Blessed Assurance

Originally written for FM 502 – Spiritual Formation and Discipleship, Fall 2008

The concluding thesis of Luther’s famous ninety-five theses reads, “…And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.” It could be said that Luther’s impetus for reformation was the seeking of that assurance of peace for himself as an escape from his experience of the cor incurvatus in se – the heart curved in on itself. He tasted freedom after reading Romans 1:17 – “the just will live by faith” – and was transformed upon apprehending the truth of sola fide – justification by faith alone. Perhaps overlooked in this foundational moment in the formation of protestant theology is the fact that the question of assurance has been reduced to and answered by soteriology. I contend that historic understandings of assurance are inadequate because they predicate assurance on the method of soteriology and thus often frame our experiences1 in discomfort and despair. We will begin by surveying the understanding the doctrine of divine assurance both through the Catholic Church (from Augustine to the latest catechism) and through Protestant tradition.

Augustine’s position is rather clear from the title of one of his chapters in Anti-Pelagian Writings entitled “No One is Certain and Secure of His Own Predestination and Salvation”. Augustine supports this by saying that to be sure of our own salvation would necessarily entail pride: “For who of the multitude of believers can presume, so long as he is living in this mortal state, that he is in the number of the predestinated? … since here we have to beware so much of pride, that even so great an apostle was buffetted by a messenger of Satan, lest he should be lifted up.”2 Indeed, Augustine refers to this as “secrecy” which has “usefulness” – a usefulness that rests upon engendering “fear” in the individual for

…it must be believed that some of the children of perdition, who have not received the gift of perseverance to the end, begin to live in the faith which worketh by love, and live for some time faithfully and righteously, and afterwards fall away, and are not taken away from this life before this happens to them. If this had happened to none of these, men would have that very wholesome fear, by which the sin of presumption is kept down…3

Two features seem to grade against our contemporary Protestant belief: first, that it is possible for someone to “loose their faith” or “fall away”; second, the mention of the sin of presumption. Augustine also highlights two features of Catholic theology often missed by those who favor shallowly reading Catholicism as “works based”: first, Augustine affirms conditional salvation – that there is a “gift of perseverance” from God; second, Augustine positions the spiritual reality of salvation over and above works. Implicit behind Augustine’s thinking is that the sin of presumption is only possible if we can fall away from faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas describes two types of presumption: the first is where “a man relies on his own power, when he attempts something beyond his power, as though it were possible to him” and the second is “an inordinate trust in the Divine mercy or power, consisting in the hope of obtaining glory without merits, or pardon without repentance.”4 As explained in the Summa, one superficial reason for seeing presumption as a sin is to protect against a radical antinomianism that would give free license to sin. In this sense there is no disagreement with Paul’s statement in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

But implicit within Aquinas’ understanding of presumption lay the underpinnings of his soteriology; “the hope of obtaining glory without merits” relies upon his understanding of salvation by faith and works. Tied with this component of works in salvation are the idea of “falling away” and the division of sin into the categories of mortal sin and venial sin. It is in light of the possibility of apostasy – even unintentional – that the only moments that matters for me in Catholic sotierology are right now and the moment of death. Without a soteriology based solely on the past, the question of eternal salvation remains open by necessity and to think otherwise would be presumptuous.

Luther’s major contribution was to emphasize the past and final aspect of our salvation; indeed, by redefining “grace” to mean the work done by Christ on the cross Luther anchors our salvation in the objective work of God in history5. Article four of the Augsburg Confession states that men “are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and their sins forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death hath satisfied for our sins. This faith doth God impute for righteousness before him.”6 What matters here to assurance is the order and timing of events depicted – “are justified… when [emphasis mine] they believe that they are received in favor.” We may compare that for Catholics, God’s work makes our belief effective, but for Protestants, our belief makes God’s work effective.

It should be noted here that in response to the radically different position on Christianity that Luther proposed, the Council of Trent enacted the counter-reformation, fully explicating any position that was threatened by Luther by unambiguously declaring the opposite of what he believed. The sixth session released a number of canons that specifically refuted the claims of Luther; for example, Canon XI denies imputation of righteousness, Canon XII denies defining faith as confidence in divine mercy, Canon XIII denies certainty of the believer’s own belief – “If any one saith, that it is necessary for every one, for the obtaining the remission of sins, that he believe for certain, and without any wavering arising from his own infirmity and disposition, that his sins are forgiven him; let him be anathema”7. It is notable that these canons call for their opponents to be anathema – accursed by God. This division between Protestant and Catholic tradition remains to today – the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the sin of presumption in terms of the abundance of pride8, the necessity of preservation, and the hope for eternal salvation9.

