Friday, April 04, 2008

Does assurance of salvation come from self-examination? Conclusion

This is the conclusion of the previous blog post on the necessity of universal atonement to assurance of salvation. I offer this post with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. I feel certain of my ground in the reading of Calvin, but I stand open to correction on the radical implications this could have for the doctrine of faith. If Kendall is right (and I am inclined to think he is), Calvin's doctrine of faith has been seriously mauled by subsequent developments in protestant Christianity. I offer this for your consideration, but I urge a degree of caution in reading. Take what I say here with a grain of salt as it applies to the Christian doctrine of faith.

Is it possible to know one is saved? That is the question that all Christians desire to know the answer to. For Calvin, certainty was not only possible, it is the essence of saving faith. For Calvin, doubt is a species of unbelief. This is because faith does not look to self, but to Christ alone.

First, we should see that for Calvin, we see certainty of our salvation — of our election — only in Christ Jesus.

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. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. Moreover, he admitted us to sure communion with himself, when, by the preaching of the gospel, he declared that he was given us by the Father, to be ours with all his blessings (Rom_8:32). We are said to be clothed with him, to be one with him, that we may live, because he himself lives. The doctrine is often repeated, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Joh_3:16). He who believes in him is said to have passed from death unto life (Joh_5:24). In this sense he calls himself the bread of life, of which if a man eat, he shall never die (Joh_6:35). He, I say, was our witness, that all by whom he is received in faith will be regarded by our heavenly Father as sons. If we long for more than to be regarded as sons of God and heirs, we must ascend above Christ. But if this is our final goal, how infatuated is it to seek out of him what we have already obtained in him, and can only find in him?

Institutes 3.24.5. Christ is the "mirror" in which we may, without deception, "contemplate our election." Can we contemplate our election by looking to ourselves? No. Thus, for Calvin, assurance could never be gained by self-examination.

Were we to look to ourselves for certainty of our salvation, we could have no certainty at all. In fact, one would see only damnation. Here Calvin disputes with "certain semi-papists" who would say that the Christian can have no certainty of his election, compounding a "mixture of faith and unbelief."

They tell you, if you look to Christ salvation is certain; if you return to yourself damnation is certain. Therefore, your mind must be alternately ruled by diffidence and hope; as if we were to imagine Christ standing at a distance, and not rather dwelling in us. We expect salvation from him - not because he stands aloof from us, but because ingrafting us into his body he not only makes us partakers of all his benefits, but also of himself. Therefore, I thus retort the argument, If you look to yourself damnation is certain: but since Christ has been communicated to you with all his benefits, so that all which is his is made yours, you become a member of him, and hence one with him. His righteousness covers your sins - his salvation extinguishes your condemnation; he interposes with his worthiness, and so prevents your unworthiness from coming into the view of God. Thus it truly is. It will never do to separate Christ from us, nor us from him; but we must, with both hands, keep firm hold of that alliance by which he has riveted us to himself.

Institutes 3.2.24. And if one thinks about it, how could it be otherwise? When we are yet unjustified, can we come to Christ looking to our own works for some assurance of God's favor? Certainly not. And by the same token, how could we have assurance by looking at our works after salvation? Because our works are better?

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,” testified by Paul (Eph_3:18); as if he had said, Whithersoever the believer turns, however loftily he climbs, however far and wide his thoughts extend, he must not go farther than the love of Christ, but must be wholly occupied in meditating upon it, as including in itself all dimensions.

Institutes 3.14.19. We are, to be sure, strengthened by the "fruits of regeneration," but only because they furnish proof of "the Holy Spirit dwelling in them," and "experiencing God to be a Father," not contemplating the good works in themselves, or commending our consciences before God by virtue of our good works. The grounds of assurance, for Calvin, must always be found in the favor of God given to us by his free promise of salvation in Christ. Works may confirm our faith, but only because and insofar as they assure us of God's free favor. Were we to contemplate the works by themselves or in themselves, they would surely rob us of all assurance.

