The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God

Romans 8:16

If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true. There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true. Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved. He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me. And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.

John 5:31-37

This post will be a study on the tension between the “witness of the Spirit” and the “witness of man”. How is the external “witness” or “testimony” of the preached Word and Sacraments, administered by man, related to the “internal witness” of the Holy Spirit within the soul? Where is the locus of “assurance”? In the External Word administered or in some further internal “witness of the Holy Spirit” in the soul?

I shall first describe the general contours of the controversy before advancing a “moderate Calvinist” way of reconciling the tensions between the witness of the externally preached Word and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

Defining the Dialectic: Between the Holy Spirit and the External Word

From the very start of the Reformation there has existed a dialectical tension between the Lutheran and Reformed understanding of the relationship between the work of the Holy Spirit and the “External Word”. The “External Word” refers not only to the preaching of the Word but also the sacraments, which are considered to be the”Word made visible”.

Against the Anabaptist “enthusiasts” who claimed to have received theological insights or divine revelations by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit on their souls, both the Reformed and Lutherans are insistent upon the External Word, or the Scriptures, as the sole channel of the Holy Spirit’s voice and work. The controversy however between the Lutherans and Reformed would have to do with how efficacious the External Word is in effecting the Holy Spirit’s benefits.

The Lutherans would insist that “no gap” whatsoever exists between what the External Word promises and what the Holy Spirit does or effects. If the absolution proclaimed upon the basis of the Word says that you are forgiven, then you are forgiven by virtue of that word of forgiveness so spoken. If this is my blood which is shed for you for the remissions of sins, then you who drink it are forgiven of your sins. What the External Word promises, the Holy Spirit effects. Period.

The Reformed on the other hand, although agreeing that the Holy Spirit works only through the External Word, denies that the mere administration of the External Word necessarily effects its promised benefits. The administration of the External Word only provides for the possibility of the Spirit’s work but it does not by itself guarantee it. Whether or not the Word does effect its promised benefits is contingent upon the free decision of the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul in question to bring about a suitable response to the External Word spoken, namely, faith. Thus the Reformed would say that although in the Lord’s Supper it is said of the cup that it is the blood of the New Testament shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, however it is only so if you believe that word and promise. Without this belief or faith, the wine is simply wine and does not effect its promised benefits. Likewise for absolution, a minister may proclaim that God pardons and delivers you from your sins, however this is with the caveat that one is “truly penitent” and believes in the Word spoken.

The Dialectic’s Effects upon the Content of the Preached Word and Predestination

The controversy would inevitably define the content of the External Word and the shape of what is promised given the different understandings of how, and what, the External Word actually effects. The Lutheran tradition would focus upon the “pro nobis/me” aspect of the promise. “This is my body which is given for you“, the promise is made directly to you in particular absolutely without reservations and immediately applicable to you. On the other hand the Reformed would nuance the promise as pertaining to a certain class of persons, e.g. “them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn to him”, to them God will pardon and deliver from all their sins. Thus the promise is not made directly to a person nor immediately applicable to him or her, but pertains to that person on the condition that he believes the promise given in the External Word and Sacraments.

As the debate developed it became entangled with issues to do with predestination, the sincerity of the salvation promise, as well as the assurance of salvation. The issues can be very simply summarised as the question of how, or even whether, we can preach the word that “Christ died for you”.

The Lutherans would argue that on the Reformed understanding, the Reformed would be trapped in the following dilemma. The Reformed preacher can only either make the Gospel promises conditionally (“Christ died for all who truly believes“) or insincerely. If the Gospel promises are made conditionally, that is, only to those who satisfy certain qualities, then Gospel promises are technically offered to no one in particular externally since it is hedged with these conditions, conditions about internal states which one cannot be sure of, thus damaging one’s “assurance of salvation”. On the other hand if the Reformed does not hedge or qualify his preaching and promises salvation unequivocally to those within earshot (Christ died for you), then the promises cannot be sincere if God never intended to save that person or give him the promised salvation since he lacks certain qualifications or conditions, e.g. faith, true repentance, a secret election unto final perseverance, etc. The Lutherans would therefore place the locus of the “assurance of salvation”, not upon some hidden decree of predestination, but upon the externally administered promises in the Word and Sacraments. We are to believe what is externally promised to us, and that we are to preach, directly and without reservations, that Christ died for you, and that God meant this sincerely and unconditionally, and not indulge in introspection of one’s internal states to see if we have true faith or whether we are elected.

