Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #5: The Certainty of Salvation, by Bethany Tanis

(Editor’s Note: We started this series a few months ago but were interrupted by the trademark issue. Bethany Tanis has authored many great comments on the BJS website, particularly concerning Calvinism and so we asked her to do a little writing for us on the relationship between Calvinism and Evangelicalism. It is a good thing for the Brothers and all our readers to understand the various denominational tag lines out there as we seek to uphold the Lutheran Confessions and distinguish them from false confessions. Bethany has a Ph.D. from Boston College in modern British history and is starting an assistant professorship in modern European history at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI in the fall. This is part  five of a six part series.)

Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #5: The Certainty of Salvation

Are you certain of your salvation?   How do you obtain certainty?   As Lutherans, we  objectively know that Christ died on the cross for our salvation around 33AD.   But how do I know that this salvation is for me personally?   Again, as a Lutheran, I would look outside myself to my baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, to the fact that I have heard the Gospel, and to the fact that I receive Christ’s very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.   But if I was a Calvinist how would I answer?  

Remember that for Calvin the means of grace (the Word and Sacraments) cannot convey God’s gracious presence to us.   This is because Calvin believed Jesus was bodily in heaven at God’s right hand and therefore could not descend to us in the Word and Sacraments.[1]   If we cannot look outside of ourselves to know that God’s righteousness is for us, where can we look?   Remember also that since confessional Calvinists believe that God predestined some people to damnation and that, therefore, Christ died only for the elect, the problem of discerning whether or not you are among the elect is especially urgent.   How then does the Calvinist know he is saved?   Calvin answered that the certainty of salvation comes from the direct indwelling of the Holy Spirit.[2]   Believers looked for evidence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts and lives to obtain assurance of salvation.  

This method of obtaining certainty of salvation has deeply influenced American Evangelicalism.   Both Calvin and modern Evangelicals would agree that although it is objectively true that Christ  died on the cross, to know if this salvation is for you, you must discern the Spirit’s presence in your own life.   Whether one sees evidence of the Spirit’s saving presence in attending the worship services and receiving the Sacraments, in heartfelt emotions or dispositions, or in a life of “purpose-driven” good works, Calvin’s doctrine of the direct assurance of the Spirit takes the emphasis off Christ’s works and puts it on to ours.  

So-called “contemporary worship” popular among many Evangelicals implies a Calvinist doctrine of the direct agency of the Holy Spirit.  For strict Calvinists, the Holy Spirit does not work through means, rather, He acts directly on the human heart.   The connection between God and man is less the Incarnate God-man Jesus Christ and more the direct activity of the Holy Spirit.[3]   How then can the Calvin-influenced Protestant meet God in worship?   He cannot encounter God in the reception of the Word in the liturgy and readings or through the Sacraments because Calvin believed these finite means could not convey the divine.  Rather, God meets man in worship through the direct activity of the Holy Spirit on man’s heart.  

How does man know God has met him in his heart?   One way favored by contemporary Evangelicals is through a felt emotional response to God.   In order to conjure up this feeling, a certain type of music and atmosphere becomes necessary.   The focus of the service thus turns away from Christ’s objective presence outside of us and for us and toward the generation of a subjective state believed to be open to the Spirit.   Despite the negative impact of Calvin’s theology on contemporary worship practices, confessional Calvinists share much theologically with confessional Lutherans and are often appalled at the lack of reverence exhibited by Evangelicals.   The next  post will look at similarities between confessional Lutheranism and confessional Calvinism.

[1] See David P. Scaer, Christology, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics Series Vol. 6 (St. Louis, Missouri: Luther Academy, 1989), chapter 3.

[2] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter I, 1; Internet, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available from; accessed 4 February 2009.   Calvin writes: “1. We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son….   To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us.     And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings.”

[3] Scaer, Christology, 28.

Posted in Calvinism permalink

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Calvinism, Modern American Evangelicalism, and Lutheranism #5: The Certainty of Salvation, by Bethany Tanis — 12 Comments

  1. I suppose I should clarify by saying: “Remember also that since confessional Calvinists believe that God [passively] predestined some people to damnation [by leaving them in their sins] and that, therefore, Christ died only for the elect, the problem of discerning whether or not you are among the elect is especially urgent.”


  2. Bethany,

    I hope you find this encouraging.

