Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
Our fathers at Dordt said that those who deny that the believer in this life normally comes to the complete assurance that he is a child of God are guilty of introducing into the churches “the doubts of the papist.”1 Over against the comfortless lies of Rome, the Reformed churches emphasized the comfort of the child of God. This comfort the child of God can and does experience only when he is assured that he has found grace in God’s sight and that he will forever dwell in the house of his God.
Right at the beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism, we show that the Reformed believer confesses that it is very common for the child of God to be completely assured that he will go to heaven, and that he often comes to this assurance at a very young age. We see this in the answer to the very first question of the Catechism, in which we teach our children to confess that they are assured that they belong to Christ. The following subtitle of the Catechism indicates what it was written to be:
Method of Instruction in the Christian Religion
As the Same Is Taught in the Reformed Churches and Schools
in Holland and in America
Also in the schools it was meant to be used. In these schools the children were to be taught to answer, not the question: “Do you have the only comfort in life and death?” but the question: “What is thy only comfort in life and death?”
This latter question was to be answered by faith, which means out of a true faith, a faith that is not only a certain knowledge, but also an assured confidence. Throughout the Catechism the child of Reformed believers is addressed as a true believer, and is taught to respond as a true believer. But how is it possible for him to give such an answer from the heart? It is possible because the child of God normally comes to experience the full assurance of faith in this life, and does so, at least often, very early in his life.
The last article on the full assurance of faith had as its purpose to show from Scripture and the Reformed confessions that the child of God can and normally does obtain the full assurance of faith in this life. This article will deal with how he comes to this assurance. A following article, Lord willing, will set forth the good fruit that arises out of this assurance.
There are many who say they are Reformed believers who maintain that for someone to be fully assured that he is a child of God, and thus to be able to come to the table of the Lord, God must first give him some kind of mystical experience that assures him that he does belong to the body of Christ. Although different people may speak of different kinds of mystical experiences, such a mystical experience would really amount to a special revelation from God. God would be revealing something to the person—He would be revealing to him that he is a child of God.
This teaching is not Reformed. It is explicitly condemned in our Reformed creeds. We 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 all believers is taken away in this life, and the doubts of the papist are again introduced into the church, while the Holy Scriptures constantly deduce this assurance, not from a special and extraordinary revelation, but from the marks proper to the children of God and from the constant promises of God. So especially the apostle Paul: “No creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And John declares: “And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.”
(Canons V, Rejection of Errors, Paragraph 5)
This same truth is confessed in Article 10 of the first section of this same Head of Doctrine:
This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God;
and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort, that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge or earnest of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.
True assurance does not arrive out of a peculiar, special revelation that comes outside of the Word of God.2 If one teaches that it does, then he is guilty of introducing the doubts of the papist into the church. Anyone who tries to convince himself that he has received a special revelation is self-deceived and is falling into ungodly mysticism.
There are no further revelations, now that the Scriptures have been completed. And the revelations that were received during the period in which the Scriptures were being written were not revelations that had as their sole purpose to assure a person that he was a child of God, but revelations that were given for the benefit of the church of Christ as a whole.
Rather, this assurance is said to spring forth from the following: 1) faith in God’s promises; 2) the testimony of the Holy Spirit; 3) an earnest and holy exercise of a good conscience and of good works.3
The assurance we speak of is the assurance of faith, and faith is worked in our hearts centrally by means of the preaching of the gospel. By that preaching, Christ speaks the Word of promise to His chosen people, and the Spirit of Christ applies that Word to our hearts. When we hear the promises proclaimed in the preaching, the Spirit assures us, His elect people, that that promise is not only to others, but also to us.
The preaching is the chief key of the kingdom. Through that preaching, the Spirit causes those walking in unbelief to know that He is shutting the door of the kingdom against them. But through this same preaching the Spirit causes those walking by faith to know and to be assured that the door of the kingdom is being opened to them. This preaching, this key of the kingdom, is the means by which the child of God comes to be assured that the door of the kingdom is opened, not only to others, but also to him.
We consciously hear this testimony of the Holy Spirit only when we are walking by faith, exercising a good conscience, and performing good works. If we, for a time, walk in any sin, the Spirit of God, who is the Holy Spirit, withdraws from us,4 so that we do not hear this tes-
timony that we are a child of God. Then when we come to sit under the preaching of God’s Word, we experience that Word to be a Word with no comfort for us. We do not experience the kingdom being opened to us. But in the way of our turning from that sin, crying out to God for forgiveness, and seeking the grace to be delivered from that sin, God restores unto us again the comfortable sense of His favor.
This is what we and our fathers confess when we say that the assurance of faith arises out of faith and obedience. It is said to arise out of “faith in God’s promises” and “an earnest and holy exercise of a good conscience and of good works.” Out of faith arises greater faith. When we repent and believe God’s Word, when we exercise our faith and have a good conscience, we grow stronger in faith. It is only in this way that we continue to experience the full assurance that we are children of God.
This faith, out of which a greater faith arises, is solely the work of God. It is a gift given only to God’s chosen people, a gift that was earned for them by Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Knowing this, and believing this, we humbly cling to God’s promises out of thankfulness, and are assured that we shall forever dwell with Him who is both our God and our Father.
1.A papist is one who adheres to the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope.
2.The phrase “contrary to, or independent of the Word of God,” could be more literally translated from the Dutch as “beside or outside of the Word of God.” The latter statement is a bit clearer, making known that what is being rejected here is a special revelation that is outside of the revelation that God has given to us in Scripture, the revelation that the Spirit applies to our heart through the proclamation of those Scriptures.
3.This is a more literal translation of the phrase translated in our Canons as “a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works.” The more literal translation brings out the idea that our fathers were speaking not merely of a desire, but the activity of exercising our good conscience and performing good works.
4.Although God never completely withdraws His Spirit from a child of God, He does very really discipline His children by withdrawing His Spirit from them when they walk in sin (Canons V, 6).