In this case, I want to talk a bit about the controversy concerning the relation of sanctification to assurance of salvation. This discussion commonly takes place within the Calvinist camp. It began quite shortly after the Reformation itself and has not abated since.
While all relevant parties to the dispute agree that justification and ultimate salvation are never meritorious, and that sanctification is merely indicative of a prior salvation, rather than instrumental to it, there is disagreement concerning how our degree of sanctification, or lack thereof, ought to impact our belief about our own current spiritual state and ultimate spiritual destiny.
Sometimes this question is cashed out in terms of how we understand the concept of “faith.” Is assurance essential to faith? Does having faith necessarily mean having assurance, or can one have faith and yet remain in doubt all one’s life about one’s ultimate destiny? Some believe that God does not grant all Christians assurance, and some even go as far as to say that very few have real assurance during this life due to God’s sovereign prerogative in withholding the unique gift of assurance from such Christians.
Others pair faith and assurance so closely together that to lack assurance is not a humble agnosticism about one’s spiritual state on the ground of a relative lack of holiness, but rather, a kind of wicked impiety which refuses to take God at his word that he intends to save the utmost of sinners. The debate is not always cashed out in theologically precise terms. Oftentimes, it simply resorts to two sides calling one another names.
One side believes that the other places so high and unrealistic a standard of sanctification on Christians that it exceeds what God has promised any believer will attain during this life, that such a standard utterly deprives Christians of any hope of the assurance promised to them in scripture.
Those on the receiving end of such accusations are denominated “Neonomians.” On the other hand, supposed neonomians counter-accuse such people of so deemphasizing the necessity of a changed life as a non-instrumental condition of salvation that they virtually negate the necessity of obedience altogether and so are deemed “Antinomians,” or opposers of God’s law.
I believe that at the heart of this controversy is a real intellectual difficulty which I will refer to as “Loki’s Dilemma.” This is related to an informal fallacy known as “Loki’s Fallacy,” according to which is an excessive or unreasonable insistence on a precise definition of a concept and delineation of its contents as a prerequisite to discussion.
The concept is named after Loki, a god in Norse mythology. Having made a wager with a group of dwarves, they agreed that Loki would lose his head if he lost. He did lose, and when the dwaves came to take his head, Loki insisted that they could not take any part of his neck. Of course, they could not take his head without taking his neck, and so they could not take his head at all. The relevance of this fallacy to the discussion is that there was no agreement on where the neck ended and the head began.
This difficulty in specifying where one thing ends and another begins becomes a real pastoral difficulty for Protestants. All Calvinists, whether they be accused of antinomianism or neonomianism by their detractors, reject the notion that we can ever become sinlessly perfect in this life.
Nonetheless, some are accused of putting to heavy a premium on sanctification as a precondition for assurance of salvation. Likewise, although Calvinists may be accused by some other Calvinists of antinomianism, this is generally false. These supposed ‘antinomians’ do require a degree of sanctification as a condition of assurance. Few of them, for example, would say that one could renounce Christ and become a porn star and yet still have assurance of salvation based on some antecedent conversion.
So where do we draw the line between a life of habitual sin that is inconsistent with Gospel sincerity vs. the indwelling sin that we expect the believer to struggle with as long as he lives? How many sins of what degree of severity within what interval of time distinguishes the “Wretched man that I am!” of Rom. 7:24 from the one whose lack of the fruits of the Spirit disqualify him from a legitimate confession of faith? This is not an easy question to answer, as the Bible does not provide us with a hard-and-fast, quantitative way of measuring such a distinction.
There is no algorithm or formula for sin-input which generates a definite output, by which we could definitively calculate whether or not one’s sins have disqualified us from counting ourselves among God’s elect. Should the man who prays and reads his Bible and fellowships with the saints and humbly participates in communion, yet struggles habitually with sin that he confesses to his brothers and habitually fights against, yet also habitually succumbs to, be comforted that his struggle is evidence of grace, and no unbeliever could possibly lift a finger against this sin?
Or should he be warned that his habitual succumbing to such sin is evidence that his spiritual duties are done in a spirit of hypocrisy and that he is still in his sins and walking in darkness? According to what sort of algorithm can such a determination be made? I will let the reader come to his or her own conclusion and attempt to give a brief description of some embodiments of this controversy.
1) The Marrow Controversy – this controversy took place among the Presbyterians, particularly the Church of Scotland. In 1717, William Craig would not affirm the Auchterarder Creed on the grounds that it was unorthodox to suppose that forsaking sin was a necessary precondition in coming to Christ. Indeed, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland eventually condemned it as “unsound and detestable.”
This produced an internal division within the Church of Scotland between the Marrow Men and the Neonomians. Ralph Erskine, Ebeneezer Erskine, Thomas Boston and 9 others supported the creed, although Boston said that it was admittedly not well-worded. Rather than seeing forsaking of sin as the necessary precondition of coming to Christ, the Marrow Men believed that union to Christ was antecedent to such a forsaking of sin, and that we could not obey the imperative to forsake sin until the indicative of union to Christ had taken place.
