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Calvin on Faith and Assurance

How often do we hear Christian men and women who love to study theology talk about the doctrine of faith? In my experience, not very much. Why is that? Would it be too surprising to find out that one of the most neglected doctrines in Christendom is the doctrine of faith? We can hardly define faith without turning to a modern definition of it online. Yet, Scripture says that through faith alone one is justified and saved. Many may think it’s trivial and unimportant, yet we see that throughout the centuries, it was the faith of many men and women that that drove them to persecution.

“If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”
Revelation 13:10

The biblical understanding of faith leads the Christian to greater assurance and certainty. Unfortunately, some have adopted a false understanding of faith or have given into the false notion that faith means to believe in something without evidence (e.g. blind faith). Far too many have misunderstood faith to be a substance of mystical power that comes and goes, depending on the arbitrary notion of “the anointing.” In this article, we will discover how the Protestant and Reformed tradition understood biblical faith in light of the writings of the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin.

A Biblical & Reformed Definition of Faith

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.2.7

Calvin defined faith as “firm and sure knowledge.” In this case, to have saving faith means to have firm and sure knowledge of the gospel. Again, this is not a “probable” or “most likely” feeling or concept of the cross. No, this is firm and sure knowledge in the person and finished work of Christ, along with all the divine promises made for God’s children.

Many Christians, with good intentions, have defined faith as merely trust. Although that is a fair and true understanding of biblical faith, “trust” alone does not capture all that is in faith. Reformed theologian, Louis Berkhof, wrote this about faith:

Protestant theology… is unanimous in teaching that saving faith also contains an element of trust, and that this is by no means the least important constituent of faith.

Assurance of Faith II.B

Notice how Berkhof says that trust is “an element” of faith, but not all that encompasses biblical faith. The reason for this is because the Reformed definition of faith contains the element of trust. Firm and sure knowledge of the gospel and all this in Christ necessarily implies trusting in the gospel promises. To trust in the gospel promises means to be assured that these promises are for you. This definition of faith provides a solid foundation for true assurance of salvation. When you capture all that is in faith, you come to the realization that assurance is embedded in faith! You cannot separate assurance of salvation from faith itself.

Faith Itself vs. Faith Experienced

The Reformed recgonize how biblical faith implies strong assurance. This definition might confuse many and perhaps create some difficulty. Some may argue that this kind of definition of faith would mean that a believer would never experience doubt or uncertainty. That’s a valid point. And it’s the very reason why Calvin made a distinction between faith itself an faith experienced. He acknowledged this difficulty only a few sections after his definition of faith.

But it will be said that this differs widely from the experience of believers, who, in recognizing the grace of God toward them, not only feel disquietude (this often happens), but sometimes tremble, overcome with terror, so violent are the temptations which assail their minds. This scarcely seems consistent with certainty of faith

Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.2.17

Every believer faces the hardship of doubt and discouragement at some point in their life. So, how do we reconcile this difficulty of the Bible describing faith as firm and sure knowledge, even during times of doubt and temptation? Calvin continues…

…It is necessary to solve this difficulty, in order to maintain the doctrine above laid down. When we say that faith must be certain and secure, we certainly speak not of an assurance which is never affected by doubt, nor a security which anxiety never assails; we rather maintain that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own distrust, and are thus far from thinking that their consciences possess a placid quiet, uninterrupted by perturbation.

Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.2.17

Calvin gave a simple answer. The reason why you doubt is not because of faith itself – the object of your faith remains the same, regardless of what your experience. The reason you doubt has everything to do with your own perpetual struggle with distrust, due to your fallen nature. In other words, in the midst of your own doubt, the substance of your faith remains intact, no matter how much you doubt. The gospel promises never waver like your experiences waver. Thankfully, the gospel and its promises are not contingent upon your experiences as a believer either.

Consider this scenario:

Suppose you struggle with a specific sin for years and one day you begin to doubt whether or not you’re truly a born again believer. You begin to wonder if you’re truly a child of God. Surely, if you were a child of God, this sin wouldn’t be so overwhelming, especially for so long. After days, weeks or even months of struggling and experiencing doubt, you beg God for mercy and reach out for accountability from an elder.

In this scenerio, although you experienced doubt of salvation, you actually never lost faith. In having “firm and sure” knowledge in God, you have real hope that God will strengthen you. A believer can’t escape this reality. The truth of the matter is we have faith that God will keep his promises, even when we are weak! Once God captures your heart, he never wants to let go. When we have faith, we trust and hope in God and his promises. We trust him even at our weakest and driest moments in life.

If we truly believe in the promises of God found in the person and work of Christ then we trust that he will keep his children, even in times of weakness and temptation. God will never let you go, regardless of your experience. Again, our experience as believers may waver and change, but faith itself is certain and secure.

“Comfortable Assurance of Persevering”

In the Reformed perspective, once someone is born again and becomes a child of God, God continues to love them as a parent would, forever.

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Hebrews 12:5-8

Although faith is certain and secure, we must consider the element of trust (and hope) that helps the children of God endure. When we are overwhelmed with our weakness and sin, our only hope is in Christ. It can’t be in ourselves. We look to God for a way of escape. In looking to God in our seemingly faithless trials, we are actually utilizing the faith God has given us despite our our claim of having little to no faith.

We have faith in all the promises found in Christ, which includes endurance and salvation forever. In our darkest hour, we cling to God’s promises and believe he’ll give us the comfortable assurance of persevering. This is what faith means! The Canons of Dort express an identical view of faith and assurance as Calvin, in this regard:

The Scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that they may be able to bear it (1 Cor. 10:13); and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering.

Canons of Dort 5.11

In other words, part of having faith also means to firmly and surely know that God is faithful when you are weak. He’s faithful to provide a way of escape. All this is encompassed in faith itself and is manifested in the life of all believers.

In Conclusion

We have only touched the surface of the definition of faith, but it’s enough to encourage believers everywhere that God has gifted them with a secure and certain faith, as opposed to mystical and probable feelings or thoughts.

For clarity sake, the definition and understanding of faith is not a requirement of salvation – although misunderstandings of faith can and have led to false gospels. (That’s for another article.) We know that God captures the hearts of unlearned men and women who love Christ so much to the point of martyrdom. Many do not get to experience faith outside their deathbed, like the thief on the cross, yet experience true assurance. In their final moments, all they know is that they inherited salvation by the precious blood of Christ whom they love.The faith and assurance affirmed in the Protestant Reformed tradition can been seen in examples like these.

Berkhof believed that many Christians are invariably led to base their assurance on God’s promises and by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, despite not knowing the ins and outs of faith and assurance:

Many Christians who enjoy the assurance of faith are not able to give an intelligent explanation of it, and are at a loss what to say when they are asked for the grounds of their assurance, or for proof of the genuineness of their faith. They may be able only to repeat the words of the man whom Jesus cured of his blindness: “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” Their lack of clear knowledge on this point, however, may cause them to reflect on the nature and grounds of their faith, and on the evidences of the life of the spirit that is born within their hearts. And then they are invariably led to base their assurance consciously and deliberately on the objective promises of God in connection with the subjective fruits of the Spirit.

Assurance of Faith IV.C

To have secure and certain faith is to firmly and surely know that the person and work of Christ, his promises and all that he claimed to be in God’s word is for you as his covenant child. In this faith, you have unshakable and undeniable personal assurance of salvation that the enemy cannot steal, despite his efforts. Understanding this kind of faith allows you to cling to God, in hope and trust, when you feel overwhelmed. You trust in his promises to keep and save you. This is what it means to have faith and assurance.

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