Previous article in this series: January 15, 2021, p. 182.
Stooping to our weakness
“Calvinist believers who struggle with their assurance can never know with certainty that they are one of the elect.” So writes Jerry L. Walls in Why I Am Not a Calvinist.1 The charge is as old as Arminianism. It was an objection voiced by the Arminians (Remonstrants) prior to the Synod of Dordt.
In reality, the opposite is true. It is the teaching of Arminianism that strips believers of comfort. This heresy maintains that Christ died for every human being without exception. Despite a death of Christ intended for all men, God still sends some people to hell. If it is true that even though Christ died for them, there are some whom God consigns to hell, how can I be sure that I am not one of them? At the end of the day, I can have no assurance of final salvation and eternal life.
Assurance is enjoyed by the believer through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is assurance. Faith is assurance because faith rests in Jesus Christ who died for elect sinners. Faith is assurance because the death of Jesus Christ was a complete satisfaction of the claims of God’s justice for all for whom He died. Faith is personal assurance. It is the assurance that Christ died for me, even for me. It is the assurance that by His atonement, He covered the guilt of my sin—all my sins. It is the assurance that He stood in my place and endured what I deserved to endure. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is the assurance “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 21).
But our faith is not always as strong as it ought to be. There are mountain peaks and deep, dark valleys in the life of the believer. There are times when our faith is strong; but there are also those times when our faith is weak. Every child of God can identify with the father of the lunatic boy, about whom we read that he cried out to Jesus with tears, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). We are imperfect saints—sinner-saints.
God knows the weakness of our faith. He knows how hard it is to believe that Christ died for me, even for me. What child of God cannot identify with the publican who smote his breast and cried out under the conviction of his sin, “God be merciful to me [the] sinner” (Luke 18:13)? God in His mercy stoops to the weakness of our faith and confirms in us the assurance of salvation. Chiefly He does this through His Word—the preaching and teaching of His Word. For the strengthening of our faith, He joins to the Word the administration of the sacraments. In relation to the preaching of the Word, the sacraments function as secondary means of grace. In addition, God also confirms our assurance of salvation through the evidence of His work of grace in our lives, including our good works. Good works are used by God the Holy Spirit to strengthen the assurance of believers.
The role of good works
Grace is not opposed to works. This is the mistaken teaching of antinomianism. To be sure, grace is opposed to works as the basis (ground or reason) for our salvation. But grace is not opposed to works, to working energetically and sacrificially. Grace is not opposed to works as the expression of love and gratitude on the part of the redeemed sinner. Grace is not opposed to working in the calling and station in life in which God has set each of us, no matter how lowly that calling may be regarded by some. Grace is opposed to meriting, not working. Grace is opposed to working to earn from God—anything from God. But grace is not opposed to working in joyful service to the One who has saved us body and soul, for time and eternity, from death and hell.
God has determined that our good works, as the fruits of election and salvation, shall play a role in our assurance. They are mistaken who contend that our good works have nothing to do with our assurance. That our good works are not the basis for our assurance does not mean that our good works have absolutely no role to play in connection with assurance. They do, and this can be demonstrated both from a negative viewpoint and from a positive viewpoint. I want in this article to begin by focusing on the negative: the loss of assurance when we walk willfully in impenitent sin. And then, in a future article, I want to look at the positive role that good works play with regard to assurance.
To begin with, it is the teaching of Scripture and our Reformed confessions that when the child of God goes on in a way of sin, God judges (chastens) him by taking away from him the assurance of salvation. I consider it to be a prong—a very dangerous prong—of antinomianism to deny that the people of God can ever lose the assurance of salvation.
Some teach that the elect child of God, although he falls deeply into sin and goes on without repenting of his sin, still retains the sense that God is his God, that Christ is his Savior, and that he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. They hold that no matter how abhorrent the sin—spousal abuse, child molestation, pornography, marital infidelity, drug or alcohol addiction—and no matter how long the child of God goes on in the sin, he never loses the assurance of his salvation. Sin as he may, stubbornly refuse to repent as she may, give themselves over to their sin as they may, they still retain God’s assurance and the Holy Spirit’s testimony that they are the children of God. Even as they go on in their sin, they still have the confidence that they belong to God as one of His elect, one of God’s own beloved sons or daughters. In the past year, I have been confronted by those who have insisted on this very thing. My first response has been, “Why then repent, if I can go on in sin and retain the assurance, at least to some degree, that I am an elect child of God?”
The loss of assurance
But apart from an instinctive response, this contention is contrary to Scripture, to our Reformed confessions, and to experience.
Canons of Dordt, V, Article 5 is clear:
By such enormous sins, however, they [true believers, according to V.4] very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them. (Emphasis added.)
