Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Perseverance and Assurance 

James Jordan on the Nature of True Faith
In his stimulating article Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration, James Jordan questions the validity of the distinction between ‘temporary’ faith and ‘persevering’ faith. If we are speaking in terms of a diachronic distinction then it is true by definition. However, historically most Reformed people have sought to maintain a synchronic distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith (e.g. Canons of Dort: Canon 5, Rejection of Errors 7). Temporary faith is maintained to be qualitatively different to persevering faith. Jordan argues that this is going too far in trying to read the hearts of men. He looks at the Parable of the Sower, a parable that has often been brought up to prove this point. Jordan observes: (a) that the parable is not intended to give us a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’; (b) even assuming that it is a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’, the seed springs up on two types of the soil, implying that the faith was indeed real, albeit temporary; (c) the gift given (the seed) in each case is the same; the only difference lies in the soil; (d) the parable says nothing about the sower changing the soil before casting the seed on it; pressing the imagery of the parable to provide a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’ might lead us to unwarranted theological conclusions. Jordan argues in favour of seeing the four types of soil as four types of behaviour instead. He also, following N.T. Wright, favours a more redemptive historical reading of the soils; the soil is Israel and the seed is the ‘faithful word-bearing Remnant’. This seed was totally rejected in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple the ‘Israel-Soil received the Remnant-Seed with joy’, but then fell away. During the Greek period the Remnant seed was choked out. ‘But in the New Creation, the New Soil will receive the True Remnant (Jesus Himself) and will flourish.’ Jordan goes on to reaffirm the applicability of the parable to the ‘different aspects and qualities of faith’ seen in the Church. However, he cautions against using the parable to teach four (or two) kinds of human nature as this is unwarranted by the text. I believe that what Jordan is saying makes a lot of sense. However, the frequent objection that I hear is that this destroys any foundation for assurance. This may initially sound counter-intuitive, but I believe that a belief in the reality of apostasy from true saving blessings is, in some sense at least, essential for true assurance. The problem, as I see it, is that such an understanding of the synchronic distinction between true faith and temporary faith has crippled the assurance of many Protestants.
The Problem of Apostasy
We all know people who have turned their back on the faith. One of the most zealous Christians I ever encountered became a Satanist. I was greatly blessed by this man when I was a young teenager on a Christian camp. He encouraged and deeply challenged me in my Christian walk. I remember praying at length with him and being struck by his fervency and love. When he fell away it hit me like a ton of bricks. How do you react to an apostasy as absolute as that? The answer given by most Calvinists is that what he fell away from was not really salvation. Closely related to this (although in my opinion to be carefully distinguished from it) is the claim, made by Calvin himself (see Institutes III.xxiv.6f.), that the person’s faith was never true faith. Most Calvinists seem to link these two answers far more closely together than Calvin does. For many, the person who does not have true faith does not have salvation in just about any sense of the word. Essentially no one really falls away, because those who do fall away don’t fall away from anything. Anyone who has read Calvin on Hebrews 6 will know that his position is more balanced than this. He also writes in his Sermons on Timothy and Titus (p.817):—
For we ought to have a zeal to have the Church of God enlarged, and increase rather than diminish. We ought to have a care also of our brethren, and to be sorry to see them perish: for it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.
The belief that even the apostate was in some sense bought with the blood of Christ is present in a number of different places in the writings of Calvin. Calvin also writes regarding the special call, in Institutes III.xxiv.8, that God
...deigns for the most part to give to the believers alone, while by the inward illumination of His Spirit He causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts. Yet sometimes He also causes those whom He illumines only for a time to partake of it; then He justly forsakes them on account of their ingratitude and strikes them with even greater blindness. [emphasis added]
Clearly, for Calvin, the apostate really falls away from something. However, even for Calvin’s position, due to its positing of a synchronic qualitative distinction between temporary and persevering faith, the question of how to distinguish between the two in practice rears its ugly head. As the difference is situated in the quality of the faith itself and not in the duration of the faith, we must be able to separate between the two somehow.
