Faith and Assurance

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.SASSER--Reformation+Puritan.Faith

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.

His bio:

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.

Spiritual Disciplines of John Bradford (1510—1555)

Bradford…Bradford had his daily exercises and practices of repentance. His manner was, to make to himself a catalogue of all the grossest and most enorme sins, which in his life of ignorance he had committed; and to lay the same before his eyes when he went to private prayer, that by the sight and remembrance of them he might be stirred up to offer to God the sacrifice of a contrite heart, seek assurance of salvation in Christ by faith, thank God for his calling from the ways of wickedness, and pray for increase of grace to be conducted in holy life acceptable and pleasing to God.

Such a continual exercise of conscience he had in private prayer, that he did not count himself to have prayed to his contentation, unless in it he had felt inwardly some smiting of heart for sin, and some healing of that wound by faith, feeling the saving health of Christ, with some change of mind into the detestation of sin, and love of obeying the good will of God. Which things do require that inward entering into the secret parlour of our hearts of which Christ speaketh; and is that smiting of the breast which is noted in the publican …

Let those secure men mark this well, which pray without touch of breast, as the Pharisee did; and so that they have said an ordinary prayer, or heard a common course of prayer, they think they have prayed well, and, as the term is, they have served God well; though they never feel sting for sin, taste of groaning, or broken heart, nor of the sweet saving health of Christ, thereby to be moved to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, nor change or renewing of mind: but as they came secure in sin and senseless, so they do depart without any change or affecting of the heart; which is even the cradle in which Satan rocketh the sins of this age asleep, who think they do serve God in these cursory prayers made only of custom, when their heart is as far from God as was the heart of the Pharisee.

—Thomas Sampson in the introduction to The Writings of John Bradford (Cambridge 1853), 1:33—34.

What Adam Lacked

Before sin slithered silently through the open gate, the Garden of Eden was perfect. Adam had his own flawless wife, a garden without blemish, and the responsibility to subdue and cultivate his spacious, well-watered, rural setting.

Adam possessed much. He worked a great job. He enjoyed a perfect marriage. He was at peace with all of creation—no tornadoes, no drought, no pollution, no death, no sickness, no tears. So what could be lacking?

From the beginning, the purity of the garden, the peace among the animals, his relationship with his wife—even Adam’s own life—were all conditioned, conditioned upon his faithfulness to God’s will. God’s will was not demanding, was it? There for the enjoyment of the couple was a small forest of fruit trees, that produced more fruit than probably could be consumed. Only one tree was forbidden and nothing in this single condition diminished Adam’s joy in any way.

But this condition represents something big because it points to the one thing Adam could not possess in the Garden of Eden—certainty.

The condition meant that Adam’s perfect marriage was delicate, the climate of the perfect garden climate was fragile, Adam’s future in the garden was uncertain, and even the duration of his now perfect and potentially eternal body was questionable. Every piece of his situation could be shattered by a single decision divergent from God’s will. And we know that in one single bite this fragility swept into the garden to steal away the innocence. As the jaw of a perfect man clamped down on the fruit that represented man’s disobedience, sin plunged the dagger in man’s idyllic world, and creation fell into a swirling chaos of pain, the beginning pains of the disorder that is the matrix in which we live and breathe.

But here is the amazing fact.

What distinguishes the pre-fall Adam in the perfect garden from me, a post-fall sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ, is as wide as the distinction between uncertainty and certainty. Certainty is God’s gift He gives His children in Christ. Sure, we lack the paradise now, but we do not lack the certainty. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are safe and certain in Christ’s protective power, immune from all the threats in life that could never shake us from eternal life with our Father (cf. John 10:22-30, Rom 8:38-39).

How can this be? How can a sinless man live with temporal uncertainty and a sinful man live with eternal certainty? Simple. Christ is our obedience. It was our uncertainty that was put to the test in the wilderness temptations, it was our certainty on the line when Christ was tempted in every way throughout his 33 year life. It was at every moment, in every thought, deed, and desire that our certainty was tested. Christ was without sin. He was the perfect Savior! And He could say the words that Adam never could—It is finished.

And because we are united to Christ, because he lived without sin, because he lived a life under the law to perfection, he becomes our certainty. The perfect life and death of Christ represents the completion of a perfect life—no sinful actions, no sinful thoughts, no sinful decisions. Once complete, a life of perfection brings with it perfect certainty.

