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Dabney and the Reflex Act of Faith

November 12, 2007

If we recall from last time, Dabney has begun to deal with objections to particular redemption. He has reversed his order. He has tabled three counters and now in reverse order he seeks to refute them. You can see Dabney’s first tabling of this objection on pp 523-524 of his Lectures.

The second and first objections really receive the same solution. That the process described by Dr. Bellamy is a paralogism, we freely admit. But Calvinists do not consider it as a fair statement of the mode in which the mind of a believer moves. Turrettin (Loc. 14. Qu. 14, 45), has given an exhaustive analysis of this difficulty, as well as of its kindred one. He had distinguished the reflex from the direct actings of faith. He now reminds the objector that the assurance of our own individual interest in God’s purposes of mercy is reached only a posterior , and by this reflex element of faith. The reflex element cannot logically arise until the direct has scriptural place in the soul. What then is the objective proposition, on which every sinner is commanded to believe? It is not that “Christ designed His death expressly for me.” But it is, “whosoever believeth shall be saved.” This warrant is both general and specific enough to authorize any man to venture on Christ. The very act of venturing on Him brings that soul within the whosoever. It is only voluntary unbelief which can ground an exclusion of any man from that invitation, so that it is impossible that any man, who wishes to come to Christ, can be embarrassed by any lack of warrant to come. But now, the soul, having believed seen the warrant, “whosoever believeth shall be saved,” and becoming conscious of its own hearty faith, draws, by a reflex act, the legitimate deduction, “Since I believe, I am saved.” Unless he has first trusted in the general invitation, we deny that he has any right, or that God makes it his duty, to draw that inference. Hence, we deny that God commands the sinner to believe himself elected, or to believe himself saved, by the primary act of his faith. The Arminian asks. Does not God, in requiring him to believe, require him to exercise all the parts of a saving faith? I reply. He does, but not out of their proper order. He requires the lost sinner first to accept the general warrant, “whosoever will,” in order that he may, thereby, proceed to the deduction, “Since I have accepted it I am saved.” Thus it appears, that in order for the sinner to see his warrant for coming to Christ, it is not necessary for him presumptuously to assume his own election; but after he embraces Christ, he learns his election, in the scriptural way pointed out by Peter, from his calling. Dabney, Lectures, 526.

This is a complex question. Some of us believe that many of the first generation Reformers did believe that one must have assurance that Christ died for them as the basis of initial saving faith. This question is often wrapped up in the wider question of whether or not faith entails assurance. Again, some of us say that many of the first and second generation Reformed thinkers did say it was. This idea was denied though by later Reformed theologians. What is more, this question was taken up in the Marrow by Fisher and then again by Boston and the Marrow men.

I found this comment from the Marrow some time ago:

The main of the condemned passages the query refers to, runs not in the order therein set  own, but as follows: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved;” that is, “Be verily persuaded in your heart that Christ Jesus is yours, and that you shall have life and salvation by him; that whatever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, he did it for you:” being in matter the same with what has been commonly taught in the Protestant churches, and, in words of the renowned Mr. John Rogers, of Dodham, (a man so noted for orthodoxy, holiness, and the Lord’s countenancing of his ministry, that no sound Protestants in Britain or Ireland, of what denomination soever, would, in the age wherein he lived, have taken upon them to condemn as erroneous) definition of faith, which we have as follows: “A particular persuasion of my heart that Christ Jesus is mine, and that I shall have life and salvation by his means; that whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, he did it for me.” Where one may see, though the difference in words be almost none at all, yet it runs rather stronger with him than in the Marrow.

In which account of saving faith, we have, first, the general nature of it; viz. a real persuasion, agreeing to all sorts of faith whatsoever; for it is certain, whatever one believes, he is verily persuaded of. More particularly, it is a persuasion in the heart, whereby it is distinguished from a general, dead and naked assent in the head, which one gives to things that no way affect him, because he reckons they do not concern him. But with the heart man believes here; “If thou believest with all thine heart,” says the Scripture. For as a man’s believing in his heart the dreadful tidings of the law, or its curse, imports not only an assent to them as true, but a horror of them as evil; so here, the being persuaded in one’s heart of the glad tidings of the Gospel, bears not only an assent unto them as true, but a relish of them as good.

