John Calvin and Evangelical Calvinists on Assurance of Salvation, Thesis 7 from EC Book: Prompted by Derek Rishmawy’s TGC Article

Fellow blogger and Facebook compadre, Derek Rishmawy, just wrote a short article calvincalvinfor the The Gospel Coalition’s blog (the only time you’ll find me reading something on TGC’s blog is when Rishmawy posts something of interest or I am researching for something specific) on why he enjoys reading John Calvin’s commentaries, and why he thinks others should or would too. In the comments to his article a commenter named Steve Martin wrote this about Calvin and the doctrine of the assurance of salvation:

Calvin was ok…. Luther was much better because he didn’t send you back into yourself for assurance of salvation…. Calvin had a weak understanding of the external Word and sacrament. If that were not so then Calvin would be a much more reassuring read. [see]

And so in response and clarification to that, I thought I would post Myk Habet’s and my seventh thesis from our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. We co-wrote this chapter (15), which is made up of fifteen theological theses or statements that Myk and I hold to as the contours of what we consider formative for our style of evangelical Calvinism. Without further ado (footnote numbering has been altered from its original for this blog post):

Thesis Seven.Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Coordinate with theses 2 and 3, Evangelical Calvinism understands assurance of salvation to be inseparably linked with union with Christ. Salvation is not understood as “our” salvation so that our subjectivity over-rides the objective ground in Christ; instead it is of upmost importance that we see both the objective and subjective sides of salvation rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The basis for assurance of salvation, then, flows from the faith that is founded in Christ’s vicarious faith/fullness for us; so the subjective side of Christ’s faith becomes ours as we are united to Christ “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit’s inveterate movement of gracious action, co-extending from the once for all faith realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Commensurate with this understanding, John Calvin framed “assurance” through similar foci; as Charles Partee points out:

The conviction that salvation is not conditional but certain is an almost forgotten mark of the Protestant Reformation. According to Calvin, doubting the certainty of one’s salvation is sinful. We do not understand the goodness of God apart from full assurance (III.2.16). “[F]aith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion . . . but requires full and fixed certainty” (III.2.15). If salvation were not certainly known to believers, election “would have been a doctrine not only lacking in warmth, but completely lifeless.” In summary, Calvin insists, “Our faith is nothing, unless we are persuaded for certain that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in Him. There is, therefore, no more pernicious or destructive conception than the scholastic dogma of the uncertainty of salvation” (Com. Rom. 8:33, 34). . . . Union with Christ is exactly the direction Calvin’s theology moves. For Calvin certainty is not to be found in a principle or a book but a person. That is, in union with Jesus Christ. Our task is “to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession” (IV. 1. 3). . . .[1]

With Calvin and early Reformed thought generally, assurance teaches us we are elect. Tony Lane clearly shows how Calvin considered assurance to be of the essence of faith and how this was coordinated with various other aspects of this theology, notably with the doctrine of election.[2] Salvation is not salvation if one is unsure of possessing it. That, at least, was Calvin’s argument when he wrote:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[3]

As it is for Calvin at this point, so it is for the Evangelical Calvinist. The root of assurance is found in Christ himself, and Christ’s faith and faithfulness is mediated to us through our union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit, a work which brings humanity into the effervescent and indestructible life of God’s eternal Logos.


[1] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 205–6.

[2] Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited,” Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, 270–313.

[3] Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.

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6 thoughts on “John Calvin and Evangelical Calvinists on Assurance of Salvation, Thesis 7 from EC Book: Prompted by Derek Rishmawy’s TGC Article

  1. Pingback: John Calvin and Evangelical Calvinists on Assurance of Salvation, Thesis 7 from EC Book: Prompted by Derek Rishmawy’s TGC Article | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Bobby, I grabbed this excerpt from the end of your post to ask the question that seems to produce on-going confusion for me.
    Does the text between the stars convey to you the equivalent of common/ prevenient grace?

    “As it is for Calvin at this point, so it is for the Evangelical Calvinist. The root of assurance is found in Christ himself, and Christ’s faith and faithfulness is mediated to us through our union with him *by the personal work of the Holy Spirit, a work which brings humanity into the effervescent and indestructible life of God’s eternal Logos.*”

    An Arminian would argue that God’s grace is extends to all in such a way as to enable them to have faith in Jesus and be saved.
    This seems similar. All are bound up in Christ – spiritually – and so like Arminianism they can live in the faith of Christ, or turn away and be damned.

