If We Hold Fast: Contemplating the Contingencies of the Gospel
Sometimes Scripture uses “if” to connect great salvific blessings of the gospel (salvation, forgiveness, partaking of Christ, and reconciliation) with certain attitudes or actions of faith that must be present in us. In other words, there are contingencies even in the gospel.
If You Abide in My Word (John 8:31-32)
For example, in John 8, Jesus speaks to some who had “believed” in him, saying, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (v. 31-32). Do you see the contingency? If they continue in Jesus’ word, they are true disciples. If they do not continue, then they are not true disciples. The rest of the context makes clear that the faith of many was superficial, because Jesus tells them that they are the servants of sin (v. 34-35), of their father the devil (v. 38-44), and not of God (v. 47). And in v. 58, these who had “believed” in Christ take up stones to kill him! They did not continue in his word and their failure to do so manifested that they were not disciples of Christ and children of God.
If You Hold Fast (1 Corinthians 15:1-2)
Consider another passage: I Corinthians 15:1-2: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.” Notice what Paul says. Though they had heard the gospel, received the gospel, and were presently standing in the gospel, they were only saved if they held fast to the word Paul had preached to them. A failure to continue in their steadfast profession of the gospel of Christ would manifest a lack of salvation and a vain believing. Some theological systems teach that it doesn’t matter if a person stops believing altogether because just one act of faith is sufficient to save. But that’s not what Paul says. He says it is possible to have believed the gospel in vain. Only those who keep on believing the gospel are being saved.
If You Continue in the Faith (Colossians 1:21-23)
Here’s another one. Paul says in Colossians 1:21-23: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” It’s significant that Paul speaks of reconciliation in the past tense, but says that this past reconciliation is true only if we continue in the faith, stable, and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel. Implication: if someone claims to be reconciled but is then moved away from gospel hope and ultimately fails to continue in the faith, they show that they were never reconciled to begin with.
If We Hold Fast Our Confidence (Hebrews 3:5-6, 12-14)
Now think about two two passages in Hebrews 3. Verses 5 and 6, speaking of the superiority of Christ to Moses says, “Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” We are God’s house only if we hold fast our confidence and boasting of hope to the end. The best explanation of this is the similar passage found in Hebrews 3:12-14: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Once again, we see that present and future perseverance is an indication of past salvation. “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
If You Put Sin to Death (Romans 8:13)
Another contingency is found in Romans 8:13. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The context indicates that the life promised here is eternal life in resurrection bodies (see verse 11). And Paul says this will only happen if we put to death the deeds of the body through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mortification is therefore a condition for glorification. As John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
If We Walk in the Light, Confess Our Sins, and Keep His Commandments (1 John 1:6-7, 9; 2:3)
The Apostle John also uses “if” to express these gospel contingencies.
• If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7).
• If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
• And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John 2:3)
Cleansing from sin by Jesus blood is conditioned upon our walking in the light. Forgiveness of sin is conditioned upon confessing our sins. And keeping his commandments proves that we know him.
Is this Salvation by Works?
So what do all of these conditional statements imply? Do these statements mean that salvation is, after all, conditioned on our works?
Salvation is not ultimately conditioned upon our works because the same things Scripture represents as conditions are also gifts from God. God gives what He demands. Therefore, even our meeting of certain conditions is actually a gift of God’s grace. Can a Christian be saved without perseverance in faith? No. But neither can a Christian persevere without God’s grace enabling and guaranteeing his or her perseverance!
The conditions laid down in these “if” passages are not meritorious works that we do to earn credit with God. They are not conditions that we can fulfill in our own strength. Nor are they conditions that move us away from the gospel itself.
The Condition: Continuing in the Gospel
At their root, all of the conditions boil down to one thing: continuing in the gospel. Persistent (though not perfect) clinging to Jesus. Ongoing faith and repentance. Perseverance in the obedience of faith. Holding fast the gospel.
But this continuance in faith is exactly what God gives. Faith is God’s gift (Eph. 2:8, Philip. 1:29; Acts 14:27, Heb. 12:2). So is repentance (2 Tim. 2:25, Acts 11:18). And perseverance is not only our active continuance in faith and holiness, but also as God’s active preservation of our faith (Jude 24, 1 Pet. 1:5, Philip. 2:14).
We Hold Fast to God Because He Holds Fast to Us
I think one of Augustus Toplady’s old hymns says it best. The first verse reminds us that we are debtors to God’s covenant mercy. It points us to our justification. We wear Christ’s righteousness. Our transgressions are hidden by his obedience and blood. There is no condemnation in Christ!
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.
The second verse is about God’s promise to finish what he started. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!
The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.
The third verse expresses the confidence that, secure in God’s love and grace, we will endure to the end. We hold fast to him because he holds fast to us.
My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.