Assuredly Uncertain of Assurance
Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton has offered his understanding of faith from both natural and supernatural perspectives. It appears that he is writing to Christians, i.e., those who have exercised the type of faith he believes to be biblical, but the word faith does not change in Scripture depending upon whether faith is being talked about in the context of believers or unbelievers. When we talk about faith, then, the meaning does not change whether we are talking about saving faith or sanctifying faith.
In short, Patton presents four kinds of faith that people can participate in: blind faith, irrational faith, warranted faith, and biblical faith. While the first three involve an act of will on the part of the individual, the fourth is an act of the Holy Spirit. Whether the issue is initial, saving faith or the daily faith of Christian living, He who is the Holy Spirit is the Person who produces the ability for such faith. I would encourage you to read his article – which is uncharacteristically brief for him – for a far better treatment of the subject.
Speaking perhaps only for myself, I find the final type of faith that Patton puts forth – biblical faith – to leave me in a dilemma. If Patton’s categories are true, then assurance of salvation is tenuous, if not impossible.
Here’s what I mean: biblical faith, according to his understanding, is not something I do but rather something the Holy Spirit does in and for me. It is He who enables me to have faith. But the problem is that, experientially, I cannot tell the difference between warranted faith (that does not include the Holy Spirit) and biblical faith (that does).
Patton is careful in his explanation of what the Holy Spirit does. He writes, “In order to have true faith, the power of the Holy Spirit must move within us, releasing us from the bondage of our will.” This is a biblical understanding of saving faith: God’s Spirit frees us from (what Luther called) the bondage of the will. Thus, we are free to choose according to our nature. Or are we? In matters of salvation, what is our nature prior to our belief in Christ?
Our pre-regenerate nature is, as Patton says, “antagonistic to spiritual truths.” Our nature is unredeemed, fallen, sinful, broken, ungodly, and opposed to God. It must be, then, that the Holy Spirit does not merely release us from the bondage of our wills but actually causes us to choose according to God’s elective purposes. We do nothing; He does everything. If we were only freed to choose according to our nature, we most definitely would not choose God.
The Holy Spirit’s actions in my life – lacking the demonstrable, visible manifestations claimed by some charismatics – are outside my conscious awareness. He works at a level or in a sphere that my consciousness is unable to fathom or detect. I do not know if He is prompting me but am only aware of what He would prefer I do or not do – and this only because of the written word of God that is, as the Psalmist says, a lamp unto my feet.
But perhaps I am, as Patton suggests is possible, doing this only because of warranted belief, relying “on naked intellect or personal effort alone.” That is, my “faith is a step according to rational evidence and inquiry. In other words, we believe because it makes sense . . . We make our decisions precisely because the evidence supports it, but this is still faith.” This falls short, however, of biblical faith, i.e., faith as a product of the Holy Spirit’s activity within me.
According to this scheme, I don’t know that I can know whether I exercised merely warranted belief when I trusted Christ some 38 years ago or if it was truly biblical faith. And every action, decision, or thought that has followed is also dubious: was it me or was it the Holy Spirit? Was it just warranted faith or was it truly biblical faith?
This leads to a serious problem: if warranted belief and biblical belief are separate, then I can have no assurance of my salvation. It doesn’t mean that I’m not saved; it means that I cannot know with any assurance if I exercised warranted or biblical belief. Like Muslims and the Truly Reformed, I cannot know the eternal fate of my soul until the moment of death, when it is too late to alter. I am assuredly uncertain of assurance.
The dilemma is resolved, I think, by eliminating a category and combining warranted and biblical belief. My experience of my salvation is that I willfully and freely chose to believe in the claims of Christ; that is, my faith was warranted. That is my experience. Was it accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit? I believe it was simply because such a choice would have been impossible had I not, just nanoseconds before, been regenerated by the Spirit of God and been able to choose from a new nature rather than an old, sinful one.
Again, I would not have believed that the claims of Christ warranted belief without the Holy Spirit having already accomplished my being born again. But while my faith is intellectually based on what the Holy Spirit has done, my experience is that I have exercised warranted belief. Having been convinced of the warrant of faith in Christ, my assurance is based on what Scripture teaches me to be the case. Experientially, I had warranted faith; theologically, my warranted faith was made possible by the Holy Spirit.
The categories, I think, are three rather than four, with the third containing both biblical and warranted faith. A person can have a blind faith (non-salvific), an irrational faith (non-salvific), or a biblical faith (salvific) that in turn produces warranted faith. Biblical faith is the sin qua non of warranted faith in matters of salvation and sanctification.
As is often the case, faith is not either-or. Saving faith is warranted belief as facilitated and created by biblical faith. My experiential expression of faith is preceded by an act or acts of the Holy Spirit that are outside my conscious awareness. Fortunately, I do not have to be consciously aware of the Spirit’s activity for Him to first save me, then sanctify me, and ultimately glorify me one day.