Shawn C. Lazar
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
In Faith and Saving Faith,1 Gordon H. Clark argues that all faith is propositional. To believe is to be persuaded that a proposition is true. The difference between faith and saving faith is not in how you believe, but in what you believe. To have saving faith means to believe the saving proposition.
Clark’s propositional definition of faith became influential in Free Grace Theology (hereafter FGT). One reason is that it is Biblical. Another reason is that it helped defend the purity of the doctrine of justification against attempts to redefine faith in a way that includes works.
However, while Clark’s definition of faith is well known, his doctrine of assurance is not. The purpose of this article is to examine Clark’s doctrine of assurance both critically and constructively. First, I will explain how Clark understood assurance of salvation. Second, I will show that his doctrine makes it impossible to be assured. Third, I will argue constructively that Clark’s definition of faith clarifies the nature of assurance as being persuaded that the assuring proposition is true.
II. CLARK’S DOCTRINE OF ASSURANCE
Clark often criticized other thinkers for their lack of definitions, so it is surprising that he never defines assurance. However, his doctrine can be summarized along the following lines.
A. Faith Without Assurance
“When we think of the Reformation, we usually think first of the doctrine of Justification by Faith,” Clark explained. “But the Reformers also discovered assurance.”2 According to some scholars, Reformers like John Calvin thought that assurance was the essence of saving faith.3 If so, Clark believed they were confused.4 According to Clark, you can believe in Christ for salvation and yet not be sure that you are saved. You can have saving faith, without assurance of salvation, because assurance is not the essence of saving faith.
B. Assurance Is Possible
Clark believed that it was possible, but not certain, for a believer to have assurance of salvation. “The Gospel promises the possibility of assurance. It does not quite promise every Christian actual assurance.”5 Significantly, Clark rejected the idea that believers should have assurance from the very first moment of faith.6 This confirms that Clark thought faith and assurance were two different things.
C. Assurance Depends on Divine Monergism
According to Clark, assurance depends on monergism. This is the belief that God alone (mono) causes (ergism) salvation to happen, apart from man’s free response or cooperation.7 It should be noted that Clark was a convinced Calvinist, and argued that we can be assured that salvation will happen only because God predestined it to happen. Assurance, he claimed, “presupposes and depends on perseverance and irresistible grace.”8
By contrast, Clark denied an Arminian can “consistently be assured of his salvation” because they deny divine monergism. Instead, they believe in synergism—that man cooperates (ergism) with (syn) God in salvation. In particular, they believe that salvation can be lost by a free choice of the will (i.e., “a regenerate man can unregenerate himself and ultimately be lost”9). Since Arminians do not understand that “the new birth begins an eternal life, i.e., a life that does not end in a year or two,” they can never be sure they will not choose to unregenerate themselves sometime in the future. Hence, they cannot consistently have assurance.10
D. Assurance Is Based on Psychological Experiences
According to Clark, assurance depends on psychological experiences. These experiences are influenced by many factors such as temperament, education, and culture. Since different believers have different experiences, Clark concluded they cannot have the same degree of assurance:
In general, one must be extremely cautious, not merely in asserting that faith and assurance are inseparable, but in making any universal statement of the psychology of Christians…The New Testament and church history…give abundant evidence of the infinite variety of Christian experience.
