Robert Vacendak rightly observes that “Catholics, Calvinists, and Arminians deny absolute assurance of salvation.”1 Vacendak adds a vital hermeneutic observation that “Scholarly analyses of assurance often prioritize earlier studies, not Scripture.”2 Vacendak’s poignant reminder is a call to action that we base our understanding on the Biblical text itself.
Let’s begin by examining a couple of Vacendak’s statements in light of the text. First, “God desires His people to ‘know’—not hope—that they have eternal life (see 1 John 5:13).”3 What is meant by “His people?” Do people become His people before, after, or concurrently with having this knowledge? The fact that John wrote his first Epistle some time after his Gospel implies (at least) that the two purposes are not concurrent. John’s Gospel is written so that people might believe (not know), and his First Letter was written so that (among other reasons) believers might know they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). Vacendak’s statement of God’s desire does not seem to account for that time difference. If God’s people already know that they have eternal life then why write the later epistle so that they will know? That seems oddly redundant. Further, John’s Gospel was written around 80AD or later. Were people up to that point accountable for all of what was written in John’s Gospel? Was it required that they be aware of what Jesus said specifically about eternal life in order for people to believe in Him?
Note for example Paul’s statement of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Nowhere in that presentation does he say anything specific about eternal life. Same thing could be said about Ephesians—nowhere in that context does Paul discuss details of eternal life. Now, of course, Paul does discuss that at length in other contexts,4 but that is not his focus. Could someone have believed Paul’s gospel, and believed in Jesus on those grounds and not fully understood the implications of eternal life? If so, these letters preceded John’s Gospel by at least two decades.
That certainly doesn’t mean that a believer might not actually have eternal life. Jesus is very clear that the believing one in Him has (present tense) eternal life.5 The question is to what extent the new believer understands what they have. This seems to be a very clear reason John wrote the pertinent section of his First Letter—so that those who believe in Jesus would know that they have eternal life. If that knowledge is fully inherent and integral to the salvation event, then why didn’t John say that? Why would he write later to focus on assurance for the one who had already believed?
Vacendak adds that “Jesus taught that one knows at the very moment of faith in Christ that he has eternal life, and that it is his forever, and cannot be lost or forfeited (see John 3:16; 5:24; 10:27–28).”6 That statement is simply not accurate. Jesus said that one has eternal life at the very moment of faith in Christ, but Jesus says nothing whatsoever about what a person knows. These are two very different ideas.
Hodges applies his own understanding that salvation is a result of believing in promises when he notes that, “Every believer knows at the point of saving faith that he has eternal life, because the promises he believes guarantee it (cf. John 11:25- 26). But the believer is not immune to doubts after he is saved (cf. John the Baptist; Luke 7:18-19).”7 Contrary to Hodges’ assumed premise, John’s Gospel never conditions salvation upon the belief of promises, but only and exclusively upon belief in Jesus. This is also evident in the first instance we see salvation explained. Abraham is the first Biblical character whose salvation event is recorded. He believed in Yahweh and it was credited to him as righteousness.8 This is after God had made remarkable promises to him, and yet the text records that Abraham believed in the person, not simply in the promises. That is not to say that Abraham could have rejected the promises that God made to him and still believe in the Person, rather it is to say that Abraham had enough understanding to believe in the Person, but whether he had at that time full assurance of God’s promises is not something we can ascertain or ground a theological assertion on. The author of Hebrews notes that Abraham certainly was assured of the promises at least by the time of Isaac’s near-sacrifice. That chronology, along with John’s, supports the idea that assurance is a part of sanctification and maturing and not necessarily accompaniment to the justification event. Paul’s prayer in Colossians 2:2 supports the sanctification-assurance idea, as he describes a process that includes assurance rather than necessarily beginning with it.
Full assurance is the birthright of the believer, but it is not demonstrable that full assurance is a necessary component of the new birth. There are many positional aspects that accompany justification. They are ontological realities, but they are not necessarily fully known by the new believer. Does the new believer have the sealing of the Spirit or every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ? Yes. But do they know that? Not unless they read Ephesians 1. Has the new believer been baptized by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation? Yes. But do they know that? Not unless they read 1 Corinthians 12. In other words, there are promises on which believers can rely and of which we should have full assurance, but that is a different assertion than to say that a believer does have full assurance of these things.
Despite this disagreement it is worth noting that both Vacendak and Hodges have done phenomenal work in their texts to draw us to a more accurate understanding of salvation, and both should be commended. However, on this one point it seems (from this writer’s perspective) that both have missed a critical nuance in favor of a theologically (rather than textually) grounded insulation against the errors of Calvinism and Arminianism.
1 Robert Vacendak, Is Assurance of Salvation The Essence of Saving Faith in the Gospel of John, Dissertation submitted to Liberty University, April 2023, vii.
2 Vacendak, vii.
3 Vacendak, 2.
4 Romans 2:7, 5:21, 6:22-23, Galatians 6:8, 2 Thessalonians 2:16, 1 Timothy 1:16, 6:12, 2 Timothy 2:10, Titus 1:2, 3:7.
5 John 6:47.
6 Vacendak, 2.
7 Zane Hodges, The Epistles of John – A Shorter Commentary (Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 46.
8 Genesis 15:6.
Christopher Cone, Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, serves as President and CEO of AgathonEDU Educational Group and leads Vyrsity and Colorado Biblical University. Dr. Cone has served as a President, a Chief Academic Officer, and a Research Professor and has served in several pastoral teaching roles. His articles are published at www.drcone.com.