An Anchor in the Character of God: Faith, Assurance, & Security in the Theology of John Calvin

This post began as a much, much, longer post. But I decided no one would read it. I certainly would not. So I give you the blogger’s digest version. Let me know if you want the long one.

Calvin himself indicated that the hinge on which true faith turns is “that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.”

Yet, he concedes that a doubt-free, perfectly assured confidence will always prove elusive. This truth always remains: that faith and assurance of faith are to be rooted not in the individual’s fallen and insufficient ability to pursue a testimony that will only prove elusive, but that they are rooted in the character of God.

Calvin expresses this variously. At times he speaks of assurance as only found in promises of God, or the election of God, or the adoption of God. Behind each of these expressions lies the character of God. For what good would promises, election, and adoption be without a God who possessed the ability, desire, and opportunity to make those promises an applied reality for the believer? Each of these–ability, desire, opportunity–are secured in the nature and character of God.

The discussion of faith, in it defined sense, is placed by Calvin in the second chapter of Book Three of the Institutes, entitled “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow,” indicating even by the location in which he discusses the topic that he considers faith to originate externally to the believer, as a grace of Christ.

The French humanism so embedded in Calvin’s methodology comes to the fore as he accuses the “Schoolmen” of hiding Christ with a veil, thus necessitating in the Roman Catholic paradigm the notion of “implicit faith” in which the primary faith incumbent on the individual is faith in the church. Whether understanding or knowledge of the gospel is necessary, and if so, how much, is left unclear. Does implicit faith merely embrace as truth the prescribed teaching of the church?

Calvin rejects this outright on Scriptural grounds. He indicates that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate. He requires “explicit recognition of the goodness [of God] upon which our righteousness rests.”

Genuine assurance of faith, therefore, comes not as the result of a “numb ignorance” which is content to trust that the ecclesia knows what it is doing. Assurance is sequitous to personal, content-oriented faith in the character of God and His provision for them.

Calvin anchors this discussion in the character of God by pointing out the inconsistency between believing God to be trustworthy–incapable of deception or falsehood–and doubting that which proceeds from him, namely, the Scriptures and the promises they contain. His argument is that faith is informed by the Word of God which, having proceeded directly from him, is as trustworthy as God himself.

The logical progression of this discussion moves the reader back to his initial premise: that “the knowledge of God’s goodness,” which is gained through the infallible Scriptures, “will not be held very important unless it makes us rely on that goodness.” The external becomes internal, in other words, as the informed heart is convinced of and embraces the guaranteed promises of God. Doubt that the promise will prove efficacious toward the believer is characterized by Calvin as doubt in the very nature and character of God. In true faith, then, since by its very nature it expresses a confidence in the character of God, “understanding mixed with doubt is to be excluded.” The nature of true faith, then, theoretically leaves no room for doubt.

Experientially, however, doubt is inevitable given the heart’s natural tendency toward disbelief. This remaining gulf between what must be true and what is experienced as true is bridged by God’s promise of grace in Christ. “Accordingly, we need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest.”

Having assured the reader of the object and content of true faith, and of the essential role of grace, Calvin offers his well-known definition of true faith: “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.”

Clearly, the firm and certain knowledge is intellectually grasped and affirmed and sealed to the heart not by a fundamentally internal and subjectively fallible ability in the nature and character of the believer and his will. Rather, it is impressed on the mind and heart by an external and objectively infallible work of the triune God. A clear non-sequitur would emerge in the discussion of assurance as rooted in the character of God if the prerequisite faith were not also firmly rooted there. This is why Calvin introduces his discussion of assurance in the sections related to the definition of faith. They are both external and look longingly and thankfully to the unchangeable God who has the ability, desire, and opportunity to guarantee his promises rather than to an internal and introspective sense of achievement. This, however, does not negate the responsibility of the individual believer to seek a genuine faith in Christ.

“Faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it.” If faith by its very nature finds its true existence in the promise of God, which, as has already been argued, is rooted in the character of God, so too must assurance begin, rest, and end in the promise of God. Yet, Calvin insists that, contrary to the unfortunate experience of Bunyan’s fictional Christian who later fell into the miry Slough of Despond because of fear and so neglected the causeway of God’s promises which would have led him safely across the quagmire, “nothing prevents believers from being afraid and at the same time possessing the surest consolation; according as they . . . bring the thought of their minds to bear upon the truth of God.”

Yet, Calvin is prepared to look inward in a certain sense. It is this sense which Beza seized upon, though still to a lesser degree than the English Calvinists such as William Perkins. Calvin’s intention, however, was never to point the believer away from Christ for his assurance, but rather to have the believer understand that the mind of God can never be adequately searched and known. Rely, then, on his character. Whatever internal evidences may be seen by looking inward ought to be interpreted in light of God’s promises.

The Christian may find solace in the fact that “there is no promise of [God] which is not a testimony of his love.”

Assurance is the persistent consequence of true faith. Calvin taught that believers should deeply fix their hope on God’s promise, not in any measure of human ability or accomplishment as the basis of salvation. Assurance, then, is inherent in true faith since it looks to Christ’s righteousness as the certain basis of salvation. Just as Calvin differentiated between justification and sanctification while steadfastly affirming that the two are inseparable, so too does he differentiate between faith and assurance while indicating that they are inseparable. If true faith is present, so too will assurance be.

Calvin repeatedly described faith throughout his commentaries as “certainty (certitudino), a firm conviction (solido persuasio), assurance (securitas), firm assurance (solida securitas), and full assurance (plena securitas).” Notice that the Latin word Calvin frequently uses for assurance as it relates to faith is neither confirmatio nor fiducia. Rather, it is securitas, indicating “freedom from care, peace of mind, composure; confidence.” This can only be found by looking to Christ, the anchor by which the promises of God are embraced as real.