A favorite argument of modern-day garden-variety Arminians is that unless the atonement is unlimited, one cannot have assurance of salvation. The argument goes that if Christ has only died for the elect, you, Mr. Calvinist really cannot know if in fact Christ has died for you particularly. That is, how do you know if you’re actually one of elect? On the other hand, if the atonement is unlimited, then you can know that Christ has died for you because Christ has died for everyone, therefore you have assurance of your salvation if you accept Christ as your personal Lord and savior.
You may have already figured out the problem with this sort of argument by the words in italics. The issue of certainty of assurance has not been solved with an unlimited atonement. How do you know if you really truly accepted Christ as your personal Lord and savior? This plays out in a number of non-Reformed churches that practice altar calls at the end of their services. Having been raised with this aspect of an Arminian liturgy, I can recall that indeed, one can’t help but avoid internally re-asking whether or not Jesus was truly accepted into the heart during the altar call. The better the speaker at giving the altar call, the more probable such internal doubts would surface. It wasn’t uncommon to see people go forward “to get saved” more than once.
I recently came across a Roman Catholic arguing that Calvinists can’t have assurance of salvation. In fact, one should never be surprised when modern-day Arminians and Roman Catholics make the same sort of argument. Here’s the difference though: many of today’s non-Reformed folks think that an unlimited atonement secures the assurance of salvation. Roman Catholicism though likewise believes in an unlimited atonement but explicitly rejects the assurance of salvation. The Council of Trent states: “If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.” Rome’s theologians have no problem considering such a statement a fundamental of Roman Catholic dogma. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out that such uncertainty is necessary for the Roman system:
“[T]he Roman Catholic church makes the forgiveness of sins dependent, not on an immediate divine act of pardon once for all, but on the sacrament of penance that must be repeated after every mortal sin, and on the absolution of the priest. With every new deadly sin the state of grace is lost. It can only be restored by the sacrament of penance, and is lost again whenever a new mortal sin is committed. But this is not the only thing that makes assurance impossible. The confessional itself is hedged about with all kinds of uncertainties. The orders of the functioning priest may not be genuine, and this would make his absolution ineffectual. His intention may be at fault, and this would introduce another element of uncertainty. Then, too, the confessor may be ambiguous, equivocal, or indeterminate. He may overlook some of his sins and fail to mention them to the priest, in which case they would not be forgiven. It is no wonder therefore that, according to the church at Rome, the assurance of salvation is quite out of the question. But the Roman Catholic church even goes a step farther: it regards personal assurance as undesirable. The real reason for this is, in all probability, that the church greatly profits by keeping the souls of the faithful in constant suspense. It reaps a rich harvest through the sacrament of penance. Of course, it does not assign this as a reason for its teaching on this point. It claims to consider it wholesome and beneficial for the Christian to entertain honest doubts in the high matters of justification and final salvation. Such doubts keep him from an overweening confidence in himself, minister to true humility of character, and serve as a more salutary restraint on the evil passions than joy and peace in believing could ever be. Mohler, one of the greatest Roman Catholic scholars of the previous century said: ‘I think that, in the neighborhood of any man, who would declare himself under all circumstances assured of his salvation, I should feel very uncomfortable, and should probably have difficulty to put away the thought, that something like diabolical influence was here at play.'” [Berkhoff, L. The Assurance of Faith (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), p. 21].
Similarly, Francis Turretin states,
“It is not, however, for nothing that the Romanists so fiercely strive for the retention of their hesitation and doubt. They understand that the whole business of popish traffic rests upon this once being established… the taxes, vows, pilgrimages, fraternities, supererogatory works, purgatory, sale of indulgences, trafficking of the Mass and other base merchandise of the popish kingdom immediately fall. For he who would be certain of his own salvation would betake himself neither to the patronage of the saints, nor to the merits of the martyrs, nor to the absolution of priests (which is the executioner of the Roman tyrant) [Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology vol. 2 (New Jersey: P and R Publishing, 1994), p. 617].
