A Third Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in I John: An Alternative

I

This will be my third and final riposte to Kevin DeYoung. As you will recall I have been responding to DeYoung’s two blog posts in regard to a doctrine of assurance of salvation; in particular having to do with jesusthehealerthe way DeYoung understands that doctrine as taught in the epistle of I John.

In the first two ripostes or rejoinders from me, we covered, in suggestive and querying fashion, how the original context of I John might not correlate well with DeYoung’s “straightforward” reading of that text; this was the basic gist of my first post in response. In the second post I tried to get further into the role that the history of interpretation, interpretive tradition, hermeneutic, and metaphysic has; not just in informing DeYoung’s exegesis, but mine (and everyone’s) as well. In this post, I will attempt to introduce an alternative reading of I John that counters DeYoung’s reading of it. As part of this alternative reading, in an inchoate way, I hope to make clear my belief that “assurance of salvation,” as far as I can see, is not actually part of the positive teaching of Scripture as understood from its revealed reality in Jesus Christ.

II

Let’s start with the proposition, first off, that assurance of salvation is not part of the positive teaching of Scripture. Before I attempt to sketch what I mean we will need to have a little context in regard to what we mean by ‘positive.’ In medieval theology (where we get so many of our categories from) there were different via[s] or ways that people used in their respective approaches  to their doing of theology; the ‘positive way’ (via positiva) that I am referring to in this post contrasts with what was known as the ‘negative way’ (via negativa). The positive way (for purposes of brevity) is simply the way of doing theology that focuses on what is revealed (tied into kataphatic) rather than doing theology that is speculative (which is the negative way tied to what is called apophatic), and based upon inferential reasoning, and more than not contemplative and/or philosophical reflection. So when I refer to ‘positive’ in this discussion, this is what I mean.

If we delimit ourselves to the ‘positive way’ assurance of salvation, then, is not something that ever gets addressed. The emphasis in God’s Self-revelation in Christ is always on life eternal; it is not concerned with trying to assuage people about doubts in regard to whether they personally and individually are “saved,” or one of the “elect.” If we have a proper understanding of faith we will realize that it is not something that is self-generated or that is in us (think of Martin Luther’s iustia Christi aliena, ‘the alien righteousness of Christ’); instead we will understand that what faith looks like is that bond that is shared between the Father and the Son for us by the Holy Spirit. And so the focus, by definition, of eternal life and salvation is not something that we get, and thus must hold onto, or demonstrate as something that we possess; instead the focus is always on God’s life in Christ, and participation with him. As I John concludes it gives us this decisive word:

10 The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. 13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence which we have[l]before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.[1]

Alongside of this:

23 This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.[2]

The focus in these passages is upon Christ, and not us. The differentiation, in context that John is making between those outside of Christ and those inside of Christ (so to speak) has to do with belief in Christ and keeping ‘His commandment’; which we see, in the context is that ‘we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.’ Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ (and that he has come in the ‘flesh’ see chapter 2, which the Gnostics rejected i.e. that Christ was the Son of God come in the flesh), and those who do not genuinely love one another are outside of Christ (in a “saving” kind of way) because they are not of his ‘seed’ and thus not participating in His life. And so we know that we are not of the Gnostics (or any other aberrant understanding of Jesus Christ) because we genuinely know who Jesus is for us by the Holy Spirit. The focus positively is upon who Jesus is, not upon whether I am saved or not, per se. The distinction has to do with the identity of Jesus, the eternal Son; if someone is worshipping a false Jesus they will have to prove their salvation by what they do. The Christian, the one worshipping the eternal Son does not have to generate any type of morality, or anything else, they know they have eternal life based simply upon their relationship to Jesus Christ in and through who He is for them. As a result those of the ‘seed’ believe, and have love; and we understand that this is not something self-generated but God generated through Christ by the Holy Spirit’s testimony. Again, we are not in need of psychological assurance about our eternal destiny at this point; instead we are solely focused upon Christ and the reality of who He is (this seems to be the context of I John).

We only have a context of psychological angst about assurance of salvation issues if we think salvation is about us. The way Kevin DeYoung approaches things through his understanding of election, limited atonement, and individual salvation creates space for anxiety about ‘my’ salvation. It makes me wonder if I am one of the elect for whom Christ died, and thus I will come to passages like those found strewn throughout First John potentially looking for ways that I can be assured of my salvation, of my election; but this is all foreign to the actual context of I John and other texts of Scripture (at a supposition level).