    Thoughts?

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  3. Josh,

    I don’t understand why people can’t just accept that what we are offering in Evangelical Calvinism is altogether different, actually from classical Arminianism or Calvinism. I don’t understand why folks seem insistent on trying to somehow affix us to one side of this classic binary or the other; as if this binary is the standard. I don’t think it is, and so I resist trying to read what we are talking about through the categories demanded or supplied by classical thinking.

    A classical Arminian is a dualist in their thinking; they don’t think humanity from Christ’s humanity, but instead, attempt to think humanity into Christ’s. And this is why I don’t think that what we are communicating is even close to Arminianism. People aren’t autonomous free agents, not in my view; and in Arminianism, they are. They are Libertarian Free Agents assisted by cooperative grace from God; this is massively different, and actually does not think from a personalist or actualist conception of grace as if God in Christ himself is grace. Much different, Josh.

    I actually think we just don’t like to live in tension. But EC works from dialectic, and so actually rests in this dynamic of tension. God chooses for humanity, so humanity cannot turn away.

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  4. Don’t get me wrong I’m always grateful for your clarification.
    But when you say something like “God chooses for humanity, so humanity cannot turn away” I get confused again. Do you mean humanity can’t turn away, but individual people can? And then I don’t really understand the difference.

    Also can you help me understand what you mean by ‘dialectical’ and ‘dialogical,’ wiki wasn’t too helpful :p

    Generally I’m happy to live in the tension – and i want be happy with this one too, but I want to be clear on what I believe. Remember, if this is what I’m preaching then people will likely be firing these same criticisms at me. If I don’t first ask you to guide me in the ‘framework’ (that intuitively is correct in my mind) then I’d struggle to answer adequately.
    All that to say I’m not attacking, this is simply a learning exercise 🙂

    So I’ll try again:
    Humans are not free agents. God elects all humanity in Christ – yet his sovereignty is not the same over-bearing sort as in the classical scheme, so humans even though they are elect in Christ can still freely refuse his gift of grace as is consistent with their fallen depraved nature?

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  5. Josh,

    I don’t take you to be attacking, even if my response seems rather edgy.

    And the way I would reply to the questions being fired at you, is the same way I am responding to you. Who says these questions that get fired at you ought to be allowed to determine and frame this discussion? I thought we followed the categories and emphases that are revealed to us in God’s dynamic Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. I didn’t realize that Aristotle’s schema of causation was part of that Revelation.

    That’s partially how I’d answer; I would reframe the questions in light of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And if I do, I don’t think the causal types of questions contemporary and yet hellenized Western culture apply.

    TFT didn’t think these questions ultimately work; here is a post I once did that kind’ve gets at how TFT eschews such logico-deductive (as he would say) deterministic and necessitarian questions from people you’ll be teaching.

    https://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/the-implosion-of-classic-causal-determinism-through-resurrection/

    So that’s how I would frame this discussion. I would resist certain cultural impulses that wrongly dominate Christian and cultural discourse in light of God in Christ.

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  6. Josh,

    Here is something like what I would get at articulate through Donald Bloesch:

    With Barth I hold that through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the grave the human situation has been irrevocably altered. The powers of sin, death, and hell have been decisively vanquished, though they continue to resist the advance of the kingdom of God through the power of the lie. All people of, irrespective of their moral and spiritual state, are claimed for the kingdom, but only some respond in faith and obedience. Christ has reconciled and justified the whole human race but in principle (de jure), not in fact (de facto) except for those who believe. All are heirs to the kingdom, but not all become members of the church of Christ. The treasure in the field is there for all, but only those benefit who give up everything to attain it (Mt 13:44). The gates of the prison in which we find ourselves are now open, but only those who rise up and walk through these gates to freedom are truly free.

    . . . Predestination is not something finalized in the past but something realized in the present and consummated in the future. We can resist and deny our predestination, but we cannot permanently thwart the stream of God’s irresistable grace. We will ultimately be brought into submission, though not necessarily into salvation. Yet predestination means life even though we may choose death. Predestination does not necessarily eventuate in fellowship with Christ, but it does mean that every person is brought into inescapable relatedness to Christ. . . . (Donald Bloesch,” Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, 169)

    Taken from this old post of mine: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/ec-election-and-donald-bloesch-very-similar-in-orientation/

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