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
C Michael Patton

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. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    867 replies to "Doubting Calvinists"

    • cherylu

      Thanks, Dave Z,

      You have expressed the quandry very well I think.

    • Irene

      Right!
      Where are we to learn justice and mercy and love, if not from God? How can we imitate him?

    • Greg writes,

      Arminians will immediately nod their heads: “YEAH YEAH, that’s what we believe too!!!” Not realizing how foundationally incompatible their contingent god is with a biblical understanding of either….Thankfully, converted Arminians, of whch there are many, do not practice what they preach…And BTW, the Arminian objections there are the EXACT same humanistic assumptions I’ve been hearing for 25 years.

      Why do you think it is OK to continue to make these outlandish claims about Arminianism and Arminians without providing one shred of evidence to back up all of these assertions, even though you have been asked to do so many times?

      But then you quote a confession that is plainly incoherent, and simply hide behind “I have no idea how that works.” How nice to have a system of belief that cannot be falsified because any logical charge against it is dismissed as “humanism” or “rationalism” while being able to assert anything you want without needing to explain how any of those assertions are anything other than un-argued opinions. And, of course, when you use logic and reason to make your claims that is just sound philosophical teaching. But when we do, it is “humanism” and “rationalism” and a simple failure to submit to God, or an attempt to fight against Go, or a sinful attempt to be autonomous, etc. etc., etc.

      Only that it’s biblical.

      Just more of your un-argued opinion. On what basis do you decide what is “biblical” and what is not?

    • Dave Z, Cherylu and Irene,

      You have all expressed the problem very well. However, the Calvinist position cannot be falsified since Calvinists only play by their own rules. For example, Greg already admits that he plainly accepts blatant contradiction and incoherence in affirming the Westminster Confession and responding that while he can’t make sense of it, he believes it, because he believes it is Biblical (though Greg would never say that he simply believes such things, as he is so confident that his Calvinism must be true). That is why even the great points you are now making will likely have little affect.

      For Greg, it seems plain that no amount of logic can sway him since he will just dismiss it as humanism or rationalism, or the like. But then he will turn around and use what he perceives to be rational arguments to refute the points you are making. How can he get away with this? Because he is certain Calvinism is true and therefore, he is right, and therefore he can justify any irrationality in his system as supposed Biblical “mystery” and likewise justify any “rational” attack on others’ views, despite the fact that his own views so often undermine reason and logic. But all is fair in love and Calvinism.

      In other words, as long as Calvinism is held up as truth, anything goes. If anything is held up to falsify Calvinism, it can only be dismissed, rationalized away, or regulated to “mystery.” It’s like when kids play dodge ball and one kid will never admit to being “out” no matter how obvious it is that he has been hit, no matter how many people see that he has been it, and no matter how much they insist that he was hit. There will always be an excuse why everyone else should not believe their lying eyes.

      Now Greg, surely you will forgive my straight forward assessment of your views and your argumentation, since you have been so generous in your numerous straight forward assessments of what you wrongly think to be my views…

    • Fr. Robert,

      Thanks for the definitions of ad hoc and ad hom. I wanted to be sure we were on the same page. But what you have not provided is some example of how my arguments specifically should be considered ad hoc or why your’s should not. You do seem to say that we are both guilty of ad hoc and that ad hoc isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then I wonder why you have so often dismissed my arguments as ad hoc as if that is an unacceptable form of argumentation, while continuing to press your own arguments (which I think are far more “ad hoc” than any of mine except that they often seem too far off topic and unrelated to the questions you are being specifically asked to even be legitimately called “ad hoc”).

      So if such arguments are not so bad, why dismiss them? If my arguments are ad hoc, please explain how? If I have given ad hom arguments, please point to those arguments and explain how they qualify as ad hom. If blogs are such a lousy forum for proper argumentation (as you keep saying), why do you spend so much time arguing on blogs?

