The anxiety referred to in the title of this piece has bedeviled Christians for as long as there has been Christianity. This question was specifically important to two of the giants of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, and they had distinctive although not wholly dissimilar answers. As PhD students in the field of church history, one of whom studies the English Reformation’s relationship to Protestantism of continental Europe (Ben) and one of whom researches Calvin’s reception in 19th-20th century Dutch Neo-Calvinism (Sarah), we find a good deal to appreciate in the thought of both theologians and believe that aspects of both Lutheran and Reformed theology can fruitfully coexist in the church’s proclamation today.
We also joke that our own relationship has both a Luther and a Calvin, particularly in our respective outlooks on the Christian doctrine of assurance. As Ben grew up Lutheran, it is perhaps natural that he takes the Luther role, but for Sarah, a former Pentecostal minister, the identification with Calvin may seem surprising. However, as Sarah will demonstrate, elements of Calvin’s theology contain natural resonances with some features of Pentecostal doctrine, particularly around this notion of assurance of salvation and its pastoral emphases. More personally, we have both found Luther and Calvin’s respective views of this topic to be incredibly formative and consoling in our own spiritual lives, especially during periods of spiritual unrest. Through an examination of Luther and Calvin’s respective doctrines of assurance as well as reflections from our own experience, we will highlight the hope that this theology can offer to us in times of anxiety and spiritual discouragement.
John Calvin: Assurance through the Spirit’s Testimony
What is saving faith, and how does one know whether one has such faith? John Calvin undoubtedly discusses this topic, yet if you were to poll a number of people who are at least somewhat aware of Calvin and his theology, asking what Calvinists believe, it is possible that you would receive an answer like: “Calvinists believe that they have to do good works to prove that they are among the elect.” That at least some later self-described Calvinists spoke in these terms is true, but it is a remarkably poor framing of Calvin’s theology, and certainly not where Calvin began or centered his doctrine of assurance. Where, then, does Calvin begin when teaching about assurance of faith in his Institutes of the Christian Religion?
In a word, Calvin begins with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in Calvin’s words, is “the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.” For Calvin as for Luther, the faith which the Holy Spirit ignites is “a supernatural gift” from God, from beginning to end. It cannot be merited by any good works, it is solely based in Christ’s atoning work and free imputation of that work, and human agency has nothing to do with its reception. The important thing about faith is that it is rooted in Christ and that it is wholly God’s work through the Holy Spirit. How, then, can a person know whether they possess this faith? In short, the Holy Spirit not only gives faith but gives the assurance of that faith; this, Calvin tells us, is what the Word of God teaches. The Spirit acts as a seal and guarantee of what Christ has done for and in us, assuring us “that our salvation is safe in God’s unfailing care,” the Spirit shows Christians that we have been adopted as God’s children, and gives us confidence to approach and call upon God in faith, even giving us the words with which to do so, and the Spirit is the source of our hope that we share in Christ’s resurrection and will be made new.
How do you know that you have faith, according to Calvin? The Spirit of God living within you gives you the confidence and assurance to know that you are a child of God; this is entirely a work of the Spirit and not something you can manufacture by your own efforts. Furthermore, any good works that Christians do are also gifts of the Spirit; we cannot boast in them as having come from us any more than we can boast in meriting salvation. “Indeed,” Calvin says, “if we should have to judge from our works how the Lord feels toward us, for my part, I grant that we can in no way attain it by conjecture.” While Calvin will later allow that insofar as good works are a sign of the Spirit’s presence and action within a person, they can encourage those who do them and those who see them to believe that this person indeed belongs to Christ, these works are not primarily where he instructs one to look for assurance.
You may be wondering at this point, what about those who experience doubts? What about those who don’t always—or even often—have the kind of confidence that Calvin believes Scripture tells us we can expect if we are God’s children? What of those who experience suffering that rocks their faith? Calvin, a religious refugee himself and a pastor to refugees who undoubtedly experienced some of these kinds of hardships, must have had experience with addressing these questions, for we find answers to them in his work: “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.” For those who believe, Calvin asserts that “it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith;” yet nonetheless, “faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it.”
In Calvin’s view, doubts, anxiety, unbelief, and hardships—even persistently occurring—can and will occur in the spiritual lives of Christians. How, then, can such a person truly be said to possess the confident assurance of faith mentioned earlier? As an example of how the two seeming paradoxes may be held together, Calvin points to the example of David in Scripture. In David, we see a faith that often experiences anxiety and unrest, yet nevertheless calls upon God and is at last victorious. This is how it is for those who are in Christ: their faith may be repeatedly “shaken” or “wounded,” but it will ultimately not be defeated. The Spirit is thus active, through faith, even in periods of crisis of that faith. “To bear these attacks,” Calvin tells us, “faith arms and fortifies itself with the Word of the Lord.” Faith is rooted in the promise of God in the gospel, and to the promises of God it returns. The one who is currently experiencing such a trial or time of anxiety in their faith may be heartened by the fact that they are even “lay[ing] their complaints before [God];” this is itself a sign of faith, for “[w]hat point would there be in crying out to [God] if they hoped for no solace from him?”
