Absolute Assurance of Salvation?: Debunking “Prooftexts”

Absolute Assurance of Salvation?: Debunking “Prooftexts” January 20, 2020

[Chapter Thirteen of my book, Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (Oct. 2010) ]

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Alleged “prooftexts” must also be exegeted. Appearances of ostensible strength and multiple passages in support of a position can often be deceiving. On the other hand, some doctrines need only a few direct verses in order to be believed (e.g., the virgin birth or original sin). I shall offer counter-explanations for each of the biblical passages below, which were offered on a public discussion board by a Reformed Protestant (Calvinist) apologist, as “proofs” of absolute assurance.

Perseverance of the saints, or the “T” in TULIP, is merely a tautological truism: saying that the elect (i.e., those who are eschatologically saved) will be saved (Jesus says in John 6:39: “I should lose nothing of all that he has given me”). No one disputes that. Of course they will be saved, because that is the very definition of “elect” (Romans 11:29: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable”).  I am specifically critiquing the notion that we can possess or achieve absolute assurance of our own salvation or anyone else’s.

Many Calvinists would agree with my position, since even John Calvin taught that no one can know for sure that they are of the elect (Institutes, III:21:2;  IV:1:2-3, 8; IV:12:9; commentary on John 6:40). That’s basically the same as asserting that no one can be absolutely sure of their salvation because of some past proclamation or resolve or anything else.

John 10:26-29 (RSV) but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. [27] My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; [28] and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. [29] My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

Jesus gives eternal life to His sheep. No one denies that. That’s different from a person “knowing” for sure whether he or she is one of His sheep, with absolute certainty. We can, however, arrive at a moral or practical assurance (after an examination of conscience) that we are presently in Christ, and following His will, as it is revealed in Holy Scripture, and in good graces with God (free of objective and subjective mortal sin).

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

Five verses later (Jn 5:29), our Lord Jesus speaks about “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” No one who doesn’t do the good works will inherit eternal life (cf. Mt 25:31-46), and we can’t know now that we will always do good works.

But the Calvinist has a ready explanation; a stock answer to explain the person who seemed by all appearances to be a Christian, and then fell away or fell into extremely serious sin: they were “obviously” never saved. But this perfectly illustrates the conundrum: if such a person was thought by everyone to be saved and in the elect, but actually wasn’t, as later proved by his behavior (that no one imagined ever happening), then in fact, neither the person in question nor anyone else possessed the so-called “assurance” that he or she was saved, from the beginning.

That is true for everyone. We simply don’t know the future. All we can do is strive to follow God’s will earnestly, just as St. Paul stressed, lest we become “disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).

Ephesians 1:13-14 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, [14] which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

This is initial justification. Final or eschatological justification and salvation, however, is conditioned upon walking in the good works “which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10; cf. 4:22-32; 5:1-18). Paul later in his epistle emphasizes that attaining salvation is an ongoing struggle, possible only by God’s grace: “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (6:10-11).

Nothing here gives any assurance that this battle is already won; it’s not yet certain. Paul is urging perseverance: “take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (6:13); “keep alert with all perseverance” (6:18).

Philippians 1:6 And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

First of all, we must understand that Paul is writing to a church. I doubt that any Calvinist would claim that the entire church of Philippi consisted of all elect people who would be saved and go to heaven. So the statement above must be qualified somewhat. God will do whatever He wishes (no argument there). It is only in applying it to any given individual that we have much less certainty. There is no such certainty, not even for Paul about his own salvation, for later in the same epistle, he writes:

Philippians 3:10-14 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, [11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

One must harmonize all these verses; not simply present one strain of apostolic thought to the exclusion of the other.

1 Peter 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, [4] and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, [5] who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

St. Peter, like Paul, is writing to a group (thought to be Christians in northern Asia Minor). Unless one claims every one of them was saved and of the elect (cf. 2:9-10), then it seems apparent that the above must be interpreted as the explication of a general principle: the self-evident tautology that those who are predestined by God are predestined.

Peter goes on to spend a great deal of time dealing with good works, that exhibit the “genuineness” of faith (1 Pet 1:7). When it comes to the individual, however, all of a sudden, Peter teaches, “Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (2:2). We can’t “grow up” to what is already possessed. That makes no sense. And in another writing, Peter states:

2 Peter 2:15, 20-21 Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Be’or, who loved gain from wrongdoing, . . . [20] For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. [21] For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.

This sure doesn’t appear to teach absolute assurance of salvation: let alone salvation as a one-time event (or justification, in the Protestant sense).

Psalm 37:28 For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. The righteous shall be preserved for ever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

This tells us nothing about how one knows for sure that he is of the elect. The only way to even speculate and have any assurance at all is to be righteous and holy: that is the biblical teaching, and why works are so overwhelmingly emphasized at the Last Judgment, as virtually the criterion of entrance into salvation and heaven.

