Monday, January 23, 2006

What's the Reformed doctrine of assurance?

There’s a certain amount of confusion afoot over what, exactly, is the Reformed doctrine of assurance.

1. I see critics imputing to this position various refinements which do not represent confessional Calvinism.

For example, Jonathan Edwards spends a lot of time talking about the distinguishing marks of true conversion. This he did with reference to the Great Awakening, where you had a religious revival, followed by a certain rate of defection.

Now, that’s all very interesting, but it should not be equated with the Reformed doctrine of assurance. These are merely the private opinions of a Reformed pastor, commenting on the phenomenology of revival. In this setting, he attributes certain experiences to the nominal convert. In the nature of the case, he can only do this from the viewpoint of an outside observer. He is not, himself, privy to the subjective experience of anyone other than himself.

Likewise, John Owen wrote about Heb 6. At a very general level, this is a Reformed exposition of Heb 6 in the sense that Owen construes the text consistent with the Reformed doctrine of perseverance.

But it hardly follows from this utterly general point of commonality that Calvinism is committed to all of the specific exegetical moves made by Owen. Once again, Owen is merely expressing his private opinion on how to interpret a word here or a phrase there.

Another Reformed expositor would share his general commitment to the doctrine of perseverance, but be free to make present a different interpretive strategy, or make a different judgment call on any particular word or verse.

2.A popular error when interpreting Heb 6 is to subjectivize the text by reading Heb 6 through the prism of Pauline categories.

But the author of Hebrews moves within a different orbit, both in general and with respect to the details of Heb 6. His emphasis lies on cultic categories and public rather than private experience.

3.The fact that Edwards and Owen may attribute a certain state of mind to the nominal convert, an experience which in some measure mimics the state of the true believer, is not at all the same thing as the Reformed doctrine of assurance.

Rather, it’s an exercise in apologetics or polemical theology. They are dealing with a text or an event which presents a prima facie difficulty for the doctrine of perseverance, and they respond by drawing a number of analogies between the subjective experience of the true believer and the subjective experience of the nominal believer. In so doing, they are positing certain subjective experiences to the nominal believer.

Whatever else we may make of this exercise, it should not be confused with the Reformed doctrine of assurance. Rather, it’s a defense of the Reformed doctrine of assurance.

4.The Reformed doctrine has both a subjective side as well as an objective side. The subjective side is the experience of being a Christian. The objective side is the promise of God to preserve his children in the faith.

Does a Calvinist know, as a matter of experience, that he will persevere? No.

At a subjective level, his Christian experience is no different from the experience of any other Christian.

But allied to the knowledge of acquaintance is a knowledge of description: the promise of God regarding the perseverance of the saints.

5.Now what, exactly, does the critic of assurance deny? Does he deny that a Christian can know he’s a Christian? That’s the issue.

The issue is not whether I know, as a matter of inner experience, that I will endure to the end. Rather, the issue is whether I can know that I’m a Christian.

Given that knowledge, and combing that self-knowledge with the knowledge of God’s promise, I can then know that I shall never fall away.

6.The critic of assurance often imputes to this doctrine a parallel experience between the regenerate and the reprobate, whereby the reprobate enjoy a delusive experience analogous to the inner experience of the regenerate.

I see no reason to accept that construction. Only a Christian can know what it feels like to be in a state of grace. Due to regeneration, sanctification, and the providence of God in the outward life of a believer, a believer has a very difference experience than does an unbeliever.

Moreover, there are many individuals who, having crossed the line from unbelief to faith in Christ, are in a personal position to compare and contrast their former, graceless experience with their latter, gracious experience.

If an antinomian or Sandemanian can’t tell the difference, that’s because he is still a child of the devil.

7.There are, of course, some commonalities. Believer and unbeliever can be subjected to the same experience. Believer and unbeliever can both listen to a Vivaldi Gloria, and that may evoke the same emotional response. But this is induced from without, not from within. And it quickly fades as soon as the external stimulus is removed.


  1. Good stuff. I appreciate, especially, the point concerning the objective and subjective sides of Reformed theology. I agree that it is a fallacy to presume that to embrace experience is to deny the objective knowledge of God's sovriegnty. Well put.

    I hope you don't mind, but I linked to your blog from mine. It is small and humble in nature, so you will not get much traffic from me, but I think you have something good to say.


  2. I've been trying to figure out the meaning of Hebrews 6:4 for YEARS now (since I was 15). Still have no clue what it means. Anyway, good post.