Round Table: Can We Be Certain Of Our Salvation?
Throughout church history, the question, “Can we be certain of our salvation?,” has troubled many believers. This question naturally arises because different Christian traditions have divergent teachings on the nature of salvation itself. How one is saved and whether or not this salvation can be subsequently lost are the subject of much discussion between believers. One noteworthy response to these questions from church history was the development of the so-called “Protestant work ethic.” This idea suggests that living a moral, prosperous, and productive lifestyle is proof of one’s eternal salvation.
In the spirit of Christian charity, we have asked our regular authors and contributors to weigh in on this question from their own personal perspective and from the perspective of their Christian traditions.
Ben Winter, Roman Catholic
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The assurance of salvation is, sadly, a topic that divides followers of Christ. Whether one’s tradition takes a stand for or against it, there are merits to both sides of the debate (and much depends on the definition of “certainty”). Proponents of certainty argue that we can trust God’s promises—God does not withhold salvation from those who “seek his presence” (Ps 105:4).1 As our Lord says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7). Christians should not be plagued by doubt when it comes to the free gift of God’s love. After all, “we love because God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
At the same time, Scripture warns against taking salvation for granted. Although God makes it possible, humans are the ones who “work out” the faith through the ups and downs of life’s journey. And salvation is just that: a journey. Salvation is an ongoing process that takes place within the Body of Christ, in and through the communion of saints. God does not see us as isolated individuals slogging toward salvation alone. Rather, God—who humbled himself to rely upon others for daily needs—recognizes that we, too, reach the end of our journey with and in a community. We rely upon others (whether they be parents, teachers, ministers, or even historical figures) to sustain our faith and lead us toward the truth. They show us how salvation “works out” in the complex, often troubling, circumstances of daily life.
In this light, the statement “we are being saved” seems more accurate than “I am saved.” Ultimately, it is God who will judge the world (Jn 12:44-50). If our assurance of salvation is defined as “100% certainty,” then we impinge upon divine agency and elevate ourselves to the position of Arbiter.2 “Not everyone,” Jesus tells us, “who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). The great exemplars of our faith, such as those listed in Hebrews 11, all made a decision to trust God. They held fast to an “assurance of things hoped for,” and by this they “received approval as righteous.”3 Catholics acknowledge that anyone, including ourselves, is capable of squandering the gift of God (Matt 5:13-16). As painful as it must be (see Matt 23:37), God gives humans the freedom to reject Love. While we dare to hope that all will join in the renewed life of salvation, we also understand that “the threat of eternal perdition is addressed, indeed, to me!”4
Perhaps it is appropriate to end with this exhortation from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion … But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
(1) For a similar observation, see Jarrett Dickey’s essay in this Round Table.
(2) I find this ironic because, oftentimes, those who seek to diminish the role of humanity in salvation (i.e those attack “works-righteousness”) at the same time put forward the notion of absolute certainty.
(3) It is interesting to note the conclusion of this chapter: “Yet all these [saints], though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.” Salvation is, in the end, a communal experience.
(4) Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A Short Discourse on Hell, 248-49.
Jarrett Dickey, House Church
Being a Christian is a lot like being married. At a wedding ceremony, a man and woman form a covenant where they vow to remain together, through many blessings and struggles, until death parts them. Once this covenant is formed in the sight of God, a husband and wife have a firm and certain bond with one another. As long as both parties remain faithful to their vows, the marriage is unequivocally certain. Unfortunately, in this world marriages break down for a number of reasons, but this does not take away from the principle of marriage: faithfulness is certainty. Furthermore, just as a marriage begins with an intentional act of taking vows, so a marriage is dissolved through the intentionality of divorce. Marriages can survive many hurts, disappointments, struggles, miscommunications, and sins when both spouses are committed to one another.
When the Israelite people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, they formed a covenant with God through the mediator Moses. The terms were simple: “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples (Ex 19:5).” Like a marriage vow, this covenant was conditional on one thing: the obedience of faith. If the Israelites remained faithful to God, the terms of the covenant would be certain. Given the character of God, it is clear that God never breaks faith or fails to uphold God’s promises (2 Tim 2:13). The sad story of the Hebrew Bible is that the people broke the covenant through their unfaithfulness, and God sent them into exile. Even then, though, God remained faithful to the covenant and brought the people back to the Promised Land.
