Calvin’s Assurance of Salvation and His Temporary Faith

Our Evangelical Calvinism, Volume 2. Dogmatics&Devotion is going to press very soon. My personal chapter takes a look at the doctrine of assurance of salvation. The way I approached this was to constructively critique Calvin’s view through Barth and Torrance. When I say constructively I mean that I noted some lack in Calvin’s offering while at the same time taking from Calvin the riches he has present in his theology as well. One lack of particular interest is Calvin’s conception of what later (like in the Puritan times) would be called ‘temporary faith.’ What this entailed was f593a-calvinsladderthat it was possible for someone to have all the external signs of an ‘elect’ person, but in reality turn out to be one of the reprobate. Suffice it to say that this teaching could cause considerable anxiety in those seeking to know whether they were indeed one of the elect; one thing that exacerbated this further was that for Calvin as well as for those who followed Calvin (historically), like the Post Reformed orthodox and Puritans, was that reprobation was not tied into the revealed will of God (in Christ) like election was, instead it was back in an absolute decree hidden in the remote will of God. Here is what Calvin writes in his Institutes describing what anachronistically we could call ‘temporary faith’ when applied to Calvin:

I know that to attribute faith to the reprobate seems hard to some, when Paul declares it the result of election [cf. I Thess. 1:4-5]. Yet this difficulty is easily solved. For though only those predestined to salvation receive the light of faith and truly feel the power of the gospel, yet experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect [cf. Acts 13:48]. Therefore it is not at all absurd that the apostle should attribute to them a taste of the heavenly gifts [Heb. 6:4-6]—and Christ, faith for a time [Luke 8:13]; not because they firmly grasp the force of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith, but because the Lord, to render them more convicted and inexcusable, steals into their minds to the extent that his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption…. Suppose someone objects that then nothing more remains to believers to assure themselves of their adoption. I reply: although there is a great likeness and affinity between God’s elect and those who are given a transitory faith, yet only in the elect does that confidence flourish which Paul extols, that they loudly proclaim Abba, Father [Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:15]. Therefore, as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed forever [I Peter 1:23] so that the seed of life sown in their hearts may never perish, thus he firmly seals the gift of his adoption in them that it may be steady and sure.[1]

Calvin calls it ‘transitory faith’ (in translation anyway), but this doctrine is present in Calvin’s theology. Along with his doctrine of double predestination (even though how that actually plays out is also something worthy of critique, which I do in my chapter), this conception of ‘temporary faith’ is something that I believe needs to be left behind. The consequence of this doctrine points people inward and as R.T. Kendall rightly says it, it produces a ‘reflexive faith;’ a faith wherein we turn into ourselves prior to looking to Christ to attempt to discern whether or not we are indeed one of those for whom Christ died and elected.

Calvin held that ‘assurance is the essence of saving faith,’ but there are areas that need to be corrected and examined in Calvin’s theology in order to get to where he wanted to get in his affirmation here. I attempt to constructively do that in my forthcoming chapter, and I think I achieve that with the help of Barth and Torrance; i.e. offer a genuine Christ-conditioned doctrine of assurance of salvation—taking the good from Calvin (i.e. union with Christ and double grace theology), and leaving the not so good behind (his doctrines of election and temporary faith, respectively).

Interestingly much of this kind of theology lives on, whether that be in academic or popular (from the pulpit) forms. I just recently listened to a sermon wherein this kind of inward turned conception of salvation was offered to the laity. In other words it was taught that throughout the churches there are people who ‘think’ they are “saved” (or elect), but in the end they will find out after all that they weren’t. What a terrible doctrine; a doctrine that has no grounding in Jesus Christ, but instead in a rather moralistic religion wherein someone must maintain their salvation by behaving in a certain way (whatever way that might be), or by mustering up Jesus faces and emotions which, at the least, will make someone “feel” like they must be eternally saved. Rubbish!

The antidote to all of this is to ground salvation both objectively and subjectively in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. That’s what I develop in my chapter. You’ll have to buy our book when it comes out, and read how I do that.

 

[1] Inst., 3.2.11.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Anthony,

    I respect Calvin quite a bit so I don’t like to use too hard of language towards him. I do critique in my forthcoming chapter for our EC2 book on predestination and its implications for assurance of salvation, but then I also appreciatively take from his rich Christological theology as well.

    And thank you!

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