Assurance of Salvation and “Evanescent Grace”

Nick, responding to my earlier post on assurance of salvation, brought up a very good point:

John Calvin clearly taught something called *evanescent grace* in which God gives a ‘fake grace’ to the Reprobate to make them *think* and act as if they were Saved, and this only so that He could damn them with greater punishment for such deceptive behavior (other Reformed teachers will reluctantly admit God does this too).

What Nick’s referring to is Calvin’s teaching in Book III, Chapter II, Section 11 of Institutes of the Christian Religion (skip down to where it begins, ” I am aware it seems unaccountable”). And it’s exactly as he describes. Calvin taught that the gift of faith was the fruit of God’s unconditional election. If you believed, it was because you were already saved: instead of the Biblical teaching that salvation comes through faith, Calvin taught that faith comes through salvation.

But there’s an enormous flaw in Calvin’s entire religious schema: countless people seem to believe (and believe they believe), and then fall away from the faith. These people, in an earlier day, counted themselves as believers, and were considered believers by their peers. I’ve addressed this issue elsewhere, including particular cases like Simon the Magi, who Acts 8:13 says “believed and was baptized,” yet fell away and was in peril of damnation by Acts 8:20-24. But if that’s so, then by definition, it’s possible to have faith without it being the fruit of God’s unconditional election. According to Calvin, if Simon had the true gift of faith, it was because he was already unconditionally saved: nothing he did would change his status as elect, including his attempt to buy the Holy Spirit. So this leaves two Calvin with two options: either St. Luke is wrong in Acts 8:13 (and Simon didn’t really believe), or St. Peter is wrong in Acts 8:20-24, and Simon has nothing to worry about. Calvin’s answer, in effect, says that Luke is wrong. He creates, out of whole cloth and without even attempting to tie his argument into the Bible or the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, a doctrine that says that God sometimes gives the damned a false sense of assurance of salvation, called evanescent grace.

This false sense of security is so strong that it’s indistinguishable even to the believer (or non-believer who thinks he’s a believer). Or, as Calvin put it: “though none are enlightened into faith, and truly feel the efficacy of the Gospel, with the exception of those who are fore-ordained to salvation, yet experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.

But this raises a second question: if the damned have a false sense of assurance, how can an individual tell if they’re saved or damned? Calvin’s already answered this — you can’t (“even in their own judgment…”). The damned “know” they’re saved, but aren’t, while the saved know they’re saved, and are. In fact, Calvin argues that the damned, afflicted with this deceiving grace, experience all of the internal and external manifestations of salvation.

So God reveals to these damned a sense of His Mercy, and of His Goodness, and reveals His Grace to them. They accept His Grace, although confusedly. They think they’re saved (“the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.“), and others think they’re saved, since “under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common” with the saved. Yet, Calvin argues that when God “shows himself propitious to them, it is not as if he had truly rescued them from death, and taken them under his protection.” So according to Calvin, God pretends to save them, gives them fake assurances of salvation, and then damns them.

Calvin does distinguish between the graces experienced by the saved v. the confused damned. The saved get the real thing, while the damned lay hold “of the shadow rather than the substance.” In other words, if the saved are drinking Coke, the damned are drinking Diet Coke. But since neither the saved nor the damned have ever had the other kind, and all of the external characteristics are the same, there’s no way of knowing which you’re drinking. Read over Calvin’s teachings in the link above, and I think you’ll see that the following is a pretty accurate chart depicting how you can figure out which one you are:

Saved, With Saving Grace Damned, With Evanescent Grace
Sense of Grace? yes yes
Internal working of the Spirit? yes yes
Appear to be Saved? yes yes
Believe They Have Faith? yes yes
Believe They’re Saved? yes yes
Actually Saved? yes no

Calvin sees this problem and proposes two equally unhelpful solutions:

  1. Meanwhile, believers are taught to examine themselves carefully and humbly, lest carnal security creep in and take the place of assurance of faith.
  2. Should it be objected, that believers have no stronger testimony to assure them of their adoption, I answer, that though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith, yet the elect alone have that full assurance which is extolled by Paul, and by which they are enabled to cry, Abba, Father.

The first “solution” is unhelpful for obvious reasons. This self-examination is doomed to failure from the start, since the damned are being duped. Calvin’s already conceeded that even in the damned’s self-judgment, they’re saved, so more self-examination isn’t really a solution. And the second “solution” is that the elect have full assurance.

Does this mean that if you question your salvation, you’re unsaved, since you don’t have “full assurance”? Or does it mean that you’re simply examining yourself to ensure that what seemed like assurance wasn’t just “carnal security”? And if the saved, by fruit of their unconditional election, have received full assurance of faith, how is it even possible for carnal security to “creep in and take the place of assurance of faith,” if this assurance is the special gift, and unique identifier, of the elect?

