Commentary on Revelation 1-3
Works IV, pp. 429-435.
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4). The Rhemists in their annotations abuse this place to prove that a man may quite fall away from grace. Therefore, to clear this text and to confirm our hearts in the truth of God’s Word, this question must be scanned: whither a man may quite fall away from grace? Answer. Grace in Scripture is taken two ways:
First, for that favor of God whereby He accepts of some for His children in Christ. This is the first grace and the fountain of all others. And taking grace in this sense, I say that the signs of grace and the sense thereof in the heart may be lost, but the favor of God itself cannot be lost of them that truly believe. When an earthly father is displeased with his child for some notorious crime, he will turn the signs of his favor into signs of displeasure and show the same partly by words and partly by stripes; and yet he still continues his father and holds him for his son, without any purpose to disinherit him. Even so God deals with His children for their sins and corruptions. He will turn away His loving countenance from them and change the signs of His favor into anger and displeasure, when as yet the good purpose of their adoption is not altered but remains firm forever. And God is still their Father, though an angry father through the provocation of their sins.
Secondly, grace in Scripture is taken for the gifts of grace which are bestowed on them that believe in Christ. These gifts of grace are of two sorts. Some more principal, of absolute necessity unto salvation, without which none can be saved, as faith and also hope and love, which proceed from faith. There are others also less principal which be very profitable and requisite, yet not absolutely needful unto salvation, as the feeling of God’s favor, alacrity in prayer, and sense of joy and comfort in the Holy Ghost. These less principal graces may quite be lost. The principal graces also may be decayed, lessened, and covered in regard of operation, even in God’s children; but quite extinguished they cannot be, for God upholds them by perseverance. Where faith, hope, and love are once truly wrought by God’s Spirit, they are never wholly or finally taken away, but only in part and in sense and feeling for a time.
This answer is agreeable to this text, for the church of Ephesus is here blamed not for quite losing her love but because she had left her first love, suffering it to decay and wax less than it was at their first conversion. And because this doctrine is oppugned earnestly not only by the Church of Rome but also by some churches and fellows of the Protestants, I will first show the truth hereof out of God’s Word and then scan the chief reasons that are brought against it.
Point 1. That grace cannot be wholly and finally lost, these reasons prove.
First, the promise is made to Peter and in him to all the faithful that upon that faith which he professed Christ would build His temple, and the gates of hell should not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Which last words must be marked, for they intimate that the devil with his adherents would show much force and violence against the faith of the elect, but yet they should never get the victory or overcome it wholly.
Secondly, Christ, foretelling that false prophets should come, says, “They should seduce, if it were possible, the very elect” (Matt. 24:24). Where He takes this for granted, that the elect, albeit they may be assaulted grievously, yet they can never be wholly or finally drawn away from their faith.
Thirdly, “My sheep hear my voice,” says Christ, “and I know them and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish” (John 10:27–28). To this they answer, it is true, they shall never perish, so long as they remain the sheep of Christ. But that cavil is cut off in the next words: “Neither shall any pluck them out of my hands, my Father which gave them me, is greater than all, and none is able to pluck them out of my father’s hand” (v. 29). And therefore neither the devil nor the world nor the flesh can by any temptation draw the sheep of Christ from their faith and make them to be no sheep.
Fourthly, he “that believeth in Christ hath eternal life” (John 3:36). They say he has it in hope and not otherwise. I answer: if they have it in hope, they shall never perish, for “hope maketh not ashamed” [Rom. 5:5].
Fifthly, “Whom he predestined, them also he called: and whom he called them also he justified: and whom he justified them also he glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Those which are elected, called, and justified by faith must needs be glorified and therefore cannot fall away finally; for such shall never be glorified. And in the end of the chapter, he adds that “neither death, nor life, angels, principalities, nor powers, nor anything else can separate us”—that is, the faithful—“from the love of God” (v. 39).
Sixthly, “The gifts of God’s calling”—that is, the peculiar gifts that pertain to salvation—“are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). They say it is true, God indeed never repents Him of His gifts; but yet a man may perish and fall away because he may refuse and reject God’s grace given unto him. This answer is frivolous, maintaining this absurdity that the powerful will of God should be brought under the silly will of the creature. If man could repel God’s grace given unto him, then should man’s will take place and God’s will be made frustrate and void.
