After the seventy went out preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, and casting out demons, they rejoiced that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17). The Lord Jesus then showed them what was far more important: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
The Lord was referring to the book of life. Their names were written in the book that guarantees that they would not be eternally condemned (compare Rev 20:15).
That is Biblical assurance. It is certainty that you have everlasting life and that you can never lose it (compare John 3:16; 5:24; 6:35; 11:26).
Once the Apostles left the scene, false teaching dominated. Thomas F. Torrance shows that the successors to the Apostles lost the concept of grace (The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers). Of course, there has always been a remnant believing and proclaiming the true message of life. But if they wrote, their writings were not preserved.
Until the Reformation, the traditional understanding of assurance was that you could be confident that you were saved at the moment, but you would always know you might lose your salvation in the future.
Calvin evidently initially believed in certainty of salvation apart from works. After being attacked for years, he began to equivocate on that point. I think he still had certainty of his salvation by the end of his life. That is a debatable matter. However, what is not debatable is that most Calvinists today lack certainty of their eternal destiny. That lack of certainty is illustrated in a January 3, 2018 blog you can read at the gospel coalition website.
The author, Andrew Wilson, discusses the fact that in 1 Corinthians Paul gives his readers assurance and yet he also warns them. Assurance. And. Warnings. Wilson thinks that the warnings are not warnings about temporal judgment or about the Judgment Seat of Christ. In his understanding the warnings are that the readers might end up being eternally condemned.
So in Wilson’s view, in the view of the gospel coalition, believers today can in some sense be “assured” that they are saved right now and yet believers need to realize that they might end up being eternally condemned. What is the practical difference between modern Calvinism and Arminianism? While there are distinctives, on the issue of assurance and warnings, they are in agreement.
Wilson wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on this issue. He says,
The warnings are real: If believers fall away into sin and never repent, they won’t be saved. The assurances are real: God, in Christ, by the Spirit, will keep all believers to the end. And the former are a God-ordained means of ensuring the latter. Paul is convinced that true believers will heed his warnings, repent of their sin, and inherit final salvation. God will act within his converts to respond to Paul’s warnings.
Wilson makes four points in his blog.
First, “the warnings-assurance relationship” (as he puts it) “reassures you of God’s work.” It is comforting to know that God will work in our lives and will cause us to persevere. This is guaranteed. Sort of.
Second, the warnings-assurance relationship “elevates the significance of preaching biblical warnings.” We need to preach the warnings because those warnings are the means God uses to cause “true believers” to persevere. In other words, while God guarantees that “true believers” will persevere, He does so by means of warning them that they need to repent and serve Him if they wish to avoid eternal condemnation. Works are needed to gain “final salvation.” Wilson says, “I love the way John Piper puts it…“Brothers, save the saints.”
Third, the warnings-assurance relationship “strengthens your response to unrepentant sinners in the church.” Wilson gives this illustration from his ministry:
I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a woman in our congregation who, through our strong emphasis on God’s grace and mercy to everyone, concluded that no matter how much sin she committed, and whether or not she ever repented of any of it, she was completely safe. She was complacent in her “security,” even defiant.
Wilson said, “I confronted her with the strongest biblical warning I could think of (Heb. 10:26–31), and assured her in no uncertain terms that if she didn’t repent, she wouldn’t be saved.” Notice that the issue is a future salvation, what he calls “final salvation.” The issue wasn’t that she was never saved in the first place. The issue is that this saint, to use Piper’s term, needed to get to work in order to gain final salvation in the future.
Fourth, the warnings-assurance relationship “reminds you the power to persevere comes from God.” Wilson sees “final salvation” as a cooperative effort of the believer and the Holy Spirit: “Divine and human agents work beautifully together, both in our own lives and in the lives of all disciples [here he quotes 1 Cor 15:10 and Col 1:29]. We work, because he works in us.” In other words, while our “final salvation” is a combined effort of the believer and the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the power we need to make our own efforts effective. He calls this truth “enormously encouraging.”
I find this teaching enormously discouraging. While I realize that Wilson and the gospel coalition formally endorse justification by faith alone, apart from works, in reality they believe that initial justification or initial salvation is not enough. One must have final justification and final salvation to avoid eternal condemnation. And how do you get this final salvation? By working for it!
In 1989 at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I heard Dr. Earl Radmacher say that this sort of theology is not a return to Wittenberg, but to Rome. He was right.