I have been meaning to address the issue of "false faith" in Reformed theology for some time, but the subject is so immense that I fear that a blog post will not do it justice. This subject seems to come up more than any other (besides baptism) when talking with Reformed Christians. So here is my attempt to at least begin the dialogue.
In Reformed theology, one cannot be truly regenerate and fall away from the faith. However, most of us have known seemingly devoted Christians who have at some point in their life walked away from Christ. So how does our experience make sense of the teaching of perseverance? One must conclude either one of two things.
1. That these people truly were saved and did fall away, hence the Reformed teaching is wrong.
2. These people were never saved in the first place. Some have "false faith", think that they are believers but fall away from the faith. Others have true faith and persevere to the end. This is the conclusion of Reformed theology.
So how does one know if they are truly regenerate or not? For a Lutheran, one can look to his or her baptism, the sacraments, and the proclamation of forgiveness in absolution. These are objective means by which God continually creates new life and brings forgiveness. They are not mere "signs" of God's favor toward us (as has been taught by Reformed theologians because of Augustine's unfortunate use of the term) but are themselves acts of grace confronting our sin.
For the Reformed theologian, one assesses his regeneration by the nature of his changed dispositions. This is not the case with all Reformed theology (look for example at the Lutheran-influenced theologians at Westminster West) but is predominant in revivalist American Reformed Christianity. In this system, one must continually test his election by looking for signs of the Spirit's work in one's heart.
The defense for this idea usually comes from the book of 1 John. John lays out a series of tests which one must compare himself/herself to. If one passes these tests, assurance of salvation is granted. One must have a love of God, a love of one's neighbor, and a love of God's commandments. Even so, aren't there some who have fallen away who seem to have a love for God, neighbor, and the commandments? Surely, these people believed themselves to be saved and had some signs of new life. This is the problem Jonathan Edwards faced in the great awakening. So many conversions were happening. How was one to determine the true from the false? In his book the Religions Affections, Edwards goes beyond these outward signs and asks the reader to examine his/her heart. Are your affections changed? Do you really hate sin? Do you love God for God's sake?
If you have read my recent article in the Issues etc. Journal, then you are aware that these questions plagued me for some time. The constant question on my mind was "how do I know if I am elect?" Rather than pointing to the objective work of Christ, God's presence in the sacraments, or the proclaimed word, I was often pointed inward. After reading Edwards and listening to preachers like Paul Washer, there was one conclusion I could come to: If these men are right, there is no way I am saved. In fact, if these men are right, I don't think anyone is saved. The fact is, the standards are so high that no one who has not yet been glorified can meet them.
The problem stems from the Reformed view of election. When election becomes the primary soteriological motif, the question of salvation becomes "how do I know if I am elect?" One cannot point to the objective work of Christ, because it was only done for the elect. Thus, before I can have assurance that Christ died for me, I must look to my works as evidence of the Spirit. Once I have this assurance, I can look to the cross. Whether or not it is intended, I am ultimately pointed to my works. One is then trapped in the Augustinian plague which denies assurance to anyone. Though I know this is not the intent of most Calvinists, when election becomes so central, and the cross is put in a secondary position, this is inevitable.
How do you know if you are elect? Look to God's electing act now. God is creating new life in you through the word and sacraments. He claimed you at your baptism. He continues to claim you through the Eucharist. When Paul speaks to the Ephesians of their election in Christ, he does not stop to make sure that everyone in his audience has tested their faith for genuineness. He does not say "God chose some of us in him" or "God chose us in him if you have enough fruit". Paul proclaims indiscriminately that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world! This is because Paul understood that God's electing act was worked out through baptism, and the gathering of the church.
But what about 1 John, Matthew 7, and the other passages which speak of the necessity of works? Here there is a legitimate place for distinguishing between "true faith" and "false faith". The distinction is simple, and much less complicated that it is made out to be. False faith is simply faith without repentance. It is proclaiming the gospel without the law. Some proto-gnostics at the end of the first century began teaching that the body was useless, thus whatever one did with the flesh (sexual immorality, etc.) was of no concern. This is what John seems to be battling in his epistles. True faith in Christ is accompanied by sorrow over sin.
If you look inside yourself for assurance, you are going to be continually disappointed. Even the regenerate heart is not completely cleansed from sin. Instead, look to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. Look at his completed salvation, and participate in Him through the Eucharist and his proclaimed word.