Calvin also redefines “grace” in a similar way, shifting the emphasis away from man’s work. And just like Luther, Calvin reformulated a doctrine of assurance to be consistent with his understanding of salvation. Unlike Luther, however, Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination leads him to formulate “double assurance” – “No man, I say, is a believer but he who, trusting to the security of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death…”10 While Luther’s assurance flowed from his experience of the certainty of God’s salvation, Calvin reverses the order such that those who are not assured are not saved; in Calvin’s commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:15: “…all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon that alone to be right faith, which leads us to repose in safety in the favor of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance”. Lane summarizes Calvin’s understanding of assurance succinctly: “It is because of the promise of free justification in Christ that we can have assurance.”11

While we may distinguish Calvin and Luther thusly, they share common ground: “Luther and Calvin … fundamentally agree that the foundation of the peace, assurance, and certainty of the conscience lies in the grace of God pro nobis, as revealed to the conscience both by the external witness of the Word of God and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.”12 By positing the pro nobis grace of God in the historic work of Jesus Christ and not predicating it on any work that we may do sets both Reformers in stark contrast with the Catholic doctrine of their day: “When rejecting the possibility of doubt Calvin was opposing those (Roman Catholics) who defined faith in such a way that it does not include the confidence that God is gracious to me, both now and for eternity.”13

We may also draw a distinction between Calvin and the Calvinists of later eras –such as the Puritans – for they need not follow each other. J.I. Packer rejects the central premise that a lack of assurance implies a lack of faith, but has one theme in common with all of the Protestant understandings of assurance: the subjective feeling of assurance is a logical necessity and outcome of our faith – “God will go out of his way to make his children feel his love for them and know their privilege and security as members of his family.”14 This seems to be the general tenor of Protestant thought on assurance: “If a president should pardon a convicted criminal, it is proper that he should bring this to the person’s attention. Similarly, if God freely forgives our sins, we should expect that he will assure us of this fact.”15 If God is for us, wouldn’t He want us to know it?

This is, then, the central question for any Christian individual. I find both the Catholic and Protestant understanding of assurance are flawed – but not for lack of internal consistency16. I do agree with the reformers that our salvation is not predicated by our works. But in the shifting of the locus of grace something else was misplaced: “The ground of assurance that both theologians [Luther and Calvin] seek to establish in Jesus Christ alone is undercut by their doctrines of election…”17 To put it another way, I find that the reformers conflate the pro nobis of the Gospel with the pro me of the Gospel: indeed, there is no doubt from Scripture that God is for “us” – that is, for humanity. Does he not withhold judgment and grant common grace? But my name is conspicuously absent from the text of scripture. Again, there is no doubt that the scriptures point to a God who is for humanity en masse and indeed it is the logical conclusion of someone who will take the Bible seriously.

But there is no reason to assume that God is for me individually; if my salvation is based upon my confession of faith, I must question the adequacy of my confession – especially in light of the witness of my continuing sinfulness and passages such as Romans 7. If my salvation is based upon my knowledge of election, any small doubt will continue to expand until my confidence short circuits. I find that the reformers leave us with two equally untenable options: “Either the question of assurance will be asked alone and the question of election will be ignored (the happy inconsistency of the Lutherans), or the question of assurance will be asked directly in the light of the limited election of individuals (the miserable consistency of the Reformed, attaining confessional status at Westminster).”18

Part of my hesitancy to assume that God is “for me” finds its roots in Scripture. At the separating of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) not only is our salvation tied to some of our participation (which we must admit that at some point we failed and continue to fail at) but also that of confusion – when did we see you thusly? When Jesus claims that not all who say, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 7:21-23) it appears that even evidences of signs and wonders are not enough – “Did we not cast out demons in your name?”19 Both of these passages taken together seem to imply that there are those who may fool themselves by assuming they have met some criteria for salvation; could that not be me?

It is also troublesome to read Romans 8:29-30 in light of Matthew 22:14 – that many are called, but few are chosen. John can speak of a sin that “leads unto death”; that there is a sin that cannot be forgiven – what if I had done those things20? Most troublesome of all is what appears to be the “ultimate arbitrariness” of God – for “Esau I loved by Jacob I hated” (Rom. 9:13). Whatever we may say about this passage, it is clear that God’s election is inscrutable – no doubt that the Judge of the all earth will do what is right (Gen. 18:25) – but I must confess that if I were rejected by God it would be a punishment I deserve. Like Job, I would neither have an answer nor have any grounds to appeal the decision.

There are many more passages that give me pause – did not Jesus blast the religious establishment of his time? Weren’t they wrong because they knew neither Scripture nor the power of God? (Mark 12:24) Are they not the seminary students of their time? Was not Judas among the twelve that were sent out? (Matthew 10) Even more disturbing is looking around at my peers – brothers and sisters in Christ – who do not share the same kinds of questions and doubts. They seem to read assurance as if it were plain from the text, and, accordingly, I have failed to read it properly – I should not be existing in this state of doubt.

