I am an advocate of Jonathan Edwards and his works. I named this blog, and my firstborn son, in his honor. But Edwards had warts. And this includes his teaching on personal assurance of salvation that was based upon a “reflexive act of faith.” Edwards, it seems, encouraged people to believe in God irrespective of the personal benefits received from Him. In so doing this, Edwards effectively severs the link between initial saving faith and personal assurance. This separation has serious consequences for the Christian life.
In my humble opinion, I think Edwards confused the relationship between faith and assurance set forth by John Calvin and the Reformers. And my suspicion that something was different with Edwards was confirmed while discussing the topic with my friend Nathan Sasser some time ago.
In his ‘free time’ Nathan has written a 40-page paper “The Reformation vs. the Puritans on Faith and Assurance” a brief survey of this topic in the teachings of Edwards, Calvin, John Owen, and the Marrow Brethren. His paper has helped me better appreciate the role of faith in assurance, and topics of faith, works, assurance, and struggles with uncertainty. His paper has deepened my respect for Calvin and has nourished my soul.
If you have not studied the relationship between faith and assurance, you need to, and Nathan’s historical survey is a great place to begin.
Why should you care (page 3):
…It makes a great difference for the Christian life whether we are pursuing sanctification in order to get and retain assurance, or because we have it already. It makes a great deal of difference whether assurance is based on Scripture promises alone, or ultimately on self-examination. It makes a great deal of difference for evangelism whether we offer damned sinners the assurance of eternal life, or the possibility of acquiring assurance of eternal life.
His purpose in writing (page 1):
The purpose of this essay is to show that there are profound differences between the doctrine of faith and assurance in the Reformation era and the doctrines of faith and assurance which held sway in later Puritan thinking. While I will make some reference to Luther, Lutheranism, and various Reformed confessions and catechisms, I mainly compare John Calvin, John Owen, the Marrow Brethren, and Jonathan Edwards. Calvin makes assurance of the essence of faith; the early Owen does also, but the later Owen argues against the early Reformed view; the Marrow Brethren recover and defend Calvin’s theology from the sorts of arguments that the later Owen brings against it; Edwards seems completely unaware of the early Reformed view. When Edwards discusses the view that assurance is of the essence of faith, he not only argues against it in similar fashion to the later Owen, but he also argues that it is the doctrine of hypocritical pretenders to Christian faith. I do not pretend to give a defense of which view is biblical and therefore correct; this essay will include no exegesis. However, I will argue that Owen’s arguments against the early Reformed doctrine fail. The counterarguments of the Marrow Brethren are successful. Furthermore, my section on Calvin is meant to show that his doctrine of assurance ramifies his entire view of the Christian life. To reject it, as the Puritans did, entails a rejection of vast swaths of Calvin’s work.
Nathan Sasser holds an M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is married to the brilliant and beautiful Patricia Sasser; both are long-time members of churches in Sovereign Grace Ministries.
You can download and read the entire paper as a single PDF document.