What from Christ that soul can sever,
Bound by everlasting bands?
Once in him, in him for ever;
Thus the eternal covenant stands.
None shall pluck thee
From the Strength of Israel's hands.
Eternal security or the perseverance of the saints is a precious Reformation teaching. The Westminster Confession 17:1 expresses it like this
They, whom God has accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace but shall certainly persevere therein to the end and be eternally saved. The idea is not that true believers never struggle or stumble but rather that, by God's grace, they will remain true to the end.
William Secker's Nonsuch professor puts it succinctly, “Though Christians be not kept altogether from falling, yet they are kept from falling altogether.”
One of many New Testament texts cited to support the doctrine is John 10:28-30. Jesus says of his sheep
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and my Father are one.
Eternal life is a gift Christ gives to his people. Once he gives it, he will not take it back. Such people never perish. No-one will ever snatch them out of Christ's hand. Moreover, the Father, who has given them to Christ and is greater than all has them in his hand too and will not let them be snatched away. Father and Son are united on this and there can be no conflict. There are a number of things in these verses then proving that God's sheep are as safe as can be.
Firstly, Jesus says that he gives his sheep eternal life and they shall never perish. It is a simple statement, I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. All true believers have eternal life because Christ has given it to them. Notice, I give. Eternal life is not earned. It is a free gift from the Saviour. John 6:27 is similar, Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. Ephesians 2 reminds us that we are saved by faith but even faith is by grace. Salvation is all of grace.
Because they are given eternal life it must be the case that believers never perish. Jesus is emphatic – there is no possible way they can perish. Hell will not be their lot.
To whom does Christ give life? Who will never perish? Those who listen to his voice and follow him. Only they have eternal life and never perish. To listen to Christ's voice is to obey. Such people get to know what Christ says and not only believe it but act on it and become Christ's followers. Their great aim in life is to please Christ.
Such people, Jesus makes clear, positively have eternal life and, negatively, never perish. Back in verse 10 he says that he came that they may have life, and have it to the full. Eternal life is life to the full, unending life, the life spoken of in John 3:16 and 6:40. Believers have eternal life now (what John 17:3 calls to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent) and will be raised up at the end to live with God forever.
By nature, sheep tend to stray and easily fall into danger. But if a shepherd looks after them, all will be well. Earthly shepherds may lose sheep, of course, but Jesus loses none. Why? Apart from anything else, he has promised - I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
The hand of Jesus
The promise alone should be enough but some need reassurance. Here it is. Jesus says of his sheep no one will snatch them out of my hand. It is really a third statement saying the same thing – the sheep have eternal life; they shall not perish; no one will snatch them from Christ's hand.
At the beginning of Chapter 10, Jesus speaks of thieves and robbers, such as the Pharisees, who come to steal the sheep. They climb in somehow attempting to procure the sheep. They will not be successful. They are bound to fail.
When the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it, the sheep remain safe. Jesus is no hired hand who runs away when wolves come. No, Christ laid down his life for his sheep and will not abandon them when trouble comes. No-one can snatch a person from Christ's hand if they are his.
Here is an unbreakable three cord strand then – the believer has an incorruptible eternal life within so cannot perish. Even attempts to remove him from the Saviour's hand all fail. No one will remove, steal, carry off, drag away or snatch them out of my hand. It is partly a quiet appeal to deity. Jesus is God and so is able to hold many and loses none. Children like to play at trying to open their father's hand. While they are young they can never win, unless dad lets them. We can be sure that if we are in Christ's hand, he will never let us go. Isaac Watts put the idea in verse
Firm as the earth thy gospel stands,
My Lord, my hope, my trust;
If I am found in Jesus’ hands,
My soul can ne’er be lost.
His honour is engaged to save
The weakest of his sheep;
All that His heav’nly
Father gave His hands securely keep.
Nor death nor hell shall e’er remove
His favourites from his breast;
In the dear bosom of his love
They must for ever rest.
The hand of the Father
Surely no more can be said. Jesus promises eternal life, no perishing, none snatched from his hand. That is surely enough. But then people say silly things like “Ah, but what if I wriggle out of his hand myself?” So Jesus goes a step further. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. The greater than all could apply to the sheep rather than the Father, expressing the Father's high esteem for them but it is most likely to refer to the Father.
Christ has hold of them but as he and the Father are one it must be the case that the Father has them too. In eternity, the Father chose the elect. He chose them in Christ and gave them into his safe keeping. Therefore, it is right to say that all true believers are not only in the Son's hands but the Father's too. Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one, of course, so it inevitably follows but it adds one more layer of certainty for believers.
There is an expression “belt and braces”. Most people keep trousers up with a belt. From time to time the alternative method of braces (or suspenders if you are an American) becomes popular. One of my grandfathers always wore braces. If you have braces you do not need a belt and if you have a belt you do not need braces. But here we have belt and braces! Or think of an acrobat on a high trapeze. The acrobat is wearing a safety harness so as he tumbles through the air he cannot fall. But what if the harness fails? Look, there below is a safety net too!
Jesus himself assures believers of eternal life, of not perishing and adds that no one will snatch them out of my hand. Then he goes a step further and says no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. Under the Saviour's hand is the Father's too. Believers are as safe as safe can be. The Father is greater than all so absolutely no-one can remove them.
Writing to John Wesley in a long letter penned at the end of 1740, George Whitefield wrote of election that “this doctrine is my daily support;”. He went on to add
I should utterly sink under a dread of my impending trials, were I not firmly persuaded that God has chosen me in Christ from before the foundation of the world, and that now, being effectually called, he will suffer none to pluck me out of his Almighty hand.
All Christians ought to face their trials with a similar thought.
This article first appeared in the June 2016 Banner of Truth Magazine
This article first appeared in the June 2016 Banner of Truth Magazine