Calvin’s assurance of his own brilliance and intellect lead him to choose his own philosophical conclusions over some pretty clear Biblical passages which show people believing and falling away. The result was ugly: his creation of a system in which God purposely tricks people into believing they’re saved by Jesus Christ, shows them His mercy, and then sends them to hell for eternity. It’s not remotely Biblical, nor does he pretend that it is. And it fails to provide any of the assurance of salvation that Calvin claimed it would, as even he came close to conceeding. Under the Calvinist schema, there’s just no way of knowing if you’re saved or not.


  1. Hey, Joe. Nice entry today. I came looking for something on Saints Peter and Paul with it being their feast day but this was a well thought out position on assurance of salvation. Good work.

  2. Thanks! I heard a great homily today on the readings (well, yesterday, for me – it’s a hair after midnight).

    The readings for the day are here. And in addition to the normal stuff about the feast (The Church at Rome was formed by Peter and Paul, both of who were martyred there; the Church was built on Peter, and spread to the world by Paul, etc.), the priest tied the readings in an inspirational way:

    * The Second Reading (2 Tim 4:6-8, 17-18) is written probably as Paul is awaiting his execution. The reading begins, “I, Paul, am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.” So Paul was dying, and knew it.

    * The First Reading, Acts 12:1-11, finds Peter awaiting execution as well, only he’s saved from death by an angel.

    The priest used these contrasting examples to remind us that any day could be our last, and to live each day with an awareness that God could call us home at any time. The proper attitude to have towards God is found in the Psalm for the day, Psalm 34, which says: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth.”

    If we do this — bless the Lord at all times, — we’ll be ready whenever our time is up.

  3. Hi Joe,

    Superb post. I actually came across a Calvinist who recently converted over this very issue (but independent of talking to me about this). For a long while he struggled with the fact the beloved “Assurance” which Calvinism promised him was in fact an impossibility, and he finally (rightly) abandoned it.

  4. Thanks, Ryan. I’m impressed by your humility. I noticed that nearly every Reformed response to your comment was either “you’re a Catholic, so I don’t have to listen to you” or “you’re a Catholic, so obviously, you’re a liar,” even though you’re quoting Calvin directly, and providing the source for it. You’ve handled these responses with charity and humility, and I urge you to continue in that vein.

    Calvinist blogger C. Michael Patton had a good post on the subject at his blog Parchment and Pen. It begins:
    “Lately, I have been engaged in a variety of discussions in which both Roman Catholics and Protestants have been involved and I have noticed something very interesting. Protestants are very quick to reject what Catholics contribute, even on topics that are not related to Catholicism. In fact, I have observed a projection on the Catholic regarding their doctrine when their doctrine had nothing to do with the discussion. It is as if the Protestant is telling the Catholic they have nothing meaningful to contribute simply because of the doctrinal positions that they hold.”
    It’s an edifying post, well worth the read.

    Ironically, it was on his own blog that I ran into a situation similar to the one you seem to be facing: where any insights I tried to share were treated by other commenters with something between suspicion and open disdain because the speaker happened to be Catholic (here, the question regarded what, precisely, the Catholic Church taught on the Eucharist, so one would have assumed a Catholic contribution would have been appreciated). It was discouraging at first, but since that time, I’ve gotten multiple e-mails thanking me from people who read the thread but never commented. I mention this only to say that even if what you’re doing seems fruitless, it’s not — open-minded readers notice when one side to a debate calmly presents the facts, and the other side plays nasty. Just keep presenting the truth in love with humility. You’re doing a great job from what I can tell.


  5. The Council of Trent, in answer to Luther’s exposition of the Biblical truth of Justification by faith alone, went a step farther than Gregory the Great.

    They were not content to say that assurance was dangerous and not desirable, they declared that it was a mortal sin to claim assurance of salvation.

    They went still farther and, with full Papal authority and sanction, hurled anathemas and consigned to eternal damnation all who dared preach or believe such a doctrine.

    Let any who doubt this read the section on justification in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, and see how specifically and clearly the Jesuits spelled out how deeply Rome hates the doctrine of Assurance. Here are the actual words used by the Council of Trent:

    Whosoever shall affirm, that when the grace of Justification is received, the offence of the penitent sinner is so forgiven, and the sentence of eternal punishment reversed, that there remains no temporal punishment to be endured, before his entrance into the kingdom of Heaven, either in this world or in the future world, in purgatory, let him be accursed. Council of Trent, January 1547.

