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.

Satan’s Tactic

From Puritan Thomas Brooks’ book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices:

“The first device that Satan has to keep souls in a sad, doubting, and questioning condition, and so making their life a hell, is by causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yes, so to mind their sins as to forget, yes, to neglect their Savior, that, as the Psalmist speaks, ‘The Lord is not in all their thoughts’ (Psalm 10:4). Their eyes are so fixed upon their disease, that they cannot see the remedy, though it be near; and they do so muse upon their debts, that they have neither mind nor heart to think of their Surety. A Christian should wear Christ in his bosom as a flower of delight, for he is a whole paradise of delight. He who minds not Christ more than his sin, can never be thankful and fruitful as he should.”

Blessed Assurance

From Sinclair Ferguson’s lecture “Blessed Assurance & Bickering Theologians” (iTunes):

“Calvin’s great emphasis in The Institutes is that the Christian life is adoption into the family of God and that he is such a father as you would hope to be yourself as a father, who desires to leave his children no doubt whatsoever whether they really are his or not.

Part of the drive in Calvin to focus on Christ is a drive against the demonic doctrine of God that he saw in the Roman Catholic Church because it presented a father who needed a gentler son and a gentler son who needed an even gentler mother in order that the son’s arm might be twisted, that the father’s arm might be twisted, until at last—contrary to their better judgments—to give grace and salvation to lost sinners.

So you can understand the thrill and the joy of the reformation, to discover that the son is not hidden behind his mother, that the father is not hidden behind the son, but the son fully discloses the heavenly father. And as heavenly father his desire is not to leave his children in doubt, whipping them constantly into a spirit of bondage but to give to them the spirit of sonship by whom they cry ‘Abba! Father!’ [Galatians 4:6]. This explains the vigor and the joy that we find in the expressions of assurance both in Luther, but particularly in Calvin, whose theology is dominated by the wonderful release of having certitude. A huge motif in Calvin’s theology is this: The gospel gives us certitude.”

Bavinck: Faith, Works, and Assurance

Some helpful thoughts taken from chapter 22 of Herman Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans, 1956). Italics mine:

Page 474: “In justification we are declared free of guilt and punishment on the basis of a righteousness which is outside of us in Christ Jesus, and which through God’s grace is reckoned to us and on our own part is received in faith. In sanctification, however, the holiness of Christ is most certainly poured out in us through the Holy Spirit. When Roman Catholicism therefore speaks of a grace which is poured into us, we have no objection to that in itself; we object only to the fact that this grace is regarded as a part of the righteousness on the basis of which we are declared free before God. For, if that were so, then justification and sanctification, the deliverance from guilt and the removal of the pollution, would be confused with each other; and then Christ would be robbed of the perfection of His achieved righteousness and the believing soul of its comfort and assurance.”

Page 510—511:The assurance of salvation is not something which is added to the life of faith from without, but something, rather, which blossoms up out of that life of faith itself. Hence, the assurance differs according to the measure of the faith… But all this does not take away from the fact that the saving faith, such as Scripture describes it and the Reformation restored it, is not in its inner nature certainty, and that this certainty becomes stronger in proportion to the extent that the faith becomes stronger. Such faith is not opposed to knowledge, but it is opposed to all doubt whatsoever. Doubt does not come up out of the new man but out of the old; it does not come up out of the Spirit but out of the flesh. The faith says yea and amen to all the promises of God, embraces those promises, and leans upon them. As it does this, and in proportion to the extent that it does so, the refugee confidence of the faith becomes sure confidence, and it gives the believer the freedom to apply all of those promises of God to himself and to appropriate them; the growing confidence becomes a sure confidence that not to others only but to me also the forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness and salvation have been given of God, out of pure grace, and solely for the merits of Christ.”

Pages 512—513: “But we must carefully note that in seeking for assurance we cannot begin with these good works, that the faith can never firmly lean or rest upon them, and that still less can they be performed by us with a view to our achieving the assurance of salvation by means of them. For all good works are imperfect, and they are more or less perfect in proportion to the extent that they issue from a stronger or weaker faith. But to the extent that they do issue from a true faith, they can serve as aids to our assurance. Just as faith proves and illustrates itself in good works, so the faith is also confirmed and strengthened by them.”