Tuesday, December 18, 2007
True faith is assurance of personal salvation. Because assurance is certainty—absolute certainty (to be redundant)—true faith is certainty of one’s own salvation. It is certainty of deliverance from sin, death, and hell. It is certainty of acceptance into the fellowship of God, which is life eternal. Faith is assurance of salvation by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ according to the electing love of God in eternity.
True faith is assurance.
Assurance is not the fruit of faith. Assurance is not the reward of faith. Assurance is not a branch or appendix of faith. Assurance is not a later, heroic, rather rare development of faith, after many years of faith’s struggling with doubt and working to attain to assurance.
Assurance is what faith is.
Assurance is of the very essence of faith.
Strip faith of assurance (to speak nonsense), and what is left is not faith. What is left is unbelief.
Believers can sinfully doubt their salvation. But this doubt is not inherent in their faith. Doubt is not an unfortunate aspect of the faith of most Christians for much of their lives. Doubt is not 75% of faith along with 25% assurance, or even 1% of faith along with 99% assurance, until finally, for a few of “God’s best and dearest friends,” faith becomes 100% (full) assurance. Doubt is not even an evil that faith placidly puts up with day after day, year after year, generation after generation, as the normal way of life of the believer.
Doubt of one’s own salvation for a believer has its source in the Christian’s depraved, unbelieving nature. The spiritual father and nourisher of doubt is Satan. He created doubt in the beginning: “Yea, hath God said?” Doubt is sin. Undoubtedly, if we judge our sins rightly, as God judges them, the sin of doubting our salvation is more heinous than adultery, or stealing, or murder, or the other gross fleshly iniquities.
What are these sins in comparison with making God a liar in His promises to us, or in comparison with accounting the suffering and death of the Son of God inadequate to redeem and forgive us?
Faith has nothing to do with doubt, except to condemn it, fight it, and overcome it.
Holy Scripture defines faith as assurance of salvation in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The word translated “substance” in the Authorized Version means “firm confidence,” or “assurance.” Luther correctly translated the word as “eine gewisse Zuversicht,” that is, “a certain confidence.” Faith is assurance that the things the believer hopes for, according to the promise of the gospel, are both real and for him personally. Similarly, faith is the “evidence,” that is, the conviction, that the things not seen are realities for the believer. Since the things hoped for and the things not seen are the things of salvation in Jesus Christ, faith is the assurance and conviction of salvation.
Assurance of salvation is what faith is.
That the apostle refers to the believer’s assurance and conviction of his own personal salvation is put beyond doubt by verse 2: “For by it the elders obtained a good report.” By faith the believer obtains a good report, obviously, about himself.
Certainty in the “Union” Texts
All the innumerable passages in Scripture that describe faith as union with Christ, so that the one who has faith is “in Christ” and Christ is in the one who has faith, teach that faith is assurance of belonging to Christ. Such a passage is Ephesians 3:17: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.”
Faith receives Christ in the heart of the believer. The one in whom Christ dwells knows the love of Christ—knows the love of Christ for himself (Ephesians 3:19). Union with Christ, which is faith, is certainty of this Christ. Union with Christ—with Christ—cannot but be certainty of this Christ for oneself. Union with Christ is as much certainty that Christ is one’s own as the marital union is a woman’s certainty that the man to whom she is united is her husband. Who would teach that a woman—a Christian woman—can be married to a man—a godly man—but live in perpetual doubt whether he is her husband.
“Assurance of Faith”
Several passages of Scripture explicitly attribute assurance to faith. In previous articles in this series, I have already quoted and explained Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
“Full assurance” in the translation of the Authorized Version is simply “assurance,” which in the nature of the case is always “full.” This assurance of faith is not certainty that the believer has faith. But it is the certainty that belongs to faith, indeed, the certainty that is of faith’s essence. It is faith’s certainty that, washed with the blood of Jesus, his own Savior, the believer may boldly draw near to God Himself as his God. It is certainty of salvation.
“By the term full assurance,” Calvin explains, “the Apostle points out the nature of faith, and at the same time reminds us, that the grace of Christ cannot be received except by those who possess a fixed and unhesitating conviction” (commentary on Hebrews 10:22).
“I am Persuaded”
The texts that characterize the one who believes the gospel as certain of the love of God for him, certain of the death of Christ for him, certain of the Spirit indwelling him, and certain of his future life and glory are legion. They are glorious.
How did the Puritans dare to deny that faith is assurance?
How do their spiritual heirs dare to deny this today?
