Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
Our fathers at Dordt said that those who teach that the believer in this life normally does not arrive at the complete assurance that he is a child of God are guilty of introducing into the churches “the doubts of the papist.”1 This is a strong condemnation of what our fathers saw to be a very serious false teaching. Since faith is the bond that joins us to Christ, our spiritual foes would lead us to deny the truth concerning the nature of faith. The devil knows that we are joined to Christ by means of faith, and that that faith is not only knowledge but also confidence. He strives to strip us of this confidence, to break our faith, so that we will fall into sin.
The first article on this subject (SB, Nov. 15, 2002) set forth proof that the child of God, in this life, normally arrives at the certain conviction that he is and forever shall remain a child of God. The second article dealt with how this assurance is obtained. This final article will consider the fruit of this certainty of perseverance, and then apply this truth to the subject of the preaching of the gospel.
There are many who warn us not to assure the members of our churches that they are children of God. If they hear one of our ministers address the congregation as “beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ,” and if they then hear him tell the people that their sins are forgiven, they object. They do not object if the minister merely says that all the sins of God’s people have been forgiven. But they do object if the minister addresses the congregation personally, and tells them that their sins are washed away. “The minister may not say that,” they say. “He cannot know that all those to whom he speaks are really forgiven.” They then go on to add that if the minister continues to do this, it will lead the people in the congregation to walk in sin. If you assure the people that they will certainly persevere unto the end, so the argument goes, then the people will conclude that they might as well give in to the lusts of the flesh, seeing as they have nothing to fear.
This is not the teaching of our Reformed creeds. The certainty of perseverance does not make believers proud and carnally secure. The certainty of perseverance is the certainty of faith. Just as humility, reverence for God, and obedience are all fruits of faith, so they are all fruits of this certainty of perseverance. This is the way our fathers put it in the Fifth Head of the Canons of Dordt, Article 12:
This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that, on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God, so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.
What is the source of humility? What is the source of reverence for God and true piety? What is the source of patience and joy? What is the source of fervent prayers and a bold confession of the truth? The answer to all of these questions is the same—the certainty of perseverance. That stresses to us how important this assurance is, and how deadly is that enemy that would strive to take this assurance from us.
How does this apply to us who desire to see ourselves and the other members of the congregation grow in reverence for God, love for the truth, and obedience to God’s commandments? Since we know that these things flow out of faith, which includes not only a certain knowledge of the truth, but also the certainty of perseverance in that truth, we should make use of themeans and the method that God has set forth for us in His Word.
This means that the gospel must be distinctively preached, sharply over against all of the false gospels that would introduce man’s activity as at least a partial basis for his salvation. It is the preaching of the gospel of grace, preaching that sets forth clearly what God has done and is continuing to do in and through Jesus Christ, that works more of this faith in our hearts.
It is easy for a church to lose sight of this. As worldliness more and more enters the church, there are often those who put pressure on the pulpit to start preaching less about doctrine and more about man’s responsibility.2 Their argument often sounds something like this: “We already know the doctrine. The problem is that we are not living out this doctrine. The more God’s people are assured that they will certainly persevere, the more they will run with the world. When we keep hearing the truth of unconditional election and irresistible grace, this leads the young people to conclude that it really matters not if they walk in this sin or in that sin. What we really need to hear emphasized is the truth of man’s responsibility. Furthermore, the people must perpetually be told to examine themselves to see if they truly are children of God.”
Now it is true that the law must be strictly preached as the rule for our life of thankfulness (Lord’s Day 44), and that the people must be told that not all those who are raised in the sphere of the covenant are truly children of God. But this does not mean that the calling of man is central in the preaching; nor that the people in the congregation must constantly be told to examine whether or not they are truly believers.
First of all, the emphasis in the preaching must be on the work of God, not the calling of man. Only this can truly be said to be gospel preaching. Although some texts may require the setting forth of man’s calling in more detail than others, this calling must always be set forth as an efficacious calling. If we say that we believe in the efficacious call of the gospel, this conviction must be evident when we apply this truth to our calling to keep God’s law. When God commands us to do this or that, the efficacious call of the gospel works faith in us, causing us to do that which He commands. It is true that a believer sometimes does not hearken to the command of God for a time. But when this happens, our heavenly Father chastens him, applying the rod of correction to keep him in the sheepfold of Christ.
All of our salvation, including our act of believing in Christ and keeping the commandments of God, must be set forth as God’s work from beginning to end. The more God’s people hear this, the more they will be certain that they will truly persevere. They will see more clearly that their salvation really does not depend upon them in any way. Then, instead of desiring to run back into the bondage of sin, they will be filled with gratitude to the God who has unconditionally saved them. They will grow in their reverence for God, and will, with joy in their heart, delight to show forth this thankfulness in a walk of obedience.
Secondly, that the people might experience more the blessings that arise out of the certainty of perseverance, it is important that they be addressed as people of God. In some churches the preaching begins by addressing the people as “beloved people of God,” but then changes during the course of the sermon, and the people are repeatedly asked, “Are you one of God’s people? Are you one of those who really believe this truth?” Questioning like this, repeated again and again, sermon after sermon, tends to promote, not the certainty of perseverance, but carnal doubts.
Scripture and the creeds set forth the importance of God’s people being addressed organically as true believers, even though there are unbelievers present in the true churches of Jesus Christ. The preaching does set forth “to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God” (Lord’s Day 31), but the preaching is still addressed to the people of God organically as believers. That this is proper is evident from our Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches the people of the congregation, not constantly to question whether they have the only comfort in life and death, but to confess that they do have the only comfort of knowing that they belong to Christ. They are not asked whether they fear the coming final judgment. They are asked how they are comforted by the fact that Christ is coming again to judge the quick and the dead.
This is also what we see in the New Testament epistles. The inspired apostle Paul, though writing to congregations where unbelievers were certainly present, addressed them as believers. We see this at the beginning of his letters:
To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.
To the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus.
Nor did the address change during the course of the letter. Note the way he speaks to the Thessalonians. First he warns about the fact that there will be those who will be caught by surprise when Christ comes. But then, instead of asking the people, “Are you one of those who will be caught unprepared?” he proclaims to the congregation the comforting gospel truth:
But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.
He writes a letter to a congregation where unbelievers were certainly present, and yet he says to them, “Ye are all children of light.”
This is addressing God’s people organically, as a body. This preaching does not bless the unbeliever. Rather, such a person becomes more convinced that the promise of the gospel is not addressed to him. But this preaching is a great comfort to the child of God. This is the kind of preaching that causes God’s people to experience more the blessings that arise out of the certainty of perseverance. It comforts them and builds them up in the faith. And what will be the result of this? The result will be that, more and more, there will be evident in the congregation “humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering, and in confessing the truth” and “solid rejoicing in God.”
1. A papist is one who adheres to the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the pope.
2.This is not meant to deny that the truth concerning man’s responsibility is itself one of the doctrines of Scripture.