John Calvin on the Assurance of Salvation
Recently, Flame, one of the most prolific Christian rappers in history, came out with an EP called “Extra Nos.” The focus of the album was about Flame’s journey to becoming a confessional Lutheran and how Calvinism tends to erode the believer’s assurance of salvation by pointing believers to their good works and progress in sanctification instead of the finished work of Christ.
Flame believes that Luther had a scripturally correct view of assurance because his emphasis was upon the mighty works of Christ in His redemptive work for sinners while Calvin had a defective view of assurance because his emphasis was on the weary efforts of the Christian at holiness. I would like to contend that Flame did not say anything Calvin would disagree with. In fact, Calvin expresses the same view of assurance as Flame almost word for word.
Good Works and Assurance
In his interlude song “Good Works,” Flame says,
But what makes us right with God, Paul says, is our faith. That’s how we are made righteous and how we remain righteous, in Christ. But when you blur those lines and start looking at your sanctification for assurance that you’re right with God, a bunch of problems arise. First off, we end up filled with discouragement from constantly missing the mark. We can also end up filled with self-doubt from constantly applying subjective and arbitrary measures to assess our level of sanctification in order to determine whether or not we are justified. Or on the flip side, we could be filled with self-righteousness as a result of fulfilling some criteria we created and then in turn cast judgement on others who don’t check our specific boxes. This is a common experience especially among Calvinists.
The reason Flame believes sanctification and good works cannot be the foundation of assurance is because sanctification is a “partial, uncompleted work” as he said in his song “2KR.” According to Flame, the emphasis should not be upon the uncompleted, subjective work of sanctification in us but upon the completed, objective work of justification outside of us in Christ. The righteousness of Christ extra nos (outside of ourselves) is where we ought to find the objective foundation of assurance of our salvation.
Calvin would like to agree. In his commentary on Romans 5:1, Calvin writes,
When any one strives to seek tranquility of conscience by works, he labors for it in vain; for either his heart is asleep through his disregard or forgetfulness of God’s judgement, or else it is full of trembling and dread until it reposes on Christ, who is alone our peace.
Romans 5:1 is about our objective peace with God. Since we have been justified by faith, we are no longer under God’s wrath, but have peace with Him because Christ exhausted the wrath of God on our behalf and met the demands of His Law as our representative. We merely received and rested in Christ so that God declared us righteous, one who has met the obligations of the Law and has satisfied its penalty. This is objective. It’s true whether we feel it or not. It’s not based upon our good works but upon the good works of Christ.
But Calvin believes the objective work of Christ for us ought to give us a kind of subjective feeling of peace. In order to have tranquility of the conscience, we must repose, or rest in, what Christ has done for us. Calvin agrees that believers, if they trust in their good works, will never find true assurance before the throne of God because even our good works are mingled with sin, as he writes:
There is nowhere such a fear of God as can give full security, and the saints are always conscious that any integrity which they may possess is mingled with many remains of the flesh.
Believers will fall into either despair or self-righteousness if they trust in their good works for assurance because we still fail to meet the demands of a holy God. Calvin agrees with Flame that we must daily come back to the objective, finished work of Christ to find the foundation of our assurance.
Now Calvin did think good works play a role in the assurance of the believer as he writes,
But the fruits of regeneration furnish with a proof of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, experiencing God to be a Father in a matter so much a moment, they are strengthened in no slight degree to wait for His assistance in all their necessities. Even this they could not do, had they not previously perceived that the goodness of God is sealed to them by nothing but the certainty of promise.
Good works are not the foundation of assurance, but they do strengthen assurance. However, as Calvin indicates at the end of the quotation above, good works can only strengthen assurance once we perceive that the goodness of God is sealed to us by the certainty of His promise in the finished work of Christ for us. For Calvin, we cannot find assurance in the sanctifying power of the Spirit in us unless our emphasis is in the justifying power of Christ outside of us. Indeed, there is no sanctifying power of the Spirit without the justifying work of Christ on the cross!
Election and Assurance
In his song “Sola Fide,” Flame says,
When you believe in the doctrine of election like Calvin did (like I did), you’re pretty much gridlocked in a system in such a way you believe you’re saved by faith alone but for the large part, you look to your sanctification for your assurance (that’s just facts).
According to Flame, Calvin pointed people inward to themselves to know if they were chosen by God before the foundation of the world to be saved. The only way we can if we are elected is if we are bearing fruit. But did Calvin really believe this? Calvin writes:
But if we are elected in Him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look to Him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election…
Calvin emphatically denies looking for the certainty of election in ourselves. When we look to Christ we know without being deceived that we are elect because Christ is the mirror of our election. When you look into a mirror, you see what you’re wearing. You must look into a mirror to know for certain how you look. So, if Christ is the mirror of our election, when we look to Him by faith, we see for certain that we are covered with His blood and clothed in His righteousness. God the Father chose us in God the Son (Ephesians 1:4) so that Christ would be our federal representative in His life and death. It is simply untrue that Calvin pointed believers to themselves instead of Christ to know if they are elect.
Preaching and Assurance
In his song “Ordo Salutis,” Flame says,
He rock a priest collar
He cop a crewneck
Both monergistic in the pulpit (Facts)
One told me faith‘s where the proof’s at (Luther)
The other told me better do a fruit check (Calvin)
Flame is contrasting Lutheran preaching and Calvinist preaching. The Lutherans wear the priest collars, the Calvinists wear the crewnecks. Both are monergistic, meaning both believe God alone saves a person apart from a person cooperating with grace. Lutherans point believers to faith and the Gospel for the assurance of salvation. Flame claims that Calvinists point believers to their fruit. According to Flame, Calvin demanded a certain quota of fruit from believers. Flame seems to indicate that Calvin demanded a certain quantity and quality of fruit that meets FDA standards (I’m joking). But Calvin was most certainly not a “fruit-checker” in the pulpit.
In fact, in his commentary on 1 John, Calvin instructs pastors to establish the believer’s assurance in Christ as he writes,
For the apostle says he wrote these things, that is, that eternal life is to be sought nowhere else but in Christ, in order that they who were believers already might believe, that is make progress in believing. It is therefore the duty of a godly teacher, in order to confirm disciples in the faith, to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ, so that being satisfied with that, we may seek nothing else.
It is the duty of a godly preaching to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ. Calvin would agree that fruit-checking, moralistic preachers in the pulpit are not being faithful to their calling as under-shepherds of Christ, the Good Shepherd himself, who tenderly cares for His flock. According to Calvin, pastors are not called to pound their people with the burden of the Law every Sunday, but to proclaim to weary believers that Christ is here to give them rest by taking on Himself the burden of the Law.
Encountering Reformed Thought
I’m truly happy that Flame’s relationship with Jesus has exponentially improved since he has discovered Reformation theology. However, what I wish for Flame is that he doesn’t reject Calvinism just because he has interpreted his experience with New Calvinism back into Calvin or the Westminster Divines. My wish for Flame, and for all who are skeptical of Calvinism, is that they come to a deep appreciation for the impact that the Reformed tradition has had on how we think about the Christian life.