Previous article in this series: May 15, 2021, p. 375.
True faith distinguished from wicked presumption
Although assurance is of the essence of faith, the faith of God’s people is an imperfect faith. Their faith is often mixed with unbelief. Although strong at times, there are other times when faith is weak. Mingled with true faith are doubts and fears. Besides the mountain tops of faith, there are also the deep, dark valleys. In His infinite goodness, God stoops to the weakness of our faith. With a view to the assurance of faith, God in various ways and by various means is pleased to confirm our assurance. One way in which God confirms believers in their assurance of salvation is by enabling them to observe in themselves the fruits of election and faith. By observing in themselves the infallible fruits of their salvation, they may conclude that they are assuredly the children of God.
In this respect, assurance is distinct from presumption. Wicked presumption has no support in reality. There is absolutely no reason for those who are presumptuous to suppose that they are the children of God. Like the wicked scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who steadfastly maintained that they were the children of Abraham although they did not have the faith of their father Abraham, so the wickedly presumptuous in every age deceive themselves and others into supposing that they are the children of God. Despite the complete absence of any real evidence of the grace of God in their lives, they claim that they are children of God. But they are hypocrites, who are carnally secure. They wickedly distort the saving grace of God and live careless and profane lives. In fact, they are accursed of God and will one day be beaten with double stripes.
In distinction from those who are wickedly presumptuous, the elect children of God manifest the fruits of their election in godly lives lived in the midst of the present evil world. As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches (Q&A 64), “it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”
Practical syllogism and mystical syllogism
A helpful way in which theologians have distinguished the fruits of election is by use of two syllogisms, the practical syllogism and the mystical syllogism. A syllogism is an argument, a logical argument. A syllogism ordinarily consists of two premises or presuppositions followed by a conclusion. An illustration would be:
All marsupials nourish their young in a pouch on the female.
A kangaroo nourishes its young in a pouch on the female.
Therefore, kangaroos are marsupials.
Although theologians refer to the practical and mystical syllogisms, we must not suppose that the assurance of salvation is simply a matter of logical argumentation. The assurance of salvation is not merely a matter of logic— proper reasoning. For one thing, the assurance of salvation is a spiritual matter and, therefore, not merely a logical conclusion. For another thing, if the assurance of salvation were merely a matter of logical argumentation, this would rob the Holy Spirit of His crucial role in working and in confirming the child of God in the assurance of his salvation. It is the Holy Spirit as the Comforter who is the Author and Preserver of the assurance of salvation in the believer. He is the One, according to the apostle in Romans 8:15-16, who causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father.” We cannot know God as our loving heavenly Father apart from the saving work of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, use has been made of these syllogisms in order to call attention to the fruits of election and faith as the evidence of the saving work of God in the believer. The two syllogisms focus on two general categories of fruits of the Spirit. The practical syllogism focuses on evidence that is outward and observable, known both to the child of God and to others. The practical syllogism concerns the practical life of Christians in marriage and the family, in the church, and in the world. It concerns that which the believer and others observe of his words and actions. In distinction from the practical syllogism, the mystical syllogism focuses on that which is unseen and therefore mysterious, that which is within the child of God. The mystical syllogism focuses on that which is known only to God and to the child of God.
God’s people show forth in their lives the evidence and fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are gentle towards all men. They speak the truth to the neighbor and do not participate in backbiting or slander. They obey the laws of the land. They are honest is their business dealings. They are faithful in their church attendance. They assist those who are in need, visiting the fatherless and widows in their afflictions. They publicly confess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and are willing to suffer persecution, if necessary even martyrdom, for the sake of the truth of Jesus Christ. From the presence of these evidences of grace in their lives, the children of God are confirmed in the assurance of salvation. These fruits of grace are not evident in the life of the ungodly. They certainly are not evident as the sacrifices of praise willingly offered up to God in gratitude for salvation. The presence of these good works in the believer’s life confirm his assurance of salvation. This is the practical syllogism.