On the lips and in the heart of every one who believes the gospel of grace, every one who is “in Christ Jesus” by faith (Romans 8:1), the apostle puts these sublime words of assurance: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … For I am persuaded that [nothing] … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
By faith, every believer knows with certainty the love of God in Christ for him. By faith, every believer is persuaded that he will abide in this love forever.
This grand passage in its context in Romans is by itself alone the utter refutation of the notion that assurance does not belong to the essence of faith.
Justifying Faith as Assurance
In a class by themselves, as regards the question whether assurance is of the essence of faith, are the passages that teach justification by faith. Faith justifies. No one supposes that justification is a much later development of faith, or a reward of faith, or an addition to faith, or an appendix to faith. Justification is the fundamental benefit of faith. So soon as one believes, regardless that his faith is weak or strong, God justifies him by means of his faith in Jesus Christ. But justification is the forgiveness of sins, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the adoption unto sonship, and the appointment as heir of the world in the consciousness of the justified sinner. “I tell you,” said Christ about the publican, “this man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
If one hears the verdict of God in his consciousness, “I forgive your sins for the sake of Jesus Christ in whom you trust,” he is certain that God is favorable to him, that Christ died for him, and that he himself personally is saved. Justification involves assurance of salvation. Since justification is the fundamental benefit of faith, faith is assurance.
If now, the advocates of doubt respond that justification is not forgiveness in the forum of one’s consciousness, if they argue that it is possible to be justified without being sure of it, if they contend that, in fact, most Christians have faith and are justified without any certainty that their sins are forgiven, they sin against the basic gospel-truth of justification, as against the testimony of the entire Reformation.
And if they are right, the truth of God’s free justification of sinners leaves me cold. Justification does me no good. It leaves me, believer though I am, groaning in the misery of the guilt and shame of my sins and sinful nature, and fearful of a wrathful God. It sends me home as condemned in my own consciousness as the damned Pharisee.
Of Psalm 23, as the confident confession of every believer, and of the model prayer—the “Our Father” — as the confident prayer of every believer, I have spoken before in this series on assurance. Both of these familiar passages of Scripture are essential elements of the Christian’s life. Both imply certainty of salvation. Both are the expressions of faith. Faith says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And faith says, “Our Father.” Faith says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and, “Our Father,” because faith is assurance of salvation.
Assurance by Virtue of the Sure Promise
Faith is essentially and necessarily assurance because of the promise to which faith looks and upon which faith depends. Faith never exists by itself alone. Faith is always trust in the promise of God. The promise creates faith and draws faith to itself. The promise of God is true and certain altogether. Faith is convinced of the promise. Because the promise is God’s sure Word of the salvation of the one to whom the promise is given, and who believes the promise, faith is certainty of salvation.
As certain as is the promise of God, so assured is faith that receives and depends on the promise.
In Romans 4:13, the apostle teaches that faith is assurance by virtue of the sure promise that faith has respect to. Abraham “staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Romans 4:20,21). What was true of Abraham is true also of every one of us who has the faith of father Abraham (Romans 4:23). Our faith too is “full persuasion” of God’s promise of our salvation in Christ.
So much is God, the heavenly Father of all His sons and daughters, determined that His dear children not live in miserable, terrifying, sinful doubt, that He adds an oath to His promise. “God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17, 18). This implies all the more that faith, which knows and rests on the promise, is assurance.
Believers and their children must be taught that faith is assurance. The Spirit of Christ works assurance of salvation, that is, faith, by the sound, healthy, and health-giving preaching of the Word. Healthy preaching assures the believer that his faith may, must, does, and will consist of certainty of salvation.
Preaching that denies that faith is assurance; preaching that suggests that one can trust in Christ for salvation without having assurance; preaching that reserves assurance for only a few believers, who must make themselves worthy by years of struggle with doubt; preaching that delights in directing the spiritual gaze of men and women who believe the gospel away from Christ crucified to their own experiences, questioning the genuineness of their faith, the sincerity of their sorrow for sin, and the reality of their salvation—sickly preaching—creates doubters. The Spirit of Christ certainly does not make such preaching His means to work assurance, that is, faith, in the congregation.
Good preaching always comes “in much assurance” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Not in much doubting.
By David Engelsma
Assurance of salvation is an aspect of true faith. Assurance belongs to the very nature of saving faith. Faith in Jesus Christ according to the gospel of the Scriptures is assurance. Faith is certainty of salvation.