Edward Fisher wrote his work “The Marrow of Modern Divinity,” which opposed the Neonomian doctrine. The General Assembly prohibited the book in 1720 and formally rebuked the Marrow Men in 1722. The Neonomians were accused of teaching works righteousness because of their belief in repentance as a precondition of faith.
The Neonomians, for their part, believed that we know the elect by their forsaking of sin. Only those who have repented of their sin to a certain degree receive the grace of God. It is only until a certain degree of repentance has taken place that we can really know that we are elect.
It is certainly the case that it is possible to emphasize obedience either too much or not enough, or in the wrong way. Indeed, we live in such an easy-believist culture which teaches that no genuine behavioral change is required of salvation that it is easy to forget that there is such a thing as hard-believism, as Joel Beeke describes it. Indeed, Beeke grew up in an unusual hyper-Calvinist denomination which taught that assurance was only given to a special few of God’s children and that most had to labor through life without it. He has therefore provided numerous sermons on biblical assurance of salvation which attempt to mediate between the Scylla of easy-believism and the Charybdis of hard-believism.
2) The Antinomian Controversy – this controversy raged among the English Puritans as well. On one side were John Cotton and Richard Sibbes, who believed that their emphasis on the objective facts of the Gospel were more consistent with John Calvin’s theology of assurance. On the other side were theologians like William Ames and William Perkins, who emphasized human performance and self-examination as the means of determining whether or not church members were regenerate. Cotton, for his part, was accused of antinomianism. This is his response:
And seeing we all profess . . . to hold forth protestant doctrine, let us hold it forth in the language of Calvin and others [of] our best protestants, who speak of purity of life and growth in grace and all the works of sanctification as the effects and consequents of our assurance of faith . . . . And therefore if we will speak as protestants, we must not speak of good works as cause or ways of our first assurance. . . . [Y]et indeed you carry it otherwise. . . . Which, seeing it disallowed by the chief protestant writers, if you contrary to them do hold it forth for protestant doctrine, that we may gather our first assurance of justification from our sanctification, it is not the change of words that will change that matter. (Ron Frost, unpublished PhD Dissertation, Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology, King’s College, University of London 1996, 13, quoting Hall, Antinomian, 133-34, quoting John Cotton’s, Rejoinder)
3) The Lordship Controversy – Those who emphasize the importance of human performance in assurance denominate themselves advocates of the Lordship controveresy (or are at least denominated as such by many of their advoctes and critics alike). These include preachers like Paul Washer and John MacArthur. John Robbins, on the other hand, a critic of those whom he believes inordinately emphasize sanctification as a condition for assurance, focuses on the Gospel strictly as mental assent to a set of facts about the Person of Jesus Christ and his atonement.
Yet note that neither side believes that sanctification is meritorious, nor would either side say that it is possible for one to have assurance given a life of willful sinning. Loki’s Dilemma becomes a difficulty here.
Another incarnation of this controversy is the PRCA’s opposition to the Westminster Confession’s theology of assurance. The PRCA emphasizes faith in the objective work of Christ as the ground of our assurance. They thus pair faith and assurance much more closely than those of the WCF, which, they say, wrongly says that it is possible to go many years without assurance. David Engelsma, in his book “The Gift of Assurance,” for example, writes:
It is deplorable that the Spirit’s work of assuring believers and the true, spiritual children of believers is controversial. I do not now refer to the open denial of the possibility of the assurance of salvation by the Roman Catholic Church, by all churches that proclaim the false gospel of Arminianism, and by the proponents of the covenant theology of the Federal [Covenant] Vision in reputedly Reformed and Presbyterian churches. By virtue of their common teaching that salvation is conditional, that is, dependent upon the will and works of the saved sinner, Rome, churches embracing the lie of free will, and the Federal [Covenant] Vision all openly proclaim that saints can fall away into eternal perdition. This is the denial of assurance of salvation with a vengeance.
But I refer to the controversy over assurance raised by the false teaching about the Holy Spirit and assurance of many, perhaps the majority, of the Puritans in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. These Puritans taught that the Spirit saves many whom He does not assure of salvation. From many of those whom He does finally assure of salvation He withholds assurance for a long time—years, many years—after their conversion and coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Some regenerated believers never receive the gift of assurance. These miserable souls must live all their troubled life and then die without assurance, without ever being able to confess the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, even though God elected them, Christ died for them, and the Spirit regenerated them and united them to Christ. Expressions by leading Puritans and the actual condition of churches held in bondage by this teaching leave the distinct impression that those believers who never receive assurance, but die in doubt, are the majority.
These Puritans taught that assurance is not so much the gift of the Holy Spirit as it is the work of the church member himself. Having convinced believers that they (the believers) had not received assurance with their faith, these Puritans then exhorted the believers to pray fervently, to work arduously, and to struggle heroically, often for many years, in order at last, by dint of all this spiritual work, to obtain assurance.