It should be clear that either one has or one does not have the sense of God’s favor. They who walk impenitently in sin lose, that is, lose altogether, lose completely, the sense of God’s favor. Canons V.7 says that in the way of “a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins,” the repentant child of God “again experience[s] the favor of a reconciled God.” What was not his experience while he went on in his sin, in the way of repentance is again his joyful experience.
In his commentary on Canons V.5, Homer C. Hoeksema has several pertinent things to say on this matter of the loss of assurance. I highly recommend that our readers study this chapter in The Voice of Our Fathers. 2 In connection with this withdrawal of assurance, Hoeksema insists that “God does not ignore sins that remain in the saints. It will not do to say that all those sins are not real because they have been covered by the blood of Christ” (428). This in affect is what the antinomian teaches. Rather, “by such enormous sins the saints ‘incur a deadly guilt.’” This “we all know by experience. All our sins in themselves make us feel guilty before God. Otherwise we would never pray, ‘Forgive us our debts.’ As long as we do not get rid of this guilt by confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness through the blood of Calvary, our souls must carry the burden of guilt.” He goes on:
In the case of gross sins, sins in which saints walk and for which they do not immediately come to repentance, the result can be only that the saints feel themselves to be in a state of damnation. When they finally come to the spiritual consciousness of these sins, the saints can give expression to that hopeless feeling. This is fundamentally true with all sin. As long as sin is not confessed in prayers for forgiveness, saints experience deadly guilt (429).
A bit later, Hoeksema says, “The grieved Spirit does not give up the elect and forsake them; but he withdraws from them in their consciousness” (430). With reference to the language of Canons V.5, he says: “When the Spirit is grieved and withdraws from the saints in their consciousness, the exercise of their faith is interrupted, for the Spirit is the author of faith…. When saints sin and continue in sin, the exercise of their faith is interrupted” (430). The consequence of this interruption of the exercise of faith is the loss of the assurance of salvation: “When by his enormous sins the child of God grieves the Holy Spirit, interrupts the exercise of faith, and wounds his conscience, the result must be that he loses his good conscience for a time” (431). And further:
All that he has left is his old accusing conscience, the awareness of the condemning judgment of God. This result follows inevitably upon the interruption of the exercise of faith, for the good conscience of the Christian is his apprehension by faith of the justifying judgment of God in Christ. If the exercise of faith is interrupted, his good conscience is wounded, or silenced, and the evil, accusing conscience has full sway. (431)
The last consequence of the saints walking in enormous sins, mentioned by the Canons in V.5 is that they “lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.” Commenting on this aspect of God’s judgment on impenitent saints, Hoeksema says:
Once one has received the grace of God, he cannot lose it. But it is possible and is a very painful reality to lose the sense of God’s grace. Then one experiences what the psalmist describes in 32:3-4: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” One experiences that he cannot say, “This God is my God.” He cannot say, “My only comfort is that I belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” He loses the experience of God’s favor upon him and of the fellowship of God. He experiences dreadful separation from God, that God’s face is hidden from him, that the light of his countenance does not shine upon him, and that his ear is not open to his prayers. (431-32)
“Such a person,” Hoeksema continues,
may attend the preaching of the word, but he finds no comfort, nourishment, and edification in it. The blessed tidings of the gospel do not seem to be directed to him personally. Perhaps he makes use of the sacraments, but they render him no assurance and do not strengthen his faith. He may attempt to sing the songs of Zion, but his heart is not in it. How awful such periods in the life of the child of God can be! How dreadfully real the thought can become to one in such a state that he is not a child of God. Even after finally coming to the realization of his gross sin, how painfully he can bemoan his state and in doubt and temptation complain that he cannot be a child of God. How he may become the object of the fierce attacks of the devil, who accuses him on the basis of his enormous sins that he is not a saint at all (432).
This is all very real for the child of God who goes on stubbornly in his sin. “Until one repents, the fatherly countenance of God does not shine upon him. The way of life is the way of repentance, not the way of sin and impenitence, and only in the way of repentance can one have the sense of God’s favor” (432).
Note that: “only in the way of repentance can one have the sense of God’s favor.” Never in the way of impenitence can we enjoy the sense of God’s favor, but only ever in the way of repentance. And that for a good reason. The reason is that God uses the loss of His fatherly favor as one of the important things that brings His wayward child to his senses so that he resolves to return to the bosom of Father. The child of God simply cannot stand the darkness of soul that accompanies the loss of the sense of God’s favor. God uses this to bring His prodigal son or daughter to their knees with the determination, “I will arise and go to my Father” (Luke 15:18a).
1 Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 192.
2 Homer C. Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers: An Exposition of the Canons of Dordrecht (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980, 2013 second ed.), 425-33. Italics will always be my emphasis.