Not only because of particular sins and temptations, but also because of differences of temperament, of upbringing, of education, and of cultural and historical conditions of one’s age, no one pattern of experience fits everybody. Some are too fearful of presumption, others are not fearful enough. Elijah went to heaven in a fiery chariot, but Jeremiah may have died in despondency. Assurance of salvation, like other blessings, does not come to all Christians; but it is part of the fullness of God’s grace which we may legitimately and consistently hope to enjoy.11
E. Assurance Is Based on Good Behavior
Clark taught that assurance can only be gained gradually over time, based on observing good behavior. Clark said that “a sufficient degree of obedience” was necessary “to have met the requirements” of being assured.12 Elsewhere he claimed that “freedom from sin is the evidence to support an assurance of salvation.”13 Clark believed that 1 John 2:3 teaches an introspective basis of assurance:
Assurance of salvation is a topic John considers in several sections of this Epistle. It is possible to consider this the main subject throughout. One could say that our standing with God is tested by righteousness, love, and doctrine, and these three, repeated, give grounds for assurance.14
If we live well, and believe the right doctrine, we have every reason to be assured of our salvation. For example, Clark thought the superintendent of the primary department of his church, a “woman of remarkable gifts,” was someone who should have had assurance based on her behavior. From “all external appearances (and that is all the rest of us could judge by) she was the one who had the greatest reason to be assured.”15 Sadly, Clark reports that she was not, in fact, assured.16
Contrariwise, Clark said we can lose our assurance based on our bad behavior. He thought that 1 John also spoke of “proofs that one is not a Christian.”17 According to 1 John 2:4, Clark thought, “There is good reason for asserting that the disobedient man does not believe the truth. The reason is that intellectual conviction inevitably controls action.”18 If your actions are sinful, that is evidence you do not believe in the Lord. Clark admitted that you do not need to be sinlessly perfect to have assurance, since even Paul sinned later in life, “and if that means he was not a saved man, nobody is.”19 But long-term disobedience shows that you never genuinely believed in Jesus.
F. Assurance Can Be Lost
Since assurance is based on good behavior, acting sinfully can result in the loss of assurance. Clark states:
“while it is impossible to lose one’s faith or salvation, assurance may be shaken, diminished, and intermittent. There is such a thing as backsliding, both sudden and gradual. The Christian may fall into sin and lose his assurance.”20
G. False Assurance Is Based on Good Behavior
“False assurance is a common thing,” Clark explained.21 “Just because a person believes that he is saved is an insufficient reason for thinking that he is saved.”22 This false assurance is found among both non-Christians and nominal Christians and is commonly due to focusing on one’s own behavior, instead of upon God’s unilateral actions. “The unregenerate are not assured of grace: they believe that they are good enough to deserve heaven.”23 He faults Arminians who are:
very sure that they are saved now; but are not sure that they will be saved tomorrow or next week. If they die tonight, they will be in heaven immediately. But if they should live a while longer, they might fall into sin, fall from grace, and then they would be eternally lost. But they are very sure just now.24
Clark finds this type of assurance hard to understand. “How can anyone be very happy if he thinks he has an eternal life that is so little eternal that it might end next week?”25
However, while Clark faults the unregenerate for basing their assurance on being “good enough to deserve heaven,” paradoxically, in the very same paragraph he adds:
But the assurance spoken of in the Confession is a result of faith in Jesus Christ. It is an assurance that can be found only in those who love him in sincerity and who endeavor to walk in all good conscience” (emphasis added).26
This is paradoxical because Clark faults Arminians for basing their assurance on good behavior, while suggesting that Calvinists do the same thing—base their assurance on their good behavior. At the very least Clark is saying that Calvinists should base assurance on their sincerity and their endeavoring to live good lives.
III. PROBLEMS WITH CLARK’S DOCTRINE OF ASSURANCE
Now that we have a broad understanding of Clark’s doctrine of assurance, we can consider four reasons why Clark’s theology makes it impossible to be assured.27 These problems are not necessarily internal to Clark’s doctrine of assurance, but often involve the implications of his theology and philosophy as a whole.
A. No Clear Saving Message
Clark did not know what the saving message was. He denied there was a minimum saving proposition,28 but could not define a maximum. He thought the content of saving faith was a complex of propositions known only to God.29 He counseled preachers to preach the whole Bible and trust that God would use some combination of propositions to bring the elect to faith.30
Of course, if you believe in justification by faith apart from works, but do not know what you must believe in order to be justified, you can never be sure you have saving faith. Your faith might consist entirely of non-saving propositions. Without a clear saving proposition to believe, Clark’s doctrine of assurance will lead to doubt.