While 1 John 5:13 says that he writes these things “so that you may know that you have eternal life” he writes to those who “believe in the name of the Son of God”. It therefore seems that it is very possible to be a believer who doubts that they have obtained eternal life for John must write a letter to instruct them otherwise. We must pause here to note that the very thing Luther sought to escape – the heart curved in on itself – continues to haunt me! Even when I affirm that Christ’s death alone is the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation, there is a deathly introspection that I cannot escape. This introspection is really an anthropocentrism that masks my self-hatred as humility and my desperation as faith; somewhere along the line we have cast the discussion in human terms rather than in God’s terms.

I think we must survey the landscape and reassess where we are: I believe that, while it may be average to not question these matters, it does not make it normative. Even Jesus felt divine rejection upon the cross21, and a servant is not above his master – I asked to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), and there is only one way to know these things. I believe to reduce assurance to an accomplishment numbs the conscience and can lead to a presumptuous attitude. I do not believe that the solution to a presumptuous attitude is to place confidence in a program of works and faith, but rather to look at assurance as a task. We are to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), which is only possible when we see our relationship with God not as an end point but a starting point. Indeed, there are times we feel an emotional presence of God – and thank God for those times! – but our relationship with Him is not substantiated only on those times. Perhaps others have an uncritical attitude or perhaps they have yet to enter into a time of testing, but I would recast the doctrine of assurance as the practice of assurance – something that we may use to balance our spiritual lives. For those who come from a loving Christian family or community, it is very easy to assume that they are “in” automatically because they have mentally assented to God. It is also easy to see God’s hand at work because they have been saturated by a culture that assumes and teaches God’s goodness. I came to Christianity through a non-Christian family and a history of depression, and it is very easy to slip into despair that knows in my flesh dwells no good thing (Rom 7:18) without ever making it to Romans chapter 8.

We all must keep sensitive consciences – soft hearts – before God without imagining that our sin is so great that God is unable to save us. We must have hope in a God who is gracious and compassionate – slow to anger and rich in love – without presuming that we can put Him in our debt. To practice assurance is to reject both despair and presumption by balancing the Word, the Spirit, and our conscience. I believe that the practice of assurance will keep us in perpetual tension and growth, that we may always be saying, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

Bibliography

The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part II. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: Benziger Brothers. 1917.

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series. Volume 5. Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. Edited by Philip Schaff. American Edition. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. 1887.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Corinthians, Vol. 2. Accessed from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom40.html

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. Trans: John T. McNeill. Philadelphia: The Westeminster Press. 1977

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Edition. Image, 1995.

Demarest, B.A. “Assurance” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1984.

Lane, A.N.S. “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance,” Vox Evangelica 11 (1979): 32-54.

Packer, J.I. Knowing God. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1973.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

Council of Trent. The Sixth Session. Ed. and Trans. J. Waterworth. London: Dolman, 1848.

Zachman, Randall C. The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Footnotes

1 In being cavalier to frame Luther’s reformation on his search for assurance (and not on his protesting the papal abuses of indulgences) I must confess that my own research has been framed by my experiences of struggle and doubt.

2 Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, ch. 40

3 Ibid.

4 Summa Secunda Secundae Partis, Q.21

5 It is not the purpose of this paper to argue the differences or merits of Protestant and Catholic soteriology as others have already done it ably for quite some time.

6 Schaff, p. 10

7 Council of Trent, p. 46

8 Catechism, p. 563, (#2091-2092)

9 Catechism, p. 500, (#1821)

10 Calvin’s Institutes V.iii.16

11 Lane, p. 40

12 Zachman, p. 6

13 Lane, p. 33

14 Packer, p. 225

15 Demarest, p. 91

16 The Catholic understanding of Romans 16:13 “Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” is that Paul had special revelation of Rufus’ eternal salvation.

17 Zachman, p. 7

18 Zachman, p.7

19 Even more troublesome is if we view this passage in light of 1 Cor 12:3 – that no one may Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit; the signs that the goats performed were not counterfeit or demonic but brought by the Holy Spirit; it would seem if we may combine the two passages thusly that Spirit may bring power but that is not necessarily efficacious for salvation.

20 If conviction of sin only comes by the Holy Spirit, then the Holy Spirit must be operative in someone’s life for them to even worry about the possibility of committing that sin – that is, the only people who could be anxious over committing the sin that cannot be forgiven are those who have not committed it. The cleverness of this argument is second only to ineffectiveness – it may answer the rationality but it does not comfort the heart.

21 I believe that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 not because he liked the ending but because, on the cross, Jesus literally bore our sins. God, in His holiness, has nothing to do with sin.

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