For a long time, I have wanted to write on the assurance of salvation. God willing, this editorial is the beginning of a series of articles on Scripture’s precious doctrine of assurance and, based on this doctrine, the Christian’s precious experience of assurance.
Assurance is a prominent teaching in Holy Scripture. The apostle teaches the assurance of the elect believer in Hebrews 10:19. We have “boldness” to enter the holiest. We are called to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith.” There is an urgent warning against “wavering,” casting away our confidence, and drawing back.
Assurance is precious. Certainty that I am saved in the love of God my Father in Jesus Christ is dear—dearer than earthly life. Doubt is dreadful—worse than death.
Assurance is a distinctive blessing of God in the lives of Christians.
Obviously, there is no assurance of salvation in the unbelieving world and in the pagan religions. As there is salvation only in Jesus Christ, so there is assurance of salvation only in Him.
But neither do members of the other churches enjoy assurance. The reason is that the other churches have a false gospel. Assurance is, and can be, a reality only where the gospel of salvation by the sovereign grace of God alone is proclaimed and believed.
There is no assurance in the Roman Catholic Church. It is Roman dogma that there is no assurance in the Roman religion. Apart from special revelation given only to a few, no one may be certain of his justification, election, salvation, and everlasting blessedness in heaven.
“No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate; as if it were true, that he that is justified, either can not sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance; for except by special revelation, it can not be known whom God hath chosen unto himself.
So also as regards the gift of perseverance, of which it is written, “He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved,” … let no one herein promise himself any thing as certain with an absolute certainty.
If anyone saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,—unless he have learned this by special revelation: let him be anathema”
(“The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” Decree on Justification, Chapters 12 and 13; On Justification, Canon 16, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, Harper & Brothers, 1890, pp. 103, 113, 114).
Likewise, all who believe the doctrines of Arminianism, that is, the teachings of universal, ineffectual, conditional grace, lack assurance of salvation. These include most evangelicals and fundamentalists. They can be sure, they say, that they are saved today, when they choose to believe in Christ. But they cannot be sure that they will be saved tomorrow, or everlastingly, because they may choose not to believe tomorrow. A salvation that depends upon the free, sovereign will of the sinner is highly uncertain. The Arminians themselves frankly admit their doubt. At Dordt, the Arminian party expressed the inescapable implication of their gospel of salvation by the will of man in these words:
“True believers are able to fall through their own fault into shameful and atrocious deeds, to persevere and to die in them; and therefore finally to fall and to perish.”
Indeed, the Arminians declared that assurance of salvation was of no great importance to them.
“A true believer can and ought indeed to be certain for the future that he is able, by diligent watchfulness, through prayers, and through other holy exercises, to persevere in true faith, and he ought also to be certain that divine grace for persevering will never be lacking; but we do not see how he can be certain that he will never afterwards be remiss in his duty but that he will persevere in faith and in those works of piety and love which are fitting for a believer in this school of Christian warfare; neither do we deem it necessary that concerning this thing a believer should be certain”
(“The Opinions of the Remonstrants [Arminians]: The Opinion of the Remonstrants with Respect to the Fifth Article, which concerns Perseverance,” Articles 4, 8, in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, ed. Peter Y. DeJong, Reformed Fellowship, 1968, pp. 228, 229; emphasis added).
The cause of all lack of assurance of salvation among Arminians is the same as the cause of the lack of assurance on the part of Roman Catholics: They believe the false gospel of salvation conditioned upon something in the sinner. In the language of the apostle in Romans 9:16, Roman Catholics believe that salvation depends upon the sinner’s running, or working; Arminians believe that salvation depends upon the sinner’s willing. There is no assurance in a message of salvation depending upon the sinner. There cannot be. The sinner—man—is not dependable. He is unstable as water.
God will not bless such a message with assurance. He will give assurance only by the message of salvation that casts the needy sinner wholly upon His grace in Jesus Christ. Again, in the language of Paul in Romans 9:16, this is the message that salvation depends only upon God who shows mercy. This is the message of the Reformed faith.
Nevertheless, there are also Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have gone grievously wrong in the matter of assurance. This too makes our treatment of assurance timely. The result of their error is that these Reformed and Presbyterian churches are filled with members who lack assurance of their salvation. What is even worse, these members suppose that their doubt is normal and right.
