Laboring after Assurance > pt. 1


I like to think, inquire and pursue answers to pressing questions. Theologically, there is no end to the potential questions and so inquiries begin compiling. On occasion I need to take a few days to search after specific answers. This is my intention over the next week.

For the past several months I’ve had a number of questions floating around that I thought were disconnected. But the more I have thought about these questions, the most closely related they have become. The questions include: What assurances do we have and pursue to give us confidence that we are truly children of God? How does this laboring after assurance intrude or enhance the Cross-centered life? Are the trials and triumphs of the Psalmist a reflection of the normative Christian life, or an ancient pre-Cross lifestyle that we can avoid? Why is the intense internal life of the Puritans foreign to my own personal experience? Were they overly introspective and legalistic, or do they leave a discernable pattern for the Christian life today?

Like I said, these questions appear on the surface to all be unrelated. However, I’ve come to see them all overlapping into one large question that I want to explore in a short series called “Laboring after Assurance” (words of Puritan John Owen). It is impossible to understand the Puritans until we understand what it meant for them to “labor after assurance.” In fact, if we are to understand the Puritans at all we must understand how they understood assurance of salvation. As Joel Beeke puts it, “assurance was the most critical issue of the post-Reformation” (Quest, 275).

To begin formulating an answer to these questions I turn to several passages in the Psalms, 1 John, and Peter, along with some excerpts I’ve come across in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, John Owen’s long exposition of Psalm 130 (Works, 6:323-648), The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by Puritan Walter Marshall (RHB: 1999 ed.), Joel Beeke’s Ph.D. dissertation, The Quest for Full Assurance: The legacy of Calvin and his successors (Banner of Truth: 1999) along with Derek Thomas’ final message at the Banner of Truth Conference.

Tomorrow we will begin a journey of sorts to see what Owen meant when he wrote, “It is the duty of every believer to labor after an assurance of a personal interest in forgiveness, and to be diligent in the cherishing and preservation of it when it is attained” (6:413). To find out what Owen means here, I think, will help us make sense of the Psalmist and the reflective lives of the Puritans.

12 thoughts on “Laboring after Assurance > pt. 1

  1. I believe this will be a great discussion. Marshall in “Gospel Mystery of Sanctification” has much to say on this issue. I felt it MIGHT be a bit at odds with say John Macarthur. Mac says without obedience then you can’t have assurance. Well, how much obedience. Marshall says if you rely on how obedient you’ll never have any assurance. I said might because I am possibly taking them out of context. I do remember reading how Mike Horton felt Macarthur was a little legalistic in his “Gospel According to Jesus” and Mac was going to revise it a bit. Their book was Christ the Lord (I think) and it was a reformed response to the Macarthur/Hodges debate. I think these are issues which touch assurance.

  2. Thanks James for your thoughts. You are right that Marshall does a great job showing that it’s the promises of Scripture where our first-and-foremost assurances rest. But I love John Owen because he actually comes into the discussion by saying assurance can be found in the midst of intense struggle against sin!

    “But this life is not a season to be always taking wages in; our work is not yet done; we are not always to abide in this mount; we must down again into the battle, — fight again, cry again, complain again. Shall the soul be thought now to have lost its assurance? Not at all. It had before assurance with joy, triumph, and exultation; it hath it now, or may have, with wrestling, cries, tears, and supplications. And a man’s assurance may be as good, as true, when he lies on the earth with a sense of sin, as when he is carried up to the third heaven with a sense of love and foretaste of glory.” (6:551)

    Also, what I love in the Puritan theology is that assurance is the pursuit of present grace rather than being bummed out over past failures. I’ve got an excerpt from a letter Jonathan Edwards wrote that beautifully reveals this.

    Thanks for reading, James! You bring up great points.


  3. Tony, this sounds like a good series you are starting here. Your comment “what I love in Puritan theology is …” is worth the price of admission. Keep up this encouraging work, bro!

  4. Thanks Tim. Since the price of admission is $0.00 I assume you are saying this post is worthless?? :-)

    Well, I was taught in writing class if you have something good don’t hold off until a future time but use it at the first possible opportunity. So here is that excellent quote from a letter by Jonathan Edwards (worth much more than the price of admission):

    “If at any time you fall into doubts about the state of your soul, in dark and dull frames of mind, it is proper to review your past experience. But do not consume too much time and strength in this way; rather apply yourself, with all your might, to an earnest pursuit after renewed experience, new light, and new lively acts of faith and love. One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face will do more toward scattering clouds of darkness in one minute, than examining old experience, by the best marks that can be given, through a whole year” [A Sweet Flame: Piety in the letters of Jonathan Edwards edited by Michael A.G. Haykin (RHB: 2007) p. 45].

