Monday, January 23, 2006

Experientially Speaking: Preservation and Assurance

Because of the recent explosion concerning the “Free Grace” Movement (a name, I would add, that is misleading and irrelevant), there has been much talk about the matter of assurance in a Reformed Soteriology.

What is Assurance?

Are we even certain that we are talking about the same thing? While this question might seem silly, let’s not assume that we are on the same page in our terminology. The Bible presents several different perspectives on the matter of “assurance.” For instance, are we talking about the boldness that a Christian enjoys in coming before God because of the mediation of Christ as is expressed in the book of Hebrews? Or are we talking about the confidence that believers enjoy when they approach God in prayer as is expressed in John’s epistle? Are we talking about the promise of consummated salvation or the warnings of apostasy spoken to Christians? Are we talking about a vertical assurance, between the believer and God; or a horizontal assurance that pertains to the authentication of our salvation by other believers?

Another thing we must ask is if assurance is a present perspective or a future perspective. In other words, does my lack of knowledge of the future have anything to do with my certainty of salvation now? These are important questions that we must ask when having these discussions, lest we end up jumping on the word “assurance” without even agreeing on what it means.

Preservation and Assurance

Reformed theology teaches that those whom Christ has redeemed will be preserved until their glorification. “Those whom he foreknew….he glorified.” The problem that has occurred in the recent dialogues is that horizontal assurance has been equated with verticle assurance. In other words, one believer cannot know the heart of another believer. While one believer might be of knowledge of the confession of faith of the other beleiver, he cannot be certain that said believer possess genuine, saving faith, and the only means that horizontal assurance can be obtained is through perseverance in faith. But is verticle assurance based upon perseverance in the Reformed system? That is what it has been accused of, often involving a partial citation of someone such as John Piper. But this is simply based upon two different definitions of assurance. Biblically, assurance is a present reality not a future one. So when someone like John Piper speaks of falling away in the future, this does not mean that he now does not possess certainty of salvation. Rather, it means that the future would further demonstrate the nature of his faith. Those in the Free Grace Movement would jump on this and call this lack of assurance or certainty. But in order for them to do this, they must first justify their definition of assurance from a Biblical perspective, not simply assume that theirs “solves the problem.”

On that note, it would also be important to reiterate something that Steve previously said. The Free Grace Movement has a goal. Their goal is assurance and certainty. This is their theological agenda. Coming from the perspective that the Reformed definition of “assurance” fails to “solve the problem,” they approach the text of Scripture with the goal of obtaining the type of assurance that is desired. This is why their position fails to have an exegetical basis. Most of the responses I have received from Antonio da Rosa involve his assertion that the Reformed model does not give assurance to the believer (that is, the type of assurance that he is seeking). But Antonio failed to interact with the actual texts that had been discussed. To a proponent of the Free Grace Movement, the text is determined based upon the theological agenda to seek a redefined version of assurance. Steve wrote previously, responding to the Roman version of assurance:

What Kimmel is doing is to treat assurance as a problem, and then cast about for a solution in the form of a problem-solving device. If Jn 3:16 doesn’t solve the problem, then, for Kimmel, that disproves the Reformed position. And let us say that Jn 3:16 doesn’t’ solve the problem. How does that have any bearing on where the truth lies? Isn’t Jn 3:16 true? The fact that it may or may not suffice as a problem-solving device in resolving the uncertainties of assurance does not mean that we are at liberty to brush it aside and move on to another hypothetical alternative.

While Kimmel had a different perspective on assurance, he was doing the same thing that the Free Grace Movement does: it starts with the agenda to obtain a certain type of assurance, and then approaches the text with that agenda. However, our concern should not be to solve a supposed “problem” regarding assurance. Rather, our concern should be to affirm what the text of Scripture actually says. The Free Grace Movement might have a genuine desire to serve the believer in giving to him what it thinks will reap “absolute” assurance. But our desires, even if genuine or noble, should take the back seat to sound exegesis.

I have a feeling that those caught up in the Free Grace Movement won’t be convinced very easily. My only question for them is “Is your position based upon a desire to have a certain type of assurance, or is it based upon exegetical conclusions?” A certain definition of assurance is what motivates these proponents. Any theological system that does not achieve this definition is rejected. In an effort to achieve what, to them, is “assurance,” repentance, faith demonstrated by obedience, and the possibility of false faith is thrown out of the window.

Let’s note, for instance, something that Antonio commented:

Evan May and company seem to flitter around and tiptoe across our issues as well as clearly being unable to discuss their beliefs and the implications of them. It is disingenuous to claim that they can have a certainty of eternal life and that they operate in the Christian life from such a knowledge. Clearly, from both written and spoken doctrine, as well as implication, certainty is an impossiblity; therefore one must work for both a shadow of what true assurance is and in order to persevere until the end.

1. Antonio talks about “implications.” But he hasn’t presented any “implications” in the sense that they are logical implications that have been validly and necessarily deduced from the Reformed position. He may assert that Reformed assurance is mutually exclusive with sola fide or sola gratia, but these are just assertions unless he shows this. He has also failed to show how the Reformed position does not allow for certainty, other than by quoting certain Reformed Theologians.

2. Antonio brings perseverance into the issue of assurance. As I noted above, this is an incorrect definition of assurance, putting it in a future perspective rather than a present one.

3. Worst of all, Antonio starts with his agenda to achieve his definition of assurance, and then brings that upon the text. So when someone like me or Steve Hays actually addresses the text of Scripture, we are accused of “flittering around and tiptoing across” the issues, the reason being, without a doubt, that our position does not achieve Antonio’s definition of assurance.

Kris said:

I also agree with you Nate about the tulip. I think Calvinism and tulip have done a great harm to alot of struggling Christians who were unfortunate enough to have been exposed to it. There are alot places in it for the enemy to get a foothold in a believers mind and cause them to have a very dim view of our God and Creator.

Before we demonstrate the falsehood of this objection, let’s first demonstrate the nature of it. The comment is experiential and emotional, not exegetical. Let’s say your theology gives you something that the Reformed position does not. But if it cannot be exegetically derived and supported, why would you want it as your theology?

In any case, the objection is simply false. The doctrine of preservation does not increase struggling or add “a very dim view of our God and Creator” to the believer. Rather, it gives the believer hope. Consider the context of this passage:

Romans 8 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

What comes after this passage?

29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Experientially speaking, the doctrine of preservation does not reap a loss of assurance. Rather, it is the only means by which a believer can have genuine hope. Does this Reformed hymn writer, singing about the doctrine of preservation, sound like he lacks certainty in Christ?

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand

Evan May.

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