Category Archives: Assurance
I really appreciate how J. C. Ryle connects personal assurance to bold mission. Ryle writes this in Startling Questions (NYC: 1853), pages 328-29:
Faith is life. How great the blessing! Who can tell the gulf between life and death? Yet life may be weak, sickly, unhealthy, painful, trying, anxious, worn, burdensome, joyless, smileless, to the last.
Assurance is more than life. It is health, strength, power, vigor, activity, energy, manliness, beauty. … Assurance is, after all, no more than a full-grown faith; a masculine faith that grasps Christ’s promise with both hands.
Notice how this two-handed assurance is connected to two-handed mission. He writes in The Upper Room (London: 1888), pages 78-79:
We want throughout Christendom a return to the old paths of the early Christians. The first followers of the Apostles, no doubt, were, like their teachers, “unlearned and ignorant men.” They had no printed books. They had short creeds, and very simple forms of worship. I doubt much if they could have stood an examination in the Thirty-nine Articles, or the Creed of Athanasius, or even in the Church Catechism.
But what they knew they knew thoroughly, believed intensely, and propagated unhesitatingly, with a burning enthusiasm. They grasped with both hands, and not with finger and thumb, the Personality, the Deity, the offices, the mediation, the atoning work, the free and full grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the inseparable necessity of repentance, faith, and a Christlike life of holiness, self-denial, and charity. On these truths they lived, and for them they were ready to die.
Armed with these truths, without gold to bribe or the sword to compel assent, they turned the world upside down, confounded the Greek and Roman philosophers, and altered in two or three centuries the whole face of Society.
Can we mend these “old paths”? Can we improve them after eighteen centuries? Does human nature require any different medicine? I believe the bones of the oldest human skeleton that ever was unearthed are just like the bones of men in these days, and I believe the moral nature and hearts of men, after the lapse of ages, are just the same. We had better ask for the ‘old paths.’
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Werkes, 33:288–289):
For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation. For, on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of it amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons, seeing that even one demon is mightier, than all men, and no man at all could be saved; and on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty and to fight as one beating the air, since even if I lived and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God.
For whatever work might be accomplished, there would always remain an anxious doubt whether it pleased God or whether he required something more, as the experience of all self-justifiers proves, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost through so many years.
But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him.
John Newton is most famous for his hymns (e.g. Amazing Grace) and for his campaign to abolish the slave trade, but he was also a skilled author of personal letters. Many of those letters survive and have been published over the centuries. It doesn’t take long for the reader to notice his pastoral wisdom. In one letter to a pastor/friend on Nov. 6, 1778, he addressed the dangers that appeared in the writings of “New England divines” by which he means Solomon Stoddard and perhaps Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. The NEDs were not particularly sensitive to the work of God in the life of the sinner and tended to be formulaic, undermining assurance and encouraging doubt in genuine believers, said Newton. Newton saw this tragedy and raised the flag of concern in a letter. Here’s what he wrote in one letter [published in Wise Counsel (BoT, 2009), pages 120–121]:
Most of the New England divines I have met with have in my judgment one common fault: they abound with distinctions and refinements in experimental matters [ie evaluating grace in the life of a person], which are suited to cast down those whom the Lord would have comforted. And in their long account of what they call a preparatory work, they include and thereby depreciate some real and abiding effects of true grace. They require such an absolute submission to the righteousness and sovereignty of God, before they will allow a person to be a believer, as I apprehend is seldom the attainment of a babe in Christ.
I think if Mr Stoddard had been at Philippi, and the jailer had sprung trembling in to him (instead of Paul and Silas) with the same question he would have afforded him but cold comfort, and would have made him wait a few weeks or months to see how the preparatory work went on before he would have encouraged him to believe in Jesus. …
It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the scripture teaches of the nature, marks and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system; imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others. There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons. To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription. A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.
The words of a skilled soul-physician.
From Sinclair Ferguson’s lecture “Blessed Assurance & Bickering Theologians” (iTunes):
“Calvin’s great emphasis in The Institutes is that the Christian life is adoption into the family of God and that he is such a father as you would hope to be yourself as a father, who desires to leave his children no doubt whatsoever whether they really are his or not.
Part of the drive in Calvin to focus on Christ is a drive against the demonic doctrine of God that he saw in the Roman Catholic Church because it presented a father who needed a gentler son and a gentler son who needed an even gentler mother in order that the son’s arm might be twisted, that the father’s arm might be twisted, until at last—contrary to their better judgments—to give grace and salvation to lost sinners.
So you can understand the thrill and the joy of the reformation, to discover that the son is not hidden behind his mother, that the father is not hidden behind the son, but the son fully discloses the heavenly father. And as heavenly father his desire is not to leave his children in doubt, whipping them constantly into a spirit of bondage but to give to them the spirit of sonship by whom they cry ‘Abba! Father!’ [Galatians 4:6]. This explains the vigor and the joy that we find in the expressions of assurance both in Luther, but particularly in Calvin, whose theology is dominated by the wonderful release of having certitude. A huge motif in Calvin’s theology is this: The gospel gives us certitude.”
