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Understanding Assurance

Category Articles
Date November 15, 2017

The church today is crippled with a comparative absence of strong and full assurance and, perhaps worst of all, most of us are scarcely aware of it. We live in a day of minimal, not maximal, assurance. How do we know this? Assurance is known by its fruits: a close life of fellowship with God; a tender, filial relationship with God; a thirsting after God and spiritual exercises that extol him. Assurance is not a self-given, but a Spirit-applied certainty which moves the believer Godward through Christ. Assurance is the opposite of self-satisfaction and secularization. Assurance is God-centered; it evidences godliness, while not relying on personal righteousness or service for justification. Wherever assurance is vibrant, a concern for God’s honor is present. Mission-mindedness prevails. Assured believers view heaven as their home and long for the second advent of Christ and their translation to glory (2 Tim. 4:6–8).

Compared to the Reformers and post-Reformers, the church is seriously impoverished in her spiritual exercises. The desire to enjoy fellowship with God, the sense of the reality of heaven, and the relish for God’s glory, appear to fall short of a former day. Whenever the church’s emphasis on earthly good dominates the conviction that she is travelling through the world on her way to God and glory, assurance is at a low ebb (Heb. 11).

Second, assurance of faith is sorely needed today since it is inseparable from genuine revival and conviction of sin. Revival is sorely needed in our day and we ought not to forget that every true revival has been connected with the recovery of assuring faith. How true this was, for example, of Martin Luther. Read Luther on Galatians. Did he not burn with indignation for the way the church left people in uncertainty about salvation? Luther teemed with the assurance that flows out of the gospel. Search his writings nearly five hundred years later and you still feel the power of what he is saying. In Luther’s day there was a great recovery of assurance.

There is, of course, another reason why assurance revives in times of awakening. The first precursor and forerunner of every revival is conviction of sin; sinners become bowed down with the burden of need and guilt. When guilt is a conscious experience, the most precious thing in the world is to be persuaded of forgiveness in Christ. That is why assurance is always brought back to the foreground in the face of real soul-need.

Third, strong assurance is necessary for us in these days of great secularization and controversy. The gospel has always been difficult to live out in the world. But there are times and seasons when gospel-opposition is especially intense. We are surely living in such a time. We are living in a bruising time. We are called to be lights on the hill in the thick of spiritual battle, while the devil is spearheading apostasy on all sides. Through satanic impulse, the world has not only taken over colleges and universities, but is also invading the church. If revival is to dawn, it will almost certainly involve young people – particularly college and university students, as the history of revivals affirms. Let us pray earnestly for revival through the power of Spirit worked assurance in our hearts.

Fourth, we live in a day when the doctrine of assurance is sorely needed because doctrine itself is largely despised. Few understand Martin Luther’s assertion: ‘Doctrine is heaven’. Assurance is the nerve center of doctrine put in ‘use’, as the Puritans would say. Assurance affiliates with the work of the Spirit in relation to the doctrines of faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, conversion, adoption, sealing, perseverance, anointing, witnessing, obedience, sin, grace, atonement and union with Christ. Assurance is inseparable from the marks and steps of grace. It touches on the issue of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, is intimately connected with Holy Scripture, and flows out of election, the promises of God and the covenant of grace. It is fortified by preaching, the sacraments and prayer. Assurance is broadsweeping in scope, profound in depth and glorious in height. As Dr Clair Davis of Westminster Theological Seminary has said, ‘You could almost write a systematic theology under the theme and framework of assurance’.

The contemporary church is undergoing a crisis of confidence and authority and therefore of assurance. A renewal of assurance is sorely needed. If such assurance were more widely experienced, the church’s vitality would be renewed and she would live more zealously for the kingdom of Christ in all spheres of life.

Finally, our difficulties are compounded in our culture by the powerful emphasis on ‘feeling’. ‘How we feel’ takes predominance over ‘how we believe’. This spirit has infiltrated the church also, which for the most part is bowing before the shrine of human feeling rather than before the living God. This spirit is most notable in what we call ‘the charismatic or pentecostal movement’ which appeals to emotion in protest against a formal, lifeless Christianity. We profit little by reacting against the charismatic movement without understanding why it has such a worldwide appeal. Its appeal is related to the lack of genuine assurance of faith which manifests itself in godly living.

