Monday, July 26, 2010

The Basis of Assurance: John Preston and the Conditionality of Discipleship

“It is not that the sinner is to be presented with no conditions whatsoever, but rather that THESE CONDITIONS ARE TO BE UNDERSTOOD AS DUTIES THAT ARE TO FOLLOW FAITH. He insists that ‘there be conditions following after, though not going before faith.’ These conditions are, ‘you must serve him in all his commands, and leave all your sinnes.’ The gospel promise is unconditional, but FINAL SALVATION IS CONDITIONED UPON PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION. This side of the coin ‘is another part [of the gospel]’ and constitutes the covenant of grace expressed conditionally” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology.” Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2007, page 127; quotes by John Preston, “A Liveles life,” I:76 and “Saints Qualification,” III:16).

I ended my last post with a discussion of John Preston and his theology regarding life in Christ. He argued that the promise of Christ (whoever should believe will be saved) is unconditional; however, the life in Christ after faith involves conditions that the believer must fulfill. In this post, I am gonna deal with an issue tied directly to life in Christ: that is, once I believe, how do I know that I am saved? How do I know that I stand in the Lord’s hands?

Many would say that our assurance is based on faith in Christ. Dave Hunt, internationally-known writer and lecturer as well as co-host of the radio program “Search the Scriptures Daily,” affirms faith as the basis of assurance:

“OUR ASSURANCE IS NOT IN BAPTISM, GOOD WORKS, OR DENIAL OF CHOICE. John declares, ‘These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life’ (1 John 5:13). BELIEVING IN CHRIST IS OUR ASSURANCE” (Dave Hunt, “Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views.” Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004, page 399).

Similarly, Ken Keathley writes:

“Like [Martin] Luther, I argue that A PERSON FINDS ASSURANCE WHEN HE TRUSTS THE JUSTIFYING WORK OF CHRIST ALONE” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, page 165).

James Arminius himself would affirm the same:

“I subjoin, that there is a vast difference between...(1)‘it is possible for believers to decline from the FAITH; and (2) ‘it is possible for believers to decline from SALVATION.’ For the latter, when rigidly and accurately examined, can scarcely be admitted;---IT BEING IMPOSSIBLE FOR BELIEVERS, AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN BELIEVERS, to decline from salvation. Because, were this possible, that power of God would be conquered which he has determined to employ in saving believers. On the other hand, IF BELIEVERS FALL AWAY FROM THE FAITH AND BECOME UNBELIEVERS, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR THEM TO DO OTHERWISE THAN DECLINE FROM SALVATION,---that is, provided they still continue unbelievers” (James Arminius, “Works,” I:741-742).

Arminius’s words sound like Paul’s to the Gentiles in Romans 11:20-22 and Peter’s words to the Jews of the Diaspersion in 1 Peter 1:5. To summarize his words above, we stand by our faith; however, should we throw off our “shield of faith, whereby we are able to quench the fiery darts of the wicked one,” we can do no other BUT fall from salvation (Eph. 6:16). He did agree, however, that faith is the basis of assurance. Faith is how we know that we are saved.

The words of John Preston in the starting quote of this post testify to salvation by faith alone. Preston writes,

“godly sorrow and grace followes [sic] faith, but are not required before it.”

However, it is not merely faith alone that builds one’s assurance in their salvation; bearing spiritual fruit (good works) can build one’s assurance of salvation as well. Regarding good works and assurance, Preston wrote:

“come to a beleever going out of the world, and aske him WHAT HOPE HE HATH TO BE SAVED, AND WHAT GROUND FOR IT? He will be ready to say, ‘I KNOW THAT CHRIST IS COME INTO THE WORLD, AND THAT HE IS OFFERED, AND I KNOW THAT I AM ONE OF THEM THAT HAVE A PART IN HIM; I KNOW THAT I HAVE FULFILLED THE CONDITIONS, as that I should not continue willingly in any knowne sinne, that I should love the Lord Jesus, and desire to serve him above all; I know that I have fulfilled these conditions, and for all this I have the word for my ground, if the ground whereon our faith is builded be the Word, then it is builded on a sure rocke” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology,” page 127; quote from John Preston, “Saints Qualification, III:16).

In Preston’s theology, coming to faith is the result of the divine promise (which requires no works), but remaining in the faith is a matter of the work of Christ and the work of the believer. This is why, after Preston quotes the work of Christ above in regards to assurance, he then goes into “I know that I have fulfilled the conditions,” etc. Why are conditions required for final salvation? Because “this side of the coin [works] is ‘another part [of the gospel] and constitutes THE COVENANT OF GRACE expressed conditionally” (Moore, 127). Here with Preston, we see him reconcile the words of not only Paul (“justified by faith”,” Romans 5:1), but also the words of James (“justified by works”, James 2:21).

I’ve explored Preston’s views on the atonement, and he is rather inconsistent when it comes to Jesus dying for all but only interceding as priest for “some.” However, here in his theology, I think he is most right. His words confirm those of James to the scattered Jewish believers:

“Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was ACTIVE TOGETHER WITH HIS WORKS, AND BY WORKS, FAITH WAS see that a man is justified by works and NOT BY FAITH ALONE” (James 2:20-22, 24, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

The basis of assurance (justification by faith or works?) has been one that has plagued the church since the first century until now. How then shall we answer the question, “What justifies a man: faith or works”? Should we answer, “faith alone,” we must negate works altogether; if we answer with “works,” then we nullify faith and create a different gospel. In order to reconcile “justification by faith” and “justification by works,” we must understand that “by works, faith [is] perfected” (James 2:22). Once we grasp this, we will have no problem affirming the necessity of BOTH faith and works for final salvation. As the writer of Hebrews wrote,

“So don’t throw away your confidence which has a great reward. FOR YOU NEED ENDURANCE, so that after you have done God’s will, you may receive what was promised” (Heb. 10:35-36, HCSB).

Does my response nullify the gospel? No, not at all. After all, are we not “His creation---created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:9, HCSB)?

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