Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

[Go to Part One here]

We now come to the important topic of salvation assurance.  Calvinists have often claimed that Arminians do not have solid ground for assurance because Arminians do not hold to inevitable perseverance.  The Calvinist assumes that if one cannot be sure that they will indeed persevere in the faith, then that person cannot possibly have assurance of salvation.  This is partially true.  The Arminian acknowledges that one cannot have infallible assurance of final salvation.  But the Arminian also believes that the Bible gives no such assurance either.  Rather, the Bible gives assurance of present salvation only.  This assurance is based on present faith and reliance on the merits of Christ’s blood.  As one trusts in Christ he can rest assured that he is in saving union with Christ.  So long as one trusts in Christ he can have assurance of salvation.  We can see this truth expressed well in 1 John 5:11-13,

And this is the testimony: God has given us [believers] eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has [presently] the Son has [presently] life; he who does not have [presently] the Son of God does not have [presently] life.  I write these things to you who believe [presently] in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have [presently] eternal life.

We see that life abides in the Son and only those who presently “have” the Son “have” the life that abides in Him.  This is how John assures his believing audience that they can “know” they have eternal life.  Those who presently “believe” in Christ’s name are those who are assured life in Him.  This, of course, reminds us of the passage in John 15 concerning the Vine and the branches.  The branches enjoy the life of the Vine (Christ) only as they “abide” (remain, stay, continue) in Him.  As they remain in Him by faith they receive the spiritual life that resides in Him alone.  If they cease to remain in Christ by faith (i.e. become unbelievers), they are cut off from Christ and the life that resides in Him alone.  As one remains in Christ he will produce fruit which gives further assurance of salvation as one cannot possibly produce fruit outside of Christ for “without Me you can do nothing.”

So the Bible gives strong assurance of present salvation for those who are in Christ Jesus,  but, as we have seen in this series, it offers no guarantee that one who is presently believing will infallibly endure to the end in that faith.  The Calvinist may perceive this to be a weakness in the Arminian doctrine of salvation assurance but it proves to be an even greater weakness for the Calvinist given his doctrine of inevitable perseverance.  The Calvinist likewise insists that one must persevere in faith to attain final salvation.  The problem for the Calvinist is the rather obvious reality that many who put faith in Christ do not endure in that faith until the end.  Many who ultimately fall away have impressive track records of loving, trusting, and serving Christ, and very often have produced godly fruit for many years.

The Calvinist is forced to insist that such “apostates” were never true believers in the first place.  They are forced to conclude that the faith, love, and service of such seemingly godly individuals were nothing but a ruse from beginning to end.  They are forced to question the integrity of those who abandon the faith and yet claim that they once trusted Christ with all of their hearts and loved God dearly.  They are forced to call them liars and vile hypocrites who may have “thought” they trusted Christ and “thought” they loved Him but were simply deluded and never experienced true faith or genuine love for God.  All of their godly fruit was nothing more than the works of the flesh that only seemed to bear testimony of a genuine relationship with Christ.

We must wonder then how these true believers who stand in judgment of these apostates and boldly proclaim that their faith and love was not genuine can be certain that their present faith and love is real.  They have no problem conceding that the apostate may have truly “thought” their faith and love was genuine despite the fact that it wasn’t.  How then can they be sure that they are not likewise deceived by their present faith and love for Christ?  Perhaps it only “seems” real to them.  How can they be sure that their faith and love for Christ will not someday fail, thereby proving that their faith was never “real” and they were never “really” saved to begin with, but merely a deluded hypocrite all along?  It is common for Calvinists to speak of those who were convinced that their faith was real when in fact it was not,

In the past, dear reader, there have been thousands who were just as confident that they had been genuinely saved and were truly trusting in the merits of the finished work of Christ to take them safely through to Heaven, as you may be; nevertheless, they are now in the torments of Hell. Their confidence was a carnal one; their “faith,” no better than that which the demons have. Their faith was but a natural one which rested on the bare letter of Scripture. It was not a supernatural one, wrought in the heart by God. They were too confident that their faith was a saving one, to thoroughly, searchingly, frequently, test it by the Scriptures, to discover whether or no it was bringing forth those fruits which are inseparable from the faith of God’s elect. If they read an article like this, they proudly concluded that it belonged to some one else. So cocksure were they that they were born again so many years ago, they refused to heed the command of 2 Corinthians 13:5 “Prove your own selves.” And now it is too late. They wasted their day of opportunity, and the “blackness of darkness” is their portion forever. (Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews– Emphasis his)

