Absolute Assurance and Paul’s Addressing

I’ve started a series of blog posts to address the question, should a professing Christian ever doubt their salvation on the basis of a lack of fruit in their life? To answer it, I proposed three characteristics of Paul’s general epistles that prove a Christian can know for certain that they are saved.

The first of these characteristics is the way Paul addresses his general epistles. Each of them is written to a stated audience, and the statement of that audience makes no sense whatsoever if the listeners could have any doubt as to their salvation.

The statements of address are easy enough to find in each epistle. Most of them refer to the readers as “saints:” Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phi 1:1, Col 1:2. 1 Thess 1:4 refers to the readers as “brethren,” “beloved by God,” who have been chosen by him. 2 Thess 1:4 refers to the faith of the readers. And even Galatians, which so sharply criticizes the readers’ openness to another gospel, says in 1:6 that they were “called…by the grace of Christ.” All of these statements, then, address the epistles not just to any hearers, and not to a questionable class of nominal believers, but to those who really are “saints,” “brethren,” who were “called.”

These addresses are clear, but their relevance to certainty of salvation is not. To make the connection plain, I’d like to first suggest three possible ways to interpret the addresses if it is true that some Christians should doubt their salvation (which I’ll refer to as doubt-theology) – and show that each of these ways is insufficient. I will then give the interpretation if Christians do not need to doubt their salvation (which I’ll refer to as certainty-theology), showing that it fits far more clearly with the plain meaning of the text.

If some Christians should doubt their salvation, what is the state of the churches to which Paul is writing? This view usually sees the church as a “mixed multitude,” some of whom are true believers, and some of whom are false believers – the difference between whom, however, is unknowable until Christ’s return. This, then, would be the group who receives Paul’s letter. So what does he mean when he addresses “the saints?”

First, Paul could simply mean, “to the entire church, who think you are saints, but only some of whom are truly saints.” But this view seems to go against the meaning of the word “saint.” It’s never used in the New Testament to refer to nominal believers who may or may not truly be saved – it’s always equated to realities of salvation: calling (Rom 1:7), citizenship (Eph 2:19), inheritance (Eph 1:8), future judging of the world (1 Cor 6:2). So “saint” in itself does not mean “nominal believer.” And Paul doesn’t have sarcastic quotation marks around the word: if he called the whole church saints, they would understand him to mean that they truly are saints.

Now, if Paul knew not all in the church were saints, but called them all saints, would this be a problem? The answer is that it would be a major problem. To tell an unsaved person that they’re saved, or to tell a saved person that they’re unsaved, is greatly deceptive and wicked. This is a particular point that the doubt-theologians are rightly quick to emphasize. Many such theologians are careful never to make any theological statement with reference to an entire group of professing Christians. Instead, they say “for true Christians, X is true – are you one of them?” And, in their view, this caution is absolutely necessary, lest they falsely declare salvation for someone. But Paul does not here take that precaution: everyone he addresses, he refers to as a saint. So it cannot be that Paul means “to the entire church, who think you are saints, but only some of whom are truly saints.”

Second and alternatively, Paul could use the term “saints” to mean “all of you who turn out, in the end, to have truly been saints.” In this view, Paul isn’t speaking to professing Christians who aren’t truly saved, because none of the realities he’s declaring are true of them. This, at first, seems plausible. But how would the recipients know who he’s referring to? The point of the doubt-theology view is that nobody can know for sure whether or not they’re saved. So if Paul only addresses those who truly are saved, nobody can know for sure whether or not they’re addressed, and therefore whether or not anything in the words is true for them.

It could be objected that Paul meant to primarily address those who are truly saved, but that he wanted nominal believers to listen in as well, and hopefully come to true faith. At least, this is the conclusion of many doubt-theologians’ interpretation of verses to “test yourself” and persevere “lest you have believed in vain.” But we’ve already shown the theological problems with Paul referring to non-saints as saints, so this cannot be the case. Therefore, by Paul’s own statement, he intends only for true saints to be the recipients of his words; but if no one can know if they are truly a saint, no one can know whether the letter is addressed to them. It would certainly be possible for a fallible author to write this way, and for the recipients to understand the error and ignore it. But does it make sense for the inspired, infallible author to say “I am only speaking to those who have a certain invisible attribute, which it is impossible for anyone to know whether they have”? That’s hardly the kind of confidence Paul seems to intend to instill.