What other solace does Calvin offer to one who is suffering trials or crises which besiege their faith? Truthfully, one can find explicit pastoral applications of comfort in almost any doctrinal locus of Calvin’s, whether it be justification or God’s providence. In Calvin’s treatment of the threefold office of Christ, we find encouragement for the people of God in the midst of trials based on Christ’s kingship through the Spirit: “Then, relying on the power of the same Spirit, let us not doubt that we shall always be victorious over the devil, the world, and every kind of harmful thing.”
As a former Pentecostal minister, Calvin’s emphasis on the Spirit as the grounds of Christian assurance has always sounded very familiar to me. To constantly cultivate an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work is perhaps one of the most important distinctives that I learned from the faith tradition of my youth and early ministry experience. In times of spiritual anxiety, discouragement, or suffering, I’ve often found myself pacing floors praying in the Spirit or face-down on one, listening for the Spirit’s still, small voice through Scripture and, as Calvin describes, witnessing to my heart that I belong to Christ and am safe in his care. To be Pentecostal is to believe that the Spirit of God speaks to the people of God today. Though Calvin undoubtedly would not take this theology to the lengths that many Pentecostals do, in his doctrine, this communication to those who believe is precisely what the Spirit does through the faith which only the Spirit can initiate. Moreover, Calvin’s theology of the victory of God which is made ours through the Spirit is also something I learned first from the Pentecostals. Pentecostals love to speak of triumphs, victories, and breakthroughs over evil and through difficulties. While there is a Pentecostal triumphalism which can veer into an over-realized eschatology and denial of reality, at its best, Pentecostal theology remains a defiant and hopeful witness to the Spirit’s supernatural and regenerative power in the lives of those who have been made alive wholly through Christ.
Where I think Calvin provides an excellent corrective to some of the Pentecostal tendencies (at least at a congregational level) that I’ve witnessed is in his emphasis that none of this is by human effort: whether it be salvation, reception of God’s grace, saving faith, or even the assurance of that faith. While it is good and needed for us in trials to return to the Word of God and to listen to the Spirit, what has helped me most in times of distress is the awareness that I am not the one responsible for my own deliverance. This, indeed, is the best news, as I know better than anyone my own inability to work my way out of distress, failures, sin, shortcomings. What a relief to be made alive wholly by the Spirit, justified because of God’s action in Christ. This, of course, is precisely what Luther shows us as well.
Martin Luther: Consolation from Without
The question of where the anxious sinner can find consolation and assurance is important not only to John Calvin, pastor to refugees and exiles, but also to Martin Luther. It is not too much to say that his theology is centered around questions of proper Christian pastoral care for the anxious and despairing. This was true, first of all, of Luther himself. Reflecting near the end of his life on his theological development in the preface to his Latin writings, Luther describes living “with an extremely disturbed conscience,” terrified by the “righteous God who punishes sinners.” Tormented by Anfectungen, attacks of deep distress, Luther returned over and over again to the St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Finally, he came to realize that the “righteousness of God” that Paul refers to in Romans 1:17 was not the righteousness by which God judges us nor the righteousness which we ourselves practice, but the “passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith.” Suddenly, everything changed for Luther: “here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther at last found the consolation, the peace with God that all his monastic pursuits could not win him – not by his own good works, but by receiving Christ’s righteousness from God as a gift, through faith.
This means that the Lutheran Reformation was from its outset deeply concerned with questions of care for distressed Christians. There is a good reason that Phillip Cary titled his book that seeks to apply Luther’s pastoral insights to contemporary evangelical theology, Good New For Anxious Christians. And, Mary Jane Haemig speaks for Luther scholarship in general when introducing a recent compilation of Luther’s pastoral writings by noting that “in some sense, all of Luther’s works were pastoral, driven by a deep concern not for “correct” theology but to provide consolation and hope to people suffering in body, mind, and spirit.”