III

As we were working through the section above you may have had a question (or two) still, and you should. Even if the ‘commandment’ is to ‘believe’ and to ‘love one another’ we still have a dilemma, especially if I am claiming that these are not intended to be “proofs” of my personal salvation and relationship to God. In fact, as I was sketching above you probably were thinking: “hmm, well this sounds exactly like what DeYoung has been arguing; that my personal belief and morality are two of three earmarks that are intended to provide me with assurance of salvation.” But as I have been suggesting this is to think errantly, per the context in I John, as well as theologically.

Theologically, if we start with a principled focus on Christ, as I have been contending that I John does, we will think about ‘belief’ and ‘loving one another’ from a theological anthropology generated from Christ; we will understand that the Word indeed has been made flesh, made human for us, and we will think about ‘belief’ and ‘love’ and salvation from this vantage point. If we do this, now our hermeneutic, our “metaphysic” is beginning to take shape; and it is this that we as evangelical Calvinists believe is fundamental to thinking about all of these things. The focus now is on Christ’s vicarious humanity, as such it is his ‘faith’, it is his ‘belief’, it is his ‘love for the other’ that grounds ours; so we believe from him, from his humanity for us by the Holy Spirit. Instead of working from ourselves to God, we understand, in a positive way, that God has worked from Himself to us in Christ. And so the focus, in I John, and elsewhere, is not on my faith, on my morality, on my belief, on my ethics, but on Christ’s for me. The focus is on His participation with us, and then our participation with Him in and through His mediatorial humanity for us. Do you see any focus, from this frame, on assurance of salvation? If Jesus is everything for us; if he is the elect humanity of God for us, do questions about assurance of salvation ever arise?

IV

In closing I think it is safe to conclude, if anything, that through this process we have at least come to see the power of theological commitments relative to biblical interpretation. The realization that we all do theological exegesis should be apparent.

When educating our brothers and sisters about this issue the best thing we can do, if we are having doubts about our salvation, is to reframe the whole discussion; we should not reinforce it the way that DeYoung and that whole tradition has done. If we follow positive theology these questions should never arise, at least not in a critically and objectively understood way. We are all human beings, indeed, part of that condition is weakness and vulnerability, the antidote to that is not to reinforce all of that, but instead it is to point the One who always lives to make intercession for those who will inherit eternal life; the antidote is to point people to their High Priest, and to the ground of their very life and being. The assurance will come when we have hope and confidence in who Jesus is for us, not who we are for Him.

 

[1] I John 5.10-14.

[2] I John 3.23-24.

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6 comments

  1. Excellent! Now write the book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We are in Christ – now, THAT’S true assurance!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just finished reading 1 John. It’s interesting how John ends the letter with the claim that we know we are saved because God reached out to us in Christ, not with because we exhibit all of these markers of a true believer. From my own experience, a psychological basis of assurance only leads to your assurance being based off of your works and not on Christ, not to mention perpetual doubt and fear. That being said, isn’t it true that those who believe in Christ will grow to be like Christ? So what do we do about those people who claim to know Christ but perpetually live in an un-Christ like manner without any signs of repentance?

    I also noticed that DeYoung stated that one of the marks of a believer is that they will love other believers. I find it curious that he just says other believers and not also non-believers. I wonder if it has to do with DeYoung’s view on election and the scope of the atonement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was quite refreshing. You have addressed one of my main Biblical concerns since meeting EC in a way that seems both plausible and edifying.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on The Nicene Nerd and commented:
    An interesting rereading of 1 John with Christ, not personal assurance, as the focus.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. @Ivan,

    I just don’t think we have ever been commanded to determine whether someone is eternally saved or not. At most I think what we can do with people who claim to be Christians is to call them to repentance when we see things in their lives that do not reflect Christ (usually I would take this to mean a non-repentant attitude). But God alone knows the heart; that just isn’t our job.

    @Caleb,

    Cool, that is very encouraging to me. I wasn’t sure how this post would come across because it has been something I have been thinking about for awhile but w/o the proper means for communicating it. I’m encouraged that it made sense to you.

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