Raise Your Hand… If You’re Sure!
One of the biggest purported “selling points” of Reformed theology has always been the doctrine of assurance. It is not uncommon to hear things like, “In Rome you’re stuck on a never-ending sacramental treadmill, but what you get in Geneva is the peace that comes from the full assurance of faith. Why would anyone trade assurance for fear and uncertainty?”
I would respectfully demure at this point.
While it is true that Reformed theology offers the elect absolute assurance of final salvation (since they have been chosen before the foundation of the world, have had their sins atoned for by the blood of Christ, are effectually called to Christ by the Spirit, and will be given the gift of perseverance unto the end), these ideas are not all exclusive to Geneva. As a Catholic, I also believe that there is a group of people called “the elect” who, having been chosen before the foundation of the world, cannot but gain their final heavenly inheritance. Just because the Catholic allows free will to play a bigger role in all of this doesn’t change the fact that both sides believe that a set number of saints will wind up in heaven, and that this number was known to God (in some sense) before Genesis 1:1.
“But,” the Reformed will surely say, “the mere existence of a group of elect people isn’t enough to bring about real assurance, since unlike you, we further insist upon the doctrines of particular redemption and effectual calling that bolster our comfort.”
At this point I would agree that Reformed theology, at least theoretically, appears to offer a better product, assurance-wise, than Catholicism does. But the thing is, that product’s theoretical superiority is of no practical value, for the obvious reason that no person can know with absolute certainty that he is a member of the elect. Can a Reformed person have a reasonable moral certitude that he is chosen? Sure. But so can a Catholic. And without some kind of special revelation or sneak-peek at the Book of Life by which one’s elect status is placed beyond the possibility of dispute, we’re all pretty much in the same boat.
In fact, a case could be made that the Catholic has moments available to him in which he can be more assured than the Calvinist can. You see, the fact that we all (Calvinists included) know loads of people who ten years ago gave as much evidence of their salvation as we currently give of our own, but who now completely disavow Christianity altogether, means that it is completely possible that the same will be true of us in ten years’ time. In a word, none of us can be assured, right now at this very moment, that we will not reject Jesus tomorrow.
But here’s the rub for the Calvinist: If he does reject Jesus tomorrow, or ten years from tomorrow, and dies in that state, then according to Reformed theology he never knew Christ in the first place. Let that sink in. If Reformed stalwarts like Eric or Robert reject Christ and never repent, then they are unregenerate and unjustified right now, even as they defend the Reformed faith here and elsewhere on a daily basis. And according to Calvinism, every single Christian is in this state at every moment of his life: he is a possible reprobate who has been foreordained to destruction from all eternity.
The Catholic, on the other hand, while he also knows that if he dies outside a state of grace he will be damned like the Calvinist will, can know with absolute certainty that when he receives divine forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation, he is at that moment a completely justified Christian. There is no hint of fear that his experience of present grace is, due to the doctrine of election, a possible illusion of false hope.
In short, yes, Reformed theology offers wonderful assurance, but it is an offer that applies to an invisible group to which one may, or may not, belong.