A Response to Kevin DeYoung’s Response to Tom McCall’s Christianity Today Article on the Atonement: A ‘Depth Dimensional’ Consideration

Christianity Today shared an article written by professor Tom McCall (a friend of mine) just as we were upon Good Friday; it had to do with the atonement and the cry of dereliction ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?’ that Jesus cried out on the cross. Kevin DeYoung, a few days following offered a response article via The Gospel Coalition. In conclusion he challenges McCall’s reading this way:

Hodge would agree with McCall’s point that Christ did not suffer exactly what sinners deserve, but would McCall agree with Hodge that Christ suffered the weight of what sinners deserved? More to the point, would he agree with Hodge’s understanding of forensic satisfaction? “The essence of the penalty of the divine law,” Hodge writes, “is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favor. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God.” For sinners this would lead to “hopeless perdition,” but for Christ it meant “a transient hiding of the Father’s face” (473). And lest this be confused with a breach of Trinitarian relations, Hodges makes clear that the “satisfaction of Christ” was a “matter of covenant between the Father and the Son” (472).

Granted, McCall is from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so he may deny all that Calvin and Hodge affirm. But at the very least, they show us a way to deny what McCall wants to deny—a crass Father versus Son Trinitarian breach—while still affirming a wrath-satisfying, God-appeasing, Father-turns-his-face-away penal substitutionary atonement. Whether this way is a better way is beyond scope of this post. But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us. (source)

DeYoung, predictably, is arguing, because he’s concerned, that McCall just might not really be on board with the classical Protestant understanding of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) after all. We see this particularly as DeYoung leaves off with this quip: “But for my part, it’s hard to understand why Christ would ask for the cup to be taken from him unless he believed it to be the cup of God’s wrath that he would drink to the bitter dregs for sinners like us.” Yet, this makes one wonder, at least it makes me wonder, does DeYoung really think that “God’s wrath” can only be understand from a forensic/juridical frame? Indeed, I’m positive this is the only way that DeYoung sees God’s wrath vis-à-vis the atoning cross-work of Christ.

But this clearly is not the only way, nor should it be construed as THE way wherein God’s wrath is most severely focused. As an Evangelical Calvinist I will contend, along with Thomas Torrance et al., that the source of God’s wrath is ultimately creational rather than juridical; that what God is most wrathful of is that his good and very good creation has been polluted by the dregs of sin to the point that God’s intended desire to fellowship with us in the ‘cool of the Garden’ was disrupted. In other words, what it means to be human was distorted to the point that its intended telos or purpose has lost orientation; that human being itself has become so sub-humanized that the only hope was for God to assume humanity, all the way down to the very heart of it all, and redeem through recreation/resurrection from that depth; to rehumanize through the recreation wrought by the resurrection of the forever God-human, Jesus Christ. This was the ultimate source of God’s wrath; that a foreigner like sin would seek to so disrupt his good and very good plan that his love fellowship with his graciously created counter-points in creation was lost. Yes, the forensic was present, but there is no forensic without the creation first—noting not only the logical but chronological and priority of the ground of ‘being’ that precedes all else.

In an attempt to detail this further let me share something I have written previously with the hopes of potentially identifying one way in which there is a greater depth, and as such, a greater wrath of God to be understood in and through the revelation of Godself in the atoning work of Jesus Christ; a work that started in the manger (temporally). You will see, I hope, how what I’ve written applies to this current discussion; and you might see further how it’s possible to think of God’s wrath with greater theological acuity than DeYoung himself seems to think. Beyond that, it identifies the type of space that I think McCall might just have been suggesting is needed in discussions like this one.

For Thomas Torrance the atonement is the contradiction of sin by which Godself inserts himself into the brokenness and fallen-ness of our humanity, through the humanity of Christ, and by so doing vanquishes sin—its death and destruction—by his very own and sui generis being as God and man in Christ. We left off in the last post referring to sin in the theology of Torrance, let me briefly touch upon that further here.