[Notice also how Pink mentions a “day of opportunity” as if the reprobate can possibly have such a “day of opportunity” given the eternal irrevocable nature of their reprobated state.]

So the Calvinist cannot even have assurance of present salvation as he can never be sure that his faith will in fact endure to the end until it actually endures to the end.  It may yet fail and the Calvinist must admit to this.  Therefore, they cannot possibly know “now” that their faith is real and that salvation is truly theirs.  Their faith may be false since the only infallible test of genuine faith, according to their doctrines, is the test of ultimate and final endurance.

John Calvin recognized this difficulty and tried to address it with a doctrine that many Calvinists today find embarrassing.  But Calvin is to be commended for being honest with the reality of those who fall away after many years of impressive testimony and service to God.  He recognized and tried to grapple with a serious problem in his theology that many Calvinists today simply pretend isn’t real.  His solution: “Evanescent grace.”  Calvin proposed the idea that God sometimes gives the reprobate a grace and subsequent faith so similar to that of the elect that it is nearly impossible to tell the difference.  He says that “experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.” He calls this “an inferior operation of the Holy Spirit” by which God “illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace.”  The Lord apparently gives the reprobate this temporary grace so that He might better…convict them, and leave them without excuse.”

Calvin tried hard to make a valid distinction between the faith produced by evanescent grace and the faith produced in the elect by genuine regeneration.  For instance, he noted that the reprobate do not “truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith” and that they “never have any other than a confused sense of grace, laying hold of the shadow, rather than the substance, because the Spirit properly seals forgiveness of sins in the elect only.”  “Still”, he says “the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them.”  He also states “that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition.”

Much more could be quoted.  In this last statement we find some interesting points.  Calvin mainly points to the difference being that the faith of the elect endures while the “faith” of the reprobate will “never attain to the full result or to fruition.”  The difference again being that the gracious, yet “inferior”, work of the Spirit in the reprobate eventually “vanishes in those who are temporarily impressed” which gives evidence that such grace was only “evanescent” while “In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end.”  So for all his trying Calvin never really solved the difficulty.  We can see this in the fact that genuine faith only proves genuine if it endures and that the “faith” of the reprobate is “affected in a way similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.”  So one cannot possibly know if his present faith is genuine and salvation within his possession since it is conceded that the reprobate “in their own judgment” have the same faith as the elect, and until that faith “perseveres even to the end” it may yet prove to be the result of divine deception upon the reprobate; an inferior work of the Spirit, thebetter to convict them, and leave them without excuse.”

At one point Calvin seems to say that the “faith” of the “reprobate” does not produce fruit, “that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition” but later contradicts this when he says,

I therefore deny that [reprobates] either understand his will considered as immutable, or steadily embrace his truth, inasmuch as they rest satisfied with an evanescent impression; just as a tree not planted deep enough may take root, but in the process of time wither away, though it may for several years not only put forth leaves and flowers, but produce fruit. (All quotes were taken from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:11,12, translated by Henry Beveridge, pp. 478, 479, Emphases mine)

So the reprobate may for years produce fruit while merely experiencing the vanishing affects of evanescent faith.   While Calvin tries hard to assure the “elect” that their faith is superior to the false faith of those under evanescent grace, no assurance can be found in the face of such statements.  There is just no way for one to possibly know that his faith is real until he endures in that faith to the end.  Therefore, there is no ground for assurance of salvation until the “end” in Calvinism.  This is the “inevitable” result of the doctrine of “inevitable” perseverance.  While the Arminian can at least have present assurance of salvation, the Calvinist cannot even have that.  The Arminian finds further assurance in the Biblical truth, denied by Calvinists, that God truly desires the salvation of all men and has made provision for the salvation of all in the atonement.  We must acknowledge that both Arminians and Calvinists deal with times of spiritual struggles and doubts.  What assurance can be found during these times?  Walls and Dongell point out the pastoral challenges presented to those who counsel believers in such struggles:

