Assurance was a significant doctrine faced at the Synod of Dordt in 1618–19. The Arminians insisted no man could have assurance that salvation was his unless he was told: “God loves you and wants to save you.” And, said the Arminians, that might not be said to him unless it is true that God loves everyone, Christ died for everyone, and God’s desire is to save all.
Assurance is also a significant issue in the doctrine of the covenant. The conditional covenant touts itself as the covenant theology that gives the most assurance. The assurance it gives (so it is said) arises from the conviction that God promises salvation personally to each baptized child. Parents can go home after the baptism service with the assurance, “God spoke to my child, called him by name, and promised him salvation.” They reject an unconditional covenant with the elect alone partly because then the promise at baptism is only for the elect, and the parents walk away from baptism with no assurance.
This assurance is pressed upon the baptized child. All his life he is told, “You have the promises of God spoken to you personally.” If that child walks in sin and seems to have no interest in spiritual things, the parents can continue to console themselves with the assurance, “Our child has the promises.” The idea then is, there is still hope that he will believe the promises and claim the inheritance. Thus it is maintained, assurance in the covenant is only possible when God’s promise is to each and every baptized child.
Here again is the striking similarity between Arminianism and the theology of a conditional covenant. This similarity is not mere coincidence. Fact is, the conditional covenant is Arminianism applied to the covenant of grace. Arminianism holds that God loves all men, wants to save all, and that Christ died for all. The conditional covenant teaches that God establishes His covenant of love with all baptized children, Christ washed them all in His blood, and the Spirit wants to save all the baptized children. And, therefore, because this is so for every baptized child, the parents have assurance.
But assurance of what? It is not the assurance that the child is or will be saved. The child will not be saved unless he acts. He must fulfill the condition of faith, and only then will he be saved. In the end, this is no assurance at all. The child who (supposedly) received the promise of salvation personally from God will perish in hell eternally, the promise being of no effect unless he does something to obtain the promise. The parents have no assurance, nor even any hope, if salvation depends on the child fulfilling a condition unto salvation.
If the promoters of the conditional covenant are hoping to find in Head V of the Canons support for their understanding of assurance, they will be sadly mistaken. In fact, in Head V, assurance concerning a baptized child is not something given to parents. Assurance of salvation is given to the believer himself, not to those around him or those in his family.
Now, it is true that one can “have no doubt” about the election and salvation of a fellow saint. A man who lives with his believing wife for many years has no doubt about her salvation. He has observed the work of God’s grace in her for years and would have complete assurance, if she died, that she was in heaven.
Canons I, 17 testifies the same to godly parents, namely that they have “no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.” Notice, the assurance is tied to election. But the Canons nowhere give parents the right to know that their baptized children are elect. Nor may believers presuppose that, any more than they may presuppose that their children are regenerated. But all Reformed parents know that if the baptized child is not elect, he will never believe. What kind of assurance is it then, if a parent comes away from baptism with the conviction that the child “has the promises of God”? We have previously noted the Canons’ teaching on depravity, namely, that the baptized child is no more inclined to believe than the non-baptized child, since both are born dead in sin. That means the supposed “assurance” given to parents in the conditional covenant is empty.
The Canons give assurance to believers. But the Canons do not give it by teaching a conditional election of all, a universal payment of sin, and an offer/promise of salvation to all men, or to all baptized children. The Canons give the only assurance that is real, namely, assurance based solely on God, and on God’s saving work. This is the assurance of faith, and therefore is only to the believer. This is the explicit teaching of Canons V, Article 9:
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.
Several elements of Article 9 deserve special attention. First, the Canons continue to link every doctrine of salvation to unconditional election (“the preservation of the elect”). Second, the assurance is to the “true believers,” and that, “for themselves.” That is to say, the assurance given is not concerning others, for example, all baptized children. Third, assurance is “according to the measure of faith.” All of us know from personal experience that a strong faith yields a strong assurance, and a weak faith a weak assurance. But without faith, there is no assurance of personal salvation.