Third, Paul could use the term “saints” because he has received special revelation as an apostle, and he actually knows exactly who is a saint and who is not. In this view, it does not matter that none of the recipients knows whether they are truly saints, because the inspired apostle does know, and therefore he can have them only in mind when he writes. The first problem with this idea is that, in order to make scripture intelligible, it relies upon an assumption nowhere made in scripture, i.e. that Paul received special revelation as to exactly who is truly a saint. This is a shaky basis on which to put scripture’s intelligibility. The bigger problem, however, is that, even if Paul was to have received such a revelation, this view does not avoid the problems of the previous view. The addressees still don’t know who Paul is addressing, because he didn’t enumerate them (“the saints, i.e. Bill and Sally, but not Joe and Emily”). So they still don’t know whether they are included in the group addressed, and therefore whether any of the promises of scripture apply to them.

Well, those possibilities certainly seem convoluted. It’s possible that another better interpretation could be advanced to make sense out of Paul’s sending a letter to a mixed multitude and addressing the “saints.” And I certainly don’t claim to have exhaustively researched it. I simply have never run across a doubt-theology explanation of the addressing of the letters – it seems to usually be glossed over. It’s asserted that Paul is addressing true saints, then later it’s separately asserted that nobody can know whether they’re a saint, and the problems bringing these two ideas together are never addressed.

In contrast to this, let’s examine the certainty-theology interpretation, if Christians do not need to doubt their salvation, but can know for sure that they are saved. In this view, there is no problem. Paul is writing to churches, composed of people who have sincerely professed faith in Christ. The professing Christians themselves know they have done so, and everybody around them knows they have done so. If Paul has been to the church, he knows they have done so; otherwise, he at least knows that there is a well-defined group who are known to have made such professions (the concept of baptism as a public sign comes to mind: the idea is that these professions are clear and public). Because Paul knows that sincere faith in Christ necessarily makes one a saint, and that that fact can be known for sure, he addresses the church, not just as “professing Christians,” but as that which they necessarily are as well: “saints.” When the church receives the letter, they see that it’s addressed to the saints, and each person knows whether they’ve made the sincere profession of faith which would necessarily cause them to become a saint. If they are in this category, they know they are directly addressed, and that all the promises in the letter apply to them. If they have not sincerely professed, they know this, and that they therefore are not saints, and therefore are not directly addressed; and they are aware that the promises do not yet apply to them, but that they are listening in to a conversation which they would need to profess faith in order to become a part of.

This seems to fit much more simply with the statement of the text. Paul addresses “the saints” without further explanation, as though it’s a simple designation, as simple as if he were to write to “everybody named Joe.” You don’t need to explain “everybody named Joe,” because everybody knows what that means. In doubt-theology, however, nobody knows who the saints are, and so it takes a tremendous amount of explanation to try to make sense out of it. It’s just as difficult as if I was to say “to everyone who will someday live in the state of California: raise your hand.” That’s unintelligible, because everybody who does not currently live in California can never say for sure that they will never live there. So to call them to act in the present based on something they will not know until the future is unintelligible. Yet Paul (as we shall see) makes numerous present commands of the people he addresses, yet he says that the ones he addresses are those who are “saints.” If nobody can know who is a saint today, how can they know who he is asking to act? The certainty-theology interpretation, then, is far simpler, because in that view Paul is addressing a clearly-defined group, and asking them to act.

As a side note, it could be objected that one cannot know for sure whether a profession of faith is truly sincere. A diligent imposter could adopt all the actions of true faith, and yet not truly feel it. This is true, but it presents no problems to certainty-theology’s interpretation of Paul’s addresses. The imposter knows that he does not truly have faith, so to him it is clear that he is not one of the saints addressed. So each person knows whether they are addressed or not. The problem only arises in doubt-theology when none of the readers can possibly know whether or not they are one of the “saints” addressed.

To review, then, we’ve seen that Paul addresses all his general letters to “the saints,” or else to people who have other attributes exclusive to true Christians. If a person can know for sure whether they are a saint or not, then the meaning of this address is clear. But if nobody can know for sure whether or not they are a saint, then it’s difficult or impossible to determine who Paul intends to address by his letter. Therefore, the addressing of Paul’s letters is more consistent with certainty-theology than doubt-theology.

In my next post, I’ll state my second argument for certainty-theology on the basis of Paul’s general epistles. It continues on in this vein by showing that Paul makes many of his theological statements with reference to his readers, and so the problem is made even worse if no one can know whether the statements apply to them or not.

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