Taking my pet heresies for a walk: assurance of salvation


“I have never been so far in my life, and am never likely to get farther than to the point of ‘fear and trembling’, where I find it literally quite certain, that every other person will easily be blessed — only I will not. To say to the others: you are eternally lost — that I cannot do. For me, the situation remains constantly this: all the others will be blessed, that is certain enough — only with me may there be difficulties.” (Søren Kierkegaard, cited in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988, p.88) 

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I am not a pastor nor do I have any formal theological training. Therefore I do not presume to teach other laymen here on this site if and when I offer my theological opinions (cf. CA XIV). I speak as one having no official (lit. “of the office”) authority. However, if I can faithfully exposit the sacred and authoritative Word of God in the course of spinning theologoumena (and that’s a big “if”), then thanks be to God and soli Deo gloria. I’ll let anybody but myself be the judge of whether that ever happens.

So, it’s Sunday, and I try to reserve Sunday for theological reflection, devotional reading, &c. — because I’m a terrible person, not because I’m pious. Or, rather, I affect piety because I’m a terrible person. So it all goes together. We say “being pious” rather than “being normal” because normal isn’t pious. Leastaways that’s how I see it. So let’s not be our genuine selves; let’s be pious, eh?

But I digress…

So, like I said, I try to reserve Sunday for theological reflection, devotional reading, &c. Needing inspiration, I attended to Twitter and was not disappointed: together (though not in cahoots as far as I know) two new Lutheran confreres of mine served up some inspiration:

(What?! That’s over 140 characters! Yes, Dave uses Twishort. It’s nifty for those of us who are longwinded.)

To which I responded:


More on that soon, obviously. And around the same time, this one:



As these conversations went on, two things became clear to me: one, the topics were related to each other; two, I had spent all of my Tweet capital in about ten minutes. I decided it was time to blog.

What do we Lutherans believe about the certainty/assurance of salvation? It’s a difficult question. Unlike most theological questions, though, I think that this one actually does need to start with individual subjective experience. It needs to start with introspection. Really, it does. It shouldn’t end there, but it needs to start there.

What does this Lutheran believe about the assurance of salvation? What does that Lutheran think about the assurance of salvation? OK, OK. What about that one over there? What about that one? She’s cute.

Even at this point, something is…off. For, of course, it doesn’t really matter what you, I, or anyone thinks about the certainty or assurance of salvation. Even the question “Can anyone be certain of his own salvation?” is too abstract, too hypothetical, too postulative.

“Are you certain?”

This is a question that an I has to ask a You. Incidentally, it’s also one of the oldest philosophical/epistemological goat-ropes in the book. There was this guy named René, see, and the only thing he was certain of was that he had to exist in order to be thinking about whether he existed. Brilliant?

But let’s let one of these tigers out of its philosophical cage and let it bite someone. Let’s give it a predicate. Tigers love predicates.

Are you certain of your salvation?

No scare-quotes, no air-quotes, no bear-quotes. I’m asking you, dear reader. Are you certain of your salvation? I’m not certain of mine.

What? But you’re a Lutheran, Trent! What about Baptism and Absolution and the Eucharist and…and…and…

Yes? What about them? That’s the point: I have those things; I don’t have certainty. Because of those things (let’s call them “sacraments”) — specifically, because of Baptism — I have the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, I am united with Christ in faith. Because I have Christ, I have hope. That’s the good news. Indeed, that’s the Gospel. (I didn’t have to start by going into the topic of sin per se — I started by talking about myself; ergo, I was already talking about sin. For those of you who don’t know me, let me introduce myself: I’m Trent, and I’m a sinner.)

That was the good news. Now for the bad news.

The bad news is that all of that ain’t all that I’ve got. I also have a sinful nature. I am the Old Adam and he is me, his banner over me isn’t love, and he will not be completely dead until I’m completely dead. The cure for sin-in-the flesh (which we all have) is death. Of course, it wasn’t always so — it used to be that death was just the fair wage paid for sin. But by His dying and rising, Our Lord turned death into the door to eternal life. It’s still a penalty (which all must endure) but it has been transfigured (Satan hates transfiguration). This is why martyrs do not fear it, but embrace it. Well, maybe they do both. I have never faced martyrdom — the getting-shot, fed-to-lions, &c. kind — but I can only imagine that the Holy Spirit gives you otherworldly courage at that point.

