Monday, March 31, 2008

Does assurance of salvation come from self-examination?

Many in the reformed camp would have us know of our election from the process of self-examination. For example, Roger Nicole said:

universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me.

The difficulty is, of course, that any sensible person who contemplates his life with any degree of honesty will find his mind filled with doubt as to the possibility of his salvation. The problem is exacerbated by the thought, "I may be deceiving myself as to my faith in Christ." John MacArthur made much of this possibility of self-deception in a recent series of broadcast sermons. The possibility of self-deception is deeply embedded in our confessions:

Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation (which hope of theirs shall perish): yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.

Westminster Confession of Faith XVIII. 1.

How can I know that I'm not deceiving myself? Am I truly one of the elect? I examine my works, and though I may find reasons for hope, these reasons for hope are ... what? ... my own good works. Surely my good works are no grounds for hope of eternal salvation! And are not my good works (even the best of them) tainted with sin?

Some get over this problem of uneven performance of good works by pointing to a general tenor or course of progress in one's sanctification. Well, yes, but is my progress good enough? Am I self-deceived about my progress in sanctification or the general tenor of my life?

Can I know that I am elect?

R. T. Kendall points out that this problem dominates the reformed doctrine of faith. We who call ourselves reformed have that question constantly nagging at the back of our mind. That these questions do arise in our hearts, every Christian knows. Kendall cites the example of Mrs. Joan Drake, the wife of Sir Francis Drake.

In addition to having a series of maladies including "migraine, perpetual heartburn, and insomnia", Mrs. Drake became "melancholy, distempered, and erratic" and confided that she was not happily married. Mr. Drake was solicitous for her well-being but was unable to ameliorate her emotional state. Mrs. Drake had become convinced that her maladies were owing to her having committed the unpardonable sin and that she was among the number of the reprobate, incapable of changing her appointed state.

Over the next few years (c. 1620-5) several eminent divines were called in to help Mrs. Drake. The first was John Dod, "the fittest man known" to help her. When Dod arrived "she suddenly flung upstaires" and "shut her selfe in". She came out only after Mr. Drake threatened "to beat down the door". But Dod's prayers and counsel — which lasted a month — did not avail. He returned several times in the ensuing months, but Mrs. Drake remained convinced "shee was a damned Reprobate, must needs goe unto Hell to live for ever", that it was "in vaine, and too late for her to use any meanes" She wished Mr. Dod "to let her alone", for "the Decree of her rejection and damnation" was "past irrevocable"....

R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, 126-127, citing George H. Williams, "Called by Thy Name, Leave us Not: The Case of Mrs. Joan Drake," Harvard Library Bulletin (1968).

The case of Mrs. Drake is certainly an extreme one (or so we would tell ourselves) and she did eventually come to assurance of faith; but every Christian (especially Calvinists) who reads this will identify to at least a small degree with the doubts of Mrs. Drake. An honest examination of our good works will generally lead us to doubt our salvation. Some ministers are quite skilled at making Christians doubt their faith by calling on them to examine their works.

I'll conclude this tomorrow with the answer from Calvin.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

God's favor toward sinners - Calvin on Psalm 51:7

I was reading today in Calvin's commentary on Psalm 51:7 and found some words that strongly reminded me of Calvin's commentary on John 3:16. There Calvin says that "our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God." Here's the quote from Calvin's comment on the Psalm:

The truth is, that we cannot properly pray for the pardon of sin until we have come to a persuasion that God will be reconciled to us. Who can venture to open his mouth in God’s presence unless he be assured of his fatherly favor? And pardon being the first thing we should pray for, it is plain that there is no inconsistency in having a persuasion of the grace of God, and yet proceeding to supplicate his forgiveness.

John Calvin, Comment. Psalm 51:7.

This idea that faith sees God as propitious toward us — as pacified, as an indulgent father — is a strong one in Calvin's theology; it runs like a vein of silver through his teaching. You find it cropping up everywhere.

The liberals, perhaps, overemphasized the fatherly love of God to the exclusion of faith in Christ, but some modern evangelicals may have improperly downplayed the fatherly love of God in reaction to the liberals. Calvin is calling me back.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Is Universal Atonement Necessary for Assurance?

I continue my critique of Roger Nicole's answer to R. T. Kendall's important work on Calvin's doctrine of faith. You can look at previous blog entries in this series to gain some context:

Kendall held that Calvin could not have taught limited atonement because of the strong connection that Calvin saw between the atonement as a testimony of God's love, and the corresponding assurance men can have of God's love. Indeed, for Calvin, this objective assurance of God's love is the essence of faith as well as the grounds of subjective assurance of forgiveness of sins.

