No Condemnation: A New Theology of Assurance. By Michael Eaton. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. 261 pp. Paper, $16.99.
In a postscript to his commentary Ecclesiastes (IVP), Eaton cited Luke’s words in Acts 17:32-34: “Some…sneered…Others said, ‘We want to hear you again,’…A few…believed.”
I believe his book will produce the same diverse responses. Many will sneer; others will want to know more. Still others will consider the evidence and believe this scholar from the Reformed tradition who takes on both Calvinism and Arminianism on the theology of assurance. In doing so he defends unlimited atonement, demonstrates a “resistible” link between justification and sanctification, and sharply distinguishes salvation from inheritance.
Michael Eaton serves as the Senior Pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church, in Nairobi, Kenya. He received is B.D. from Tyndale Hall, Cambridge; and his Ph.D. from the University of South Africa (this book is a revision of his doctoral thesis presented to the University of South Africa in 1989 under the title A Theology of Encouragement—A Step Towards a Non-Legalistic Soteriology).
Eaton states that Arminians must not “assume the continuance of their faith, and scholastic Calvinists must not assume the reality of theirs. In the one case awareness of sin threatens the Arminian’s confidence about continuance in the faith; in the other case awareness of sin threatens confidence about the reality of salvation” (p. 20). Although some may believe this goes too far, he says, “Is it not a fact of history that the Calvinist has tended to have less assurance of salvation than the Arminian? The Arminian is at least sure of his present salvation. As the result of the high Calvinist doctrine, the Calvinist often doubts his present salvation and thus has a less contented frame of mind than his evangelical Arminian friend” (p. 20).
So where is the Calvinist’s assurance? Eaton believes “it has died the death of a thousand qualifications” (p. 23). He believes the more one knows the complete teaching of what he calls “scholastic Calvinism,” the more that person will question his or her own salvation which he calls introspection. “This is the snag of scholastic Calvinism. It leads into an abyss of ever-increasing introspection…The introspective variety is decidedly not totally derived from the New Testament, and its all-pervasive view of the law needs reconsidering” (p. 25).
When he compares Arminianism and Calvinism he sees little difference between the two on assurance:
Arminian theology takes the warnings of Scripture as relating to salvation and as warning against apostasy or forfeiture of salvation. Final salvation hinges upon the Christian’s good works. Calvinism likewise has also taken the warnings of Scripture as relating to salvation. If a high Augustinian doctrine of perseverance is maintained, then the Calvinist sees the warnings of Scripture as addressed to the danger of pseudo-salvation…Both assume that salvation and good words are tied together. In the one case salvation requires good works; in the other salvation inexorably and irresistibly produces good works. In both theologies salvation and good works stand and fall together (p. 38).
Eaton’s goal is to present a “non-legalistic” theology in which a person’s assurance is found in Christ’s completed work on the cross:
What I am urging, on the basis of this biblical material, is that there may be an approach to security and admonition that does not imply justification by works and yet which does not have the in-built legalism and introspection of developed Calvinism (p. 185).
As Eaton sees it, the Christian position is one of “invincible assurance of salvation combined with awesome warnings concerning forfeiture of blessing (but not of salvation itself). There are both reassuring and admonitory aspects” (p. 37).
The Christian’s security, as a biblical doctrine, relates to salvation, to justification, to a secure position in grace, to freedom from condemnation, and to eternal membership among God’s people. Eaton does not believe the admonitions of Scripture addressed to Christians relate in any way to gaining or losing salvation. To him, salvation is so completely and solely of grace, that to the one who has already believed admonitions concerning losing or gaining salvation—in the sense of regeneration or justification—are entirely unnecessary and not found in Scripture at all. Instead, the admonitions of the NT “relate to present experience of the blessings of God’s kingdom, to reward in this life and beyond, to usefulness in God’s kingdom” (p. 39).
Eaton’s position concerning the grace theology comes through very clearly as he concludes his writing with the following statements:
Surely the New Testament balance is one of absolute freedom, an assurance that one will “never thirst again,” a knowledge that “nothing in all creation is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.” Yet from this basis of radical assurance spring profound challenges, the challenge to accept responsibility, the challenge to work out one’s salvation, the challenge to lay up treasure in heaven, the knowledge that there is something to be “laid hold of,” rewards to be won. Yet all along the way there is no need to fear that I am working for my eternal salvation…What paradoxes! Amazing grace and profound challenge; incredible assurance yet awe-inspiring responsibility; freedom to be myself yet the knowledge that Jesus achieves all in me. Here is a theology that motivates but does not discourage—a theology of encouragement. But is not this the gospel? I believe it is (p. 221).
I recommend this book as a Free Grace, “non-legal” approach to assurance.
Stephen R. Lewis
Family Heritage Church of the Valley
La Quinta, CA