A believer can doubt his salvation. He ought not doubt, but it is possible that he does. But doubt is not part of his faith. His doubt of his salvation is his corrupt, unbelieving nature getting the upper hand in his consciousness.
According to his faith, whether great or small, whether matured at the end of the Christian life or immature at the very beginning of the Christian life, the believer never doubts.
Assurance of salvation by any and every true believer is not presumption. Full assurance (to use a redundancy) by a believer at any stage of the life of faith is not a rarity. Certainty—absolute certainty (which is the only certainty there is or can be)—of personal salvation by the blood and Spirit of Christ in the eternal love of God is not an abnormality. Certainty of salvation is simply the reality of faith.
Certainty of salvation is faith’s assurance.
Assured Union with Christ
Faith is assurance by virtue of faith’s being union with Jesus Christ. When the Spirit gives faith, He unites the elect with Christ. Faith is the bond of mystical union with the Savior. As Paul never tires of teaching, the one who has faith is “in Christ.” And Christ is in him. In this union, the assurance of the believer that Christ is his and that he is Christ’s is as normal, and necessary, as the certainty of the Christian wife that, united to her godly husband in marriage, she is his and he is hers.
Faith is assurance as regards the conscious activity of believing. Believing consists of two distinct, but inseparably related, elements. Believing is knowledge. It is knowledge of Jesus Christ as revealed in the gospel of Holy Scripture. Not only does faith know Jesus Christ as the Son of God sent by God into the world as the only Savior from sin and death by His atoning death. But faith recognizes Jesus as the Savior of the one who believes.
The knowledge of faith—the knowing that faith consists of—does not respond to Jesus Christ presented in the gospel by saying, “Ah, this is surely interesting, and undoubtedly very important; here is this person, Jesus, who is the Savior of the world.” There may be a response like this, at least for a short while, on the part of some, but it is the response of a false faith. This false faith is sometimes referred to as “historical faith.” It does not last. It soon manifests itself as outright unbelief, rejecting and despising the Savior by refusing to trust in Him, if not by blaspheming Him. In any case, historical faith is not the response to Jesus Christ of the faith worked in the elect by the Holy Spirit.
True faith responds, “My Savior and my Lord.”
Faith knows Christ in a living, personal way—as the lost sheep knows his seeking shepherd, as a debtor knows his gracious creditor, as the sinful creature knows his loving God.
This knowledge of Christ as the believer’s Savior is certain. There is no doubt about it. The reason is that faith’s knowledge of Christ is Christ’s own gift to the elect sinner. Christ makes Himself known to the sinner in the gift of faith, and faith knows Christ as the sinner’s own. Christ makes Himself known with certainty.
Already, then, as regards the first element of faith, namely, knowledge—knowledge of Jesus Christ—faith is certainty—certainty of personal salvation. If it were not the case that faith knows Christ as the Savior of the one who believes, the guilty sinner would never dare to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Faith is not a risky leap into the dark.
The second element of the activity of faith is trust. Logically dependent upon faith’s knowledge of Christ, but one spiritual activity with this knowledge, trust is the believing sinner’s coming to Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The trusting sinner casts himself upon this Jesus Christ for salvation.
In this trusting, this casting oneself upon Christ, this seeking salvation where alone it is to be found, is assurance of one’s salvation. Trust in Jesus, which is an essential element of faith, is not, and cannot be, merely the certainty that Jesus is the Savior. Merely to be sure that Jesus is the Savior is not trust. Trust is entrusting oneself to Christ, and to entrust oneself to Him, or confide in Him, or depend upon Him, is certainty that He is the Savior of the one who trusts.
He trusts in Jesus, and he alone, who is persuaded of the sure promise of the gospel that everyone who does trust in Jesus shall be received by Jesus and shall find righteousness and eternal life. The activity itself of trusting is certainty, not doubt.
In addition, when one has trusted, he does not find merely that Jesus is a Savior of sinners. But he finds that Jesus is his Savior personally. This is the promise. The promise is not, “Believe on Him, and you will be convinced that Jesus is the Savior of many people.”
What do I care about that?
That is not my great need—to be convinced that Jesus saves some people. I suppose Satan is convinced that Jesus saves people. The promise of the gospel is, “Believe on Him, and you—you yourself personally—will have forgiveness and eternal life.” And one who has forgiveness and eternal life certainly is assured that Jesus Christ, who gives him forgiveness and eternal life, is his Savior.
To speak of people’s trusting in Jesus for salvation while lacking, indeed being denied, assurance of salvation is absurd.
