Epistemological and ontological assurance of salvation
I just finished Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain H. Murray. Edwards got booted out of his church in Northampton over the issue of the Lord ’s Supper. He thought there ought to be good evidence of a person’s conversion and regeneration before they should be allowed to participate. His congregation apparently disagreed, and he was voted out.
The whole thing got me to thinking about a related issue. How can we be sure that another person is truly converted? Or even more interesting, how can we be sure that we are converted?
I think the fifth point of Calvinism (preservation of the saints) is sometimes misunderstood. The misunderstanding usually comes in confusing ontology and epistemology. Ontology has to do with being and what is. Epistemology has to do with our state of knowledge or beliefs. The fifth point of Calvinism does not address the epistemological issue of salvation; rather, it addresses the ontological issue of salvation. In Calvinism, God ultimate decides who will be saved. Since the decision is up to him, our salvation is assured. God cannot fail. He saves whoever he intends to save. If somebody is elected to salvation by God, then that person will be saved.
But how do we know whether we or somebody else is one of the elect? That’s the epistemological question, and the fifth point doesn’t address that. According to Jesus, nobody can come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). So you might say that anybody who comes to Jesus was drawn by the Father, and if they were drawn by the Father, then they must be one of the elect. Anybody, then, who really professes to be a Christian, really believes it and all, is one of the elect.
But there are a couple of problems with that. First, there’s the parable of the farmer who sews seeds on different kinds of ground. Some people embraced the gospel with enthusiasm at first, but they later fall away. Obviously, those people were never elect or they wouldn’t have fallen away. We see this in our own experience, too. Some people can profess to be Christians for many years before later rejecting it. What are we to make of that? If they eventually reject Christianity, then they could never have been elect in the first place.
Second, Jesus said that not everybody who calls him Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These people will be surprised on the judgment day when Jesus says, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So there are a lot of people who think they are elect, but they really aren’t. How do you know you’re not one of them?
Is it even possible to know? I think it is. 1 John 5:13 says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” It must be possible, then, to have epistemological assurance of our salvation. How is it possible, though?
If John wrote to them so that they might know, then we can look at what he wrote. Let’s just look at a few things he says:
1 John 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.And the rest of the book just elaborates on these same points. Basically, we can know we are God’s children by whether we truly love God or not, and John says, “This is love for God, that we keep his commands” (1 John 5:3). Keeping his commandments, then, is how we know we are his children.
1 John 2:3 By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.
1 John 3:10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
1 John 4:20 If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.
The rest of the New Testament seems to agree with this point. In the Matthew passage I mentioned earlier, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21).
And this is another point of confusion between epistemology and ontology. These passages about the necessity of holy living for salvation are not ontological; they are epistemological. That is, doing good isn’t what causes us to be saved. Rather, it’s how we know we are saved.
Take, for example, Peter says, “Be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). The “things” he’s talking about are mentioned in the previous verses. He’s talking about having goodness, kindness, brotherly love, godliness, etc. Practicing those things is how we become sure of our election.
Likewise, Paul said, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). God works in his elect to cause them to want to do his will. The fact that we have this desire to please him shows that we are his elect. That’s why we should work out or live out our salvation, not just sit back and assume we’re good to go.