      Thanks,
      Ben

    • Irene

      @Arminian Perspecives,

      You make it sound like one of the great unanswerable riddles of the world! –How To Prove to a Calvinist He Is Wrong. (:
      Ye of little faith! It can be done! Calvinism is no one’s destiny! (;

      Seriously, in real life, I have also noticed this same syndrome with Calvinists. In my experience, it was not exactly like you explained Greg as doing, but similar. It was a complete detachment from any kind of intellectual argument. Logic was irrelevant. Intellectual arguments useless and tossed aside. (Not just, “you’re not right” but “you may be right, but it doesn’t matter”). Seemed absolutely crazy. But then I realized how this person made commitments and decisions was not based on intellectual considerations, but on emotional experiences. People are wired differently, some are influenced intellectually and others emotionally (generally). My hypothesis is that at least some Calvinists will not change their mind until they have some kind of experience in their lives, or special moment of introspection, that touches them emotionally in such a way so as to see things differently.

    • newenglandsun

      arminianperspectives,

      That’s been my overall view of the way Calvinists argue their points. It’s why I haven’t really been convinced of that perspective or any of the other three alternatives for that matter. I’m still trying to decide.

    • Irene writes,

      You make it sound like one of the great unanswerable riddles of the world! –How To Prove to a Calvinist He Is Wrong. (:

      Ye of little faith! It can be done! Calvinism is no one’s destiny! (;

      Oh, I agree. Just check out my site to see many stories of Calvinists who have walked away from Calvinism and embraced a more Arminian theology:

      http://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/x-calvinist-corner/

      My point was to highlight the Calvinist tactic and how its argumentation invalidates itself. But thankfully, despite the fire walls that are built into Calvinist apologetics, truth can still penetrate. I am presently having a dialogue with a person who has recently left Calvinism. One of the main reasons he left was actually the result of reading Calvinist Wayne Grudem’s commentary and seeing how poorly he tried to deal with the serious problems Calvinism creates, and noticing how contradictory and inconsistent those arguments were. You gotta love it. A Calvinist commentary is what ultimately began the process of this Calvinist leaving Calvinism.

      The other thing that helped him was beginning to go to Arminians and actually read from Arminians to understand Arminianism, and in doing so realizing how misled he had been by Calvinists in their misrepresentations of what Arminianism teaches. He felt really betrayed by that and realized that Arminians were fully capable of dealing with the arguments that Calvinists often made against Arminians, and that Arminians simply did not believe the things that Calvinists always say Arminians believe. His story will soon be added to the one’s linked to above.

      Oh, and one more thing (as it pertains to earlier discussion on this thread), he became convinced by his own independent study of Scripture that the Calvinist ordo salutis placing regeneration before faith was wholly at odds with Scripture.

      God Bless,
      Ben

    • Oops, I think it was actually Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and not a commentary.

    • newenglandsun,

      How much have you read from Arminian writings? That might help you make up your mind.

    • @”AP”: I will try to give a quick statement for both Greg and I, as to our “presuppositions”, though I have already given some of this, as to our Presuppositional belief about the nature of Holy Scripture.

      First, it seems you like so many are an “evidentialist” as to the nature of arguing foremost for the authority of Holy Scripture, while both Greg and I are of course Presuppers. And this btw is a big difference! And of course the Presuppositional stands centre place for many Reformed & Calvinists. First, the Bible never sets out to prove the truth of God’s existence or the gospel by human reason! Rather it presupposes God. God is not someone whose existence may be questioned or denied, because HE is necessary to the existence of all facts, including the faculties of human beings. Therefore God proved by human reason is always less than the true God. And thus here we are dealing with the first and always great presupposition of God, that HE is Sovereign, and always “Totally Other” (to quote Karl Barth, btw). So, we simply cannot “prove” this great doctrine of God, but simply & profoundly find it in the revelation of Holy Scripture itself! It can somewhat be defined, but never really fully understood! And here btw too, even Prevenient Grace, as seen in Augustine, taken from Scripture logic, somewhat, cannot fully be understood! Now this does not mean that be don’t use argumentation, but that in the end, we simply cannot explain it, at least fully so. God always transcends His own logic! And here is simply part of God’s Mystery! GOD is never a mere definition, though we must try to some degree to define Him, or better to define what HE does and somewhat how He works, but even here we can only go so far! As the Orthodox say, we can see somewhat into God’s energy or energies, but never into His essence!