We may distinguish faith’s assurance that Jesus is the Savior and faith’s assurance that Jesus is my Savior. But it is impossible to separate these two aspects of assurance. If a man does not have the certainty that he is saved by Jesus, the reason (apart now from certain special circumstances in his spiritual life to which we return later in this series) is that he does not trust in Jesus as Savior. And, I may add, he does not trust in Jesus, because he does not know Jesus with the knowledge of faith.
To know Him is to trust in Him, and to trust in Him is to be assured of salvation by Him.
An illustration may help to make clear both that we trust in one of whom we are certain that he is our helper and that the activity itself of trusting in a true and faithful helper necessarily implies assurance. When I was a little child, I knew my parents as my help and refuge. I went to them for everything—food for my hunger, comfort for my childish fears, relief in my pain. Sometimes I literally threw myself into their laps and arms. I trusted in them as in parents who loved me, and I trusted them because I knew them as my parents.
That little child was sure that his parents would help him. He never doubted it.
In the very activity of trusting in them, the child was certain that he was helped by them, and that he was helped by them because he was their child, whom they loved. He never doubted this either.
And this was what his parents wanted. They encouraged trust because trust is assurance of parental love, which is basic to the relationship of parents and child.
It certainly was not the case (the thought is silly) that the child depended upon his parents and was helped by them with all that belongs to covenant nurture and rearing, but doubted for many years whether they were his parents, whether they loved him, and whether he was their child.
Trust is assurance. One can no more separate assurance from trust than he can separate wet from water. As trust is of the essence of faith, so is assurance of the essence of faith.
“Esse” and “Bene Esse”
The great evil of certain Reformed and Presbyterian churches resulting in the doubt of many members that they are saved is the churches’ denial that assurance belongs to the very nature of faith. This grievous doctrinal error, with its dreadful practical consequences, they have inherited from the Puritans.
Many, if not most, of the Puritans taught that assurance is not of the “esse” (Latin for “essence,” or “being”) of faith, but only of the “bene esse” (Latin for “well-being”) of faith. Faith, they said, is not itself assurance. Assurance is only a fruit of faith. One can have and exercise true faith without enjoying assurance of salvation. One can have faith for many years without enjoying assurance of salvation. Indeed, according to the Puritans, most Christians, although they have faith, lack assurance. Most Christians, although they believe, live in doubt much of their life. Most believers should expect to live in doubt—doubt whether they are saved—for a long time, very likely all their life. The Puritans taught that “full subjective assurance [that is, assurance—DJE] is often withheld until the moment of death” (William K. B. Stoever, ‘A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven’, Wesleyan University Press, 1978, p. 155).
For the Puritan, Thomas Brooks, assurance “is not essential to faith.” Assurance is “of faith’s bene esse [well-being], not of its esse [being].” Assurance of one’s own salvation is “an aspect of faith which normally appears only when faith has reached a high degree of development, far beyond its minimal saving exercise.” Brooks spoke of assurance as “a reward of faith.”
Thomas Goodwin, another notable Puritan, taught that assurance is “a branch and appendix of faith, an addition or complement to faith.” Insofar as he was willing to view assurance as related to faith, he described assurance as “faith elevated and raised up above its ordinary rate.”
“Scripture,” said Goodwin, “speaks of [assurance] as a thing distinct from faith.”
According to Puritan scholar James I. Packer, Brooks and Goodwin’s doctrine of assurance “was the general Puritan conception of assurance” (James I. Packer, “The Witness of the Spirit: the Puritan Teaching,” in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, P&R, 2000, pp. 20, 21; see also Packer’s The Quest for Godliness, Crossway Books, 1990, pp. 179-189).
William Perkins, towering Puritan theologian, taught that “no Christian attaines to this full assurance at the first, but in some continuance of time, after that for a long space he hath kept a good conscience before God, and before men” (cited by Robert Letham, “Faith and Assurance in Early Calvinism: A Model of Continuity and Diversity,” in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, ed. W. Fred Graham, Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994, p. 382). This was to separate assurance from faith with a vengeance.
The causes of the Puritan denial that assurance belongs to the very nature of faith are not now our concern. Certainly, two of the causes were the Puritan doctrine of a conditional covenant and the Puritan penchant for suspending the certainty of salvation upon “experience.” If one must attain assurance of his salvation first by fulfilling conditions and then by discovering within himself a sufficient “experience,” assurance is effectively put out of the reach of all but the spiritual elite. And insofar as the assurance of these elite rests on some “experience,” by what the Puritans called the “mystical syllogism,” their assurance leans on a broken reed.
