Do you struggle with assurance of salvation? You know, we are working on putting together a second EC volume that deals with more pastorally driven questions (still theologically grounded) that deal with the “so what?” kinds of questions that naturally might follow upon the doctrines dealt with in our first EC volume. I will be writing, for one of my personal chapters, on the Christian doctrine of assurance. Unfortunately I am afraid that this doctrine has fallen on hard times, not because everyone has assurance of salvation, but for more dire reasons; I think this doctrine has fallen on hard times because most Evangelical Christians in America (and maybe elsewhere in the world) don’t think deep enough about salvation to ever concern themselves with such things. If you are a depth kind of Christian though, the rest of this post is for you.
I used to write, quite frequently on the exploits and happenings of the Puritans (probably because an important mentor of mine, Ron Frost, through seminary was/is a Puritan expert); the Puritans of course are known for their rigid and even ‘precisianist’ (see Theodore Dwight Bozeman’s seminal book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 [Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia]) modes of existence; in short they became known, in some instances for their legalism. But more positively, the Puritans and that era of Calvinist development (in both England and America) are also known for producing a rich pietistic heritage that promotes a warm hearted love for Christ through the expositional teaching of Scripture (many of the so called New Calvinists [Collin Hansen's "Young, Restless, and Reformed" are enamored with much of the spirituality promoted by this Puritan heritage, today). One of the doctrines that was internalized and developed during this period was known as the practical syllogism. The 'syllogism' was basically an intellectual (mechanistic in its employment) apparatus used to measure the intangibles of either a genuine or temporary (false) Christianity and spirituality. Here is how famed and seminal English Puritan William Perkins articulates this practical syllogism:
Major Premise: He that believes and repents is God's child.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ and repent: at the least I subject my will to the commandment which bids me repent and believe: I detest my unbelief, and all my sins: and desire the Lord to increase my faith.
Conclusion: I am the child of God.
[William Perkins cited by R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 71, cited by Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man, p. 264.]
This syllogism flows out of what Kenneth Stewart in his book calls the only universally agreed upon fifth point of Calvinism (see his book Ten Myths About Calvinism, Appendix: The Earliest Known Reference to the TULIP Acronym, 291-92), Perseverance of the Saints. The belief that true Christians (not just temporary ones, which was another teaching of the Puritan teaching known as experimental predestinarianism) would persevere in good works until they died (or until Jesus came back); and that this perseverance in ‘good works’ reflected that they truly had the Spirit of Christ enlivening them thus proving that indeed they were one of the unconditionally elect for whom Christ died in particular (I just anachronistically used the TULIP conceptually to read the Puritan experience through). You can see how unstable of a situation this might produce for someone who lived under the burden of culturally/societally internalized teaching. Here is the testimony of one man who indeed lived during this period, and was finally set free from this burden through the teaching of Richard Sibbes:
[I] was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward. (Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653)
Thankfully for, Humphrey Mills (the man whose testimony we just read), he was relieved from looking to himself apart from Christ as the ground and thus assurance of his salvation. The key is that there should never be an mediate wedge or thing that stands between the believer and their Savior; there should be an immediate relation between Christ and His saints. Sibbes began to offer this kind of way forward (through his style of ‘Free Grace’ Calvinism) under the conditions and material theological categories he had available to him in his particular context.
But I think there is even more constructive resource available for us today; because even though Sibbes pointed people to look to Christ alone first (as a lover of their soul, instead of the law-keeper of their bodies), he still didn’t have the adequate theological resource to truly ground a person’s humanity and thus salvation/reconciliation in the Savior’s, in Christ’s humanity for them. It wasn’t really until we come up to Karl Barth that this kind of teaching was finely tuned and developed. [I would like to write and say more about Karl Barth—and will in the future—but because I am running out of time all I am going to be able to do is offer a quote from Michael Allen as he comments on Barth in his CD, as Barth discusses this issue of assurance of salvation through his teaching on election] Barth was quite aware of this ‘practical syllogism’ as I have described it above, but because Barth saw Jesus as both electing God (the subject) and elected man (the object) of election, he saw Jesus fulfilling both sides of election; thus humanity can rest assured not in their good works, not in their continued and sustained subjective choice for God (made evident by their good works), but they are, for Barth, able to rest assured because Jesus holds in Himself both the Subjective and Objective sides of God’s election for all of humanity in the humanity of Christ which is for us, and thus representative of God with us. Here is how Michael Allen comments on this reality in Barth’s teaching (I have some sweet quotes from Barth from his CD on this that I will have to share later):
[N]otice the personal application of the election of the Son – all others are elect ‘in Him – that speaks volumes about the doctrine of assurance…. Elsewhere in this volume, Barth addresses the so-called ‘practical syllogism’ (II/2.335–340), whereby the Puritan tradition grounded assurance not only in the objective work of Christ but also in the subjective fruits of that union with Christ (namely, in sanctifying evidences of justification in Christ). Barth believes assurance is entirely in Christ, and that the practical syllogism denies that Jesus is obedient for us, just as He is accursed for us. He fills both sides of the covenantal relationship…. [Michael Allen, Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 102, Nook version.]
So Barth sees through this artificial distinction (dualism) between our humanity juxtaposed with Christ’s humanity, as if our humanity has an ontological reality of its own (apart from finding its grounding in Jesus’ humanity for us). And Barth sees how the Puritans abstracted and annexed the sanctification side of salvation to our humanity while placing this in a refracted relationship with the objective justifying work done by Jesus Christ. The effect, as Barth so presciently observed, was a spirituality was produced that caused people to look at themselves before they could ever look to Christ for assurance. The individual person had to subjectively check their own lives to see whether or not they had enough good works to plausibly confirm that they indeed were fitted with the genuine righteousness of Christ and thus saved. Barth’s remedy (and Barth was not purely seeking to find a remedy for this, in a negative sense) was to ground our humanity from Christ’s elected humanity (as archetypal) for us. Thus, we cannot think of ourselves apart from Him, but only in and through His “saved” humanity for us.
I am out of time …