Conditional or Unconditional Assurance?

Jun 7th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

I find reading the Apostle John’s letters especially beneficial for the simple reason that they are non-Pauline; they allow for a contrast, a reading of a different tenor or tone. John opens his first epistle by explaining that he preaches the word which he had seen and which was “made manifest” to him (1 John 1:2). He shares what he saw so that his audience might have “fellowship” with him, who is himself in fellowship “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (v. 3.)

Assurance of Salvation

To have fellowship with one another, an ambition that should be quite dear, we must walk in the light which is Christ. And in that case, the blood of Christ “cleanses us from all sin.” (v. 7.) This serves as a preface for the beginning of 1 John 2, a recent liturgical reading. John says that “we may be sure that we know him” by “keep[ing] his commandments.” (1 John 2:3.) This is reminiscent of John’s own Gospel, in which he records the words of Christ, that “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.)

Is the keeping of Christ’s commandments a required step to validate and vest one’s claimed love for Christ, or is it mere evidence of election? In other words, from John’s letter does it appear that obedience is a sign of or an agent in achieving unity with Christ’s propitiatory work? Is there a condition or not?

1 John 2 reads as if there may still be a condition. “He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected.  By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he [Christ] walked.” (1 John 2:5-6.) The disobedience doesn’t seem to undo (on its own) one’s possession of truth, but rather to evidence that the person is “a liar.” But on the other hand, some action really flows from the keeping of commandments — it is not mere assurance, mere evidence of prior election. In whoever keeps Christ’s word, truly love for God is perfected. (As a matter of interpretation, this has to differ from a text that would say, “already-perfect love is made known.”)

It could be that, upon appreciating our having received the grace to obey divine commandments, we find assurance in what has been done, and also cooperate in the perfection of this love. If this is objectionable, I suspect the objection arises from a predisposition to a monocausalistic view.

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  1. Hi Tom,

    Most people I have known who believe in the assurance of salvation (or once-saved-always-saved or eternal security) have been Evangelical Protestants; do many persons who call themselves “Reformed” Protestants also believe in once-saved-always-saved?

    I once believed as they did because that is what I was taught by Christians that I trusted, and when I read such passages as you mentioned above, for a lay man like me, it didn’t seem hard to interpret them as supporting the view that “obedience is a sign of election”, that is, if I understand your terminology correctly, that the “good works” that a Christian does and the virtuous life that a Christian lives are the “fruit” of their already-achieved salvation. It is an unconditional assurance.

    The notion that there might be some condition on the assurance of salvation, I would argue on their behalf, seems to fly in the face of 1 John 5:11-13:

    “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God.”

    The word “know” in the last sentence would be emphasized by the “no condition on assurance” believer. St. John says God “gave” us eternal life–see? it’s a free gift without condition–and if we possess the Son we have life. How do we possess the Son? By believing in Him, as the Gospels and other books of Scripture tell us. And St. John wanted us to know we had eternal life in Jesus by believing in Him. No condition. No mention of keeping his commandments in these specific passages, and so on.

    How would you answer such a challenge?

    I’m playing the Evangelical’s advocate here, a position which I once believed. It seems like Biblical passages can be chosen to fit our particular tradition’s belief on this issue fairly easily; now, those interpretations can and should be challenged as you are doing here, but for an Evangelical, why should I believe your interpretation over my own?

  2. This reminds me of the passage in Hebrews that always makes me scratch my head: 10For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

    It appears from taking these two passages together that there is something imperfect about mankind until we have been made perfect by suffering in love. In obedience, i.e. the love of faith, we are made perfect.

    I think it’s like this: in baptism we are commissioned to serve God and mankind in love, and it is by this love, which is obedience, that we are made “perfect” or ready to dwell eternally in the presence of God.

    I’d say, to answer your questions, that the obedience exhibited by the Christian is most certainly “evidence” of God’s presence in our life, but to say that the evidence is PROOF of sanctity is most likely not true in every case.

    However, I don’t think there can be any doubt that it is also the means to the end of perfect sanctity, especially given the passage from Hebrews. If Christ had to suffer to be made perfect (still feels weird saying that), then how much more for Christians in general.

    So the answer to your question from me is that the love of obedience is a sign and an agent.

    To use a sports analogy, you may officially be part of the team, but if you’re not willing to suffer along with your teammates to get ready for game day, then you might find yourself sitting it out.