In the Scriptures, the Christian church is a continuation of Israel (as the people of God). Just as Israel had a covenant with God, so too do Christians. Our mediator is God’s Only Son, Jesus Christ, who is a “mediator of a better covenant (Heb 8:6)” than Moses. Like the Mosaic covenant, this covenant is also based on the “obedience of faith (Rom 1:5).” Salvation is always and ever based on the gracious initiative of God. Yet, God’s goodness demands a response: faithfulness. At the Last Supper, Jesus left his disciples with these final instructions, “Abide in me as I abide in you (Jn 15:4).” These instructions, and the subsequent context, imply that a disciple can abandon the Lord. However, the Lord never abandons a faithful and obedient disciple. The Christian who lives by faith should experience the certainty of salvation. As Paul says in Romans 8:16, God’s Spirit bears “witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Since salvation is a covenant relationship with God, the covenant can only be dissolved in a way that is similar to divorce. Salvation is entered into through the free will of faith and the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, salvation is also exited through free will. To be clear, God never initiates the dissolution of the covenant. Additionally, just as a marriage can endure many troubles, so too can the covenant of salvation. A Christian does not lose his or her salvation because of a moment of doubt, a period of spiritual dryness, or moral failings. If salvation is entered by the free acceptance of God’s grace, then it is exited by the free rejection of God’s grace. Classically speaking, this is the sin of apostasy. God’s grace can overcome many sins and doubts on the road to salvation. Only the Christian who willfully denies the faith and rejects the grace of God loses the certainty of salvation.
Cameron Brooks, Reformed
Of the many lovely Latin phrases the early Reformers used to describe Christian salvation, two have sadly gone silent in recent Protestant soteriological discourse: extra nobis (outside us) and in nobis (in us). The Reformers employed these terms to delineate the different aspects of God’s work of salvation. In this essay, with the help of a few Reformed theologians, I unpack the relevance of extra nobis and in nobis to the question of assurance. I wish to argue that Christians can always be certain of salvation because, as the psalmist put it, “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Ps. 3:8).
The Reformers taught that salvation must come completely from the outside — extra nobis. Sinful humans cannot save themselves from their unrighteousness, so God must accomplish salvation on their behalf. And this, the Reformers claimed, is precisely what God did accomplish through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in our place. God turns to us in love — steps into the tragic work of redemption — before we turn to him. As Paul put it: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Referring to the extra nobis aspect of salvation, Martin Luther wrote that, in Christ, we receive an “alien righteousness.” That is, through God’s act of justification we receive righteousness from the outside, Christ’s own righteousness. John Calvin, for his part, saw that the “condemnation which we of ourselves deserve has been swallowed up by the salvation that is in Christ,” adding elsewhere that Christians, by our nature, must “lodge our righteousness in Christ’s obedience” (Inst. III.11.23). In Christ, God swallows our condemnation. Such imagery brings to mind the story of Exodus, the central act of God’s salvation in the Old Testament, where God rescued the Israelites and “swallowed” the Egyptians in the Red Sea. “The Lord will fight for you,” Moses comforted the trembling people, “and you have only to be silent” (Exod. 14:14).
In one sense, then, to ask “Can we be certain of our salvation?” is tantamount to asking “Did God rescue the Israelites from Egypt?” or, “Was Jesus crucified and raised from the dead?” Our answer to all of these must be “yes!” This is why Moses and the Israelites, standing safely on the shores of the tossing Red Sea, could sing together, “The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Exod. 15:2). This is why Jesus, hanging on the cross, cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Of course, the Reformers also believed salvation contained a subjective aspect. For our reconciliation with God (i.e. salvation) to be complete, it must be worked in nobis. Hence, Calvin wrote, “As long as Christ is apart from us and we are separated from Him, all that He suffered and performed for the salvation of the human race is useless and unavailing to us” (Inst. III.1.1). Therefore, we must also be spiritually incorporated into Christ, united with him, such that “we are introduced to the enjoyment of Christ” (Inst. III. 1.1). Without union with Christ, we have no share in his benefits and no certainty of our salvation. But how does this happen?
According to the Reformers, we are united to Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit. Concerning this, Paul van Buren writes that “the Spirit is Christ reaching out to men to give them all that He has won.”1 Notice that the subjective side of salvation is not independent of the extra nobis, but rather rests upon and points to it at every turn. Through the Spirit, they are interwoven. Moreover, the medium between the extra nobis work of Christ and the in nobis work of the Spirit is faith, which is itself a gift of the Spirit! Christian faith, for the Reformers, is not merely mental assent to propositions about God or history. Rather, faith is a kind of knowledge — namely, knowledge of God’s merciful love in Christ.
Calling faith a type of knowledge may seem odd to modern minds; we typically think faith stands in where knowledge fails. Yet for the Reformers, because it unites us with the objective work of Christ, faith is assurance of salvation and God’s love for us. In the words of Herman Bavinck, “Only by faith does a promise become our possession.”2 Faith is the in nobis certitude of the extra nobis reality of God’s saving love for us in Christ. Crucially, faith also galvanizes believers toward loving obedience. Like Israel in the wilderness, our day-to-day obedience to God’s command perpetually depends upon the degree to which we remember God’s gracious works in the past, and trust God’s promises for the present and future. Like the Reformers taught us, we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. Faith, therefore, is a whole-person response to God, involving head, heart, and hands.