As we have already seen, Luther is not the only Protestant to be concerned about the question of where Christians find assurance of their standing before God, or of how Christians can be sure that God is pleased with them. Although the contrast between Luther or the Lutheran tradition and Calvin and the Reformed tradition on assurance can be overdrawn, I believe that in Luther we see a distinct approach to the consolation of Christians suffering Anfechtungen. An approach that has made all the difference to my life: Luther warns against seeking assurance by looking within for the evidence of God’s work in your life, or in speculation about God’s decree of election. Rather, without denying either the reality of election or the transformation involved in the Christian life, Luther focuses the despairing Christian not inward but outward: look not at yourself, Luther tells us, but instead trust the promises of a faithful God which come to you in Word and Sacrament.
Luther is bluntly realistic about the place of difficulty, doubt, and despair in the Christian life. He has no interest in an account of Christian spirituality that is simply a smooth ascent from glory to greater glory, peace to greater peace. Quite the opposite: for Luther, trials are an essential part of the Christian life. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther describes God’s work in us as necessarily including times when God “humbles us thoroughly, making us despair” – what Luther will eventually come to call the theological use of the Law. It is only by recognizing that, left to our own devices, we are wicked sinners wholly unable to please God, that we can be weaned off of projects of self-justification and come to embrace Christ as a sheer gift given to us by a gracious God. Near the end of his life, in the preface to the Wittenberg edition of his German writings, Luther described “tentatio” or “Anfechtung” as a necessary part of studying theology. Only by being “beaten, oppressed, and distressed” can one become “a fairly good theologian.” If such spiritual struggle is a necessary, even ultimately salutary part of the Christian life, how should Christians deal with these experiences?
For Luther, the answer is that Christians in despair must always look away from themselves and hear the good news of a gracious God announced to them in Word and Sacrament from outside. You are not to look to yourself, to anything within you – not even your own faith! – for consolation, whether as proof of your own capacities or as proof of the power of God’s sanctifying Spirit working within you. No: freely acknowledging your sin, your disbelief, your failures, you are to look not to yourself but to your faithful savior. We can see this principle in action when looking at how Luther provided pastoral care; a wonderful collection edited by Theodore Tappert called Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel includes some of our most important evidence for how Luther cared for those in distress. Consider this letter to Jerome Weller:
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”
As this letter suggests, it is vital for Luther that the weak seek comfort not from looking within but without at Jesus – who comes to us through Word and Sacraments. Good works and interior emotional states are untrustworthy signs of faith. Luther responds to those concerned that they are not justified because “they do not experience that peace which the godly have” as described in Romans 5 by pointing out the fundamental untrustworthiness of such states as marks of genuine Christianity. “The Christian life is to be lived amid sorrows, trials, afflictions, deaths, etc.,” he says. Indeed, those who are confident and secure may well be God’s enemies: “you see how contented and happy he [the devil] permits the worst enemies of the gospel to be,” Luther writes to Weller. Luther is particularly worried about those who seek to plumb the mysteries of predestination to find assurance, looking within for some sort of proof of election. It is not that he denies the reality of God’s presdestinating will – indeed, he views a doctrine of predestination as necessary for his argument that “God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his” – but it is not, he believes, a safe ground of assurance. Questions of predestination are empty, dangerous speculation into the unrevealed will of God: instead, we must stick with God as revealed by his Son, from whom we hear that “whoever accepts the Son and is baptized and believes on his Word will be saved.”
So if we are not to look inward, to search our hearts for evidence of election or genuine faith or good works, what are we to do? Luther invites people to look outward. To those in worry about predestination, he says that we should rely on “Baptism, the Word, and the Sacrament,” saying to their doubts “I have been baptized. I believe in Jesus Christ. I have received the Sacrament. What do I care if I have been predestined or not?” More generally, he warns against focusing too much on the substance of one’s doubts or fears. He counsels a Mrs. M. that “you must not believe your own thoughts” but rather “believe what we preachers say… Do not despise their counsel and comfort, for it is God himself who speaks to you through them.” Note that this is not a call, as one finds in some contemporary versions of pastoral care, to ‘preach the Gospel to yourself.’ Luther does not think that this is ultimately efficacious for Christians in deep distress. What they need to hear are the promises of God from someone else. And how do we hear these promises from someone else? The sacraments– the very point of which are “to comfort downcast hearts and bad consciences.” This is what Philip Cary calls Luther’s “outward turn to the Gospel as external word”: placing confidence not in anything within us, not even the reality of our own faith, but in God’s promises presented to us in Word and Sacrament.
One might admit that Luther’s view is not without its problems. In particular, his insistence in debates with the radicals that God only deals with us via external Word and Sacrament and never via internal illumination apart from the Word is difficult to square with the Scriptural witness. Certain one-sided portrayals of Luther’s thought have given the impression that Luther denies the reality of sanctification or a transformed life entirely, an impression which some of Luther’s less guarded passages can seem to support. But where I think Luther is most helpful – certainly where he has been helpful for me – is his clear insistence that in times of doubt, despair, or trial, you should look not inward but outward, at our good and faithful savior who died for us on the cross and comes to us in Word and Sacraments. In times when faith is going well, God’s interior communication to you or the transformation in your life are certainly good things you might notice and for which you should thank God. But when the going gets tough, it is the outward turn to God’s objective promises that truly consoles.
