“Once saved, always saved.” As a son of a missionary and pastor, growing up in the church, I have lost count of how many times I have heard that phrase. But is that the central theme of the New Testament’s teaching on perseverance? Dr. Thomas Schreiner, James Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes up the New Testament’s collective passages on perseverance in Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament. As a follow-up to The Race Set Before Us—his previous and more expanded book on perseverance, co-authored with Ardel Caneday—Schreiner tackles issues and criticism raised from that work, while seeking to open up the doctrine of perseverance to a wider audience and arguing that “all believers need the warnings and admonitions of Scripture” (16).
Chapter one explores the exhortations to persevere found in the New Testament given to both new and mature Christians. Schreiner argues that these texts are not to be understood as calling for works-righteousness in the life of the believer, but they are actually calling for a “continual reliance upon the grace of God” (17). He displays the New Testament authors’ pattern of teaching new believers. The texts do not teach that new Christians “will inherit the kingdom no matter what they do. Rather, they are urged to remain and continue in the faith” (18). Not only does the New Testament exhort experienced Christians to remain in the faith, these calls for perseverance are “a staple of NT teaching” (19). The charges to “stand firm”, “resist”, “keep” and “hold fast” are examined and argued to show that experienced believers are exhorted to “continue in the faith to the end in order to receive the end-time reward of eternal life” (23).
Chapter two seeks to demonstrate that “warnings threatening final judgment are pervasive in Scripture” (25). Beginning with an overview of the different scholarly interpretations of the warning passages, Schreiner introduces the warning passages found in the New Testament and displays how they are found in every genre of New Testament literature. Schreiner convincingly exegetes the warnings in the Gospels, Paul, 2 Peter, 2 John, Revelation and Hebrews to show they all have the same character of admonishing the reader “against falling away” (48), not because they have, but so they do not! The warning passages are a means to final salvation and redemption from judgment in the life of the believer.
Chapter three fights the criticism of Schreiner’s interpretations of the warning passages, namely that the Christian needs to attain perfection to run the race to the end in order to be saved. He clearly demonstrates that cannot be attained in this life and, indeed, there is not even a hint that perfection is required. Through a close look at Philippians, 1 John, 1 Corinthians and James, Schreiner shows persevering is not the same as perfection. In fact, theses texts teach that perfection will only be attained on the Last Day. Although the Christian will not attain moral perfection in this life, believers must still run the race “with effort and energy in order to obtain the eschatological prize on the last day” (54).
This does not equate to a works-righteousness because though believers keep running the race, they “run the race in faith, not trusting their own righteousness but looking to Christ” (55). Sin is our ever-present enemy and our lives will be forever filled with imperfection. The warnings and admonitions in the New Testament are for the believer’s benefit and call them to look to Jesus’ perfect righteousness in order “to continue in the faith until the end” (65).
Chapter four interacts with the criticism that this view of perseverance amounts to works-righteousness, but Schreiner demonstrates that putting the right emphasis on obedience for salvation is not contrary to believing in faith alone. He argues that “obedience is necessary for salvation as the fruit or evidence of faith” (72), not the foundation of faith. God calls his children to “run the race to the end, not by concentrating on doing good works but by faith.” In turn, this means that perseverance is “a call to faith, not a call to work up the energy to make it to the end by our own strength” (73). In looking at the cross in Galatians and Hebrews, one sees that saving faith “looks to Christ alone for salvation and trusts him entirely. Hence all good works stem from faith, and . . . genuine faith always produces works” (86).
The final chapter concludes by tackling the issue of assurance and the warnings. How can the believer have assurance if the warnings are meant for them? Schreiner believes the warnings are “one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in faith until the end.… The warnings provoke them to continue to look to Christ and his righteousness” (92). He broadly deals with other interpretations, such as the Arminian and Federal Vision views, but finds them lacking in biblical warrant and they strip the power and comfort the warnings and promises are meant to have in the life of the believer. Some object to this view by saying it rules out the need for warnings. However, Acts 27, 2 Thessalonians 3, Matthew 6 and Mark 13 are used to show that promises of life do not “excluded a need for a warning” (95), nor “rule out the mandate” that believers must endure (100). Finally, he concludes by demonstrating that all true believers heed the warnings and those who fall away never truly belonged to God.
The strengths of this book are numerous. First, the length and clarity open up a difficult theme to a wider audience. Those in the church who would feel The Race Set Before Us a daunting challenge could easily understand the argument of this book, be challenged, encouraged and helped. Second, Schreiner continually points the reader back to the Bible, the cross and Jesus’s perfect righteousness to answer the objections to his view of perseverance. Thirdly, this view of perseverance gives the warnings found in the New Testament their teeth back, while at the same time granting comfort and assurance to the believer. The warnings are shown to be one of God’s tools to keep us running the race and fixing our eyes on Jesus. Finally, Schreiner’s ability to make the biblical teaching simple to understand makes it useable in a wide array of venues. It would make for a great small group study, adult bible class, leadership training resource, biblical counseling guide, new believer’s training and a host of other ministries. Run To Win The Prize gives back the church the misunderstood and misapplied warnings passages.