Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Faith and Assurance

Written by Rev. P. VanderMeyden
Much of the confusion in the spiritual guidance given in Evangelical and Reformed churches is caused by a failure to distinguish between faith and assurance. It would not be an exaggeration to say that practical church life and preaching swings on the pendulum of this distinction. It will swing to dead orthodoxy and passive despair on the one hand, or to carnal presumption and easy-believism on the other, depending on how the distinction is made or whether it is made at all.

Is there a difference between faith and assurance? That is the question on which we wish to focus. Having done so, we wish to look at some of the practical consequences of this distinction. The first question we must ask ourselves--and this is also central to our distinct confession as Free Reformed Churches--is this: ÒIs it necessary to distinguish in our preaching and practice between faith and assurance?Ó Yes it is.

Before we explain this, let us define our terms.

FAITH (to use Prof. J. Murray's definition) is "self-commitment to Christ in all the glory of His person and perfection of His work as He is freely and fully offered in the gospel." Faith is not a commitment to certain truths about Christ, but a commitment to Christ. Faith brings about a personal union with Christ.

ASSURANCE is the conviction "that I am no longer in a state of nature, but in a state of grace." It is the well-grounded persuasion that I am a believer, that I am truly saved.Ó

The two are distinct. Faith is not the belief that we have been saved, but it is to trust in Christ in order to be saved. Faith proceeds not from the assurance that we are saved, but as the Philippian jailer experienced, from the conviction that we are lost. Faith is the primary and direct activity of a regenerate heart with Christ as its object. Assurance is the reflective act of faith. While faith sees Christ, assurance sees faith. When we say that there is a distinction between the two we are saying that assurance is not the essence of faith. Let us examine this distinction historically, Scripturally and practically.

A.The Reformers

The first Reformers spoke of assurance as being essential to faith. Calvin and Luther did not make the distinction. In his Institutes Calvin writes:

Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm
conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward
him, ... lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation... No
man is a believer, I say, except him who, leaning upon the
assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil
and death (III-2-16).

On Romans 8:16 he writes, "The opinion consequently stands, that no one can be called a son of God who does not know himself to be such.Ó And on verse 34, "Because our faith is naught unless we certainly persuade ourselves that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in him." On 2 Corinthians 13:5, "Paul testifies that whoever doubts whether they possess Christ, are reprobate." The Augsburg Confession, which was written under Luther's guidance, states that persons are "justified gratuitously on account of Christ by faith, when they believe themselves to be received into grace, and their sins to be pardoned on account of Christ." These early Reformers clearly taught that assurance belonged to the essence of saving faith. This is also reflected in some of the early creeds of the church.

Why did they take this position? One reason, as Pink points out, was their reaction to the teachings of Rome.

At the close of that lengthy period known as "the dark ages"
(though throughout it God never left Himself without a clear
witness), when the Lord caused a flood of light to break forth
upon Christendom, the Reformers were faced by the hoary errors of
Romanism, among which was her insistence that none could be
positively assured of his salvation till the hour of death was
reached. This caused Luther and his contemporaries to deliver a
positive message, seeking to stimulate confidence toward God and
the laying hold of His sure promises. Yet, it has to be
acknowledged that there were times when their zeal carried them
too far, leading to a position which could not be successfully
defended from the Scriptures. Many of the Reformers insisted that
assurance was an essential element in saving faith itself, and
that unless a person knew he was "accepted in the Beloved"
he was yet in his sins. Thus, in the revolt from Romanism, the
Protestant pendulum swung too far to the opposite side."

Agreeing with this, Prof. Wm. Cunningham adds that their own personal experience as converted and believing men contributed to this position. "God seems to have given to them the grace of assurance more fully and more generally than He does to believers in ordinary circumstances." Cunningham explains this with two general observations: "First, that assurance of salvation has been enjoyed more fully and more generally by men who were called to difficult and arduous labours in the cause of Christ, than by ordinary believers in general. And secondly, that this assurance, as enjoyed by such persons, has been frequently traceable to special circumstances connected with the manner of their conversion as its immediate or proximate cause. So it certainly was with the Reformers.Ó

