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We have been observing the publican of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:14 who went down to his house justified. This man represents every justified believer. The justified believer walks home in the way of or on the path of obedience, and on this path of obedience he enjoys walking in communion with God his Friend. We now turn our focus to another closely related element of the justified believer’s walk: his assurance of salvation.

Assurance of salvation

Assurance is the believer’s conscious certainty of heart that Jehovah God, who loves and saves sinners, loves and saves him. Assurance is always personal, so that the believer confidently says, “God loves me, saves me, works all things together for my good, and will take me into His tabernacle in heaven.” Assurance is always given by God the Father as a precious gift for Jesus’ sake; therefore, assurance is painstakingly obtained by Christ and enjoyed only by those who are in Christ. Assurance is always worked by the Holy Spirit, for He is the Author of faith and the Comforter who makes His abode deep within the believer, testifying with our spirit that we are the children of God. Assurance is always wrought by the Spirit through the Word (and sacraments) which reveals to the believer the sure promises of God in Jesus Christ. Assurance belongs to the very nature of saving faith, so that those who believe in the promise of God have both the knowledge of His Word to them and the certainty of it.

The blessedness of assurance is best understood, appreciated, and accentuated when assurance is considered over against its opposite: doubt. How miserable it is to doubt, to be plagued by anxious and perplexing thoughts, to be seized with terror, to be tossed to and fro throughout the dark night, “Is God for me or against me? What if I am one for whom Christ did not die…a goat…alone in my sins. I’m afraid God does not love me, and how could He love someone like me anyway? The thought of dying, and the afterward of anguish and torment in hell, terrifies me.” The devil takes a peculiar and sinister delight in tormenting the souls of God’s children. You can be sure, therefore, that the fury with which God shall hurl that damned deceiver into the fiery pit that has no bottom to catch him will be spectacularly violent. How wicked is the tempter of doubt! How debilitating and wrong are doubting thoughts! Over against the temptations of Satan, against which even the strongest believers must contend, there is the blessedness of the sure confidence of faith in Jehovah God: I am loved by God, chosen by God, redeemed by God, and forever secure in God for Jesus’ sake!

The source of assurance is not located in our good works as believers. How could it be? Assurance is a gift from God. Assurance does not rest upon the sinking sand of our own doings, but upon the perfect and eternally unshakable works of Jesus Christ the Rock. Assurance is an essential element of true faith, and faith always looks to Christ and all of God’s wonderful works and covenant promises in Christ. A distraught Asaph, who struggled all through the night and refused to be comforted, finally found comfort and assurance… in works—the works of Jehovah—Psalm 77:11, “I will remember the works of the Lord…,” (“And on His deeds my thoughts shall dwell,” Psalter 210, stanza 5).

To the poor, penitent believer hounded by doubting thoughts comes the admonition, “Dearly beloved, godly sorrow is good. Taking ownership of your sins, weeping over their seriousness, and reckoning with the reality of everlasting punishment is necessary. But you need to look away now. You may not dwell on sin, punishment, and adversity. Look away from yourself, the corrupt fountain of your evil flesh, all your transgressions and shortcomings, how unlovable you think you are, and all the troubles of your path and attacks of your foes that you fear are proofs of God’s wrath against you. Behold your God! Our gracious God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet ungodly sinners Christ died for us! God is for us, as the cross proves beyond all doubt. If God be for us, then God is not against us, and nothing is against us!” Believing in God, the believer has assurance.

In the way of obedience

As we explained last time, the justified believer goes home walking on the path of obedience. It is only in that way that the believer enjoys fellowship with God and assurance of his salvation. The believer’s walk in good works of loving obedience is not the ground of his assurance, but the lovely fruit of his assurance. Since the faith by which the believer possesses assurance is always fruitful, it is always true that the believer enjoys his assurance of salvation as he walks in the way of obedience. What a beautiful sight! Confident of the love of his God who justified him as an ungodly sinner, the believer walks home responding to God in all good works of loving obedience as is his reasonable service.

