Assurance of Salvation: Help from Calvin and Newton

In the aftermath of the Great Awakening, large numbers of people entered the various churches throughout North America (especially in the north east). Mass conversion raised a massive pastoral problem: “How can you tell if a person’s conversion is genuine?” Since many of the leaders of the Great Awakening were Reformed/Calvinistic in their theology, they looked to John Calvin for answers (though apparently they didn’t always take his advice).

Calvin laid out three forms of assurance, and the order was of great importance to him: 1) the Word of God, 2) faith, and 3) fruit.

The Word of God – The first place one should look for assurance of salvation is the Bible. Specifically, Calvin said to take note of what God’s Word says in 1 Timothy 1:15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Faith – Calvin drew his peoples’ attention to Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Faith comes by hearing the Word of the gospel preached, and by believing it. Thus, Calvin would ask, “Have you trusted in Christ?”

Fruit – Calvin was thinking of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Here’s what I find interesting: Calvin believed that the fruit in a person’s life was the least secure basis for people to look for assurance of salvation.

In reading one of John Newton’s letters, we see this truth come to life. On one occasion he’s writing to a pastor by the name of Joshua Symonds. Though a pastor, Mr. Symonds is struggling to find assurance of salvation. He confides in Newton, telling him that no matter where he looks to find assurance of salvation, nothing works, he finds no “evidences”—no spiritual experiences, no inward holiness, and no “earnest endeavors.” I so appreciated Newton’s response, I thought I would share it with the one or two of you who read this:

“You tell me what evidences you want, namely, spiritual experiences, inward holiness, earnest endeavors. All this I may allow in a right sense; but in judging on these grounds, it is common and easy in a dark hour to turn the gospel into a covenant of works. . . . As to inward holiness, when we meet, you shall define, if you please, what you mean by it. The holiness of a sinner seems principally to consist in self-abasement, and in admiring views of Jesus as a complete Savior. . . . But if you will look for a holiness that shall leave no room for the workings of corruption and temptation, you look for what God has nowhere promised, and for what is utterly inconsistent with our present state. . . .

One direct appropriating act of faith in him will strengthen you more than all the earnest endeavors you speak of. Evidences, as you call them, are of no use in their place; but the best evidence of faith is the shutting of our eyes equally upon our defects and our graces, and looking directly to Jesus as clothed with authority and power to save to the uttermost.”

For all of us, but perhaps especially for the morbidly introspective among us (like me) this is a good reminder. Look to Christ and trust him.


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