B. Behavior Is Not Consistent
One will recall that Clark faulted Arminianism for making assurance depend on persevering in faith and good works. He pointed out that since the Arminian cannot be sure he will not choose to unregenerate himself in the future, he cannot be sure of his salvation. However, Clark’s doctrine of assurance is subject to a similar objection.
Clark based assurance on good behavior. This poses a problem, because while you might be behaving properly now there is no certainty you will continue to do so in the future. It may be that in the future you will behave very badly and therefore prove that you were never regenerate in the first place. Since Clark cannot know what his future experiences and behaviors will be, he cannot consistently be assured of his salvation.
Of course, it is also doubtful whether anyone behaves well enough in the present to be presently assured of their salvation. Clark himself wondered about this: “We know all too well that we do not keep God’s commandments as we should. How sanctified must we become before we pass from timid hope to bold assurance?”31 He went on to ask, “But this is very disturbing, for all of us disobey God’s commands. Can we then be assured that we have been regenerated? Maybe our faith is pseudo.”32 Clark did not have an answer to these doubts.
The truth is, our behavior is sinful now. To make matters worse, it may be even more sinful in the future. Hence, behavior cannot provide a consistent foundation for assurance. Once again, Clark’s doctrine of assurance will lead to doubt.
C. No Consistent Proof of Being Elect
Clark claimed that assurance must be based on monergism, including the belief that God has only predestined to save the elect. This Calvinistic view undermines assurance, because while you can be sure that God will save the elect, you cannot be sure that you are among them. Therefore, if there is no infallible or consistent way of knowing if you are elect, then you cannot have assurance of salvation.
D. Lack of a Clear Definition
Being assured of your salvation depends on knowing what assurance is. Significantly, Clark did not define assurance, which leads to confusion about its nature. According to Clark, assurance is not a type of belief. Rather, it is related to psychology, but it is not clear how.
Of course, if you are not sure what assurance is, you will not be sure that you have it. Since Clark does not clearly tell us what assurance is, his doctrine of assurance will lead to doubt.
IV. ASSURANCE IS PROPOSITIONAL
While Gordon Clark’s doctrine of assurance is self-defeating, I believe his doctrine of faith clarifies the true nature of assurance. Hence, in this section, I will develop a constructive account of the nature of assurance, based on Clark’s doctrine of faith.
A. Faith Is Propositional
In order to better evaluate Clark’s doctrine of assurance, one must first understand his doctrine of faith. A summary is helpful to provide a context for understanding why assurance should be thought of as propositional.
According to Clark, faith is a mental act. It is not a sensation, behavior, emotion, or feeling.33 It is something that happens in the mind. In particular, faith is propositional. Just as verbs have objects, so does faith. When you believe, you are believing something (i.e., a proposition).34
When you believe a proposition, you are persuaded that it is true. Of course, in order to believe that a proposition is true, you must first understand what it means. You can understand the meaning of a proposition without believing it to be true (e.g., “The moon is made out of green cheese”). But you cannot believe a proposition is true without first understanding it.35
Accordingly, Clark held that faith consists of understanding (notitia), and assent (assensus), but not trust (fiducia). He thought that theologians who took trust—particularly trust in a person—as a third element in faith were wrong because to trust in a person is simply to believe the proposition, “This person always tells the truth.”36 Hence, Clark concluded, trust is a case of assent, not something different from it.37
Since all faith is propositional, the difference between faith and saving faith is not in how you believe, but in what you believe. Not all propositions are part of the saving message. Believing that “Montreal is north of Burlington” or “Allah will spare the righteous” are not saving propositions. Faith becomes salvific when it believes the saving proposition.38
B. Assurance Is Propositional
Just as faith is propositional, so is assurance. Although Clark thought that assurance was something other than faith, I believe that is an error similar to the one he refuted about the meaning of trust. Like trust, assurance is a case of assent, not something different from it.39 Specifically, assurance of salvation is assent to the assuring proposition (i.e., “I have eternal life”). If you believe that (or the equivalent40), then you have assurance of your salvation. That is all that assurance of salvation is—believing that you are saved. The question is, “How can you come to that belief?”
