God wills the salvation of all His elect children. He also wills that all His children have the assurance of their salvation. He wills that they have the assurance of their salvation as soon as they are saved and that they continue to have this certainty to their dying breath. The assurance of salvation is an integral part of salvation itself.
The will of God that all His children enjoy the assurance of their salvation is an aspect of His Fatherly love in Christ for all of them.
This will of God is not absolute and unqualified, so as never to allow for the interruption of this assurance, for example, when the children of God suffer what the Canons of Dordt call “melancholy falls” into sin (Canons, 5/6). Neither does this will of God rule out times when the experience of assurance is weaker. Nor does this will of God prevent the devil from afflicting God’s children with the fiery darts of doubt, even on their deathbed. To these struggles of the believer with doubt, we return later in this series on assurance.
But these instances of uncertainty are the exceptions, not the rule. They are abnormalities in the spiritual life of the saints, not the normal experience. They are grievous injuries inflicted by the enemies of faith—sin and Satan—not faith’s own way of life.
God wills that, amidst all the uncertainties of earthly life, we are certain of our salvation. He wills this certainty for all His children, not only for a select, favored few. He wills assurance for the newly saved, as well as for the veterans in the Christian life. He wills assurance for the weak Christian, as well as for the strong. He wills assurance for those of little faith, as well as for those of great faith. He wills assurance for the one who is least sanctified, as well as for the holiest of the saints. He wills assurance for the covenant child in her childhood and youth, at the very beginning of the pilgrimage, as well as for her old grandparents, who see the heavenly fatherland only a little way off.
“Only His Best and Dearest Friends”
The truth that God desires all His children to have assurance of salvation condemns the teaching about assurance that prevails in Reformed churches heavily influenced by Puritanism and pietism. This is the teaching, referred to in the previous editorials, that only a few of God’s children ever arrive at “full assurance,” that is, certainty, of their salvation. In addition, this teaching holds that even the few who do arrive at certainty must struggle with doubt for many years until finally they achieve certainty.
According to this doctrine, many Reformed people believe the gospel and by their faith are assured that the Bible is the Word of God and that Christ is the Savior. They even trust in Him for salvation. Nevertheless, they lack assurance. They doubt. They doubt their salvation. They doubt Christ’s death for them. They doubt that God loves them. They doubt that they will go to heaven when they die. The explanation, according to their churches, is that assurance is only for a few Christians. And even these favored few acquire assurance only by working for it for a long time.
Describing the Puritan view, which Packer himself embraces and which has influenced Calvinistic ministers and churches in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and North America, J. I. Packer has written:
“Full assurance” is a rare blessing, even among [believing] adults it is a great and precious privilege, not indiscriminately bestowed. “Assurance is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts … God will only give it to his best and dearest friends.”
After faith and conversion, according to these Puritans and their modern disciples, the convert does not have assurance. He ought not expect to have assurance. The Spirit has to give assurance, and “till the Spirit does so … [the believer] lacks assurance; which, said the Puritans, seems to be the case of most Christian people (J. I. Packer, “The Witness of the Spirit: The Puritan Teaching,” in Puritan Papers, vol. 1 [P&R, 2000], pp. 20, 21; emphasis added).
This conception of the Christian life and experience passes for great spirituality in some quarters.
On the basis of the gospel and the Reformed confessions, I judge this conception of assurance to be pernicious error. It is dishonoring to God, who is a tender Father to all His children, not only to a favored few. It is destructive of the comfort of many of God’s people, who languish in black doubt on account of this teaching. It creates Reformed and Presbyterian churches that differ not a whit from the Roman Catholic Church and the Arminian assemblies, for all alike are full of members who profess to believe the Bible and to trust in Christ, but who cannot be sure of their salvation.
The teaching that only a few believers have assurance divides the congregation as effectively and disastrously as does the doctrine of two baptisms. Here, close to God—at the table of the Lord—are the spiritual elite, God’s “best and dearest friends.” Over there, far from God, are the rest—the majority—not merely less dear friends, but for all they know His enemies.
This doctrine of assurance sends many to hell, for the doubt of God’s promise that the doctrine instills, nourishes, and encourages is unbelief. And unbelief damns.
However this doctrine of assurance may have found entrance into Reformed churches, it is an alien element in the body of Reformed truth. It may be a Puritan doctrine. It is not Reformed doctrine. The Reformed faith does not tolerate—for years, lifetimes, and generations!—much less promote, doubt. The Reformed faith gives comfort, certainty, assurance. A Reformed church is not a congregation of doubters. It is a congregation of believers and their covenant children, who by virtue of the Spirit of Jesus Christ—no sceptic! no doubter!—can confess that they possess the comfort of belonging to Jesus Christ (Heid. Cat., Q. & A. 1).
Assurance as Fatherly Will
According to the Puritan doctrine of assurance, God wants most of His children to live much, if not all, of their life in doubt of their salvation. That is, He desires that they live in doubt of His Fatherly love for them. This is a dreadful spiritual condition, for it is the terror of God’s hatred.
This doctrine casts aspersions on the Fatherhood of God.
It is the will of God, as the good heavenly Father, that all His children know His love for them. From the Fatherhood of God in Jesus Christ come not only the blessing of the children’s salvation, but also the benefit of the children’s assurance of salvation.
