Lutheran Challenge to Calvinist’s Assurance

Luther im Kreise von Reformatoren

What can a Calvinist say to a person who struggles with his assurance of salvation (this also applies to evangelism)?  From reading and pondering some Lutheran blogs’ posts for some time now,  I could not help but wonder what one as a Calvinist could say to this question. The objection goes to the application of limited atonement to assurance of salvation (all though one’s view on whether the means of grace confers salvific grace also have a say in this question).

What can Calvinist respond to this? A Calvinist can’t say consistently that a person struggling with assurance of salvation should look to Christ and his vicarious dearth because his dearth only paid for the sins of the elect. This is the same kind of objection as the ”free offer of the gospel”: If salvation ultimately is only meant for and provided for the elect, is it then really genuine?

A Calvinist may want to say to a person struggling with assurance that he should believe in the gospel. But this is in my opinion a non-starter because as said above he would have to know in advance that this atonement was ”for me”, which he only knows if he already knows he is elect.

Another answer a Calvinist could provide is that one should look for assurance in inner transformation by looking for the fruits of the spirit and the ”tests of faith” in 1.john. And certainly there is verses that make very strong connections between faith and works (like James 2, Matt 7:16 etc.). But it is also true that as long as we live, we are still sinners, although progressing in holiness. Jesus says that “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23 ESV). Out of the heart of the sinner flows deceit which means that a unregenerate can cheat people into thinking that he is not a believer (1.john 2:19) and a true believer can be genuinely saved even though he struggles with sin. On top of that, out of the heart of a sinner also flows pride so if he is encouraged to look to inner transformation, then this easily ends up comparing works between brothers which again causes envy. (maybe I am painting with a very broad brush here, sorry).

A Lutheran answer would be that inwards, there is no assurance but only condemnation. This is the law’s work, to drive us to despair and wanting of any hope of salvation in ourselves. Then thereafter to give us the gospel. That is the universal declaration that Christ lived the perfect life and fulfilled thereby the law, died and atoned for the sins of the whole world and rose there days later for our justification. And this gospel is objectively and sincerely given in word and sacrament*. So grace is certainly offered (opposite the reformed view where God only offers his special grace to the elect) but still this has to be received in order to lead to salvation.

One could then ask if this gives any better assurance if salvation ultimately can be lost as Lutherans and Arminians teach. That is for another blog post maybe.

* I’m not completely a Lutheran but I am considering it.

Links to Lutheran blogs: Jason Harris’ From Geneva to Wittenberg & Jordan Cooper’s Just & Sinner

About Guest Contributor

SorenSøren D. Øhrstrøm is 24 years, lives in Aalborg, Denmark. He hold B.A. in Social Sciences from Aalborg University with Study of Religion as a supplementary subject from Aarhus University. He is currently  enjoying life at a Bible school in Israel with his wonderful girlfriend Miriam.

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17 thoughts on “Lutheran Challenge to Calvinist’s Assurance

  1. Thank you for your reply. There is a lot to think about concerning the possibility of apostasy but I will leave it aside for another post maybe.
    I still don’t see a comforting answer how to assure a person of salvation given limited atonement. I think it’s great that you point to the gospel and not ask the person to take the tests of faith to “fruit check” you something like that. But I don’t find it to be consistent to say to troubled person or to a person in an evangelism situation “believe the gospel and be saved” and still say that Christ only died for the elect (there is a possibility that the gospel is not “for you” and then you are left at navel gasing and fruit-checking: “Do I have faith in Christ or do I just have false man-made faith?”).

    You say: “God promises in His word that Christ was made an atonement for sin to all who believe. Believe it. The gospel literally means “good news.” Good news can only be handled in one of two ways – we either believe it or not.” Believe in what? That Jesus died for your sins and was raised for your justification? I can’t see how a reformed could consistently say that to a person who feels his salvation is in jepardy, why believe if the gospel if it is maybe not “for me”? Sure you can say that if you find yourself crushed by the law and believing the gospel, then God has already done his regenerating work in you and take this as evidence of salvation. But that is exactly what I think we should try to escape, that is seeking (or even requiring) evidence of salvation in the person’s will, thoughts, progres in santification etc..
    And sure one could say to the person in pain: “Jesus died for sinners LIKE you, belive in him”. But that, I think, is really bad comfort…

  2. Thank you for your reply. There is a lot to think about concerning the possibility of apostasy but I will leave it aside for another post maybe.
    I still don’t see a comforting answer how to assure a person of salvation given limited atonement. I think it’s great that you point to the gospel and not ask the person to take the tests of faith to “fruit check” you something like that. But I don’t find it to be consistent to say to troubled person or to a person in an evangelism situation “believe the gospel and be saved” and still say that Christ only died for the elect (there is a possibility that the gospel is not “for you” and then you are left at navel gasing and fruit-checking: “Do I have faith in Christ or do I just have false man-made faith?”).

