The Gift of Assurance

The one who gives assur­ance to the believing child of God, we saw last time, is the Spirit of Christ.

There is nothing surprising about this, since He is the one who gives certainty about everything. The Spirit gives the church cer­tainty that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We believe “with­out any doubt all things contained in them [the sixty-six books of the Bible], not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially be­cause the Holy Ghost witnesses in our hearts that they are from God” (Belgic Confession, Art. 5).

The Spirit gives the elect be­liever certainty that the gospel is of God, and true, as also the cer­tainty that Jesus Christ is Savior from sin and death. “For our gos­pel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assur­ance” (1 Thess. 1:5).

Within the divine being of the Holy Trinity, it is the Spirit who is God’s own certainty of His own in­finite truth. “The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Verse 11 adds, in explanation, that, just as it is the spirit of a man that knows the things of a man, so only the Spirit of God knows the things of God.

This Spirit of certainty, to whom doubt concerning the things of God in Christ is foreign and obnoxious, works assurance of salvation in those described in 1 Corinthians 2:15 as spiritual men and women. Spiri­tual men and women are not a few super-saints among the believers. They are not, as the Puritans taught, the few special friends of God fa­vored with assurance, whereas all the other friends are left to languish in doubt, uncertain therefore whether they are God’s friends at all. Spiritual men and women are most certainly not those who claim, mistakenly, if not arrogantly, to have had a mystical experience, which now sets them apart from, and above, the groaning, doubting masses in the congregations.

Spiritual men and women are those—all those—who are born again by the Spirit, who are taught the truths of the gospel by the Spirit, and who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:13, 16).

Experience

Assuring us spiritual men and women of our salvation is simply part of the Spirit’s saving of us at every step of the order of salva­tion. So far is it from being true that assurance comes only at the distant end of one’s salvation, if it comes at all, that, in fact, assurance comes at the very beginning of the divine process, or order, of salva­tion, and at every step thereafter.

The Spirit regenerates, and with this new birth into heavenly life comes awareness that we are alive unto God. Born physically, we soon know that we are alive. We do not mope through earthly life for thirty or fifty or seventy years with an anxious look on our face, lamenting, “I doubt that I am alive.” So it is with the new, spiri­tual birth. The Spirit unites us with Christ, and the risen Christ is a commanding, compelling, charis­matic presence. The birth from above makes us alive with His life, and His life is vibrant and unmis­takable, particularly in love and awe of the God and Father of Jesus Christ and in hatred of sin.

The Spirit calls us to Christ Jesus by the gospel, and we come. We come to Jesus Christ. We come to Him as Savior and Lord. We come to Him as Savior and Lord of everyone who comes to Him. We come to Him as our own Lord and Savior. This is assurance of salvation. Assurance of salvation belongs to His very Saviorhood and Lordship.

The Spirit gives faith, and faith is assurance, as was demonstrated in an earlier editorial.

The Spirit sanctifies, and we consecrate ourselves to God in Jesus Christ with heart, mind, soul, and strength in thankfulness for His redemption of us in Christ. The consecration that is holiness is the conviction that God is our God and we are His people. And this consecration is motivated by thank­fulness for the redemption of the cross—our thankfulness for Christ’s redemption of us by His cross. This is certainty of salvation. Certainty of salvation is essential to sanctifi­cation.

When in the day of Christ the Spirit raises our body from the grave in the glorious likeness of Christ, we will know that we are glorified. Certainty of glorification will be of the essence of glorifica­tion. No one will doubt his resur­rection. Nor do I suppose that we will arrive at certainty of our res­urrection by painstakingly examin­ing each member of our glorified body, to determine that it is, in fact, a glorified finger, a glorified foot, and a glorified torso. Rather, we will spontaneously know our own resurrection with certainty by gaz­ing with love and adoration into the face of the glorified Jesus Christ.

Every aspect of the saving work of the Spirit of Christ in­cludes the assurance of salvation.

God does not only desire to save all His children. He also wants all His children to know and enjoy their salvation, for the consciousness of sal­vation is an important part of salva­tion.

Salvation is not only the deliver­ance of the sinner. It is also the sinner’s experience of his deliverance.

It is ironic that those who talk much about “experience” (leaving the distinct impression that no other Reformed church does justice to experience) are content that many believers and children of be­lievers, members of the congrega­tions, be shut out from all experi­ence of salvation. Indeed, by their Puritan doctrine that faith is not as­surance and that most believers must work and wait for many years to obtain assurance, as well as by the pernicious teaching of many that there is a “preparatory grace” in unregenerated people, they themselves rob their members of the experience of salvation. Lack of assurance is lack of experience.

