All who persevere in faith are elect.
Both Calvinists and Arminians can agree with the above statement. For the Calvinist, those who do not persevere in faith, though they at one time seemingly had faith, never possessed authentic faith in the first place (e.g., Calvin’s own example is Simon Magus in Acts 8). For the Arminian, those who do not persevere in faith lost their faith as a result of trials and temptations (e.g., the weeds that choked new faith in the parable of the sower is a favorite Arminian example). Whatever the theoretical rationale for the lack of perseverance–for the Calvinist it is because they are not elect and for the Arminians it because they did not continue to cooperate with God’s enabling grace–the two theologies converge on the first sentence of this post. Only those who persevere in faith are elect and all the elect will persevere in faith.
What the Calvinist claims, seeking to trump the Arminian position, is that the Calvinist’s assurance is greater than the Arminian’s because their assurance is more certain. It is more certain because they are perservere since they are elect rather than merely elect through the perseverance of faith. For the Calvinist, the elect persevere because they are elect while for the Arminian faith is the means of election. Consequently, Calvinists tend to say that they have assurance (certainty) about the future while Arminians have only a weak hope (possibility) in the present.
But I don’t buy this. Calvinists know that many who seemed to have authentic faith did not persevere. Calvin spoke of those who had “temporary faith” (Institutes, 3.2.11). God indeed enlightened them for a moment but then withdrew his light because they were not elect (Institutes, 3.24.8). This creates the epistemological problem of how one knows whether they have authentic faith or only temporary faith since even those with temporary faith think they have authentic faith.
Calvin’s response was that those with authentic faith have “signs” that are “sure attestations” to saving faith (Institutes, 3.24.4). One of the “signs” is itself perseverance, according to Calvin, along with others. However, I find this deeply problematic. How does one read the signs and what are the indubitable signs? There must be indubitable signs if assurance is certain. How do I know that I don’t have a merely temporary faith? Calvin suggests that those who “investigate [the word] rightly, and in the order in which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation” (Institutes, 3.24.4). Assurance, then, depends upon a correct reading of the word (recognizing the signs) and a honest application of those signs to individual believer (is there room for self-deception here?). Assurance, then, in Calvin’s system depends upon a human understanding and application of the word to their own specific situation in order to discern whether they have saving faith.
Paul Helm, a renowned Reformed philosophical theologian, illustrates the core problem, it seems to me. He writes: “So it would appear that a person may be a true believer and yet not be assured that he is one, because he has misunderstood the signs. Similarly, a person may not be a true believer, but may think that he is, because he has misread the signs.” This seems to make assurance dependent upon correct (right) understanding. It becomes an intellectual assessment–it is a human act. Misunderstanding can destroy assurance–even in a Calvinist theological system. So, even though Calvinists might suggest that they are elect by eternal decree, the assurance of their election is dependent upon human epistemology. This seems ironic, does it not? In other words, God elects people solely by his grace and irresistibly gives them faith, but believers can only be sure they have authentic faith by their own human assessment of the signs present in them.
My point is not that we cannot have assurance. To the contrary, I believe we are assured through faith. Rather, my point is that the Calvinist has no more present or future assurance than does the Arminian because Calvinists cannot be certain that their faith is saving except in the same way that Arminians are certain that their faith is saving.
I would agree with Calvin on the most significant point. We are assured through faith–as we trust in Christ he mirrors our gracious election by the Father. Through the power of the Spirit we trust in Jesus as our redeemer and experience union with him. Faith is the means of assurance–upon this both Calvinist and Arminian can agree. We can know we are saved and we know this through faith, even a weak faith. Further, I would suggest it is not fundamentally a matter of human understanding but the experience of trust in the one who saves.
Here, then, is the practical common ground between Arminians and Calvinists–all who persevere in faith are elect.
In another post I will comment more another perspective that is dominant in many faith communities which is neither Arminian nor Calvinist–it is the view of “eternal secruity,” or “once saved, always saved,” or “if one has ever believed even though they no longer believe, they are yet saved.” Both Calvinist and Arminian agree that all the elect will persevere in faith but this novel perspective (it is only 150 years old) does not believe perseverance is necessary or a means to salvation. More to come on that perspective in the near future.