These Puritans taught that assurance is, and should be, a real problem for many, if not most, believers and children of believers. It is normal to lack assurance; normal to wonder whether one is really saved; normal to struggle with the question of assurance; normal that one’s relation to assurance is that of a “quest,” a long, even lifelong, “quest,” with no assurance of a favorable outcome of the quest, namely, finding assurance in this life; and, therefore, also, normal to abstain from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Leading Puritans, men who are highly regarded by contemporary disciples of the Puritans, taught that the Spirit gives assurance only to a very few of God’s children, leaving the rest of us, the vast majority of His children, to live and die in doubt.
He then quotes Thomas Boston’s well-known work on assurance, “Heaven on Earth,” as a prime example of this tendency:
Now though this full assurance is earnestly desired, and highly prized, and the want of it much lamented, and the enjoyment of it much endeavored after by all saints, yet it is only obtained by a few. Assurance is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts, it is a crown too weighty for most men’s heads. Assurance is optimum maximum, the best and greatest mercy; and therefore God will only give it to his best and dearest friends. Augustus in his solemn feasts, gave trifles to some, but gold to others. Honor and riches, etc., are trifles that God gives to the worst of men; but assurance is that ‘tried gold,’ Rev. 3:18, that God only gives to tried friends. Among those few that have a share or portion in the special love and favor of God, there are but a very few that have an assurance of his love. It is one mercy for God to love the soul, and another mercy for God to assure the soul of his love
In an admirably irenic and well-thought out piece, Kevin DeYoung outlines what he believes to be the major similarities and differences between his own group and what he believes to be the errors concerning the theology of sanctification of Tullian. Neither man believes that salvation can be merited by humans, and neither believes that it is permissible to live a life of unrestrained sin. Both, furthermore, would deny sinless perfectionism. But where is the line? What is the difference that makes the difference between the unregenerate sinner and the Christian struggling with the indwelling sin that must inevitably plague him daily so far as he remains on this side of the eschaton?
4) Calvinists vs. Lutherans – I admittedly do not have very much concrete material on this discussion, but Jordan Cooper, in his blog, devotes a great deal of time to discussing what he believes to be an inordinate emphasis on sanctification within Calvinism. Nevertheless, in a post of his on 1 John’s doctrine of assurance, he acknowledges that recourse to one’s baptism is not sufficient ground for assurance if one is living a life of habitual sin.
5) Internal Lutheran debates – While Lutherans oftentimes criticize Calvinism as inherently legalistic and over-emphasizing human performance at the expense of God’s free grace, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, in his sermon “The Gospel For Those Broken by the Church,” acknowledges that there have been internal controversies and conflicts within Lutheranism concerning the relation of sanctification to assurance comparable to those previously discussed within Calvinism. Such neonomian controversies, he notes, took place within Lutheran pietism:
Think of the paradigm of “Guilt – Grace – Gratitude.” Don’t you have the same sort of problem that we Lutherans had with pietism (at least when the paradigm is executed badly)? If I am elect and regenerate, why is it that my gratitude is so small, so lacking on a daily basis? “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get!” Or, “If I really were elect, my life would certainly reflect that fact more than it does.” “Maybe I’m just fooling myself. Maybe I’m not really elect – because the peace, the joy, the confidence Paul says the Christian is to have (and that other Reformed believers seem to talk about) I don’t have. I’d be lying if I said I did. Maybe I never was part of the elect, and I’m still not?”
My church’s pietism made me an agnostic by the time I was a senior in high school. The “evangelical” parish of your youth might have had the same result in your case. How so? Well, imagine a Sunday School curriculum filled with Bible stories designed to teach a moral point with every lesson. Beware Sunday School curricula! That stuff is dangerous to children! One of the happiest days of my life was the morning when, standing in the church narthex, my wonderful father delivered me out of Sunday School!
Indeed, I believe this problem is relatively unique to Lutherans and Calvinists. Why? Because we both articulate our own understanding in terms of salvation by free grace, through faith alone, and from this, we derive a theology of assurance according to which it is possible, indeed, desirable, to be able to be absolutely convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we will spend eternity in Heaven. And yet, we also abhor true antinomianism. Regeneration does require some degree of obedience.
Furthermore, we will never be perfect in this life. It is this constellation of related doctrines which issues in Loki’s Dilemma. How much obedience is enough to be assured? Where is the line between the rebellion of the unregenerate sinner and the indwelling sin of the believer? With what degree of precision can we distinguish the worldly sorrow of Judas from the godly sorrow of Peter?
Arminians do not have this problem. Why? Because they are comfortable with a doctrine of conditional assurance. Indeed, their doctrine requires it. Continuation in grace requires continuation in obedience. God may love us today but if our sin is of sufficient severity tomorrow, God will forsake and hate us. So the question remains: Where is the line? Is there an algorithm? If so, what is it?
Lutherans oftentimes criticize Calvinists on the ground that there is something inherently problematic about Calvinism with respect to our understanding of the relation of sanctification to assurance. But if there is a problem in this respect, it is as applicable to them as it is to us. The Lutheran, no less than the Calvinist, has the problem (if it is indeed a problem) of having to point to a definite critical threshold of sinning by which the unregenerate sinner can be differentiated from the saint with indwelling sin.