Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Assurance of Salvation in Light of Justification by Faith on Account of Christ

"We must daily...destroy at the root that pernicious error that man cannot know whether or not he is in a state of grace, by which the whole world is seduced. If we doubt God's grace and do not believe that he is well-pleased with us for Christ's sake, then we are denying that Christ has redeemed us..." Martin Luther* 

The question of whether a believer can have assurance of their salvation in this life is a vexed one among Christians. The Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian is likely to regard the Lutheran claim of assurance of salvation as presumptuous; this judgment is based on their underlying assumption that our faith is to be supplemented by works of love. Since no-one can be sure that the quantity and quality of their works meets with God's approval we must await God's post-mortem judgment upon our life before we can be certain of our eternal destiny. 

On the other hand, the Lutheran regards the Catholic or Orthodox denial of the possibility of assurance of salvation in this life as presumptuous, since it calls into question the completeness of Christ's saving work on behalf of sinners and teaches that our Lord's work must be supplemented by our works in order to be efficacious for eternal salvation. As the quote prefacing this post shows, Luther was strongly critical of the denial of the possibility of assurance in the late medieval church; it could even be said that Luther's quest for assurance of salvation was the matrix of the Reformation. While there may be points of misunderstanding in this matter that can be clarified through discussion, surely the two positions are fundamentally opposed and hence irreconcilable, even for the most deftly ambiguous of ecumenical theologians.

While discussions on this question usually come to focus on the place and value of works in the justification of the believer, a question we will come to shortly, it seems to me that the real nub of the problem is that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not fully grasp the proleptic nature of God's judgment upon the believer in Christ (proleptic = a future act made present). This was brought home to me when I recently read a Russian Orthodox writer on the matter who opined that we can never have assurance of salvation in this life because we cannot judge ourselves - only God can judge us. This view, I submit, represents a fundamental failure to grasp the reality of God's work in justifying the ungodly (Oh, the irony...it is usually Catholics and Orthodox who claim the Lutheran doctrine of justification is a "legal fiction"!).  

In Romans, the apostle Paul writes, But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).  Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not grasp the fact that God has already judged believers in Christ and has not only pardoned them but declared them righteous for Christ's sake. It is on this basis - the active (keeping the Law) and passive (suffering for our sins) righteousness of Christ - that the Lutheran's assurance of salvation rests and not on any presumptions about the quality of his or her works of love. Works of love done in grateful and joyful service to God and our neighbour are the the fruit of justifying faith in Christ, not a contributing factor in the believer's justification, which is all of grace because of Christ ("We love because he first loved us" 1 John 4:19; cf the whole passage from vv10-24). Interestingly, by a felicitous inconsistency, the Eastern Orthodox funeral service does not commend the deceased to God on the basis of their works of love but appeals to His mercy which derives from His love for us in Christ.

There is more than can be said, particularly on the individual believer's judgment upon death and the role of works and reward in that judgment, but I will leave that for another time. I would be grateful for any comments from Catholics or Orthodox. After a month of not attending to the blog for various reasons I just noticed that my last post on the infallibility of church councils (a topic I hope to return to soon, D.v.) was one of the most read ever posted on this blog, but no comments were received; I'm always grateful for and will post constructive comments that test my arguments.  

* Cited in Stephan H. Pfuertner, Luther and Aquinas, A Conversation (Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1964, p120). 



Peter McKeague said...

Mark, I agree wholeheartedly with you. As someone brought up RC the discovery of the assurance of salvation through the gospel of free grace was profoundly liberating. However, the Lutheran position on this has a problem. Assurance of salvation in this life is surely not just assurance of being presently in a state of grace, but rather assurance that one is in Christ for eternity, and that nothing can pluck us from his hands or separate us from his love. I understand the Lutheran view to be that one can fall from grace. That surely compromises assurance. I know there are verses that present problems for the teaching that true believers are preserved in faith, but Scripture makes some very strong statements about perseverence of the saints. Peter McKeague

Acroamaticus said...

Thank you for the comment, Peter; it is good to hear from you again.
I'm certainly happy to hear that the content of my post is confirmed by your experience. On the matter of perseverance of the saints the Lutheran doctrine may be more nuanced than you think. Let me take a little time, though, to offer a considered response to your remarks on that aspect of the topic. God bless you and yours!

Steve Martin said...

"I am Baptized"

THAT…is the basis for my complete assurance.

Acroamaticus said...

Indeed, Steve, our Baptism is something we can look to for great assurance of salvation; that belief was a decisive point in my rejection of the evangelical stream of Anglicanism, which is very strong down here and which minimises the value of Baptism. But, on the other hand, Baptism does not work in the manner of RC sacraments - ex opere operato - the benefits of the sacrament are received by faith (itself a gift), hence Luther:

"Q. What does Baptism give or profit?

A. It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Q. Which are such words and promises of God?

A. Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."

As always, the Lutheran way is the "lonely way" between two extremes which between them captivate Christendom and deprive Christians of the comfort of the Gospel.

Steve Martin said...


It is God's promise. If you believe it. You've got it.

And we need to hear it (preached)…and receive it (Supper)…and return to it (Baptism)…over and over and over.