Faith in Faith
If you ever want to extinguish your assurance, read someone like John Owen on Hebrews 6. Great pains are taken to distinguish ‘sanctifying light and knowledge’ from mere ‘spiritual illumination’, ‘tasting’ from ‘spiritual eating and drinking’. Owen is replete with observations such as the following:—
There is a goodness and excellency in this heavenly gift, which may be tasted or experienced in some measure by such as never receive them, in their life, power, and efficacy. They may taste,— (1.) Of the word in its truth, not its power; (2.) Of the worship of the church in its outward order, not its inward beauty; (3.) Of the gifts of the church, not its graces.
One begins to feel sorry for the believer who feels that he must examine every aspect of his faith with a magnifying glass and fine toothcomb before he can be sure that it is real. My fear is that such an approach leads to our putting faith in faith itself, rather than in Christ. Our assurance of salvation becomes founded upon the ‘infused’ quality of faith rather than upon Christ Himself. I believe that every Protestant should be readily able to identify the danger of such a position. This danger is further magnified by those who obscure the objectivity of God’s grace in the Word and sacraments and gradually make the reality of God’s grace dependent upon either the presence of faith (whether true or temporary) in our hearts or upon our eternal election. In both cases we are pressed into looking for assurance where none is to be found, or into seeing faith as some sort of leap in the dark. Ultimately, for all too many Protestants, their faith rests, to some degree at least, upon a highly suspect concept of the infusion of grace in the form of faith itself. Our faith grasps wildly at fleeting dispositions and inner feelings of hope because we no longer are entirely sure whether the grace presented in the Word and sacraments is not illusory in our case. We distrust the Word outside of us that we hear, eat, drink and are washed with and so seek to establish assurance on the ground of our internal affections, emotions and impressions — the Spirit’s inner whisperings. This leads to faith becoming a work and assurance is annihilated. One notices that, for many, the definitions of faith itself become so precise and detailed as to almost be legalistic. So much rests upon determining the reality of faith and its not having the quality of temporary faith. Groping in the Stygian pitch of our sinful hearts, we should not be surprised if we find only cause for despair. As the object of faith becomes increasingly intangible and internal and as the reality of the sacraments as objective means of grace is questioned, people begin to continually doubt whether they are saved and seek to work it out by studying their own faith to see if it differs from ‘temporary’ faith. Faith becomes solipsistic and preoccupied with itself. Losing themselves in morbid introspectionism and doubt, people fail to see that faith itself always struggles with unbelief and is often weak and can only gain strength from elsewhere. Faith soon becomes aware of its own nakedness when it loses its extrospective focus and becomes curved in on itself. The doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’ (which, as I am sure that we are all aware, is not Reformed) tempts us to place our faith in the reality of our own conversions rather than in Christ. Those who believe this doctrine all too easily rely upon a past ‘conversion experience’ for assurance. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, coupled with this understanding of the distinction between true and temporary faith, can fall into the danger of looking for assurance to the quality of faith itself. ‘Once saved, always saved’ can lead to an error like the error of Israel. Israel trusted in the gift of circumcision, the Torah and the Temple and relied on these rather than upon the God who gave them. However, like an adulterous wife rattling the jewelry given to her by her husband, Israel only succeeded in provoking God to jealousy. How do we believe that we will escape the same fate? The qualitative distinction between true and temporary faith, alongside the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, can all too easily present us with our own faithfulness as the foundation for assurance, making us morbidly self-conscious and causing us to despair as soon as our lives fail to manifest the fullness of the fruit of the Spirit. Whilst generally preserving us from the presumption that is all too often caused by the doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’, this doctrine leads us to doubt instead. My belief is that James Jordan’s questioning of the validity of the synchronic qualitative distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith is extremely helpful to alleviate the problem that I have just outlined. Jordan’s doctrine presents us clearly with Christ Himself brought near to us in the Word and the sacraments as the object of faith and not our eternal election, the reality of our faith or the reality of our conversion experiences.