  6. Michael,

    A few comments will help clear some of the air, because you don’t seem to understand this from a Catholic perspective:

    1) The quote you gave of the Council of Trent had nothing to do with the Protestant notion of Infallible Assurance. Trent did speak against the notion of Infallible Assurance, but not in that quote.

    2) The reasoning behind the anathema against Infallible Assurance is nothing more than the sin of Presumption – which has always been a sin. The sin of Presumption is that in which the believer assumes more than what is warranted, especially in regards to God owing them blessings in spite of any sin they commit. Only the most extreme Protestants will deny a Christian can still sin, so all the reasonable ones admit that genuine Christians can fall into temptation and still do some pretty awful stuff like murder and abandoning their children and such. Given that, it’s Presumption to assume that should a Christian be overcome and fall into grave sin that God will none the less remain pleased with them.

    3)This issue is strongly tied to the doctrine of Once Saved Always Saved, which only Calvinists believe in, and since most of Christendom rejects this means the believer can fall away through grave sin and thus it’s Presumption to assume you’ll always Assured of salvation. Texts like 1 Timothy 5:8 are a real stinger for the Calvinist.

    4) The most crushing realization in this debate too is the fact that under the Calvinist’s own scheme, it’s impossible to know if you’re elect and thus impossible to have any real (Infallible) Assurance in the first place – all the while claiming Infallible Assurance is a staple of the Gospel. This is precisely why this post on Evanescent Grace was written in the first place.

  7. I’m commenting on an almost-year old post, but here goes anyway:

    How can we be sure that Calvin isn’t one of these reprobate who thought he was truly enlightened?

  8. Many Christians have said the following to themselves during a very difficult period in their life: Am I really saved? Here are the thought processes on this issue for an Evangelical and a Lutheran:

    The Evangelical’s Assurance of Salvation:

    1. At age ___ I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. At that moment I asked Jesus to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior and to forgive me of my sins.

    2. But since I am currently questioning my salvation, maybe I didn’t “do it” correctly. Maybe I didn’t fully understand what I was doing. Maybe I didn’t fully repent. Maybe I didn’t really have complete faith. Maybe I did it just because my friends were doing it. Maybe…

    3. I don’t know…maybe I should “do it” again, just to be 100% sure.

    The Lutheran’s Assurance of Salvation:

    1. Have I been baptized into the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, thereby receiving God’s promise of the forgiveness of my sins, salvation of my soul, faith, and eternal life?
    Answer: Yes.

    2. Have I outright rejected Christ as my Lord and Savior?
    Answer: No.

    3. Am I living a life of ongoing sin in willful disobedience and defiance of my Lord?
    Answer: No.
    Therefore, I know I am saved!

    When your assurance of salvation is based on what GOD did and not what you did, it makes all the difference in the world!

  9. Nick, I just came across this entry in your blog a few days ago. Evanescent grace was what I understood as “false faith” when I was among the Calvinists. I could never accept such a concept – it disturbed me to the depths of my soul. Finally, there is no assurance within Calvinism although its proponents profess that there is. That was the conclusion I came to as I looked around the congregation one day and wondered if I wasn’t really a reprobate sitting among many other reprobates who falsely believed they were saved. Such a concept can lead a Christian to despair and mental illness.

  10. With all due respect, this is a gross misrepresentation of the Reformed view. It makes it out to paint God as a deceiver and cruel manipulator. I recommend Matthew Mead’s “The Almost Christian Discovered.” It’s a Puritan work that delves deeply into the differences between true and counterfeit conversion from a Calvinistic perspective. Also, Thomas Brooks’ “Heaven on Earth” is a biblical exposition of the doctrine of assurance, and it too greatly differs from the picture you painted.

    Above all, Dr. Joel Beeke, who did his doctoral thesis on this subject at an accredited Reformed seminary (Westminster), sets the record straight on Calvin’s view of assurance in his book, “The Quest for Full Assurance”:

    You may disagree with the Reformed view, but it’s not fair to misrepresent it. Assurance is not only possible, but as the Reformed creeds state, it’s possible to enjoy an “infallible assurance” (Westminster Confession and 1689 London Baptist Confession). There are three grounds of assurance: (1) the gospel, (2) the internal testimony of the Spirit and (3) the fruits of regeneration, which differ, of course, from those of the unregenerate.

    Also, see John Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 6:4-6, in which he distinguishes between the experience of true saving grace and the “ordinary and external operations of the Spirit” in illumination and enlightenment that falls short of internal regeneration. Owen’s view bears significant continuity with Calvin’s, since Owen himself is the greatest English Reformed theologian of the 17th century.

    It’s hard to kick against the pricks! Repent of distorting the gospel, and come to the true and biblical Christ, who is able to save perfectly and forever all those who place their trust in Him.

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