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Does Calvinism Offer a Basis for the Assurance of Salvation?

Does Calvinism Offer a Basis for the Assurance of Salvation?

In this June 10, 2009 photo, a worker pushes a wall, part of a stage decoration, next to the statue of John Calvin in front of the Reformation Wall in the grounds of the university in the center of Geneva, Switzerland.  | (Photo: AP / Anja Niedringhaus)

Calvinism affirms a doctrine known as the perseverance of the saints according to which the truly regenerated disciple will persist in faith. In the words of the seventeenth-century Puritan William Secker, "Though Christians be not kept altogether from falling, yet they are kept from falling altogether."

Calvinists insist that perseverance of the saints is a scriptural doctrine. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6: "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

In addition, Calvinists have also often argued that perseverance has a clear pastoral advantage in that it grounds our assurance of salvation in the faithfulness of Christ rather than our own unreliable human wills.

As Exhibit A, the Calvinist might point to the famous Arminian theologian John Wesley. In marked contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance, Wesley often warned that a saved and regenerated individual could lose their salvation. For example, in one sobering passage, Wesley observes,

"a man that believes now may be an unbeliever some time hence; yea, very possibly tomorrow; but if so, he who is a child of God today, may be a child of the devil tomorrow."

A child of the devil tomorrow? Yikes! It must be admitted that this is a disconcerting thought! Reformed theologian Loraine Boettner drives the point home by asking the Arminian, if he believes this to be true, how can he know that he will persist and so be saved?

"He has seen many of his fellow Christians backslide and perish after making a good start. Why may not he do the same thing?"

The answer to the dilemma, or so Boettner would have us believe, is that the only real hope for assurance comes if we deny Wesley's claim and conclude that the truly saved individual will not ultimately backslide and perish. In the words of Secker, though we are not kept from falling, we are kept from falling altogether.

So here is the question: are Reformed theologians like Boettner correct to suppose that perseverance of the saints provides a superior basis for assurance of salvation? The answer, or so it seems to me, is a resounding no. To be sure, particular individuals may find the doctrine of perseverance more comforting: that, I do not dispute. But as to the core epistemological question of whether one can know they will ultimately be saved, Calvinism offers no advantage.

The reason is this: while Arminianism cannot give you a guarantee that you will be saved tomorrow, Calvinism cannot give you a guarantee that you were ever saved (i.e. of the elect) to begin with. So return to Boettner's statement:

"He has seen many of his fellow Christians backslide and perish after making a good start. Why may not he do the same thing?"

Boettner's point is that there are individuals — we can probably all think of examples — who appeared to be Christians at one time but who later renounced their faith. But this is a common datum shared by Arminians and Calvinists. We are all familiar with such people who rejected a faith they once accepted. With that in mind, in principle, we must recognize the possibility that we could ultimately be counted in their numbers: we too could conceivably reject the faith at some time hence. The question is how we interpret that possible scenario.

The Arminian would interpret that outcome as a matter of an individual once saved coming to lose their faith (1 Timothy 1:19). By contrast, the Calvinist would interpret that outcome instead as a matter of the individual who at one time believed they were saved in fact never having had faith (cf. 1 John 2:19). To sum up, while the Arminian warns that you could be a child of the devil tomorrow, the Calvinist must admit that you could be a child of the devil today!

To conclude, while the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance of the saints may offer a particular subjective comfort of assurance for some, it offers no objective advantage over Arminianism as regards an epistemological basis for the assurance of salvation.

So how do we find assurance? We look for spiritual fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23), testing ourselves to see that we are of the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). And as we do, the Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are God's children (Romans 8:16). But those answers are the same whether you are Calvinist or Arminian. Neither of these views offers any special objective advantage as regards the assurance of salvation.

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at randalrauser.com and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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