Essay / Theology

How Assurance of Salvation Works

The doctrine of assurance can be slippery. Even among those Protestant evangelical traditions that have recognized the necessity of formulating a doctrine of assurance that answers to the biblical witness about faith’s confidence, there has long been a candid acknowledgement that the doctrine must simultaneously face two opposite directions. It must assure me that I, even I, am saved; but it must do this by pointing away from me to an objective ground.

To state the doctrine too objectively is to leave the believer as an onlooker to a redemptive spectacle which assures him with absolute confidence that somebody is saved, but leaves open, disturbingly open, the question whether he is that somebody. To state the doctrine too subjectively, however, directs the believer’s attention to phenomena of his own biography, experience, and consciousness, where the ground of salvation cannot be seen. A well-ordered doctrine of assurance must underwrite the confident confession that even though I am condemned if considered in myself, I am not in fact in myself but in Christ, where I, truly I, am saved.

In a flourishing Christian life, this confident repose on God shows itself as an effortless and unselfconscious equipoise: Gazing on the savior and glancing at the self, the believer is saved and assured of being saved in one simple motion. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so! The theologian should not seek to problematize this assurance, but rather to account for it doctrinally by locating it in relation to the larger doctrinal complexes of Christian theology. Succeeding at this descriptive task will have benefits of various kinds, but the project takes on a certain urgency when one notices how much disorder and perplexity can result from this doctrine’s mislocation or dislocation, to say nothing of its outright denial. Properly locating the doctrine of assurance within the landscape or ecosystem of Christian doctrine is an important task.

To many theologians it has seemed that assurance of salvation is best described as assurance of faith, and therefore should be included in the description of faith itself, since to have assurance is just to know that one believes the promise of someone worth believing in. On this analysis, assurance is faith roused to self-consciousness, or faith knowing itself as faith. This answer is surely correct, so long as it can be consistently distinguished from a confidence in the exercise of faith, or the felt experience of having faith. When assurance is considered as a kind of intensification of faith, or a subjective reflex of the act of faith, it is too easily assimilated to the risings and fallings of religious experience, and subject to all the temperamental vicissitudes of that experience. The summons to assurance then becomes an exhortation to grasp the promise of salvation with a passionate inwardness that is the measure of faith.

In reaction to this, some theologians bundle assurance and faith together and then link them to an external source of authority. One obvious external source is the authority of the church, and especially its competence to deliver truthful doctrines and valid sacraments. Faith and its assurance then quickly become reduced to implicit faith in the ecclesial authority. Much medieval theology, however correct in substance it may have been, was vitiated by an over-reliance on a perfectly content-less implicit faith, which Calvin rightly ridiculed as “ignorance blended with humility,” a mixture unworthy of the name of faith.

Another widespread solution is the appeal to biblical authority to ground assurance. Insofar as scripture is the repository and channel of God’s promise, it is certainly right to appeal to it in this way. But in a way that is structurally similar to the appeal to church authority, the appeal to the authority of scripture is only as successful as the soteriological content it specifies. Unless and until that content is made explicit, the appeal to the divine authority of scripture is a mere placeholder marking out where the argument should go.

These three attempts are variations on the theme of grounding assurance in an intensification of faith: first in the intensified experience of faith, second in the authority of the church which proposes what to believe, and third in the scriptures as the authoritative record of God’s promises which are to be believed. We might label these three solutions in their pure forms as the pietist, the Catholic, and the fundamentalist solutions. None of them is entirely mistaken, but they have in common a tendency to leave the content of the promise unstated. On their own they end by collapsing into either the objective or subjective ranges of the spectrum.

A theology that describes assurance of salvation the right way will have to solve this problem by leading with more content, and that means being clear about what salvation itself is. You could state the rule of thumb this way: To get a functional doctrine of assurance, invest in a robust doctrine of salvation.

(This is the beginning of a paper I read at ETS in Rhode Island in late November. I’ll post some more of it later.)

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