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* Local News: This Thursday's Mission Mississippi Prayer Breakfast will take place at 6:45 at New Hope Baptist Church (106 Hamilton St, Jackson). For more information, go to www.missionmississippi.org.
This month’s issue of Christianity Today features a thought-provoking review of J.D. Greear’s provocatively titled book, Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (R&H Books, 2012). Greear approaches the subject as a Calvinist, and the review is written by Eastern University philosophy professor Phillip Cary, who is Lutheran, so the review highlights the differences between these two respective traditions regarding assurance of salvation.
1. Greear's convictions about assurance of salvation
Cary explains that Greear’s book isn’t objecting to the actual practice of “asking Jesus into your heart”. Rather, he is objecting to it having become somewhat of an “evangelical ritual” upon which assurance of salvation is faultily based. As Cary explains, “Like any ritual, we can wonder whether we’ve done it right—whether we were sincere enough and really meant it. At that point, it becomes a kind of good work, something we do to get saved. And like every good work, it’s not enough to assure us of salvation.”
Greear contrasts believing the gospel of what Christ has done for us on the cross with basing one’s assurance on the Sinner’s Prayer. For some people, contrasting the two might not make sense, since for them praying the prayer was how they first expressed belief in the gospel. However, he is addressing a very real problem. This examiner can remember praying the Sinner’s Prayer as a child any time a Billy Graham crusade was aired on television “just in case”. Assurance was extremely elusive, and the more times the prayer was prayed the more elusive it seemed to be. Greear says this was his own experience as a young man.
Greear’s understanding of assurance was changed by reading Martin Luther, who convinced him, as Cary put it, that “the gospel is not about us and the decisions we make—not even our decision to choose Christ—but rather about Christ himself, his finished work on the cross and his sitting on the throne of heaven, where he himself is our all-sufficient righteousness before God.”
Though some traditions heavily emphasize being able to pinpoint precisely when you believe the gospel, Greear argues that some children raised in Christian homes come to Christ at such a young age they may not be able to recall the time, and that’s okay. The most important question is when or how a person first comes to believe, but whether one actually does believe.
Okay, so assurance is not about praying the Sinner’s Prayer exactly right, or about anything else we do—it’s about believing what Christ has done for us on the cross. This begs the question: how do we know if our belief in Christ is real, if it’s sincere? Didn’t Christ himself say that many would come to him at judgment day, fully considering themselves his followers, only to be told by the Lord, “I never knew you”?
To answer this question, Greear had to address the related topic of eternal security. To begin with, Cary explains that Greear rejected the “perverse new version of the doctrine of eternal security” which he summarizes as teaching that “salvation is a moment of decision that compels God to save you even if you later abandon the Christian faith altogether.”
Re-stating historic Calvinist doctrine, Greear says that the litmus test which distinguishes true saving faith from fake faith is that true faith always and necessarily perseveres to the end. This raises another thorny question, which relates to assurance: if a person believes the gospel today, can she have assurance that she will go on believing it to the end and persevere? Many who believed the gospel earlier in life no longer do, so how can a believer have assurance of final perseverance?
2. Contrasting Lutheran and Reformed understandings of assurance
Speaking as a Lutheran, Cary says this sort of dilemma is inherent in Reformed theology: “As John Calvin himself put it, there is a difference between saving faith and temporary faith… The assumption is that these two sorts of faith are fundamentally different, and that there is some way of telling them apart, at least in your own case.” Calvin himself resolved the dilemma by saying, as Cary put it, that “each one of us, in our own case, can have assurance of eternal salvation because we know whether we have true saving faith. This is, of course, tantamount to knowing we are predestined for salvation.”
St. Peter in his epistle does encourage believers to make their calling and election sure. Presbyterians are encouraged to be introspective to see if they bear the marks of the elect—faith, repentance, a changed heart, etc… In practice, this introspection can lead to precisely what Greear is attempting to warn against in his book—basing one’s assurance on one’s self, one’s progress, one’s sincerity, etc., instead of basing it outside one’s self on Christ’s work. To tell the difference between temporary and saving faith, one has to look back at one’s self.
Cary explains that though Calvin hailed St. Augustine as his mentor, he did part company with the church father on this point: both theologians held the same view of predestination, but Calvin, unlike Augustine, believed you could know in this life that you are among the elect. It may be surprising to some that assurance, a hallmark of evangelical theology, is understood so differently in Roman Catholic circles. The Council of Trent, which convened in 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation, actually anathematized any notion that a person, barring some sort of special revelation—an angelic visit, for instance—can have assurance of final perseverance.
Cary explains that Catholics, when worried about their own assurance, have the practice of sacramental confession to fall back on, to help ensure they are not in a state of mortal sin. Luther’s advice, Cary explained, to people who doubted their salvation was to avoid any exploration of predestination and focus simply on “the promise of Christ in their baptism.” Luther, like Augustine, believed that God actually saves people through baptism, and when is struggling with doubts, one need only call to mind one’s baptism to rest assured that one has been born again.
In this, Luther was echoing Augustine, equally respected by Protestant and Catholics. The church father believed that, strictly speaking, all who are baptized are saved, but only those who persevere to the end are elect—many baptized people do not persevere, and therefore fall away. This doesn’t mean they weren’t saved to begin with (which Calvinism would argue), but rather that they weren’t part of God’s elect. If one believes in infant baptismal regeneration, one is practically forced to admit the possibility of the justified falling away, as many who are baptized in infancy never make any profession of faith at all when they come of age. Augustine called the elect an “inner circle”, known only to God, within the ranks of the baptized.
In his final assessment, Cary says that Greear’s book goes about as far towards Luther’s thinking on the subject without parting company with Calvinism. “The price for going all the way with Luther,” Cary said, “is dropping the notion that you can know in advance that your faith will persevere, and joining Luther (as well as Augustine) in believing that our salvation is not complete until our faith actually does persevere to the end.”
Cary concedes that giving up eternal security “the assurance that you are already saved for eternity”, is something many will not want to give up. Yet he argues that the only way to keep looking outside the self to Christ—to not look at the winds and waves and focus only on Jesus, as was the case with Peter when he briefly walked on water—is to drop Calvinistic introspection.
In closing, Cary explains why he “goes all the way” with Luther: “I think Christian faith puts faith in Christ alone—and not even a little bit in itself.”