D. A. Carson on Assurance of Salvation

D. A. CarsonYesterday Andy Naselli highlighted six resources by D. A. Carson on assurance of salvation. It reminded me of Carson’s article “Reflections on Christian Assurance,” which is one of my favorites on the subject. Carson skillfully holds together what many tear asunder. If you haven’t read it, I’d strongly encourage you to. The balance he strikes is exemplary. I can’t speak to whether some of his other treatments are better, but this one is superb.

He originally presented “Reflections on Christian Assurance” as a paper at Tyndale House in June, 1990 as the Annual Biblical Theology Lecture. Two year later it was published in Westminster Theological Journal 54, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 1–29. In 2000 it was republished as “Reflections on Assurance,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 247–76.

Here’s the outline of his article:

I. Introduction

II. Some Contemporary Tendencies

A. Not only is there a tendency to stress the diverse emphases in many biblical texts, there are even more diverse interpretations of them.

B. A major reexamination of relevant Reformation arguments is currently underway.

C. In America, the basis of Christian assurance has erupted as the distinguishing banner of a small but vociferous segment of evangelicalism.

D. Apart from these movements, there is a tendency to say very little about Christian assurance in most of our churches.

III. Biblical and Theological Reflections

A. The New Testament writers admit no qualitative, absolute disjunction between genuine believers who display obedience to Jesus in their lives, and genuine believers who do not.

B. Several NT writers recognize the existence of spurious or transitory faith, and this recognition must be factored into any responsible doctrine of Christian assurance.

C. The biblical writers either presuppose or explicitly teach what might be called “compatibilism,” and this has an important, and neglected, bearing on the subject of Christian assurance.

D. The biblical writers do not deal with only one sort of doubt, and therefore they do not mete out only one kind of assurance.

IV. Some Conclusions

He concludes his article with these six points:

  1. If we appreciate the undergirding mystery that stands behind the Christian assurance, we will let the various complementary biblical statements stand in their naked power and function without endless reductionism.
  2. Close observation of the functions of the various biblical statements in their immediate and canonical contexts will do much to safeguard our theology against dangerous reductionism and pastoral malpractice. Zane Hodges is happy to speak of Christians ceasing to name the name of Christ and denying the faith completely, even though (he insists) God keeps such people “saved,” i.e., in the faith. From a pastoral point of view, what is one to say to these unbelieving believers, these Christ-denying Christians? If the way the Scriptures function in such cases is borne in mind, both our theology and our counsel will grow in maturity and biblical balance.
  3. The sort of approach that makes absolute, epistemologically tight, Christian assurance the sine qua non of theological systems and proceeds to engage in a massive re-reading of the rest of Scripture, re-readings that are too clever by half, in order to justify this a priori, are ill-conceived. Indeed, granted the proper location of the underlying tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, they are as methodologically ill-conceived as, say, J. A. T. Robinson’s attempt to develop a Christology grounded exclusively in Jesus’ humanity, that humanity serving as a grid that filters out complementary evidence.
  4. Because every part of Christian doctrine is tied, one way or another, to every other part, doubtless a case can be made for beginning with the doctrine of assurance. It is odd, however, that a few contemporary studies have made personal assurance, or some peculiar understanding of it, the touchstone for the entire structure of Christian theology. The result has been truly astonishing distortions. On balance, this is a strange place to begin and end the study of theology. One might have begun with God, with Christ, with redemption, with revelation.
  5. It is important to insist that the view of perseverance and assurance outlined in this paper does not make perseverance the basis of assurance—as if to say that no one is entitled to any form of assurance until ultimate perseverance has been demonstrated. I have not argued that perseverance is the basis for assurance; rather, I have argued that failure to persevere serves to undermine assurance. The basis of assurance is Christ and his work and its entailments.
  6. In short, the biblical writers offer believers all the assurance they could ever want, grounding such assurance in the character of God, the nature of the new covenant, the finality of election, the love of God, and much more beside. But they never allow such assurance to become a sop for spiritual indifference; indeed, the same vision is what drives them to insist that the God who has called them to his new covenant works powerfully in them to conform them to the likeness of his Son, to the fruitfulness the Spirit empowers us to produce. This becomes both an incentive to press on to the mark of the upward call in Christ Jesus, and an implicit challenge to those who cry “Lord, Lord” but do not do what he commands.

You can read the whole article courtesy of TGC.

For more from Carson on the subject of assurance, see the list in Andy Naselli’s post “Don Carson on Assurance of Salvation.”

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2 Responses to D. A. Carson on Assurance of Salvation

  1. Mark L. Ward, Jr. February 27, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks for this, Phil. You inspired me to pull it up in my good old-fashioned Logos library.

    And thanks for apparently getting back into regular blogging.

    You reference Carson referencing Zane Hodges… It seems to me that the (now dead?) Lordship Salvation debate—as well as a few other debates I can think of*—is really just one of various fronts in the longer-term debate over the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. I think Piper got it right in “Are There Two Wills in God” when he wrote,

    Both Calvinists and Arminians affirm two wills in God when they ponder deeply over 1 Timothy 2:4. Both can say that God wills for all to be saved. But then when queried why all are not saved both Calvinist and Arminian answer that God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all.

    The difference between Calvinists and Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is. What does God will more than saving all? The answer given by Arminians is that human self-determination and the possible resulting love relationship with God are more valuable than saving all people by sovereign, efficacious grace. The answer given by Calvinists is that the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22-23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29).

    I do feel that your fundamental impulse as a Christian is going to be one of these two options, and other positions will naturally follow.

    Would you concur?

    *Those include the debate over “gospel-centered” methods of sanctification and even the debate over presuppositionalism vs. evidentialism.

    • Phil Gons March 15, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

      Mark, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Sorry for the delay responding. I was out of town, and it’s been a busy couple of weeks since I got back.

      And thanks for the kind words about my efforts to blog again. I’ve missed it, and it’s been fun to have an outlet to express some things I’m pondering. To carve out space, I’ve decided to scale back on my Google Reader time.

      I think you make a good observation. There are a number of issues that stem back to the much more fundamental issue regarding God’s sovereignty and our responsibility. I think the assurance debate is one of those.

      On your last point, I’d generally agree. But I think there are exceptions. We’re not always consistent with our presuppositions. And sometimes that’s good.