For Torrance sin isn’t simply a transactional or legal situation it is something that touches the deepest reaches of what it means to be a human being; it sub-humanizes people because it disintegrates the koinonial bond that was originally inherent to what it meant for a human to be a human created in the image of God as an image of the image who is Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). This is why for Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists following, what was required in the atonement was that our very beings as human beings be recreated in the human being that Jesus assumed enhypostatically as the man from Nazareth. You won’t find this type of penetrative consideration in the forensic framing of atonement that you find in Federal or Covenantal theology; or for that matter, as a subset, what you find in more basic accounts of Reformed theology as we see typified in what is popularly called Five-Point-Calvinism.

Here is an example of how Torrance thinks about the depth dimension of salvation/atonement:

On the cross, the oneness of God and man in Christ is inserted into the midst of our being, into the midst of our sinful existence and history, into the midst of our guilt and death. The inserting of the oneness of God and man into the deepest depths of human existence in its awful estrangement from God, and the enactment of it in the midst of its sin and in spite of all that sin can do against it, is atonement. In a profound sense, atonement is the insertion of the union into the very being of our alienated and fallen humanity. That insertion of oneness by atonement results in koinōnia, in the church as the communion in which Christ dwells, and in which we are made partakers of the divine nature. The koinōnia thus created by the atonement and resurrection of Christ is fully actualised in our midst by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and is maintained by the power of the Spirit as the church continues in the fellowship of word and sacrament….[1]

As we have been emphasizing, for Torrance, and then us Evangelical Calvinists in his wake, salvation is an ontological occurrence; of necessity. The Apostle Paul is quite clear about the depth and reach of sin’s impact, which is why he emphasizes creational and new creational themes so frequently (cf. II Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:18ff; Col. 1:15ff; etc.). Torrance along with a part of the Christian tradition simply notes this reality in the Apostolic deposit found in the New Testament and seeks to develop the inner logic being presupposed upon by Apostles like Paul et al.

Here is one more example of how Torrance thinks salvation. Here we have an example of what Torrance calls the ‘ontological theory of the atonement,’ it is in line with what we just read from him previously:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

We see the ontological aspect noted once again, and even further we see Torrance, in step with Barth, highlighting how even the knowledge and depth of sin can really only be understood Christologically; as we understand its depths through dwelling upon the reality of what actually was required for salvation to be accomplished. We see in this quote components that we find in Patristic thinkers like Athanasius, and even Maximus the Confessor; particularly as the latter gets into proposing things along the lines of the logoi thread that is interwoven throughout the created order as its taxis or order.

These are ways into a discussion about the atonement and salvation that are lacking, typically, in the Western mode. John Calvin, though, is an exception to this rule; and we could say this is because of his hyper-Christ concentrated approach. If a thinker genuinely focuses on the deep Christologicalness we find in the New Testament it is almost an axiom that that thinker will end up pressing into union with Christ themes that look something like what we find in Torrance’s presentation. Federal theology and the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology does not have this emphasis when thinking salvation; it is framed forensically and under a legal strain, necessarily, precisely because their hermeneutical system starts with a Covenant of Works only to be succeeded by the Covenant of Grace. Some will argue that this does not give Covenant theology a necessary legal character, but I think the proof is in the pudding.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 173.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.


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


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.


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).


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?


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.

A Second Riposte to Kevin DeYoung on Assurance of Salvation in I John. There is a History


I wanted to continue to engage with Kevin DeYoung’s recent couplet of posts on the doctrine of ‘assurance of salvation.’ In my last post,
as you might recall, I tried to simply poke the exegetical basis upon which DeYoung feels (apparently) sure-footed relative to articulating a doctrine of assurance based upon his straightforward calvinwoodreading of I John. I intimated a few things in that post (in regard to further critique and alternative), and so in this post I would like to further elaborate upon a kind of critique of what DeYoung believes in regard to assurance of salvation, and its exegetical basis.

