A very crucial question it is, therefore, as to how this assurance is attained by the elect. And the Canons teach that the elect obtain this assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election, “not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the word of God,—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”
Negatively, then, this assurance is not obtainable by a curious prying into the secret and deep things of God. We must not mistake this statement of the fathers for the false notion that we may and must have little or nothing to do with the truth of predestination; that it belongs to those things which are only for God, not for us, that, it is a “mystery” in the sense that we can and may know nothing about it. As we have remarked before; there are such people, who also piously cloak themselves in the garb of Scripture, and say: “The secret things are for the Lord our God; but the revealed things are for us and our children.” This attitude was far from the thoughts of the fathers when they penned these words. They were averse to such language. They counted it false and illegitimate. It was the language of their opponents3 And the proof of this you find in this very article: for do they not teach that the elect obtain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election? Let us understand, therefore, that this article does not forbid our prying into the mysteries of God’s will, but it forbids our curious, or inquisitive, prying. It does not forbid a spiritually healthy inquiry, but it forbids a sickly and morbid- curiosity. It does not forbid that we search the Scriptures concerning God’s revelation of His eternal purpose of predestination, but it forbids that we shall pry into the secret and deep things of God outside of and apart from the God-ordained manner of the Scriptures. Fact is that it is certainly healthful and spiritually salutary that we inquire into the mysteries of God’s will as they are revealed in holy writ with all our powers. Exactly this we may and must do. For God has not given to us His word in order that we should lay it, or any part of it, aside. Fact is, too, that this healthy inquiry into the mysteries of eternal predestination as revealed tin the holy word of God is exactly necessary if the Christian is to come to a richer knowledge and more decisive assurance of his own election. Not only is it true that the whole of the Canons,—and especially, this First Head of Doctrine,—are in themselves a testimony to the truth of the above statement, because, after all, the Canons simply systematically inquire into and set forth the truth of Scripture concerning God’s purpose of predestination. But it must also be completely obvious that to speak of assurance of election while we do not know and understand the objective truth of election, and do not inquire into that truth, as revealed in God’s word, is abject nonsense. No more than one can have the assurance that he possesses a house while he does not even know what a house is, no more can he have, in the spiritual sense, the assurance of election without knowing what election is. We may safely conclude, therefore, that not only is it necessary that the elect inquire into this truth, but that they diligently inquire into it and become thoroughly versed in this most essential of Scriptural truths. All other things being equal, the ignorant Christian is not the strongest Christian. All other things being equal, that child of God who is most thoroughly founded in the truth of God’s word will be the strongest Christian. And all other things being equal, that Christian who is most thoroughly acquainted with the Scriptural truth of God’s eternal and unchangeable predestination, will also have the richest knowledge and the most decisive assurance of his own, personal election.
What is condemned in this article is the vain attempt to attain to an assurance of election apart from the word of God and outside the way set forth in the word of God. There is, in the first place, in this connection, the false mysticist. He would base his assurance on so-called “experiences”: dreams, or special revelations which he has received, or some sign. He may appeal to some text or special Scripture passage, through which God is supposed to have spoken in an extraordinary way,—whispered in his soul,—to him. Or he may appeal to some unusual experience of conversion. By all these means he really tries to look into the book of life, whereas God has not given us and will not give us a special revelation of the names that are there written. He has given us His word. And through His word He calls us by His Spirit. That is the way to assurance which He has ordained and it is for Him, not for us, to ordain the way. Besides, what unstable ground the above means furnish for assurance. How soon and how easily one begins to doubt the reality of these “experiences” of the past, especially when he is assailed by the storms of the present! How insecure one becomes when he bases all his assurance on a past event, and really lives in the past, when he ought to be facing the spiritual battle of the present, against the devil, against the world, and against his own flesh! A second danger; however, which is also not by any means without reality, is that of engaging in a vain intellectual process of speculation about predestination. Also this will never lead to assurance. It is very well possible, of course, to understand with a cold, purely intellectual understanding all that is revealed in Scripture of predestination. It is possible to be a theologian and a specialist—an authority—on the subject. It is entirely within the realm of possibility, too, to view the truth of election with a certain natural enthusiasm, to become in a natural way, as far as the intellect is concerned, all wrapped up in the truth of election and in its development and maintenance. And yet, if this is all, if that truth has found no place in our hearts, if it is not apprehended by faith ,and if the fruits of election are not manifest in us, then there is something radically wrong, and we can never attain to a real assurance of our own election. Then all that knowledge and intellectual acumen can only be to our condemnation.
All idle speculation and curious prying, then, is to be condemned.
Before we discuss the positive truth concerning the manner of our assurance, as outlined in this article, it is well to give our attention to the fundamental truth concerning assurance itself, and the underlying truth concerning the manner of assurance. The fathers speak here concerning a certain process of observing the infallible fruits of election; and this should not be misunderstood. It is not as though assurance were the result of a mere logical process, as though it were the conclusion of a true syllogism. Besides, the fathers make direct mention of the word of God: “but by observing in themselves . . . the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the word of God.”
And therefore it is well that we understand, in the first place, that not only election, but also the assurance of election is the work of God. It is the gift of His own grace. The situation is certainly not thus, that election is the work of God, but that the assurance of election is something which we must attain. Then we after all come to sail in Arminian waters. Also the conscious enjoyment of the blessings of salvation, including this blessing of the assurance of election, is absolutely unconditional, and without any prerequisites which we must fulfill. Election is not a sort of elusive pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow, for the conscious possession of and enjoyment of which we must consider ourselves solely responsible. Not at all; and when the saints attain to this assurance, they surely will not enjoy it in the consciousness that at least this assurance was of their own attainment, but they will enjoy the assurance of election solely in the consciousness and the conscious confession that also this blessing is pure grace, absolutely the work of God in Christ.
In the second place, we must remember that this work of God whereby He assures us of our election is accomplished by His word and Spirit. Surely, the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God. And as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God, But we must remember that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. And the only Christ there is, is the Christ of the word. And that word of Christ must be according to the will of Christ preached. When the fathers speak of the word of God, therefore, we must also bear in mind that this does not simply mean the Bible, but the word preached. And it is through the preaching of the word and by the operation of the Spirit of Christ that God assures us of our election. In close connection with the foregoing, and already implied in it, is the truth that God works this assurance in us as moral, rational, responsible creatures. Otherwise, of course, there would be no sense in the preaching of the word whatsoever. Who would ever preach to stocks and blocks? But besides, this follows from the very nature of the case: assurance is in its very nature something which can be enjoyed and possessed only by a moral, rational creature.
In the third place, we must remember that the assurance of our election is an assurance of faith. Faith is essentially assurance. It is a certain knowledge of all God has revealed in His word, and a hearty confidence . . . Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII. In order, therefore, to have the assurance of my election, my faith must be conscious and healthy.
And this brings us to the point at which our Canons take up the manner of our assurance: the elect may obtain this assurance of election “by observing in themselves the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the word of God.” God grants this assurance in a certain way. And that way is the way bf the infallible fruits of election. Because those fruits are, infallible, that is, without fail the fruits of election and exclusively the fruits of election, the assurance of election is certainly obtained in the way of them. Because those, fruits of election are of such a kind that they are wrought in us as moral, rational creatures, they tend to assurance. And because those fruits are proclaimed by the word of Christ as the fruits of election wrought by the Spirit of Christ: that assurance is obtained where those fruits are pointed out, that is, in the way of a diligent attendance upon the means of grace.
The question of assurance, therefore, is not the question whether we have the faith, but the question whether we are in the faith. It is not a question of being of faith, the power of faith, which can never be lost; but it is a question of the well-being of, faith, the healthy, conscious activity of faith. And it is that well-being of faith that is briefly described in the last part of this article as being characterized by: 1) a true faith in Christ, i.e., such a faith whereby we consciously cling to Christ, and know and trust that not only to others, but also to me, remission of sin! everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits; 2) filial fear, i.e., not the fear of a slave, but the child-like fear and reverence of love; 3) godly sorrow, i.e., not the sorrow of the world, which is a sorrow over the consequences of sin, but sorrow after God, so that we are sorry because we have transgressed against the most high majesty of God; 4) a hunger and thirst .after righteousness, i.e., a consciousness of our own utter emptiness, of the fullness of righteousness in Christ, and a longing to be filled with His righteousness.
And thus, observing these fruits in themselves with spiritual joy (because they are fruits of the eternal, and electing love of God), and with, holy pleasure (because the believer hates the life of sin, and goes out with all his soul toward God and toward sanctification), the elect, under the preaching of Christ, by the operation of the Spirit of Christ, spontaneously reach the assurance of their election. Here that assurance is never more than a small beginning. Presently when the infallible fruits of election fill us, that assurance will be forever complete.