The assurance of salvation

A Calvinistic approach to certainty

David R. Bickel
March 4, 2005; later changes noted in addenda

From the fact that only those who have experienced rebirth have eternal life, many Christians have wrongly concluded that their assurance of having eternal life should come by recalling such an experience or the resulting change in life. Such confidence is shaky and inconsistent at best since it relies on human memory, strength of faith, and sincerity of repentance rather than on God alone. The believer's confidence only has its intended strength when grounded solely on the infallible promises and oath of God (Heb. 6:17-20).

The Reformers Luther and Calvin recognized that looking to Christ's atonement, resurrection, and promises brings much more assurance than would ever be possible by looking for his work inside the Christian. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church still rightly emphasizes the Reformation teaching that biblical assurance results from depending on God's objective promises rather than on any subjective experiences. Unfortunately, many of the Puritan followers of Calvin have strayed from their Reformed heritage in meticulously seeking evidence in themselves that they truly have experienced regeneration. (This occurs today, for example, when the Apostle John's first epistle is taken as a handbook on how an individual can have assurance of eternal life rather than as a letter to encourage a church troubled by apostates who claimed special knowledge of God divorced from obeying him. John in effect said members of the church, not the heretics who left the church, are the ones with true knowledge of God.) Also in the Reformed tradition, Charles Hodge sought to correct this Puritan approach to assurance:

...what the penitent sinner believes is, that God for Christ's sake is reconciled to him. It may be with a very dim and doubtful vision, he apprehends that truth; but that is the truth on which his trust is stayed... The faith by which a believer lives [Gal. 2:20], is not specifically different in its nature or object from the faith required of every man in order to his salvation... It will not assume that the Apostle argued himself into the conviction that Christ loved him. Christ specially loves all who believe upon him. I believe upon him. Therefore Christ specially loves me. But a conclusion reached by argument is not an object of faith. Faith must rest on the testimony of God... God accepts those who can only say, "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief"... Many sincere believers are too introspective. They look too exclusively within, so that their hope is graduated by the degree of evidence of regeneration which they find in their own experience. This, except in rare cases, can never lead to the assurance of hope. We may examine our hearts with all the microscopic care prescribed by President [Jonathan] Edwards in his work on "The Religious Affections," and never be satisfied that we have eliminated every ground of misgiving and doubt. The grounds of assurance are not so much within, as without us. Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, III, pp. 101-104, 106-107

He went on to encourage simple faith, not in faith, but in such promises as those of John 6:37, Rom. 8, and Rev. 22:17 ("...let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price"). Thus, reading, hearing, and meditating on the gospel brings assurance, not because one's discipline or love for God's word is looked to as evidence of salvation, but because Jesus creates, sustains, and strengthens faith through his "words of eternal life" (John 6:63-68). (As visible representations of this good news, the sacraments also can build confidence by pointing outside the believer, to Christ himself.) Only such trust in him for forgiveness leads to Christian gratitude, peace, and love for the Lord:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "Say it, Teacher." "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)

Addendum of 9/30/06. With the exceptions of the subtitle added today and of the hyperlink in "can build confidence," the [above] essay was written shortly before I came to understand the fundamental difference between Lutheran and Reformed approaches to the assurance of justification. Although the Puritan uncertainty mentioned indeed departs from Calvin's emphasis, it necessarily results from his doctrine of limited atonement. Thus, the early Puritan teaching that the promises of the gospel are conditional on internal evidences of election (Westminster Confession of Faith 18.2) is a logical consequence of the Calvinistic system. As mentioned in the essay, Charles Hodge criticized excessive introspection that resulted from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, who, ironically, had criticized excessive introspection of his own day. Unfortunately, their quest for a non-subjective basis for assurance was rendered futile by their theological system, which prevented them from simply resting in the external promise of the gospel, that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2; cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-6).

Addendum of 10/11/06. This essay was first posted on 3/4/05 in its current form, except for the changes noted in the addendum of 9/30/06. Thus, the essay appeared just prior to the observation that the Puritans deviated not as much from Calvin ("their Reformed heritage") as from Luther.

Addendum of 10/12/07. The addenda were moved to the bottom and the subtitle ("Calvinistic longing for Lutheran certainty") was changed; note the double entendre in the new subtitle. The link to and text associated with the Vos quote (The importance of the assurance of hope to evangelism) was removed, and the link to a PDF Reformed/Lutheran comparison chart was added.

Addendum of 2/25/12. The broken LCMS link of "biblical assurance" was changed to a valid Agapē Enthroned link. Another Agapē Enthroned link was added to "the Apostle John's first epistle."

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