Not all Reformed churches and ministers agree with the theme that will sound, and resound, loudly and gloriously through this series of articles on assurance: Assurance is God’s will for all His children. Some Reformed churches and theologians teach that assurance is the will of God for only some of His children, indeed very few of His children. Even the few are taught by their churches and ministers to come to assurance only after a long period—perhaps most of their life—of doubt and uncertainty.
These are churches and theologians, especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition and in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition, who are influenced by certain of the Puritans. The Puritans were mainly English theologians in the latter part of the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth century who strove for the doctrinal soundness and liturgical purity of the church and for the holiness of the lives of the members of the church.
Some of the Puritans placed inordinate emphasis on religious experience. One’s religious experience was more important than the truth of Christ in sound doctrine. In addition, the highly regarded and much sought-after religious experience was seriously misrepresented. Rather than the sober experience of faith in Christ, consisting of sorrow over sin, trust in the Savior presented in the gospel, the consciousness of the forgiveness of sins, and the desire to love this gracious Savior by doing His will, the religious experience urged by these Puritans was supposed to be an enthusiastic, mystical, mysterious, ineffable feeling.
Bound up with this strange “experience,” according to these miserable physicians of the souls of men, was one’s assurance of his salvation. For assurance, these Puritans encouraged an unhealthy introspection, a spiritual “navel-gazing.” Rather than to look away from one’s guilty, depraved self to the crucified Savior, the wretched people—confessing Calvinists—were taught to rummage around in their own soul for the proper experience. As if this were not bad enough, as soon as a poor soul dared to find some spiritual experience within himself that might prove his salvation, the Puritan minister would question the validity of the experience: “Are you sure that the sorrow for sin is genuine? that the trust in Christ is true faith? that the love for God is real?”
The result, inevitably, was doubt—lifelong doubt, doubt on a huge scale in the congregations, doubt handed down from generation to generation.
Whereupon the old Puritan teachers cheerily concluded, as their modern disciples conclude today, that assurance is the will of God only for a few of His children. Even the favored few expected to struggle with doubt for many years, although it is remarkable that most of the teachers exempted themselves.
In the paper he read at one of the old Puritan and Reformed Studies Conferences at West-minster Chapel in London, recently published in volume one of the Puritan Papers, J. I. Packer freely acknowledged that the Puritans taught that assurance was the will of God for only some of His children. He quoted the Puritan Thomas Brooks: “Assurance is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts…. God will only give it to his best and dearest friends.” Brooks is quoted again: “Assurance … is a … crown that few [Christians] wear.”
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin taught that the few privileged children obtain assurance only after a long time of doubt: “Assurance is not normally enjoyed except by those who have first laboured for it and sought it and served God faithfully and patiently without it” (J. I. Packer, “The Witness of the Spirit: The Puritan Teaching,” in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, P&R, 2000, p. 20).
The error of this doctrine of assurance stares one in the face in the last quotation. No one can serve God faithfully, much less acceptably, who lacks assurance of salvation.
Those Reformed and Presbyterian churches that are influenced by this Puritan thinking on assurance are filled with members, including old members, who lack assurance of salvation. Ask them whether they believe the Bible to be the Word of God, whether they believe the gospel to be true, whether they believe Christ to be the Son of God in human flesh and the only Savior, whether they are in great need of salvation, and they answer “yes” without any hesitation.
Ask them whether they are assured of their own salvation, and they answer “no,” also without hesitation. They never come to the Lord’s Supper. They live and die unsure whether their eternal destiny will be heaven or hell—dreadful condition—although all their life they are faithful at church, defenders of the faith, regular in their conduct, students of Scripture, and, by their own testimony, desirous of salvation and assurance.
The truth about assurance, which they are not being taught, should be precious to them.
To a believer who, for a time, struggles with uncertainty, good instruction about assurance is vitally important.
What explains this miserable condition?
May he certainly expect deliverance from his doubt?
How will he come to have assurance?
The truth about assurance is precious also to us who enjoy the assurance of salvation.
It is reassuring to be assured from Scripture and the Reformed confessions that assurance is the will of our heavenly Father for all His children.
By David Engelsma