The Reign of the Servant Kings
By Joseph C. Dillow
Chapter 11—From Calvin to Westminster
Nowhere are we commanded to look to faith or to fruits to find out if we are born again. We look only to Christ for that kind of assurance. It is possible that for many within the Experimental Predestinarian position this will be the most important discussion in this book. It would not be surprising if the previous and following chapters were skipped over in the search for the answer to the question, “What does the author say about assurance?” For the Puritans and their modern followers assurance of salvation is their magnificent obsession, 2 Peter 1:10 is their life verse and the practical syllogism is their chief practice. Their “practical syllogism” is as follows:
Major Premise: All who have believed and who have the fruits of regeneration are saved.
Minor Premise: I have believed and have some fruit.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am saved.
When Peter wrote, “Be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure,” he unwittingly gave them a basis for four hundred years of introspection. Indeed, this verse could aptly be used to summarize the roughly one hundred years between the Reformation and the Westminster Confession (1649).
According to a Gallup Survey over fifty million people in the United States believe they are born-again. One naturally asks, “Are they really saved?” It would be a terrible tragedy to give assurance to someone who is not truly justified. One of the great errors of the Experimental Predestinarian is that he seems to think he has either the responsibility or the right to pronounce upon another man’s eternal destiny. Better is the attitude of the apostle Paul, “Therefore judge nothing before the time . . . .”
This is a book of exegetical, not historical, theology. However, since many who share these views of assurance seem to feel they stand in the tradition of the early Reformers, and of John Calvin in particular, it will be of interest to note that those who bear Calvin’s name have widely departed from Calvin in this central fact. For Calvin, assurance was not a reflex act of faith but part of the direct act of saving faith itself. Our assurance, Calvin said, does not come from reflecting upon our faith but from reflecting upon Christ.
Reviewer’s comment: The author proceeds to discuss John Calvin, Theodore Beza, William Perkins, and Jacobus Arminius, all theologians of the past; and the evolvement of theology from Calvin up to and including the Westminster Assembly—a rather lengthy section, of which this reviewer will list only selected passages. For the full discussion the reader is directed to the book.
John Calvin (1509-1564)
If Calvin were to be asked, “Where do we get faith?” He would have answered that its source is the intercessory prayer of Christ. We received the gift of faith because Christ prayed to the father and asked Him to give it to us. Faith is thus located in the mind and is not an act of the will or an initiative that we take in order to become a Christian; it is passively received.
Reviewer’s comments: This reviewer takes exception with this Calvinistic position.
A firm and sure knowledge that we are saved is thus of the essence of faith itself and is not the result of later reflection upon whether we have believed or whether or not there are fruits of regeneration in our lives. Calvin devotes several sections in his Institutes to explain and clarify this definition. For Calvin faith is knowledge. It is not obedience. It is a passive thing received as a result of the witness of the Holy Spirit. It is “recognition” and “knowledge.” It is illumination and knowledge as opposed to feeling; it is certainty, firm conviction, assurance, firm assurance, and full assurance. In all these descriptions the idea that faith is an act of the will is absent. Neither are works required to verify its existence in the heart.
The Basis of Assurance
What then is the basis of assurance according to Calvin? Christ is the source of our assurance. Unless we cling steadfastly to Christ, we will “vacillate continually.” We ask not, “Am I trusting in Christ? but Am I trusting in Christ?” In other words, for Calvin the object of self-examination is not to see if we are saved but to be sure that we are trusting in Christ and not our works for our assurance.
In other words, if we doubt our salvation, we are not to look to ourselves to find evidences of justification, but we should look to Christ who is a mirror reflecting back to us those persons who are elect. As we look at Him, we see ourselves in the reflection and have assurance of our salvation. If we are not to trust in our works for justification, why should we trust in them for our assurance? As long as any works are necessary to establish that a man is of the elect, then works become the basis of his confidence instead of Christ. Calvin’s central belief is that assurance is the essence of faith.
