John Calvin’s doctrine of the assurance of faith is replete with paradoxes that have often been misunderstood, even by Calvin scholars. For example, William Cunningham (1805-1861), a staunch Calvinist scholar, writes, “Calvin never contradicted himself so plainly and palpably as this [when], in immediate connection with the definition given from him of saving faith, he had made statements, with respect to the condition of the mind that may exist in believers, which cannot well be reconciled with the formal definition.”
After briefly presenting Calvin’s understanding of faith and assurance and their paradoxical relationship, I will focus on four principles from which Calvin operates. Each will help make sense of Calvin’s apparent contradictions on assurance. Combined, these principles confirm the thesis that Calvin actually developed a scriptural doctrine of assurance that confirms initial and ongoing spiritual experiences in the life of faith.
Nature and definition of faith
Calvin’s doctrine of assurance affirms the basic tenets of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli and discloses emphases of his own. Like Luther and Zwingli, Calvin says faith is never merely assent (assensus), but involves both knowledge (cognitio) and trust (fiducia). He affirms that knowledge and trust are saving dimensions of the life of faith rather than notional matters. For Calvin, faith is not historical knowledge plus saving assent, as his successor, Theodore Beza, would teach, but faith is a saving and certain knowledge joined with a saving and assured trust.
Calvin held that knowledge is foundational to faith. Knowledge rests upon the Word of God, which is essentially the Holy Scriptures as well as the gospel and its proclamation. Faith originates in the Word of God. Faith rests firmly upon God’s Word; it always says amen to the Scriptures. Hence assurance must be sought in the Word and flows out of the Word. Assurance is as inseparable from the Word as sunbeams are from the sun.
Faith is also inseparable from Christ and the promise of Christ, for the totality of the written Word is the living Word, Jesus Christ, in whom all God’s promises are “yea and amen.” Faith rests on scriptural knowledge, and on promises that are Christ-directed and Christ-centered. True faith receives Christ as He is clothed in the gospel and graciously offered by the Father.
Thus, true faith focuses upon the Scriptures in general, and particularly the promise of the grace of God in Christ. Calvin makes much of the promises of God as the ground of assurance, for these promises are based on the very nature of God, who cannot lie. Since God promises mercy to sinners in their misery, faith relies upon such promises. The promises are fulfilled by Christ; therefore Calvin directs sinners to Christ and to the promises as if they were synonyms. Rightly understood, faith rests on and appropriates the promises of God in Christ made known in Scripture.
Since faith takes its character from the promise on which it rests, it takes on the infallible stamp of God’s very Word. Consequently, faith possesses assurance in its very nature. Assurance, certainty, trust—such is the essence of faith.
This assured and assuring faith is the Holy Spirit’s gift to the elect. The Spirit persuades the elect sinner of the reliability of God’s promise in Christ and grants faith to embrace that Word. In short, for Calvin, assuring faith necessarily involves saving knowledge, the Scriptures, Jesus Christ, God’s promises, the work of the Holy Spirit, and election. God Himself is the assurance of the elect. Assurance is gratuitously founded upon God.
Consequently, Calvin’s formal definition of faith reads like this: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In essence, Calvin stresses that faith is assurance of God’s promise in Christ and involves the whole man in the use of the mind, the application to the heart, and the surrendering of the will. Assurance is of the essence of faith.