One of the most distressing experiences of the people of God is their lack of assurance. They cannot say with confidence: ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am his.’ (Song of Sol. 2:16) At times they barely regard themselves as children of God or heirs of heaven. The most they can say on the matter is: ‘I hope so.’ Yet they continue to long for the day when they can call God ‘Father.’ As they trudge through life they really feel the anguish of the unrelieved burden: ‘Am I his, or am I not?” It is because Reformed writers have devoted so much pastoral care to the subject that we find them such a help in relieving this burden.
Here is an extract from a sermon on the subject by John Newton.1 Notice how it concentrates all our attention on the objective, unchangeable work of the Lord Jesus Christ for His people and the progressive work of the Spirit in His people, rather than on their ever changing ‘frames and feelings.’ Remember too that Newton himself often suffered doubts and fears regarding his own salvation, and wrote the poem:
‘Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought;
Do I love the Lord, or no?
Am I his, or am I not?
Assurance is the result of a competent spiritual knowledge of the person and work of Christ as revealed in the gospel, and a consciousness of dependence on Him and His work alone for salvation . . . This knowledge is wrought in us by the Spirit, through the medium of the written Word. He teaches no unrevealed truths. We are not to expect that He will assure us as by a voice from heaven, or by a sudden impulse upon our hearts, that our names in particular are written in the book of life; but He opens our understandings to understand the Scripture (Luke 24.45), to assent to it, and feel that we are such sinners as are there described; to see the dignity and sufficiency of Christ Jesus, as God-man, the Mediator; the suitableness of His offices [i.e. prophet, priest and king]; the value of His atonement and righteousness; and the harmony and glory of the divine attributes in the adorable methods of redeeming love, which renders it just, righteous and worthy of God to justify and save the believing sinner (Rom. 3.26).
He likewise gives us to understand the freedom and security of the gospel promises, confirmed by the oath of God, and sealed with the blood of the Son. He shows us the establishment and immutability of the covenant of grace; convinces us that there is a fullness of wisdom, grace, life and strength treasured up in Christ, for the use and support of those who in themselves are poor, miserable and helpless, and to be freely communicated in measure and season as He sees necessary, to support, nourish and revive the believing soul, and to lead him in the path of perseverance to everlasting life.
Such a discovery of almighty power and unchangeable love engaged for the infallible salvation of every believer, which they cannot lose by their unworthiness, nor be deprived of by all the opposition which earth or hell can raise against them (John 10.28-29), produces a suitable assurance in the soul that receives it. And we can confidently say: ‘We know we are of God’, when we can in this manner know in whom we have believed.
Such discoveries of the person and grace of Christ are connected with a heartfelt consciousness that the believer’s dependence, for all the great hopes and ends of salvation, are fixed on Him and His work alone. They draw forth acts of surrender and trust, and keep the mind from forming any vain scheme of hope or refuge, either in whole or in part, from any other quarter . . .
Indeed, from the very first dawnings of faith, as I have observed, the soul is led to commit itself into the hands of Jesus; but while knowledge was weak, and the heart very imperfectly humbled, there was a secret, though unallowed, dependence on self, upon resolutions, frames, and duties.
But as Jesus rises more glorious in the eye of faith, self is in the same degree depressed and renounced; and when we certainly see that there is no safety or stability but in His name, we as certainly feel that we expect them from Him, and from Him only. And the Holy Spirit assists here likewise, bears a comfortable witness with our spirits (Rom. 8.15-16), by drawing us to a throne of grace, pleading in us as a Spirit of adoption, and prompting us to renew the renunciation of ourselves, ‘and to glory in Jesus, as made unto us of God wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1.30) from day to day.
And from hence arises a solid, permanent assurance.
- The complete sermon can be found in Volume 2 of the Hamilton, Adams & Co edition of The Works of John Newton (3rd edition, 1844): Sermon XX ‘Of the Assurance of Faith’ (1 John 5:19), pp.583-600. This edition was reprinted by the Trust in 1985, but is now out of print.
Taken with permission from Peace and Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, 2010:1; note added.
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