  3. Dear Devin,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and for carefully, respectfully articulating a position that may not be your own. If I could take the opportunity to especially complement this approach: it is my opinion that this is the only way Christians can enter into unity, by testing a position in a way that does not start from the assumption that it is wrong.

    The Reformed certainly believe in “once-saved-always-saved,” but perhaps with a different emphasis than evangelicals from a Baptistic background. The focus is not on the moment of “salvation” (e.g., an altar call), but rather on God’s election to salvation. It is unshakable and definitive, decreed from before all time (but cf. infralapsarianism (?)). So if you are “saved” (viewed from the evidence of eternal decrees and not from the identification of a point in time of becoming saved), you cannot be lost.

    Thank you for sharing the point about 1 John 5. “Whoever possesses the Son has life . . . . you may know that you have eternal life.” I agree that the Reformed could emphasize “you may know” to support the position that assurance can be infallible, and fairly so! But I think there is a presumption in this interpretation, that the eternal life we can *have* means our possession of eternal life is already vested (so unconditional).

    Think of it this way. Let’s say my dad executed a will leaving me with a 50 acre parcel of oceanfront land on Cape Cod (a complete fiction, by the way). Do I “have” the land? Yes and no. As things stand (the status quo), my anticipated interest in the land will “vest” (become permanent and irrevocable) when my dad passes away. But if I become a horrible vindictive son, he retains the right for as long as he lives to draft a new will, to “write me out” of the will. So I don’t have the land irrevocably, even though I have it in some sense. It could be that when Christ tells us that ‘we may know we have eternal life if we have the son,’ he means we have a *conditional* inheritance (i.e., we can still be written out of the book of life). It could be that he has *vested* our inheritance from before all time (i.e., the writing of our name in the book of life cannot be changed). The text seems susceptible to either interpretation.

    So the question is not whether to accept my interpretation over another (and I’m not sure I offer a firm interpretation), but rather, why do we accept anyone’s interpretation over anyone else’s? What criteria assures us that one interpretation is authoritative over another? Since I’m rolling, I’ll go one further: can text be authoritative at all without authoritative interpretation?

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  4. Dear John C.,

    Thanks. Is the perfection-from-suffering which you mention a true condition on being saved, or simply a step that has to (but certainly will) occur? If you are Catholic, you believe that all in purgatory are going to be saved, but they have some suffering and perfecting to be done in the mean time. But they will be saved. How is that not a fair reading of 1 John and Hebrews together?

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  5. What bothered me while I was attending a 5 point Calvinist Reformed Church is how troubled I would become at times, wondering if I, or for that matter anyone else in the pews was truly saved. After all, if it was a done deal long before I was born, and I had no say in it whatsoever, then perhaps I and others were actually pre-ordainded to damnation. There were those folks who had been among us, who we called “brethren” and yet they abandoned the faith and backslid into mortal sin. One such person whom I loved dearly died in this state. Well, many believed he was never really saved to begin with because the ‘P’ in TULIP says that God causes his own to persevere. And it was obvious he didn’t. From T to U to L to I to P, it is all a work of God and man has no say in it whatsoever.

    It goes something like this. Regeneration precedes faith because man can do nothing to save himself. The regenerated person will grow in sanctification although it adds nothing to his salvation but is only evidence of it. Now many a Reformed person will say, “God saved me. It was nothing I did whatsoever. When He saved me, He forgave my sins past, present, and future. And yet, He elected me for salvation long before I repented so that I could not resist His grace in any way. Therefore He will most assuredly cause me to persevere to the end, without any effort on my part, for that would be a salvation of works.” The problem is, many within their midst proclaim this and yet fall away from the faith, something that cannot be possible if indeed the ULIP in Tulip are true. The only way to make sense of such a doctrinal system is to say, “They were never saved to begin with.” So how is such a belief system comforting or assuring?

    Of course, we then have those who believe in OSAS who say that the person who backslid into mortal sin and died in that state was saved, but his works will be burnt up. It goes like this, “Once faith, always saved.” IOW, if a person believed in Christ at any point in their life, regardless of how they live afterward, that belief is enough to guarantee a place in Heaven for them.

    Sure glad I don’t swim in those waters any longer. :)

  6. Hi Tom,

    Ah yes! I didn’t think about the Reformed belief in election and how it in a way is also a once-saved-always-saved belief, though with a different emphasis as you mentioned.

    I thought the analogy you made to being listed in your father’s will was a good one, and one that I had not considered. I agree that the Biblical text under discussion could be interpreted to support either position.

