No, I did not say “Doubting Calvinism.” Although I am a master of typos, this blog is about something different. First, every reader needs to know that I am a Calvinist. And while the “doctrines of grace” are not the most important issues in theology, I believe in them very deeply and find that they constitute a significant portion of my hope and comfort.
Why all this snuggling up to Calvinism? Because I don’t want to look like one of those disgruntled emerging types, continually complaining about his own family. Having said that, I am going to discuss a “problem” I often (certainly not always) see among my Calvinist brothers and sisters. I am going to state the issue and then attempt to provide a timid yet substantial interpretation of the problem.
Okay, enough of the prologue. Let me get to it.
I grew up a Baptist. As such, I was quite aware of the “Baptist way” of evangelism. First, you get the person saved. Next, you make sure they know that they can never lose their salvation. Assurance of salvation was not some tertiary or auxiliary doctrine. It was something the new believer in Christ must have, now. To be fair, this is not simply a Baptist thing. It is something that can be found in the DNA of pop Evangelicalism as well. And it makes some sense. If a new believer knows that he is secure in Christ, his works and service to the Lord will come because he is saved, not so that he can be saved. This secures his belief and understanding in justification by faith alone.
Assurance of salvation. I suppose this is the subject of this post. The question is Can one be absolutely sure that they are a believer and how important is this assurance in their walk with the Lord? Many Christians don’t believe an individual can be assured of their ultimate salvation. Many believe one can lose their salvation. Catholics believe that “mortal sins” (really nasty sins such as adultery, rejection of the perpetual virginity of Mary, or missing Mass without a valid excuse) can cause a Cathlic to lose their salvation. Arminians and Wesleyans believe one can cease to believe, thereby forfeiting their seat in heaven. Therefore, from the perspective of those who don’t believe salvation can be lost, these belief systems cannot offer any assurance. The criticism would be that no one could ever be sure, until death, whether or not they are saved. After all, what if I decided to sleep in on Sunday and then immediately died of a heart attack without repenting? How do I know for sure if my faith is going to last until the end? For Catholics, the fact that one cannot be assured of their salvation is dogmatized.
If any one saith, that a man, who is born again and justified, is bound of faith to believe that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon XV of the Decree on Justification
If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end, unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon XVI of the Decree on Justification
Ironically, for the Catholic, to believe that one can be assured of their salvation would be the means by which they lose their salvation!
You: I thought this was about Calvinists!
Me: Patience, my son. Patience
Calvinists believe in a doctrine called “perseverance of the saints.” Normally, we don’t like the phrase “Once saved, always saved” (even though, technically, we believe this). A little better is the designation “eternal security.” But our favorite is “perseverance of the saints.” We believe that the elect will persevere in their faith until the end. Therefore, if one is among the elect, she cannot lose her seat in heaven.
One would think this would bring a great deal of assurance among Calvinists concerning their security. Their faith is a gift of God and he will never take it back. The elect are secure.
Now, as many of you know, I have quite a significant ministry dealing with Christians who are doubting their faith for one reason or another. Jude 22 says “have mercy on those who doubt.” I don’t think we do this enough. We avoid doubters like the plague, not knowing how to minister to them. Unfortunately, many of my fellow Calvinists deal with doubters according to one of two theological clichés. If they leave the faith, they were never saved to begin with. If they are elect, they will not leave faith. End of story.
There are three primary reasons Christians doubt. The first has to do with objective intellectual issues. These doubt the Bible’s truthfulness, Christ’s resurrection, and even God’s existence (among other things). Another group doubts God’s love and presence in their lives. The last group doubts their salvation and the reality of their faith. These are always wondering if they have true saving faith or a false faith. This last group lacks assurance.
It may surprise you to know that just about every contact I have had with people who are doubting their salvation are Calvinistic in their theology. In other words, they believe in unconditional election. These are the ones who believe in perseverance of the saints. These are the ones that believe that we cannot lose our salvation! Yet these are the ones who are doubting their faith the most.
Their issue has to do with their election. Are they truly among the elect? If they are, they believe their faith will persevere until the end. But if they are not, there is no hope. But how are they to know for sure whether they are elect? Maybe their faith is a stated faith? Maybe it is false. The gentleman I talked to today was so riddled with doubt, he was having thoughts of suicide. “How do I know my faith is an elect faith?” He wanted assurance so badly, but felt that his Calvinistic theology prevented him from ever having such assurance.
Isn’t this ironic? I have never had a call from an Arminian (or any other believer in conditional election) about this. In my experience, it is only Calvinists who doubt their faith in this way, with such traumatic devastation. Why?
I have my theories. Let me share them, but I am interested in your thoughts.
Here we go (close your ears Baptists): I think we make too much of the doctrine of assurance. I don’t know if it is paramount for a believer to always be absolutely assured that he is a believer. John Hannah, one of my favorite profs at Dallas Seminary, said one time in class, “I am ninety percent sure I am saved . . . but I am only ten percent sure of that.” He would say things like this, knowing it would disturb most of his Evangelical students’ foundations, causing them to think more deeply. I thought if John Hannah is not one hundred percent sure he is saved, how can anyone be? I did not know whether to rethink my Baptist upbringing or take John Hannah out into the hall and share the Gospel with him. Eventually, it caused me to rethink my understanding of assurance. I don’t think there is any reason why we have to be absolutely certain we are saved at every moment. When we present the Gospel to someone and they say they have trusted in Christ, we do them a disservice to force assurance upon them. After all, how do we know that their faith is real? We don’t. Instead of assurance, maybe we should give them some of the Hebrews warning passages. Maybe we should speak to them as Christ spoke to the seven churches in Revelation: “to him who overcomes . . .” Maybe we should encourage them to “test their faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Maybe we should warn them that there is a possible disqualification. (1 Cor. 9:27). This may not fit into your thinking, but we all know there is a faith that does not save (James 2:19). Why not bring this up?
You see, people in our tradition often believe it is anathema to test your faith. To even bring up the possibility of our faith not being real scares us. Why? Because if it is not real, in our sometimes distorted thinking, it is God’s fault and there is nothing we can do about it. We are either elect or not and all that can happen if we examine our faith is bring about the terrifying possibility of reprobation.
I think, for so many of us, the issues are as black and white as they can be. We are caught up in this modernistic ideal of absolutes. Either you know with one hundred percent infallible certainty that we are saved – or we have no certainty at all. But I think our certainty is relative to our situation. The question is never Are you elect? That is a question only for God. The question is Do you believe right now? If you do, you can know you have eternal life. Could you be wrong? Could your faith be false? Could your trust in the Lord be like that of the second and third soils of Christ’s parable? Those that sprung up quickly but faded away? Sure. But the solution is not to divine the mind of God to see if you are elect. It is to persevere in your faith. Arminians know this. They live with this every day. Therefore, they don’t call me falling apart about their assurance. They know how to test their faith and they do all they can to keep it. Calvinists often just get paralyzed in fear thinking they are not among the elect and have their hands tied. When, truth be told, we should respond very much like Arminians with regard to the stability of our faith. We do everything to persevere (which I would love to expand on, but I don’t have the space). Our theology demands that when we do persevere, we know that it was God who would not ever let us go, not us who would never let him go. Therefore, we understand our faith was not of ourselves. But this fact does not help much in situations when our faith needs to be tested. We simply do not have a magic decoder ring to determine if we are truly elect.
You ask me: Michael, do you know you are saved? My answer: yes. You ask me: Michael, do you have assurance? My answer: yes. You ask me: Michael, why do you believe you are saved? My answer: because today I am still believing. But I have to test this all the time, as I am not infallible. I could have a false faith, but I don’t believe I do. This ninety percent assurance will have to do. The witness of the Spirit I have today is enough for today. Tomorrow I will examine myself again. But my assurance does not have to be absolute and comprehensive. While the Catholics went way overboard on their “anathemas” (I mean, come on, guys . . .), I do think they are right to warn against any necessity of infallible assurance. Once we learn to test ourselves, the times of doubt will lead to productive action, not paralyzing fear.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]