We, on the other hand, who are viewed as being “doctrinal” (as though this were a weakness in a church, and not a church’s supreme strength), and suspected of mini­mizing experience, insist on the ex­perience of salvation by all who be­lieve and by their covenant chil­dren. The Spirit blesses our doc­trinal preaching and teaching, to give this experience to all those in the covenant, adult believers and their children. Assurance is expe­rience.

That the work of the Spirit is assuring Jesus’ disciples of their salvation is expressed by the name Jesus gives Him in John 16: “the Comforter.” “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you” (v. 7). Whatever else the Comforter may do, He actually puts to rest the sinner’s fears and doubts and assures him in the midst of all his tears and struggles, “God loves you; Christ died for you; you are justified by your faith in Christ; your destiny is eternal life and glory.”

Some Comforter the Spirit is if He leaves us, or most of us, doubt­ing our salvation, much, if not all, of our life.

Sealing

Then there are the texts that make the Holy Spirit the seal to us of our salvation (2 Cor. 1:19-22; Eph. 1:13; Eph. 4:30). Ephesians 1:13 reads, in the Authorized Ver­sion: “In whom [Christ] ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.”

Sealing is the assurance of one who believes in Christ that he is saved and that he shall be saved to all eternity. Calvin explained, in his commentary on the text:

The true conviction which believ­ers have of the Word of God, of their own salvation, and of reli­gion in general, does not spring from the judgment of the flesh, or from human and philosophical ar­guments, but from the sealing of the Spirit, who imparts to their consciences such certainty as to remove all doubt.

The Spirit Himself in the be­liever is this seal, as is indicated by verse 14, which calls Him the “earnest [or deposit, or down pay­ment] of our inheritance.” The Spirit seals us in Christ: “In whom [that is, in Christ]…ye were sealed.” There is absolutely no as­surance apart from Christ. Nor does the Spirit give any assurance apart from Christ and trust in Christ as He is presented in the “word of truth.” All Christ-less “mystical experiences,” in which the Spirit and the mystic, or experientialist, have their delight­ful tete-a-tete, are mere fantasy, and of the devil. “In Christ you trusted; in Christ you believed; in Christ, you were sealed.” And verse 14 adds that the Spirit is the earnest to us until the completion in us of the redemption of the cross of Christ.

Of great importance is the teaching of Ephesians 1:13 that the sealing with the Spirit is immedi­ately connected with one’s trusting in Christ upon hearing the Word of truth. Introduction by the Au­thorized Version of the word “af­ter” could be misleading, as though the believer’s sealing follows his believing in time, perhaps even a long time. Literally, the Greek text reads, . .in whom also having believed, you were sealed with the holy Spirit of promise.” There is no “after” in the text. When one hears the gospel of Jesus Christ and believes in Jesus Christ, he is sealed—immediately, as part and parcel of the work of the Spirit in him giving faith. Immediately, as an essential aspect of faith in Christ, the believer is assured of his salvation, now and in the day of the “redemption of the pur­chased possession.”

This is the nature of the saving work of the Spirit.

Indeed, this is the nature of the indwelling Spirit Himself. He Himself is the seal—the certainty, the assurance—of the believer.

This is the nature of the indwell­ing Spirit in every one who trusts in Christ, having heard the Word of truth.

Those Puritans who separated assurance from faith by many years, often by an entire lifetime, grounded their dreadful error in a mistaken interpretation of Ephesians 1:13. They explained the sealing with the Spirit as separated from, and following in time—often many years—one’s believing the Word of truth. In some of the Pu­ritans, this error was aggravated by their teaching that the sealing, when it finally happens, is such a direct and immediate testimony of the Spirit as amounts to the myste­rious experience of “overpowering light” (see J. I. Packer, “The Wit­ness of the Spirit: The Puritan Teaching,” in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, P&R, 2000, pp. 17-29).

This Puritan doctrine of seal­ing (which, of course, puts assur­ance forever out of the reach of all but a few elite Christians) opened the way to Wesley’s heresy of the second blessing and then to the charismatic movement with its doc­trine of the baptism with the Spirit.

The English preacher D. Mar- tyn Lloyd-Jones strongly advocated the separation of sealing with the Spirit from faith in Christ, with ap­peal to Ephesians 1:13. In this way, he became the instrument by whom the Puritan doctrine of assurance led on to the acceptance of the charismatic movement, not only in his own congregation, but also widely in so-called evangelicalism in England.

