On Assurance of Salvation

There’s a reason we wait until dark to light fireworks. Against the dark skies, the glow of the explosions is brightest. Fireworks during the day, like at a baseball game, are loud but not nearly as interesting to observe.

The same could be said in the realm of ideas; doctrines, principles, and philosophies always have heightened clarity when put in the context of competing concepts.

For example, the good news of the gospel – the perfect life, substitutionary death, and validating resurrection of Christ for sinners – becomes crystal clear against the backdrop of the bad news of our sin and deserved judgment.

This principle has again become pertinent to me recently as I studied theological ideas around the justification of sinners and the assurance of their salvation.

Both the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1687) have nearly identical sections entitled, Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation. They are both contained in Chapters 18 of their respective documents.

In the first paragraph of these chapters, both Confessions have this identical statement: “Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.”

What a powerful statement! True believers “may be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace.”

Now, I have taken hope and comfort from Scripture passages like the entire book of 1 John, which was specifically written to assure believers of their standing in Christ. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). I have pursued godly dispositions and holy affections as I endeavor to confirm my calling and election (2 Peter 1:10). When doubts assail, I have examined myself to see whether I am in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

All of these verses (and many others) support the idea that we can, in this life, know we are saved, in the state of grace, rejoicing in hope (Rom. 5:2).

It is on the basis of Scriptures like these that the Confessions make their affirmations of the reality of assurance for the believer.

While our election, calling, and justification are sure, our feelings and awareness of assurance can wax and wane. This is why we must pursue it.

First, we base our assurance objectively on the promises of God in his Holy Word, which never fail.

Additionally, we base our assurance subjectively on our experience as we see the fruits of justification at work and increasing in our lives.

“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

2 Peter 1:8-11

The Synod of Dort (1619) had this to say regarding assurance: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election,…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.” (First Head, Article 12).

So then, we are told Scripturally that we can know that we have eternal life, and we are to pursue this assurance and certainty with all godly vigor. That in itself is a powerful and comforting truth.

Now, for some context…

To give even more clarity to this truth, let’s now consider the historical and theological backdrop.

These Confessional statements were written in the early decades of the Protestant Reformation. They come in stark contrast to Roman Catholic dogma, which was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

At the center of the teaching on assurance is the biblical concept that justification is a legal declaration of complete acquittal of sins. Through the finished work of Christ, we are declared and treated as righteous through faith. In Protestant theology, justification is a completed state, by which we are forgiven and accepted by God.

This is the foundation of assurance.

However, in Roman Catholic teaching, even though terms like grace, faith, and justification are used, they do not mean the same thing. In Catholic teaching, justification is not declaring someone righteous, but making someone righteous. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man…whereby a man becomes just instead of unjust” (Trent, Chapter 7). Since justification includes sanctification which is not final at any point in life, a consistent Catholic would not say that they are justified, but that at the end of their days, they hope to be.

Consequently, if a person cannot say with certainty that they are now justified, they cannot claim to have assurance of salvation. In fact, it’s not just that assurance is impossible; it is not to be pursued at all! Trent calls assurance as I have described it, “a vain and ungodly confidence.” “If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema” (Trent, Canon 16).

So then, those who penned the Reformed Confessions were not simply espousing the biblical truth on assurance as Scripture teaches it; they were doing so against a backdrop of despair and vain hope of the Roman Catholic faith rooted in works righteousness.

Truly, the motto of the Reformation stands, Post Tenebras Lux (After darkness, light)! What a great fireworks display this truth is.

What do you mean by sovereignty?, part 4

To say that God is sovereign over all is a given among Bible-believing Christians. What is not a given is what we mean by that. Dig deeper and you’ll find that there are differences in what various teachers mean when they affirm God’s sovereignty.

We began this series in part 1 discussing how the sovereignty of God is commonly conceived by most Christians. In this, God’s rule over his creation is spoken of in terms of his pre-knowledge of what will happen, his permission allowing certain things to happen, or his eventual conquest of his enemies so that ultimately his will is accomplished. He is seen much like a good and powerful earthly king who uses his might when necessary to achieve his ends, but is not directly controlling events and people. Commonly conceived, God’s sovereignty is a passive rule.

In part 2, we looked at several songs that allude to a verse in Genesis in some of their lyrics. The songs seem to affirm a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty, but fail with a critical mis-quoting of what Joseph actually said. Instead, they all end up affirming the same passive view of God’s rule over us.

Finally, in part 3, we looked at some Scripture verses that portray God’s active rule over his creation. Rather than seeing these texts as “problem texts” that need to be explained away, we should take them at face value as indicative of the comprehensive teaching of Scripture about the sovereignty of God.

Now I will look at several historic Church creeds that affirm what the Bible teaches. Rather than these statements being the heretical statements of fringe Christians, they are the consistent testimony of the Church for centuries, even from the beginning.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) puts it this way: “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The London Baptist Confession (1689) similarly says, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass” (3:1).