Seventhly, “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not, because his seed remaineth in him: neither can he sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). How is that true, [given] “he that saith he hath not sinned maketh God a liar, and his word is not in him” (1:10)? Answer. The place must be understood thus: he that is “born of God sinneth not”—that is, with full consent and with all his heart. Sin does not reign in him, for the regenerate man consists of two parts: flesh and spirit. He sins not as he is spirit—that is, regenerate—but as he is flesh and sinful. His will sins not as it is spiritual, but as it is carnal. The papists say, indeed he sins not so long as he continues to be born of God. This shift is cut off by the word of the text, “neither can he sin,” because the seed of grace, even the word of God, abides in him. This place plainly proves, even in the judgment of the papists, that the child of God cannot wholly or finally fall from grace. They say it is a hard place, and indeed they cannot answer to it.
Eighthly, if a man may finally fall from grace, then he may be wholly cut off from Christ; for grace is never wholly lost till a man is quite cut off from Christ. But it cannot be that a member of Christ can be quite cut off, for then it should follow that one and the same man must be often joined to Christ—namely, so often as he fails by sin—if he would be saved. Whereupon this would also follow, that one and the same man must be often baptized, for baptism is the sacrament of incision, the means of admission into the church, and the seal of our union with Christ. But rebaptism may not be admitted. The church of God denies it upon this ground, because a man is only once born of God.
Ninthly, Christ teaches us to pray thus: “Lead us not into temptation”—that is, suffer not Satan and sin wholly to prevail against us and finally to vanquish us. This petition, being taught by Christ, must needs be lawful and according to God’s will; and therefore hereunto, as to every lawful petition, belong these two things: first, God’s command to make it; secondly, His promise to assure us it shall be granted. Whereby this is evident, that there is in God’s Word a promise assuring every child of God that he shall never wholly be conquered of the devil, and therefore he can never wholly or finally fall from grace; for if he might, then were he wholly overcome in temptation.
Point 2. The contrary arguments are of three sorts: places of Scripture, examples, and reasons.
Argument 1: Scripture. For the first, when the Israelites had sinned that great sin of idolatry, Moses prays God to forgive them. “If not,” says he, “blot me out of thy book” (Ex. 32:32). Hence they gather that a child of God may be blotted out of God’s book of life and so finally perish. Answer. That place must be understood with this condition: “if it is possible”—as in the like prayer it is expressed by Christ, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mat. 26:39). This condition must needs be added, for else we must say that Moses prayed for that which he knew was impossible—namely, that one private man should suffer eternal punishment for the sins of others. Though in temporal punishments such a thing may be, yet in eternal it is impossible. Again, Moses in this prayer does principally show his exceeding affection and zeal for God’s glory and for the safety of his brethren, both [of] which he preferred before his own life. As if he should say, “Lord, pardon them, and rather than Thy name should lose glory, blot me out of Thy book.” The like affection was in Paul when he said he could wish himself to be separate from Christ for the love of his brethren, the Jews [Rom. 9:3]. They further urge the Lord’s answer to Moses, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, I will put his name out of my book” (Ex. 32:33). But as the Lord therein answers to Moses’ prayer, so must it be understood, with the like exception.
Secondly, “If the righteous man turn away from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and do according to all the abominations that the wicked man doth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: but he shall die in his sin” (Ezek. 18:24). Here (say they) it is plain that a man may fall from grace. Answer. Righteousness is twofold: of the outward action, and of the person. So Paul distinguishes when he desires to be found not in his own righteousness, which is of the law—that is, such as was in him while he was a Pharisee—but in the righteousness of Christ [Phil. 3:9]. The righteousness of the action is when a man for outward actions keeps the law of God. The righteousness of the person is that whereby a man is accepted righteous before God. And answerable hereunto, there are two kinds of righteous men: one that is outwardly righteous before men, though not indeed; the other that is truly righteous before God. Now of the former of these two must that place be understood, for the Lord there pleads with such as did esteem and avow themselves to be righteous, saying, “Their fathers had eaten sour grapes” (Jer. 31:29)—that is, had sinned. And they were punished for their fathers’ offences, though they were righteous. And the Holy Ghost, speaking according to their own conceit and opinion of themselves, calls them righteous; and of such it is true they may turn from their righteousness.
