If you have ever struggled with ‘assurance of salvation’ then you might be a Calvinist, or an Arminian

If you have ever struggled with ‘assurance of salvation’ then you might be a Calvinist, or an Arminian (or you might live under the categories of these theological frameworks simply because you are a North American or eternal_securityWestern evangelical)! This can be a devastating thing to deal with, just ask the English Puritans back in the 17th century. Nowadays most Calvinists and Arminians, I think, are too absorbed by our self-assured culture to really feel the weight of their own stated theology (soteriology), and its implications; but back in the day this was not the case. English and early North American Puritans lives were not so easily disentangled; the church and the state were intertwined (i.e. ecclesiopolitically). And in the Americas the State and country was birthed upon Puritan ideals, indeed, the church dictated social expectations and realities, such that a person’s eternal destiny could depend upon how they acted (‘good works’) in daily and civil life. Here is how one English Puritan felt, under such constraints, as he reflected upon the liberty of grace he finally felt as he heard English Puritan and doctor, Richard Sibbes, finally explain to him (through sermons) the free grace offered in Jesus Christ (versus the conditional grace [in function] offered by the classical Westminsterian schema):

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.[1]

So this is how Sibbes’ preaching on God’s ‘free grace’ made this commoner, Humphrey Mills feel in regard to his salvation.

But I want to press further than Sibbes. As an Evangelical Calvinist I believe that God’s free grace is his life actualized for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. And I believe that the objective and subjective components of grace are not grounded in us, but that both the Godward and humanward realities of salvation are fully realized and actualized in Jesus Christ (the Incarnation/hypostatic union). In other words, the ground for assurance can only and always start in and from God’s work (on both sides) for us. Furthermore, assurance of salvation is not a ‘feeling’ that we get psychologically (which takes us beyond Humphrey Mills, even); instead, assurance of salvation is knowing that God is God, and that he has elected in himself, in the Son, to be for us and not against us. Thomas F. Torrance says it like this:

The orientation of faith toward the risen, ascended and advent Christ imported for believers at the Reformation a deep sense of objectivity in looking away from themselves and their own spiritual experience even of redemption and regeneration and sanctification to Christ. It is in Christ, in the body of his Son, that the Father looks upon us, and accepts our imperfect obedience, as if it were perfect, and covers our works which are defiled by many spots, with the justice of his Son. This turning of the Scottish Reformers to the risen and advent Christ away from themselves spelled the end not only of the kind of works-righteousness, self-justification and trust in church tradition that prevailed in pre-Reformation Scotland, but the end of all pietism.

The Scots Confession devoted several articles to ‘good works’, that is to disciplined Christian living and service, but nevertheless the emphasis fell upon the fact that it is Jesus Christ himself who is the true centre and indeed the very substance of daily Christian life. That Christ-centred objectivity spelled the end of concern for self-righteousness and reliance on work-righteousness; yet far from dampening the need for disciplined godly living and daily goodness, by turning Christian people away from pietistic inwardness, it actively kindled and encouraged good works, as we can see particularly in the emphatic concern for the poor and needy throughout the realm. This legacy of the Scottish Reformation, ‘the veritie is not in us’, left a permanent mark on the tradition of Scottish theology and spirituality.[2]

Nice! Right?!

I would only ask of classical Calvinists and Arminians that you be consistent with your stated theological premises and its implications for your spirituality, just as I would expect this of myself. If you as classical Calvinists and Arminians are not struggling with assurance of salvation, you ought to be! How do you know you are one of the elect that God chose in eternity? How do you know that you are one of the elect that Christ died for? How (Arminan) do you know if your ‘faith’ is sufficient enough to count you among the elect, how do you know if you are doing enough to sustain your elect status? How do you know your faith is of the quality and kind that suffices as the kind that God saw in eternity past, and deemed it worthy of elect status?

We all just need to be consistent with the theo-logic and implications of our stated theological positions; if we are not going to be consistent with how our positions cash out, then we are being intellectually dishonest, or worse, disingenuous.

#reductio


[1] 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) (the format of this footnote is not correct, I will need to correct that later J ).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 24-5.

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7 comments

  1. Bobby, I like very much that you’re insisting that assurance is not a feeling, and that it is trust/confidence in the truth of God’s for-us-ness. But what’s to keep us, then, from doing away with the doctrine of assurance altogether? Do we really need it? Maybe it causes more trouble than it’s worth? Of course we should not have to live in anguish about our personal salvation. Perhaps what’s really needed, however, is not so much an assuaging of that anguish as a swelling of confidence in God’s goodness and justice, which would simply overwhelm, render moot, all such self-concern.

    This is in many ways a bad example, but imagine what it would be like if I were to talk about needing to be assured that my wife loved me, or if she were to insist that she needed assurance that I was being faithful to her. Doesn’t such a need already spell brokenness in the relationship? Wouldn’t a healthy relationship render such a “need” entirely superfluous?

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  2. Chris,

    Exactly. Thank you! I posted this rhetorically, really! I have been making the assertion for years that I don’t think that assurance of salvation is even a biblical or theological category; it is more of a schleiermacherian one, at least for the evangelical–and Puritan one for some Reformed and Arminian.

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  3. This lack of assurance thing is BIG–“…simply because you are a North American or Western evangelical!”
    –Tragic–the PERVASIVEness 17th C Arminianism or 17th C Calvinism throughout Evangelicalism!

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  4. Todd, unfortunately it really is. And it usually is kicked under the rug, or I’ve seen some hard core MacArthurites actually celebrate this problem of assurance!

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