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.
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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."