Assurance belongs to salvation
In the goodness of His grace, God not only saves His people; He also gives them the assurance of their salvation. Theoretically, God could have saved us but not given us the assurance of our salvation. Throughout our lives we would, at best, be left to wonder whether we were saved. At worst, we would be assailed by constant doubts and fears concerning our salvation. Then, although God has elected us, we could not in this life know with certainty that we are among the number of God’s elect. Then, although Christ has redeemed us, we could not in this life have the assurance of our redemption in His blood. And then, although the Holy Spirit has regenerated us and given us the gift of faith, we could not know in this life with absolute certainty that He dwells in us or that we are believing children of God.
In that case, to be sure, our salvation would still be an altogether gracious salvation, for none of us deserves salvation. Even if throughout our lifetime we could never be sure of our salvation, until the moment that we died and opened our eyes in heaven, our salvation would still be due to the marvelous grace of God. Guilty, damnworthy sinners that we are, even then our salvation would be a wonder of grace. Considering not only that we do not deserve heaven, but instead deserve the everlasting suffering of hell, that we are afforded a place in heaven magnifies the grace of God.
Nevertheless, the grace of God is greater still. God’s grace is truly amazing grace! Not only does He save us, but He also gives us in this life the assurance of our salvation. Here and now, throughout his pilgrim journey, the child of God enjoys the assurance of salvation. So much is assurance a part of salvation that a right understanding of salvation necessarily includes a right understanding of the assurance of salvation.
Election is God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation. Included in the truth of election is God the Father’s will that those whom He has chosen should know and be assured of their election: “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God” (I Thess. 1:4). Redemption is God the Son’s work on behalf of those whom the Father has elected. But Christ’s redemption includes the assurance of redemption on the part of all those for whom He died: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6). Regeneration and faith are the work of God the Holy Spirit. But those whom the Spirit regenerates and those upon whom He bestows the gift of faith are assured by the Holy Spirit that He will preserve them in the salvation of which He has made them partakers: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
The assurance of salvation is personal assurance. It is not merely assurance of the doctrine of salvation and the orthodoxy of one’s doctrine of salvation, important as that is. But it is the personal assurance that I am an elect child of God. It is not only assurance of the truth of the atonement, but that Christ died for me, even for me. It is not only assurance of the Bible’s teaching of regeneration and faith, but the assurance that I am a regenerated child of God and that the Holy Spirit has given to me the precious gift of faith.
Assurance in the Heidelberg Catechism
The personal assurance of salvation is often referred to in the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the dearest and most personal of the Reformed confessions. The theme of the Catechism is comfort, the comfort that the child of God enjoys in life and in death. But comfort presupposes assurance. How could there be any real comfort if we were not assured of our salvation? What comfort could we enjoy, if we had to live in constant doubt whether we are saved? Only because we are assured of our salvation can we enjoy real and lasting comfort.
The first Q&A spells out that comfort. The question is, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” The answer of the Catechism is,
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.
The answer breathes the confidence enjoyed by the Christian. I am not my own, but I belong to Jesus Christ. With His precious blood, He has satisfied for my sins and delivered me from the power of the devil. My heavenly Father preserves me and causes all things to be subservient to my salvation. The Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me willing and ready to live unto Christ. That is assurance! Unspeakable consolation!
Many of the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism give expression to the assurance of salvation that the believer enjoys. The twenty-first question asks, “What is true faith?” The Catechism’s response, which is put into the mouth of every child of God, is “that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Q&A 44 puts the confession on the lips of the Reformed Christian that by Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, He has “delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” That is the believer’s undoubted assurance. In Q&A 54, the Reformed Christian confesses “that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member” of the church of Jesus Christ. He is assured of lasting membership in the body of Jesus Christ. Q&A 60 has every believer confess that God “of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin.” Blessed assurance! What peace of heart and mind amid the struggles and sorrows of earthly life! I am justified before God for the sake of Christ’s merits.
