Saint Augustine on Assurance

Derek Ouellette —  April 25, 2012

An “assurance of salvation” is unquestionably incongruent with Calvinism. When I point this out to Calvinists the response I often get is, “but the Bible tells us that we can know for sure” to which I respond “exactly!” and walk away with a grin of my face waiting – sometimes forever – for the lightbulb to go off in their head. Like those occasions on the sitcom Friends when everybody makes the connection but Joey and Chandler says, “wait for it, wait… for… it…” then a bright smile of recognition forms on Joey’s face and you know he finally got it.

If the Bible teaches that we can know, but such assurance is incongruent with Calvinism, wait for it, wait… for… it…, nope, no lightbulbs for many Calvinists.

Too bad.

I’m poking fun a bit. But In all seriousness though, Calvinists believe they have assurance of Salvation. And they should. And I’m not surprised. They are, after all, Bible Christians. The trick is to get them to see that what the Bible says about Christian assurance is incompatible with their Calvinistic theology (and by “get them to see” I don’t mean to imply that it’ll do just to show them, the last post makes that crystal clear!).

Though Saint Augustine came before Calvin, his views of predestination no doubt had an indelible mark on Calvin’s and Luther’s theology. But Augustine was willing to be consistent where, it seems, Calvin was not. Augustine believed that all unbapized infants went to hell. Calvin could not stomach such an idea. But really, with a soteriology such as Calvin’s, why not? Nevertheless, Calvin’ distain of Augustine’ view of the destiny of unbaptized babies is not unlike the Arminian distain for Calvin’s view of particular predestination.

But that’s not the only place where Augustine and Calvinism part ways. As perhaps the leading Augustinian scholar Gerald Bonner observes:

“There is, however, one important distinction between Augustine and later Calvinism: Augustine did not believe it possible to distinguish between the saved and the reprobate in this life. As long as we are in the body, no one can have “assurance of salvation.”’ (Freedom and Necessity, p.46)

Augustine knew that to hold to a view of particular predestination which dictated a theology of the preservation of the saints, especially in light of the fact that many sincere Christians have openly abandoned the faith since early times, this could only mean that there is no way to know who truly are the elect and who are not.

If your theology leads to that conclusion – as undeniably any theology of particular predestination (unless mingled with universalism) does – perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Evan


    This is completely off-topic, but I recently stumbled upon your blog and something I read sparked a question that I thought you might be able to answer, or at least point me in the right direction for an answer. My question is this: Because Jesus had not yet died, were his teachings while on earth directed towards the Jews without consideration for the church? It’s not something I’ve thought much about, but I always assumed his teachings were somewhat universal. Any insights would be appreciated.


    P.S. If you would prefer to delete this comment so the comment section can stay on topic, I don’t mind. No hard feelings.

  • THEOparadox

    Interesting thoughts here. My impression is that Augustine’s view of justification (rather than his view of predestination) was the driving force behind his conclusions regarding assurance. In any case, wouldn’t you agree that Scripture requires us to hold the following in tension?

    1. There are both true and false believers in the visible church
    2. Some false believers have a false assurance
    3. Some true believers lack assurance
    4. True believers CAN have full assurance in Christ from “day 1” of their conversion.
    5. We can’t tell FOR CERTAIN whether a fellow processing Christian is a true or false believer
    6. We must test ourselves to be sure we aren’t self-deceived.
    7. We must encourage and provoke our brothers so that if they are self-deceived it will come to light and they can repent unto true belief and thus gain assurance.

    I’m not saying this is a comprehensive list of Biblical teachings on the subject. Just a few points to ponder.

    For me, Calvinism best accounts for the balance of Biblical teaching on the subject.

    Derek Ashton

    Nice name, by the way.