Roman Catholic are always bringing up certainty, as if by being a member of the Roman Church, one of the benefits is certainty. That is, by being a Roman Catholic you can (allegedly) know with certainty which books are supposed to be in the Bible, you can know with certainty which is the church Jesus Christ established, you can know what the Bible says and means with certainty. But ironically, on a very basic (and important) fundamental human issue, you can’t have certainty of your salvation. Go figure. Here’s how a Roman Catholic recently explained the uncertainty of assurance to me:
“Infallible Assurance is a myth, and once you stop and ask yourself how you know you are elect rather than simply thinking you’re elect, you’ll have no concrete basis to answer the question. So the Catholic position is right to say nobody has infallible Assurance.”
If you read this statement carefully, you’ll notice, like the Arminian argument above, it ultimately is an inconsistent argument. This Roman Catholic claims to know “nobody has infallible assurance.” In other words, this particular Roman Catholic is claiming infallibility himself. He’s claiming he can infallibly know that no one can know. How does he know that? Perhaps he’ll say the Magisterium tells him, in which case we’ll push him back one more step: how does he know the Magisterium knows? Perhaps he’ll say because Christ established the Roman Church. But how does he ultimately know this? Perhaps he’ll say Matthew 16:18. If he finally arrives at quoting Scripture to prove his point, he’s not being a consistent Roman Catholic. Aren’t we the ones who say that Scripture assures us of our salvation?
If in fact such a dialog were to go along these lines, we would arrive at an infallible beginning point to actually probe the depths of what is meant by assurance in the life of a Christian, the very words of God. Here one leaves the realm of Internet banter and delves into the work of the Spirit in the heart of a believer. As Romans 8:15-17 states “For ye received not the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”
“The treatment of this subject, then, does not call for an apology. On the contrary, there are good reasons for discussing it. There are comparatively few Christians to-day, who really glory in the assurance of salvation. The note of heavenly joy seems to have died away out of the life of God’s people. It is true that it may sometimes be heard in Methodist revival meetings. But in such cases it is generally prompted only by momentary emotions, often proves to be of an evanescent character, and is frequently followed by reactions of the darkest gloom. Moreover, the assurance in which the Methodist glories always falls short of the assurance of salvation.
There are always large numbers of serious seekers after assurance in our churches, who are tossed to and fro by doubts and uncertainties. Some of them appear to be chronic doubters, who occasionally create the impression that they take a secret delight in their doubts and regard them as a mark of special piety. But the majority are of a different kind. They can readily be made to understand that the normal Christian life cannot be one of constant uncertainty, and that their doubts are due to a certain measure of unbelief, to weakness of faith, or to ignorance, and therefore cannot be condoned. As a rule they are in a teachable spirit, eager to receive instruction and help, and anxious to be led into the light. They need careful spiritual guidance and should always be the objects of tender solicitude.
But we also meet with some professing Christians to-day–and it is to be feared that their number is on the increase–who apparently do not think about the matter of assurance, or who, if they do, fail to take it seriously. They simply seem to take it for granted, and speak of it as a matter of course. They assert their assurance in an off-hand way, but leave the impression that they hardly know what it means. It is quite evident that the matter of personal assurance has not gripped their souls. Their spiritual life moves on the surface and is utterly lacking in real depth. In view of all this it can hardly be called superfluous to call attention to this important subject” [Louis Berkhof, The Assurance of Faith, 16-17].
I can recommend a few helpful resources studying assurance as a Biblical issue.
Berkhoff, L. The Assurance of Faith (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939. This isn’t like Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. It’s a short simple book that can be read in one sitting. Logos software has an affordable electronic version.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology vol. 2 (New Jersey: P and R Publishing, 1994). See Turretin’s section on The Certainty of Faith (pp. 616-631).
Alpha and Omega Ministries bookstore provides Assured by God – Living in the Fullness of God’s Grace Edited by Burk Parsons.
Dr. White had a debate with Roman Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin on Perseverance (mp3 download).
Dr. White’s book with Dave Hunt, Debating Calvinism, includes an entire section on Biblical Assurance of Salvation (Chapter 14).