Previous article in this series: October 15, 2020, p. 36.
Assurance of the essence of faith
Assurance is of the essence of faith. This is the historic and confessionally Reformed view of assurance, as it is the teaching of Scripture. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that assurance is of the essence of faith in its classic description of faith in Lord’s Day 7, Q&A 21. There the Heidelberg Catechism describes faith as both knowledge and confidence. Confidence is just another word for assurance. Although faith is knowledge and confidence, it may be said that of the two elements of faith, the confidence of faith stands on the foreground in Answer 21. The knowledge of faith, according to the Catechism, is a “certain knowledge.” By speaking of the knowledge of faith as “certain,” the authors of the Catechism are underscoring the assurance of faith. When they come to describe faith’s confidence, they speak of that confidence as an “assured confidence.” That is really a redundancy. An assured confidence is a “confident confidence.” That redundancy serves to underscore the truth that assurance is of the essence of faith.
In its teaching that assurance is of the essence of faith, the Heidelberg Catechism is only reflecting the teaching of Scripture. Paul’s glorious confession shortly before his martyr’s death was, “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: 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” (II Tim. 1:12). Paul knows whom he has believed. That is certainty—unwavering certainty. Further, he is persuaded that the One in whom he has believed will preserve him unto the day of his death and the coming of his Lord. That persuasion chases away every doubt and fear. Persuasion is confidence.
In Hebrews 10:22, the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews exhorts the saints, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” The exhortation calls the saints to draw near to God, whether in worship or in prayer, with “a true heart,” that is, in sincerity, and “in [the] full assurance of faith.” That he speaks of the full assurance of faith indicates that assurance is of the essence of faith. Faith is not faith without assurance.
John 6 contains Jesus’ instruction that He is the Bread of life, whose body must be eaten and whose blood must be drunk. The eating and drinking to which Jesus refers is the activity of faith—believing on Jesus, as He makes plain in John 6:29 and 35. The outcome of Jesus’ teaching was that “[f]rom that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (v. 66). It was at that point that Jesus put the question to His twelve disciples, “Will ye also go away?” (v. 67). In response to Jesus’ searching question, Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the twelve, made his glorious confession of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 68-69). The idea of Peter’s statement is, “we believe and therefore we are sure.” The Holy Spirit inspired Peter to word his confession just as he did exactly because assurance is of the essence of faith. The believer is sure of what he believes and the One in whom he believes.
The apostle Paul celebrates the exaltation of Christ in the context of his own sufferings for Christ in Ephesians 3. In the opening verse of the chapter, the apostle refers to himself as “Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles.” Because he had faithfully and boldly preached the gospel, Paul was a prisoner in Rome at the time he wrote the epistle to the Ephesians. In the gospel that he preached, Paul proclaimed not only the sufferings of Jesus Christ but also His glorification for the church, the members of which include both Jews and Gentiles (v. 6). God’s purpose in Christ’s exaltation is that in Him “might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (v. 10). Paul goes on to refer to Christ’s great work of intercession on behalf of His church as our heavenly High Priest, on whose account “we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him” (v. 12). Because of Christ’s high-priestly work, we have the right, privilege, and calling to draw near to God. Here, too, the apostle speaks of the confidence of faith. Faith is confidence: “with confidence by the faith of him.” When the apostle speaks of “the faith of him,” he is referring to faith in Christ. Christ is the “Him” upon whom faith rests. Part and parcel of faith in Christ is confidence. The confidence of faith is sure inasmuch as the confidence of faith is in the risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ. The confidence of faith rests not in those who believe, but in the One who works faith and is the object of faith.
Romans 4 celebrates the faith of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. Abraham believed the promise of God concerning the seed that would come from him. He believed the promise of God when it looked as though it was impossible that the promise could be fulfilled. “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb” (v. 19). Verses 20 and 21 continue, “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.” In the strength of his faith, Abraham was “fully persuaded” of the promise of God. That language expresses the certainty of faith.
Faith is assurance. Assurance is of the essence of faith.
Denials of assurance
The Reformed faith teaches that assurance is of the essence of faith. Various false teachings deny that faith is assurance.
Roman Catholicism has always denied that assurance is of the essence of faith. This was a critical issue at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation really began as the result of Luther’s quest for the assurance of his salvation. The church of Luther’s day denied the very possibility of assurance. That was due to Rome’s teaching of free will and works-righteousness. No matter the good works that Luther performed, or his reliance on the storehouse of the good works of others, he could not enjoy peace with God and the assurance of his salvation. It was only when Luther came to depend, not on his own works, but on the perfect work of Christ alone, that Luther came to experience assurance of salvation. Through faith in Christ, the doubts and fears that troubled him were chased away as the morning mist before the rising sun.
