sense as to afford the least encouragement for hope of salvation in sin, any more than a certainty that a farmer would raise a crop upon condition of his diligent, and timely, and persevering use of the appropriate means, would encourage him to neglect those means. If the farmer had a knowledge of the certainty with its conditions, it would be no temptation to neglect the means; but, on the other hand, this knowledge would operate as a powerful incentive to the required use of them. So neither can the knowledge of the certainty of the salvation of the saints, with the condition of it, be to them a temptation to live in sin; but, on the contrary, this knowledge must act as a powerful incentive to the exercise of confidence in God, and perseverance in holiness unto the end. So neither can the certainty that the necessary means will be used, afford any encouragement to neglect the use of them in the case of man's salvation, any more than the revealed certainty that a farmer will sow his field and have a crop, would encourage him to neglect to sow. The known certainty of both the means and the end, with an understanding of the moral nature of the certainty, has no natural tendency to beget presumption and neglect; but, on the contrary, to beget a diligent, and cheerful, and confident use of the necessary means.
III. Show what is intended by the doctrine in question.
It is intended, that all who are at any time true saints of God, are preserved by his grace and Spirit through faith, in the sense that subsequently to regeneration, obedience is their rule, and disobedience only the exception; and that being thus kept, they will certainly be saved with an everlasting salvation.
Before I proceed to the direct proof of the doctrine, a few remarks may be desirable.
1. I would remark, that I have felt greater hesitancy in forming and expressing my views upon this, than upon almost any other question in theology. I have read whatever I could find upon both sides of this question, and have uniformly found myself dissatisfied with the arguments on both sides. After very full and repeated discussion, I feel better able to make up and express an opinion upon the subject than formerly. I have at some periods of my ministry been nearly on the point of coming to the conclusion that the doctrine is not true. But I could never find myself able to give a satisfactory reason for the rejection of the doctrine. Apparent facts that have come under my observation have sometimes led me seriously to doubt the soundness of the doctrine; but I cannot see, and the more I examine the more unable I find myself to see, how a denial of it can be reconciled with the scriptures.
I shall give the substance of what I regard as the scripture proof of this doctrine, and beg the reader to make up his opinion for himself by a careful examination. Perhaps what has been satisfactory to my mind may not be so to the minds of others. Let no one believe this, or any other doctrine upon my authority, but "prove all things and hold fast that which is good."
2. I observe, that its truth cannot be inferred from the nature of regeneration. It is true, as was said, and as will be farther shown, that perseverance is an attribute or characteristic of Christian character; but this does not necessarily result from the nature of regeneration, but from the indwelling Spirit of Christ. It has been common for that class of writers and theologians, who hold what is called the Taste Scheme of regeneration, to infer the truth of this doctrine from the nature of the change that constitutes the new birth. In this they have been entirely consistent. If, as they suppose, regeneration consists in a change in the constitution of the mind, in the implanting or infusion of a new constitutional taste, relish, or appetite; if it consists in or implies a change back of all voluntary action, and such a change as to secure and necessitate a change of voluntary action; why, then it is consistent, to infer from such a change the perseverance of the saints, unless it can be made to appear that either God, or Satan, or voluntary sin, can change the nature back again. If, in regeneration, the nature is really changed, if there be some new appetite or taste implanted, some holy principle implanted or infused into the constitution, why, then it must follow, that they will persevere by a physical law of the new nature or constitution. I see not how, in this case, they could even be the subjects of temporary backsliding, unless the new appetite should temporarily fail, as does sometimes our appetite for food. But if this may be, yet if regeneration consists in or implies a new creation of something that is not voluntary, a creation of a new nature, instead of a new character, I admit, that perseverance might be reasonably inferred from the fact of such a change. But since I reject wholly this theory of regeneration, and maintain that it is wholly a voluntary change, I cannot consistently infer the final salvation of the saints from the nature of the change that occurs in regeneration. I have been struck with the inconsistency of those who hold the Taste Scheme of regeneration, and yet contend, not only for falling from a regenerate state, but also that the regenerate may and do fall into a state of entire depravity, every time they sin; that they fall from this state of physical or constitutional regeneration every time they commit sin, and must be regenerated or converted anew, or be lost. Now this is not reconcilable with the idea of the physical regeneration.
3. Nor can we infer the perseverance of the saints, with any justice, from their being, at their conversion, brought into a state of justification.
By perseverance some seem to mean, not that the saints do persevere or continue in obedience, but that they will be saved at any rate, whether they persevere in obedience or not. It was against this idea that such men as the Wesleys, and Fletcher, and their coadjutors fought so valiantly. They resisted justly and successfully the doctrine of perpetual justification, upon condition of one act of faith, and maintained that the saints as well as sinners are condemned whenever they sin. They also contended that there is no kind of certainty that all true saints will be saved. Since I have endeavored to refute the doctrine of a perpetual justification, conditioned upon the first act of faith, I cannot of course infer the final salvation of the saints from the nature of justification. Those who hold, that the first act of faith introduces the soul into a new relation of such a nature that, from thenceforth, it is not condemned by the law, do what it will, may justly infer from the nature of such a justification, that all who ever exercise faith will escape the penalty of the Divine law. But we have seen, that this is not the nature of gospel justification, and therefore we must not infer that all saints will be saved, from the mere fact that they have once believed and been justified.