But what of the scriptures that speak of gaining assurance by self-examination? R. T. Kendall addresses this question.

The later distinction between faith and assurance seems never to have entered Calvin's mind. Assurance to Calvin comes by what would later be called the direct act of faith.

* * *

What Calvin does not do, then, is to urge men to make their calling and election sure to themselves. He thinks Christ's death is a sufficient pledge and merely seeing Him is assuring. Never does he employ 2 Peter 1:10 in connection with seeking assurance of salvation. He regards 2 Peter generally as an encouragement "to make proof" of one's calling "by godly living" and 2 Peter 1:10 particularly as an argument that our election is to be "confirmed" by a good conscience and an upright life". It should be noted moreover that Calvin does not link this verse to the conscience in terms of deducing assurance of salvation.

"This assurance of which Peter speaks should not, in my opinion, be referred to conscience, as though the faithful acknowledged themselves before God to be elect and called. I take it simply of the fact itself, that calling is shown to be confirmed by a holy life."

R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 25, citing Calvin, Comm. 2 Peter Preface and 2 Peter 1:10, footnotes omitted. It should be noted that the Baker edition of Calvin's Commentary on 2 Peter has for the above quote, "At the same time, this certainty, mentioned by Peter, ought, I think, to be referred to the conscience...," which is 180 degrees wrong. The Latin confirms the Torrence edition's translation.

Would we have assurance of salvation? For Calvin, Christ alone is "is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election."

11 comments:

HonestSeeker89 said...

Steve, good post. I think Calvin is wrong on this one, though. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to "Test Themselves" to see if they have faith. Evidently it was not something that was obvious.

Also, James rebukes people who were saying that they had faith but no works. These people thought they had faith! But James informs them that if faith doesn't produce works, it is dead.

I can see the danger if MacArthur's view(that's what I'll call it for now) of assurance is taken too far. It could easily become introspective.

A lot to think on here!

Todd said...

I agree with you Steve. Christ alone is the assurance of salvation, not self-examination. Eventually one comes back to Arminian trumpets "well look at my faith and humility, look at my fruit." That is certainly not what the professing theif on the cross would have been doing.

Steve said...

Hi honestseeker ... thanks for your comment. I understand the call for us to examine ourselves; but do we examine ourselves for assurance or for some other purpose? And if we examine ourselves for assurance, do we examine our good works or our sole reliance upon Christ? I think some have led us to connect examination of works with assurance, and perhaps they have been careless in the connection. That's my thought for now, anyway. I will be continuing my study of this subject, and I appreciate your interest.

Steve

Steve said...

Hi Todd. Thanks for your comment. It is ironic, is it not, that the self-examination for assurance reminds us of Arminianism? It surely does, but one wonders why Reformed preachers and writers call us away from a contemplation of Christ to a contemplation of ourselves for assurance. What changes between then and now?

Thanks for your thought.

Steve

Sean Gerety said...

Interesting posts. I wonder if some of your own universalism mitigates against the very doctrine of assurance you are advancing?

For example, I would agree that the "grounds of assurance . . . must always be found in the favor of God given to us by his free promise of salvation in Christ."

The problem is if Christ's death procured the atonement of the sins of all, yet some still go to hell, i.e., their sins remain unatoned for despite the universalists claim to the contrary, then doesn't that make "the promise of salvation in Christ" somewhat dubious?

And, if dubious, then what happens to the assurance that you say should result from this promise?

Steve said...

Thanks for your comment, Sean. If Christ died only for the elect in every relevant sense, then I cannot know if my sins are atoned for. But if Christ died for all, then I can know at least that God has good intentions for my eternal well-being, and he has made a provision that covers me.

You ask whether trusting in such a provision, which saves some and doesn't save others is a reasonable thing to do. I mean ... it was made for many who are not ultimately saved. So I might trust in something that doesn't save me as it hasn't saved others.

