What is Evanescent Grace?

Question
What is evanescent grace? See the Institutes Vol. 3. What about perseverance of the saints and evanescent grace?
Answer
Let's look at what Calvin stated concerning evanescent grace, a modern-day definition, and then how it relates to the assurance of salvation.

Evanescent Grace and John Calvin

Calvin wrote many things related to evanescent grace including the following:

Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence, it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption ... there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith ... Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their mind to this extent ... there is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent. (Institutes 3.2.11).

Let no one think that those [who] fall away were of the predestined, called according to the purpose and truly sons of the promise. For those who appear to live piously may be called sons of God; but since they will eventually live impiously and die in that impiety, God does not call them sons in His foreknowledge (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God).

Notice how passionately he wrote about this.

Evanescent Grace: A Modern-Day Definition

Evanescent means "tending to vanish like vapor." So, evanescent grace describes someone who may think themselves to be saved by grace and yet still lost. In other words, they feel and may even appear to have saving grace for a time, but like a vapor it goes away; a "gaseous grace." (cf. Mark 4:14-15, 16-17, 18-19). An example may help. Some dentists use nitrous oxide, better known as "laughing gas" which strongly influences a person for a time (Mark 4:16-17), but when it wears off they are the same person they once were. It's defintely a grace because one feels no pain under its influence, however it is temporary.

Evanescent grace is a strong delusion to believe that which is false, yet with it God may still further accomplish his providence in all he has ordained (Isa. 55:11; cf. Matt. 7:21-23). As Paul writes:

2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness

We are talking about the self-deceived (Obad. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:13; Jas. 1:22), those who think they really hear but do not hear; see, but do not see; understand, but do not understand (cf. Deut. 29:4; Isa. 6:9; 29:10; Matt. 13:14; Mark 4:12; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; Rom. 11:8). This is one reason why some false teachers get into the church (2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:19). This "gaseous grace" is associated with common grace in that it can help to restrain some evil and manifest some good (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). God even uses this condition to bring glory to himself.

Evanescent Grace and Assurance

Calvin wrote that the reprobate may take up the root of appearance, but were never planted by the hand of the Lord (2 Pet. 2:20; 1 John 2:19). So, if evanescent grace is a biblical reality and the elect and non-elect appear to be the same, how can the elect really know whether or not they are truly saved?

Recall that while wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30) may look alike in the field, the wheat still knows it's wheat and naturally brings forth seed after its own kind (Gen. 1:11-12; 1 Cor. 15:38; 1 Pet. 1:23). And also, "You will recognize them by their fruits ..." (Matt. 7:16).

A Christian may have absolute assurance of their faith! (Rom. 8:1, 35-39). Unlike the reprobate, the saints are always, always, always genuinely preaching the gospel to themselves (Rom. 8:13-14; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Col. 3:10) and even testing themselves (2 Cor. 13:5). This is a living and genuine element of their great salvation (Heb. 2:3); a grace-given discipline (1 Cor. 9:27). They continually are working out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), growing in knowledge and grace (2 Pet. 3:18; 1:2-3), and making their calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:18).

One evidence of the redeemed's election is their continued good works (Jas. 2:14-26), which they were saved "unto" and not "by" (Eph. 2:10). They are zealous to perform (Tit. 2:14) and these saints continually bring forth the fruits of repentance (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20; Eph. 5:9; 1 John 3:10) because the Lord is continually working in them both to will and do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13; cf. 1 Cor. 15:10; Heb. 13:20-21). They continue to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7; cf. Rom. 8:24; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 11:1). They walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16; cf. Rom. 8:4; 13:24; Gal. 5:24-25). As John wrote, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God (1 John 3:2).

The believer's salvation is an infallible assurance; the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16; cf. Job 19:25; Psa. 18:2, 46; Acts 5:32; Rom. 8:14, 23; 2 Cor. 1:22; Gal. 4:6; 1 John 5:10). "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him" (1 John 3:1). As the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.4 states:

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.

Recommended Books on Full Assurance

Joel Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: Legacy of Calvin & His Successors, Banner of Truth, 1999.
Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth, Banner of Truth, 1961.
Matthew Meade, The Almost Christian Discovered, Soli Deo Gloria, 1997.

Related Topics

Make Your Calling and Election Sure - 2 Peter 1:10
A Salvation Check-Off List
What is apostasy?
What is Reprobation?
Losing Your Salvation
Perseverance of the Saints
What is theodicy?
Evil and God?
Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?
Does God sometimes use evil to accomplish His plans?
Calvinism and Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).