As we discussed previously (in my first post), as is typical, I believe it is really important to be cognizant and upfront with how we have come to our exegetical conclusions. In other words, instead of asserting that we just believe that this is what the Bible communicates (on whatever topic), I think it is of the upmost importance to be aware of the theological assumptions and tradition that we are committed to; DeYoung should be commended for this, on one hand. He is very open about his Calvinism, and does not try to hide that. But as we can see his Calvinism (of the variety that he follows) informs his exegetical conclusions in regard to first John. This is what I would like to highlight further in this post; i.e. the history of interpretation and the power it has not just for DeYoung, but for all of us, of course!


In DeYoung’s second post he wrote this:

There is nothing original about these points. Stott calls the three signs “belief” or “the doctrinal test,” “obedience” or “the moral test,” and “love” or “the social test.” As far as I can tell from the commentaries I consulted, my understanding of 1 John is thoroughly mainstream. I made clear that “These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us.” I also explained that looking for these signs was not an invitation to look for perfection. “Lest this standard make you despair,” I said at one point, “keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin (1:9-10).” In other words, the righteous life is a repentant life.

As DeYoung notes, he is in comfortable company; he has a lot of compatriots when it comes to his particular view of assurance as found, ostensibly, in I John. But even though DeYoung is in good company, does that make his view of I John and assurance true? No, of course not! And I am sure that DeYoung would agree with me; but then he most likely would go on (as he has) and continue to hold the view that he does and continue to claim that his view and understanding of I John is unremarkable when it comes to the history of Protestant Reformed interpretation. One problem I see with this is that it engages in ‘question begging’ (petitio principii). It presumes that the conclusions it has come to (the view that DeYoung holds on I John) is self-evident, almost tautologous , and that the burden of proof is on those who would question his conclusions about assurance in I John as I do. But why is that? I mean why is the burden of proof on those who disagree with DeYoung?

The form of Calvinism that DeYoung holds to, as I noted in post one, has a metaphysic; in other words, it has a way of viewing and presenting God (a view that doesn’t just fall off the pages the of Scripture). As a result of this view, we end up with a conception of God that elevates ‘performance’ before and for God, I would contend, to an unhealthy level. One prominent example of this is evidenced in the theology of one of the “founders” of the style of Calvinism that DeYoung is a proponent for; the example is provided by Puritan theologian William Perkins (of the 17th century). Indeed, it is this period where this kind of performance based style of thinking about God and salvation was introduced; at least for the Western, English speaking, west. And it is this style that, I contend, provides the theological (metaphysical) categories through which DeYoung, and much of the tradition DeYoung breathes from, gets their strength (as it were) from. Richard Muller describes what this style of theology looked like in Perkins’ theology, and in particular with reference to assurance of salvation:

William Perkins and Johannes Wollebius are among the later Reformed writers who used one or another forms of the syllogismus practicus in their discussions of assurance of salvation. In Perkins’ case, the syllogism is both named and presented in short syllogistic form. As is clear, however, from the initial argumentation of his Treatise of Conscience, the syllogisms are all designed to direct the attention of the believer to aspects or elements of the model of Romans 8:30, where the focus of assurance as previously presented by the apostle was union with Christ and Christ’s work as the mediator of God’s eternally willed salvation. In other words, as Beeke has noted, Perkins draws on links–calling, justification, and sanctification–in what he had elsewhere referenced as the “golden chaine” of salvation. Thus, Perkins writes, “to beleeve in Christ, is not confusedly to beleeve that he is a Redeemer of mankind, but withall to beleeve that he is my Saviour, and that I am elected, justified, sanctified, & shall be glorified by him.” Perkins’ syllogisms will be variants on this theme.

