“Faith cannot be without a settled peace of mind, from which proceeds the bold confidence of rejoicing,” John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Hebrews in the mid-sixteenth century. This point is most striking, and mostly underplayed by many exegetes. How could Calvin write something so…insensitive? And again: “We hence conclude that those who assent to the gospel doubtfully and like those who vacillate, do not truly and really believe.”
Just as faith is the assurance of things hoped for, so, too, is faith the constant and confident hope of the believer (Heb. 11:1; cf. 3:6). For Calvin, then, faith necessarily includes a firm confidence in that which has been believed: “Besides, what firmness of confidence can there be when men know not what they ought to believe?” But again we must ask, did not Calvin see how unsympathetic this doctrinal point would be to the one who has doubt in his or her interest in the heavenly Jerusalem? How might Calvin respond to such an inquiry? Whether he anticipated this question or not, the truth is that the reader will not be able to simply skim his writings for an answer. It is there, but it is not all laid out in plain view, so to speak. One lyrical gem comes to mind that falls in line with his understanding that faith cannot be without a firm persuasion of the promises of God. Writing on predestination, Calvin quipped that if someone were to ask him how he is to know that he is elect, his answer would be “Christ is more than a thousand testimonies to me.” That is, being persuaded of the veracity of the promises of God made certain in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus provide a more substantial ground of assurance than a thousand outward attestations of faith (both in personal good deeds and in verbal compliments paid by our peers). In other words, man’s praise should be cast at the foot of the cross. What we see here is a bold affirmation of the supernatural gracious gift of faith over against a worked-for faith.
But this confidence of which Calvin spoke is not brazen; it is Spirit-filled meekness, and “meekness” here does not mean “timid” but “unpretentious.” As one version of the Bible translates it: “Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised!” (Matt. 5:5, TEV). It is no coincidence that Saint Matthew’s gospel and the letter to the Hebrews agree that receiving what God has promised comes as a result of being meek (or put differently, of having saving faith). Thus, the settled peace of mind attached to the faith of which Calvin spoke does not declare, “I’m so saved, I couldn’t go to hell if I tried.” Rather, it cries along with the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (cf. Luke 18:9–14; see also 15:1–7).
To be sure, Calvin granted that absolute certainty in this life is unthinkable, given that one anxiety or another always assails assurance. But saving faith is not stagnant, nor does it endlessly embrace gross doctrinal errors (the two points against which Calvin’s argument is directed). This, then, is the context within which we must view Calvin’s statements about faith above. The Genevan reformer was a committed preacher and churchman, as the records of his persistent preaching and congregational and missional ministries show. He was not insensitive to his parishioner’s needs. And the need that he was meeting was the dispensing of all false notions of security. His opponents had posited the idea that a person could fail to grasp the content of the gospel and yet have faith. This had the unfortunate effect of sending many people through life wrapped in a false blanket of assurance. But passages like Hebrews 3:6 remind us, according to Calvin, that "we are always to make progress even unto death; for our whole life is as it were a race.”
In like manner, we must be equally concerned today with, for example, such mistaken conceptions as “carnal Christianity.” This is why we say that the believer’s sanctification necessarily flows from his or her justification. That is, good works in Christ Jesus follow from being saved by grace alone through faith alone. Such works are done in gratitude for salvation — not as prerequisites for salvation. Knowing this also helps us to understand what is happening when we see those who have but a transitory faith yield no lasting fruit. They are like the third seed in our Savior’s parable, the one that was sown among the thorns and eventually strangled by the cares of this world (Matt. 13; Mark 4).
The only certain ground of assurance, which the letter to the Hebrews makes clear time and time again, is the finished work of the risen Christ. A confidence based on anything less can only lead to a baseless faith. For this reason, let us “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1b–2).