Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
At the outset we wish to assert as strongly as possible that lack of assurance in the experience of the believer is abnormal. Doubt concerning one’s salvation is not the norm of the believer’s life. And certainly the lack of assurance of salvation is not a sign of a deep spirituality. There are those in the Reformed tradition who teach that doubt or the lack of the assurance of salvation is an indication of spirituality, so that the more one doubts, the more deeply spiritual that person is. This notion must be rejected.
What is normal in the life of the Christian is that he not only knows and assents to the truth of Scripture, but also is assured in his heart that Jesus died on account of his sins and was raised on account of his justification, The child of God is assured of his salvation. That the assurance of salvation is the norm for the life of the child of God ought to be evident from the fact that both Holy Scripture and our Reformed Confessions teach that assurance belongs to the essence of faith. Assurance is not merely one of the fruits of faith which may or may not accompany believing in Christ and appropriating the benefits of salvation. Assurance is essential to faith.
John Calvin defines faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”1 Note the “both . . . and” of Calvin’s definition. Faith is knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. By the sealing of the Holy Spirit Calvin means assurance. In his discussion of this concept, Calvin even goes so far as to say that “the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension.”2 In sections 15 and 16 of the same chapter of the Institutes, Calvin argues at length, and with many references to Scripture, that belonging to faith is the assurance of salvation. 3
The Heidelberg Catechism too makes assurance part of the essence of faith, when in answer to the question, “What is true faith?” it says, “True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel, in my heart; 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.”4
That faith includes assurance is also the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Christian confesses with the apostle Paul, “for 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.”5 And, with the same apostle, the Christian is persuaded that nothing is able to separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus his Lord.6
The fact that assurance belongs to the essence of faith does not mean that Christians never doubt their salvation. Indeed most, if not all, Christians struggle at one point or another and to one degree or another with a lack of assurance. We pastors and elders in God’s church know this. Scripture and our Confessions recognize this as well.7
What may be some of the causes of lack of assurance in the lives of God’s people? Sin is of course the cause of all of the problems of the people of God, including the lack of assurance. When we say sin is the cause we mean specific sins, besetting sins, against which Christians have to fight. The Canons speak of the fact that sometimes Christians “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace, so as to be seduced by, and comply with the lusts of the flesh…. This, the lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints described in Holy Scripture, demonstrates.” “By such enormous sins,” the Canons go on to say, these Christians “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor, for a time….”8
Depressed Christians often lack assurance, even to the point of believing they have committed the unpardonable sin. These Christians are often plagued by severe inferior feelings. They believe they are bad, unlovable people. They are convinced others do not like them. Then they often transfer these feelings to God. I’m so bad, God must not love me either.
Unhealthy teaching and preaching in the church, laying too much emphasis on sin and misery and too little on the wonder of grace in Christ Jesus can produce in some believers a lack of assurance or, at best, a misunderstanding of the truth.
In close connection with this last mentioned cause, a lack of the knowledge of faith may very well produce a lack of assurance. If it is true, and it is, that the confidence of faith is rooted and grounded in the knowledge of faith, one will lack the assurance of salvation in the measure that he lacks the knowledge of faith.
From a negative point of view, this last observation provides the key to proper, effective counseling of those Christians who lack the assurance of salvation. Effective counseling of those who doubt their salvation can take place only in an environment of good, balanced preaching i.e., preaching which proclaims the whole counsel of God. To put it another way, counseling those who lack assurance begins in the pulpit. Preaching after all, is the chief means of grace. By means of preaching, God’s people hear the voice of their Savior, believe on His Name, call upon Him, and are saved.9 Such preaching will never minimize sin. Such preaching will emphasize that sin is an enormous offense to the thrice holy God. Such preaching will be constantly calling God’s people to faith in the Lord Jesus and repentance toward the living God. But, balanced preaching will never sell short the almighty power of God’s sovereign grace in Christ Jesus. Such preaching will be constantly directing God’s people to the cross of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. It will stress the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit who can and does break the hardest of hearts.
