I’m pretty sure that by now I’ve heard all the major objections to Calvinism. Some of them deserve to be taken seriously, although none are weighty enough to overturn the balance (or rather imbalance) of biblical evidence. Others objections, however, I find hard to credit at all. An example of the latter is the claim that the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election undermines assurance of salvation. Only this week a student was telling me about a professor at a nearby liberal arts college who had wielded this objection in his theology class. The objection is rarely articulated with precision, but as best I can make out the idea is that a Calvinist can’t enjoy assurance of salvation because he’ll always be fretting about whether or not he’s really elect. What if he’s a reprobate after all? He longs to peer into the secret will of God, but all in vain — for as Deuteronomy 29:29 declares, the “secret things” belong to the Lord God alone.
The objection involves a serious misunderstanding of what Calvinists have meant by the “secret will” of God. God’s “secret will” is what the Westminster Confession refers to as his “eternal decree”:
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (3.1)
In other words, God’s secret will is nothing other than what God from eternity has infallibly ordained will take place in history. But then it follows that God’s secret will is, by definition, being progressively revealed moment by moment — and can therefore be known as easily as any historical fact. When three items of mail appear in my mailbox, I know something about God’s secret will; namely, that it was his good pleasure to decree from eternity that three items of mail appear in my mailbox today. Likewise for any other event you care to mention.
Once this point is understood, we can see that Calvinism poses no special problem for the doctrine of assurance. Quite the contrary, in fact. On the Calvinist view, only the elect come to saving faith in Christ (leaving aside exceptional cases, such as those dying in infancy). It therefore follows that if a person — let’s call him Sam — has a saving faith in Christ then he must be elect. So the question of whether or not Sam is elect translates immediately into the question of whether or not Sam has saving faith in Christ. Answer the latter and you’ve immediately answered the former.
But how can Sam answer that question? Well, by applying various tests suggested in Scripture (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5). When Sam reflects on his own beliefs, do they include the beliefs that he is a sinner in need of a redeemer and that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, has indeed redeemed him by his atoning death and resurrection? Has he been baptized? Is he a member of a Christ-honoring local church? Does he regularly partake of the Lord’s Supper? Does his life show the fruits of repentance, good works, and love for his brothers and sisters in the faith? Does he no longer love the world? Is he growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Of course, these tests aren’t infallible. A professing Christian can deceive others and even himself. But the important point to see here is that the Calvinist is in no worse a position than the Arminian in this respect. The criteria the Arminian applies to confirm that he has a saving faith in Christ are the same as those applied by the Calvinist. Arminians don’t have infallible access to their present state of grace any more than Calvinists. (I should note in passing that this shouldn’t be thought a problem; as in most other areas of life, one can have assured knowledge without having apodictic certainty. I don’t have apodictic certainty that I’m writing this blog post — it’s logically possible that I’m dreaming or hallucinating — but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.)
In fact, we can go further: the Calvinist is in a much stronger position with regard to assurance than the Arminian. For according to Reformed doctrine, those who are genuinely converted will surely persevere to the end. As the Westminster Confession puts it:
They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. (17.1)
So the Reformed doctrine of perseverance has this crucial implication: if I have saving faith today then I will also have saving faith on my final day — and thus be eternally saved. So if I’m justified in believing (on the basis of the biblical tests) that I have saving faith today, then I’m also justified in believing that I will be finally saved. In other words, I have an assurance of salvation worth having!
Unfortunately, matters are not so assured for the Arminian, simply because Arminianism (in both its classical and Wesleyan forms) rejects the Reformed doctrine of perseverance and thus severs any necessary connection between my state of grace today and my state of grace in the future. On the Arminian view, if I have saving faith today it’s still entirely possible that I won’t have saving faith a year from now. There’s nothing even close to a guarantee that I won’t fall away and completely apostatize. Knowing that I have saving faith today is like knowing that I’m cancer-free today. How much does that tell me about whether or not I’ll succumb to cancer some day in the future?
So if the Arminian has it right, knowing that I presently have saving faith isn’t nearly sufficient for me to know that I will be finally saved. It all depends on whether I choose to persevere in the faith. But if whether or not I persevere in the faith ultimately depends on me, a fickle and frail sinner, how can I ever have any assurance of final salvation?
Consequently it seems clear to me that it isn’t Calvinism that undermines the doctrine of assurance; on the contrary, it’s Arminianism. Calvinism alone has the theological capital to fund the assurance that Christ has indeed prepared a place for us.
As I’ve reflected on this point, I’ve noticed a striking parallel between the Calvinist view of election and the doctrine of inerrancy. (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone has already written on this, but if so, I haven’t come across it.) In its simplest form, the doctrine of inerrancy states that the Bible affirms only truths. (I have explained and defended the theological rationale for inerrancy in a previous post.) Since there are many textual differences among the extant biblical manuscripts, inerrantists have been quick to make the obvious qualification that inerrancy applies only to the original inspired texts (the so-called ‘autographa’).
This qualification has sometimes been ridiculed on the basis that we no longer have the originals. What use are inerrant documents that we don’t actually possess? But this misses the obvious point that we do have the original texts insofar as we can reliably reconstruct them from the extant copies we possess today. As Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy rightly puts it:
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
The importance of the doctrine of inerrancy is that it underwrites the inference from Scripture affirms X to X is true. So insofar as I can know, on the basis of textual criticism and grammatical-historical exegesis, that Scripture teaches some doctrine, I can also know with no less confidence that the doctrine is true. The disciplines of textual criticism and textual interpretation may not furnish us with infallible conclusions about what the Bible teaches, but when pursued successfully they amount to the clearing away of topsoil from a bedrock of truth.
So here’s the parallel between inerrancy and Calvinism:
Inerrancy: Necessarily, if the autographa affirm X then X is true. Therefore, insofar as one knows that the autographa affirm X, one can also know that X is true. Evidence that the autographa affirm X is nothing less than evidence that X is true.
Calvinism: Necessarily, if person S is genuinely converted then S will be finally saved. Therefore, insofar as one knows that S is genuinely converted, one can also know that S will be finally saved. Evidence that S is genuinely converted is nothing less than evidence that S will be finally saved.
Just as the doctrine of inerrancy provides a rock-solid foundation for the doctrine of biblical revelation, so the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election provides a rock-solid foundation for the doctrine of assurance. So it’s no surprise to find that denying inerrancy introduces the same kind of epistemic problems as denying unconditional election. If inerrancy is false, on what basis can I be assured that if the Bible affirms X then X is actually true? If Calvinism is false, on what basis can I be assured that if I’m trusting in Christ today then I will inherit eternal life in the end (cf. John 5:24; 1 John 5:13)?
I find this parallel interesting, but it doesn’t prove that all Calvinists should be inerrantists or that all inerrantists should be Calvinists. Considered as a matter of simple logical consistency, Arminianism is compatible with inerrancy and Calvinism is compatible with non-inerrancy. However, I do think the parallel reflects a deeper theological affinity between the two. It has been argued that a robust doctrine of biblical inspiration requires a robust doctrine of divine sovereignty. After all, how could God ensure that the human writers of Scripture would affirm only truths unless he had infallible control over their wills as they freely wrote? At the very least, Calvinists should take comfort from the fact that the divine sovereignty which underwrites the doctrines of grace also underwrites the absolute trustworthiness of the scriptures that teach those doctrines of grace.