The distinguishing mark of grace is the kind of faith in Christ that continues, and grows, and does bear spiritual fruit.
Those who deny God’s preservation of his saints sometimes point to Colossians chapter 1 for proof of their position. They say to us:
“The apostle Paul writes to those who were reconciled to God the Father ‘in the body of [Christ’s] flesh through death’ (Colossians 1.21-22). He warns them that if they did not continue in the faith, then they could lose their salvation (v.23). As a Calvinist, you can’t argue that these were not actually saved people, because you say that Christ reconciles only the elect to God—and Paul says that they have been reconciled. And surely, the mere fact that Paul warns believers to ‘continue in the faith’ implies that Christians can lose their salvation.”
But what the apostle actually says is, “And you…hath he reconciled…if ye continue in the faith…” (vv.21-23).
Paul is not warning them to continue in the faith in order to remain reconciled by Christ to God the Father, but he is identifying those who have been reconciled as those who continue in the faith.
Paul does not say that the state of reconciliation to God is breakable or temporary, maintained by the spiritual or mental efforts those so reconsiled, at continuing in the faith.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not make a breakable or temporary reconsiliation between God and sinners. And, supposing hypothetically that he did make only temporarily reconsile us to God—we cannot make it unbreakable or permanent by our own efforts.
Paul does not say anything about about true Christians losing their reconciliation to God, or becoming unreconciled again. But rather, our continuing in the faith evidences that we have actually been reconciled to God.
Those whom the Lord Jesus Christ has reconciled to God the Father are those who continue in the faith. This implies, there are some people who have a temporary faith that does not continue—they believe in Christ for a while. Christ has not reconciled those people to God.
The reconciliation to God that Christ accomplishes will inevitably present all those whom he has reconciled, to be “holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his [God’s] sight” (Colossians 1.23).
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul similarly identifies those who are saved as those who keep remembering his gospel preaching: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.1-2).
Notice, firstly, that the apostle does not say that saved people who later forget the gospel (or who stop believing in it) will lose their salvation. He says they are saved if they keep the gospel in memory. Those who keep the gospel in their memories (i.e. they keep believing in it and thinking about it) are saved, but those who cast it aside as not worth having, demonstrate by this apostasy that they were never saved.
Paul points out that there are some people who have the gospel in their minds for a while—who think about it and who understand it—but who remain unsaved. They may even think, for a while, that they are themselves Christians. But their so-called belief is only tentative and not a serious, fully-committed faith that bears the fruit of godly obedience and service. For a while, they appear to others as though they are true Christians. But sooner or later their belief proves to have been only temporary—a belief in vain, of which Paul warns.
Secondly, consider Paul’s awful “unless” in that argument. His conclusion is: those who “believed in vain” are not saved—they were never saved, all along. Those who are saved are only those who continue believing in the gospel of Christ.
Therefore, a person’s current “receiving” and “standing in” the gospel may or may not be a true mark of grace; if later it turns out that they have not continued in the faith, or kept the gospel uppermost in their minds as of most importance to them, then it never was a mark of grace. The distinguishing mark of grace is the kind of faith in Christ that continues and grows and does bear spiritual fruit—the kind of faith that perseveres and is evidenced by faithfulness and good works.
Similarly, the Epistle to the Hebrews also says, “But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end…For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end” (Hebrews 3.6, 14).
There are those, sadly, who for a while profess to be Christians but who later prove that they were not, when they give up their profession and reject Christ and his gospel.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Saviour of those who possess the kind of faith that continues—the kind of faith in Christ that perseveres and grows and manifests in holiness. Christ has not saved those who merely profess to have faith but who do not manifest good works and who later prove that they were not true Christians after all by turning their backs on him.
Those who continue in the faith (and bear the marks of grace) are those who have true faith—the kind of faith that perseveres. And these true Christians are preserved by God in this state of continuing.
The apostle Paul (and the author of Hebrews, if it was someone other than Paul), are following the Lord Jesus Christ in his teaching this same proviso: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8.31). The truth is, some disciples of Christ fail to continue as his disciples. They are temporary disciples of Christ, but not true disciples.
Remember also that in his parable of the sower, Christ described different kinds of ostensible, temporary faith:
“But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful” (Matthew 13.20-22).
But there are also those who do persevere and bear fruit:
“But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (v.23).
The stony-ground hearer and the among-thorns hearer were not true Christians. They had no root in themselves. They gave up on following Christ when they saw it would give them trouble or cause them persecution from those who hate Christ and Christianity. They cared more for the things of this world than to give them up for Christ. They turned back to the world, not really willing to part with their sins. Salvation didn’t interest them so much after all.
Be warned: don’t be like them!