Whatever the case may be, I’m obviously not dead, and until I die, I am struggling. Always struggling. Maybe this isn’t normal, but it’s what I’m doing. I take this to mean that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned me, and for this I am grateful. It’s a little riff on our boy René: I struggle, therefore I have the Holy Spirit. Collucto, ergo spiritum sanctum habeo. Yes, this is a frail, un-doctrinal, and otherwise bad existential litmus-test, but I’ve used it and derived comfort from it. Wow! Isn’t that bad? That’s bad, isn’t it? I guess so, but that’s kind of to my overall point, if you think about it, no? And, seriously, did you read the title of this post? You can’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t worry, though; I brought baggies.

I cannot even imagine being certain. If it’s at all a function over time, then I’m doubly out, because I ride a seesaw of doubt and fear every week. I am not certain, and I am not sure. This is why I need Christ.

For Christ is certain. Christ is sure. This is what I confess by faith, in hope.

By faith and in hope I say with a quavering voice that I know that my Redeemer lives, and that He shall stand at last on the earth, and that after my skin is destroyed, in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself and my eyes shall behold, and not another. But how does Job’s hymn end? How my heart yearns within me.” And this is crucial. Why would he say such a thing? Doesn’t he have certainty? After all, he says that he “knows” that his Redeemer lives.

"I know..."

“I know…

Yes, but this is eschatological knowing. We might otherwise call it prophecyHere, now, in this life, it is hope. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come (and it hasn’t come yet, nor will it until the Parousia) then that which is in part will be done away. But until then, the yearning of Job is the only Christianity I will ever know. And I will not believe anyone who tries to offer me something better, like “certainty.”

If you’ve sat off to the side as an iteration of this particular stock-theological parade gets going (and it’s always going on somewhere), and if you’ve felt bad for having the urge to shout “the Certainty Emperor is naked!” I just want you to know that you’re not alone. There are…dozens of us.


Let me be clear about this: I believe in God…(insert the Creeds and the Concordia.)

But that’s just the thing. What do you say in the liturgy? “I am certain of God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and I am certain that Jesus and the Holy Spirit…yeah…Amen”? I don’t think you do. If you do, then Joel Osteen’s church…club…thing…whatever…would be an upgrade.

Speaking of upgrading, I’m going to end this because it’s getting late. You will experience an upgrade of your time. If it does not start downloading automatically, wait about twenty seconds.

I hope that I have not said anything offensive, unsettling, or unorthodox in the foregoing. Your comments are, as always, welcome. Really, I just wanted to start a conversation on this topic since I have always found the usual jib-jab over it to consist of a lot of barking up the wrong tree, which, as any dog knows, is unsatisfactory. Speaking of dogs, I’m sorry about your lawn.




  1. I really appreciate this, Trent. I very much agree that assurance is subjective. One Lutheran (or Calvinist, RC, EO, Arminian, etc.) might have no doubt of Christ’s love for him, while another may despair in his sin. Perhaps some communions are more “certain” in this regard; I believe that to be the case. But that may be beside the point when it comes down to the inner workings of an individual Christian.

    Assurance is very much a cousin of faith, it seems to me. We can ask someone whether he has faith or assurance, but it is better to point him to the object of faith and assurance, Jesus Christ. If we dig around insides ourselves searching for certainty, who knows what we may find?

    As Fr. Weedon has said on occasion, (paraphrasing) “Lutheran theology is about comforting troubled consciences.” In other words, it’s pastoral. This is probably why Calvinists get annoyed with us in debates. Our faith is not a set of notions about God that we hold between our right and left ear holes, but a living relationship where He feeds and nourishes us through our Mother, the church. So the promises of Christ’s forgiveness are not handed out to the sinner secure in his sins (insert complaints about lack of private confession here).

    This aspect of the Lutheran church in particular is why former Calvinists (such as myself) are perhaps a bit too eager to talk about assurance, even if that isn’t the best way to get at the issue, which is the certainty of Christ for me.

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