Whatever spectacular dreams we entertain of Eden—and it certainly was a paradise beyond anything we can experience in this life—we possess in the gospel something foreign to Adam’s pre-fall experience. May we thank our Savior for this precious gift of eternal assurance, the one thing even a sinless and perfect garden could not promise.

Do I Know God? by Tullian Tchividjian

Christian books on relationships flood the market annually because they sell. But what about books on our most important relationship in the world — knowing God? How do we know that we know Him? Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and pastor of New City Presbyterian Church, recently wrote an excellent book, Do I Know God? (Multnomah: 2007).

The book is a popular-level teaching on assurance and Tullian’s clear presentation of the Gospel is impressive. We stamp it “TSS Certified Cross-Centered.”

In part Tullian writes,

“Edward T. Welch said, ‘The gospel is the story of God covering his naked enemies, bringing them to the wedding feast, and then marrying them rather than crushing them’ … I remember sharing the need to be saved with a college guy in my office. He looked at me and said, ‘You Christians always talk about the need to be saved. I don’t understand. Saved from what?’ Paul said that Jesus ‘rescues us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10, NIV). In other words, Jesus came to save us from God! The last person an unrepentant, Christless sinner wants to meet after he or she dies is God” (pp. 97-98).

Amen! From the core of a clearly defined Gospel and illustrations from his personal testimony of God’s radical saving grace, Tullian builds a careful case for true assurance. A carefully composed read for anyone struggling with these questions.

With every intention to review the book on TSS, Justin Taylor featured a detailed interview with the author and Josh Harris did the same. Your time is better spent reading them …

  • Justin Taylor interview (8/31/07) here
  • Josh Harris interview – part 1 (8/31/07) here
  • Josh Harris interview – part 2 (9/4/07) here
  • Josh Harris interview – part 3 (9/8/07) here

Signs of the Spirit by Sam Storms

Book review
Signs of the Spirit by Sam Storms

Published in 1746, Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections remains the great masterpiece on biblical discernment. Edwards exposes the inner workings of the soul, using Scripture to make concrete the contrast between the fleeting affections of a hard hypocritical heart and the enduring affections of a softened and converted heart. The precise dissection of the soul in Religious Affections is one of the enduring characteristics of Edwards intellectual brilliance and a precision warranted from such delicate matters. But many contemporary readers (like this one) have found Edwards’ intellectual precision difficult to read.

In his new release, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’ (Crossway: 2007), Sam Storms has written an excellent guide through Edwards’ rich arguments. Storms is noted for his study of Edwards and has worked through the Religious Affections at least 10 times (p. 12).

But Storms is not enthralled with the genius of Edwards. He begins the book with clear, foundational biblical exposition and carries biblical proof throughout the entire work. Genuine discernment of the true work of God finds its basis in God’s Word, not Edwards. Storms’ careful biblical development deserves applause.

From here Storms builds a historical backdrop to Religious Affections and then defines affections, finally concluding that affections are the “warm and fervid inclinations that reveal the fundamental orientation of the human heart” (p. 44). Storms follows the design of Edwards in explaining the 12 signs that don’t necessarily authenticate the work of God in the soul and the 12 signs that do authenticate the genuine work of God in the soul. Genuine God-given affections are lit by the flame of God Himself, an enduring flame that displays itself in genuine love and admiration of God as He exists in His spectacular beauty. True religious affections will reveal themselves by causing us to hate sin and pursue Christ-likeness, driving our appetite for more of God and to pursue the sweetness in the Person and Work of Christ.

Edwards’ personal testimony of these religious affections comprise the final 80 pages.

Religious Affections is always relevant but especially in our day when “Christianity” is often defined by outward affiliations, church strategies, and cultural relevance. Edwards’ reminder to our era is that genuine Christianity is marked by a radical soul transformation. Christianity is not defined pragmatically by what it offers and what we get. More important than marketing Christianity as a list of exclusive benefits, Edwards understands that a true work of God begins with a vision of God in His unspotted glory and supreme majesty.

