Calvinism, Perseverance and Assurance: Some Further Analysis

My parting attempt at humour notwithstanding, the long and involved debate with Anglican Ablaze’s Robin Jordan isn’t as “over” as one would like.  For his part he has sounded the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of Charles Finney.  For mine, I’d like to take this another direction, because, as I said, I don’t think the serious issues got the treatment they deserved, and I also think that some education is in order.

Some of that education stems from the fact that, for the years I worked for the Church of God, I worked in the Lay Ministries Department.  One of our tasks was to train people in personal evangelism.  My boss, Leonard Albert, is still doing that and blogging here.  In order to share the gospel, you must know the gospel, and that’s part of the education.  It’s true that Calvinists have made a major impact in how we present the gospel to people.  (If it’s any comfort to Jordan, Finney’s presentation on the subject in Revivals of Religion is weak by current standards).  But looking at the problem from a lay standpoint, where people start by accepting Christ (and that’s problematic in a strictly Reformed context) and move up vs. starting with doctrine and moving down, the problem looks different.  Hopefully the following isn’t too circuitous to show what I’m talking about.

Let’s start with Martin Luther himself.  Religious though he was, Luther couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling that he wasn’t right with God.  No amount of sacramental participation, or good works, or even going to Rome made things better.  (Going to the HQ of any church can have uninspiring results).  Finally, after searching the Scriptures, he realised that, by faith, he was justified, not by his own works, and that he could have the assurance that he was right with God.  That, at the core, is the basis of the Reformed faith.

Cast in an Augustinian context, Luther saw that as done by immutable predestination.  Calvin and his followers, also in an Augustinian context, took matters further.

We also have here the idea that, once a believer is in Christ, they have unconditional perseverance, i.e., they cannot fall away.  That is a necessary result of Calvinism’s insistence that the elect are the only ones to receive the grace of salvation; if a person falls, he or she wasn’t elect to start with.  Pentecostals and others, however, will recognise this as “once saved/always saved” which their Baptist friends believe.  The difference between the traditional Southern Baptist and the Calvinist, however, is that while the Calvinist will stress God’s choice and the fact that man is too far gone to make a choice, the Baptist will posit that this perseverance is a benefit of the choice of the person to be saved.  Unconditional perseverance has serious problems, but at least the Calvinist is more consistent in his or her idea of where the perseverance comes from.

Let me pause here and present what is, with some changes, the type of gospel presentation we used to teach (and with the Scripture references some of you have looked for):

The Calvinist will say that, once a person knows this to be so, they know they are unconditionally elect.  As part of Reformed theology, they can have assurance of this salvation, as opposed to, say, Roman Catholicism or Islam, where one’s status with God is essentially uncertain.

Or can they?  At one point in our debate I brought up the issue of assurance, and Jordan responded with this, from the Westminster Confession:

“…infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance…”

This immediately struck me as the same kind of back-pedalling we see in Roman Catholicism: wise, perhaps, but a far cry from the iron-clad assurance we thought was the product of the Reformation.  Moreover the other side of Calvinism–unconditional perseverance–seems unreasonable when we consider that people who profess to be Christians do things which do not match that profession or storm out of the faith altogether.  If we keep saying that they weren’t saved to start with, pretty soon they come to the idea that salvation is not for them.  That may suit the Calvinist who believes that Christ only came for the elect; for me, starting with something as basic as John 3:16, that’s unsatisfactory.

So where does that leave us? Let’s start from an Anglican perspective with Article XVII, which deals with serious sins after baptism.  I can’t see a real Calvinist going along with such a thing, and indeed some in the Church of England didn’t.  But I believe that God, who has given us the grace for eternal life, can bring such a person back, even when they have consciously walked out on him.  To cite a couple of well-known passages:

My children, I am writing to you to keep you from sinning; but if any one should sin, we have one who can plead for us with the Father–Jesus Christ, the Righteous– and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but for those of the whole world besides. (1 John 2:1-2)

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

If we do not insist on unconditional perseverance, then the other side of salvation–assurance–becomes much easier, because the effects of a possible mistake are not permanent, and the cautions cited in the Westminster Confession, for example, are sensible without becoming waffling.

I have come to believe and be convinced of many things in the years since I was an Episcopalian, but unconditional perseverance isn’t one of them.  It is a doctrine I have come to dislike, although most of my life I’ve confronted it via à vis the Baptists and not the Calvinists.  Anglicanism provided for a way out of this, but such is lost if we follow those who should cross the Tweed if their convictions are located there.

3 thoughts on “Calvinism, Perseverance and Assurance: Some Further Analysis”

  1. Don,

    Article XVI deals with sin after baptism, not Article XV.

    “Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.”

    From your articles to day you appear to have your own particular interpretation of Calvinism, which to a large extent seems to be based upon ultra-Calvinism, and you make a lot of assumptions about Calvinists that others would not make. You also appear to want your readers to accept your views as the last word on Calvinism and Calvinists. For someone like myself who has studied the Reformed tradition in the Anglican Church in its various manifestations, including Puritanism, what you are talking about has all the appearances of an artificial construct. In the Anglican Reformed tradition and Puritanism, which is a part of that tradition, you will find a wide diversity of opinions on the doctrine of assurance. You simply cannot say that the Reformed believe such and such. Note that I avoid the term “Calvinists.” Reformed theology is more nuanced than you would lead your readers to believe.

    As for my post on Charles Finney I was not sounding a trumpet or throwing down a gauntlet or doing anything like that. I concluded that my readers might not be familiar with the controversy surrounding Charles Finney’s ministry and teaching and sought to rectify that. If I remember rightly, a critique of his teaching by a number of Wesleyan writers originally formed my own view of Finney. I will allow that a misapprehension of Calvin’s teaching on predestination and election might lead to universalist thinking. But I must point to our readers’ attention that this is just one of a number of paths that can lead to such conclusions. It is not something particular to Calvinism. Consequently it is disingenuous to suggest that it is a fatal flaw or major shortcoming of that system of theology.

    I must point to your attention that like Charles Simeon and J. C. Ryles I am not a “system-man” but a “Bible Christian.” So trying to portray me as fitting or not fitting the Calvinist construct that you have created is not going to work. What I personally believe is both consistent with the teaching of the Bible and well within the parameters of the classic Anglican formularies understood in their plain, natural, and intended sense.

    1. Unconditional perseverance is the logical conclusion of Calvinism’s (in all of its forms) concept of predestination and election. It cannot be gotten around so easily. That’s one reason why we need a better way than those who believe the Reformation was the ne plus ultra of Christian experience and doctrine would allow us. As was the case with Gibraltar, there is “plus ultra”. Part of that “plus ultra” was Finney’s refutation of universalism, which I still think is the best out there. I would not want to have to defend against universalism from a purely Reformed standpoint.

      Your repeat your assertion that I’d like my opinions to be the last word for my readers. I guess that is my Palm Beach way; the top of the blog says it all. Seriously, however, anyone who has sailed this virtual sea knows that their readers will find other opinions, like yours.

      FWIW, I noted in your About that the church you grew up in was dedicated by Leonidas Polk. My great-great-grandfather was an aide de camp to General/Bishop Polk up to the time he was killed north of Atlanta. His daughter’s Episcopal baptismal certificate (well, the reverse of same) graces this blog. She married a Louisiana native and my grandmother and her three brothers were raised in NOLA, and they brought the Episcopal Church to my family.

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