In my previous post I summarized the conclusions of Keith Stanglin in his recent book Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609. In this post, I want to offer an extended theological comment on the nature of assurance for Calvinists and Arminians. I will indulge this for one post before I move on to more personal concerns next week with the anniversary of my first wife’s death on the horizon (April 30). Your comments–even disagreements (surely there will be none, however )–are welcome.
My basic opinion is that in practice Calvinists and Arminians experience assurance by the same means. At one level they both claim the same objective grounds–the promise, love, mercy and grace of God (that is, that Christ died for us) and they claim the same basic subjective evidences–faith, fruit of sanctification, religious experience, etc (that is, the work of the Spirit in the believer). The epistemology of present assurance (how do I know I am saved?) is answered with the same kinds of words, expressions and evidences. At root, both Calvinists and Arminians are assured by grace through faith.
It seems to me that this is an arena in which Calvinists and Arminians can acknowledge common ground. It is in the theory that they differ–and theories that often operate at inferential levels rather than with the plain statements of Scripture. I would rather we speak of assurance through faith than drawing out inferences to “make sense” of that assurance in the light of our theories. But, alas, our historical situation does not permit–so it seems–a unity at the pragmatic level of faith but we feel the incessant need to debate the theories as well. Nevertheless, this is where I tend to concentrate my thought and practice.
But–to speak of theories –my further opinion is that Arminians have a better theological ground for assurance than Calvinists. Or, perhaps to put it another way, Calvinists–in my opinion–obscure their assurance with a speculative doctrine of election that entails a postulate of “temporary faith” (Jean Calvin, Institutes 3.2.11; comment on Matthew 13:20 in his Harmony of the Evangelists). This notion salvages the Reformed doctrine of election from shipwreck on the rocks of those who lose their faith (a reality that we know from both Scripture and experience). It seems necessary to Calvinists–given the doctrine of election–to postulate that those who lose their faith never had authentic faith in the first place. And, in fact, there are some people who apparently never really did have faith (cf. 1 John 2), but that does not mean that everyone who loses faith never had authentic faith unless we are protecting, as in Reformed theology, a particular understanding of the doctrine of election or seeking to harmonize that reality with a particular interpretation of a text.
That is fine as far as a logical move to seek harmony among various texts of Scripture. But the problem becomes how is one sure whether they have “temporary faith” or have “authentic faith”? Those who have temporary faith believe they have authentic faith–they can’t see a difference. For example, I remember a conversation with a friend at Westminster about a mutual friend who had lost their faith. My friend thought it was an example of “temporary faith” (or temporary loss that would later appear again in perseverance) but it puzzled me that our mutual friend when he believed really thought he did believe. By all appearances and, according to his own confession (unless he was dishonest), he fully embraced the gospel in heart and soul.
How can those who have authentic faith know their faith is authentic when those who have temporary faith think they have authentic faith? It is in this context that the doctrine of election is controlling how we think about assurance and faith. It introduces a reason for doubt in the minds of believers. And this is not a doubt about the subjective evidences of their faith, but a theological doubt rooted in a theological theory that undercuts the objective ground of assurance itself. Because, if they have “temporary faith,” then God does not really love them, that is, he has not chosen (elected) them.
It seems to me better ground to say that God loves all, seeks the salvation of all, and that no one should doubt that Christ died for them and that God desires their salvation. Faith is trusting the love of God in Christ and knowing, by God’s own declaration, that Christ died for all and that God has salvific intent for me. I don’t have to know whether I am one of the elect to trust the word of God that Christ died for me, but rather through faith in God’s work for me in Christ I know that I am one of the elect. And I don’t have to wonder whether I am one of those who will eventually “go out” because I never really was one of the faithful. Instead, through faith I know I am one for whom Christ died and there is no necessity to entertain a theological doubt about “temporary faith.”
Now I believe Calvinists can mitigate this idea of “temporary faith” with Calvin’s own notion that the assurance of salvation is the assurance of election. But this places the mode of assurance in the same frame as Arminians themselves. We know our election through our present faith in Christ and not the reverse. Consequently, it seems to me that however one views election it does not have a telling effect on one’s assurance unless one places the doubt of “temporary faith” in the mind of the believer in order to protect a doctrine of election.
Assurance is faith in Christ; united with Christ we are assured our of salvation and we are united to him through faith. Here Calvinist and Arminian can stand on common ground with common faith: we are both saved by grace through faith. Even though I think Arminianism holds a better theory of assurance than Calvinism, I readily acknowledge that both access assurance by the same means: trust in the work of God for us and bearing the fruit of the Spirit’s work in our lives.
But I am an Arminian–as much as I can use categories of myself (in my opinion one who says they are neither or they transcend the discussion doesn’t really understand Arminianism or Calvinism–but that is just my opinion ). Consequently, according to my “theory,” I believe my present faith assures me because I know Christ died for me whereas the present faith of Calvinists logically wonders whether their experience of faith is actually temporary faith which contains no assurance that Christ died for them. So, in that sense, I know that Christ died for me and through present faith I experience his love, but Calvinists are potentially uncertain whether Christ died for them because ultimately they do not know whether their faith is temporary or not until it perseveres to the end. Only in the perseverance of faith are Calvinists assured. And only through present faith and its perseverance are Arminians assured. The two stand, pragmatically, on the same ground–we are saved by grace through faith.