The Reformed on the other hand would reply that if God promises salvation to all who externally receive the Word and Sacraments, including those who fall away from salvation in the end, then this either means that God promises do fail or that God was never really serious about bringing that person to salvation anyway. This way one’s assurance of salvation would also be damaged. Therefore while we ought to lay hold, by faith, the conditional promises made to all, however assurance of salvation that one is truly elect would be a distinct spiritual experience, by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, apart from that of the sheer external reception of the Word and Sacraments.

It seems therefore that we are trapped in the unsavoury situation of either having no promises that pertains to us particularly (the Reformed problem) or promises which could possibly fail (the Lutheran problem). Either Christ died only for the elect, in which case he may or may not have died for you in particular, or Christ died for all, but that’s no guaranteed that you’ll be saved. Now that we have stated the problem, we shall move on to the “moderate Calvinists” attempt at a reconciliation.

The Moderate Calvinists and the Denial of the Third Point

The “moderate Calvinists” has also been variously labelled as “four point Calvinists” or “Amyraldism” known after one of its more popular advocates Moses Amyraut. It was rather popular among the Anglican Calvinists in the period of the Synod of Dort, finding its most explicit and developed expression in Bishop John Davenant.

The four point Calvinists denies, or at least, nuances the point about “limited atonement” that Christ died only for the elect. It is easy to see how this point is particularly pertinent to our present discussion since it is a contested question as to whether or not we can say, unequivocally and without qualifications, that Christ died for you in particular or promises salvation to you. The moderate Calvinists would want to keep the Lutheran benefits of a direct application of word of the Gospel that Christ did die for you to anyone within earshot, and the Reformed insight that this promise of salvation cannot fail.

In this post we shall explore another Anglican bishop’s articulation of moderate Calvinism, namely, Joseph Hall, whereby he has his cake and eats it by distinguishing two “wills” in God, one explicit to be proclaimed to all, the other hidden which is accessible only to those who satisfy certain qualifications.

The Two Stage Preaching: The Heart of God and His Command

Joseph Hall provides the framework for how we can preach to all that Christ desires that person to be saved and yet still have an election of particular persons unto salvation by distinguishing two wills within God:

…there is a double will to be conceived of God… an antecedent will, which answers to the mere understanding, whereby God wills every possible good, without the consideration of the adjuncts appertaining to it; a consequent will, answering to the knowledge of approbation, whereby, all circumstances prepensed, God doth simply will this or that particular event as simply good to be, and which is thereupon impossible not to be. The one of these is a will of complacency; the other, of prosecution: the one is, as it were, an optative will; the other, an absolute. In the first of these, God would have all to be saved; because it is in a sort good in itself, in that the nature of man is ordainable to life, and man hath by God common helps seriously offered for the attaining thereof: neither can we think it other than pleasing to God, that his creatures should both do well and fare well. In the latter, he willeth some of all to be saved; as not finding it simply good, all circumstances considered, to extend this favour to all: this appears in the effect; for, if God absolutely willed it, it could not fail of being.

-Via Media, the Way of Peace

Although the basic outlines of a solution are there, it is framed in rather jarring technical theological language. What is it that we are supposed to actually preach, trust and believe in? The formula given here doesn’t lend itself to an easy translation into Scriptural or everyday language.