But what of those who are not saved? Did those folks come to Christ? Do they rely on Christ? Have they "closed with Christ?" No? Then they have no assurance precisely because they seek none.

But how about those who, in Christ, do see God as an indulgent father (Calvin's expression)? How about those who have embraced Christ in the gospel? Who have believed? Can they know they are saved by a sacrifice that covers all but does not save all?

What reason could they have to doubt that God will save them? Do they doubt the faithfulness of God's promise? Do they doubt the power of Christ's work? They come to God, who has promised, in Christ, to save them. What reason could they have to doubt God's promise? That God might not be pacified by Christ's work? The thought is laughable.

To doubt the saving power of Christ's sacrifice (or the willingness of God to save those who come to Christ) is precisely that quality that Calvin would call unbelief. I would too.

YnottonY said...

Sean Gerety said...

"For example, I would agree that the "grounds of assurance . . . must always be found in the favor of God given to us by his free promise of salvation in Christ."

Me now:

Do you think the non-elect can have any sense of assurance, i.e., confidence that God loves them, wills their salvation, and is prepared to forgive them by virtue of what Christ has done? Or do you deny that God loves the non-elect such that he wills their salvation?

Sean said:

"The problem is if Christ's death procured the atonement of the sins of all, yet some still go to hell, i.e., their sins remain unatoned for despite the universalists claim to the contrary, then doesn't that make "the promise of salvation in Christ" somewhat dubious?"

Me now:

I don't know what you mean by "procured the atonement." Sometimes people use the term "atonement" to reference Christ's satisfaction itself (Shedd for example), and other people use it to reference the forgiveness of sins (R. L. Dabney). Steve and I would say that Christ's death sufficiently satisfies all that the law requires of one and every sinner alike, but no one is forgiven merely by the shedding of His blood. So, those who finally perish are "atoned for" in the sense that Christ suffered sufficiently in their stead, but they are not absolutely promised forgiveness just because He died for them. The promise is conditional such that one is forgiven only through faith alone in His blood provision. Because there is a sufficient blood provision for all, "the promise of salvation in Christ" is not dubious for anyone. All men can be assured that God seriously wills their salvation through the gospel offer on condition of faith and repentance. When a man (who has heard the gospel) goes to hell, it not on account of an insufficient satisfaction, but because he fails to meet the condition. Further, because God did provide a means whereby they could be saved, they have the greater condemnation. If they were not satisfied for, then they could not be doubly culpable. They cannot be further condemned for rejecting what was never theirs to begin with.

Sean said:

"And, if dubious, then what happens to the assurance that you say should result from this promise?"

Me now:

We reject the notion that the promise is in fact dubious for the above stated reasons. On the contrary, we would say that the strictly limited advocates have nothing to offer the non-elect in the gospel offer. In fact, if one denies that God wills the salvation of any of the non-elect according to his revealed will, then no one can be assured of God's desire to save them unless they first figure out if they are one of the elect.

YnottonY said...

My final sentence would have been better put this way:

In fact, if one denies that God wills the salvation of everyone (including the non-elect) according to God's revealed will in the gospel, then no one can be assured of God's desire to save them unless they first figure out that they are one of the elect through the labyrinth of a completely subjective process of introspection.

Sean Gerety said...

But what of those who are not saved? Did those folks come to Christ? Do they rely on Christ? Have they "closed with Christ?" No? Then they have no assurance precisely because they seek none.

Thanks for your reply Steve. While I haven't read it yet, I see you're comparing my position with that of Roger Nicole. Off the cuff I would say thanks. Good company I should say. :)

But, I think you make my point in a roundabout way and bring out more of what I was driving at.

Your originial argument on assurance rests on the favor or mercy of God and the promise of salvation in Christ. No problem.

