In earlier blog posts, I discussed the resurgence of “New Calvinism”in evangelicalism and described some of its main tenets and implications. In this long-delayed continuation of the series, I want to raise the issue of assurance of salvation.
Assurance was a central and motivating concern of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther sought assurance in the sacrament of penance, but to no avail. He found it finally in his discovery of justification by grace alone through faith alone. This concern for assurance continued among the Reformed (Calvinists). To pick one example among many, notice the presence of assurance in the opening Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563): “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” (emphasis added).
Most Reformed (Calvinist) believers assume that, since Arminians think that it is possible to fall away from grace and forfeit salvation, then Arminians must not have the same degree of comfort and assurance as the Reformed have. Actually, the opposite is the case: Arminians can have greater assurance of salvation.
In his own life and ministry, Jacob Arminius (1559–1609) saw the reason for this. During his fifteen years of ministry at the Old Church in Amsterdam, Arminius witnessed two separate problems when it comes to assurance—despair and security—both of which he saw as the fair implications of the Reformed doctrine of predestination.
First, he noticed what he called despair. (He used the Latin word “desperatio,” which means hopelessness.) He recalled multiple examples when he ministered to people on their deathbeds who had no assurance of their own salvation. The problem was that, in these instances, these were exemplary believers who ought to have assurance. Yet, at this crucial moment when they needed assurance most, they lacked it.
How could Reformed Christians, who were saved not by their own goodness but by Christ’s imputed righteousness, ever fall victim to despair? How did they get to this point? Why was the doubt that plagued the late medieval Roman Church not resolved in the Reformed Church? When one surveys the writings of Arminius, one can see how despair is the result of three Reformed doctrines.
For Arminius, the problem lies first with the Reformed conviction that saving faith includes not only knowledge and assent, but also fiducia, or confident assurance. Assurance (fiducia) was sometimes used synonymously with faith (fides). Under this Reformed assumption, if a person has belief in Christ as Savior, and believes that Christ’s righteousness may be imputed to him by faith, and the person desires this salvation, but only lacks certainty of that salvation, then the person may begin to question his faith altogether, and wonder whether he is one of the elect. This was the problem of the two dying Christians in Amsterdam—they took their lack of assurance to indicate necessarily a lack of faith. Arminius distinguished assurance (fiducia) from faith (fides), declaring that assurance follows as the ordinary result of saving faith, but is not necessarily simultaneous with faith.
The Reformed acknowledge that faith can be weak in this life, and since assurance (fiducia) is part of faith, then it is no surprise that assurance can be weak as well. This response provides little consolation, however, because of a second doctrine—the doctrine of temporary faith, as taught by John Calvin and other Reformed theologians. How can one tell the difference between the weak faith of the elect and the temporary faith of the reprobate? In short, you can’t really. Calvin asserted that a person could seem to others to have faith, indeed could think oneself to possess saving faith, when it was really only a faith temporarily granted by God that was not meant to persevere but instead would be withdrawn by God. The common biblical example is Simon Magus (Acts 8), who is described as having believed, and genuinely thought himself to be a true believer, but whose belief was soon shown to be false (Calvin, Institutes III.ii.10). That is, Simon himself was not aware of his status until his faith failed. The reprobate may be self-deceived, and, despite all present appearances to the contrary, lack genuine faith. If even the reprobate can have a temporary faith that resembles that of the elect both externally and internally, then it matters not how weak or strong one’s faith and assurance seem to be at present.
Of course, true faith may sometimes fail. It is when combined with a third doctrine—the doctrine of unconditional reprobation—that this undermining of assurance can be devastating. The Reformed doctrine of unconditional election claims that God chooses whom God wills to save, based not on their good works, their foreseen faith, or even their willing assent. The necessary corollary to this election is that God unconditionally reprobates, or perhaps “passes over,” the remainder of humanity, the result of which is condemnation. The only way to escape condemnation is to be chosen by God. But, as Arminius observes, since that election is (apart from God’s absolute and sovereign will) unconditional, there is nothing that the reprobate can do to be in a saved relationship with a God who has not chosen them. Reformed predestination, says Arminius, “produces within people a despair both of performing that which their duty requires and of obtaining that towards which their desires are directed” (Verklaring, p. 87).
This is what I call the doctrine of “unavailable grace.” If you think you might possibly be reprobate, there is nothing that you can do about it, since election is unconditional. “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”
The second problem Arminius observed is the opposite extreme to the first. He called this vice security. (Arminius used the Latin word “securitas,” which means carelessness. Throughout Christian history, the word security included the idea of neglecting something that really deserves attention.) He recalled several times during his ministry when, as an attentive pastor should, he addressed sin in the congregation and even admonished certain individuals. Too often, those same people responded as if sin is not a concern. After all, the apostle Paul, according to the dominant Reformed interpretation of Romans 7, continuously was overcome by sin. Since the elect are saved by grace, what’s really the big deal anyway?