This same confession points out the main purpose of the sacraments and the reason on account of which the sacraments have been added by God to the preaching of the gospel. The sacraments have as their special purpose, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, the strengthening of the faith of God’s children, which includes their assurance. The sacraments have been instituted as signs and seals of God’s covenant. By means of the sacraments, God intends to strengthen the assurance of our salvation. That is the special role of the sacraments in the life of the church, that by means of that which appeals to our senses, we may be confirmed in the assurance of our salvation.
In Q&A 65, which introduces the Catechism’s treatment of the sacraments, the question is asked, “Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed?” The Catechism’s answer is: “From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.” The sacraments play a confirmatory role; their purpose is the assurance and the development of the assurance of the people of God. Q&A 67 asks, “Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?” The answer is: “Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.” The questions and answers that introduce the sacraments are, “How art thou admonished and assured…” by baptism and by the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments not only admonish us to seek all our salvation in Jesus Christ, but they also assure us of the certainty of our salvation in Christ and His finished work.
Assurance the will of God
God wills the assurance of His people. The Heidelberg Catechism is only reflecting what its authors understood to be the will of God for the saints. That God wills the assurance of His people ought not to be questioned. The Scriptures make abundantly plain that God wills that His people live and die in the assurance of their salvation. This is God’s will not only for a select few in the church, the super-saints; but this is God’s will for all His people in every age. It is not an exception that the Christian enjoys the assurance of salvation. Rather, this is the ordinary experience of the saints, that they live and die in the confidence that they are saved, that God is their God and that they are the children of God.
So much is it true that assurance is the will of God that the entire Christian life is built upon and arises out of the believer’s assurance of salvation. This is another of the great insights of the Heidelberg Catechism. What is the Christian life, according to the Catechism? And what is it that motivates the Christian life? The Christian life is gratitude and that which motivates the Christian life is thankfulness to God for His great salvation. But how can the Christian be grateful for that of which he is not assured? How can he be thankful for that which he doubts belongs to him? Only if he lives in the assurance of his salvation and the conscious enjoyment of the blessings of salvation can the Christian be thankful. And then he will certainly be thankful—eternally thankful— no matter what the circumstances of his life may be. The whole Christian life flows forth from the assurance of salvation. So vital is the connection between assurance and the Christian life, that the absence of assurance destroys the very fabric of the Christian life.
Two important considerations establish the will of God for the assurance of His people. Both considerations are connected to God’s covenant. The first consideration is that God’s relationship to His people is often described in terms of the relationship between husband and wife in marriage. In the covenant, God is the Husband and Head of His church, and the church is His bride and wife. This is the teaching of such passages as Jeremiah 3 and Ephesians 5. What Christian husband is content only with providing for and protecting his wife, and that she submits to and honors him? Is not the Christian husband above all concerned that he loves his wife and that she knows his love for her? Is it not the determination of the Christian husband to assure his wife of his love for her and to surround her with the evidences of his love? We Christian husbands need to do this more often than we do. It is not enough that we love our wives; we must constantly be reassuring them of our love for them. This is what Christ does as the husband of His church. This belongs to the significance of the preaching of the gospel every Lord’s Day. In the preaching of the good news of the gospel, Christ proclaims repeatedly His steadfast love for the church. He assures His bride over and over again of His love for her.
The second consideration is that God’s relationship to His people is described in terms of a father to his children. God is our heavenly Father and we are His spiritual sons and daughters. Times innumerable God calls the people of Israel in the Old Testament His children. God commanded Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: and I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Ex. 4:22-23). The apostle writes in Romans 8:16-17, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer to address God as “Our Father who art in heaven.”
What Christian father would be content only that his children fear and obey him? Is not the fervent desire of every Christian father that his children know his love for them, that they are more precious to him than any earthly thing, even than his own life? Does not every covenant father surround his children with the tokens of his love for them? How much more is that not true of God our heavenly Father? As the only perfect Father, and as an enduring example to us earthly fathers, God is determined to assure His dear children of His unfailing love for them. We sing of the fatherly love of God in Psalter #278, stanza one: “The tender love a father has for all his children dear, such love the Lord bestows on them who worship Him in fear.”
The two great pictures of God’s everlasting covenant of grace underscore the will of God for the assurance of His people. And in these two relationships in which God’s covenant love for us is reflected, we also are assured of God’s love for us.