B. The Reformed Creeds
The Reformed Creeds reflect the contribution of further study on this point. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus urges, contrary to the teaching of Rome, that "we may know that we have faith." Explaining this he states: "He that believes is conscious of the existence of his faith." But whether this consciousness of faith is what the authors intended by "an assured confidence" is debatable (cf. L.D. VII). Most often, this has been explained as "the certainty that the gospel promise is true and trustworthy." One might want to add to this: "and that God's free offer of grace to me is genuine and well meant." That conviction is essential to faith. To deny that God's Word is true or to doubt that His calls, invitations and offers are graciously genuine is to mock God by our inexcusable unbelief (cf. Canons of Dort, III-IV-8)

The Belgic Confession speaks of faith as the direct activity of the heart having Christ as its object: "The Holy Spirit kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him" (XXII). Assurance, as the certainty of salvation, is not mentioned until the last sentence on sanctification (XXIV).

Those who made the distinction between faith and assurance were not on the sidelines, but were men who sailed down the mainstream of Biblical Calvinism. Among them were men like Witsius, Turretin, William Ames, Zanchius, Perkins, Gill, Owen, Newton (author of "Amazing Grace"), Chalmers, Dick, Cunningham, Jonathan Edwards, Hodge, Ryle, Spurgeon, Dabney, Pink and others. We must not forget either, the theologians and pastors who composed the Canons of Dordrecht. If you read Articles 1-16, V-9 to 14, the distinction is very clear. In no creed is it as fully explained as in that composed by the English Puritans, the Westminster Confession, where it is called "the assurance of grace and salvation" (ch. XVIII).

C. Arminian Influence
It is sad to witness today that so many who fly the Reformed flag are actually sailing an Arminian ship. On this point also there seems to be a growing distaste for the teaching of the Dort and Westminster creeds. Instead, there is an increasing preference for a definition like that of the Scofield Bible, which teaches that "this assurance rests only upon the Scripture promises to him who believes." Such watered down ideas of assurance ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit and play down the role of the marks of grace and the necessity of self-examination.

A. Assurance of Salvation is Possible

What does the Bible teach? Is it possible to be assured of salvation and grace? Yes. Amidst the most severe trial of his faith Job could exclaim, "I know that my Redeemer liveth..." (Job 19:25,26). Paul could declare the assurance of those who love God (Rom.8: 28-39). He was able to confess it personally: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Tim.1: 12). These are expressions of a mature, assured faith.

B. Not all Have Assured Faith
But does the Bible distinguish between assurance and faith? When Simon confessed, "Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God," Jesus recognized it as a Spirit-worked confession (Mt.16: 16). Though the seed of faith did not fail (being sustained by the prayer of Christ), Peter's denial caused him to sink once more into the waves of fear and doubt as he went into the darkness of the night and wept bitterly. He never doubted Christ's love, for that is what broke his heart. But he had reasons to wonder whether he would ever be included among the Lord's disciples again. Was this any different than the hateful kiss of Judas? He had denied the Lord with an oath! What a change there was at Pentecost when Peter stood up to defend the name of his Saviour as one who was conscious of His master's forgiveness! He experienced the power of the Spirit witnessing with his spirit that he was a child of God (cf. Rom.8: 16).

John writes: "Hereby do we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments" (1 Jn.2: 3). Knowing Christ is faith and if that is true of us we have eternal life (Jn.17: 3). But to know that we know Him is to be assured of eternal life. (Compare: 1 John 2:5, 3:19, 5:13.) This assurance is communicated to believers by the Spirit who dwells in them (3:24). John's purpose in writing his Gospel was, "that ye might believe ... and that believing ye might have life through his name" (Jn.20: 31). But when John wrote his first letter (85-90 AD), the churches did not all have that level of assurance which was enjoyed by the apostles after Pentecost. There were also spiritually "little children" and "young men." His purpose was the strengthening and assurance of their faith: "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God" (1 Jn.5: 13, cf. 1:4).

Not every persuasion of going to heaven is a fruit of true faith (Mt.7: 21-33). Many have made their commitments to Christ "but Jesus did commit himself unto them, because he knew all men... He knew what was in man" (Jn.2: 24,25). Not every response or experience in connection with the gospel is a basis for assurance (Mt.13: 18-23, Heb.6: 11, 12). Not only can there be a faith without "an assured confidence of soul,Ó but there is an assurance which is self-made and does not proceed from the "faith of God's elect" (Titus 1:1).

This leads us to conclude that, in order to nurture true assurance, there are dangers to avoid and duties to pursue.