Psalm 121:3, 7-8 He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. . . . [7] The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. [8] The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.

This is proverbial in some sense, and conditioned upon human cooperation. After all, even King David, a “man after God’s own heart,” one with whom God made an eternal covenant, committed murder and adultery. God didn’t preserve him from all evil (people had to die because of his sin). But David repented. That’s the whole point. We can fall and repent and be restored by God’s grace and mercy and boundless lovingkindness. God will preserve His elect.

Thus, many of these alleged “prooftexts” for assurance are self-evident truths that all Christians agree with, and no proof of a Calvinist position over against the Arminian or Catholic or Orthodox soteriological positions.

1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

This proves nothing as concerns a supposed absolute assurance. God gives power to overcome temptation: a completely uncontroversial truth. But what is the context? St. Paul in chapter 10 refers to the disobedience of the Jews wandering in the wilderness. He writes, “these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did” (10:6). He urges against idolatry and immorality, mentioning that “23,000 fell in a single day” (10:8).

He states, “we must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents” (10:9). He cautions Christians that “these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction” (10:11). Does he tell the Corinthians that they are “safe and secure in Christ, not to worry, since they are already saved”? No; rather, he warns:

1 Corinthians 10:12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

After that, the Apostle Paul affirms the truth that God’s power is able to withstand all temptation. None of this proves in the slightest that believers cannot fall away, or are assured of instant salvation, as if the Christian life is the equivalent of fast food at McDonalds. Paul is writing about God’s power, not our assurance that we went up to an altar on a certain Sunday and “got saved,” and “accepted Jesus into our hearts” and are therefore guaranteed a spot in heaven. Even the fabled evangelical “altar calls” are not found anywhere in the Bible.

2 Timothy 1:12 and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.

2 Timothy 4:18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. . . .

Indeed, if one is predestined for heaven (and Catholics, too, believe firmly in the predestination of the elect — it’s a dogma of the Catholic Church — just not also the damned), God will do all this. The same Paul, however, also writes the following words to Timothy:

1 Timothy 4:1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,

1 Timothy 5:15 For some have already strayed after Satan.

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John 6:39 and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day.

No one disagrees with this. God’s sovereignty is not in dispute, nor is God’s undeserved love for the elect, or election itself (the Catholic only disagrees with predestined reprobation). Catholics believe that Christ’s redemptive work is sufficient to save anyone, but that people have a free will to reject His work for them.

Galatians 5:1, 4 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . [4] You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Calvinists argue that people who seemingly fall away from faith are “severed from the covenant community” – like those who were severed from the olive tree in Romans 11. They never had faith to begin with, and didn’t trust Jesus alone with faith alone for justification, so they are dead branches.

The problem with such a view, however, is to explain how a branch can be severed from a tree if it was never connected to it. And how can a person be said to have “fallen away from grace” if they have never had it? We don’t say that someone “fell off the ledge” if, in fact, they never sat on it in the first place.

Why does Paul admonish the Galatians to “stand fast . . . do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” if there is no danger whatsoever of that happening? These people were Christians and now are not: “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Gal 5:7).

Paul nowhere in this epistle takes the Calvinist approach of claiming that the straying people were severed from the churches of Galatia or never were part of it (wolves in sheep’s clothing). Quite the contrary; he rebukes the “foolish Galatians” en masse:

Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel –

Galatians 3:1-4 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? [2] Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? [3] Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? [4] Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain.

But after rebuking them, he turns around and writes exhortations like the following ones (presupposing that restoration is entirely possible):

Galatians 5:10, 13, 16, 21, 25; 6:1 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. . . . [13] For you were called to freedom, brethren . . . [16] But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. [21] . . . I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. . . . [25] If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. . . . [1] Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Paul’s epistle to the Galatians doesn’t seem to indicate that anyone is necessarily cut off eternally, either from the Church or from God. Romans 11:16-24 is cited as an analogy, because it is also a word picture of an olive tree and branches. But when we examine Romans 11 closely it only greatly strengthens the Catholic “case.”

The branches broken off were the unbelieving Jews. But note how Paul thinks about this. Does he casually assume that the Christians who have been grafted onto the tree are absolutely safe from falling away like some of the Jews did? No. Here is what he states:

Romans 11:20-24 . . . They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. [21] For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. [22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. [23] And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. [24] For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

This is a remarkable confirmation of Catholic (and Arminian) soteriology. According to this passage, being a  Christian offers no further guarantee of absolute assurance of salvation than being Jewish did. People can still fall away, because people are people, and can rebel. The Jews were cut off, but St. Paul says they can be “grafted in” again.