C. Jesus’ Question to Martha
Assurance may be thought of as the conclusion to a simple deductive syllogism where we are first presented with Jesus’ promise of life and are expected to deduce the appropriate conclusion. For example, consider this discussion between Jesus and Martha on the subject of eternal life:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:25-27).
Jesus presents Martha with a promise: everyone who believes in Him “will never die.” This is another way of saying that whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life, the great theme of John’s Gospel (cf. John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 6:35). Jesus’ promise that whoever believes in Him will never die can be considered the first premise (P1) of a syllogism:
P1: Whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.
Next, Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” That question is meant to prompt Martha to complete the syllogism by supplying the second premise (P2) and drawing the appropriate conclusion (C).
For argument’s sake, imagine if she had answered, “No.” What conclusion would she have come to?
P1: Whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.
P2: I do not believe.
C: Therefore, I do not have everlasting life.
In that case, Martha would obviously not have assurance of salvation. She might have assurance based on other grounds, as the conclusion to another syllogism,41 but not based on Jesus’ promise of life.
Of course, Martha could also have answered, “I don’t know if I believe.” In that case she would have concluded:
P1: Whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.
P2: I don’t know if I believe.
C: Therefore, I don’t know if I have everlasting life.
Obviously, someone who does not know if they have everlasting life does not have assurance. Disbelief and doubt have the same result of lacking assurance.
But Martha actually answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” In which case, Martha could complete the syllogism this way:
P1: Whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life.
P2: I believe.
C: Therefore, I have everlasting life.
Given that conclusion, Martha would have assurance of salvation. She would believe that she would have everlasting life and never die.
All believers ought to have the same assurance of salvation as Martha did, based on believing the same premise, namely, Jesus’ promise of everlasting life.
D. Assurance Is the Essence of Saving Faith
If you believe the proposition, “Whoever believes in Jesus has everlasting life,” then you must also conclude, “I have everlasting life,” because that is what Jesus promised. If you fail to draw that conclusion, you either do not understand Jesus’ promise, or you do not believe it.42 But if you understand and believe it, you must know you have everlasting life, because that is what Jesus promised, and what you are claiming to believe in Him for.
If Jesus had promised that believers could have the possibility of gaining everlasting life sometime in the future, then you could believe that promise and lack assurance. Given that promise, assurance would not be the essence of saving faith.
However, Jesus promised believers everlasting life as a present possession (John 3:16, 36; 5:24). If you believe that promise, then you must believe you have eternal life as a present possession. And if you believe that you have everlasting life as a present possession, you have assurance of your salvation. Hence, given what Jesus promised to believers, assurance is the essence of saving faith. If you have never been sure of your salvation, that means you have never believed Jesus’ promise of life, which is the saving message.
E. False Assurance
Having assurance of salvation means being persuaded that the proposition, “I have everlasting life,” is true. Of course, not everyone who believes they have everlasting life actually do. There is such a thing as false assurance. But what, exactly, is the difference between genuine assurance and false assurance?
Once again, I think Clark’s theology provides an obvious answer. I argued that assurance is propositional. Assurance of salvation is the logical conclusion to a syllogism based on believing Jesus’ promise of life. But not everyone who concludes they are saved do so based on Jesus’ promise. They might conclude they are saved based on other considerations. Whether or not their assurance is genuine depends on the truthfulness of those other considerations. Put another way, while genuine assurance is deduced from true premises, false assurance is deduced from false premises. The following are some examples of false assurance deduced from false premises.