Page 474: “In justification we are declared free of guilt and punishment on the basis of a righteousness which is outside of us in Christ Jesus, and which through God’s grace is reckoned to us and on our own part is received in faith. In sanctification, however, the holiness of Christ is most certainly poured out in us through the Holy Spirit. When Roman Catholicism therefore speaks of a grace which is poured into us, we have no objection to that in itself; we object only to the fact that this grace is regarded as a part of the righteousness on the basis of which we are declared free before God. For, if that were so, then justification and sanctification, the deliverance from guilt and the removal of the pollution, would be confused with each other; and then Christ would be robbed of the perfection of His achieved righteousness and the believing soul of its comfort and assurance.”
Page 510—511: “The assurance of salvation is not something which is added to the life of faith from without, but something, rather, which blossoms up out of that life of faith itself. Hence, the assurance differs according to the measure of the faith… But all this does not take away from the fact that the saving faith, such as Scripture describes it and the Reformation restored it, is not in its inner nature certainty, and that this certainty becomes stronger in proportion to the extent that the faith becomes stronger. Such faith is not opposed to knowledge, but it is opposed to all doubt whatsoever. Doubt does not come up out of the new man but out of the old; it does not come up out of the Spirit but out of the flesh. The faith says yea and amen to all the promises of God, embraces those promises, and leans upon them. As it does this, and in proportion to the extent that it does so, the refugee confidence of the faith becomes sure confidence, and it gives the believer the freedom to apply all of those promises of God to himself and to appropriate them; the growing confidence becomes a sure confidence that not to others only but to me also the forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness and salvation have been given of God, out of pure grace, and solely for the merits of Christ.”
Pages 512—513: “But we must carefully note that in seeking for assurance we cannot begin with these good works, that the faith can never firmly lean or rest upon them, and that still less can they be performed by us with a view to our achieving the assurance of salvation by means of them. For all good works are imperfect, and they are more or less perfect in proportion to the extent that they issue from a stronger or weaker faith. But to the extent that they do issue from a true faith, they can serve as aids to our assurance. Just as faith proves and illustrates itself in good works, so the faith is also confirmed and strengthened by them.”
I am an advocate of Jonathan Edwards and his works. I named this blog, and my firstborn son, in his honor. But Edwards had warts. And this includes his teaching on personal assurance of salvation that was based upon a “reflexive act of faith.” Edwards, it seems, encouraged people to believe in God irrespective of the personal benefits received from Him. In so doing this, Edwards effectively severs the link between initial saving faith and personal assurance. This separation has serious consequences for the Christian life.
In my humble opinion, I think Edwards confused the relationship between faith and assurance set forth by John Calvin and the Reformers. And my suspicion that something was different with Edwards was confirmed while discussing the topic with my friend Nathan Sasser some time ago.
In his ‘free time’ Nathan has written a 40-page paper “The Reformation vs. the Puritans on Faith and Assurance” a brief survey of this topic in the teachings of Edwards, Calvin, John Owen, and the Marrow Brethren. His paper has helped me better appreciate the role of faith in assurance, and topics of faith, works, assurance, and struggles with uncertainty. His paper has deepened my respect for Calvin and has nourished my soul.
If you have not studied the relationship between faith and assurance, you need to, and Nathan’s historical survey is a great place to begin.
Why should you care (page 3):
…It makes a great difference for the Christian life whether we are pursuing sanctification in order to get and retain assurance, or because we have it already. It makes a great deal of difference whether assurance is based on Scripture promises alone, or ultimately on self-examination. It makes a great deal of difference for evangelism whether we offer damned sinners the assurance of eternal life, or the possibility of acquiring assurance of eternal life.
His purpose in writing (page 1):
The purpose of this essay is to show that there are profound differences between the doctrine of faith and assurance in the Reformation era and the doctrines of faith and assurance which held sway in later Puritan thinking. While I will make some reference to Luther, Lutheranism, and various Reformed confessions and catechisms, I mainly compare John Calvin, John Owen, the Marrow Brethren, and Jonathan Edwards. Calvin makes assurance of the essence of faith; the early Owen does also, but the later Owen argues against the early Reformed view; the Marrow Brethren recover and defend Calvin’s theology from the sorts of arguments that the later Owen brings against it; Edwards seems completely unaware of the early Reformed view. When Edwards discusses the view that assurance is of the essence of faith, he not only argues against it in similar fashion to the later Owen, but he also argues that it is the doctrine of hypocritical pretenders to Christian faith. I do not pretend to give a defense of which view is biblical and therefore correct; this essay will include no exegesis. However, I will argue that Owen’s arguments against the early Reformed doctrine fail. The counterarguments of the Marrow Brethren are successful. Furthermore, my section on Calvin is meant to show that his doctrine of assurance ramifies his entire view of the Christian life. To reject it, as the Puritans did, entails a rejection of vast swaths of Calvin’s work.