    This is a beautiful model for a Cross centered believer laboring after assurance.

    Blessings, Tim! Tony

  5. I just came across a statement that struck me hard. Purportedly it is found on bumper stickers. “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

    Where do I get my assurance? Well, first and foremost, the Scriptures. If I can’t trust the Scriptures’ promise that “He who began a good work in you will finish it,” then I really have nothing to trust. But, at times, if I find myself lacking in zeal or obedience, then I wonder. I dunno, I know of my assurance, but I don’t feel my assurance. Is that intelligeble?

  6. Thanks Justin. From what I gather from Scripture we are to feel our assurance. Not only does our assurance spring from believing the objective truth that my salvation is not dependent upon my righteousness but only in the Cross, but ALSO that God’s Spirit confirms in my spirit that I am His child and our lives reflect change. This is our laboring after assurance, this is to make our calling and election sure. Welcome aboard, Justin. Tony

  7. I read some sunday school literature this week in my southern baptist church. It talked of “Ralph”, a Christian who just got “caught” cheating the IRS, and he was worried (about being caught, not the fact that he sinned)

    It then switched over to some Old Testament verses about God punishing the land of Israel for sin. It made the connection that God “encourages us to repent of sin”, and if we don’t, He punishes us and our land.

    I talked to someone else who has been a professed “believer” for 40 years. She is heavily considering divorcing her husband,simply because she is not getting her emotional needs met (she is not happy).

    I graciously told her that divorce is not an option for a believer. She tried to argue out of that, but I told her that to pursue divorce would give evidence that she was not a believer. How can a believer pursue sin when it is knowingly sin? She was angry with me for “questioning her salvation”. She said that she was forgiven “once for all”, and that if she divorced, she knew that “God’s hand would be lifted from her” for a time.

    This really got me confused and thinking. Doesn’t God command us to repent, turn from sin and towards Christ? Then, as believers, does He not give us the Spirit that we may walk in the the spirit and not the flesh, which is death? Doesn’t scripture teach that we are made perfect on the basis of Christ and so no longer bear the wrath of God?

    Now, regarding sin, while it is impossible to be free from sin this side of salvation, shouldn’t a regenerate believer be progressively becoming more less entangled with sin and more like Christ?

    In regards to that, since it is Christ that saves and not our works, (since our works serve only to manifest His spirit working in us), can we not be confident that Christ took our punishment for sin once and for all?

    Now, if we are caught in sin (truthfully, I sin unwillingly every day, in my heart! )we know that God chastises us, but as a father.

    Shouldn’t someone who was consistently cheating the IRS and engaging in other sins be more worried whether they are even in Christ?

    So…if I am honest with myself and examine myself, I see how much I fall short every day…indeed, my flesh is not in conformity every day. Shouldn’t then by the two examples given above I be experiencing God’s punishment or His hand lift from me every day?

    Well, this does not square with the scripture I read…

    What do you think?

  8. Hello Steven. Wow, you have posed a number of questions. I think it’s important to see assurance not as the attainment of perfection but in the victories and spiritual development. We all sin every day. But children of God are also putting to death the old man, too. Christians have a discernible difference from how they acted in the past and how they act now. Change continues to happen over time. … On divorce, it is very difficult to defend a no-divorce policy but certainly a lack of personal fulfillment is not grounds for a divorce either. … The problem is that pastors cannot wait until the darkest times to question one’s personal assurance. The pursuit of assurance is a life-long act of communion towards God whereby I acknowledge my sinful perceptions of reality and of my own heart and rest upon the Holy Spirit to confirm my salvation. If this process is taking place in the Christian life, we are far less likely to come to a point where we want to divorce over self-fulfillment. The danger I guess is that we must be careful not to challenge the authenticity of one’s faith without encouraging them when we see growth. If there is no pointing out of evidences in the lives of Christians I think pointing out only sins creates an atmosphere of condemnation and legalism. There is a great joy and humility that goes along with pursuing assurance in the Christian life. And for those who are not genuinely saved, pursuing assurance will likely drive them to the Cross in humble recognition of this sobering fact. … I don’t know if I’ve answered your questions. Please let me know if you need clarification, Steven!



  9. Thank you, Tony. You answered well. I am still learning much…and have much much much to learn.

    I am a lay person who loves Christ and mourns the evil in my own heart, and am overjoyed at Him “who knew no sin”.

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