Calvinism deprives those struggling with their faith of the single most important resource available: the confidence that God loves all of us with every kind of love we need to enable and encourage our eternal flourishing and well being.  Again, Calvinists cannot honestly assure people that God loves them in this way without claiming to know more about God’s secret counsels than any human being can know. (Why I Am Not A Calvinist, pg. 201)

They then go on to quote another passage from Calvin in which he speaks of temporary illumination for the reprobate and conclude,

What is truly remarkable here is that persons who receive this partial and temporary illumination appear for a time to be truly elect but in fact aren’t.  They are deluded by a false hope.  This dreadful possibility is what haunts Calvinists who struggle with the assurance and certainty of salvation.  Times of moral failure and depression can be construed as evidence that one is not chosen after all and that God is hardening one’s heart for not responding more faithfully to his grace….Calvinism lacks the clear warrant to speak the most liberating word of encouragement for persons struggling with their faith and doubtful of God’s attitude towards them- the unqualified assurance that God loves them and is for them! (ibid. 203)

Arminians and Calvinists have much common ground with regards to the doctrine of salvation assurance.  Both traditions believe that assurance can be gained through fruit bearing and the inner witness of the Spirit.  Both traditions believe that assurance is based on a confidence in the merits of Christ’s blood and union with Him.  Both traditions believe that one should examine himself and his lifestyle to be sure that his faith is presently focused on Christ and the merit of His blood.  But the Calvinistic doctrine of inevitable perseverance actually serves to undercut much of these Biblical markers of salvation assurance.  One cannot know that his faith is presently genuine as one’s faith can only “really” be proven genuine if it endures to the end.  One cannot be sure that the inner witness of the Spirit is not an “inferior” work of the Spirit which will eventually prove to be evanescent.  One cannot even find assurance in the seeming fruit that is being produced in his life as such fruit may eventually prove to be less than genuine, regardless of how real it presently seems (and according to Calvin one might even produce genuine fruit for several years while under the influence of evanescent faith).

Both Arminians and Calvinists must grapple with the reality of false professors like those described by Christ in Matthew 7:22, but Christ makes it clear that such false professors did not do the will of the Father and were in fact “evil doers.”  Christ is not speaking of those who live many years in faithful and loving service to God who yet abandon the faith. Arminians can easily assimilate such persons into their theology (since they believe that true believers can fall away) while the Calvinist is forced to create problematic doctrines like “evanescent grace” which only serve to undermine salvation assurance.  The Arminian can also easily accept the many passages of Scripture which comport with this experiential knowledge of true believers falling away from the faith and accept the warnings against falling away as serious and profoundly meaningful.

And finally, the Arminian can have a present assurance of salvation that the Calvinist cannot have while being consistent with his doctrines.  This fully comports with what Paul says in 2 Cor, 13:5,

Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!  Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you- unless indeed you fail the test.

Paul clearly says that we can know now whether or not we are “in the faith”.  We can “examine” and “test” our present faith to see if it is in fact genuine.  This simply is not true of Calvinism since the only infallible test of genuine faith is its ultimate endurance to the end.  Therefore, one cannot possibly know for certain “now” that he is genuinely “in the faith” contrary to Paul’s plain words.

Despite the claims by Calvinists that their doctrine of inevitable perseverance gives them a more solid footing than the Arminian with regards to salvation assurance, we have seen that Arminian salvation assurance better comports with the Biblical data and avoids the need to construct strange doctrines like that of Calvin’s “evanescent grace.”  In the final analysis the Arminian doctrine of perseverance supports the Biblical reality that one can have present assurance of salvation while the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance falls alarmingly short in the same area.

Go to Part 1

Related: An Important Admission on Salvation Assurance From Prominent Calvinist C. Michael Patton