    An excellent series. I’m a layman and what I can say as to Calvinism, which I was in in practice, on the ground and not in the ivory towers, is that its effects, whether of the baptist variety or reformed variety are devastating to the soul. It effects such deep dark depression and despair that the only thing that stays one’s hand from suicide is the “fear of walking to the gallows” of the second death too soon. Christ never really comes to you for you in the sacraments/ordinances (on the baptist side of the house). And that makes all the difference in the world. The sacraments are only good if you some how some where else determine election.

    The pastoral concern is the greatest here and it is in that sense simple to the simple soul. Disconnect that Christ died for all under “sufficient/effective” reasoning, then disconnecting the sacraments unless faith or regeneration is uncovered otherwise – and one effectively has barred the doors of heaven as great as any Pope ever did. And I don’t say that to be harsh, its very practicle with the suffering soul.

    For that I am ever grateful for Luther’s resolve, and Chemitz and many other Lutheran church pastors to stick to the revealed God. Through them God rescued both my physical life and soul for I had lost Christ for me entirely under two vararieties of Calvinisitic teachings, baptist and Reformed.

    Yours truly,


  3. Be a wee bit careful about mixing up what Calvin taught about worship vs. what American Evangelicals practice in “contemporary worship.” It’s not that simple.

    Calvin, seeing that much of what man did in worship was an attempt to please God, advocated what came to be called the “regulative principle of worship” (RPW). This approach consisted of taking anything that mankind brought to worship out of the equation and substituting only “inspired” scripture, primarily the Psalter.[1]

    I would instead credit the so-called “first great awakening” in this country as the beginning of a subjective approach, followed by the disastrous so-called “second great awakening” where the subjective nature of the music, the hymns, the fiery preaching, and a call for “holy living” followed by the “altar call” (by revivalists like Finney and Whitefield) invoked an emotional response from people, not to any Gospel message itself but an inward stirring-up, with the beginning of what now afflicts much of American Evangelicalism.[2] Jonathan Edwards, as much credit as he sometimes gets for capturing the Puritan ethic, often had moments where he applied too much introspection and not enough Gospel to his sermons.[3]

    As though “cafeteria Catholics” aren’t bad enough (picking and choosing what things they want to follow in their church and what things they don’t), American Evangelicals are, in many ways, even worse. A good summary of how that plays nowadays has been written (and nicely summarized) by Dr. Richard Muller (cf.

    Although we Lutherans are heavy on adiaphora, bowing to contemporary music and singing, sometimes I think we could use a healthy dose of RPW in our worship services, too. As one blogger recently called P&W songs…

    Wonder Bread Music,
    Soft, light, and sweet,
    Wonder Bread Music,
    Without any meat.

    Anyway, that’s my $.02.

    George in Wheaton

    [1] Robert Godfrey, “John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor”, Wheaton:Crossway, 2009, p. 78.

    [2] R. Scott Clark, “Recovering the Reformed Confessions,” Phillipsburg:P&R, 2008, p. 79-95.

    [3] Ibid.

  4. George in Wheaton,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that what Calvin taught about worship was much, much different than what is taught by American Evangelicals today! Nevertheless, I would argue that one can trace a common thread from Zwingli and Calvin’s denial of secondary causation so that God is not really present in the Word and Sacraments to Evangelical worship today. That thread would be the direct action of the Spirit on the heart of the believer. Now, obviously, Calvin has a much more detailed theology of the means of grace that is much closer to Lutheranism than modern Arminianism, but, nevertheless, the seed is there. I think we can see this theological seed bearing fruit today in certain worship practices. I also agree that the First Great Awakening in America greatly encouraged a “subjective” approach, and it is interesting that some of the most prominent of the New Lights like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were Calvinist in their theology!
    All the best,

  5. How is the Calvinist teaching on assurance of salvation different from the Lutheran Confessions which teach that believers must produce fruit or do good works? Just wondering.

  6. Matt,

    For the Calvinist the works demonstrate thier election. For the Lutheran, and thus according to Scripture, the works necessarily flow from faith but are not necessary for faith and thus are not a sign of election.


  7. “since confessional Calvinists believe that God predestined some people to damnation and that, therefore, Christ died only for the elect, the problem of discerning whether or not you are among the elect is especially urgent.”

    Given the premise, I guess I don’t understand the urgency. If God predestined who to elect, seems like there’d be no urgency in knowing if you were elect or not. (What will be will be…)

    Of course, I’m not too deep, and may be missing something.

  8. Just_Saying,

    You raise a very meaningful point. This focus of the Calvinists leads to a religion whose highest expression is the glory of God. Evangelism is not ignored but it comes in way behind the notion of giving God all glory.