That assurance is grounded on God alone comes out especially in Article 8, which begins, “Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength…that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor…perish.” The article points out that “with respect to themselves, [this] is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen.” But, “with respect to God, it is utterly impossible.” The article then proceeds to list seven reasons why it is impossible for God’s people to perish.
…since His counsel cannot be changed, nor His promise fail, neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.
Article 10 teaches how this assurance comes to believers. Negatively, it “is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God.” Rather, it “springs from faith in God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort.” At this point, the conditional covenant man might say, “You see, ‘faith in God’s promises’ is what produces assurance.” But here the Canons are not speaking of assurance of believers concerning the salvation of their children. Rather, this assurance is (recall Art. 9) to “true believers for themselves.” And while baptism is a sign and seal of the promises of God, as we have previously seen, these promises signified and sealed are only to believers, not to all baptized children.
Article 10 goes on to teach that our (believers’) assurance derives also “from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God, Romans 8:16.” Obviously, this is not a testimony to unbelievers, nor to unbelieving baptized children. It is to believers.
Third, Article 10 maintains that assurance is “from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience, and to perform good works.” Such a “holy desire” is never found in an unbelieving person, be it an adult or a baptized child, but only in a regenerated, believing adult or child.
The point is, this assurance is not remotely like the assurance that the conditional covenant allegedly gives to believing parents at baptism. And in stark contrast to the theology of a conditional covenant, Article 10 speaks of the “solid comfort” given to “the elect of God,” namely, God’s “infallible pledge or earnest of eternal glory.” The conditional covenant has a conditional promise of salvation to all baptized children, which promises are far from infallible. Those “promises” will only be realized if the child fulfills the condition of believing.
In contrast to that, the Canons speak of “infallible pledges.” These infallible pledges of God cannot lie or fail to be realized. Everyone to whom God promises eternal glory receives eternal glory. And at baptism, that infallible pledge is only to the elect child. The reprobate child is promised nothing.
Salvation not dependent on man
The articles in the second part of Head V reject the Arminian teaching that the believer’s persevering depends on the believer. This is consistent with the rest of the Canons, which insist that no part of salvation depends on man. In that context, rejection of errors Article 1 repudiates the Arminian teaching of a conditional covenant, namely that “the perseverance of the true believers is…a condition of the new covenant, which (as they declare) man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his free will.”
The article’s rejection of the error has two distinct but related parts. First, “the Holy Scripture testifies that this [perseverance] follows out of election,” and then second, it “is given the elect in virtue of the death, the resurrection, and intercession of Christ.” A conditional covenant is not consistent with this teaching that blessings are rooted in election and grounded in the work of Christ.
The covenant theology of the Federal Vision is conditional, and is therefore to be rejected as inconsistent with and contradictory to the Canons. The Federal Vision goes farther, teaching that a baptized child is truly united to Christ and justified, but that this child can fall away from that union with Christ and perish. In Article 3 of the rejection of error of Head V, the Canons explicitly condemn this when it rejects the errors of those who teach that “true believers and regenerate not only can fall from justifying faith and likewise from grace and salvation wholly and to the end, but indeed often do fall from this and are lost forever.” For, says the Canons, “this conception makes powerless the grace, justification, regeneration, and continued keeping by Christ.”
The Canons simply will not allow our salvation to hang on the will or activity of man. In this fifth head of doctrine, the Canons add perseverance to the list of saving works that depend on God alone. And assurance of salvation to the end is likewise a gift of God’s grace through faith.
And yet, man is not a stock and a block. It has been pointed out that in this infallible salvation worked by God alone, God does not treat the elect as a block of wood. Article 14 states it again, pointing out that God “preserves, continues, and perfects” His work of grace by the use of means, in which means the believer is active and involved. Specifically, “by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the sacraments.”