After an examination of Arminius’ writings, it appears that this tendency toward security, like the former problem of despair, is the result of the distinctive combination of three Reformed teachings. The first point concerns the efficacy of sanctification. For the Reformed, although the regenerate person ought to and is able to make steps toward sanctification with the help of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless they are baby steps; progress is minimal. The standard Reformed interpretation of Romans 7, read as the autobiographical account of the regenerate apostle Paul, supports the notion that sin is an ongoing and prominent struggle in the Christian life. Having little expectation of personal sanctification implies that sin is in some sense normal and, therefore, not of grave concern to the individual Christian. For his part, Arminius certainly acknowledged that progress in holiness is impeded by sin and weakness. But he also contested the typical Reformed reading of Romans 7, and, like the early church fathers, he interpreted the person weighed down with sin as someone not yet regenerate, because sin cannot dominate the life of a regenerate person as is described in this passage. With regard to Romans 7, Arminius wrote,
For nothing can be imagined more noxious to good morals than to assert, that it is a property of the regenerate not to do the good which they will, and to do the evil which they do not will: For therefore it necessarily follows, that those persons flatter themselves in their sins, who, while they sin, feel that they do so with a reluctant conscience and with a will that offered some resistance (Cap. VII Rom., V.i.2).
The second Reformed doctrine that led to security is unconditional election, along with its corollary of irresistible grace. If one is confident in one’s election, then grace is irresistible and salvation is secure.
Unconditional election and irresistible grace can promote security especially when combined with a third doctrine, the perseverance of the saints, which is a predictable corollary of unconditional election. If a person becomes part of God’s chosen covenant people by irresistible grace alone apart from good works, then no amount of evil works or lack of good works can nullify that election and covenant. According to Arminius, if one affirms the impossibility of apostasy, this doctrine does not console as much as it engenders carelessness with regard to sin, which, for Arminius, is a dangerous indication of “carnal security” (securitas carnalis). Arminius wrote,
The persuasion by which any believer certainly persuades himself that he cannot defect from the faith, or that, at least, he will not defect from the faith, does not conduce so much to consolation against despair or doubt that is adverse to faith and hope, as it does to engender security, a thing directly opposed to that most salutary fear with which we are commanded to work out our salvation, and which is exceedingly necessary in this place of temptations (Articuli nonnulli XXII.4-5).
Therefore, the normalcy of sin in the Christian life, along with the doctrines of unconditional election and eternal security, could foster an attitude of “saved if you do; saved if you don’t.” This lack of concern over the presence of sin is the very thing that could precipitate a fall.
For Arminians, there is a middle way of true assurance between the extremes of despair and security. On the one hand, the knowledge that sin has consequences and that a person can fall away through open rebellion guards against careless security. But on the other hand, the knowledge that God will save all penitent believers guards against hopeless despair.
FOUNDATION OF SALVATION AND ASSURANCE: GOD’S LOVE
Ultimately, assurance of salvation is sought by examining what is properly the very foundation of salvation: God’s love. This love of God is evident in his promise, which is external to the creature. This word from God makes known his will or intent for the creature. The question is, If not meritorious works, then what determines or influences the divine will to save? To put it another way, what do we know about God’s love?
The Reformed are more reluctant than Arminius to describe God’s affection toward the whole human race as “love.” For Arminius’s opponents, God’s loving will does not extend to all humanity for the purpose of salvation. If God does not love everyone, then assurance is undermined. You are left to wonder which group you fall in—those whom God wants to save or those he does not. His will concerning election and the basis of this will are inscrutable.
For Arminians, the true foundation of salvation and of the assurance of salvation is the promise of God that he loves all and will save penitent believers. This foundation is itself based on and made possible only by the foundational person and work of Christ. And God sent Christ because of his love (Jn. 3:16).
To get to the heart of the matter, we can compare the Reformed and Arminian answers to the question, “How do you know that you are elect?”
Let us return to the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism, which asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer is that I belong to God. But an appropriate follow-up question that we should ask the Reformed is, “How do you know that you belong to God? How do you know that you’re elect?” Note the responses to this very question given by Reformed theologians. Robert Peterson and Michael Williams answer this question: “It is when people turn to Christ in faith that they know God has chosen them for salvation” (Why I Am Not an Arminian, 65). Michael Horton answers this question with a reference to John 10:27-28: “Have you heard [Christ’s] voice and followed him?” Then he gives you eternal life. We discover election “not in ourselves but in Christ” (For Calvinism, 73).
But once you acknowledge that there is a class of people that God really does not want to save, individuals whom he does not love, then assurance is undermined. What’s more, the acknowledgment that anyone’s present faith may simply be temporary faith and a result of self-deception, a faith that will not last, also undermines assurance. “Turning to Christ in faith” and “discovering election in Christ” are phrases that ring hollow in a system in which God does not want all to be saved, and he gives temporary faith to some reprobate from whom he will eventually remove it.
On the other hand, for the Arminian, those same phrases, and all testimonies to salvation, actually mean something. There’s no wondering about which group you fall into. You are in the group that God loves and wants to save. Whatever happens in life, I know that God loves me. Whatever else I may believe or doubt, whatever success or failure I may experience, whatever gain or loss, I know something that a Calvinist can never know for certain—namely, God wants me to be saved and created me for this end. This is the ground of salvation and assurance of salvation.