Thanks, Acroamaticus.

Paul said...

Steve, I wonder if your comment above, I am baptized is the basis for complete assurance, and your syllogism below are in agreement. In the syllogism your minor premise is subjective; "if you believe it." The question of assurance, your conclusion about whether you've "got it," hinges on your faith. Essentially, I believe and I know I believe. As I understand it, a Lutheran syllogism is more along the lines of the following:

Christ personally speaks a sacramental Word to me; "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ never lies but tells the truth.

I am baptized and have new life in Christ.

In this syllogism the decisive questions all have objective answers not having to do with MY faith but about Christ. My faith can be lacking, weak, or struggling, but the object of my faith, Christ, is sure. Faith confesses God's Word is truth and clings to it. Only for this reason can your initial comment, I am baptized, be the comfort and assurance that troubled consciences desperately seek. This is important because even if we return to our Baptism over and over and over, as you rightly suggest, but are asking the wrong question (about our belief and not about Christ), then we still lack assurance.

I'm not questioning where you find your assurance but just wondering if your syllogism is in clear agreement. If I have misunderstood or my own response is lacking please forgive me.

Steve Martin said...


You are right.

Christ's promises are not dependent upon our faith.

We can trust that we are saved, apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

Trust, faith…is the conduit which accesses His grace.

But, we certainly don't have much of it, nor do we need much of it.

That's why we need to keep hearing it …all throughout our lives.

Paul said...

Steve, not original thoughts on my end.


Steve Martin said...

Good stuff, Paul!

Thank you, friend.

BTW…try this one:


It's a barn-burner. Good one to share with your "free-will" buddies (or enemies) :D

Steve Finnell said...


Have you ever noticed the parallels between Naaman's cure of his leprosy and faith only believers doctrine of forgiveness of sin?

Naaman wanted his leprosy washed away, but he did not want to follow the plan of God's man, the prophet Elisa.

Faith only believers want to have sins washed away, but they do not want to follow the plan of the man Jesus selected to implement that plan, the apostle Peter.

2 Kings 5:10-11 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored to you and you will be clean. 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, "Behold, I thought, 'He will surely come to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper'

Naaman thought calling on the name of the Lord and waving of Elisha's hand would cure his leprosy. Naaman did not want to get wet. Naaman did not want to baptize himself seven times. Naaman thought "faith only" would cure his leprosy.

Acts 2:37-38....what shall we do?" 38 Peter said to them, "Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Faith only believers do not want to get wet. They do not want to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. They want to call on the name of the Lord and say the "Sinner's Prayer."

Naaman's servant convinced him to follow Elisha's plan.

2 Kings 5:14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.

Naaman's leprosy was not removed by faith only. Naaman's leprosy was removed and his flesh was restored only after he baptized himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman did not sprinkle himself seven times in the Jordan . Naaman did not pour himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman dipped (baptized) himself in the Jordan seven times. Naaman had faith in the God of the prophet Elisha, however, obedience was required in order to have his leprosy cured.

UNDER THE NEW COVENANT faith is essential in order to have sins forgiven, however, obedience in water baptism is also required in order to have sins forgiven.


Naaman did not say dipping in water had absolutely nothing to do with his being cleansed of leprosy.

Naaman did not proclaim that his leprosy was cleansed the minute he believed God had the power to cure his leprosy.

Naaman did not assert that dipping in the Jordan was an outward sign of his cure that had taken place before he entered the water.

Naaman did not say he baptized himself because his leprosy had already been cured.

Naaman did tell others that he baptized himself because Elisha command it, and it was just an act of obedience.

Naaman did not proclaim that his leprosy was cured by faith only.

Naaman did not say dipping in the Jordan was "a work of righteousness" and works cannot wash away leprosy.

Naaman failed to assert that baptizing himself was a testimony of his faith, but was not essential to having his leprosy cured.

QUESTION: Can "faith only" believers reject what God's man, the apostle Peter, said about repentance and water baptism and
have their sins forgiven? (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21)


YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http//:steve-finnell.blogspot.com

Lucian said...

by a felicitous inconsistency

If we would indeed believe to be saved by faith alone, then there would be no need to invoke God's love, grace, and mercy, since all Orthodox possess the true faith, due to the fact that we've been predestined from all eternity by His sovereign decision to be born in the right religion, Sola Deo Gloria! But since we know that this isn't the case, and since most of the time it feels like our very existence is just some big cosmic joke, whose sole purpose is so that on Judgement Day God may get to make a point when confronted by pagans, heretics, and atheists, asking Him WHY they weren't born in the right religion, and HOW that affected their chances at redemption, He would just point at us and say: See those morons there, all going to Hell in hand-basket ? They were born in the correct faith, belonged to the true Church, and even had the complete Bible (Director's Cut, with no books missing), but it obviously served them no purpose, so just quit complaining already, will you ? So, as I said, given our slightly precarious spiritual predicament (heading towards a "warm place", and all that), we leave aside all shame (like the Roman Catholic Robert De Niro in some famous old movie, where, at the end, he's heading to be executed) and plea for mercy and forgiveness as if our (eternal) life depended on it ('cuz, you know, it kinda does...)