    You also posed: “What criteria assures us that one interpretation is authoritative over another? Since I’m rolling, I’ll go one further: can text be authoritative at all without authoritative interpretation?”

    If I can put on my Evangelical hat again, I would respond something like “The Bible is authoritative because it is the inspired Word of God; it does not require any human authority to interpret it because it is ‘understandable enough’ through a ‘plain reading’ wherein one may know the essentials of the Gospel that are necessary for one’s salvation. The Holy Spirit dwells within each Christian and He authoritatively interprets it, helping the Christian to interpret it truthfully. In the case you mention here, I can see that a plurality of interpretations (and therefore subsequent doctrines) are possible, and in such a case I would have to conclude that knowing whether assurance is conditional or unconditional is not necessary to salvation; one could believe in either idea and be saved. What we do with the fact that the two people who interpret this passage differently then go off in different doctrinal directions, I don’t know. It is a problem because one of these people must be in error as to what God meant (they both can’t be right as this is a mutually exclusive question), and so that person may very well interpret other passages erroneously based on their false belief and be led into further error. One of those persons has failed to correctly discern the Holy Spirit leading him into all truth on this passage, but God understands, and He would take this into account at their judgment.”

    So if you have time and inclination, what do you say to the answer that there is an authoritative interpretation, and it is the one which the Holy Spirit will give to Christians, since it is He who is the authoritative interpreter?

  7. Tom,

    I don’t see the passages from Hebrews and 1 John as opposed. What I will say is that I firmly believe that Christ is the “perfector” of our faith. We are the clay, He is the sculptor. Still, I can’t help but acknowledge that it is quite possible for a Christian to choose to shun the work of Christ in their life, and to leave altogether. Contrast with Job: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him.” What we can trust is that if we cling to Christ, He will never leave or forsake us.

    So I don’t want to say that we somehow must engender our own sufferings in order to be saved. It’s appointed by God what we must experience in order to be made perfect. One might reason that in the simple act of incarnation Christ first suffered, and so any person conceived has already “suffered” in a sense.

    But to answer your question, I would say that it is a condition, no way it can be simply a step that certainly will occur. I would say that the “step theory” is clearly out-of-step with scripture and, for that matter, reason. Unless you were to reduce people to automatons, or puppets. I never could quite escape this when I fully accepted the Reformed doctrines!

    BTW, my response was a bit rushed. Trying to do this on my lunch break…great conversation!

  8. Dear Devin,

    Well into my discernment I still found the position you articulated quite appealing, or at least quite a force to be reckoned with.

    “it does not require any human authority to interpret it because it is ‘understandable enough’ through a ‘plain reading’ wherein one may know the essentials of the Gospel that are necessary for one’s salvation.”

    This and your later description are reflected in the Westminster Confession:

    “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

    and

    “Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.” (WCOF, ch. 1.)

    Here is my reaction. Honest readers of the Bible disagree even on essential matters of salvation.

    I had a simple but extremely profound encounter with some baptist evangelists at my door about a year ago, during which we eventually hammered out that they believed I was not saved because I could not pinpoint the time at which I had become saved (to which I replied that this was an insult to the grace and providence of God which placed me under a Christian roof and held me in the faith, but that’s another matter). These evangelists had their Bibles, and were ready to exchange verses. I now believe that what is “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” is not “so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other” so that we can all obtain an understanding of it.

    My alternative is to accept the Westminster on this point as truth, and then find the error in the evangelists’ motives — I would have to believe that they (even if unlearned) are not giving Scripture an honest read, or do not have the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. In making such a judgment, I am not sure how I could make a principled distinction between their approach to the Bible and the approach of my brethren Reformed, how I could condemn them without condemning my own.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  9. Dear John,

    I benefited from your employment of the Job verse — thanks.

    “What we can trust is that if we cling to Christ, He will never leave or forsake us.” It’s the if…then of this statement that gets at my post. Is there an if…then in 1 John (and elsewhere?), and if so, how does the Reformed Christian address that (am I giving the Reformed position a proper shake?)?

    If…then language is certainly conditional language. But when you speak of clinging to Christ, you impliedly accept that even this ability to continue clinging depends on God. I think of clinging in terms of not-positively-rejecting Christ. That allows for conditional language (as in, I am assured I will be saved if I don’t reject Christ, vice if I do keep holding on to Christ), and also makes plain that Christ’s grace is perfectly fit to do the job.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

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