What concerns us is the effect of the denial that faith is assurance. The effect is doubt. The Puritan preachers preach doubt into their people. They profess that they want the people to have assurance. No doubt they are sincere in this profession. But when they convince their people that faith in Jesus Christ—faith that believes from the heart the gospel of Scripture—is not assurance of one’s own salvation by this Jesus, that faith in Jesus Christ is not sufficient for assurance, that faith in Jesus Christ is not itself the plainest proof from God in heaven that the one who has this faith is saved by Jesus Christ, they create doubters.
They create whole congregations and denominations of doubters.
They create lifelong doubters.
They create doubters from generation to generation.
The very next chapter following James I. Packer’s description and defense of the Puritan denial that faith is assurance, in volume one of Puritan Papers, is titled, “The Puritan’s Dealings with Troubled Souls.” Indeed!
Those who deny that assurance belongs to the very essence of faith are forever seeking assurance. To hear them, the believer’s relation to assurance is a “quest” for assurance. This is the title of the chapter in Stoever’s ‘A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven’ in which he describes the relation between a Puritan and assurance: “The Quest for Assurance.” Always questing, and very likely never finding!
There is even, among these people, a perverse esteem of doubt as a spiritual virtue. The one who goes on doubting his salvation year after year, always seeking and never finding, is regarded as quite spiritual. Not infrequently he regards himself as quite spiritual. He looks down on those who claim to have assurance simply by their faith in Christ as “unspiritual.” Stoever notes that the Puritan pastors made “a certain kind of earnest doubt itself a mark of blessedness” (‘A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven’, p. 148).
But doubt is not blessedness.
Doubt is misery, the misery of the sin of unbelief.
The misery of doubt is dreadful.
And the doubter knows it.
Try telling the old man on his deathbed, terrified at the prospect of impending judgment, that the assurance he lacks because of Puritan preaching merely belongs to the “bene esse” of faith, not the “esse.”
By David Engelsma
The assurance of which Scripture speaks and which believers and their children have, and ought to have, is certainty. It is certainty about God, about the spiritual things made known in the Bible, and about salvation. Another word for this spiritual state of the soul of the believer and child of believer is confidence.
This certainty is absolutely sure. There are no degrees of certainty, as though there can be certainty that is 75% sure, but 25% unsure, and certainty that is 90% sure, but 10% unsure. If certainty is not 100% sure, it is no longer certainty, but uncertainty, that is, doubt.
The opposite of certainty is not partial certainty, but doubt. Doubt is uncertainty.
If you and I are walking in mountains with which I am familiar, and we come to a wooden walkway over a deep ravine, and you ask me, “Are you certain that the bridge is strong enough to bear our weight?” you do not mean, “Are you 75% sure?” but, “Are you fully confident?” And if I respond, “I am 75% sure of the bridge,” you do not walk across the bridge with glad hosannas about my partial certainty, but you stay off it because of my doubt.
There are reasons why a believer is sometimes uncertain about his salvation, why he finds himself miserably doubting, but the reason is not that assurance itself is uncertain. Rather, the uncertainty of his sinful nature, or the doubt instilled into his soul by the devil, or even a lack of certainty that is a judgment of God upon him has temporarily eclipsed his assurance.
When we read in Hebrews 10:22 of “full assurance,” we must not suppose that the reference is to assurance that is finally 100% in distinction from assurance that used to be only 50%, because in the past it was accompanied by 50% doubt. The apostle exhorts us who believe the gospel from the heart to draw near to God in assurance, which is always full assurance, and can be nothing else but full assurance. And this assurance, which is by the very nature of assurance full, belongs to faith: “full assurance of faith.”
The Geneva Bible, great predecessor of the marvelous King James version, did not even use the word “full” in translating Hebrews 10:22, but spoke simply of “assurance”: “Let vs drawe nere with a true heart in affurance of faith.” The King James translators chose to make explicit what is implicit in “assurance” and added “full.”
That assurance is certainty is of the greatest practical importance. The Puritans of whom I spoke in the previous editorial, and those influenced by them, are confused about this. They speak of “full assurance” and the search for full assurance as though one can have partial assurance, which then, by ardent seeking, may become full assurance. The consequences of this confusion are disastrous. It fills churches, Reformed in name and confession, with members who, although they profess to believe the gospel, have only “partial assurance,” that is, members who are profound doubters.