I (Ben) suffer from anxiety and depression. This means that when I am suffering from Anfechtungen – unfortunately not a rare experience – looking inward brings only despair. If I want to look for the evidence of infused virtues, it is quite clear that there are none to be found. If I want to find marks of election or listen to the Spirit’s testimony to me that I am God’s adopted heir, I am out of luck. The Spirit may well be speaking to me, but I cannot hear him within. In my worst moments, I cannot even trust the reality of my faith. In times like these, when I feel – as the old Anglican prayer of confession at Morning and Evening Prayer puts it – that “there is no health in me,” Luther’s account of consolation has been the only thing that has satisfied my anxiety-wracked soul. I cannot look within, but without, where I find a savior who shows himself to me in the written Word of Scripture and the visible Word of the Sacraments. I remember that I am baptized, that Christ comes to me in the Supper, that the word of Absolution is Christ’s word to me. This doesn’t make everything better immediately. But it does help me, even amidst the blows of Anfechtungen, to cling to the one thing needful: the good news that Jesus Christ is for me.
As we have seen, Luther and Calvin’s accounts of assurance are distinct but have overarching similarities. Both see the consolation of the doubting Christian as resting entirely in Christ’s person and work, not in the individual’s own merit. Despite reductive accounts of Calvin’s teaching, both men agree that we can never put our confidence in our own works or capacities, but instead in the finished work of Jesus Christ (although it is true that Calvin will say that your works can be a secondary sign of election). Both believe in the pastoral implications of Christ’s victory for the believer in facing the inevitable struggles of their lives on earth.
There are also, however, differences between the two. Calvin, driven by a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit, teaches believers to attend to the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as a seal or guarantee of Christ’s finished work; he draws this theology from passages in the letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Luther is skeptical of the capacity of inner testimony alone to comfort us in true times of spiritual difficulty; instead, he argues that we are to look not within but without, to ground our assurance not in any interior state, capacity, or experience but in God’s faithful promises conveyed to us in Word and Sacrament. We should not, however, overstate these differences. Calvin will invite believers to remember their baptism in language that sounds very much like Luther’s. Luther acknowledges and celebrates the inner testimony of the Spirit; he just thinks that in time of trial we need the external Word to give us confidence in the reality and testimony of the indwelling Spirit.
All of us will struggle with times of spiritual anxiety. Each of us, with both Luther and Calvin, must remember that our salvation and the faith by which we grasp this salvation are not our own work, but are wholly free gifts from God. Perhaps you identify more with either Calvin’s emphasis on the inner work of the Spirit or Luther’s exhortation to look at the external means by which God communicates his grace to you. That’s okay! Both of these approaches are rooted in Scripture’s promises to us. God reminds us of his grace towards us both through the internal work of the Spirit and through external means. We (Sarah and Ben) disagree somewhat ourselves about which of these is the most compelling but agree that Christians can faithfully find consolation in both.
We hope that the next time that you find yourself struggling with faith, you might remember with Calvin that the Spirit speaks his consoling words in your heart and with Luther that God’s promises conveyed to you from without are trustworthy because of who God is, not because of your faith or capacity to receive them. We cannot imagine a better place to end than a portion of a prayer of Luther’s: “But I do not look at my own sin, nor what I have earned, but your Word and earnest command, by which You call, admonish, and threaten all of us to bring no work before You in order to earn something, but to receive the forgiveness of sins and every benefit from your fatherly goodness.” For all their differences, this is the promise of pastoral care for Luther and Calvin alike: for consolation, I trust not in myself but in my faithful savior.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press).
- Martin Luther, William Russell, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2012).
- Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1960)
- Ian Edward Caveny, “WHAT IS A SPIRIT?,” Earth and Altar, November 24, 2022, https://earthandaltarmag.com/posts/what-are-spirits.
- What Has Wittenberg to Do with Azusa?: Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Pentecostal Triumphalism (London New York: T&T Clark, 2015).
- Mary Jane Haemig, “Introduction” in The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016.)
- Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010).
- Phillip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019).
- Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians Chapter 1-4 (1535), American Edition of Luther’s Work Volume 26, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1963).
- Lutheran Prayer Companion, trans. Matthew Carver (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018).
Looking for more on Christ’s faithfulness? Check out Episode 5.103 of the Enter the Bible podcast with special guest, Lutheran theologian, Paul R. Hinlicky.