Last week on Desiring God’s podcast Ask Pastor John, John Piper responded to a question regarding assurance of salvation (the audio transcript is available here). Someone named Pete had asked the following question:
I understand the Bible to teach that a true Christian is one who perseveres to the end, and in the sad circumstances where someone professes faith but then falls away, they were never a true Christian. For myself, I fully believe that I have been saved by Christ, and I see the fruit of this in my life. However, as a long-time pastor, I am sure you know of people who would also have been convinced that they were truly born again, would have appeared to bear fruit in their lives, but later showed that they were not truly saved by abandoning the faith. So if my salvation is only truly and finally evidenced by my perseverance, how much weight can I attach to God’s promises?
Piper began his reply by acknowledging the significance of Pete’s question. How do we know that the biblical promises (of which Piper lists a few) apply directly and personally to us if they apply only to the elect? To answer this, Piper directed Pete to two biblical texts in particular – 2 Peter 1:10 and Romans 8:13-16 – and then made the following comments:
So, the bottom-line answer to Pete’s question about being assured or being confirmed that we are among the elect, we are among the called, is that the Holy Spirit testifies, bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God…What witnesses do in a courtroom is give evidences. And two of them are mentioned here. What the Holy
Spirit is doing in us, creating the evidence and the testimony is number one…If the Holy Spirit is leading Pete into warfare with his sin so that he hates sin and looks to the Spirit to fight sin, this is the testimony of the Spirit that he belongs to God.
And the second evidence of the Spirit’s testimony is that he is crying from the heart, “Abba! Father!” …The point is when this cry — Daddy, Father — arises from a heart with the authentic, humble need of a helpless child, craving and desperately in need of a Father’s wisdom and a Father’s care and a Father’s provision and a Father’s rescue, a ready heart, ready to submit like a trusting child, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. No human being feels those affections for, “Abba! Father!” except the Spirit-wrought…
So, in the end, assurance that we belong to God, we are his child, we are in the promises, we are among the elect is a gift of God. It is a miracle. But as with other miracles in the Christian life, we don’t lie around on our sofa waiting for a bolt of lightning called assurance. We do what Peter says. We confirm our calling and election. This is war. There are reasons. There are seasons of doubt, reasons for doubt, seasons for doubt in the Christian life. That is why Peter said what he said when he said: Fight for it. Don’t coast. Confirm your calling and election.
Apart from the legitimacy of Piper’s interpretation of these two passages (from which I demur, but that’s a different post), there are two massive problems that immediately jump out to me here. First, it is startling to note that Piper nowhere (even in the unedited transcript) makes reference to Christ in his comments on the biblical texts or in his answer. Even on a cursory reading, the absence of Christ leaves, from my perspective, a gaping hole. Piper speaks of the Father as the object of our assurance and of the Holy Spirit as the agent in producing the evidence of assurance. But who is the third member of this Trinitarian work of assurance? Evidently, according to Piper, it is Pete himself (and all of us to whom Piper would presumably give the same reply). In other words, Piper has constructed a soteriological equation in which the divine, objective work of election and calling is carried out by the Father and the Spirit but, on the human, subjective side, the necessary work of appropriating and confirming that election and calling through faith and righteous living (and, since this is Piper, good affections) rests squarely on the shoulders of Pete.
The problem, in my view, is that this wholly neglects the One who not only accomplishes salvation from the divine side (in concert with the Father and the Spirit) but who also accomplishes the perfect reception and confirmation of that salvation through his own vicarious believing, working, and persevering for us: Jesus Christ. This is the second major problem with Piper’s answer. In neglecting Christ, Piper fails to see that assurance of salvation is not grounded in the quality of our faith, good works, and holy affections but rather in the quality of Christ’s faith, good works, and holy affections. This is indeed what is meant by the book of Hebrews’ (2:10-18) insistence that Jesus is our faithful (or faith-full) high priest who represents us before the Father as the perfect worshipper and believer. It is also what is meant by Paul when he exclaims: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me! For the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith/faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me!” (Gal. 2:20)
This is why we Evangelical Calvinists, in line with Calvin himself, emphasize that assurance of salvation is of the very essence of faith. Indeed, in one sense we could say that for Evangelical Calvinists, the question of assurance does not even exist, because we look to Christ and Christ alone, not only as the Giver of salvation (with the Father and the Spirit) but also as the vicarious Receiver of salvation. As Athanasius so beautifully put it, Christ came not only to minister the things of God to us but also to minister the things of us to God. Christ is the Word of God to man, and he is also the Man who vicariously hears and fulfills that Word in our flesh and thus in our place and on our behalf.
This is the message that T.F. Torrance so earnestly sought to communicate, especially to self-designated ‘evangelicals’ whose teaching of the gospel – in relation to conversion all the way through final glorification – was (and is) extremely unevangelical. As Piper would have it in this podcast, it is apparently Pete’s human effort that replaces the efforts of Christ in living by the Spirit through the Father. This, however, is not good news. Torrance explains:
There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…
Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection.
If ever there was a reason for becoming an Evangelical Calvinist, this is it. I would love to sit down with Pete and help him to realize that he is not, nor could ever be, the final member in the Triune God’s work of assurance. I would love to tell him that it is Christ’s vicarious humanity that surrounds him, enfolds him, uplifts him, and preserves him. This is not to downplay the importance of Pete’s faith; rather it is to direct him solely to the One who is the author and perfector of his faith (Heb. 12:2)! I would love to appropriate Paul’s words and assure him: “Pete, it is no longer you who live and persevere but Christ who lives and perseveres in you. And the life that you now live in the flesh, you live by the faith and the faithfulness of the Son of God who love you and gave himself for you!”
This, I suspect, would be truly reassuring for Pete, and I hope it is for you as well.
 Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.