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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sole Fide & The Assurance of Salvation

This is from a lecture by an Anglican at a Lutheran Symposium: (Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin)
"The Protestant Doctrine of Conversion

So how is it that Protestants got into their distinctive agony, asking the question of
reflective faith: "Do I truly believe?" It's not simply that most of them don't like sacraments.
That wouldn't be fair to say of someone like Calvin, for instance (let's leave Zwingli out of this).
But there are specific reasons to find the kind of reasoning in the standard Protestant syllogism
attractive, and you can even feel the pull of that attraction in some places in Luther.

The problem is this. Suppose you want to know you are eternally saved. Then no
sacrament is going to be good enough for you. In particular, the sacramental promise of baptism
cannot function as an unconditional guarantee that you will be saved in the end, because of
course lots of people get baptized (especially as infants) and later abandon the faith of Christ. As
Augustine points out, eternal salvation requires that God give you not only the gift of faith but
also that the gift of persevering in the faith until the end of your life.7 And no one—not
Augustine, not Luther, not Calvin—thinks that baptism promises that gift. So if you want to
know that you are eternally saved,now, you must look to a different promise—one more like the
major premise in the standard Protestant syllogism.

But you must do more than that. You must follow Calvin in what I take to be his most
radical innovation in Christian doctrine. You must teach that those who truly believe,now, are
sure to receive the gift of perseverance in faith to the end of their lives. This is the distinctively
Calvinist doctrine of perseverance, formulated in the 5th point of 5-point Calvinism (the "P" in
the famous TULIP, summarizing the 5 canons of the synod of Dordt).8 This is a stark departure
from the Augustinian tradition, for Augustine was quite explicit in teaching that no one knows
whether they will receive the gift of perseverance—a point on which he was followed by the
Formula of Concord.9 No one knows their own future that well. For no decision you make now
can determine that in five or ten years or even tomorrow, you won't apostatize, abandon the faith
of Christ, and go the way of eternal death.

The only way you could know you will persevere in faith to the end of your life is if you
could know you are predestined to be saved. Augustine thought it obvious that no one knows
this, but Calvin disagreed. This is what is profound and new about Calvin's doctrine of
predestination, which in other respects (as Calvin rightly argued10) differs little from
Augustine's—and therefore from Aquinas' or Luther's. Calvin teaches that believers can and
should know they are predestined for salvation,11 which means they can and should know they
will persevere in faith to the end, which means they can and should know they are eternally
saved, now, already in this life—not just saved in hope, as Augustine describes the effect of
baptism: saved in spe but not yet in re, in hope but not yet in reality. Augustine says explicitly:
we are “not yet saved.”12 We are still on the road to eternal salvation, and we don't get there
until after this life.

So how can Calvin teach otherwise? This is where reflective faith comes in as an
essential element in Calvin's theology. He makes a distinction between temporary faith and true
saving faith,13which of course is faith that perseveres, and he thinks we can and should know if
we have true faith. (The people with temporary faith may just be mistaken about the status of
their faith, which of course is a rather terrifying possibility). I have no idea why he thinks he can
get away with this. The agonies of conscience it leads to strike me as utterly unbearable and
pernicious. How am I supposed to make this distinction between temporary and true faith?

Where am I supposed to look?

Disastrously, I am supposed to look inward. After all, even the unregenerate can do
outward good works. So what the mainstream Calvinist tradition does is direct our attention to
the fact—and of course it is a fact—that true faith bears fruits in sanctification of the heart. So if
you are a good Calvinist, you are supposed to notice this—notice that you're getting more
inwardly sanctified, which gives you assurance of faith, i.e. assurance that you really do have
true faith. I have to say, this strikes me as a disastrous theological and pastoral move. The result
is: I amsupposed to believe I am inwardly holy and righteous. Instead of looking at myself and
finding a sinner—for as Luther rightly says, even the righteous man sins in all his good
works14—and thus being driven in repentance to take hold once again of the Gospel alone as the

sole assurance of my salvation, I amsupposed to look at my own heart and see something
reassuring: I've made real spiritual progress, I'm becoming more inwardly holy and righteous.15

I do not see how anyone can do this without becoming self-righteous, in a distinctively
Protestant way—claiming no righteousness of your own, of course, but comforted by how
powerfully the Holy Spirit is working in you, ready to boast of how transformed your inner life is
because of God working in your life, and so on. Isn't this the very essence of what Luther meant
bySchw ärm erei, fanaticism? It is, I think, the main reason why the very word "righteous" has
come to have a bad odor, being virtually indistinguishable nowadays from the word "self-
righteous." (Just think about it: if you call someone "righteous" nowadays, you’re insulting
them, no? I’m thinking: that’s because so many Protestants have worked so hard over the years
to convince themselves that inwardly, they really are more righteous than their unregenerate

One further innovation is needed to make Calvin's radically new doctrine of
predestination work. In order to know that I have true saving faith, not the temporary kind which
does not persevere, I must know that I have passed a point of no return. At some particular
moment in my life I have come into a faith that will never fail. So there develops a distinctively
Protestant doctrine of conversion as a once-in-a-lifetime event of justification, before which I
had no true faith and after which I know I am eternally saved, because I do have true faith. As
this distinctively Protestant doctrine of conversion develops, it replaces baptism as the moment
when I become a Christian and becomes in effect the basis of my assurance that I have a gracious

But you can see why. If you want to know you are eternally saved,now, already in this
life, then this is the route you need to go. You can see Luther himself exploring this route in
some of the table talk when he counsels people about anxieties about predestination and says that
if you know you believe, you can know you're predestined for salvation.16 But he never
systematically builds a theology around this point, as Calvin does............"

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