Laboring after Assurance > 3

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Part 3: The means of assurance

Scripture calls all believers to draw near to God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We draw near to God, not only in the confidence the Cross has purchased, but in God-given assurance that we are indeed God’s children. So today we answer the important question: What means has God given to pursue the full assurance of faith?

A great summary answer is found in the Canons of Dort, a Reformed doctrinal statement written in 1619 to confront the rising influences of the teachings of a man named Jacob Arminius. Most importantly for our interests, they addressed the means to, and importance of, the assurance of salvation in the heart of the Christian. The authors write,

“This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God; but springs from faith in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God; and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience, and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort, that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge or earnest of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable” (5.10).

According to the long and rich Reformed tradition we enjoy, the full assurance of the Christian flows through three means: (1) God’s promises in the Gospel; (2) The testimony of the Holy Spirit to our spirits; (3) In fruitfulness displayed in the Christian life. Having a full assurance of the faith is important, and if there was no way to gain this assurance, the elect would live the Christian life in a miserable condition of insecurity. Rather, these means of assurance are intended for our comfort and further fruitfulness in the advancement of the Gospel (as we will see later from John Owen).

This threefold distinction in our personal assurance of faith is solidly Biblical. Compare the Council of Dort with Hebrews 10:19-25 and Romans 8:15-17. We will look at Hebrews next time and Romans a little later today.

With this introduction, lets look a bit closer at each of the three means given in Scripture for our pursuit of assurance.

1. God’s promises in the Gospel

The authors of the Canon of Dort were careful to begin their statement on assurance firmly grounded in the revealed Word of God and the promises of God. And this is always where personal assurance must begin.

A misunderstanding of the Gospel promises will choke out any solid assurance from the soul. Full assurance of faith requires a full assurance of our Savior (Heb. 10:19-22). We must know that salvation comes by faith alone and grace alone through the righteous Blood of Jesus Christ alone. No level of self-righteousness will appease God’s wrath for my sin. I cannot please God by being better than others, going to church, or saying prayers and following religious ceremonies. The first (and most critical) key to solid assurance is holding an accurate understanding of the Gospel that pushes out all good works as a meriting the favor of God.

Legalism is thinking that God is less or more pleased with me based upon my obedience, rather than understanding God’s pleasure in me comes from the purchased righteousness of His Son alone (see our post on legalism). If we think legalistically about our relationship with God, our failures to live perfectly to His standard will be a swinging sledgehammer to any foundation of assurance.

But having a degree in systematic theology is not enough. These biblical promises in the Gospel must be personally applied to the soul. And this personal application of the Gospel is not without struggle. We are tempted towards self-righteousness, instead of hoping in the biblical promises of salvation in the Gospel.

“Our primary ground of assurance is the promises of God. These promises must be applied to our hearts and worked out in our lives, however. This often involves profound spiritual struggle. Bunyan spoke of pulling at one end of God’s promises while the devil was pulling at the other end. He could not apply God’s promises to himself, but the Holy Spirit confirmed them in him. When this happens, promises reap fruit in our lives and cause us to relish the Spirit’s witness with our spirit that we are sons of God” (Beeke, Quest, 283).

2. The manifest witness of the Holy Spirit

One of the most obvious means God has ordained for the assurance of His children is the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Paul details this in Romans,

Romans 8:15-17 … “15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

One of my favorite Patristic preachers, John Chrysostom (349-407), once said on this point, “What doubt is left here? If a man, or an angel should make a promise, perhaps some might doubt, but if the supreme Essence, the Spirit of God, who causes us to pray, makes a promise to those praying, bestows the promise, giving the testimony to us within, what room is there for doubt?” (On Romans, homily 14). Amen! There is a powerful confirmation in the Soul of the Child of God that is infallible. In fact the Reformers called this “infallible” assurance.

So what does this infallible assurance look like?

First, this is intensely personal and private. This is not an assurance that can be given from anyone but the Holy Spirit Himself in the soul of the believer. Clearly from the history of Christians over the centuries we can see that this inner testimony of the Spirit does not automatically come at the moment of salvation. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says for some it can be an overwhelming sensation that may cause one to physically tremble, a one-time experience that will never be forgotten. For others this assurance comes in waves as the Spirit testifies to their spirits over the years. There is little way to say exactly how this assurance flows to God’s children, but it’s clear that it does and it’s a powerful experience that leaves our spirits with rock-solid assurance.

This is an experience where “Christ manifests Himself to us and we know Him with a kind of inner intuition, over and above all that we believe about Him by faith. He is made real to us” (Lloyd-Jones, Doctrines, 2:162).