1. False religion.
The most obvious source of false assurance of salvation is to believe in a false religion. So, for example, a non-Christian might reason in the following way:
P1: Allah will save those who do x.
P2: I do x.
C: Therefore, I will be saved.
Someone who believes in a false god may have assurance of salvation, but since their first premise is false, so is their assurance.
2. Works salvation.
Another popular source of false assurance within cultural Christianity is belief in salvation by works:
P1: God will give everlasting life to everyone who does good works.
P2: I do good works.
C: Therefore, I will have everlasting life.
Although the person who thinks they are good enough to be saved will have assurance of salvation, it will be false because the doctrine of works salvation is false (Rom 3:20).
3. Emotionalism and mysticism.
People might be assured of salvation based on something they have felt or experienced. For example:
P1: Whoever sees a mystical white light is saved.
P2: I saw a mystical white light.
C: Therefore, I am saved.
P1: Whoever feels a burning in the bosom is saved.
P2: I felt a burning in my bosom.
C: Therefore, I am saved.
P1: Whoever has a sense of joy is saved.
P2: I felt joy.
C: Therefore, I am saved.
If someone believed the conclusion to any of these syllogisms they would have assurance of their salvation, but it would be false assurance because the Bible does not base assurance on fleeting experiences and emotions. Instead, it bases assurance on faith in the promises of God, especially Jesus’ promise of everlasting life.
Although Gordon H. Clark’s doctrine of assurance makes it impossible to have assurance, his doctrine of faith helps to clarify what assurance is. Having assurance of salvation is not a matter of feeling emotions, having a mystical experience, or behaving in a certain way. Instead, it is being persuaded that the proposition, “I have everlasting life” is true. Assurance is the essence of saving faith because it is the necessary conclusion to believing Jesus’ promise. Since Jesus promised that everlasting life was the present possession of all believers, if you believe Jesus’ promise, you must necessarily believe you have everlasting life as a present possession. Hence, you will be assured of your salvation. If you do not have assurance, you either do not understand Jesus’ promise of everlasting life, or you do not believe it.
1 Gordon H. Clark, Faith and Saving Faith (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1990).
2 Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1965), 176.
3 Gordon H. Clark, Sanctification (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation), 35. For example, see M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1985); R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Robert L. Dabney, “Theology of the Plymouth Brethren,” Discussions by Robert L. Dabney, vol 1, ed. C. R. Vaughan (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1890), 173, 183; David Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994).
4 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 36.
5 Gordon H. Clark, Today’s Evangelism (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1990), 92.
6 Ibid., 89.
7 Clark, Presbyterians, 174.
8 Ibid., 175.
10 Ibid.; Clark, Sanctification, 36. This point would not apply to FGT. Although we also hold to synergism, and say that growing to spiritual maturity depends on cooperating with God, we deny that salvation can be lost, even if a believer later repudiates their salvation. A regenerate person can stop believing in Jesus and remain eternally secure. Their apostasy will affect their eternal rewards, but not their eternal salvation.
11 Clark, Presbyterians, 179, emphasis added.
12 Clark, Sanctification, 38-39.
13 Gordon H. Clark, The Holy Spirit (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation), 48.
14 Gordon H. Clark, First John (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation), 54.
15 Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 90-91.
16 Ibid., 91.
17 Clark, First John, 54.
18 Ibid., 55. Clark has misunderstood this verse. First John 2:4 is not about proving that you are regenerate, but proving that you have an intimate knowledge of God. Salvation and spiritual maturity are two very different issues. A person can believe in Jesus for eternal life and therefore be regenerate, without necessarily being a mature believer with intimate personal knowledge of God. But you cannot claim to be spiritually mature and to know God intimately, while behaving badly or believing wrongly. Walking in darkness and believing wrong doctrine are signs of having a shallow knowledge of God, not an intimate one. See Zane C. Hodges, The Epistles of John (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999), 73-79; Gary W. Derickson, 1, 2 &3 John (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 144-45.
