A Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in First John

Kevin DeYoung, Young, Restless, and Reformed, has written two posts now, on his blog sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, engaging assuranceofsalvationJesuswith the topic of Assurance of Salvation. Throughout the rest of this post I intend to interact with what DeYoung has written, and to offer a kind of critique and then alternative to what DeYoung has offered.

(Be warned, this is only an introductory post, I fully intend on offering a fuller scale and more detailed response to DeYoung, based upon the conclusions you will see at the end of this post)


There are many ways into a discussion on what many call ‘pastoral theology’ revolving around the psychology of whether or not someone is genuinely saved; indeed, that is what is at bottom here: i.e. a kind of theologically induced psychology relative to how someone perceives their relationship to God in Jesus Christ (either in the affirmative or the negative). DeYoung chooses to go the ostensible exegetical route; choosing as his primary text (locus classicus) the epistle of I John. This little Johannine letter is probably the most appealed to book in the Bible for discussing and developing a doctrine on a so called assurance of salvation. In DeYoung’s post he identifies three classic points that are claimed to be (not just by DeYoung, but by many in the Reformed camp in particular) the defining components that frame the epistle of I John; at least when we are attempting to develop answers to our psychological questions in regard to our status as ‘saved’ or ‘unsaved’ (or we could say with the classical Reformed position: ‘elect’ or ‘reprobate’). Here are the three points that DeYoung lists as a kind loci (using identifiable theological and psychological and ethical points to interrogate and purportedly interpret I John):

The first sign is theological. You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God (5:11-13).

The second sign is moral. You should have confidence if you live a righteous life (3:6-9).

The third sign is social. You should have confidence if you love other Christians (3:14). (source)

I would like to respond to these points in turn. Now because this is a blog post (and not a term paper), my responses can only be suggestive and general in trajectory, but hopefully made in such a way that these points provided by DeYoung will take on a more critical tone (and at least get problematized); such that a different hermeneutical background will be provided leading to the conclusion that what DeYoung (and much of the Reformed tradition has offered) is less straightforwardly “Biblical” as DeYoung would have us believe, and, well, more ‘hermeneutical’. In other words, I would at the very least like to illustrate that there is something deeper; something more metaphysical going on behind Kevin’s exegesis versus the straightforward and pastoral reading of the text that he contends is present in his reading of this epistle. This seems like too large of a task, really, to attempt to accomplish in about seven hundred and fifty words or so, but that is what we will attempt to do with the space remaining.



DeYoung, in his second post on this topic is responding to a critic of his posts (much as I am becoming now); a Lutheran interlocutor who challenges DeYoung’s understanding of assurance from his Lutheran convictions (which in part will be more closely aligned to my critique, at least in some respects). DeYoung writes in response to the Lutheran, this:

While it is never a good idea to “focus inside ourselves,” it is impossible to make sense of 1 John if looking for moral, social, and theological evidence is entirely inappropriate. For example, 1 John 2:5-6 says “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Likewise, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” We see similar “by this we know” language in 1 John 2:3; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:2-3; 4:13; 5:2. Clearly, we are meant to know something about the person by looking at what he believes, how he lives, and how he loves. One doesn’t have to be in favor of morbid introspection to understand that 1 John urges Christians to look for evidences of grace in themselves and in those who might be seeking to lead them astray. (source)

I think DeYoung’s response to the Lutheran, at face, sounds compelling, but I think it is more complex, even at a simple exegetical level, than DeYoung let’s on. I mean what if I John isn’t really answering the questions that DeYoung (and the Westminster Confession of Faith that he appeals to) is putting to it; what if I John was written to first century Roman/Graeco Christians who were being tempted by a prevailing philosophical system of the day known as Gnosticism (at this early stage this would have only been an incipient or proto form of Gnosticism) which, in general is a dualistic system of thought that sees the material world (inclusive of human bodies) as evil, and the spirit as pure and undefiled, albeit trapped within a fleshy world of evil and malevolence (which was seeking escape from this world of material back to the pure Spirit from whence it originally came; escaping through a series of graded levels of ‘secret’ knowledge that was intended for the elect, so to speak)? And so if this were the case, if I John is challenging these early Christians to look to Christ instead of a secret knowledge that turns inward instead of upward for release (so to speak) from themselves; then wouldn’t it be somewhat presumptuous to take I John captive as a text that is intended to answer questions about assurance of salvation that were formed most prominently in the 16th and 17th centuries in scholastically Reformed Western Europe, and then in a final and intense form in English and other Puritanism[s]?

DeYoung might respond to my first riposte here by querying “so what?” He might say that what I have suggested above is unnecessarily abstract, and even if true (the context I have suggested) does not really undercut his pastorally motivated development towards a doctrine on assurance of salvation. He might say: “that’s interesting, Bobby, but my points are simply attempting to identify universal principles present within the first letter of John, in such a way that transcends its original context, while at the same time seeking to honor it.” I might simply respond: how, Kevin, does your engagement of I John honor it when you are imposing questions upon it in a schematized way that does not fit into the questions it was originally seeking to address? I might ask: “if the conception of salvation present within I John fits well with the dogmatic conception of salvation that he reads it from as formed from 16th and 17th century Calvinist categories?” If the conception of God, based upon appeal to Aristotelian categories (primarily), the metaphysic used to shape the God of the Reformed theology that DeYoung follows, coalesces with the God revealed in Jesus Christ that is being referred to in John’s letter?


In conclusion, I obviously think things are more complicated in regard to reading the first epistle of John. I think it is too facile, and not apparent enough to attempt to read first John as if it readily answers questions put to it that were generated not by its original audience, but by a certain conception of God (and thus interpretive methodology or hermeneutic) that I contend is not similar (categorically) to the God revealed in Jesus Christ (if thought from Jesus Christ, first).

And so based upon my conclusion what is left is to explore what the alternative to DeYoung’s hermeneutic is. We have seen that there is a Lutheran alternative, but that’s not the only one; there of course are other ways to read first John based upon other metaphysics, or maybe no metaphysics. In other words, in a later post from this one, I will contend, in another response to DeYoung’s post, that what he is doing is, as we all do, is engaging in theological exegesis. Thus, under the guise of being “pastoral” or maybe “straightforward” DeYoung smuggles in certain interpretive suppositions that he is committed to, “theologically,” in an a priori way, as we all do, that has led him to his conclusions about assurance of salvation; and in particular in his reading of that doctrine in the epistle of I John.

More to come (as I have time). In the more to come I will attempt to sketch the role that our theological positions have upon our exegeses of the texts of Scripture, and in that sketch I will attempt to, as I noted, provide an alternative theological exegetical way that ultimately stands in contradistinction to DeYoung’s conclusions in regard to assurance in I John.