“We must, therefore, be careful that our primary joy is in God, as he is in and of himself, and not in our experience of God. That we have been made recipients of his grace and are enabled to behold his beauty is a marvelous thing indeed. But it is secondary and consequential to a recognition of God’s inherent excellency. What brings you greatest and most immediate delight: your experience of a revelation of Christ, or Christ revealed?” (p. 92)

Discerning this genuine work of God is essential for every generation of Christians, and Edwards’ timeless truth has now been made more accessible. But don’t misunderstand. If reading Religious Affections is climbing the face of Mount Everest, reading Sam Storms’ interpretation is climbing the rock wall at REI. There is a harness, air conditioning, engineered footholds and an attendant holding the rope, but you’ll still sweat.

Storms’ timing is excellent. Our generation needs Edwards to help us ground our discernment between the facade of inauthentic Christian profession and the genuine work of God in the soul.

“I doubt if there is a more pressing and urgent issue for the church today than determining ‘what are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards.’ Or to put it in other words, what is the nature of true spirituality and those features in the human soul that are acceptable in the sight of God?” (p. 37)

I think he’s right.

Title: Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’
Author: Sam Storms
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > moderately difficult
Boards: paperback
Pages: 238
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: none
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $15.99 from Crossway (includes free PDF)
ISBNs: 9781581349320, 1581349327

Book announcement: Assured By God

tsslogo.jpgBook announcement
Assured By God: Living in the fullness of God’s grace

This Summer we have been looking deeper at what John Owen meant when he said we must diligently labor after full assurance of the faith (see the “Laboring After Assurance” posts). There is a biblical command that all professing Christians “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities [faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love] you will never fall” (2 Pet. 1:10). Not only is this pursuit of assurance found all over the Reformed confessions but I have been arguing that it’s critical to understanding Puritan spirituality today.

Recently P&R published a compilation of essays by Christian leaders to further explain what it means to pursue this full assurance. Assured By God: Living in the fullness of God’s grace was written by men like R.C. Sproul, Philip Graham Ryken, Albert Mohler, Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, John MacArthur and Jerry Bridges. The book does an excellent job expounding the biblical principles and the means of grace given to pursue this full assurance.

One of the strengths of this volume is how well Beeke reveals assurance in the Old Testament. Building from Hebrews 10:39-12:2 he says, “Though revelation and redemption are yet in preparatory stages in the Old Testament and assurance is somewhat more obscure than in the New Testament, the Old Testament believer’s assurance of the abiding covenant love of Yahweh differs little from our understanding today of assurance of faith being rooted in the character and promises of God” (114). This really helps me make sense of the Psalmist’s spiritual life as a pattern for the Christian life.

Beeke closes his chapter (ch. 6) with this summary: “Assurance is covenantally based, sealed with the blood of Christ, and grounded ultimately in eternal election. Though assurance remains incomplete in this life, varies in degree, and is often assaulted by affliction and doubt, its riches must never be taken for granted. It is both a gift, for it is always the gracious and sovereign gift of the Triune God, and a pursuit, for it must be sought diligently through the means of grace. It becomes well grounded only when it evidences fruits and marks of grace such as love to God and for his kingdom, filial obedience, godly repentance, hatred for sin, love for believers, and humble adoration. Assurance produces holy living marked by spiritual peace, joyful love, humble gratitude, and cheerful obedience” (123-124).

Unfortunately, pursuing assurance in the faith is not a popular message today and those who did labor after assurance — like the Puritans — seem to the modern reader to be very odd birds. But this pursuit of assurance is biblical and too much is at stake to neglect its pursuit. Added to its importance, the biblical doctrine of full assurance can be tricky and demands serious and focused study. If this pursuit after the assurance of faith is on your mind I would wholehearted recommend this book as a clear-minded and biblical guide to your grace-centered and Cross-centered labors.

Title: Assured By God: Living in the fullness of God’s grace
Editor: Burk Parsons
Authors: R.C. Sproul, Burk Parsons, Philip Graham Ryken, Albert Mohler, Richard Phillips, Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, John MacArthur, Keith Mathison and Jerry Bridges.
Reading level: 2.0/5.0 > popular level (easy read)
Boards: cloth (navy blue with silver embossing)
Pages: 200
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: yes
Binding: Smyth sewn
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Publisher: P&R
Year: 2006
Price USD: $18.00/$11.70 from Monergism
ISBNs: 9781596380295, 1596380292