    You say: “God promises in His word that Christ was made an atonement for sin to all who believe. Believe it. The gospel literally means “good news.” Good news can only be handled in one of two ways – we either believe it or not.” Believe in what? That Jesus died for your sins and was raised for your justification? I can’t see how a reformed could consistently say that to a person who feels his salvation is in jepardy, why believe if the gospel if it is maybe not “for me”? Sure you can say that if you find yourself crushed by the law and believing the gospel, then God has already done his regenerating work in you and take this as evidence of salvation. But that is exactly what I think we should try to escape, that is seeking (or even requiring) evidence of salvation in the person’s will, thoughts, progres in santification etc..
    And sure one could say to the person in pain: “Jesus died for sinners LIKE you, belive in him”. But that, I think, is really bad comfort…

  3. “Assurance of salvation” is a built-in and exclusive feature of personal vision of Jesus Christ, a.k.a., “the God of the living, not of the dead”, based on his Spirit-active, perfect and diacritical death, by which he draws all people who look at his pierced side to a life of non-stop growth in his grace, knowledge and faith!

    (John 1: 50-51; 12: 30-33; 19: 34-37)

  4. Hey, Søren. My name’s Chris and I’m a Calvinist. Maybe this can help you out. Consider John 6:37-40:

    37 All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

    Jesus says that all the Father give Him “WILL” come to Him, and He will certainly not cast them out. He goes on to say that the will of the Father is that Christ not lose any, but raise them on the last day. He says all who believe in Him “WILL” have eternal life and “WILL” be raised.

    If Christ is given all by the Father, then Christ fails to do the Father’s will because He’d fail to not lose people and raise them on the last day. It’s a common argument for people to say something like, “You might believe the gospel, but you don’t know if you are elect.” That’s not true. The bible promises that those who believe the gospel will be saved – i.e. the elect of God. Simply believe the gospel. Don’t look inwardly (as you correctly said) for assurance. There is no assurance in our abilities or works because if you seek to be assured by works, then you must keep them perfectly. God’s law demands perfection. Christ came so that those who believe would receive His righteousness. Look nowhere but to Christ for assurance. Believe the good news that in Christ there is the forgiveness of sins for all who believe.

    • Hello Chris, I’m Leroy. I don’t think she will respond. It’s been three days and no other commenter got a reply.

      You make a very good point about faith. and to look nowhere but to Christ for assurance.

      I’m curious about the “Calvinist” label you wear. Care to talk about it?

      • Sure, that’s fine. Honestly, I don’t really call myself a Calvinist. It was more of a label for the sake of the conversation.

    • Hi Chris! To be honest with you, I don’t know how to read john 6:37-40 in another way than you do. That seems to pull in a reformed direction. On the other hand there are texts describing specific individuals who walk away from the faith (1.tim 1:17), aditional texts that seems to admonish believers to perservere (Col 1:23; matt 24:12-13 etc.) and the entire letter to the hebrews (like in chapter 3,6 and 10).

      But that a side: I am not sure you adressed my central concern about calvinistic/reformed assurance. What should the person do when he is in despair because he is crushed by the law ? Look to the Christ who maybe atoned for his sins and hope for the best? What comfort does a gospel give if I don’t know if Christ was given over “for me” (I’am trying not to sound harsh, it is a sincere question)?

      In Christ
      Søren

      • Hey, Soren –

        Happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability. There are certainly people who are in the visible church that end up walking away. It doesn’t mean they were ever brothers to begin with though. We may call them brothers beforehand, but that doesn’t make it so. John talks about those antichrists (denying the Father and Son) that were among them that walked away – proving they were “never” of them (1 John 2:19). If they were, they would have continued with them. Why? Because the faith they would have had would have been God-given. And Christ promised that none can snatch the sheep from Him (John 10:28). Also, those who professed belief in Christ, but looked to their works for assurance, in Matthew 7 were told by Christ that He “never” knew them.

