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.

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