Then we have the most special nature of it, viz. an appropriating persuasion, or a persuasion, with application to a person’s self, that Christ is his, &c. The particulars whereof are, first, that Christ is yours; the” ground of which persuasion is the offer and grant of Christ as a Saviour  in the word, to be believed in for salvation, by all to whom the Gospel is made known. By which offer and setting forth of Christ as a Saviour, though before we believe, we wanting union with him, have no actual or saving interest in him, yet he is in some sense ours, namely, so as it is lawful and warrantable for us, not for fallen angels, to take possession of him and his salvation by faith; without which, our common interest in him as a Saviour, by virtue of the offer and grant in the word, will avail us nothing. But though the call and offer of the Gospel, being really particular, every one, both in point of duty and in point of interest, ought to appropriate, apply, or make his own the thing offered by believing, they having good and sufficient ground and warrant in the word so to do; yet is it either neglected and despised, or the truth and sincerity of it; suspected and called in question, until the Holy Spirit, by setting home the word of the Gospel, with such a measure of evidence and power as is effectual, satisfies the convinced sinner, that, with application to himself in particular, “it is a faithful saying, worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came to save sinners,” and enables him to believe it. Thus the persuasion of faith is begot, which is always proportioned to the measure of evidence and power from above that sovereign grace is pleased to put forth for working of it. 

Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, (London, Printed for Thomas Tegg and Son, 1837) 338-339.Now, whether one agrees or not with any of this, one has to grant, I would think that there has to be some connection between the sufficiency of the provision and the warrant of faith. As Dabney says elsewhere, it is short-sighted to imagine that the sufficiency of the atonement can be disconnected from the free offer. There are some today who try to do this.  However, even Owen posited the connection:

Neither may we be charged as straiteners of the merit of Christ; for we advance the true value and worth thereof (as hereafter will appear) far beyond all the Arminians ascribe unto it. We confess that that “blood of God,” Acts 20:28, of the “Lamb without blemish and without spot,” 1 Peter 1:19, was so exceedingly precious, of that infinite worth and value, that it might have saved a thousand believing worlds, John 3:16; Romans 3:22. His death was of sufficient dignity to have been made a ransom for all the sins of every one in the world. And on this internal sufficiency of his death and passion is grounded the universality of evangelical promises; which have no such restriction in their own nature as that they should not be made to all and every one, though the promulgation and knowledge of them are tied only to the good pleasure of God’s special providence, Matthew 16:17; as also that economy and dispensation of the new covenant whereby, the partition-wall being broken down, there remains no more difference between Jew and Gentile, the utmost borders of the earth being given in for Christ’s inheritance.  Works, 10:89.


The foundation of God’s command unto men to use the means granted them is not Christ’s dying for them in particular, but the connection which himself, by his decree, hath fixed between these two  things, faith and salvation; the death of Christ being abundantly sufficient for the holding out of that connection unto all, there being enough in it to save all believers. Works, 10:344.


That if, by “Enough in the atonement for them,” you understand that the atonement, which was made for them, hath enough in it, we deny it; not because the atonement hath not enough in it for them, but because the atonement was not for them. If you mean that there is a sufficiency in the merit of Christ to save them if they should believe, we grant it, and affirm that this sufficiency is the chief ground of the proposing it unto them (understanding those to whom it is proposed, that is those to whom the gospel is preached). Works, 10:383-4. 

Back to Dabney. Dabney has bought into the idea that the knowledge of Christ’s death for oneself can only be discerned by a reflex act of faith. This idea merges with the “practical syllogism,” the Syllogismus Practicus. I am not too keen on the practical syllogism as a basis of obtaining assurance. I do prefer Calvin’s approach of always looking to Christ the mirror of our election. I believe Calvin approached the matter in the same way John Rogers and Fisher have done. The practical syllogism was about looking at your past and present works, then judging them by some objective measure, to thereby form a probably or inductive conclusion regarding one’s salvation. It’s a very risky way of grounding one’s assurance, and has probably led to a lot of morbid introspection and hypercalvinism in many Reformed churches in both Scotland and in Holland.

I may disagree with Dabney here, but in principle, even Dabney would agree with some basic connection between the free offer and the provision of Christ’s death for all. We can see this in that it is he who calls William Cunningham short-sighted for trying to disconnect the free offer from the sufficiency of Christ’s provision. I am more inclined to the position of the Marrow and John Rogers on this point. The lesson is, mainstream Calvinism, in all its high and moderate expressions have made a direct connection between the sufficiency of the provision and the free offer (though in the final analysis, I am not convinced Owen’s hypothetical sufficiency works). There might be some disagreement in the particulars there, but there is a core agreement in principle.

Take care,


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