Justified Only by an Assured Faith?
John Calvin once described faith in this way:
For to have faith is not to waver, (not) to vary, (not) to be borne up and down, (not) to hesitate, (not) to remain in suspense, finally, (not) to despair! Rather, to have faith is to strengthen the mind with constant assurance and perfect confidence, to have a place to rest and plant your foot. Institutes, 1536, p. 34
Does that also describe your faith? The Reformation clearly established that we are justified sola fide, or "only by a true faith" (LD 23). But if true faith is this kind of never-wavering faith that Calvin describes, then you might wonder, "Do I have true faith? Because I do waver and I do hesitate. And if I cannot be sure that I have true faith, then how can I be certain that I am forgiven of all my sins?" You see, the whole topic immediately becomes very practical and personal.
Now thankfully, the above quotation is not the only thing that Calvin had to say about faith. He also said: "Faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace" (Institutes, 1559, 3.2.37; unless otherwise noted all references to the Institutes are to this final edition). So what is it now? Do true believers plant their feet on solid ground or stand there shaking in their spiritual boots because of all kinds of fears and temptations?
If we take a closer look at Calvin's definition of faith, we'll discover that, in Christ, true faith is an assured faith. Before we come to that, though, let's briefly explore some historical background.
In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church confirmed and refined her doctrine at the Council of Trent, which spanned the offices of five popes and some eighteen years from 1545-63. Trent announced unequivocally that the faithful should have firm hope but should not have absolute certainty concerning their salvation. Here are the precise words of the council: "Let no one promise himself anything as certain with absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose the most firm hope in God's help" (Chapter 13, Sixth Session).
This also meant that someone could be justified, then fall out of that state of grace, and then possibly be restored and be justified all over again. Once more, we turn to the decree of Trent:
But those who through sin have fallen away from the received grace of justification may again be justified when, God motivating them, through the sacrament of penance, they by the merit of Christ shall obtain the recovery of the grace lost Chapter 14, Sixth Session
As you can imagine, this led many of God's people to labour under an oppressive uncertainty prior to the Reformation.
Calvin's definition of faith
In his well-known Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Calvin helps us out by providing a succinct, one-sentence definition of faith. Here it is: "Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (3.2.7).
Notice, right from the start, that for Calvin faith is, by definition, firm and certain. Here the Reformer draws a clear line in the sand. On one side of the line stands Trent, the council which holds out hope but rebukes those who dare to be certain. On the other side stands Calvin, the Reformer who not only speaks freely about certainty, but even defines faith as certainty.
Yet how can our faith be certain, if the minds of the godly are rarely at peace, as Calvin himself admitted (3.2.37)? This conundrum resolves itself when we connect his definition of faith to two solas that were the heartbeat of the Reformation: sola gratia and solus Christus.
Sola gratia and assurance
For Calvin, true faith is not merely a question of "knowing that that God exists, but also — and this especially — of knowing what is his will toward us," and further that his will toward us is both benevolent and merciful (3.2.6-7).
Taking it still one step further, God's mercy is a paternal compassion. As surely as God is gracious, so certainly he is Father. Already in his first catechism, John Calvin connected the inspired dots between the sealing of the Holy Spirit and the gift of adoption. He writes: "(The enlightenment of the Holy Spirit) is also called a pledge which establishes in our hearts the assurance of divine truth ... for (the Spirit is the one who) testifies to our spirit that God is Father to us, and we in turn are his children" (Hesselink, I. John. Calvin's First Catechism, p. 18).
Once this truth is established in our minds, words start to leap off the pages of the Institutes, especially in his treatment of faith (3.2). In that section alone, the reformer of Geneva mentions our adoption eight times and refers to God as our Father no less than thirty-four times. This frequent repetition, like a constant reminder, enfolds us within the reassuring arms of Abba's eternal, steadfast love. You see, adoption and assurance are two sides of the same grace-stamped coin.
"How so?" the anxious believer may ask. Calvin answers in this way:
We see that God, while not ceasing to love his children, is wondrously angry toward them; not because he is disposed of himself to hate them, but because he would frighten them by the feeling of his wrath in order, to humble their fleshly pride, shake off their sluggishness, and arouse them to repentance (3.2.12).
It is true: God's children sometimes experience the heavy hand of God's wrath. Due to their own foolishness, they may even "severely wound their consciences and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God's favour," as the Canons of Dort (V 5) describe it. Yet in and through this all, God does not stop being their Father. What is more, his anger toward them is not fueled by hatred but fanned into flame by his paternal love. Indeed, as Calvin puts it, he is "wondrously angry toward them" (3.2.12).
Added to that, adoption bolsters assurance precisely because adoption is not foster care. If things do not work out between foster parents and the child whom they take into their house, the relationship can be terminated. Adoption, however, works differently. Adoption is no temporary arrangement; adoption is a lifelong commitment. Certainly, God the Father knows this when he seals his children with the Spirit of adoption (Rom 8:15).
Equally important is the fact that God's gracious gift of adoption rests in his everlasting love not our ever-fickle love. Our love is the necessary complement to our faith (Gal 5:6), but it is not the initial cause of our faith, let alone the motivating factor behind God's grace. That distinction is no mere technicality. It's the difference between doubt and assurance.
Our adoption is rooted in God's sovereign and gracious love alone, not in some combination of God's love and our love. Mixing grace with any kind of human additive — even our well-intentioned love — only muddies the waters and ruins the certainty of the Spirit's seal of the Father's adopting love.
Solus Christus and assurance
This brings us to one of the last, but certainly not least, phrases in Calvin's definition: in Christ. The phrase is short but its significance cannot be overstated. The Christ who once offered himself for our sins on the cross is the same Christ who now intercedes for us at the Father's right hand (3.2.32).
What is more, our faithful and heavenly High Priest promises to continue interceding for us until the day that he returns on the clouds of heaven. This is what Calvin calls "the perfect salvation (that) is found in the person of Christ" (3.1.4). By perfect he means complete, not lacking in any respect, either in the present or in the future.
In the future everyone must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:10. How often our assurance turns into doubt when our minds leave behind the present moment and focus instead on the final day! Yet for Calvin, when the spotlight is on Judgment Day the focus necessarily falls on Christ, our Faithful Intercessor, and the "wonderful consolation" that only he can provide. This is how he expresses it:
Far indeed is he from mounting his judgment seat to condemn us! How could our most merciful Ruler destroy his (own) people? How could the Head scatter his own members? How could our Advocate condemn his (own) clients? For if the apostle dares exclaim that with Christ interceding for us there is no one who can come forth to condemn us (Rom. 8:33, 34), it is much more true, then, that Christ as Intercessor will not condemn those whom he has received into his charge and protection (2.16.18).
Here the logic of grace is so impeccably reassuring. If no enemy of God — yes, if not even Satan himself — can nullify the protective power of Christ's intercession for his people (Rom 8:38-39), will Christ himself undermine his own intercession by ultimately failing to save his beloved Bride for whom he sacrificed his own body and soul? May it never be. Indeed, it cannot ever be.
Solus Christus. Christ the only Saviour is, at the very same time, the all-sufficient Saviour. If our salvation depends upon the sacrifice of Christ in the past plus our perseverance in the present, then surely our salvation is uncertain because even if you are persevering today, what will tomorrow bring?
But our High Priest, Jesus Christ, is both. He is the Lamb who sacrificed himself for us in the past and the Advocate who intercedes on our behalf in the present and in the future — all the way up until Judgment Day. Solo Christo et omnia in Christo. Only by Christ and everything in Christ. In him alone our salvation is certain ... truly and Christo-centrically certain.