Roger Nicole challenged Kendall's idea, asserting that there is no strong connection between universal atonement and assurance of salvation.

The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.

Nicole, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197 at 204-205.

We have already seen in previous blog entries that Calvin did believe, as Kendall pointed out, that the sending of Christ as the atonement for sins was the highest testimony of God's love for man. Thus whether Nicole's argument objecting to the connection between atonement and assurance is valid, Calvin evidently believed the connection and Kendall was right to point it out.

But I wish now to move to a consideration of the logic of Nicole's argument.

Is universal atonement necessary for assurance?

First we need to make sure we understand what assurance refers to. For Calvin, assurance is assurance of God's love, not assurance of one's own salvation.

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Institutes, 3.2.7

Consider that statement again. Faith is firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us. For Calvin, this assurance of divine favor is of the essence of faith. And this assurance of divine favor comes from the testimony of God himself.

It were presumptuous in us to hold that God is propitious to us, had we not his own testimony, and did he not prevent us by his invitation, which leaves no doubt or uncertainty as to his will. It has already been seen that Christ is the only pledge of love....

ibid. Thus God has given us his assurance of his love for us, the testimony being Christ himself, and this testimony is the foundation for our faith.

Nicole's argument on assurance

Nicole says that universal atonement is not necessary to assurance:

It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me.

Thus, Nicole would have us look to how the work of Christ has affected me before I can have assurance. Notice that this is a different logical order from Calvin. Calvin has assurance of God's love logically prior (in order of causation) to faith, and Nicole has faith (i.e., Christ's work has affected me ... presumably in regeneration and sanctification) prior to assurance. This ought to give us a clue that Nicole is speaking of a different assurance than Calvin. Calvin is speaking of the certainty of God's interest in me, whereas Nicole is speaking of the certainty of my interest in God. We could object to Nicole's argument at this point as being irrelevant to Calvin's and Kendall's thesis. He's simply not on the same page.

But let's assume that the difference in senses of assurance that Calvin and Nicole is merely semantic. There is a more important objection here, and that is that Nicole would drive us inward to seek assurance. Assurance is possible by knowing how Christ's work has affected me. Some theologians speak of the practical syllogism, which might look something like this:

Major Premise: Only true believers manifest the fruits of sanctification.
Minor Premise:I see the fruits of sanctification in my life.
Conclusion: Therefore, I may be assured that I have a saving faith.

Do you see how in this way of looking at things, assurance comes from looking at oneself? In Calvin's way, assurance comes not from looking at oneself, but from looking at Christ. The difference here is referred to as the difference between assurance based on a direct act of faith or assurance based on a reflex act of faith. The direct act of faith looks directly to Christ, the reflex act of faith looks to the fruits of salvation in oneself.

Calvin taught that we cannot look to ourselves for assurance.

For there is no where such a fear of God as can give full security, and the saints are always conscious that any integrity which they may possess is mingled with many remains of the flesh. But as the fruits of regeneration furnish them with a proof of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, experiencing God to be a Father in a matter of so much moment, they are strengthened in no slight degree to wait for his assistance in all their necessities. Even this they could not do, had they not previously perceived that the goodness of God is sealed to them by nothing but the certainty of the promise. Should they begin to estimate it by their good works, nothing will be weaker or more uncertain; works, when estimated by themselves, no less proving the divine displeasure by their imperfection, than his good-will by their incipient purity. In short, while proclaiming the mercies of the Lord, they never lose sight of his free favor, with all its “breadth and length, and depth and height"....

Institutes 3.14.19. If we had no objective assurance of God's universal love for men, we would have no other place to look than to our own sanctification. Nicole would have us look there for assurance, while Calvin says "nothing will be weaker or more uncertain."

The problem, of course, is that if Christ did not die for some men — if for some men Christ's death promises nothing — then how am I to know of the divine favor? Since Christ's death is the highest testimony of God's love, then if that testimony is diminished by the possibility that it is not for me, then I am deprived of the highest objective assurance of that love. I am indeed left to examine my own works for assurance.

Calvin would not have us look to ourselves, but to Christ. As Calvin admits in 3.2.24, "If you look to yourself damnation is certain...."

How might we feel the certainty of our salvation? Not in ourselves, but only in Christ:

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.

Institutes 3.24.5