The opposite of full assurance is no assurance.
It is as erroneous to contrast full assurance with partial assurance, as it is to contrast full faith with partial faith.
Assurance can and must grow in us, just as our faith can and must grow. But the growth is not from partial to full, from 10% to 100%. Rather, assurance, like the faith of which it is an integral part, develops (under good, sound, healthy, doctrinal, expository, Reformed preaching!) from a principle—a beginning—to maturity. The example is not filling up a glass of water that was half-full—and half-empty. But the example is the growth of a seed, which contains everything the plant will be, into a mature plant.
Certainty about Scripture
That about which the child of God can be, is, and ought to be certain—absolutely certain—includes several things. First, he is assured that Holy Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Because Scripture is the inspired Word of God, it is reliable. Upon it the believer can and does depend. This certainty is fundamental to all the other aspects of assurance. If I do not know and trust Holy Scripture as the wholly divine, inerrant Word of God, if I have doubts about Scripture, I must have doubts about all that it teaches, including Jesus Christ the Savior, faith in Him as the alone way of salvation, my own salvation, and the future salvation that Scripture promises.
The reason why doubt is widespread in liberal Protestant circles, as in evangelical churches and seminaries that have succumbed to the same modernist malady but are not yet quite so far along in the process of dying, is unbelieving criticism of the Bible as merely a historical, human document—the fallible words of men.
I do not say more about this aspect of assurance, for this is not my main concern in these editorials. But I remind us that certainty about the Bible is the foundation of all assurance, including that aspect of assurance that is the main concern of these articles, namely, assurance of salvation. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Of this, believers and their children are sure—absolutely sure.
Certainty about Jesus Christ
Second, believers and their children are assured that Jesus Christ is the Savior—the only Savior—from sin and death and woe appalling by His incarnation, His atoning death, and His bodily resurrection. Implied is our certainty that our misery is the guilt of our sin in the just judgment of the holy God.
Also this aspect of the assurance of the child of God is, and must be, an undoubted certainty. Surely, no Christian will allege that his assurance that Christ is the one and only God-appointed Savior is 75% certainty and 25% uncertainty. The Christian is absolutely certain that Jesus Christ, as the Son of God in human flesh, is the only Savior of sinners.
So basic is the assurance that Jesus is the only Savior that without it there can be no assurance of personal salvation. Besides, one who lacks the assurance that Jesus is the Savior really does not have the certainty that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, for the message of the Bible is that Jesus is the Savior.
Nevertheless, doubt that Jesus is the Savior can creep into a church. Against this doubt, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews was fighting. Some of the Jewish members of the early church were inclined to observe again the Old Testament sacrifices, ceremonies, and worship as necessary for their salvation. This was the “wavering” and “drawing back” noted with alarm in Hebrews 10. Professing Christians, members of the churches, were wavering with regard to Jesus Christ and were drawing back from Him. They were beginning to doubt that He is the one and only Savior.
Still today, wherever the teaching enters a church, that in addition to the work of Christ a work of the sinner himself is necessary for salvation, there is doubt concerning Jesus the only Savior. The teaching denies that Jesus is a complete Savior and thus casts doubt on the truth that He is the only Savior. The immediate effect of the teaching is that those who believe it are doubtful about their salvation, since the teaching has convinced them that their salvation depends upon themselves. If this doubt about Jesus’ being the only Savior is not removed from the church by the condemnation of the heresy and by the deposition of the false teacher, if the doubt is tolerated, it will develop into doubt that Jesus is God incarnate and doubt that Scripture is God’s Word.
Certainty about One’s Own Salvation
Vitally important as these aspects of assurance are, they are not the subject of these editorials. The subject of these editorials is the certainty of the believing child of God of his own salvation personally. It is the certainty, not only that Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners, but also that He is the Savior of me personally. It is the certainty, not only that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but also that the Bible is the Word of God, as good news of grace and salvation in Christ, to me personally. It is the assurance of my own salvation.
The assurance of salvation is certainty that I am saved now. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
It is certainty that I will be saved everlastingly. To be sure of salvation today, but fearful that I may perish tomorrow and forever, is not certainty of salvation. Certainty of salvation includes that I am sure of persevering, according to the Word of the Savior to all His own, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29)
Assurance of salvation is also certainty that I was saved from eternity past, in the decree of divine election. “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God” (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
Included in the comfort of this rich and full assurance of salvation is certainty that my earthly life is so in the hand of my heavenly Father, and so precious to Him, that He will provide all things necessary and make all things work for my good. “I am sure,” exclaims every believer, child and adult, “ I have no doubt, but he [God my Father for Christ’s sake] will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body; and further, that He will make whatever evils He sends upon me, in this valley of tears, turn out to my advantage” (Heid. Cat., Q. 26).