A. Misleading Evangelism
We must first of all avoid proclaiming the witness of the Spirit's assuring work as if that is the message of the gospel for all. To say to all men without discrimination, "Christ died for you" is really to give people the assurance of salvation before you demand faith. The gospel call is not, "Believe that Jesus died for your sins." The first demand upon a soul who asks, "What must I do to be saved?" is not "Believe that Jesus has saved you.Ó The apostle's answer to the Philippian jailer was, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). For the same reason we must be cautious when making particular applications about God's love (e.g. "God loves you..." or "Jesus loves you..."). Let us not contradict the will of the Spirit of Christ. He adds a warning to the gospel promise: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (Jn.3: 36 cf. Rom.1: 18).

B. Presumptive Counseling
Pastors, elders and friends of doubting church members must avoid the temptation to give a false comfort to those from whom God withholds the assuring testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Few today seem to understand the Bible's doctrine of assurance.
Few seem to appreciate the doubts of professing Christians who
question whether they have been born again. They have no doubt
that God will keep His promises, but they wonder whether they
have properly fulfilled the conditions for being heirs to those
promises. There is no question that God will give eternal life to
all who repent and believe. But they are discerning enough to
know that walking down an aisle and muttering a verbal prayer
does not constitute faith... ÔWhat must I do to be saved?' is an
altogether different question from, 'How do I know that I've done
it?' You can answer the first one confidently. Only the Spirit
may answer the last with certainty.

Concerning our own assurance, we may not expect some "peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the word," but we must "give diligence to make our calling and election sure" (Canons V-10, 2 Pet.1: 10).

C. Hindrances to Assurance
What are some of the reasons that account for a lack of assurance?

1) Immaturity in knowledge and grace. God converts some gradually and others suddenly. This may account for different degrees of assurance. It would be cruel to rebuke a child for thinking or behaving as a child. So also it is not always appropriate to speak of "blame" in the case of a lack of assurance. God is free to give or withhold the grace of assurance.

2) Inexcusable misconceptions of the gospel. Some, through their own lack of prayerful and diligent study of Scripture, hold on to wrong ideas of the way of salvation or make wrong applications to themselves. It is sad to witness presumption or a lack of assurance because traditional sentiments have meant more than "searching the Scriptures to see if these things are true."

3) "Weakness of faith springing from negligence in its cultivation, ... disobedience to the commandments, backsliding, unwatchfulness, prayerlessness, excessive care for the things of this life, and worldliness" are also reasons why some lack assurance.

These things point out that assurance is affected by our responsible activity and thus places a duty on us.

D. The Duty to Cultivate Assurance
The apostle states: "and we desire that everyone of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful" (Heb.6: 11). Would all true believers not give their "amen" to that desire of the apostle?

It is the duty of professing believers whether they enjoy "an assured confidence of soul" or not to "diligently persevere in the use of the means" (Canons 1-16). God produces faith but also preserves and increases it by the use of the means of grace. "And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments" (V-14). Sincere efforts to do our Christian duty in our family, the church and the world are also necessary "that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof" (Heidelberg Catechism, L D. XXXII)

"Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor.10: 12). Pride and careless confidence are not the products of assurance (Canons V-12). But when these are allowed to enter our heart, the Spirit of adoption is grieved and we will sink with Peter till we learn once more to cast our eyes upon the Lord and call out: "Lord save me or I perish." "Scriptures teach that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering" (V-II). How graciously Christ warns and comforts his disciple about this! "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou are converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Lk.22: 31,32).

The believer's eternal security rests not on his own stability but on the faithfulness of the Saviour. As this inspires believers to engage in thankful service to the Lord it is important that they maintain a prayerful watch against temptation and a humble dependence upon Christ. "Abide in me... for without me you can do nothing."

1. John Murray, "Redemption Accomplished and Applied," (Banner of Truth, 1961) p.112.
2. A.W. Pink, "Saving Faith," (Reiner) p.115.
3. Pink, p.104-105.
4. William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, "The Reformers and the Doctrine of Assurance," (Banner of Truth, 1967) p.113.
5. Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, (Eerdmans) p.114.
6. W.J. Chantry, Today's Gospel (Banner of Truth, 1970) p.76.
7. John Murray, "The Assurance of Faith in Collected Writings (Banner of Truth, 1977) p.266.

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