The “P” in TULIP

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.



11 Responses to “The “P” in TULIP”

  1.   Tim Archer Says:

    Very interesting. I’d never really looked at it in this way, especially the role of correct understanding in the concept of assurance.

    I’d be interested to hear a Calvinist’s thoughts on your post; maybe someone will comment.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  2. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I could tell you have Calvinists how generally responded when I am in dialogue with them on this point.

    For example, one friend (as do many Calvinists) rooted his assurance in the “testimony of the Spirit” or an inner witness. This is gives certainty about their election or about future assurance. However, those with “temporary faith” have also testified to this same assurance from the Spirit and apparently they were self-deceived. How does anyone know they are not self-deceived?

    I would suggest that a willingness to seek God is something we can know in our own heart by the grace of the Spirit and that this willingness is itself an expression of faith. We are assured through faith, our present trust–not because our faith is so grand but because the object of our faith is.

  3.   phil Says:

    How does a Calvinists and an Arminian deal with Judas? Did Jesus see him as one who was elect or as someone who thought he was elect, but was never really? Or was he elect, but lost his election?

    Phil

  4.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    Faith as being trust.
    Peter tells us why to trust in God.
    Stephen tells us why to trust in God.
    Paul tells us wanting to trust in God.

    Faith is the evidence of things hoped for.
    The substance of things not seen.
    This gospel of God is all rooted in the Old Testament promises fulfilled by God, to the rock, Christ.
    Because of this evidence of Scripture.
    I have bedrock on which my faith trust stands.
    heb11
    at that point the framework of the gospel of Christ takes over .
    Matthew 28. 18…
    which gives glory to God as I humbly submit to the divine nature, as commanded by the Christ.
    And thus becoming faithful to the way.

    This faith trust in Christ, for what it’s worth, in my opinion, leads to nothing more than mere statistical morality based in a statistical ethic.

    Which I define as a corporate ethic, or social ethic,
    based on expediency surrounded by a principle of the compromising of the holy nature as expressed by Scripture.
    Hence we don’t throw out the net of love to capture the souls of men in the manner that we are required to.
    And I would say that this is based in a conspiracy of ignorance that is based in principle of “faith trust”.
    The divine nature calls us to sanctification based in action producing the fruit of that nature.

    I would think the reason that Jesus told the Pharisees you do well in all of this although you miss Weightier matters, of justice and mercy of God. which is expressed in the divine nature of Christ”s “faith trust” in God as a faithful servant to the will of God that he was.

    Blessings John Mark
    Rich in California

  5.   Randall Says:

    Grace and peace to you, John Mark. I appreciate your posts. It will come as no surprise to you that I have been an off and on student of the doctrines of sovereign grace for a good while.
    Additionally I have been an off and on student of church history in general, and the Stone-Campbell movement in particular, even longer. Of course, I was born and raised in the C of C almost 60 years ago. I assume that is obvious.

    “Speculative Theology” – interesting term. I believe Stone used it to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity, among other things. No doubt Jewell Miller would have agreed. We both grew up on his film strips and I suspect we both have a similar opinion of the theology expressed therein.

    Like Calvinism in general, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is the worst of all possible understanding of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit; with the exception of all other understandings of the nature of that relationship. I am not ready to stand with Stone that that is merely “speculative” and I doubt you are either. Feel free to correct me if I am mistaken as sometimes I assume too much.

    I do think that combating a doctrine on the basis that it is speculative is not always the best way to deal with the issue. And I think that may have application to the previous discussion of the Calvinism – Arminianism discussion. What do you think?

    Are you saying that a Christian cannot have assurance of salvation because it is to some degree subjective and introspective? Do you think this is what the scriptures teach?

    I do not believe my salvation is assured because of anything other than the power and desire of God, regardless of how well I understand all that He does for me. I may be (certainly am) confused in much of my thinking. However, my only hope, and I believe it is a sure hope, of salvation is that God will see me though. I have absoluutely no confidence in my own ability to perservere. I trust only in Him who is able to perfect/complete what He started in me.