Is there an earthly father, especially a Christian father, who likes to have most of his children go through much of their life doubting whether he is a father to them? Are there Christian parents who want most of their children to live their life long in fear that their parents hate them and are bent on their destruction? Are there Reformed parents whose pleasure is that most of their children are so paralyzed by fear that they dare not even take supper with their parents?
Is it not rather the case that more than anything else we earthly fathers want all our children to be perfectly sure that they are our children, loved by us with a father’s love and welcomed into our fellowship? Do we not work at this from their very birth?
Is God less a Father than we?
Are we really to suppose that the heavenly Father demonstrates such extreme partiality as to give to only a few of His favorite children the fundamental blessing of knowing His love for them? Are we really to suppose that He leaves the rest to tremble in doubt, whether He hates them and likely will damn them?
How senseless of God to accomplish the work of salvation for all His children, but then to leave many, or even most, of us in constant doubt of this, our salvation! God does not simply will our salvation. He wills also that we be assured of our salvation, so that our salvation does us some good and so that, knowing our salvation, we will love Him, thank Him, serve Him, and glorify Him.
God has made known in Scripture that assurance of His love, and therefore certainty of their salvation, is His Fatherly will for all His children. He puts on the lips of every one of His children, that is, every one who by His grace believes on Him in Jesus Christ, a prayer that begins, “Our Father which art in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Implied by this address of God is that the one who prays knows God as his Father for the sake of Jesus Christ. This is assurance of one’s sonship and salvation. One cannot know God as his Father without knowing himself as God’s child.
If someone is doubtful about his salvation, he doubts that God is his heavenly Father. And if he doubts that God is his Father, he cannot pray. For him to go through the motions of prayer would be hypocrisy. Confidence that God is our Father in Christ, that is, assurance that we are saved, is the very foundation of prayer (Heid. Cat., Q. & A. 120). Only that prayer is acceptable to God, and heard by Him, in which the one who prays has the firm confidence (German: “festen grund”) that, notwithstanding his own unworthiness, God will certainly hear his prayer (Heid. Cat., Q. & A. 117).
To every one who fears Him—weak and strong, young and old, child and graybeard—God gives Psalm 23 as his or her own confession: “The Lord is my shepherd.” To say this, from the heart of course, is to have certainty of salvation.
Concerning all the elect, quickened, believing members of the church, at any stage of their spiritual development, the apostle says in Ephesians 3:12: “In [Christ Jesus our Lord] we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.” The apostle includes the covenant children and young people, whom he will recognize as members of the church in chapter 6:1-3, as well as their parents.
It was by no means the least serious aspect of the grievous error of the Puritans regarding assurance, as it is not the least serious aspect of the teaching of their modern disciples, that, as the rule, they reserved, and reserve, assurance for old people. Assurance comes only with age, usually old age. The children and young people of the church are taught to live in doubt of their salvation. As a result they do live in doubt, terrifying doubt.
What a daring assault on God’s Fatherhood and contradiction of His covenant Word!
The covenant Father says, in the gospel and in the baptism of the children, “I am the God in Jesus Christ of believers and of their children.” The Puritan ministers said to the children, “God is not your God, at least while you are children, and very likely not until you become old men and old women. If He is your God, you cannot know Him as your God. You must therefore live in terror of Him.”
This was not only false doctrine about assurance. It was also sin against the covenant. Denying assurance to the children of believers is connected with the false doctrine of the covenant that views the baptized, covenant children of believers as unsaved until such a time as they receive a “conversion experience.”
According to Hebrews 10:19, every man, woman, and child who trusts alone in the one sacrifice of Christ, renouncing the Old Testament ceremonies and every human work, has boldness to enter the holiest. This is some boldness, for the holiest is where the holy God dwells. Every one who trusts alone in Jesus Christ is exhorted, not to have full assurance of faith, but to draw near to God in the full assurance that every one of them has. Every one of them has this boldness and assurance by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ and by virtue of this faith alone: “in full assurance of faith.”
In Hebrews 10:19ff., the apostle is not speaking to a select few in the congregation, perhaps some of the old men and old women who have struggled with doubt for fifty or sixty years and worked hard all that time to attain to certainty. But he speaks to all who profess Christ and the Christian faith with a true heart.
There is no need to belabor what is perfectly plain in the entire Bible: God’s will for all His children is that they enjoy assurance of their salvation. The very purpose of I John is that all who believe on Jesus Christ may know their salvation. “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” (I John 5:13).
God wills that we know that we are saved, that we have eternal life.
Who may and must know this? Only God’s “best and dearest friends”? Only a favored few of God’s elect, redeemed, and regenerated sons and daughters?
The God of I John is far more Fatherly and gracious than the Puritan preachers and their modern disciples.
“You that believe on the name of the Son of God”! Every one who believes on the name of the Son of God!
Do you believe on Jesus Christ as He is presented in the gospel of the Scriptures? You have eternal life! Know it! Be assured of it! Be absolutely certain of it!
Do not let anyone rob you of this knowledge. Let them steal your possessions, your freedom, your reputation, anything and everything earthly, if need be! But not the knowledge that God is your Father for Christ’s sake and that you are His beloved, saved son or daughter!
Do not let Satan rob you of assurance.
Nor your Reformed minister.
And not the theology of the Puritans.