You can’t get assurance of salvation just by insisting ever more loudly that you are assured, or that the church or the Bible or God’s promise or God’s character assure you. All those appeals to authorities as objective grounds of assurance fail to establish a point of contact with the person doing the asking about assurance. The path to assurance of salvation lies through a deeper understanding of salvation.
Calvinists get this. A heroic effort to ground assurance in Godâ€™s eternal predestinating election is characteristic of the Reformed theological tradition. This effort has many merits to recommend it. First, it marks a definite advance by naming the content of salvation: Godâ€™s gracious election. Second, it recognizes the requirement for a truly objective starting-point for assurance: you donâ€™t get much more objective than mongergistic predestination!
But precisely in this success, it leaves open too much space between the objective and subjective poles of assurance. The question of assurance â€“How can I know that I am saved– is not so much resolved as re-stated in the famous form: How can I know that I am among the elect? It was in this form that the anti-Protestant council of Trent met with Protestant claims to assurance, and it rejected them by anathematizing anyone who claimed certainty about their elect status (though it allowed that saints might receive special revelation about their eternal destiny). The Reformed, on the other hand, did not think that Trent scored any points against their view. Instead, the Calvinist tradition decided it was on the right track, and got busy generating numerous insightful and pastorally sensitive approaches to the doctrine of assurance. The development of Puritan theology in particular gave rise to distinctions between intuitive versus discursive apprehensions of assurance, and within the discursive chains of reasoning there arose distinctions between a practical syllogism which takes into account marks of election in a faithful life, and a mystical syllogism which emphasized the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. (See Joel Beeke’s The Quest for Full Assurance for an introduction to this literature)
These Puritan Reformed maneuvers do not have to be judged unsuccessful in order for us nevertheless to continue seeking better,or more direct, answers in the quest for the best possible home for the doctrine of assurance. Indeed, that this Reformed tradition is fundamentally right in its basic orientation is suggested by the fact that Trent could only oppose the Reformed position by restricting its own negative appraisal of assurance to a handful of soteriological ideas while studiously avoiding a broader range of biblical motifs such as adoption and the indwelling of the Spirit. The most accomplished Reformed thinkers, in contrast, have always kept their explorations of election within that wider framework of adoption, indwelling, and an effectual call worked out in the course of history, along with a full enjoyment of the manifold benefits of union with Christ. Reformed soteriology has proven its capacity for a great inclusiveness of multiple biblical themes. This expansiveness is one of the correlates of a properly functioning doctrine of assurance.
The decisive soteriological conflict at Trent, however, was not on the front of election but of justification, and justification is a very promising locus to consider as a possible home for assurance of salvation. Again, it is a common suggestion: I should be assured of my salvation because God has unilaterally, forensically justified me in pronouncing me righteous on the grounds of Christâ€™s redeeming work. As a proposed doctrinal home for assurance, justification is eminently hospitable: it is biblically well attested, it is highly objective, and it is specific in its soteriological content. In its specificity it is sharply focused, and served as a perfect point of conflict with the Tridentine theology that denied assurance of salvation. The Reformers rightly identified justification as the right place to draw the soteriological line, and assurance followed in its train.
However, this great virtue of the Reformation account of justification carries a particular disadvantage when it comes to its application to the doctrine of assurance: it is a focusing maneuver, specifying in the most precise and pointed way the element of salvation on which everything turns. That is appropriate for a dispute over the nature of Godâ€™s mighty act of justifying the ungodly, and the surgical work of excising the metastasizing claims of human merit within salvation. But it is less helpful for the doctrine of assurance, because the movement of thought required for describing assurance is not the movement of focusing, but the expansive and inclusive sweep of reciting the many blessings of salvation.
So we should add this last criterion, expansiveness, to the other criteria or biblical attestation, objectivity, and specficity. A good doctrine of assurance will have all four.
(This is an excerpt from a paper I read at ETS in Rhode Island last month. The first part was posted yesterday. More to come.)