        Notice that in Colossian 1:23, Paul isn’t saying, “If you do works, then you will continue to be saved.” He is saying “if you continue in faith.” Paul isn’t saying, “You have genuine faith but can lose it,” but saying, “Those with faith are justified.”

        While it’s true that those who continue to believe the gospel, rather than false prophets (Matt 24:11), are justified – Matthew 24:12-13 is speaking specifically about the destruction that befell Jerusalem in 70 AD and those who heeded Jesus’ warning would be saved from the destruction. Actually, no Christian is said to have suffered from the seige because they took Jesus’ advice and fled to the mountains. I should mention that although I am a orthodox preterist (not a full preterist), this interpretation is even held by futurists.

        The book of Hebrews is a warning about the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem, and those who were professing faith in Christ, but still practiced the temple practices. This book is a warning to them that, though they are professing Christ and in the presence of believers, they don’t understand the gospel. Those temple practices were the shadows whose substance is Christ.

        I don’t think you are being harsh whatsoever. Feel free to be as open as possible with me. When we are burdened by our sin, the place we don’t look is the law. If we are burdened by our sin, the law has already done its killing work. We immediately look to the gospel. God promises in His word that Christ was made an atonement for sin to all who believe. Believe it. The gospel literally means “good news.” Good news can only be handled in one of two ways – we either believe it or not. And believing it is impossible unless the Holy Spirit raises us from the dead. Otherwise, we are hostile toward it because our natural minds are hostile to the God. I am a sinner. And as a sinner, and knowing my sin, I still struggle with really beleiving that the news can be so good. But it is. I’m sorry if this isn’t too exhaustive, I’m responding in the middle of my work day – and I’m a landscaper haha. Check out my blog, and specifically my review of Liberate 2014. Maybe it’ll help a bit more.

  5. Here’s the personal solution I came to, around age 45, now almost 20 years ago, after studying the Bible seriously for 30 years (15-45), and continuing to now: Follow Jesus the best I can. Give no thought to my (or others’) “salvation”. Scripture on it is, on careful comparison, confusing at best, regardless the “system” (Lutheran, Calvinistic, Arminian, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, etc.). Jesus wasn’t concerned about personal “salvation”. He WAS about good “discipleship” and personally as well as corporately realizing “the Kingdom of God”…. And on “discipleship” it is easier for most theological systems, even very “progressive” ones as I now work within, to find relatively clear guidelines in the Gospels, Paul, and the rest of the Bible. These are generally backed up by “ethical intuition” as well!

    Among many books I could recommend that you probably wouldn’t “naturally” encounter, one I would highly encourage for everyone and for where you seem to be in your studies and development in particular, would be “Integral Christianity” by Paul Smith (45+ year pastor). I have reviewed it on my blog, if that may be helpful.

  6. Simply, from my own experience as a former Arminian (now 5-point Calvinist), I would suggest 2 things.

    First, the awareness of your sinfulness and failure to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, is itself a sign of the new birth. The unsaved person in bondage to sin, dead in trespasses, and without eternal life, has little or no awareness of his actions being sin against the Almighty. The fact that the spirit is aware of one’s sinfulness is itself a sign of the desire to please God.

    Second, come to a clear understanding of the Doctrine of Justification. The Father has accepted you through the work of Christ at Calvary and the Resurrection, not only forgiving your sins but removing them and the guilt associated with them, making you right eternally with Himself.

    Luther’s own experience and his “Bondage of the Will” is of great value to understanding the assurance of salvation in Christ alone.

  7. I think those uncertain and seeking the assurance of his salvation should turn to Gods word. No man can give you assurance or teach you the way unto salvation. Only God, through His Word and Spirit that lives within you, can speak to you in a way that will give you assurance. Sure, we can help guide those who are uncertain, but it is God, the Son, and the Spirit that moves souls.