We have a special responsibility in this regard to show a better way. Happily, we do not have to start from scratch. Our scriptural, Reformed, experimental faith properly marries head- and heart-knowledge, faith and feeling. It is well-known that numerous post-Reformation orthodox theologians and Puritan pastors wrestled in their preaching and writing with ascertaining the precise relationship of the Christian’s personal assurance of salvation and his saving faith. Their labor for theological precision in this area gave rise to a fine-tuned technical vocabulary which included such distinctions as assurance of faith and assurance of sense; the direct (actus directus) and reflexive (actus reflectus) acts of faith; the practical (syllogismus practicus) and mystical (syllogismus mysticus) syllogisms; the principle (habitus) and acts (actus) of faith; and the being and well-being of faith. Such terminology was used to elaborate upon addressing assurance with regard to its possibilities, kinds, degrees, foundations, experiences, means, obstacles and fruits.

The Puritan doctrine of assurance was formally codified by the Westminster Assembly in chapter 18 of the WCF. This chapter contains four sections: 18.1 addresses the possibility of assurance; 18.2 the foundation of assurance; 18.3 the cultivation of assurance; 18.4 the renewal of assurance. For our purposes, we will limit ourselves to a consideration of 18.2, which contains the pith of the WCF’s statement on assurance.

Early Puritan Thought

It will be of profit to have a summary of Puritan thought on assurance up to the 1640s. At least twenty-five members of the Assembly had written treatises pertinent to the doctrines of faith and assurance prior to the Assembly’s convening. By the 1640s English Puritan thought, notwithstanding various emphases, was nearly unanimous on several distinctives with respect to assurance.

First, the Puritans taught that saving faith and developed assurance must be distinguished. Though saving faith inherently contains trust and assurance by definition (as there is no doubt in faith and its exercises), full assurance of personal salvation must be regarded as a fruit of faith rather than of faith’s essence.

Since the Puritans did not deny that there was some assurance in every exercise of faith, they could speak at times of all believers possessing assurance. More commonly, however, by assurance they intended mature, self-conscious faith that is full-grown. In this sense, assurance is not of the essence of faith, but of the ‘cream of faith’.

This dual use of the term assurance helps to explain why the Puritans can state simultaneously that ‘assurance is not of the essence of a Christian’ and yet it is organically of the essence of faith. R. M. Hawkes rightly notes, ‘While the Puritans distinguish full assurance from the initial trust of faith, they will not allow a division between the two, for full assurance grows out of an assurance implicit in the first act of faith’. Hence they can speak of assurance growing out of faith as well as of faith growing into assurance. Typical is Thomas Brooks’ assertion, ‘Faith, in time, will of its own accord raise and advance itself to assurance’.

This distinction between faith and assurance had profound doctrinal and pastoral implications for the Puritans. To make justification dependent upon assurance would compel the believer to rely upon his own subjective condition rather than on the sufficiency of a triune God in the order of redemption. Such reliance is not only unsound doctrine, but also bears adverse pastoral effects. God does not require full and perfect faith, but sincere and ‘unfeigned’ faith. Fulfillment of God’s promises depends on the matter received, Christ’s righteousness, and not upon the degree of assurance exercised in the receiving. If salvation depended on the full assurance of faith, John Downame observes, many would despair for then ‘the palsied hand of faith should not receive Christ’. Happily, salvation’s sureness does not rest on the believer’s sureness of his salvation, for ‘believers do not have the same assurance of grace and favour of God, nor do the same ones have it at all times’. Pastorally, it is critical to maintain that justifying faith and the experience of doubt often coexist.

Second, the Puritans teach that though personal assurance must never be divorced from a Trinitarian framework, its realization within the believer may be ascribed especially to the economical work of the Holy Spirit:

(1) through an application of God’s promises in Christ which the believer appropriates by faith,

(2) through a reflex act of faith inseparable from the so-called syllogisms discussed below, and

(3) through the Spirit’s direct witness by the Word to the believer’s conscience that Christ is his Savior and has forgiven his sins. Thus, the Spirit enables the believer to reach assurance in varying degrees through a variety of means. Without the Holy Spirit, there can be no authentic assurance.

