Mortal Sin, Reflective Faith, and the Search for Assurance

The problem with mortal sin is that it’s so damned mortal. It scares me—as it rightly should. Mortal sin is nothing less than a state of spiritual death and impenitence. I know that the reason I was drawn to Martin Luther back in the 80’s was because he seemed to provide a way to get the fear of dying in mortal sin off my back. After all, wasn’t that the great quest of Luther—to find the gracious God and relieve his fear of eternal damnation? And didn’t he solve that quest by his rediscovery of justification by faith? “Faith in Christ,” Luther declared, “overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation.”

That sounds pretty darn good. Salvation is the gracious gift of God. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to do anything. From his side, God has done everything for my salvation. Does that mean, therefore, that I can’t be damned? Does that mean that I can’t choose hell? Well … errr … even Lutherans admit that hell remains a possibility even for Lutherans. Some Lutherans who believe today will disbelieve tomorrow. Every Lutheran retains the freedom to choose eternal separation from the God who graciously died for their sins.

Now, one might reasonably ask why anyone would make such a choice. Why would anyone choose to be Judas? Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” And yet we each know that we are given in Christ the freedom to make this choice. And we know that, under the right circumstances, we might indeed—God forbid!—make this choice. Who hasn’t read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and seen himself reflected in the various characters who choose to return to the “grey town”? The door to hell may be locked only from the inside, but that doesn’t mean that I will decide to unlock the door.

How do I know that I will choose God? How do I know that I am choosing God at this present moment? How do I know that I have truly repented of my sins? There are no second chances, traditional teaching teaches us. Not even the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory offers a second chance. Life is a single choosing. When we die and meet the living God, we will then discover which choice we have made.

The problem is free will. Whatever one wants to say about the bondage of unbelievers to sin, the New Testament is clear that believers are given a new freedom in the Spirit. We are given a freedom to say “yes” to God, to obey his commandments, to love, to follow Christ unto death. But apparently we are also given a freedom to say “no” to all the above. Even for the Spirit-filled, born-from-above believer, hell remains a possibility, an impossible, terrifying possibility. “For it is impossible,” declares the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit” (Heb 6:4).

Calvin and his successors sought to negate the threat by insisting on divine monergism and the predestination of the elect. God will ensure that those whom he has chosen for salvation will persevere in faith. The threat of damnation is thus eliminated for the elect. Of course, a new problem is created: Who are the elect? How do I determine whether I am one of them?

We cannot penetrate by our intellectual and spiritual efforts into the inscrutable will of the sovereign God. Christ may be the mirror of my election, but how do I know if the promise of salvation is truly spoken to me? How do I know if I have fulfilled the saving condition of faith? How do I know I am predestined to heaven and not to hell? In his seminal essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Phillip Cary argues that Calvin’s greatest theological innovation was not double predestination, as is sometimes thought, but rather his insistence that knowledge of one’s membership in the company of the elect is not only a possibility but a necessity: “individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination” (pp. 474-475). How does one come to know that one is predestined to eternal salvation? By examining one’s life and determining whether one believes in Christ: “Calvin’s epistemic thesis therefore makes Christian faith essentially reflective. Since the Gospel does not tell me directly whether I am predestined for salvation, I must work by inference, and the crucial premise of my inference must be that I believe in Christ. From the fact that I presently believe I can infer that I will persevere in faith to the end—from which it follows that I am predestined for salvation” (p. 477). The logic of faith may be schematized as follows:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Major Premise: Christ promises absolution of sins to those who believe in him.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

Faith here works reflectively. It looks to Christ, but it also looks back upon the self and its act of faith. Cary writes:

In this syllogism the major premise is taken from the Scriptural promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The minor premise is a confession of faith in Christ. The logical conclusion is the assurance of salvation. Hence to know that I am saved I must not only believe in the promise of Christ but also know that I believe it. In this sense faith is reflective: faith is based on God’s word, but the assurance of faith must include believers’ awareness that they have faith.