As one who is a continuist (like Lloyd-Jones), my faith dovetails nicely with this testimony of the Spirit as I seek the continued filling of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). I pray for a greater capacity to experience more of the Spirit and an opportunity to pursue more of the Spirit as He manifests Himself to me and confirms my assurance in Christ. For me, the filling of the Spirit is not only for the building of the church but also for personal assurance as I pursue Him. Surely Jesus also had assurance in mind when called us to pray for more and more of the Spirit. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

The Spirit that gives unshakable assurance is a “good gift” that we should pursue and pray for and experience in our own souls.

3. Personal godliness

An assurance that rests in the objective claims of the Gospel and the testimony of the Spirit in the soul is an incomplete assurance. We must also find assurance in our lives. Is God at work in me? Am I changing? Am I becoming more like Christ? Am I growing more obedient? Do I hate sin? Am I gaining victory over sin?

If we don’t ask these hard questions, we will pursue a lopsided assurance and downplay the hard passages of Scripture. References like 1 John 2:3 — “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” – are intended for our comfort and assurance, not our condemnation. But until we view personal godliness within our pursuit of assurance, passages like this one and many, many others will haunt us. This was not their intent. 1 John was written so we would have confidence in our position as God’s children (see 5:13).

Laboring after full assurance

I am fully aware that some will pursue assurance with 1 and 2, at the neglect of 3; or will pursue assurance in 3, and neglect 1 and 2. A full assurance of the faith rests in a balance of all three means. In his lectures on systematic theology, Lloyd-Jones says,

“How, then, is one to obtain this assurance? Here are the rules taught in Scripture: first make certain of your belief. If you have not got assurance, make certain that you are really not relying upon yourself in any respect for salvation. Be sure that you see all your righteousness as filthy rags and know that if you lived a thousand years you would never fit yourself to stand before God. Make certain that you are relying only upon the finished work of Christ upon the Cross, that you are solely dependent upon His righteousness. Apply the word of Scripture to yourself, get to know it, read it. Take these scriptures that I have been quoting; stand on them; apply them to yourself. Say, ‘I have been crucified with Christ, I have died with Christ. The Scripture says it; I believe it and I stand on it.’ Live the life. Yield yourself to be led of the Spirit. Seek His face. If you ask Him to fulfill His promise and to manifest Himself to you, He has pledged to do it” (Doctrines, 2:162-163).

Conclusion

Personal assurance of the faith is not some vague hope in the back of the Christian mind. A full assurance is the pursuit of the Christian, and should be experienced in the soul! We are called to “feel” our personal assurance.

The bottom line is that God calls His children to pursue a full assurance of our faith. We are called to diligently and carefully and humbly pursue this assurance. Remember what John Owen said? “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.”

Owen knew this full assurance was not easily attained but a laborious pursuit of Gospel promises, diligent honesty and self-examination and patience upon the testifying work of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) reminds us,

“This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness” (18.3).

In this laboring after full assurance, we are coming closer to the heart of the Puritan life and the life of the Psalmists.

Laboring after Assurance > 2

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Part 2: The Biblical Basis for Seeking Assurance

Today we embark on a study of personal assurance. To have assurance is to know with certainty in my Christian experience that I am known by God and adopted into His family through the gospel. It’s one thing to read in the Bible that salvation comes to those who repent and believe in Christ. But how do I know that God’s sovereign and saving grace has been poured out into my own soul? Because of its practical implications the pursuit of “full assurance” (Heb. 10:22) is one of the most important doctrines of the Bible. As Joel Beeke writes, “Many doctrines may escape a typical believer’s notice without serious consequence, but assurance is not one of them” (Quest, 281).

This study is connected with, but distinct from, a study on the perseverance of the saints. The doctrine of perseverance concerns God’s faithfulness to lead His children home without letting any of them perish. The doctrine of assurance, however, is more concerned with how I know that I am in fact one of God’s children (I’ll show later how these two are connected).

The diligent pursuit of assurance

The best place to begin this study of assurance is to open Scripture and see that we are in fact to labor and search after personal assurance. So my goal today is simply to let you read these passages for yourself with minimal comments. For the sake of space I have limited these passages to the New Testament.

2 Peter 1:10-11 … “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 6:11 … “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end”

2 Corinthians 13:5 … “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”

1 John 5:13 … “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

These calls to assurance would be unnecessary if (1) Christians were not called to attain assurance and (2) if all Christians were naturally imbibed with this assurance.

Paul’s deep assurance

Related to these calls to assurance is the example of assurance demonstrated in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. He lived in a profound sense of personal assurance. Notice in these passages not only the sovereign power of God to persevere His children, but especially how convinced Paul is that he is in fact one of God’s children.

Galatians 2:20 … “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

2 Timothy 1:12 … “But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”

Romans 8:35, 38, 39 … “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Ephesians 1:13-14 … “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

Paul’s words are a model of assurance for every Christian.

Dangers of false assurance

The seeking of true assurance is motivated by warnings in Scripture of those who have rested in false assurances to their eternal condemnation. If it were impossible to be convinced of the genuineness of our assurances these passages would drown our souls under doubt and despair.