      This is quick, but I think supports somewhat what both Greg and I believe as to the nature of God, His eternal Word and Revelation. Out of…

    • @Irene: As to your #452, see my #457. Btw, I can see that you have NOT really read Augustine in-depth! See his work the “Enchiridion”! Here is simply where Calvin read, i.e. Augustine, and got most of his ideas, with the Holy Scripture, for the great doctrine of God and his Predestinarian doctrine.

      Do you really think that there are not many Roman Catholics (theolog’s and theologians), who are not very close to Augustine? Well there are many who are very close, past as some present! (Dominicans and Augustinians, Catholic Orders)…and they are surely closer to Luther (and Augustinian monk and Doctor of Theology) and Calvin on the doctrine of God, than Arminian doctrine, as to the doctrine of God!

    • Fr. Robert writes,

      First, it seems you like so many are an “evidentialist” as to the nature of arguing foremost for the authority of Holy Scripture, while both Greg and I are of course Presuppers. And this btw is a big difference!

      Actually, I really like presuppositional apologetics as I have said many times. I just deny the assertion that such an approach can only work if exhaustive divine determinism stands behind it. That doesn’t follow in the least.

      First, the Bible never sets out to prove the truth of God’s existence or the gospel by human reason!

      That is true to some extent, but the Bible certainly appeals to reason (calling it “human” reason is a misnomer). The Bible is full of rational arguments designed to persuade rational beings made in God’s image.

      Rather it presupposes God.

      Indeed, just as it presupposes our God given faculty of free will and the ability to reason.

      God is not someone whose existence may be questioned or denied, because HE is necessary to the existence of all facts, including the faculties of human beings.

      Faculties like free will, and the ability to reason as God enables us in accordance with His character and nature which is truth.

      Therefore God proved by human reason is always less than the true God. And thus here we are dealing with the first and always great presupposition of God, that HE is Sovereign, and always “Totally Other” (to quote Karl Barth, btw).

      Yes, God is sovereign (in that He exercises His authority and will as He sees fit), but one cannot discount that His very nature is described as “love” and not “sovereignty.”

    • Fr. Robert writes,

      So, we simply cannot “prove” this great doctrine of God, but simply & profoundly find it in the revelation of Holy Scripture itself!

      But you are actually referring to exhaustive determinism, which is not how the Bible defines “sovereignty.” Indeed, only Calvinism defines sovereignty that way. But more important, this understanding of sovereignty that Calvinists have is supposedly drawn from a proper exegesis of Scripture, which involves reason and methods of interpretation. Arminians disagree with these interpretations. So this is a big problem for your view. It presupposes the importance of reason and logic in a proper interpretation of Scripture in order to establish a world view that discounts and belittles the reason and logic which led to the interpretation of Scripture that serves as the foundation for the presuppositional view. So it collapses on itself (at least the Calvinist presuppositional argument).

      Now this does not mean that be don’t use argumentation, but that in the end, we simply cannot explain it, at least fully so.

      That’s fine. The problem comes when every legitimate argument is discarded and disregarded as relying too much on reason. That is not an argument, just an arbitrary claim (assertion).

      God always transcends His own logic! And here is simply part of God’s Mystery! GOD is never a mere definition, though we must try to some degree to define Him, or better to define what HE does and somewhat how He works, but even here we can only go so far!

      We can only go as far as Scripture defines Him. The problem is that Calvinism goes far beyond the Biblical description of God and ends up actually contradicting the Biblical definition of God, but when this is pointed out, such Biblical definitions are quickly dismissed and “mystery” is quickly inserted in its stead in order to save face. That’s how I see it anyway.

      God Bless,
      Ben

    • […] Non-Calvinist Perspective: I’m really not sure how this statement is reassuring to anyone. I’ve heard Calvinists express that their doctrinal version of eternal security, perseverance of the saints, is the most robust, comforting version of eternal security. I suppose it is if one is absolutely certain that he/she is elect. Of course, that cannot be definitively stated at any point during anyone’s life. It is only an assessment that can be made if one does, in fact, persevere in faith to the end of his/her life. We can probably all conjure up examples in reality where that failed to occur despite very convincing outward evidence for entire decades. Apparently, perseverance of the saints doesn’t inspire a feeling if security for many Calvinists. Calvinist Michael Patton’s ministry focuses heavily on Christians who are doubting their faith. The following excerpts are from his article, Doubting Calvinists: […]

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