    How else shall I go? “There is now no condemnation …” and “Nothing shall separate me from the love of God …”

    Grace and peace,
    Randall

  6.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Interesting thoughts from you and others who comment. I especially appreciate and agree with your thoughts about the uncertainty of our subjective reading of “signs” to give us assurance of election. I think our certainty is based on something much stronger – God’s promise and his oath.

    My earthly father has few worldly goods to leave me as an inheritance. I am confident that he will leave me what he can. Yes, I realize that technically I could go crazy, rebel against him and therefore be “disinherited.” However, I have absolutely no plans to do so and therefore am completely confident of receiving my “inheritance.” How much more I can be assured of my heavenly father’s inheritance! The fact that technically I have the free will to rebel and lose the inheritance doesn’t diminish my assurance of salvation. Just as I cannot envision myself rebelling against my earthly father, with God’s help neither can I contemplate such with him.

  7.   jprapp Says:

    Thanks for the summaries here and in previous posts on shared grounds between Calvinist-Arminian camps.

    Do you know of any societies, filial bodies, or maybe formal schools or informal haunts for those who judge themselves neither Calvinist nor Arminian? – that is, other than liberal confessional bodies (say UCC), or non-creedal families (Baptists, Disciples, Quakers) who fudge Calvinist-Arminian contentions in vagary or neglect?

    Cheers,

    Jim

  8. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Phil, Calvinists generally would suggest that Judas never was elect even though he was counted among the disciples. He had a temporary faith at best. Arminians would suggest that perhaps Judas was a true disciple who gave into Satan’s designs or perhaps was never really committed to the way of Jesus. We cannot discern Judas’ internal movements of faith or unbelief. But what we do know is that he did not persevere in faith and this is something upon which Arminian and Calvinist can agree.

  9. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Randall,

    I said in my post that I do believe we can experience assurance, but this assurance is known through faith because of the object of our faith and not because of the degree and quality of our introspection (or the level of our achievement, for example).

    As to “speculative,” I am referring to what is hidden and not what is revealed. We cannot find common ground with other believers on the ground of what is hidden nor live out our faith on speculative (theoretical) grounds. Rather, we seek to understand what is revealed.

    Some believe Calvinism, Arminianism or Trinitarianism makes the most sense of what is revealed. I myself would agree basically with Arminians and Trinitarians, but I think there is a more basic and practical common ground on the basis of what is revealed than the embrace of these systematic understandings of what is revealed. In other words, I don’t think one has to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian or even a Trinitarian to trust in Christ and experience assurance. But as we seek to understand what is revealed so as to become better disciples of Jesus and to devote ourselves to what is good we may come to see one of these as more helpful toward that goal as it makes the most sense of what is revealed–at least to our feeble minds.

  10. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Jim,

    There is a whole continum of views that run from Calvinism on one end to Pelagianism on the other end. One perspective, which I hope to address soon in a post, is that of the Grace Evangelical Society (http://www.gracealone.org) which affirms neither Calvinism nor Arminianism but believes a mixture of the two of some sort. Their main position–in terms of comparing the two–is that believers are eternally secure even if they do not persevere in faith. Dallas Theological Seminary would be a major institutional representation of this position and many Baptist churches and minsiters would hold a similar position (including Charles Stanley).

  11.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    In other words, I don’t think one has to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian or even a Trinitarian to trust in Christ and experience assurance. But as we seek to understand what is revealed so as to become better disciples of Jesus and to devote ourselves to what is good we may come to see one of these as more helpful toward that goal as it makes the most sense of what is revealed–at least to our feeble minds.

    Well said John Mark

    As we seek a more fluid dynamic in expressing the fundamentals, we must be diligent and ride roughshod over the doctrine that we have come to accept. We need to pray for insight and ask our like-minded brethren for help.

    In an honest and sincere search to express the love of Christ to the glory of our father. We all have a blind spot’s. Conceptual blind spots
    we all know that we’re all not right in one way or another. This phrase right here is what I consider to be a conceptual blind spot. Notice that I didn’t say we know that we’re all wrong in one way or another

    Blessings rich in California

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