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:
- Calvin vs. Cunningham & Nicole
- Individuals or Classes? Calvin on 1Timothy 2:4-6
- The love of God for all men in Calvin's writings
- Calvin Extolling Universal Grace
- Nicole's critique of R. T. Kendall's view of history
- Nicole critiques Kendall's view of assurance
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.
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.