The Calvinist might very well reply, “well, they never were saved, so, no problem.” Even if one took that position, the rub and important, relevant point here is that the Christian is no different, because they, too, can fall away. They are only secure “provided [they] continue in his kindness; otherwise [they] too will be cut off.” This makes no sense at all if a Christian can never fall away. Paul simply wouldn’t write this way. It would be nonsensical and absurd.

The great apostle also wrote: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim 6:12). The task is how to harmonize or synthesize the two strains of thought: the assurance of God, and the need for persons to be vigilant in matters of their own salvation (just as we see in this very verse).

The Catholic and Arminian can easily do so. The Calvinist cannot. Paul in 1 Timothy 6:11 is making an exhortation, not issuing a statement of metaphysical finality. He doesn’t say Timothy will inevitably do all these great things because he is saved, and it is therefore inevitable, etc.

Rather, he urges him to “shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11) He has already stated shortly before that people can fall away from the faith. That is presupposed in this exhortation. The language of “take hold of” does not sound at all like it is something already accomplished. Paul even ends the letter with another warning (odd, if Timothy’s salvation is so irrevocably secure):

1 Timothy 6:20-21 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, [21] for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith. Grace be with you.

Why should Paul warn Timothy and mention people who had “missed the mark” if there was in reality no reason to make such a warning? He mentioned others who fell away near the beginning of the letter:

1 Timothy 1:19-20 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, [20] among them Hymenae’us and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

They had a faith to begin with, and shipwrecked it; but Paul believes it is still possible to be restored. We know this from a parallel instance in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, where Paul commands the Corinthians to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Later, in 2 Corinthians 2:6-11, Paul urges that the man be restored to the fellowship.

Conclusion: even people who have made a shipwreck of their faith can be restored to the Christian life and status of Christian again. The warning to avoid falling away is often made in the New Testament. For example:

Hebrews 3:12-14 Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. [13] But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. [14] For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end,

Calvinists typically reply to this by citing passages that are literally irrelevant to the discussion of falling away, such as:

Hebrews 7:25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

But who denies that our Lord Jesus Christ can save anyone who comes to Him? No Christian who knows anything at all about their faith does that. This is illustrative of the serious problem of many Calvinists in understanding and comprehending the Catholic and Arminian views. No one is saying that the elect fail to be saved. They will be. It can’t be otherwise, by definition.

But we don’t absolutely know whether we ourselves are among the elect. It is true that some people never were Christians at all, as 1 John 2:19 indicates. But that by no means explains a passage such as the following, from the preceding chapter:

Hebrews 6:4-6 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, [5] and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, [6] if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

The elect are the elect and will be saved. Those who are predestined will go to heaven; of course. Catholics (and Arminians) don’t have the slightest disagreement with that. What the real and important issue is, is whether a person can be regenerate and justified and sanctified and indwelt with the Spirit, yet fall from God’s graces, and whether such a one can be restored.

At some level, the Calvinist or Baptist believer in eternal security has to deny this. Again and again they state that the ostensible apostate “never was saved.” The Catholic and Orthodox and Arminian affirm it, and the reason they do is seen in the many biblical evidences above, which cannot be ignored.

Indeed, a man can have a high moral assurance (through prayer and self-examination and knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian teaching) that he is right with God, so that if he died, he would be saved, but no more than that. We should concentrate on concerning ourselves with living a righteous life and trying not to sin (certainly a very strong biblical motif itself).

The knowledge we possess along these lines doesn’t reach the level of absolute knowledge: from our human perspective, which is all we have, since we have no revelation listing who is in the book of life and who isn’t.

Catholic theology and spirituality emphasizes the human effort of seeking to live a holy life, while not at all denying that God’s grace is the entire basis of anything good we do. From the human, limited (and Catholic) perspective, we do not possess “salvation” entirely until the day we die and face God at the Judgment and He declares one way or the other. It depends on whether we look at this from a human or divine perspective.

From God’s vantage-point it is quite different. The only way we could possibly say that someone “has eternal life” (presently) is to know whether they are of the elect or not. An elect person “has” it already. But Catholic, biblical theology always allow for the possibility of falling away (again, from our human perspective).

Whether a person committing a murder or adultery or other serious, mortal sin, has eternal life at the time they are doing those sins, is an absurd question from the Catholic perspective. They may be among the elect, and therefore will repent, as they must to be saved, but right then, from the purely human, temporal perspective, they are out of God’s will, not following Him, and not in possession of eternal life — as long as they remain in a state of mortal sin.

Catholics believe these are serious sins that separate a soul from God in some sense and to some degree analogous to how hell separates a soul from God. “First things first”: one must get right with God and cease sinning, and when they fall again, they must repent, get up and try to do better, with God’s help. Most of us will not attain to the infused righteousness necessary to enter heaven, and that is where purgatory (one of God’s greatest graces and mercies) comes in.

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