    A good place to start is a deep study of Philippians 3. It is only 21 versus…

    “I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself. Of course, my friends, I really do not think that I have already won it; the one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead. So I run straight toward the goal in order to win the prize, which is God’s call through Christ Jesus to the life above.” Philippians 3 12-14

    “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. 1 John 5:2-3

    Anyone can say they love God and that they are God’s elect. Many churches claim they are the only true church and that their followers are God’s elect, but when you ask them if they “keep His commandments”, it generally becomes very clear very quickly that few indeed even know what the love of God is.

    Here is one of Christ’s commandments which very few men who claim they have come in Christ’s name will even claim to teach or to keep:

    “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. Matthew 5:43-44

    I am well aware of how difficult it is to stay aloof of the events of this life while living in this world. But God is no fool either, so we need not think we are His children just because we call him “Lord, Lord”.

    “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” Luke 6:46

    It is quite impossible for the natural man to “do the things [Christ] says”.

    Here is one more example of those who say they are God’s elect, who claim to love God and keep His commandments, but who will not keep this commandment.

    “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39

    For most of us, being one of God’s elect is not an easy thing to achieve, and really is only accomplished by Jesus Christ Himself living His life of resisting the devil within each of His elect.

    The only way we can know for certain whether Jesus Christ is living His life within either ourselves or our brothers is when we love our brothers in accord with the scriptural definition of love and this takes us back to Philippians Chapter 3 where Paul realized that he had not arrived, and there was only one option open for him. He had to press on. There was no turning back.

    Here are two quotes reiterating part of the message in Philippians 3:

    “Just as a little child is a perfect human being, but still is far from perfect in all his development as man, so the true child of God is also perfect in all parts, although not yet perfect in all the stages of his development in faith.” (Muller)

    “But while the work of Christ for us is perfect, and it were presumption to think of adding to it, the work of the Holy Spirit in us is not perfect, it is continually carried on from day to day, and will need to be continued throughout the whole of our lives.” (Spurgeon)

  8. I dare say that the great majority of us who call ourselves “Calvinist” would disagree sharply with several of his writings. The term “Calvinist” is generally used to describe a five major points of his teaching. But being “Calvinist” certainly does NOT mean that we all agree with absolutely every thing the man ever wrote. Calvin merged Church and State in a way that later Reformers rejected. Calvin was a Presbyterian. Yet many Calvinists are Baptist.

    Certainly there are those whose hearts are so darkened that they may be as surprised as Tetzel’s customers on the Last Day. Their self-deception is a hardening of their hearts, not an expression of some sort of “flase” grace.

  9. Wondering: What if I was a calavinist, wanting to please God with all I am… But I’ve read about “evanescent grace”, how do I get assurance then?

  10. I always begin by saying that a non-elect person wouldn’t really worry about his salvation. The next question, “What do you want more than anything else” usually elicits this answer from a sincere seeker: “More than anything I want to be pleasing to God! I only worry that I can’t do it.” Again, the non-elect (or “natural man”) knows no such overwhelming desire, nor worries that he can’t do it. I reply, “Neither can I! No one can! The Good News is that it has been sone for us, and that that God-given desire to please Him, though often frustrated in these corrupt fleshly temples, is also fulfilled in Christ.” It is not perfect holiness which God desires, but “a broken and contrite heart.” That is how I am assured of my election.

    Another thing I do that offers me great assurance is keeping a journal. I have kept one for years, and when I am tempted to lose heart, a look through it’s pages testifies to God’s faithfulness to me in the past, always accompanying me through the storms and preserving that “heart of flesh” He has given me, that keeps me ever seeking to please Him.

  11. I disagree with a couple of your conclusions. I believe the fundamental misunderstanding is in some rigid belief in the idea of ‘elect’. The WCF contains the language of ‘whosoever’. We would point to the same vicarious death for our assurance, for He alone is our hope. Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. I would also make sure that the member weak in faith understood its not he quality of the faith that justifies rather it is the object.

    Lastly, I personally would point to passages such as John 6: 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

    I would encourage the one weak in faith to cling to the Faithfulness of God throughout scripture to His promises. One is seen right hear, As you look even feebly upon the Son in faith, He is faithful to raise you up on the last day. Solus Christus!

    Q. 63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?

    A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved,and excluding none that will come unto him.

    Christ will certainly not cast out anyone who comes. This from our confession. If their is further philosophical disagreement I will gladly try and respond. ,

    Grace and Peace Brother
    -Anon

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