Doubtless you have repeatedly heard questions such as “if you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” or “do you know that you’re saved?” These questions, though cliché, often indicate an important underlying theological position — that a Christian may have a perfect or infallible assurance of their salvation. Reformer John Calvin wrote, “we shall have a complete definition of faith if we say that it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence toward us, which, being founded upon the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ, is both revealed to our minds and confirmed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (3:2:7). Calvin, and other reformers like him, have made the claim that a Christian may have infallible certainty of their salvation — a certainty that precludes any possibility of error. However, I find that this infallible certitude is not possible within the theological framework which claims it most ardently: the Reformed theological tradition.
It is not my intention to oppose Reformed theology, nor to be nihilistic. My intention is simply to assert that the certainty claimed by Reformed theology is not possible within its own theological framework. Thus, using one’s supposed assurance of salvation as an argument in any circumstance is ineffective.
Historically, Reformed theology has accepted the five points of Calvinism as consistent with Biblical teaching. These points are most commonly recognized in the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. The latter two are relevant to this discussion: namely, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. The former teaches that salvation is only a work of God (monergism) and that there is no cooperation of human will (even if that cooperation is excited and moved by God). The latter teaches that those who have truly been saved will persevere to the end and that those who fell away were not truly saved in the first place. This unwavering view of salvation is paralleled by an unwavering certainty of salvation; thus, salvation as it exists (ontological salvation) and salvation as it is known (epistemological salvation) converge.
Truth is defined by Thomas Aquinas as “the equation of thought and thing” (ST I q.16 a.1). If you believe a truth, it is because your belief matches reality. For example, if you believe that the sky is blue, and the sky is blue, your belief is true. Aquinas further states that one may know a belief is true “first, in itself; secondly, in its effect” (ST I q.93 a.2). Aquinas gives the example of the sun, which can be known either by direct observation or, alternatively, by observation of its effects (light, rays, etc.). To have infallible certainty about a “thing,” one must first know that the “thing” exists. Thus, we must examine whether the infallible salvation of the believer can be known, either by direct observation or by effect.
In Reformed theology, the “thing” is the fact that one truly is saved while the “thought” is the belief that the former is true. However, knowledge of the fact that one truly is saved (the “thing”) is inaccessible to direct observation (except by Divine revelation) since it only truly exists in the mind of God. Thus, the “thing” is unable to be known, in this case, by direct observation.
The Reformed believer would likely respond that their salvation can be known upon Divine revelation in Scripture. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states,
Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace…This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, (Ch. 18:1-2).
Here, the demonstration of salvation by its effect comes into play. Reformed theology maintains that there is a category of people who, by all appearances, are Christian but are not truly saved. The Westminster Confession affirms the existence of this kind of self-deception, “hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation” (Ch. 18:1). This category of “Christian” reveals the possibility that a believer may, by observation of effect, appear to be Christian but not truly be saved. Thus, the status of one’s salvation in the mind of God cannot be observed by its effect since the effect may or may not be an indication of true salvation. This issue of self-deception is addressed in an exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith by Sam Waldron,
The single and basic emphasis of this paragraph is that assurance, genuine assurance, is infallible. The term ‘infallible’ comes from two Latin words which mean, literally, ‘not deceiving’, i.e. not liable to mistakes or deception, incapable of error, not liable to fail. The Confession is asserting that there is an assurance of salvation which will not deceive us, about which we cannot be mistaken, which goes beyond mere probability. This should reassure the one who says, ‘I want to have assurance, but I am so fearful of being mistaken and deceiving myself.’ There is an assurance of salvation which you may have, which will not deceive you, which is infallible (p. 279-280).
Waldron is essentially arguing that one may have infallible assurance because their assurance is infallible. I find this to be a rather circular argument. Despite the efforts to deny it, the truth of one’s salvation in the mind of God is inaccessible both by its nature and by its effect and, thus, the “thought” (that one is saved) and the “thing” (the fact that one truly is saved) cannot be converged or known in the human mind (at the least with infallible certainty).
Reformed soteriology is incompatible with the level of certainty which it demands as it attempts to converge ontological salvation and epistemological certainty of salvation by relying on the unattainable knowledge of the former. Indeed, as Christians, we are to have an assurance of salvation, but not to the extent that we could not err. It is simply the difference between saying “I know that I am saved” and “I know that I am saved and could not be wrong.” Faith is trust; trust requires a lack of certainty.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not liable to be taken as Regent University’s official stance on matters.