A Christologically Construed Account of Assurance of Salvation in Contrast to an Ecclesiocentric-Catholic Account

Just the other day I was listening to the local Catholic radio station, Mater Dei, and in particular a show they feature (that is a nationally syndicated show originating in San Diego) called Catholic Answers. On the show they had an apologist and public representative for Catholicism fielding call in questions. One of the questions came from a Protestant caller who wanted clarification on the basics of Roman salvation, and in particular, wondered if a Catholic could have assurance of salvation. The apologist’s answer was standard fare, in regard to explaining how Catholics think of salvation; and his response on assurance was that Catholics cannot have that. He noted that this was because salvation was contingent upon the level of cooperation a person has in their walk of salvation, as such coming to any sort of certitude in regard to their “metaphysical standing” (his words) before God is always a tenuous one, and not something any one individual can have in this life.

As a Protestant Reformed Christian, who is also an Evangelical Calvinist, this of course kicks against the goads of my own mind and theological development. I do believe that with a proper Christologically conditioned soteriology assurance of salvation is not an elusive thing; indeed, I think it is the essence of saving faith insofar as that saving faith is grounded in Jesus’ vicarious ‘yes’ for us. In my personal chapter for our most recent book Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion I wrote a whole chapter on the doctrine of assurance of salvation. I thought I would share four concluding points on assurance of salvation that I presented towards the end of my chapter. It is because of these reasons, and more, that the Catholic response does not do justice to a Christologically conceived doctrine of salvation; not to mention it’s problems when measured against a sound exegesis of Holy Scripture. Here are those points:

  1. Calvin was onto something profound, and this is why we Evangelical Calvinists gravitate towards his belief that “assurance is of the essence of faith.” That notwithstanding, as we developed previously, Calvin’s lack of place for reprobation in his soteriology coupled with the idea of ‘temporary faith’ can be problematic. It has the potential to cause serious anxiety for anyone struggling with whether or not they are truly one of God’s elect. In this frame someone can look and sound like a Christian, but in the end might just be someone who has a “temporary” or “ineffectual faith.” The problem for Calvin, as with the tradition he is representing, is that the focus of election is not first on Jesus Christ, but instead it is upon individuals. Even though, as we have seen, Calvin does have some valuable things to say in regard to a theology of union with Christ, if we simply stayed with his doctrine of election and eternal decrees, we would always find assurance of salvation elusive.
  2. Despite what is lacking in Calvin’s superstructure he nevertheless was able to offer some brilliant trajectories for the development of a doctrine of assurance. Union with Christ and the duplex gratia in Calvin’s theology provide a focus on salvation that sees salvation extra nos (outside of us), and consequently as an objective reality that is not contingent upon us, but solely contingent on the person and achievements of Jesus Christ for us. This is where assurance can be developed from Calvin’s theology in a constructive manner. If salvation is not predicated upon my faith or by my works, but instead is a predicate of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness, then there is no longer space for anyone to look but to Christ. As we have already noted, Calvin did not necessarily press into the idea of Jesus’ faith for us, but that could be an implication in an inchoate way within Calvin’s thought. Calvin provides hope for weary and seeking souls because of his doctrines of union with Christ and the duplex gratia; primarily because what these doctrines say is that all aspects of salvation have been accomplished by Jesus Christ (namely here, justification and sanctification). Calvin’s theology, when we simply look at his theology of union with Christ and grace, leaves no space for seekers to look anywhere else but to Christ for assurance of salvation. And at this level Calvin can truly say that “assurance is the essence of faith.”
  3. As we moved from Calvin to Barth and Torrance what we have are the theological resources required for a robust doctrine of assurance. With Barth and Torrance we certainly have Calvin’s emphases on union with Christ and grace, as Christ is understood as the objective (and subjective) ground of salvation. But moving beyond this we have Calvin’s weaknesses corrected when it comes to a doctrine of election. Because Barth and Torrance see Jesus as both elect and reprobate simultaneously in his vicarious humanity for all of humanity, there is absolutely no space for anxiety in the life of the seeker of assurance. Since, for Barth and Torrance, there is no such thing as “temporary faith,” since faith, from their perspective, is the “faith of Christ” (pistis Christou) for all of humanity, there is no room for the elect to attempt to prove that they have a genuine saving faith, since the only saving faith is Christ’s “for us and our salvation.” Further, since there is no hidden or secret decree where the reprobate can be relegated, since God’s choice is on full display in Jesus Christ— with “no decree behind the back of Jesus”—the seeker of assurance does not have to wonder whether or not God is for them or not; the fact and act of the incarnation itself already says explicitly that God is for the elect and not against them.
  4. If there is no such thing as elect and reprobate individuals, if God in Christ gave his life for all of humanity in his own elect humanity, if there is no such thing as temporary faith, if Christ’s faith for us is representative of the only type of saving faith there is; then Christ is all consuming, as such he is God’s assurance of salvation for all of humanity. The moment someone starts to wonder if they are elect, properly understood, the only place that person can look is to Jesus. There is no abstract concept of salvation; Jesus Christ is salvation, and assurance of salvation and any lingering questions associated with that have no space other than to look at Jesus. The moment someone gets caught up in anxious thoughts and behavior associated with assurance, is the moment that person has ceased thinking about salvation in, by, and for Christ. Anxiety about salvation, about whether or not I am elect only comes from a faulty doctrine of election which, as we have seen, is in reality the result of a faulty Christology. We only have salvation with God in Christ because of what Jesus Christ did for us by the grace of God; as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ, and participate in what Calvin called the “double grace” of God’s life for us. It is this reality that quenches any fears about whether or not I am genuinely elect; because it places the total burden of that question on what God has done for us, including having faith for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