But even in those congregations blessed with faithful, balanced preaching the pastors and elders will encounter those who lack the assurance of faith. How must these be counseled?
The answer to this question is perhaps best summed by Article 10 of the Canons, “This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God; but springs from faith in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God, Rom. 8:16; and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience, and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort, that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge or earnest of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.”
Note well that the assurance of salvation is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God! Assurance does not come from some mystical experience. God, the Holy Spirit, grants assurance by means of the Word. Therefore, we must bring the Word of God to those who lack assurance. They must be taught and even admonished (with patience and kindness) to rely on the promises of God which are most abundantly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Assurance springs from faith in the promises of God. We must direct God’s people to God’s promises. We must exhort them to believe those promises of God. And again the element of knowledge, the knowledge of faith, is crucial. God’s people must grow in their knowledge of the truth of Holy Scripture. The Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes this in Lord’s Day I, Q. 2. In order to live and die happily (live and die with the assurance of salvation) we need to know how great are our sins and misery, how we may be delivered from our misery, and how to live in thankfulness for that deliverance. We must know this. This is Scripture as well. If we are to avoid falling from our own steadfastness (and that includes the assurance of salvation), we must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (II Pet. 3:17, 18). Assurance springs from the knowledge of faith.
But, faith is the gift of God. If God’s people are to possess what the Canons call “solid comfort,” the Holy Spirit must witness with their spirits that they are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). The Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are God’s children by means of the Word! Hence, those who lack assurance must be exhorted to use faithfully the means of grace. Privately we must bring them the Word as well, in the confidence that the Holy Spirit will use that means to comfort God’s children.
Still more, they must be urged to pray. Scripture exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord always, something we can do only when we are assured of our salvation, and something we cannot do if we are anxious. Hence Scripture tells us to pray. By this means God blesses us with His peace (Phil. 4:4-7). If God’s people cannot pray, they must call for the elders of the church and let them pray over them, and the prayer of faith will save the sick (James 5:13– 15). Those who lack assurance must also be reminded that Jesus, their sympathetic and merciful High Priest, prays for them (cf. Heb. 4:14-16; Heb. 2:18; Heb. 9:24). Still more, these troubled souls must be exhorted to strive to preserve a good conscience by performing good works, i.e., by living a life of sanctification. The Catechism teaches that one of the reasons we must do good works is “that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof….”10
The assurance of salvation flows out of reliance on God’s promises, the witness of the Holy Spirit with our spirits, and a life of sanctification.
Finally, let us who are called to shepherd the flock of God be much in prayer for those of our congregations who struggle with doubt. Let us strive to be sympathetic, patient, and kind, as faithful servants of the Chief Shepherd of the sheep. Let us above all, bring these troubled souls the Word of God.
1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I:551. (Book III, chap. II, 7).
2. Ibid., p. 560.
3. Ibid., pp. 561-562. In these sections Calvin makes very strong statements concerning faith as assurance. “By these words (a reference toEphesians 3:12, RDD) he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence…. Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside of ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them. Hence, at last is bon that confidence which Paul elsewhere calls ‘peace’…. Without it the conscience must be harried by disturbed alarm, and almost tom to pieces…. No man is a believer, I say, except him who, leaning upon the assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death…. And elsewhere he (Paul) so teaches as to intimate that we cannot otherwise well comprehend the goodness of God unless we gather from it the fruit of great assurance.”
4. Question 21. Cf. also Question 1 and 2. Zacharias Ursinus was obviously influenced by Calvin.
5. I Timothy 1:12.
6. Romans 8:38-39.
7. Many of the psalmists struggled with this problem. Cf. for example, Psalms 42, 73, and 77. Cf. also The Canons of Dordrecht, V/5.
8. Canons of Dordrecht, V/4, 5.
9. Cf. Romans 10:13-17.
10. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86.