Posted by: joelrbeeke | October 3, 2008


Assurance of the essence of faith

More specifically, Calvin argues that faith involves more than objectively believing the promise of God; it involves personal, subjective assurance. In believing God’s promise to sinners, the true believer recognizes and celebrates that God is gracious and benevolent to him in particular. Faith is an assured knowledge “of God’s benevolence toward us…revealed to our minds…sealed upon our hearts.” Faith embraces the gospel promise as more than impersonal abstraction; it is inseparable from personal certainty. Calvin writes, “Here, indeed, is the hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.”

Thus, as Robert Kendall notes, Calvin repeatedly describes faith as “certainty (certitudino), a firm conviction (solido persuasio), assurance (securitas), firm assurance (solida securitas), and full assurance (plena securitas).” While faith consists of knowledge, it is also marked by heartfelt assurance that is “a sure and secure possession of those things which God has promised us.”

Calvin emphasizes also throughout his commentaries that assurance is integral to faith. He says that anyone who believes but lacks the conviction that he is saved by God is not a true believer after all. He writes:

Briefly, he alone is a true believer, who convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation. . . . No man is a believer, I say, except him who, leaning upon the assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death.

Calvin says that true believers must and do know themselves to be such: “Let this truth then stand sure–that no one can be called a son of God, who does not know himself to be such…. This so great an assurance, which dares to triumph over the devil, death, sin, and the gates of hell, ought to lodge deep in the hearts of all the godly; for our faith is nothing, except we feel assured that Christ is ours, and that the Father is in him propitious to us.” In exegeting 2 Corinthians 13:5, Calvin even states that those who doubt their union to Christ are reprobates: “[Paul] declares, that all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon that alone to be right faith, which leads us to repose in safety in the favour of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance.”

That kind of statement prompted a charge of incautiousness by William Cunningham and Robert Dabney. A culling of Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries and sermons, however, also presents a formidable number of equally intense, qualifying statements.

Faith and assurance versus unbelief

Throughout his lofty doctrine of faith, Calvin repeats these themes: unbelief dies hard; assurance is often contested by doubt; severe temptations, wrestlings, and strife are normative; Satan and the flesh assault faith; trust in God is hedged with fear. Calvin freely acknowledges that faith is not retained without a severe struggle against unbelief, nor is it left untinged by doubt and anxiety. He writes: “Unbelief is, in all men, always mixed with faith…. For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth, namely, that God is faithful. Especially when it comes to reality itself, every man’s wavering uncovers hidden weakness.”

According to Calvin, faith ought to be assuring, but no perfect assurance exists in this life. The believer will not be fully healed of unbelief until he dies. Though faith itself cannot doubt, faith is constantly harassed with the temptation of doubt. The Christian strives for, but never wholly attains, uninterrupted assurance.

Calvin does allow for varying degrees of faith. Though secondary sources often downplay it, Calvin uses such concepts as “infancy of faith,” “beginnings of faith,” and “weak faith” more frequently even than Luther. All faith begins in infancy, Calvin says. He writes: “The forbearance of Christ is great in reckoning as disciples those whose faith is so small. And indeed this doctrine extends generally to us all; for the faith which is now full grown had at first its infancy, nor is it so perfect in any as not to make it necessary that all to a man should make progress in believing.”

Expounding faith’s maturation process more than its secret beginnings or final realization, Calvin asserts that assurance is proportional to faith’s development. More specifically, he presents the Holy Spirit not only as the initiator of faith, but also as the cause and maintainer of its growth. Faith, repentance, sanctification, and assurance are all progressive.

In expounding John 20:3, Calvin seems to contradict his assertion that true believers know themselves as such when he testifies that the disciples were not aware of their faith as they approached the empty tomb: “There being so little faith, or rather almost no faith, both in the disciples and in the women, it is astonishing that they had so great zeal; and, indeed, it is not possible that religious feelings led them to seek Christ. Some seed of faith, therefore, remained in their hearts, but quenched for a time, so that they were not aware of having what they had. Thus the Spirit of God often works in the elect in a secret manner” [emphasis mine].

This prompts us to ask, How can Calvin say that assertions of faith are characterized by full assurance, yet still allow for the kind of faith that lacks assurance? The two concepts appear antithetical. Assurance is free from doubt, yet not free. It does not hesitate, yet can hesitate; it contains security, but may be beset with anxiety. The faithful have assurance, yet waver and tremble.

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