Gift

The comfort, the sealing, the witness of the Spirit of Christ, that is, assurance of salvation, is a gift. Like every other aspect of salva­tion and like salvation as a whole, assurance is pure, free grace.

The Spirit works assurance in all of God’s children, not because they deserve it, not because they have made themselves worthy of it by many years of maturing in their faith, and not because they themselves work for it and finally obtain it by their noble efforts. God forbid! But the Spirit gives God’s people assurance because God gra­ciously is pleased, not only to adopt children, but also to have these children know Him as their Father, and themselves, His chil­dren for Christ’s sake.

The Spirit gives assurance by giving faith. Faith is a gift. One of the two elements of true faith, according to Q. 21 of the Heidel­berg Catechism, is assurance. Giv­ing faith, the Spirit gives assurance.

To be condemned is the Puri­tan doctrine that assurance is some­thing Christians must work for, must obtain themselves by their hard work, and must make them­selves worthy of over many years. This doctrine concerning the assur­ance of salvation is not a whit dif­ferent from the teaching of Rome and of Arminianism: salvation by man’s own efforts, his own heroic running and willing. The result is the same: widespread, God-dis­honoring, destructive doubt.

  1. I. Packer describes this Puri­tan error (and really defends it) in his article in the book, Puritan Pa­pers, referred to above. Most Chris­tians do not have assurance at once when they believe. Assurance is reserved for only a few Christians: “God’s best and dearest friends.” Most of those who do finally ob­tain assurance get it many years af­ter their conversion.

But what now accounts for God’s favoritism? What makes these few Christians His dearest friends? Why do these few finally get assurance?

Not God’s mercy!

But their own efforts!

“Assurance,” writes Packer, de­scribing the Puritan doctrine, “is not normally enjoyed except by those who have first laboured for it and sought it, and served God faithfully and patiently without it” (p. 20).

This doctrine is a form of the heresy of salvation by works. The salvation in view is assurance. The works are laboring, seeking, and serving faithfully and patiently. The doctrine breeds, and breathes, pride. A few worthy souls get as­surance by their own hard work. The doctrine produces doubt. Who can ever be sure that he has worked long and hard enough?

To set the believer to the work of energetic service of God, hard spiritual struggle, and intense Christian warfare for many years, while depriving him of the assur­ance of salvation, is like telling a man to run a race, after you have cut his legs off. There can be no spiritual struggle, Christian war­fare, or service of God without as­surance of salvation.

I speak personally, but in the name of the children of the cov­enant.

I have believed since my earli­est years. If I had to fight my spiri­tual battles uncertain of God’s love and my salvation, I would have perished in my warfare a hundred, no, a thousand times. If I had to serve God doubting whether He was my Father, I would have quit before I began.

I fought and endured, I pa­tiently served, I struggled in my calling in the covenant of grace, sometimes intensely, because I was certain of the love of God for me per­sonally in Jesus Christ my Lord.

Doubters cannot faithfully and patiently serve God. Doubters can­not struggle and fight in and on behalf of the covenant and king­dom of Christ. Doubters cannot live a vigorous, healthy, joyful Christian life of holiness.

Whatever got into the heads of the Puritans, learned divines and in many respects wise teachers of the gospel, when it came to the vi­tal matter of assurance? Why do Reformed ministers doggedly fol­low them today?

If I have a sick child, mentally and emotionally sick, who is al­ways dragging himself about the house asking, “Am I your child? Did you beget or adopt me? Do you really love me?” it is nonsense to demand of him a vigorous life. He will contribute precious little to the healthy life of the family. He will be no great joy to his parents. The poor fellow must be healed.

Assurance is not the achieve­ment of sick, doubting Christians.

Assurance is a gift. It is the gift of the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

Reformed thinking about assur­ance does not speak of a “quest” for assurance. That is Puritan thinking and talk, implying the ob­taining of assurance by one’s own efforts. The Reformed faith con­fesses the “gift” of (full) assurance. Assurance is an essential element of faith (Heid. Cat., Q. 21). Faith is the gift of God (Canons, III, IV / 14). Shall we indeed speak of a necessary “quest” for faith?

Reformed believer, do not work for assurance. Rather, receive it, and enjoy it, by and with faith.

Assurance of salvation, like the salvation of which it is a precious part, is not of works, lest anyone should boast (for example, of be­ing one of God’s best and dearest friends).

Assurance is of grace, so that he that glories should glory in the Lord.

P.S.

In the end, time ran out after all. There is more to be said about assur­ance. I have more to say about assur­ance. The series on assurance is un­finished. Perhaps, another day, in other space.