The assurance of salvation is certainty, absolute certainty, as much as is one’s certainty that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus is the only Savior. It is absurd to speak of an “uncertain certainty.” An “uncertain certainty” is not assurance at all, but doubt.
Without the assurance of salvation, certainty about Christ as Savior and certainty about the Bible’s being the Word of God would be of no use to me. Positively, the assurance of salvation is closely related to assurance that the Bible is the Word of God and that the Christ revealed in the Bible is the only Savior. For the Bible promises that every one who knows and trusts in Jesus Christ alone for salvation is saved, has been saved from eternity, and will be saved everlastingly.
About the assurance of salvation, we have our questions.
Is this possible?
Is this possible for all believers?
Can we believers and children of believers be certain with absolute certainty?
How is this possible?
What about doubts in the experience of some believers?
What if I have doubts? even strong doubts?
The gospel rightly understood and taught has answers to our questions.
Answers that do not encourage, nurture, and even breed doubt.
But answers that assure.
By David Engelsma
For a long time, I have wanted to write on the assurance of salvation. God willing, this editorial is the beginning of a series of articles on Scripture’s precious doctrine of assurance and, based on this doctrine, the Christian’s precious experience of assurance.
Assurance is a prominent teaching in Holy Scripture. The apostle teaches the assurance of the elect believer in Hebrews 10:19. We have “boldness” to enter the holiest. We are called to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith.” There is an urgent warning against “wavering,” casting away our confidence, and drawing back.
Assurance is precious. Certainty that I am saved in the love of God my Father in Jesus Christ is dear—dearer than earthly life. Doubt is dreadful—worse than death.
Assurance is a distinctive blessing of God in the lives of Christians.
Obviously, there is no assurance of salvation in the unbelieving world and in the pagan religions. As there is salvation only in Jesus Christ, so there is assurance of salvation only in Him.
But neither do members of the other churches enjoy assurance. The reason is that the other churches have a false gospel. Assurance is, and can be, a reality only where the gospel of salvation by the sovereign grace of God alone is proclaimed and believed.
There is no assurance in the Roman Catholic Church. It is Roman dogma that there is no assurance in the Roman religion. Apart from special revelation given only to a few, no one may be certain of his justification, election, salvation, and everlasting blessedness in heaven.
"No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true, that he that is justified, either can not sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation, it can not be known whom God hath chosen unto himself.
So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, “He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved,” … let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty.
If anyone saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,—unless he have learned this by special revelation: let him be anathema"
Likewise, all who believe the doctrines of Arminianism, that is, the teachings of universal, ineffectual, conditional grace, lack assurance of salvation. These include most evangelicals and fundamentalists. They can be sure, they say, that they are saved today, when they choose to believe in Christ. But they cannot be sure that they will be saved tomorrow, or everlastingly, because they may choose not to believe tomorrow. A salvation that depends upon the free, sovereign will of the sinner is highly uncertain. The Arminians themselves frankly admit their doubt. At Dordt, the Arminian party expressed the inescapable implication of their gospel of salvation by the will of man in these words:
"True believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish."
Indeed, the Arminians declared that assurance of salvation was of no great importance to them.
"A true believer can and ought indeed to be certain for the future that he is able, by diligent watchfulness, through prayers, and through other holy exercises, to persevere in true faith, and he ought also to be certain that divine grace for persevering will never be lacking; but we do not see how he can be certain that he will never afterwards be remiss in his duty but that he will persevere in faith and in those works of piety and love which are fitting for a believer in this school of Christian warfare; neither do we deem it necessary that concerning this thing a believer should be certain"
The cause of all lack of assurance of salvation among Arminians is the same as the cause of the lack of assurance on the part of Roman Catholics: They believe the false gospel of salvation conditioned upon something in the sinner. In the language of the apostle in Romans 9:16, Roman Catholics believe that salvation depends upon the sinner’s running, or working; Arminians believe that salvation depends upon the sinner’s willing. There is no assurance in a message of salvation depending upon the sinner. There cannot be. The sinner—man—is not dependable. He is unstable as water.