Arminianism, too, denies the possibility of the assurance of salvation. At the time of the Synod of Dordrecht this was the position of the Arminians. They taught that only those who received a special revelation from God could possess the assurance of salvation. This is indicated in Canons V, 10, which denies that assurance is “produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God.” What the article rejects was exactly the teaching of the Arminians. The “Rejection of Errors” section of the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons also repudiates the Arminian teaching concerning assurance. The Synod rejected those who taught that “without a special revelation we can have no certainty of future perseverance in this life.” The article goes on to teach that “by this doctrine the sure comfort of the true believers is taken away in this life, and the doubts of the papist [Roman Catholic Church] are again introduced into the church.”
Besides those who deny the possibility of assurance, there are those whose teaching of assurance is fatally flawed. There have always been those in the Reformed camp who have taught that assurance of salvation depends on some sort of mystical experience.
There have been and are today those of this viewpoint in the Dutch Reformed churches, as well as the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. This mystical group is represented by the Netherlands Reformed Congregations in the United States and Canada. The evidence of this false view of assurance is that even in large congregations only a small handful of members, not even all the members of the consistory, partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
These people often view the Christian life as one of perpetual doubt and fear. There have been those who lived and died in what seems to be a proud lack of assurance of salvation. They, at least, are not like so many Christians who take their salvation for granted. Oh, no! It must be given. And if you do not have this assurance, it is not your fault, and there is nothing that you can do but wait for it to be given. For some, you may safely live like the devil and sow your wild oats, until finally God gives you the sign or experience upon which you can then ground the assurance of your salvation.
Others have taught that assurance must be sought. Only after rigorous efforts throughout most of one’s life, usually at the very end of life, is assurance finally achieved. Ministers in these churches aim in their preaching to create doubt among their members. Rather than to comfort the people of God, they do all in their power to undermine their comfort.
The charismatics and Pentecostals also corrupt the truth concerning the assurance of salvation. This has to do with their characteristic doctrine of the second work of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostals distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit. By virtue of the Spirit’s work of regeneration and faith, all believers have the Holy Spirit. But in addition to this ordinary work of the Holy Spirit, there is a second work of the Spirit, the baptism in or with the Spirit. This second work of the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as “being filled with the Spirit,” or “the sealing of the Spirit.” By virtue of this Spirit baptism, the Spirit-filled believer receives the charismata, the special gifts of the Spirit, especially the gifts of speaking in tongues and faith healing. At the same time, it is only those who have received this second blessing who possess the assurance of salvation. The ordinary believer, though regenerated and possessing the gift of faith, does not enjoy the “full assurance” of faith, which includes the assurance of salvation and perseverance in salvation. The teaching of the Pentecostals is a direct broadside against the Reformed faith. Between the two there is and can be no agreement— none whatsoever!
Assurance the work of the Holy Spirit
Assurance is of the essence of faith. But the question is, “How does the Christian enjoy this assurance, the full assurance of faith?” The answer is that just as faith is the gift and work of God, so also is the assurance of faith God’s gift and work. We must not suppose that God saves us, but that we accomplish the assurance of our salvation. We must not think that God bestows the gift of faith, but we manufacture the assurance of faith. We must not have the idea that there are certain steps to follow, certain levers to pull, certain buttons to push and, ‘presto,’ the Christian has the assurance of his salvation. The church cannot give the assurance of salvation; the preacher cannot give assurance; a person cannot give himself the assurance of salvation.
God the Holy Spirit works assurance in the heart of the believer. As it is the Spirit who bestows the gift of faith, so it is the Spirit who causes the believer to enjoy the assurance of faith and salvation. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” In Galatians 4:6 the same apostle teaches that “because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” The fruit of the work of the Spirit in the child of God is that he is assured that God is his loving heavenly Father and, therefore, he cries out, “Abba, Father.”
As always, God is a God of means. Although it is the Holy Spirit who works assurance in the Christian, He does so through the preaching of the gospel. Through the Word as it is faithfully preached in the church, the Holy Spirit works and the Holy Spirit strengthens the assurance of salvation. Under the word of the gospel, the Spirit dispels our doubts and puts our fears to rest. He testifies to elect believers that they are God’s precious children and that His Son has died for them.
Here is where God’s people must go with their doubts and fears. Under the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ, His doing and dying, believers enjoy the assurance of their salvation. And under the same preaching of the cross of Christ, the Holy Spirit strengthens us in our assurance.
How foolish and fatal to cut one’s self off from the preaching of the gospel! Apart from the preaching of the gospel—the truth of the gospel—there is no possibility of the assurance of faith. Church membership, membership in a true church of Jesus Christ, is of the greatest importance for the assurance of faith. For the enjoyment of assurance, for ourselves and for our children, the necessity of faithful church membership cannot be overstated.