Something very dreadful to the believer’s experience occurs when the believer strays off that path of obedience and continues deeper and deeper down the dark path of disobedience. He loses his assurance. What a terrible place to be! God still loves him. God is still with him. The covenant bond is unbroken and unbreakable. God is still giving him an experience in his soul. But God is no longer causing him to experience the favorable light of His countenance and the comfortable sense of His reassuring presence. God is giving him the miserable and agonizing experience of the taste of His divine displeasure. Not sweet but bitter is the rebellious believer’s experience. The Holy God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity will not give assurance of His love to those who walk in that dark way of iniquity that He detests with infinite hatred. No one—absolutely no one—enjoys assurance of salvation while walking in rebellion against God.

When one like Naomi turns her back on God and continues long in stubborn rebellion against God’s will by forsaking God’s house and people for the conveniences of idolatrous Moab, then God the Father not only makes his daughter a miserable Mara of bitterness and chastens her sorely by taking away her husband and sons, but also uses that unpleasant experience to turn her back to Himself. God sovereignly brings Naomi back into the experience of His love and the assurance of His faithfulness. God stirs up her faith so that she acknowledges Him and her terrible covenantal infidelity against Him. In sincere repentance she cries out from a broken and contrite heart, “God be merciful to me the sinner!” and she trusts there is a way of reconciliation opened up to her through the atonement and righteousness of an all-sufficient sacrifice. Graciously, she is restored to the assurance of God’s love. Returning to the promised land, she is firmly resolved to walk in obedience, and she enjoys her assurance as she walks in that way of grateful obedience (see Canons of Dordt, V, Art. 7).

Fruits confirming faith

As the justified believer enjoys personal assurance, walking by faith and in the way of obedience, his good works serve as confirming evidence that his faith is a genuine, living faith. This confirmation is a benefit of good works according to Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches “that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.”

The fruits of his faith do not give the believer his assurance of salvation. The fruits of his faith do not convince the believer that he is a believer and has true faith. The fruits of his faith are not something upon which the believer stands for confidence, nor are they even that at which he looks long and upon which he fixes his heart, for the longer and deeper he looks at the good the more pollution he discovers. The believer knows he is a believer because he has faith. He believes, and he believes because God has made him a partaker of Christ. Then as he walks in the way of obedience, the fruits that proceed from his faith provide a testimony that spontaneously confirms the fact of his faith.

This confirming evidence of the fruit of faith is valuable in the face of Satan’s constant attempts to assail the genuine character of the believer’s faith. The deceiver alleges that the believer is nothing but an ungodly hypocrite who hides behind his façade of piety with as much filthy corruption and world-love as any profane man, and who makes a sham profession of God and the cross just to impress men and hopefully escape hell. Against these assaults, the believer knows he is a believer joined forever unto Christ, and the fruits of his faith, especially the more inward, unobservable fruits that no man can see, help to distinguish his living faith from dead counterfeits. Among these fruits are holy awe before and adoration of the greatness of God, excitement to magnify God’s name in song, delight in frequenting God’s house for worship, joy in watching the youth walk in the truth of God’s covenant, love for the brethren and eagerness to minister to them in their afflictions for Christ’s sake, godly sorrow over personal sin, grief over the waywardness of a loved one and the offense it is before God, desire to see an ungodly acquaintance confess the name of the Lord, horror over the blasphemy of God’s name, and willingness to suffer reproach for the name of Christ. These holy fruits do not spring from the dead tree of a false faith. As the believer walks by faith and in the way of obedience, these fruits confirm to him the sincerity of his faith.

In his concluding comments on I John 2:3, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments,” John Calvin sums up the matter succinctly,

But we are not hence to conclude that faith recumbs on works, for though every one receives a testimony to his faith from his works, yet it does not follow that it is founded on them, since they are added as an evidence. Then the certainty of faith depends on the grace of Christ alone; but piety and holiness of life distinguish true faith from that knowledge of God which is fictitious and dead; for the truth is, that those who are in Christ, as Paul says, have put off the old man (Col. 3:9).1

Next time we will come full circle and return to the doctrine of justification in order to demonstrate our main point that, in the matter of justification, all good works are excluded.


 

1 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, vol. 22,trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 175.