God will not bless such a message with assurance. He will give assurance only by the message of salvation that casts the needy sinner wholly upon His grace in Jesus Christ. Again, in the language of Paul in Romans 9:16, this is the message that salvation depends only upon God who shows mercy. This is the message of the Reformed faith.
Nevertheless, there are also Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have gone grievously wrong in the matter of assurance. This too makes our treatment of assurance timely. The result of their error is that these Reformed and Presbyterian churches are filled with members who lack assurance of their salvation. What is even worse, these members suppose that their doubt is normal and right.
Not all Reformed churches and ministers agree with the theme that will sound, and resound, loudly and gloriously through this series of articles on assurance: Assurance is God’s will for all His children. Some Reformed churches and theologians teach that assurance is the will of God for only some of His children, indeed very few of His children. Even the few are taught by their churches and ministers to come to assurance only after a long period—perhaps most of their life—of doubt and uncertainty.
These are churches and theologians, especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition and in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, who are influenced by certain of the Puritans. The Puritans were mainly English theologians in the latter part of the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth century who strove for the doctrinal soundness and liturgical purity of the church and for the holiness of the lives of the members of the church.
Some of the Puritans placed inordinate emphasis on religious experience. One’s religious experience was more important than the truth of Christ in sound doctrine. In addition, the highly regarded and much sought-after religious experience was seriously misrepresented. Rather than the sober experience of faith in Christ, consisting of sorrow over sin, trust in the Savior presented in the gospel, the consciousness of the forgiveness of sins, and the desire to love this gracious Savior by doing His will, the religious experience urged by these Puritans was supposed to be an enthusiastic, mystical, mysterious, ineffable feeling.
Bound up with this strange “experience,” according to these miserable physicians of the souls of men, was one’s assurance of his salvation. For assurance, these Puritans encouraged an unhealthy introspection, a spiritual “navel-gazing.” Rather than to look away from one’s guilty, depraved self to the crucified Savior, the wretched people—confessing Calvinists—were taught to rummage around in their own soul for the proper experience. As if this were not bad enough, as soon as a poor soul dared to find some spiritual experience within himself that might prove his salvation, the Puritan minister would question the validity of the experience: “Are you sure that the sorrow for sin is genuine? that the trust in Christ is true faith? that the love for God is real?”
The result, inevitably, was doubt—lifelong doubt, doubt on a huge scale in the congregations, doubt handed down from generation to generation.
Whereupon the old Puritan teachers cheerily concluded, as their modern disciples conclude today, that assurance is the will of God only for a few of His children. Even the favored few expected to struggle with doubt for many years, although it is remarkable that most of the teachers exempted themselves.
In the paper he read at one of the old Puritan and Reformed Studies Conferences at West-minster Chapel in London, recently published in volume one of the Puritan Papers, J. I. Packer freely acknowledged that the Puritans taught that assurance was the will of God for only some of His children. He quoted the Puritan Thomas Brooks: “Assurance is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts…. God will only give it to his best and dearest friends.” Brooks is quoted again: “Assurance … is a … crown that few [Christians] wear.”
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin taught that the few privileged children obtain assurance only after a long time of doubt: “Assurance is not normally enjoyed except by those who have first laboured for it and sought it and served God faithfully and patiently without it” (J. I. Packer, “The Witness of the Spirit: The Puritan Teaching,” in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, P&R, 2000, p. 20).
The error of this doctrine of assurance stares one in the face in the last quotation. No one can serve God faithfully, much less acceptably, who lacks assurance of salvation.
Those Reformed and Presbyterian churches that are influenced by this Puritan thinking on assurance are filled with members, including old members, who lack assurance of salvation. Ask them whether they believe the Bible to be the Word of God, whether they believe the gospel to be true, whether they believe Christ to be the Son of God in human flesh and the only Savior, whether they are in great need of salvation, and they answer “yes” without any hesitation.
Ask them whether they are assured of their own salvation, and they answer “no,” also without hesitation. They never come to the Lord’s Supper. They live and die unsure whether their eternal destiny will be heaven or hell—dreadful condition—although all their life they are faithful at church, defenders of the faith, regular in their conduct, students of Scripture, and, by their own testimony, desirous of salvation and assurance.
The truth about assurance, which they are not being taught, should be precious to them.
To a believer who, for a time, struggles with uncertainty, good instruction about assurance is vitally important.
The truth about assurance is precious also to us who enjoy the assurance of salvation.
It is reassuring to be assured from Scripture and the Reformed confessions that assurance is the will of our heavenly Father for all His children.