The Belgic Confession of 1561 reads, “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (13).

All of these statements are simply systematizing what is said in Eph. 1:11 – God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Each of these statements is notable for affirming a sovereignty that is not passive but rather active. “Ordain, decree, rule, and appoint” would be the active verbs in use.

Now these statements, in all three cases are immediately followed with qualifiers:

  • WCF: “…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • LBC: “…yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
  • BC: “…nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner, even then, when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”

Simply put, the Confessions all assert that (1) God ordains whatever comes to pass, and (2) God is not the author of sin, and (3) violence is not done to the agency of men.

Now, how can we reasonably hold these seemingly contrary statements together? It’s because the Bible holds them all as true. All of those statements are backed by Scripture. How can we reconcile them? In our finite minds, we cannot. We start to get in trouble when we attempt to explain or reconcile these assertions; that is when we fail and when we create a theology that is not biblical.

If you are in a place where you feel you “can’t figure it out,” good! That is where you must be. There is mystery here, as is always the case when we approach closely to the nature of God. How can three persons be God, and yet there is only one God? As soon as you attempt to explain the Trinity or offer a meek analogy, you diverge in some way from the biblical teaching. And so we embrace the mystery of the Godhead.

How can infinite-eternal God come to earth in the flesh in the second Person of the Trinity, so that Jesus is fully God AND fully man in one person? Terms like “hypostatic union” sound profound, but don’t really help us understand how it could be. Again, we embrace mystery here and accept what the Bible unflinchingly teaches, that Jesus is eternally God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among us.

So should it also be when we consider the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. We ought to accept the mystery as something that God has not chosen to explain to us fully or not equipped our minds to grasp. This is as it always must be when considering the Godhead. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:5).

In his book The Five Points of Calvinism, Edwin H. Palmer points out two inadequate attempts to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility – Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both groups, while holding to the Bible to a point, come to a place where rationalism takes over. The Arminian, Palmer says, “holds to man’s freedom and restricts God’s sovereignty.” The hyper-Calvinist “sees the clear Biblical statements concerning God’s foreordination and holds firmly to that. But being logically unable to reconcile it with man’s responsibility, he denies the latter” (p.84-85). He goes on to state, “Thus the Arminian and the hyper-Calvinist, although poles apart, are really very close together in their rationalism.”

Instead, Palmer writes, “Over against these humanistic views, the Calvinist accepts both sides of the antimony….[and] holds to two apparently contradictory positions. [Footnote: It should be emphasized that the contradiction is only apparent and not real. Man cannot harmonize the two apparently contradictory positions, but God can.]” (p.85).

So, rather than seeing the teaching of God’s active sovereignty as an aberration of Christian theology, one that is to be ignored as “obviously” wrong or dismissed as Satanic (as some have said), we see through the confessions that this has been the creed of the historic Church for centuries – yes, even to the beginnings of the Church and beyond throughout all of the Bible.

To God alone be the glory!

Thoughts on the Sovereign Sender

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other articles in this series here.

When we discuss the sovereignty of God in salvation, an objection is usually quickly raised. “If God has determined who will be saved, why should we bother to evangelize and preach the gospel, if it’s going to happen anyway?” Such a question, while understandable, exhibits a deficient knowledge of both the Bible’s teaching and the doctrine of sovereignty itself.

As the 1689 London Baptist Confession states, “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.” (Chapter 3, “Of God’s Decree,” paragraph 6, emphasis added) God has ordained that he will save the elect by the preaching of the gospel, and not apart from it. We read in Romans 10: 14-15a, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

Paul final question in that series takes the sovereign work of God back to the very sending of the messenger. We don’t often ponder this, that the Sovereign Lord is working not only in the calling and saving of the elect, but also in the sending of those through whom the gospel is proclaimed.

When Jesus saw the crowds that his preaching and healing were drawing, he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37) I’ve often found this fascinating. Why didn’t Jesus just say that the workers are few, so GO! Why did he instruct them to pray for the Lord of the harvest to SEND workers? As I considered this recently, it became clear to me that the emphasis here is that God is the Sovereign Lord of the harvest, and this includes not only the reaping of elect souls but also the very sending of the messengers.

Paul echoes these thoughts in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Sovereign Lord has not only chosen his elect but also assigned those through whom the Word is preached.

This is an amazing truth and so necessary for our thinking. It is only in this way – that God is sovereign over every step in the chain of redemption – that we can maintain the glory going to Christ. If we only understand the ends being foreordained but not the means, then we rob God of his glory. And God will not share his glory with another. (Isaiah 42:8)

So ponder these truths. Praise the Sovereign Sender, who in his grace appointed the preachers, the parents, the Sunday School teachers, the youth pastors, the friends who would boldly proclaim the gospel to you and reap the harvest.

Question: Who in your life was instrumental in bringing the gospel to you? Have you thanked them? Have you thanked God for them?