Thirdly, “Some believe for a time, and in time of temptation go away” (Luke 8:13). Answer. There are three kinds of faith: historical, temporary, and saving. In historical faith is knowledge of the Word of God with assent unto it. In temporary faith are three things: knowledge of the Word, assent, and approbation also with some joy. In saving faith, there are four things: knowledge, assent, approbation, and apprehension—that is, an applying of the promises of God unto a man’s self, whence proceeds joy. And answerably, there are three kinds of believers: first, such as know the Word of God but yet have no love thereof; secondly, such as know it, assent unto it, and rejoice in it also for a time; thirdly, such as apprehend the promises and apply them to themselves. Now the first two kinds of faith may be lost, and the first two kinds of believers may fall away, whereof St. Luke speaks. But hence it follows not that saving faith may be lost, for he that is endued therewith can never fall away. But faith (say they) is only one. “There is but one faith, one God, one hope, and one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Answer. By “one faith” is there meant one religion and doctrine of salvation, as elsewhere is usual, by the name of faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
Argument 2: Example. Their second kind of argument is examples, which are chiefly two: one of Adam; the other of David. For Adam, they say he was created righteous, and yet he fell wholly from grace. And therefore any believer now may much more fall away, who have far less grace than he had. Answer. This argument is not good; for though Adam had a greater measure of grace than we now have, yet our grace has a greater privilege than his had. His grace came by creation; ours is by redemption and regeneration. Adam had the first grace to be able to obey, but he wanted the second to be sure to persevere, because God would permit his fall to make a way both to manifest His justice and mercy in our redemption by Christ. But the child of God after his conversion wherein he has the first grace to repent and believe has also an infallible promise that he shall receive the second grace to abide in that faith. And therefore Paul says, “I am persuaded, that he which hath begun this good work in you, will perform it until the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” [Phil. 1:6]. And again, “The Lord is faithful, who will establish you, and keep you from evil” [2 Thess. 3:3].
Secondly, David (say they) by his two grievous sins fell wholly from grace. Answer. He fell indeed grievously but not wholly, for after his fall he condemned not God’s word. He hated not God nor despaired of mercies, which he must have done if he had fallen wholly. And therefore he had remorse for his sin, so soon as the prophet Nathan came unto him (2 Sam. 12:1-14). But (say they) he prays God to create a new heart in him (Ps. 51:10). Therefore, he had then no grace, for creation is a making of that which has no being. Answer. David then speaks not as he was before God, but as he was in his own sense and feeling; for by his sins God’s graces were sore decayed. But (say they) he repented not for the space of one whole year. Now where there is no repentance, there is no faith and consequently no grace nor pardon. Answer. In repentance there are two things: the gift of repentance, and the act and practice thereof. The gift of repentance was in the heart of David when he yet lay in his sins; but the act thereof lay hid, and he wanted the renewing thereof all that time. Again, David had the pardon of his sins past, though he had not the pardon of those two sins till he repented of them. Neither was his repentance lost but decayed only. He wanted not the power of it simply, but the practice of it only in that act.
Argument 3: Reason. Their third kind of argument is drawn from equity and reason. First, he that is a member of a harlot and of the devil ceases wholly to be a member of Christ. But a child of God, truly believing, may become the member of a harlot and of Satan, as David did. Answer. There are three kinds of members: dead, decayed, and living. A dead member is that which is only in show a member, as a leg of wood or of brass in a man’s body. A decayed member is a true member, though weak, as is a leg or arm that is taken with a palsy or sore wounded. But a lively member is that which does move and do all its functions perfectly. So in the church there are some members dead and only in show. Others are feeble and weak that by reason of some grievous sins are not able to do their duties. And there are lively members which serve God with an upright and perfect heart. Now, though a member of a harlot cannot be a lively member of Christ, because by his sins [he] weakens and wounds the graces of God (for every adulterer and fornicator does as much as in him lies [to] cut himself off from Christ), yet he may be a decayed member of Christ. And this may the rather stand because a man is made the member of Christ one way—namely, spiritually—and the member of a harlot another way—namely, bodily.
Secondly, if a man cannot fall from grace, then preaching, prayer, the sacraments, and all means of perseverance are needless. Answer. Nothing less, for they have all their good and necessary use unto them which have grace, even to make them constant in grace. For where the Scripture teaches the certainty of salvation, it implies the use of the means of perseverance. Paul in his journey to Rome was certain they should come all safe to land by the promise of God [Acts 27:24]. Yet when the mariners would have gone out of the ship, he tells the captain unless these stay in “we cannot be saved” [v. 31], because they were the means to bring them to land. So when Isaiah had told Hezekiah from the Lord that he should live fifteen years longer, he was thereby assured of recovery. And yet he used “a bunch of figs” as a means thereof [Isa. 38:21], as also food and raiment to preserve his life afterward.
Thirdly, this doctrine of certain perseverance maintains men in security. Answer. Security is twofold: carnal and spiritual. Carnal, when a man regards not at all the means of his salvation but gives himself wholly to the profits and pleasures of this world. Spiritual, when a man relies on God for his salvation by believing His promises. And this security it maintains, but not the carnal security; for it teaches the use of the means of perseverance, as prayer, hearing, reading of the Word, and receiving the sacraments. And thus I conclude this question: that the true child of God, who truly believes, when he sins, does neither wholly nor finally fall away, neither can do.