It seems that Calvin’s stress on the passive nature of faith is a valid biblical insight. It does appear that faith is something that “happens” to us. We are responsible to believe in the sense that we are responsible to look to Christ, not conjure up faith. Clearly, faith is not located primarily in the will, as Calvin observed, for we often are forced to believe things against our will (the death of a loved one, for example). Also, it seems that for some people they would give the world to believe, but for some reason they just can’t. To tell them that they can is to violate their consciousness.
Reviewer’s comment: Again, this reviewer objects to the position that man has no ability to exercise—by act of will—faith in Christ. He believes that this is a component of the “image of God,” a part of his created being.
Calvin’s Doctrine of Temporary Faith
The origin of this odious doctrine is to be traced to Calvin himself. He based it on (1) his misinterpretation of the parable of the sower (to be discussed elsewhere—each of the last three are regenerate as evidenced by the obvious fact that even the one with “temporary faith,” the stony ground, evidenced life and growth), (2) the warnings in Hebrews (these warnings are addressed to true Christians and present the danger of millennial disinheritance—what they potentially may “fall away” from), and (3) the Lord’s warning, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
The central claim of this teaching is that God imparts supernatural influence to the reprobate that approximates, but does not equal, the influence of effectual calling. He is illuminated, he tastes, he grows, and he has similar feelings as the elect. However, it seems God can be more than just in condemning him when he finally falls away. After all, the man had these “tastes.”
He does not think it absurd that the reprobate should have “a taste of the heavenly gift—and Christ” (Hebrews 6:4, 5), because this makes them convicted and more inexcusable. This is a consequence of a “lower” working of the Spirit that he later seems to term an “ineffectual” calling. There is nothing strange in God’s shedding of some rays of grace on the reprobate and afterwards allowing these to be extinguished. This, according to Calvin, was “an inferior operation of the Spirit,” the whole purpose of which is “the better to convict them and leave them without excuse.”
Calvin has said that the reprobate cannot discern the difference between their experience and that of a born-again Christian. They believe God to be propitious to them and to have given them the gift of reconciliation. Since both the reprobate and the saved can have these feelings, how can one know if he is saved? Calvin seems to be saying that the unsaved have these feelings, but they are more intense in the elect and enable them to say, “Abba, Father.” He feels, however, that the differences between the reprobate and the elect are more important than the similarities. The primary difference is that the faith of the reprobate is temporary. Eventually it fails and they fall away. The true believer is sustained. A second difference is that the reprobate never enjoys a “living feeling” of firm assurance.
Part of Calvin’s problem goes back to his misinterpretation of the parable of the soils. The last three are all true Christians and are not reprobate. Therefore, there is no “temporary” faith taught here. Similarly, Hebrews 6 refers to true Christians, not mere professors, and the doctrine of temporary faith is not found there either. In the final analysis Calvin has thrown away the possibility of assurance, at least until the final hour. When he grants that the only certain difference between the faith of the elect and the (temporary) faith of the reprobate is that the faith of the former perseveres to the end, he makes assurance now virtually impossible. In other words, the only real evidence of election is perseverance, and only assurance of the certainty of persevering is—to persevere! So on this ground there is no assurance at all!
Some Calvinists might reply, “This is not a contradiction, only a healthy tension.” The word “healthy” is used to imply that there is value in wondering whether or not one is saved. But the idea that God intends to motivate His children to godly living by desiring that they wonder if they have only temporary faith like the reprobate and that they must persevere to the end to find out is so far removed from the apostle’s statements of grace and love that one wonders how anyone could every find it in the New Testament.
For most, however, the certainty of their final salvation does not lead to license. On the contrary, it leads to a wonderful security and sense of gratitude that promotes true godliness. Is it not indisputable that our children are more likely to behave well in an atmosphere of unconditional parental acceptance than in an atmosphere of uncertainty? Can it ever be “healthy” for a child to cherish doubts about his parents’ long-term acceptance? If it is true that an earthly parent must strive to communicate unconditional and permanent acceptance regardless of failure, would it not be even truer of our heavenly Father?
Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Theodora Beza, departed from Calvin by grounding assurance in evidences of fruit in one’s life. Beza’s starting point was his doctrine of “limited atonement.” Calvin held to unlimited atonement, but Beza argued that if Christ died for all then all would be saved. Beza developed a system that became known as supralapsarianism.
Calvin said men are chosen from a corrupt mass, but Beza says men are chosen from a mass “yet unshapen.” By basing his system around predestination, Beza gave election and reprobation priority over creation and the fall. Predestination refers to the destinies of men not yet created, much less fallen.
This doctrine led to the division between assurance and faith, which differed from Calvin. For Calvin, Christ was the “mirror” in whom we contemplated our election. By this he meant we look to Christ for assurance and not ourselves. But for Beza we have no certainty that we are elected because we do not know for sure that we are one of those for whom Christ died. If Christ died for all, then we could know that we are elect, but if He
died only for the elect, it is presumptuous for us to trust in Christ’s death, if not dangerous.
Beza, knowing this, suggests that we should look within ourselves for the evidence that Christ died for us. Sanctification, or good works, is the infallible proof of saving faith. Ultimately, Beza says that the only true evidence that Christ died for you is if you persevere in holiness. He turns to 2 Peter 1:10 and argues that assurance of election is based on a good conscience. We make our election sure by good works. These works, he says, are a testimony to our conscience that Christ lives in us, and thus we cannot perish, being elected to salvation.
William Perkins (1558-1602)
William Perkins developed a system of assurance built around an interpretation 2 Peter 1:10, which says we must prove our election to ourselves by means of good works. He was a supralapsarian. According to Perkins, before one can become a Christian, the heart must be made malleable by four hammers: the Law, knowledge of sin, sense of God’s wrath, and a holy desperation. 2 Peter 1:10 teaches us to prove to ourselves that we have faith by means of a good conscience. Justifying faith is that by which a man is persuaded in his conscience. The will to believe does not yield assurance, but the conscience, reflecting on the fruits of regeneration can yield assurance.
There are two works of grace necessary: initial faith and perseverance. Only the second ultimately proves that the first is valid. If godliness is the means by which we make our calling and election sure, then the Experimental Predestinarians reasoned we had better give a list of what it means to be godly and how to become godly. This led to the legalism for which Puritanism is noted and the heavy sobriety and lack of joy that is so proverbial in their churches.
Jacobs Arminius (1559-1609)
Jacobus Arminius studied under Beza at Geneva in 1581. His doctrine of predestination was simple: God predestines believers. If one believes, he is elected; if he does not believe, he is not elected. This was a view of faith that was active. Man chooses to believe; thus, faith is an act of the will.
Arminius believed salvation could be lost. He affirmed dogmatically that it is impossible for believers to decline from salvation. What he meant, however, is that they cannot decline as long as they remain believers. He said that God elects believers whom He foresees will persevere. He placed faith in the will and said that faith is obedience. He said there are three parts to it: repentance, faith in Christ, and observance of God’s commands. His doctrine of assurance is also the same as that of his opponents. Assurance comes from the fruit of faith.
The Westminister Assembly Theology
Those invited to the Westminster Assembly were completely unified from the beginning in their doctrine of saving faith. No representative of the viewpoint of Calvin was there, and the breech between faith and assurance was now given creedal sanction. The assembly also convened to answer the threat of antinomianism by which they meant a doctrine that did not place faith in the will and thus opened the door for apostasy (by this definition Calvin would have been antinomian).
Man’s will is not eliminated as it was in Calvin’s theology. Saving faith is not only believing that God’s word is true, but it is “yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come.” For the assembly at Westminster, faith is man’s act. Believers can lose their assurance because it is based upon their performance, how one’s conscience feels about one’s performance as he reflects upon his recent behavior. Assurance is grounded in reflection upon one’s sincerity. One’s good works do not need to be perfect, only sincere.
The road from Calvin to Westminster was to be expected. It is now necessary to look more carefully at some of the biblical passages that have been discussed along this journey. What does the Bible say about faith, assurance, and the need for a Christian to subject himself to self-examination?