The Roman Catholic, as well as the classical Arminian and Calvinist positions flounder against this type of theological or Christological backdrop. Can we have assurance of salvation? I don’t know, ask Jesus.

[1] Bobby Grow, “’Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith’ Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ’,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 52-4.

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4 Responses to A Christologically Construed Account of Assurance of Salvation in Contrast to an Ecclesiocentric-Catholic Account

  1. Steve says:

    Bobby,
    As much as I agree with what you say, it doesn’t address the fundamental practical problem. As long as God requires something from us, and He does, people will wonder whether they have met His requirements. You say “…as such our only hope is to be in union with Christ…”. People will respond “how do I know if I am in union with Christ?”, “how do I know if I have the right faith?” “what about my son, who says he is a Christian, yet he doesn’t go to church anymore and lives with a woman who isn’t his wife, is he in union with Christ?” From experience, simply telling people to “look to Christ” doesn’t do it, they ultimately want some sort of proof that they are united to Christ and this forces them back onto themselves. I’ve heard many pastors agonize over “doubters” or weak people who just can’t grasp that the Lord has done it all!

    Does your article deal with the several passages in scripture that deal with endurance/perseverance or apostasy and how that works with your ideas on assurance?

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    You didn’t actually grasp some basic fundamental points in what I shared, Steve. It’s much more than “look to Christ.” Read it again. I don’t think you grasped the essence aspect of this enough, nor the fact that people who even care to care about such things already indicates that they have that care because they have the Spirit who is the basis and ground of the union.

    But you’ve reduced what I’ve written to something less than what I’ve written. Not only that, you are bringing up another issue; ie how can I know if this or that person is genuinely in Christ? You can’t, not ultimately. But that doesn’t undercut my argument, which you didn’t grasp. I say you didn’t grasp it because you didn’t share what I did in my point 4. There is nuance there, and a logic in that that goes beyond what you apparently gleaned from it.

    It’s actually an essay/chapter, not an article, and you can read it in full through google books.

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  3. Bobby Grow says:

    In other words, Steve, I’m working from a concrete even “actualistic” conception of salvation. There is no abstract psychological conception of a generic type of salvation out there. There is only the kind that is in Christ. So when someone is struggling with assurance issues (which it doesn’t sound like your hypotheticals are) they would never suffer with those issues if salvation could be conceived of in some sort of abstract, global, or psychological way. What I’ve argued in my chapter is that the very reality of salvation itself, in Christ, in itself negates assurance issues because definitionally salvation itself cannot be conceived of outwith Christ. If this is the case and assurance issues start to rise up we are no longer thinking of salvation from Christ, but from a ground in ourselves that we have projected onto Christ as if we could think of our subjective selves in that way vis a vis the reality of salvation (we can’t). This is the premise of my argument in my chapter. That’s what you glossed over and didn’t see. So in that sense, yes “look to Jesus” is the answer. And this because the looking itself is generated by the Christ in our lives wherein there is no remainder of ourselves in the achievement or meriting of salvation. Does that make sense? My point itself can seem abstract.

    As far as actual biblical exegesis: I don’t actually think this particular issue is solved by a prima facie reading of Scripture. In other words, this question itself is a highly charged theological issue and it has only developed, I’ve indicated in my larger chapter, because of some technical theological developments in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; at least on the Protestant side. So we need to be very cognizant of the theological categories we are bringing to Scripture as we actually engage it.

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  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Here’s the link to my chapter https://books.google.com/books?id=HEHdDgAAQBAJ&pg=PA30&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

    I think, Steve, what bothers me a little about your response is that it moves too quickly. You presume to have understood my argument (which you didn’t), and then proceeded to bring up hypotheticals that don’t even apply to my argument. How is that a fair way to engage with what I’ve presented?

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