19 Clark, Holy Spirit, 49.
20 Clark, Presbyterians, 179. Note Clark’s Calvinistic belief that the elect can never permanently lose their faith.
21 Ibid., 176.
22 Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 91.
23 Clark, Presbyterians, 178.
24 Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 92.
26 Clark, Presbyterians, 178.
27 I have chosen not to discuss the way in which Clark’s philosophy of Scripturalism undermines assurance by undermining the possibility of knowing that we exist at all, let alone, knowing that we have believed.
28 Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 65.
29 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 110.
31 Clark, First John, 54.
32 Ibid., 55.
33 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 5, 32, 105; Clark, Presbyterians, 143.
34 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 32, 39, 107, 118.
35 Ibid., 118; Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 64; Clark, Presbyterians, 151; Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason, Revelation (Hobbs, NM: The Trinity Foundation, 1995), 99.
36 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 60, 104.
37 Clark, Today’s Evangelism, 76.
38 Clark, Faith and Saving Faith, 105, 109.
39 I did find one quote from Clark, where he seemed to agree with this: “Assurance and conviction are belief, strong belief, voluntary belief, and as intellectual as you please.” See Religion, Reason, and Revelation, 100. It is not clear what Clark meant when he said that assurance is a “strong belief.” What is stronger than believing that something is true? That it is “really” true? It seems like truth is truth. It is either all true, or not. However, beliefs can be relatively “stronger” or “weaker” in the sense of being more or less supported by corresponding evidence, and being more central to your worldview. For example, I believe “I am married with children” and that “Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan.” I believe both propositions are true. But my belief about being married with children is much stronger than my belief about Dushanbe, because the former is supported by years of memories, paid bills, and thousands of changed diapers (to name only some corresponding beliefs). By contrast, my belief about Dushanbe comes from a vague memory of playing a trivia game where that came up as the answer. If I am wrong about Dushanbe, it will make little difference to my life. If I am wrong about being married with children, I would have to question my sanity.
40 For example: “I will go to heaven when I die.” “I am justified.” “I am reckoned righteous.” “I will live with God forever.”
41 She might have assurance based on a different line of reasoning. For example, she could hold that: “Everyone who sacrifices on Mount Samaria is saved; I sacrifice on Mount Samaria; I am saved.”
42 Or you might not believe that you believe. That is, it is possible to believe P1 but not know whether or not P2 is true. Indeed, some theologians argue it is hard, if not impossible, to know if the second premise is true. For example, in his critique of Free Grace theology, Wayne Grudem expressed this very doubt. He thought the question, “How do I know that I have truly believed?” was the central question in the assurance debate [Wayne Grudem, “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 85, emphasis his]. He was right. If you cannot affirm the second premise, you cannot conclude “I have everlasting life” from Jesus’ promise of life. Now, Grudem finds it hard to know if he had genuine saving faith because he does not hold to a propositional definition of faith. Instead, he thinks genuine belief has a number of different components, whether emotional, behavioral, and/or mystical (see Shawn Lazar, “Wayne Grudem on Genuine Faith” Grace in Focus [May/June 2016], 33-37). Since these evidences are inconsistent, he is not sure if his faith is genuine. Insofar as Clark also based the genuineness of faith on behavior (as seen in his comments on 1 John), he too, would harbor doubts about P2. Moreover, Clark and other Scripturalists would also find P2 doubtful because according to Scripturalism, the only propositions you can know are the propositions of Scripture and what can be logically deduced from them. Since your existence and beliefs are neither propositions of Scripture, nor logically deduced from them, a consistent Scripturalist could not answer Jesus’ question to Martha and come to the conclusion that he had eternal life. By being skeptical towards P2, Clark’s Scripturalism cannot lead to assurance, but will instead lead to doubt.