But the evidences of grace are also present within believers, in their hearts, minds, and wills. They include those things that are wrought mysteriously by the Holy Spirit within the children of God. Chiefly, they believe the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ who is preached in the gospel. Faith is an outstanding fruit of grace. Additionally, believers love God and the neighbor as themselves—his wife or her husband, their children, the fellow church member. They want to please God and keep His commandments. They are sorry for their sins, sincerely repent of their sins, confess them, and fight against them. These are the evidences of grace within the children of God, which confirm their assurance of salvation. The Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-12) are primarily concerned with these inward graces: the poor in spirit, those who mourn over their sins, the meek of heart, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who are merciful, the pure in heart, and those who are peaceable. Such, Jesus teaches, may be assured that they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. They will be reviled and persecuted by the world, but “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). These inward graces are the focus of the mystical syllogism.
The Reformed confessions:
The Heidelberg Catechism
At this point in our consideration of the proper role of good works in the assurance of the child of God, we will examine the testimony of the Reformed confessions. The Reformed confessions teach clearly that the good works of the child of God are used by the Holy Spirit to confirm in the believer the assurance of his salvation. Although the confessions do not explicitly speak of or distinguish the practical syllogism and the mystical syllogism, nevertheless the confessions do refer to both the outward and the inward graces of the Holy Spirit, which serve as evidences of salvation. And, therefore, the believer in whom these evidences are found may be strengthened in the assurance of salvation.
The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21 establishes the close connection between assurance and the fruits of election in the life of the child of God, particularly the fruit of living membership in the church of Jesus Christ. This is especially the teaching of Q&A 54:
Q. What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
A. That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.
The blessed assurance of the Christian is “that I am and forever shall remain, a living member” of the church of Jesus Christ. Blessed assurance, indeed! Confidence for the present! Hope for the future!
This church is “chosen to everlasting life” and is, therefore, the company of the elect. The assurance of Lord’s Day 21 includes nothing less than the assurance of election. This assurance is enjoyed, first of all, only by those who are members of the church, the instituted church of Jesus Christ in the world. None who disdain membership in the church or who forsake church membership can enjoy the assurance of election. Secondly, this assurance is enjoyed in a church that is united in “true faith.” Assurance of election is not enjoyed by those who are members of just any church, certainly not of a false church or an apostate church, nor of a sectarian group that has separated from the true church. But assurance of election is enjoyed by those who are members of a church that holds to the “true faith.” And third, the assurance of election is enjoyed by those who are “living members” of the church of Christ. Not those who are only formally members of the church whose names are inscribed on the membership roll of a church but who attend services only on Easter and Christmas enjoy the assurance of election. But assurance that they have been “chosen to everlasting life” is enjoyed by those who are faithful, living, and active church members.
Membership in the church, therefore, vital church membership, is an outstanding evidence that one is included in the number of the elect. Living membership in a true church of Jesus Christ, is used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the believer in the assurance of his personal and eternal election by God. The importance of membership in the instituted church cannot be overstated.
Commenting on Q&A 54 in his The Triple Knowledge, Herman Hoeksema writes,
In order, therefore, to live in the consciousness of being a member of the church of Christ, in the joyous assurance of my personal salvation, my faith must be conscious and healthy. I must not simply have the power of faith, but faith must be active…. It is, therefore, indispensable for the assurance of my personal salvation that I diligently attend the preaching of the Word of God, and faithfully partake of the sacraments the Lord has instituted for the confirmation of our faith.1
A bit later in the same chapter, Hoeksema adds,
The way in which we may so hear the Word of God that we are assured of our calling and election is that of obedience to the Word, and of sanctification.
If we walk in ways of the world, of carnal lust and pleasure; if we do not put off the old man, and put on the new; or if there be some sin in our life which we nourish, for the which we will not repent, the Spirit does not witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God…and we will not possess the glad assurance of our personal salvation, as long as we refuse to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of the flesh and of the Spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
This connection between hearing the Word of God and a walk in true sanctification, and, therefore, between a life of obedience to the Word and our personal assurance of salvation, the Bible emphasizes frequently.2
Our personal assurance of salvation is confirmed under the hearing of the Word of God in the church and in the way of a walk in sanctification. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder!
1 Herman Hoeksema, Triple Knowledge, 3:225. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1972).
2 Hoeksema, 3:226.