    This is a good teaching opportunity to better understand the basic lay of the theological land. Pentecostals make the emotional expression of praise the primary feature of religion. Born again types make conversion the main thing. Of course, Roman Catholics make getting rid of the punishment of sin the primary thing (and they wrongly think this comes through pennance). The modern American Evangelical makes mimiicking the culture the primary thing (thus we get praise bands, coffee shop churches, etc.) A subset of the evangelicals is the mision crowd where reaching the lost is the main thing. Confessional Lutherans rightly draw from scripture that preaching Christ crucified is the main thing. All of the things above are important, but all must be secondary to preaching Christ crucified (which also assumes Article VII of the Augsburg which states that this Gospel must be kept pure – thus the emphasis in Confessional Lutheranism on pure doctrine).

    Sadly, President Kieschnick and his ilk within the LCMS are pushing the mission model. The church must save the lost at all costs and therefore the church must change and morph into something that is relevant for the culture.


  9. Hi Matt, I think I’ll just let Pastor Rossow’s answer stand there. Hope you had a good semester and will have a productive summer!

    Re: urgency – I think (from experience with friends) that this tends to be an existential as opposed to temporal urgency.


  10. Pr. Rossow’s paragraph above is one of the most concise and accurate summaries of the way different denominations approach soteriology that I’ve ever read. I’ll have to print and save it for future reference.

    Indeed, Calvin did see glorification of our sovereign God as paramount to everything else, including the Gospel. And that’s one of the Reformed church’s shortcomings; failure to realize that, although it’s true, since mankind falls so short of ever being able to glorify God in any way that could please Him (because of sin), it’s more or less irrelevant…at least in this life, anyway. So they bring sanctification into the equation from a strange perspective that distorts things even further. Instead, Lutherans correctly prevail upon God’s mercy and rely on redemption (justification) through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. Therefore, even our worship must be cross/Christ centered or it loses it’s meaning.

    Nevertheless, the confessional Reformed do believe in justification sola fide, made available to us sola gratia, the one of the means of that grace – sola scriptura. And that places them way ahead of the Arminians. Certainly we disagree with them over the matter of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, their covenant view of Baptism, and their adherence dual-predestination. But, having said that, I’d rather worship with an OPC or URC congregation than in most ELCA churches. At least they have their confessions of faith and stress unity AND I’m likely to hear good preaching of Law and Gospel with great clarity in justification.

    I’m not too sure I’d lump all of the Reformed in with the Arminians too quickly. Certainly there are mainline congregations (the PCUSA) who are all over the place theologically, but there are a few smaller communions who take their confessions of faith very seriously. It was at great risk that Gresham Machen broke away from the PCUSA in the early 1930’s over the influences of Rationalism to form the OPC. Also, a look at the Canons of Dort, the Reformed apology against the Remonstrants, are very specific in rejecting any Arminian errors.

    Unfortunately, greater American culture does not recognize these subtle differences and lumps all Presbyterian/Reformed into one large group, the PCUSA probably being the most visible. But I fear that we Lutherans suffer a similar fate because of the ELCA, now that it has become the largest and most conspicuous group within Lutheranism, even though the LCMS, WELS, and ELS are worlds apart from them. Well…LCMS for now, anyway…there’s hope for the future.

  11. “Despite the negative impact of Calvin’s theology on contemporary worship practices, confessional Calvinists…are often appalled at the lack of reverence exhibited by Evangelicals.”

    Why are confessional Calvinists appalled at the lack of reverence exhibited by Evangelicals? What is it about the Evangelicals’ worship practice that they consider irreverant? Is there a conflict in the theology behind the Evangelical’s worship practice and their own? If so, what is the theological conflict?

    I ask because I don’t know. I’m not being snarky.

    And could you please explain this further, for clarity’s sake?:

    “Re: urgency – I think (from experience with friends) that this tends to be an existential as opposed to temporal urgency. ”

    What is the difference between existential urgency and temporal urgency? Urgency is felt in time (temporal) and space (existential). why/how do you draw a distinction?

    Thank you for your articles, btw. They are very well done.

  12. Hello Michael-

    Re. the question of urgency, I think that “temporal urgency” would be exhibited by the need to find out ASAP whether you’re saved so that you can take some corrective action if you’re not. “Existential urgency” would be shown by an anxiety over whether you’re one of the elect, while at the same time knowing there’s nothing to be done if you’re not. (Knowing there’s nothing to be done doesn’t necessarily stop one from worrying.)

    Bethany, please correct me if I’m wrong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.