Now take the flip side of your remarks above. The converse is that our assurance is found in the subjective proposition that we have in fact come to Christ, rely on Him and that we've "closed" with him. My assurance is based on something *I* have done and that *I* continue to do just as much as if I were to look to my own "good works" and progress in sanctification for my assurance.

Your universalism necessarily implies that it's not what Christ has done that saves me, but rather it is what *I* have done and how *I* respond -- and continue to respond -- to what Christ has done for everyone that saves me. It necessarily follows that Christ's death didn't really save me, since it is my response to what Christ has done that saves me.

Consequently, you're back contemplating your bellybutton again rather than resting on the promises of Christ your Savior who completely accomplished your salvation completely outside of yourself and on a cross some 2k years ago.

Sean Gerety said...

Do you think the non-elect can have any sense of assurance, i.e., confidence that God loves them, wills their salvation, and is prepared to forgive them by virtue of what Christ has done?

I don't see how the non-elect can have any confidence in God's love for them if they are non-elect. Also, the better question is not does God "will" their salvation, but rather did God accomplish their salvation?

Or do you deny that God loves the non-elect such that he wills their salvation?

God wills the salvation of all those He saves. Not sure how this touches on the subject at hand which is the question of assurance?

I don't know what you mean by "procured the atonement."

To procure, a: to get possession of : obtain by particular care and effort. Probably not the best choice of words.

Steve and I would say that Christ's death sufficiently satisfies all that the law requires of one and every sinner alike, but no one is forgiven merely by the shedding of His blood . . . The promise is conditional such that one is forgiven only through faith alone in His blood provision.

I think I know what Steve would say, I've read a number of his posts. That is why I think the idea that no one is forgiven "merely by the shedding" of Christ's blood is problematic for assurance and for reasons I've explained above. My position on justification is the same as the Westminster Confession of Faith which states:

"Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness . . . ."

Notice the role faith plays in my justification before God. It doesn't. Faith is not a ground at all. Yet, per you, faith is just a much a ground of salvation as is Christ's blood. For you Christ's blood alone does not atone. More is needed and that is faith.

Again, and to the question of assurance, that scheme of salvation shifts focus from what Christ has done completely outside of us, to something we have done that is supposed to render Christ's universally shed blood salvific. I simply do not agree.

Because there is a sufficient blood provision for all, "the promise of salvation in Christ" is not dubious for anyone.

Well, that doesn't follow. You just told me that no one is forgiven merely by the shedding of His blood. Christ's blood is insufficient for some and perhaps all. More is needed. Rather than belief being the alone instrument in justification by which we receive and rest on what Christ has accomplished completely outside of ourselves, it becomes part of the ground of our salvation.

When a man (who has heard the gospel) goes to hell, it not on account of an insufficient satisfaction, but because he fails to meet the condition.

Got it. If it's going to be it's up to me. And how does this avoid the problem of navel watching that Steve was trying to carefully avoid in his discussion of assurance?

On the contrary, we would say that the strictly limited advocates have nothing to offer the non-elect in the gospel offer.

Nothing is offered the non-elect in the gospel or else they wouldn't be the non-elect. As Paul told Timothy, "Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness."

Steve said...

Sean, you said, Consequently, you're back contemplating your bellybutton again rather than resting on the promises of Christ your Savior who completely accomplished your salvation completely outside of yourself and on a cross some 2k years ago.

That would be true IF I were saying that our assurance is based on our faith in Christ. But as you rightly say, that is just another kind of navel gazing. The analogy I would make here is Peter walking on the water. The scriptures say that he looked at the waves. I am suggesting that Peter would have fared just as badly had he begun to look at himself. Peter couldn't have his confidence in anything other than Christ. If my faith is in my faith, then no assurance can be found there. My faith must rest in the favor of God in Christ ... apart from anything else. I cannot look to another god, and I cannot look to myself either. As Calvin said, if I look there, then all I see is damnation. Institutes 3.2.24.