But, you may object, surely we are called to examine ourselves? Yes we are, but biblical self-examination takes a very different shape to the self-examination encouraged by the synchronic distinction between temporary and true, persevering faith. The self-examination encouraged by the endless distinctions between different types of faith is a self-examination that all too easily concentrates on the intrinsic qualities of faith itself (whether it is a fruitful faith, etc.), rather than upon faith in its relationship to Christ. As our salvation is found in Christ and not in faith abstracted from Christ we will always be faced with despair if we take the wrong approach to assurance. The infinite fine distinctions between different types of faith can cause us to succumb to a perfectionist view of faith. This, in turn, leads to an inability to speak truthfully and deal ruthlessly with the presence of unbelief in our hearts. If your assurance begins to rest upon the intrinsic quality of faith itself, you will either be plagued with doubt or you will train yourself in self-deception. It is my contention that the Christian should always be extremely suspicious of the deceitfulness of his own heart and should not trust it for a moment. Only an approach to self-examination that does not rest assurance upon the intrinsic quality of faith but challenges us to continually look to Christ will be properly equipped to address unbelief effectively. Many Christians, by seeking to trust their own hearts, become either deluded or despairing. We must remember that unbelief doesn’t happen overnight. Unbelief creeps up on us gradually, over a period of time. Asserting the possibility that people can truly fall away from salvation and renounce true faith should not lead us to continual doubt or despair regarding salvation, but should challenge us to distrust our hearts and trust Christ, being increasingly aware of the deceitfulness of sin and our own hearts. Our assurance is found in our continued relationship to Jesus Christ, and as we begin to look away from Christ our assurance falls away and is replaced by presumption or doubt. However, even the most feeble faith can be freed from any doubt as it continues to look to Christ. Of course, it is worth asking ourselves what ‘faith’ really is. Too many people have been deceived into thinking of faith as some sort of impersonal ‘stuff’. The manner in which we talk about faith does tempt us to conceive of it in such a manner and this conception has served to aggravate the problem I am speaking of, if not to create it in the first place. Is faith some substance? I do not believe that the Bible gives us any reason to think of ‘faith’ as a substance any more than ‘grace’ is to be thought of as a substance. Peter Leithart writes:—
“Faith” is spoken of as if it were an object, when in fact it is the thoroughly personal response of trust to the thoroughly personal revelation of God. Because faith describes a certain kind of personal relationship, it has all the variations and complexities and ups-and-downs of any personal relationship. Scripture confirms this, by speaking in terms of “weak” faith, “little” faith, temporary faith. (65)
There are too many people who, conceiving of faith as an impersonal substance, believe that they can apostatize and sin willfully and the substance of ‘faith’ will still lurk somewhere in the recesses of their hearts, guaranteeing them final salvation. We could also question the tacit definition of ‘salvation’ employed by many. Some think of salvation as an object that we may or may not be able to mislay. Others think of salvation as some sort of abstract category that God puts us in so that we can get to heaven when we die. Others think of salvation as an internal reconfiguring of abstract individuals in an event called regeneration. Surely we must respond to all such notions, that the biblical understanding of salvation is that of a relationship established between us and Christ, rooted in the Church. Against ChristianityAs Leithart observes in Against Christianity, salvation is not a substance that can be either infused into people or an object given to them directly by God. Salvation, like grace or righteousness should be understood in terms of relationship, rather than in terms of substance. Theologically, ‘salvation’ functions as an adjective to refer to restored individuals, communities and relationships. A salvation that is purely individual is an incomplete salvation. It fails to save the man that actually exists, as no man is an autonomous individual. If individuals are to be saved, salvation must take a social form. Individuals are saved as part of the new community of the Church. Salvation brings us outside of ourselves and into communion. In conclusion some may question whether the claim that true believers can fall away overturns the sovereignty of God’s grace. I don’t believe that it does, for God is most certainly sovereign throughout, even when someone apostatizes. It only highlights the greatness of God’s grace in His persevering with us despite our unworthiness and should cause us to rely upon Him even more. All of those who God wills to receive the resurrection of life on the last day will undoubtedly receive it. Nevertheless, we are not called to pry into the hidden will of God concerning us (Deuteronomy 29:29) when the reality of His love for us has been made entirely clear to us in the Christ who meets us in the Gospel, speaking to us in His Word, cleansing and forgiving us in Baptism and feeding us on Himself in the Supper. Instead let exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of us be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of faith and consider Him, lest we become discouraged in our souls.

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