The Lord of the Rings and the Perseverance of the Saints

February 5, 2018  |  Seth Troutt

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is a beautiful parable of the Christian life. After all, a dominant theme used in the New Testament to describe a life of following Jesus is that it is a journey which we must walk. In the words of Frodo, “I will take The Ring to Mordor, though I don’t know the way.” I recently re-watched the movies, and encourage you to do so as well. The first one is on Netflix!

For those of you who haven’t read the books or seen the movies, here is a very brief plot synopsis: Frodo has to take The Ring, which houses the powers of Evil, to Mt. Doom where it can be destroyed. Sam, his longtime friend, goes with him, even though Frodo encourages him to stay at home in the Shire.

One of the questions I regularly hear is this: “Do you believe you can lose your salvation?” Folks in church history have discussed this question under the headline of Perseverance; does faith always endure, remain, or abide? And, what happens if it doesn’t?

The imagery of the Lord of the Rings confirms what Reformed Tradition has long affirmed: true Christians cannot totally or finally fall away from grace, but will certainly persevere in their journey of faith until the end.

Frodo Needs to Persevere

One thing is clear in the Lord of the Rings: the Ring must be destroyed and Frodo must be the one to do it. It is a task appointed to him and nobody else; Frodo’s fate ultimately depends on this happening. There are only two possible outcomes: 1) Frodo destroys the Ring and, along with it, it’s forces and powers, or 2) The Ring and it’s legionaries will destroy Frodo. The severity here cannot be overstated; it is do or die.

It is similar with following Jesus:

But the one who endures to the end will be saved. – Matthew 24:13

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. – 1 Corinthians 15:1–2

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” – John 8:31

Just as Frodo needed to persevere in order to survive his journey, Christians must persevere in their faith if they are to be saved.

Gollum’s Spurious Faith

What about faith that doesn’t persevere? John Calvin described this as “spurious” or “phony/temporary” faith. Gollum is an example of this sort of “faith.” There is a good portion of the plot in which it seems like Gollum is aligned with Frodo and Sam against the powers of evil. However, when you notice Gollum’s real priority, his first-love, his real Master, it is still the Ring:

Gollum: We swears to serve the Master of the Precious. We will swear on — on the Precious!

Frodo: The Ring is treacherous. It will hold you to your word.

Gollum: Yes… on the Precious… on the Precious.

We see that, even in serving Frodo’s mission, it is still ultimately the Precious (his nickname for the ring) that commands his highest loyalty. If anything, Gollum is willing to use Frodo’s Journey as a means to get what he really wants: The Ring. In the end, Gollum betray’s Frodo and Sam on multiple occasions because the whole time he remained enslaved to The Ring. What appeared as conversion was really concealment. Gollum doesn’t persevere; he burns in Mt. Doom. He didn’t lose his faith; he never had it.

This is similar to many who “follow Jesus” but only for a short while. There may be the genuine appearance of faith, there may be  participation in mission, but there is no conversion of the heart; there are no lasting roots. Perhaps they wanted to use the Church or use Jesus to serve some other Master – financial security, social acceptance, or feelings of self-importance.

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. – 1 John 2:18–19

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear. – Matthew 13:3–9

Frodo Endures Because of Sam

What is clear in the Lord of the Rings story is Frodo’s vulnerability to the power of the Ring. Even in the short time he is in it’s presence it weakens him, temps him, and causes him to be not-who-he-was; the Ring (representing sin) is always dehumanizing whomever it is near. We start to wonder: will Frodo end up like Gollum? Will he shrivel into a shell of his former self? Will the Shire (Eden) be drained from his soul?

So what ultimately separates Frodo from Gollum? There isn’t a goodness-deep-within Frodo that protects him from the Ring. Rather than something inside of him, it is something outside of him that saves him from himself: the presence of Sam.

Sam is with Frodo from the beginning, uninvited, on his journey. He tells Frodo the truth; sometimes Frodo listens and is thankful, but slowly, Frodo begins to hate him for it. Frodo even tries to leave Sam behind, but Sam will have none of it. Sam perseveres.

In particular, there is an image towards the end of the film that moved me. Frodo is exhausted, the Ring has weakened him; the journey has beaten him down. Frodo collapses, but Sam is there, tired also, but full of strength. Sam pick’s up Frodo and carries him the rest of the way up the mountain.

There are two things we cannot deny here: 1) Frodo would not have finished the journey apart from Sam, and 2) Frodo would have burned with Gollum in Mt. Doom if it weren’t for Sam. Frodo perseveres, not because of himself, but because of Sam’s enduring presence.

This is a faithful picture of what we mean by “the Perseverance of the Saints”: Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. Sam is the ultimate Christ figure in the Lord of the Rings; the present One, unstained by the Ring, carrying us, often uninvited, to The End.

If we place our hope for endurance in ourselves or in our faith, we have misplaced our trust; rather, we must place our hope in the presence of the Son, by his Spirit, who is preserving our faith and accompanying us on our journey.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:6

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. – Jude 24–25

Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:20

Our hope to persevere to the end is rooted in the promise that Christ will be with us to the end. We must look outside of ourselves, not inside of ourselves, for security and assurance that we will follow to the end.