To achieve assurance, the believer must believe that he believes. But how does one determine whether one believes? Typically through two ways—either by evaluating one’s inner experience or by evaluating one’s behavior (or perhaps a combination of the two). The former is common in charismatic and pietistic circles. The believer confirms his faith by appealing to past experiences (“I’ve been born again or baptized in the Spirit”) or by assessing the quality of his present spiritual experience; the latter in confessional circles. But whether one is looking at one’s inner experience or one’s moral actions, one is looking at the self. Protestant faith is inherently reflective. As Cary writes, “A reflective faith has itself for object in addition to God’s word” (p. 455).

Because of their dogmatic confession of absolute predestination and limited atonement, some Reformed preachers actually got to the point where they could not speak directly and personally to any given sinner the words “Christ died for you,” because they could not confidently determine who the elect were. And so gospel preaching became reduced to the third-person proclamation “Christ died for sinners.”  J. I. Packer, however, does not see this as a problem. Following the Puritan theologian John Owen, Packer tells us that it is sufficient to proclaim the message “Christ is the Savior. Repent of your sins, believe on him, and you will be saved.” The following lengthy passage confirms Cary’s analysis:

What does it mean to preach ‘the gospel of the grace of God’? Owen only touches on this briefly and incidentally, but his comments are full of light. Preaching the gospel, he tells us, is not a matter of telling the congregation that God has set his love on each of them and Christ has died to save each of them, for these assertions, biblically understood, would imply that they will all infallibly be saved, and this cannot be known to be true. The knowledge of being the object of God’s eternal love and Christ’s redeeming death belongs to the individual’s assurance, which in the nature of the case cannot precede faith’s saving exercise; it is to be inferred from the fact that one has believed, not proposed as a reason why one should believe. According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:

that all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;
that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Savior for sinners, even the worst;
that the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Savior shall be received into favor, and none cast out – which promise is ‘a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever (fewer or more) it be intended’;
that God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel ‘a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-suffcient Savior, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.’

The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ, to explain man’s need of him, his sufficiency to save, and his offer of himself in the promises as Savior to all who truly turn to him; and to show as fully and plainly as he can how these truths apply to the congregation before him. It is not for him to say, nor for his hearers to ask, for whom Christ died in particular. ‘There is none called on by the gospel once to enquire after the purpose and intention of God concerning the particular object of the death of Christ, every one being fully assured that his death shall be profitable to them that believe in him and obey him.’ After saving faith has been exercised, ‘it lies on a believer to assure his soul, according as he find the fruit of the death of Christ in him and towards him, of the goodwill and eternal love of God to him in sending his Son to die for him in particular’; but not before. The task to which the gospel calls him is simply to exercise faith, which he is both warranted and obliged to do by God’s command and promise.

The gospel remains third-person proclamation.  It is up to the individual sinner to apply to himself  the general message “Christ died for sinners.” But the sinner who finds himself in the condition of the anguished conscience needs to know quite specifically that Christ died for him, not just for the elect. I need to know that God’s saving love is intended for me! Imagine asking one’s mother “Do you really love me?” and receiving the response “I love all my children. Go look for your birth certificate.”  The last thing need to hear from the preacher is “Look inward, examine yourself and determine whether you truly believe, have truly repented.”  All preachers who have been shaped by the hermeneutical understanding of justification must reject the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement and the way it necessarily distorts the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

At this point you may well be wondering, Where is mortal sin?  Good question.

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 10 December 2004)

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2 Responses to Mortal Sin, Reflective Faith, and the Search for Assurance

  1. Agnikan says:

    Is “mortal sin” part of Orthodox vocabulary?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question. Orthodox generally avoid the distinction, but it seems to me to be fairly commonsensical: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:17).

      I have another article on mortal sin appearing on Monday, with focus on the Lutherans. Hopefully it will generate some discussion.

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