Matthew 7:21-23 … “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

James 1:22, 26 … “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

James 2:17-18 … “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Revelation 3:15-17 … “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

“We know” in 1 John

But praise God, His children can know for certain they are saved! And if there was a single book of the Bible devoted to the Saints pursuit of assurance it would be 1 John. Listen to the wording as we are called to “know” that we are saved.

1 John 2:3 … “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”

1 John 3:14-24 … “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

1 John 5:2 … “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

And the purpose statement of the entire book in 1 John 5:13 … “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

It cannot be mistaken here that while we are saved by the Cross apart from any works, we are assured of partaking in the Cross by a life marked by change. These passages say to us, “take note of your own heart and labor after full assurance.”

Where has assurance gone?

We don’t need a Ph.D. in church history to see that a pursuit of personal assurance – the personal question of whether I am truly a child of God — is no longer a prominent theme in the Church today (and a reason why Puritan spirituality is so alien).

I think there are two reasons why.

1. The Gospel call has been separated from the call to Cross-bearing. It is fascinating to watch Jesus evangelize. Just listen to one example: “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38-39). This is no tit-for-tat salvation where we do good things and get life for our obedience. Rather, in Jesus’ call there is a union into Christ’s death (Rom. 6). This union to Christ means salvation and justification, but also self-mortification and self-crucifixion. The goal of the Gospel is total life transformation, beginning in sanctification here, and glorification at the first sight of Christ’s glory (1 John 3:2).

If, from the beginning, sinners were aware that Jesus was calling them to a radically new Cross-centered life, pursuing evidences of grace and assurance would be an obvious step of consideration. The Gospel carries with it God’s holistic transforming grace evident to others and powerful enough to form part of the basis of our personal assurance.

It may be that because salvation in Christ comes by faith alone that we also think assurance is by faith alone. When this happens, the passages above that call us to pursue full assurance are viewed as uncomfortable oddities to be avoided, rather than the means to great joy and delight and personal security in our Father.

2. A neglect or denial of God’s sovereign grace. Probably the most radical passage in Scripture on assurance comes in 2 Peter 1:10-11, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities [virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love] you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Here Peter calls us to make certain our personal calling and election by the demonstration of godliness. Think about this for a moment… God’s children were elected from before the foundation of the earth and here we are called in our Christian experience to make this election certain (Eph. 1:4). God did not pencil us into His family until we wrote our names in Sharpies. Rather, the elected child of God will live a life that affirms God’s sovereign election! In our Christian experience we can know with certainty that we were elected in Christ!

But it’s not only 2 Peter that ties assurance directly to God’s sovereign grace (see also 1 Pet. 1:1-7 and Rom. 8:28-39).

The only way we can pursue our assurance of salvation is to know that God sovereignly preserves His chosen. Where an emphasis on God’s sovereign grace is not found, the pursuit of assurance will not be found either.

For example, Roman Catholicism teaches that “common Christians” will never know for certain they are children of God. At the Council of Trent Rome made it clear that none can know with any certainty that he or she is justified (6.9). It’s no wonder. God’s sovereign preservation of the Christian and the Christian’s assurance in this world undermines the foundations of mass, purgatory and the authority of the church as dispenser of sustaining grace. As Francis Turretin aptly noted, “For he who would be certain of his own salvation would betake himself neither to the patronage of the saints, nor to the merits of martyrs, nor to the absolution of priests” (Elenctic, 15.17.4).

But also for Protestants who believe that salvation can be lost, the pursuit of assurance would not make sense either. How can we ever find assurance in a salvation that we ourselves can undermine?

Theologian John Murray writes, “every brand of theology that is not grounded in the particularism which is exemplified in sovereign election and effective redemption is not hospitable to this doctrine of assurance of faith” (Writings, 2:267). The joy of pursuing personal assurance can only be pursued within a solid understanding of God’s sovereign election and perseverance of the sinner. Our fallible self-sustaining power would prove too flimsy a foundation to base any assurances.

Conclusion

The goal of assurance in the Christian life is not a labor of self-centered, self-righteous and introspective drudgery. The goal of pursuing assurance is a transcendent joy in our Abba Father who adopted His children in love! We are opening our spiritual ears to hear the witness of the Holy Spirit in our own spirits (Rom. 8:16).

Scripture (and especially 1 John) challenges me. I want to know with certainty that I am a child of God. I want to see the life-transforming effect of God’s grace in my heart and enjoy the humbling fact that I was elected from the foundation of the earth.

The act of pursuing assurance is one of deep communion with God that produces nothing short of a deep and abiding joy in the life of the Christian. This assurance is the “summit of intimacy by which the believer both knows Christ and knows he is known of Him” (Quest, 279). Next time we ask the big question … How do we labor after this “summit of intimacy” with Christ?

 
 

Laboring after Assurance > pt. 1

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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.