Nathan Sasser holds an M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is married to the brilliant and beautiful Patricia Sasser; both are long-time members of churches in Sovereign Grace Ministries.
You can download and read the entire paper as a single PDF document.
Before sin slithered silently through the open gate, the Garden of Eden was perfect. Adam had his own flawless wife, a garden without blemish, and the responsibility to subdue and cultivate his spacious, well-watered, rural setting.
Adam possessed much. He worked a great job. He enjoyed a perfect marriage. He was at peace with all of creation—no tornadoes, no drought, no pollution, no death, no sickness, no tears. So what could be lacking?
From the beginning, the purity of the garden, the peace among the animals, his relationship with his wife—even Adam’s own life—were all conditioned, conditioned upon his faithfulness to God’s will. God’s will was not demanding, was it? There for the enjoyment of the couple was a small forest of fruit trees, that produced more fruit than probably could be consumed. Only one tree was forbidden and nothing in this single condition diminished Adam’s joy in any way.
But this condition represents something big because it points to the one thing Adam could not possess in the Garden of Eden—certainty.
The condition meant that Adam’s perfect marriage was delicate, the climate of the perfect garden climate was fragile, Adam’s future in the garden was uncertain, and even the duration of his now perfect and potentially eternal body was questionable. Every piece of his situation could be shattered by a single decision divergent from God’s will. And we know that in one single bite this fragility swept into the garden to steal away the innocence. As the jaw of a perfect man clamped down on the fruit that represented man’s disobedience, sin plunged the dagger in man’s idyllic world, and creation fell into a swirling chaos of pain, the beginning pains of the disorder that is the matrix in which we live and breathe.
But here is the amazing fact.
What distinguishes the pre-fall Adam in the perfect garden from me, a post-fall sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ, is as wide as the distinction between uncertainty and certainty. Certainty is God’s gift He gives His children in Christ. Sure, we lack the paradise now, but we do not lack the certainty. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are safe and certain in Christ’s protective power, immune from all the threats in life that could never shake us from eternal life with our Father (cf. John 10:22-30, Rom 8:38-39).
How can this be? How can a sinless man live with temporal uncertainty and a sinful man live with eternal certainty? Simple. Christ is our obedience. It was our uncertainty that was put to the test in the wilderness temptations, it was our certainty on the line when Christ was tempted in every way throughout his 33 year life. It was at every moment, in every thought, deed, and desire that our certainty was tested. Christ was without sin. He was the perfect Savior! And He could say the words that Adam never could—It is finished.
And because we are united to Christ, because he lived without sin, because he lived a life under the law to perfection, he becomes our certainty. The perfect life and death of Christ represents the completion of a perfect life—no sinful actions, no sinful thoughts, no sinful decisions. Once complete, a life of perfection brings with it perfect certainty.
Whatever spectacular dreams we entertain of Eden—and it certainly was a paradise beyond anything we can experience in this life—we possess in the gospel something foreign to Adam’s pre-fall experience. May we thank our Savior for this precious gift of eternal assurance, the one thing even a sinless and perfect garden could not promise.
Christian books on relationships flood the market annually because they sell. But what about books on our most important relationship in the world — knowing God? How do we know that we know Him? Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and pastor of New City Presbyterian Church, recently wrote an excellent book, Do I Know God? (Multnomah: 2007).
The book is a popular-level teaching on assurance and Tullian’s clear presentation of the Gospel is impressive. We stamp it “TSS Certified Cross-Centered.”
In part Tullian writes,
“Edward T. Welch said, ‘The gospel is the story of God covering his naked enemies, bringing them to the wedding feast, and then marrying them rather than crushing them’ … I remember sharing the need to be saved with a college guy in my office. He looked at me and said, ‘You Christians always talk about the need to be saved. I don’t understand. Saved from what?’ Paul said that Jesus ‘rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10, NIV). In other words, Jesus came to save us from God! The last person an unrepentant, Christless sinner wants to meet after he or she dies is God” (pp. 97-98).
Amen! From the core of a clearly defined Gospel and illustrations from his personal testimony of God’s radical saving grace, Tullian builds a careful case for true assurance. A carefully composed read for anyone struggling with these questions.
With every intention to review the book on TSS, Justin Taylor featured a detailed interview with the author and Josh Harris did the same. Your time is better spent reading them …
- Justin Taylor interview (8/31/07) here
- Josh Harris interview – part 1 (8/31/07) here
- Josh Harris interview – part 2 (9/4/07) here
- Josh Harris interview – part 3 (9/8/07) here