That question was in the Q&A area of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Web site, here. The answer was provided by Alliance member, Mark Dever, an Alliance Council member and senior minister of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC:
"The perseverance of the saints" is perhaps better construed as the "preservation of the saints".
The idea is that those that the Lord graciously saves by granting faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) he will graciously keep by keeping them in the faith.
1) Those who are the Lord’s sheep cannot be plucked out of Jesus’ or his Father’s hands. "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one." (John 10:27-30)
The emphasis is not on the saints ability to persevere, but on the Lord’s faithfulness and ability to hold onto us. Thus, to object that the person in the Lord’s hand is able to snatch themselves out would, according to verse 29 suggest that somehow they at least are in some sense greater than the Lord. Futhermore, the first promise, that they shall never perish, has no qualifications about people snatching them out of His hand at all. It is entirely unconditional. His sheep will never perish, period.
More biblical reflection might come from John 3:36 (present possesion of eternal life) Romans 8:30 (as many as are justified are glorified – so much so that the glorified is past tense!), Ephesians 31:13-14 (the present seal of the Holy spirit guaratees future inheritance).
2) This is never to be used to suggest that all who profess faith faith are eternally secure. The parable of the sower holds true. There are many who profess faith who never posses saving faith. They never have been saved. Thus it is only those who persevere to the end who have ever received saving faith.
Note the tenses of Hebrews 3:14: "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first."
If we don’t persevere, we will show that we never shared in Christ – we were never saved.
We must recongnise that the Lord keeps us by use of means. It is not that a profession of faith saves us. Persevering faith saves us, for saving faith always perseveres. If the Lord gives us saving faith, he will use means (such as Scripture, the church, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit) to keep us repenting and trusting in Jesus.
Or as Jude puts it, he keeps us from falling out of His love by calling us to keep ourselves in God’s love, and enabling us by his Spirit to obey that command, and through the comunity of the church that will always be calling us back to repentance. "Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear-hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen." (Jude 1:21-25)
The Baptist, John Bunyan puts it well:
The Father’s grace provideth and layeth up in Christ, for those that he hath chosen, a sufficiency of all spiritual blessings, to be communicated to them at their need, for their preservation in the faith, and faithful perseverance through this life; "not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Tim 1:9; Eph 1:3,4).
(There have always been Baptists who have held to the perseverance of the saints).
The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is a broad coalition of evangelical Christians from various denominations, including Baptist, Congregational (Independent), Anglican (Episcopal), Presbyterian, Reformed, and Lutheran. The purpose of the Alliance’s existence is to call the Church, amidst a dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship, and life.
The Alliance Council members include:
Eric Alexander, Alistair Begg, Gerald Bray, Jerry Bridges, Donald Carson, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, John Hannah, Paul Jones, Steven Lawson, John MacArthur, C.J. Mahaney, Albert Mohler, Richard Phillips, John Piper, Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, Carl Trueman, Gene Veith, David Wells,
For more about the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, go here.