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).
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.