Third, Puritans assert that this assuring, sealing work of the Spirit is based upon the sure covenant of grace and the saving work of Christ, which in turn is grounded in God’s sovereign good pleasure and love in eternal election. Assurance flows out of the objective certainty that God cannot and will not disinherit his adopted children. His covenant cannot be broken or annulled, for it is ‘fixed’ in his eternal decree and promises.

Consequently, the believer may plead for the fulfilment of the covenant on the ground that God is obliged to act in accord with his covenant promises. Many Puritans gave the same basic advice for obtaining forgiveness of sins, sanctification, deliverance in afflictions and virtually every spiritual need: ‘Plead the covenant hard with God . . . Go to God now, and tell him it is a part of his covenant to deliver thee, and . . . take no denyall, though the Lord may deferre long, yet he will doe it, he cannot chuse; for it is part of his covenant . . . and he cannot be a Covenant-breaker’. On occasion, they even spoke of ‘suing God for grace’. ‘The more we urge him with his covenant’, Robert Harris wrote, ‘and hold him to it, the better he likes it and the sooner he inclines to us’.

Perry Miller emphasizes this dimension of Puritan thinking: ‘The end of the Covenant of Grace is to give security to the transactions between God and men, for by binding God to the terms, it binds him to save those who make good the terms’.

Miller, however, tends to exaggerate the covenant in Puritan thought as if it weakened or even usurped divine predestination. In fact, election and covenant ride in tandem, reinforcing each other.

Puritan covenant theology offered troubled saints a double source of assurance. It allowed them to plead the covenant with God, importuning him to fulfill his part of the bargain by performing what he had promised; and it encouraged them to seek comfort in the sufficiency of prevenient grace and in the immutability of God’s will in election, which underlay the covenant itself and their own participation in it.

God’s absolute promises in election and covenant are solid pillars for increasing weak faith. They help to convince the believer that even if the exercise or acts of faith are lacking at a given moment, the principle or ‘habit’ of faith ‘cannot be utterly lost’, for faith’s roots lie in the electing, covenantal God. Consequently, not even sin can break the covenant from God’s side.

From the believer’s side, however, there is in Puritan thought also a conditional dimension of the covenant which plays a critical role in assurance. ‘The absolute promises are laid before us as the foundation of our salvation . . . and the conditional as the foundation of our assurance’. The conditional promises are inseparable from the believer’s daily renewal of the covenant by means of prayer, meditation and worship. Particularly the sacraments serve as important seasons for covenant-renewal. ‘To gather up assurance from the conditions of the covenant’, wrote Thomas Blake, ‘is the highest pitch of Christianity’.

Fourth, though assurance is not perfect in this life in degree, being subject to doubt and trial, it must never be regarded lightly, but ought to be diligently sought after through the means of grace. Assurance so gleaned may be considered well-grounded, however, only when it is regarded as a sovereign gift of God and when it evidences the fruits of a new heart and life. These fruits include humiliation, self-denial, ‘reverent feare’ for God’s will, eagerness to serve and please the Lord, a ‘sincere’ love for God and the saints, an intense cleaving to Christ, peace and joy in receiving the Spirit’s benefits, and good works.

For the Puritans, the principle or ‘habit’ of faith is never the whole of faith. A consistently inactive faith is false faith, as John Preston affirms:

A woman many times thinkes she is with childe, but if she finde no motion or stirring, it is an arguement she was deceived: So, when a man thinkes he hath faith in his heart, but yet he finds no life, no motion, no stirring, there is no work proceeding from his faith, it is an argument he was mistaken, hee was deceived in it: for if it be a right faith, it will worke, there will be life and motion in it.

Though the Puritans deny works-righteousness on the one hand against the ‘legalist’, they also reject the notion of assurance which rests on formal, lifeless doctrine against the cold ‘professor’ of Christianity. Works can never merit salvation but are necessary as fruits of salvation out of grateful obedience and in dependence upon God.

This article first appeared in the May 1996 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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