In addition, Perkins does not so much advocate the repetition of syllogisms as argue the impact of the gospel on the mind of the believer, as wrought by the Holy Spirit. Speaking of the certainty that one is pardoned of sin, Perkins writes,

The principall agent and beginner thereof, is the holy Ghost, inlightning the mind and conscience with spirituall and divine light: and the instrument in this action, is the ministrie of the Gospell, whereby the word of life is applied in the name of God to the person of every hearer. And this certaintie is by little and little conceived in a forme of reasoning or practicall syllogism framed in the minde by the holy Ghost on this manner:

Every one that believes is the childe of God:

But I doe beleeve:

Therefore I am a childe of God.

What is more, Perkins identifies faith as a bond, “knitting Christ and his members together,” commenting that “this apprehending of Christ [is done] … spiritually by assurance, which is, when the elect are persuaded in their hearts by the holy Ghost, of the forgiveness of their owne sinnes, and of Gods infinite mercy towards them in Iesus Christ.”[1]

What this quote further helps to shed light on (beyond helping to establish my point about the history and theological categories behind DeYoung’s theological approach that have led to his exegetical conclusions) is the role that ‘election’ plays in all of this. A doctrine of assurance of salvation flows, quite naturally, from a view of election that is both unconditional and supported by definite or more popularly limited atonement; indeed this is the categorical history behind DeYoung’s style. In other words, DeYoung’s Calvinism, like Perkins’ (in this respect) holds that God, in eternity past, ‘elected’ that some people would necessarily become Christians, and in order for this to happen Christ then came and died for these elect people alone thus satisfying the requirement of God’s holiness, paying for the penalty of sin (for the elect). But this created a dilemma, Karl Barth explains this dilemma in his critique (yes) of Calvin’s view of election (which for all intents and purposes is very similar to Perkins’ and DeYoung’s); he writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

Here we see further how not only is someone’s psychology at play in this discussion, but also what this view of salvation, election, etc. has to do with the type of God behind it. This insight from Barth also takes us further than we want to go in this post; suffice it to say, as Barth insightfully notes, the kind of election behind DeYoung’s approach untethers Jesus as the basis and ground of election for humanity by placing that burden upon individual people. What this does is to thrust people upon themselves, and to somehow “prove” that they are indeed one of the elect for who Christ died (this used to be called in Perkins’ day experimental predestinarianism).


Lest we lose the forest for the trees let’s try to reign this rain-deer in by way of summarizing where we currently stand.

We have noted that Kevin DeYoung’s approach to assurance has a history, and that this history took shape under the pressures of a certain theological trajectory (primarily the one found in Puritan Calvinist theology). As a result of this history, DeYoung has come to the text of I John, in particular, with certain categories in place when it comes to thinking about the “elect’s” relationship to God in salvation. We have come to see (if ever so shadowy) that there is a certain conception of God driving the shaping of these categories, and as a result there is an emphasis upon ‘performance’ in salvation placed upon the elect individual; of the sort that will lead elect people to attempt discern if they are truly one of the elect for who Christ has died. We have also come to see (with the help of Barth’s critique of Calvin) that the framework that DeYoung is operating under, relative to God, places the emphasis upon God’s choice of individual people for salvation, instead of placing the emphasis upon God’s personal choice to be elect for all of humanity in his own humanity in Jesus Christ; with the result of forcing the elect to continuously attempt to prove their salvation (and thus find assurance) through “1) personal belief, 2) personal obedience, and 3) personal morality.” So the emphasis, if all of this is the case, is upon introspection and what some have called ‘reflexive faith’ (i.e. looking at our good works, etc., and then looking to Christ and being able to attribute those good works, belief, morality to Christ’s life in us – thus what Muller identified for as the practical syllogism).

DeYoung has a history. It causes him to read I John a certain way. I have a history, an informing theology, and it causes me to read I John much differently. In the next post or whenever I have the chance, I will try to elucidate what my theology is, and why I think it better makes sense of a passage like I John, and how it handles the claims put to I John that make it sound like it supports a Puritan like doctrine of assurance.




[1] Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 268-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.


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.