Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
According to Scripture and our confessions, true faith consists not only of knowledge but also of confidence. One who has such a faith not only holds for truth all that God has revealed in Scripture, but also is assured that the promised blessings of salvation are not only for others, but also for him personally (Lord’s Day 7).
There are many, however, who would strip faith of this element of confidence, and would maintain that the believer in this life rarely, if ever, comes to the full assurance that he is in fact a child of God. Some of these people teach that for one to be sure that he is a child of God, he must have some kind of mystical experience, an experience that really amounts to a special revelation from God.
Although some of those holding to this view claim to be Reformed, their position is explicitly condemned in our creeds. It is condemned as being essentially the same as the error of the Romish church. In the fifth head of the Canons of Dordt, in paragraph five of the section on the rejection of errors, we who are truly Reformed confess that we wholeheartedly reject the errors of those
Who teach: That without a special revelation we can have no certainty of future perseverance in this life. For by this doctrine the sure comfort of the true believers is taken away in this life, and the doubts of the papist are again introduced into the church….
The “doubts of the papist”*—that is what our fathers said this error would bring into the church. Knowing this, they warned us of this error, and devoted a number of articles to proving that true believers, who are old enough consciously to believe, do indeed obtain this assurance in this life. The Canons of Dordrecht set forth clearly the fact that true believers can obtain this assurance. They also go on to state the source of this assurance, as well as the fruit that it bears.
We begin in this article to consider, first of all, the fact that God does give His people the full assurance of faith in this life.
Obtaining This Assurance: A Reality in This Life
The subject of the assurance of salvation is referred to in a number of ways in the Canons of Dordt.It is sometimes called the “certainty of persevering,” or “the full assurance of faith,” and is treated especially in the following articles:
First Head of Doctrine: Articles 12, 13, 16; and Rejection of Errors, Paragraph 7.
Fifth Head of Doctrine: Articles 9-13; and Rejection of Errors, Paragraphs 5 and 6.
A number of these articles clearly and explicitly state that it is common for the child of God to arrive at this certainty of persevering in this life. We see this, for example, in the following articles:
The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election… (Canons I, 12).
Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and ought to obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the church, and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life (Canons V, 9).
These articles prove that it is confessionally Reformed to maintain that the elect believer in this life commonly obtains the assurance that he is right now and forever shall remain a child of God. We obtain this “in due time,” as conscious faith is worked in us by the preaching of the gospel. We do not, of course, consciously know this when we are born. But as we come under the efficacious preaching of God’s particular grace, we do indeed come to this assurance, and often at a rather young age.
There are those who would point to the fact that the first article quoted above says that we obtain this assurance “in various degrees and in different measures,” and would say that this means that although we can obtain this assurance to a certain degree, we cannot come to the full assurance of faith in this life. This, however, is not what this phrase means. That our fathers did not mean this is evident from the second article quoted above. There they confess, and we confess with them, that true believers “may and ought to obtain assurance … whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion, that they ever will continue true and living members of the church.” From this it is plain that our fathers did confess the truth that we believers, in this life, can draw near to God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:12).
The reason why they said that believers obtain this assurance “in various degrees and in different measures” and “according to the measure of their faith” is that there are some true believers who go through a time in which they do not experience this full assurance. It can happen that a true child of God goes through a time in his or her life in which he doubts whether he really is a child of God. This is mentioned in Article 11 of the Fifth Head of the Canons, which reads:
The Scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that they may be able to bear it,
I Corinthians 10:13,
and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering.
Sometimes the reason why a child of God is not experiencing this full assurance of faith is that he is walking in a certain sin. Perhaps he is hating a brother or sister in Christ, or perhaps he is having fellowship with someone else who is walking in sin. God lovingly disciplines His people when they fall into these and other sins, and does so by withdrawing Himself from them. Although He never completely takes His Holy Spirit from them, He does indeed withdraw His Spirit from them to a certain degree (Canons, V, 6), so that they experience, for a time, what it is like to be apart from God. During such a time, the child of God who is presently being chastened by His heavenly Father may descend so low spiritually that he doubts whether he truly is a child of God. This discipline continues until, by the grace of God, he cries out to God, confessing his sin, and pleads for forgiveness, asking God also to deliver him from the sin into which he has fallen.
Our creeds maintain that, although there may be times in which a true believer doubts whether he is a child of God, the believer who is walking by faith commonly comes to the certain conviction that he will forever dwell in the house of his heavenly Father. Such assurance belongs to the faith that God works in our heart.
Defending Against the Doubts of the Papists
Our fathers recognized how important it is for us to know and to confess the truth concerning the full assurance of faith. They rightly warned us, their children, that we would be guilty of allowing the doubts of the papists to be again introduced into the church, if we tolerated either of the following teachings (Canons V, B, 5):
1.We can have no certainty of future perseverance in this life.
2.We can arrive at this certainty, but only by means of some special revelation from God.
The latter error would include the false teaching, common in some churches that claim to be Reformed, that a person has to have some kind of mystical experience, to know for sure that he is in fact a child of God, and thus to be able to come to the table of the Lord. Such teachings are not Reformed; they are papist. They promote in the churches not faith, but doubt.
Over against this false teaching, we must set forth clearly the truth that God, in this life, does really work conscious faith in our hearts, and that that faith is not only knowledge, but also an assured confidence that the promises of salvation are not only to others, but also to us (Lord’s Day 7). If this were not the case, how could we sing from the heart the following passages from the psalms?
I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord
By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me
When I cry unto thee, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know; for God is for me
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever
These psalms can rightly be sung only by faith. We can and do sing these psalms to our God because He produces this faith in our hearts. We can obey our Lord when He commands us to sing these psalms, and we can submit to His will when He exhorts us to rejoice, knowing that our “names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
But how does one obtain this assurance? What arises out of this assurance? Lord willing, the answers to these questions will be considered next time.
*A papist is one who adheres to the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope.