What do deniers of the Biblical doctrine of the preservation of the saints (sometimes called eternal security, or “once saved always saved”) make of the apostle Paul’s famous “golden chain of salvation,” as we sometimes lovingly call the truths linked together in Romans 8.28-30? They argue that break every link in this golden chain is breakable.
“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (v.28). We know this—that is, we correctly infer this—from a consideration of the golden chain: “We know Y, for X is true.”
We know that God in his providence makes all things work together for the good of the people who love him, making that all that happens in their lives contribute toward the growth and strengthening of their personal Christianity (faith, understanding, repentance, marks of grace, fruit of the Spirit, good works). We know this is true for lovers of God because God has evidently called them to himself “according to his purpose.”
The Lord’s chosen people receive this calling from God as an integral part of all his saving purpose for them, which he is in the process of outworking: God has predestinated them to salvation in eternity past; in their lifetime he calls his elect and justifies them; and in the everlasting state to come he will certainly glorify them. All these things are part of God’s great work of salvation. And from their calling to Christ that true Christians are increasingly aware of, they can infer that God has been, and is, and shall always work all things together for their good.
The purpose of God, of which Paul writes, is his eternal plan of salvation—his decree of redemption. As Paul explains the same truths in another epistle: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved…In whom [the beloved Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ” (Ephesians 1.4-5,11-12).
Returning to Romans 8.28-30. Notice the apostle’s repeated reference to this one particular group of people: “them…them…them….” Paul first refers to these people as “them that love God;” and then he describes them—all of them—in a number of different ways, each way affirming a different truth:
- All of “them that love God” are “them who are the called according to [God’s] purpose.” And they alone are effectually called. I.e. God’s calling produces God’s intended result: their love for God and their coming to Christ.
- All these same people are “them” whom God especially “foreknew.” And God foreknew no-one else in this sense.1
- All these same people are “them” who are predestinated by God the Father to be conformed to the image of his only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.2
- All these foreknown, predestinated, called and justified people are “them” who are eventually “glorified” by God.
Notice that Paul speaks of these predestinated, called, justified people as having been glorified in the past tense, because he is describing each of these things as having already happened, as it were, according to God’s eternal decree—although the glorification of the saints is a future event to them while they still live in this world.
What is this glorified state? It is what Paul had said earlier in that these people are “predestinated to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” In order for these fallen, totally depraved sinners to become conformed to the image of the Son of God, it was necessary for God to give all these foreknown people to his Son, and for his Son to save them all from their sins—and then to work in them all that is necessary to conform them to Christ’s image, culminating in their glorification.
This is where the golden chain of salvation inevitably leads. But deniers of the doctrine of God’s preservation of his saints assert that Paul’s “them” should be understood as an unfixed, indefinite, decreasing number of people. They say:
- Not all of those people who are called by God according to his purpose actually become “them that love God”—because many whom God calls to Christ reject Christ.
- Not all of those whom God has foreknowledge or not all whom he predestinates will remain as Christians and finally become conformed to the image of God’s Son—because some fall away.
- Not all who do accept Christ to be their Saviour become “them that love God” in a continuing sense—because some will change their mind about God, will cease to love him, and will stop being Christians.
- Not all who are justified will be glorified—because some of them will lose their salvation.
It is as though, they say, God wills (or,God desires) to save all to whom the gospel is preached, but his will is thwarted because so many reject the gospel, and because many who accept it at first lose their faith and their love for later—at every stage slipping away through God’s fingers like sand.
This is clearly contrary to what Christ promises: “of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing” (John 6.39; see also 17.1-5,24).
Paul also taught in his Epistle to the Ephesians concerning this image of God: “That ye [saints at Ephesus, and all Christians] put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4.22-24).
The phrase “after God” indicates that the Christian will bear the restored image of God. This image consists in knowledge (as is required in Christian faith), and righteousness, and true holiness—and we are being “changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3.18; see also Colossians 3.10). Paul even describes this as “put[ting]…on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and as “Christ be[ing] formed in you,” the believer (Romans 13.14; Galatians 4.19).
These three distinguishing features of the image of God—knowledge, righteousness and true holiness—were lost by the fall of the human race in Adam, when he committed the original sin (Genesis 1.26-27). They are restored by the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. They are integral parts of the new life in the Christian.
This image of God is perfectly manifested in the Lord Jesus Christ—which is why Paul also teaches that Christians are to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8.29).