Assurance and Gospel Ministry

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.’

Luther on Assurance

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.

The Methods of Grace

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.