“The Assurance of Salvation”: Myth and Reality
by Steven Siciliano | 8 April 2022 |
Let me state three key premises at the start:
- An individual’s ultimate salvation depends on maintaining faith and faithfulness to the end (by which I mean either the individual’s passing or the second advent).
- None of us can predict the future or know for certain whether we will remain faithful to the end. Therefore,
- logically speaking, it is impossible to have assurance of salvation. That concept is either a myth or, at best, a misapplication.
So where did this phrase and its accompanying sentiment come from? Why are so many individuals wedded to it? What reality may the term be pointing to, perhaps ambiguously? And where can we begin sorting it all out?
As you’ve probably realized, the word salvation can refer either to a present or future condition. Salvation defined as vindication in the day of judgment and inclusion in the kingdom depends on individuals enduring to the end. Jesus explicitly said that in Matthew 24:13, and the New Testament assumes it throughout. That is the future meaning of the term, and the most crucial one because of its finality. A person needs to remain faithful to the end in order to be saved in the end.
However, the word salvation can also refer to a present condition: that of being born again, justified or, in everyday language, being in a happy relationship with God right now. The scriptures do support the idea that people can have confidence about their present status with God.
So, it would seem that this simple distinction between the present and future meanings of the term should settle the question as to whether or not “assurance of salvation” is a valid expression. We can say with a high degree of assurance that we are saved in the present, on the basis of God’s grace and our conscious, positive response to God. Despite our good intentions and determination, however, we cannot have assurance that we will endure and be saved in the end – because we haven’t lived the future yet!
(In regard to present salvation, I wrote “high degree” rather than “total” assurance in order to account for the fact that we may not understand ourselves and our motives with one hundred percent certainty. Religious drift happens and can sometimes lead a person out of the faith. However, that qualifier should not imply the opposite extreme: that we live as if we have no clue whether or not we’re in Christ. We will never find perfection in our own actions or motives, but if we have learned of and accepted God’s gracious offer of Himself, committed ourselves in return, and have maintained that connection, then yes, we can say we are in a saving relationship with God.)
The Calvinist connection
Unfortunately, deciding whether or not Christians should continue claiming assurance is not as simple as distinguishing between these two definitions. “Assurance of salvation” has become an emotionally loaded term for believers in more than one Christian communion. And while I am not an expert in church history I believe the phrase derives from and is most at home within the Calvinist tradition.
Calvin maintained that God had unilaterally predestined both those who would be saved and those who would be lost, and there’s nothing a person can do or choose in order to make a difference. The problem then arose as to how anyone could know whether or not they are among the saved, a conundrum that is compounded by the fact that some apparent Christians end up turning away from the faith.
The solution that emerged was the idea that believers could have confidence in their status if they had experienced a tangible, identifiable moment of conversion. Combine that proposition with the idea that God not only decides who will be saved but then guarantees they will persevere to the end and, voila, believers can now have assurance of salvation both present and future.
Our affinity for the phrase
In Adventist circles, the drive to affirm assurance likely arose in reaction to the tendency for the denomination’s messaging to cast doubt not only upon an individual’s unknowable future but the integrity of his or her religious commitment in the here and now. Many old-timers in the church attest to having felt insecure and unacceptable before God throughout their lives, as if they were never good enough, sincere enough, or surrendered enough.
For one thing, the church identifies itself as Laodicea, that wretched, half-hearted final step in the alleged seven stages of church devolution. In addition, Adventism’s preoccupation with sin, sanctification, and perfection can easily engender a sense of despair not only in regard to a possible future apostasy but one’s standing with God in the ever-unfolding present, up to and including the point of death.
So, while it’s never good practice to do theology in reaction to a problem, embracing assurance was in this case a survival mechanism. Considering the disturbing self-doubt that has characterized Adventist experience, it’s no wonder that assurance of salvation was so heartily, and uncritically, received.
To be crystal clear, when it comes to peace, joy, and security in the present we can and should have assurance of God’s love, approval, and acceptance. We just can’t extend that certainty like some kind of guarantee into the future.
But clear as all this may be, I would contend that many Adventists insist on promoting assurance of salvation for yet another reason: because the denomination has imbibed and capitulated to evangelical terminology, sentiment, and presuppositions. Being assured of an ambiguously defined salvation on the basis of an incomplete definition of faith has combined to provide a sense of peace that was needed but not vetted. A thorough treatment of this subject, therefore, requires not only a critique but a positive description of biblical faith, as outlined next.
Salvation in relational terms
Biblical religion is relational to the core because it is inter-P/personal to the core. It always involves a call and response in which both parties contribute to making the union work. God initiates and provides all, but humans are expected to receive God’s offer and return trust and allegiance, which we call faith. Those who have come to know, love, and commit to God can feel confident in their present standing and even believe in God’s power and promise to see them through to the kingdom. But to be saved in the end, that relationship has to endure to the end. And until the end arrives (either history’s or our own) we can hope, plan, and strive to make faith-preserving choices, but we cannot logically have a kind of assurance that ignores or denies the vagaries of free will.
What I really want to say:
It was important to analyze all this, not only for the sake of nuancing a popular phrase and noting our perhaps unhelpful affinity for evangelicalism, but to set out in proper terms the mutually responsible relational dynamic that permeates biblical religion (and human society). I admit that I seized on an opportunity to describe two skewed viewpoints, but it was for the purpose of introducing a more accurate alternative. Calvinist tradition asserts a predestined, beatific outcome for all the elect, based on God’s sovereign will apart from any choice individuals may make today or in the future. Adventism had been so focused on sin and behavioral perfection that sensitive souls have lived with a perpetual sense of insecurity in the here and now.
The biblical way, by contrast, is more balanced and easy to understand, even commonplace. Salvation is based neither on God’s inscrutable decree nor human flawlessness but on God’s initiating love and our response of faith and allegiance, with baptism serving as the visible entry point and the Lord’s Supper signaling ongoing commitment. Both ceremonies – assuming they are done sincerely – serve as symbols of continuing fidelity, which is what God has always looked for.
In other words, the real goal of this reflection was to present an outline of true biblical faith, in which God graciously offers Himself and in return expects trust and devotion, for the duration.
That is biblical religion.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights and Hartsdale churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.