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Election and Assurance

Writing on “The advantages of predestination” according to Calvin, Richard Phillips presents the doctrine of election as a source of assurance to believers:

img   Calvin also saw the doctrine of predestination as possessing great pastoral value, especially in rightly grounding our assurance of salvation. But first he warned against a vain and dangerous attempt to base our assurance on direct knowledge of God’s decree. One must not attempt, he writes, “to break into the inner recesses of divine wisdom . . . in order to find out what decision has been made concerning himself at God’s judgment seat.” [Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.24.4.] No mere creature has direct access to God’s eternal counsel, so to seek assurance through knowledge of election is to be dashed against the rocks like a shipwrecked mariner.
   So how does the doctrine of election contribute to assurance? Calvin preached: “How do we know that God has elected us before the creation of the world? By believing in Jesus Christ. . . . Whosoever then believes is thereby assured that God has worked in him, and faith is, as it were, the duplicate copy that God gives us of the original of our adoption. God has his eternal counsel, and he always reserves to himself the chief and original record of which he gives us a copy by faith.” [John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (1577; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 47.] Election is always “in Christ” (Eph. 1:4), so the distinguishing mark of the elect is their union with Christ in faith. “Therefore,” Calvin explains, “if we desire to know whether God cares for our salvation, let us inquire whether he has entrusted us to Christ, whom he has established as the sole Savior of all his people.” [Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.24.6.]
   On this basis, true believers can and should look to the future without anxiety, knowing that their faith in Christ testifies to their eternal election. But this does not encourage presumptuous abuse of our privileges, since apart from discipleship to Christ our grounds for confidence vanish. Most importantly, Christians look for perseverance in faith not to themselves but to the promise of Christ: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). Likewise, we rely for our perseverance in faith on the determination of God’s sovereign will, since, Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
   How many Christians stumble on in weakness, burdened with doubts that would be erased if only they knew their salvation rested not in themselves but in God? The doctrine of election tells us that it was God who sought us and not we who sought Him; that God called us to Himself in time because He chose us in eternity. No longer seeking confidence in a decision we have made or in our feeble resolves for the future, we put our confidence in God, as Paul insists: “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’” (2 Tim. 2:19a). Notice Calvin’s pastoral sensitivity as he preaches on this theme:
imgWe are as birds upon the boughs, and set forth as a prey to Satan. What assurance then could we have of tomorrow, and of all our life; yea, and after death, were it not that God, who hath called us, will end His work as He hath begun it. How hath He gathered us together in the faith of His gospel? Is it grounded upon us? Nay, entirely to the contrary; it proceedeth from His free election. Therefore; we may be so much the more freed from doubt. [Calvin, The Mystery of Godliness, 103–104.]

—Richard D. Phillips, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 152–153.

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Posted  in: Church History · John Calvin · John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology · Richard Phillips
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