Posted by: Michael M. Dewalt | October 30, 2008

MAKING SENSE OF CALVIN’S PARADOXES ON ASSURANCE OF FAITH: Part Five

(Posted by Joel R. Beeke)

Concluding Thoughts

These four principles operative in Calvin-faith and experience, flesh versus spirit, the germ of faith versus the consciousness of faith, and the Trinitarian framework-allow us to draw several conclusions:

First, Calvin’s concept of faith includes assurance in the essence and quintessence of faith, without demanding that the believer feel assurance at all times. Many Calvin scholars, including William Cunningham, have overlooked that concept. Cunningham says the only way to remove the apparent contradiction from Calvin is to proceed “upon the assumption that the definition was intended not so much to state what was essential to true faith and always found in it, as to describe what true faith is, or includes, in its most perfect condition and its highest exercise.” But for Calvin, assurance is both essential for faith and contained in all its exercises, regardless of the believer’s consciousness of it.

Second, through this combination of principles, any radical discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists with regard to faith and assurance must be rejected. Despite varying emphases, Calvin and the Calvinists agree that assurance may be possessed without always being known. When Calvin defines faith as assurance simplicitas, he is not contradicting the Westminster Confession’s distinction between faith and assurance, for he and the Confession do not have the same concern in mind. Calvin is defining faith in its assuring character; the Confession what assurance is as a self-conscious, experimental phenomenon. 

Third, though Cunningham rightly asserts that Calvin did not work out all the details of the relationship of faith and assurance, he, Robert Dabney, and Charles Hodge go too far in saying Calvin’s doctrine is contradictory or ignorant of the issues that would surface in the century to come. Though the spiritual climate of the seventeenth century would vary considerably from the sixteenth, a thorough study of Calvin on the faith-assurance relationship reveals a tightly knit, integrated doctrine that is true to Scripture and experience. Calvin’s emphasis on assurance throughout his Institutes, commentaries, and sermons proves that the issue of personal assurance was very much alive in his generation. Phrases such as “this is how to come to assurance,” “this is the kind of assurance we have,” and “this is where our assurance rests,” show that Calvin is speaking to an audience who knew little assurance. He is addressing individuals newly delivered from the bondage of Rome, which had taught that assurance was heretical. By teaching that assurance ought to be normative, though unbelief will not die easily, Calvin aims to build assurance in the church on solid, biblical grounds. He says unbelief is only a disease and an interruption of faith that will not have dominion over faith on a daily basis, nor shall it ultimately triumph. Rather, God “wishes to cure the disease [of unbelief] so that among us he may obtain full faith in his promises.” Because it is of God, faith must triumph, for God will use even doubts and assaults to strengthen faith. Through faith’s perpetual triumphs in God, Calvin encourages children of God who frequently doubt by pointing them Godward to find the assuring principle of faith.

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