We can put this in more Scriptural or clearer language by identifying the distinction as that between the heart and disposition of God, which is to be preached and his intentional will and predestinatory decision, which can only be known by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

The verse Ezekiel 33:11 encapsulates the heart of God and the content of what is to be preached, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

This points to a two stage message. First, the Gospel message to be preached is that God “have no pleasure in the death of the wicked”, that is, God does not intentionally, wilfully, or deliberately deny to anyone his love, grace or salvation. His heart is disposed to be pleased with all who come to him and to refuse no one. In his heart he has pleasure in all who come to him. He does not frown or disapprove of anyone coming to him but most heartily rejoices in it. This pleasure or desire to save has been demonstrated by him sending his Son upon the Christ to die for sinners. Thus God’s heart is disposed towards the good and salvation of sinners and would by no means refuse them. This is the Lutheran half-truth of what is suppose to be preached in the External Word, that God’s heart is disposed to save all and to refuse none.

However it is clear that the only way in which the wicked can escape their death is if they “turn away from his way and live”. Thus the goods of life is distinct from the heart of God. Just because God’s heart is disposed to save all doesn’t entail that all receive the goods of salvation. The condition of receiving this good is to “turn away from his way”. Thus while the heart of God is disposed to receive all sinners and does not impede him, the only way God can receive them is if they come to him. Thus, we have here the second stage of the preaching: the command and call for the wicked to come to him. This is the Reformed half-truth of the preached Word, that the promise of salvation is contingent upon our response.

This second stage flows out of the first stage of the preaching. He issues the command and call to repentance because his heart is disposed to love and save all and to refuse none his grace. Therefore the object of our faith and what should encourage us to come to God is the revelation of his heart’s disposition to save all and to refuse none expressed in Jesus Christ. We should put our faith in God’s gracious heart, and from there, be encouraged to obey his command to repent which command flows from that same heart.

Conclusion: The Intentional Will of God and the Assurance of Salvation

So we have clarified what is it exactly that is to be preached and what is the message upon which we can place our faith and confidence. Nevertheless the preaching of dispositions of God’s heart expressed in Jesus Christ, revealed in, Word and Sacrament, does not entail by itself our salvation. For that, true faith and repentance in receiving the Word is required. However, given the innate sinful disposition of mankind, none seems to have the desire to believe or to repent. There is none, in and by themselves, who would turn to God. Therefore God foreordains a particular number unto salvation.

To those whom he has foreordain, he sends his Holy Spirit to work through the promises given in External Word and Sacraments to create faith in them to lay hold of his promises, thereby effecting the benefits of promises unto them.

We come back to our initial tension between the “witness of the Spirit” and the “witness of man”. What man, or the External Word and Sacraments, witnesses to is the heart and disposition of God, and the commands which flow from that heart. However, assurance of salvation is given only as a distinct event from the reception of the external Word and Sacraments, when the Spirit witnesses to our spirit directly that we are children of God. This witness, by virtue of its direct testimony from Spirit to spirit, is ineffable, distinct from all other “witness of man”, even from self-witness. Remember, even Christ said that his own witness to himself is not true. Telling ourselves that we are elect does not mean that we are.

The assurance of salvation is not therefore a product of one’s own actions or works, it is something which one simply inexplicably receives as the Holy Spirit moves and is not an achievement of one’s efforts. One simply becomes convinced of that fact as and when the Spirit moves, it is something which one could only know directly and intuitively, straight from the Holy Ghost movements. It is not a truth deduced or inferred, whether from one’s works or psychological state, or an achievement of a set of spiritual exercises or psyching oneself to believe in it. It is positively mysterious and ineffable, it isn’t even a particularly experienced psychological event.

Thus though the assurance of salvation is not automatic or simply mechanically given if one hops through the hoops of some spiritual discipline or exercises, this is no grounds for despair. For we are still commanded to believe and put our faith in God’s good heart expressed in Jesus Christ, by which we are assured that he would refuse no one. It is this expressed will upon which we are ordinarily and daily called to put our faith in. Yet though we should not expect the assurance of salvation as something which can be generated mechanically as the product of some spiritual exercises or good works, yet we are still called to expect and hope for simply as part of the disposition of God’s heart revealed in Christ, which gift he may grant as and when it pleases, out of his mere grace and good pleasure, without consideration for the works of man.

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