So, is faith the answer to the Christian struggling for his or her assurance before God? Not quite. For, faith looks away from itself and to its object — Christ. We do not first look to our faith, our disbelief, our tradition, or our good deeds to diagnose our status before God; we look to Christ, the embodiment and assurance of God’s love. “This is the proper look of faith,” Calvin writes, “to be fixed on (Christ), in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love.”3Show Sources
(1) Paul van Buren, Christ In Our Place: The Substitutionary Character of Calvin’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 99.
(2) Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic) 565.
(3) Comm. in Joh. 5.16, C.R. 75, 64.
Peter Schellhase, Anglican/Episcopal
Before we can ask whether we can be certain of our salvation, we should make sure we understand what salvation is. Is salvation a personal quality or possession of the individual, which can be acquired (or lost) by them? Or is it a membership in something greater, which ultimately belongs to the person and work of Jesus Christ? I think that both of these ways of viewing salvation are true in a sense.
As far as the subjective experience of “assurance” is concerned, individual believers are more likely to feel confident in their salvation provided that they are participating in the means of grace, by which the salvation of Christ is mediated to His people on a daily basis.
In the Anglican tradition, these ordinary, habitual means of grace fall roughly into the three categories of Mass, Office, and Devotion. The Mass (Holy Eucharist) is the church’s central act of worship, and believers are expected to participate in it as often as they can—weekly or even daily when possible. The Daily Office of morning and evening prayer is required of all Anglican clergy, but the faithful are also encouraged to make it a central part of their devotional lives. In addition to these communal disciplines, private prayer, fasting, almsgiving, sacramental confession, and other private devotions are recommended for spiritual growth.
Note, by the way, that this threefold discipline of weekly Mass, daily Office, and personal devotion is identical to the “method” of John and Charles Wesley and their Oxford circle, for which they were derided as “Sacramentarians” by the lax Anglicans of their day. It is also the very same rule resurrected by the Tractarians and the Anglo-Catholic movement.
But again, what is salvation, and how do these things mediate it in our lives?
The ground of our salvation is not to be found within the actions or merits of the individual. It is an objective fact. Rather, Jesus himself is the fact of our salvation. We cannot speak meaningfully of salvation without returning always to Christ: both who he is, and what he has done. Likewise, we cannot even speak of a person who is saved without giving them a new name and identity: they are a Christian.
Our salvation is a one-time event. It is the finished and everlasting work of Jesus which we commemorate at Passiontide and Easter, as well as at every Sunday Eucharist, and confess in the creed. Salvation, understood this way, is an objective fact. Yet it is not merely a thing that happened in the historical past. It transcends time. Christ is “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Salvation is made present to us sacramentally by the Church, through the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments. This is how we access the grace of salvation and join the membership of the redeemed.
For our personal salvation is ultimately found in our identification with Christ. There is (as St. Cyprian said) ‘no salvation outside of the Church,’ because no one can be united with Christ without becoming also a member of His body. This is accomplished primarily through the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is the beginning of our salvation, but it is not the end. There are a number of ways to identify with Christ. This definition of salvation as sharing Christ’s identity is broad enough to encompass various complementary and overlapping expressions:
- Baptism: At the gate of entry into the Church, one is objectively identified with Christ’s death and resurrection, and made regenerate by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
- Confession: One acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Savior, identifying oneself with him and his work, and with the assembly of fellow confessors. This is the purpose of the Creeds.
- Communion: One is united with Christ and his Church in the sacrament of the altar.
- Fellowship: One participates in the community of those who are called the Body of Christ.
- Martyrdom: By suffering death because of their identification with Christ, martyrs are united with Christ through his sufferings and thus attain eternal life. Early church fathers called martyrdom a “second baptism,” and it was on the basis of this proof of their salvation that early martyrs were venerated.
- Mystical union: Through contemplation or ecstatic experience one becomes mystically united with Christ. This is not a gift that everyone receives, but those who do receive it generally have already cultivated a highly-focused life of prayer and meditation on Christ.
So, can we be certain of our salvation? I ask, can we be certain of our Christ? Is there any firmer basis of certainty than the identity and work of our Savior? Of course, we also recognize the reality of sin; that our lives do not yet demonstrate that complete unity with Christ’s identity which as Christians we desire.
Those tempted to despair must remember that this recognition of distance is itself a sign that God has not given up on us. The Holy Spirit continues to place in our hearts a yearning for unity with Christ. The way of salvation is open to us. As long as we are able to approach Him in prayer, as long as we are able to practice repentance and forgiveness within the community of faith, as long as we are willing to take the next step on the road of penitence, we need not doubt that we belong to Him.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.