Assurance

“The Infallible Fruits of Election” (The Canons of Dort and Assurance)

The overarching concern of the Canons of Dort is not just a doctrinal or theological one, but a decidedly pastoral and experiential one as well. And that is demonstrated in the fact that a common theme throughout the First Head of Doctrine (i.e. unconditional election) is that of assurance.

In many ways the doctrines of Arminianism undermine assurance, and so the Canons here show how a right understanding of the biblical doctrine of election actually serves to establish and strengthen the assurance of believers.

Article 11

“And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

Arminianism teaches a conditional election from start to finish. Not only does it wrongly teach that God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on foreseen faith at the beginning, but it also holds that one can abandon the faith and lose his or her salvation in the end, rendering God’s decree of election in a sense temporary. Article 11 here clearly refutes that error.

Contrary to the errors of Arminianism, the Canons remind us that God is “most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent,” so that the idea that His decree could change or be in need of revision is blasphemous. Nothing can change God’s gracious decree of election from all eternity, and so “neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

In his book, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey writes:

“Election reflects the very character of God. As God is immutable, so His purpose in election is immutable. Nothing can interfere with God’s implementing his decree of election. In particular, the specific number of the elect cannot be reduced. This conviction is foundational to the doctrine of God and to predestination as well as to the teaching on assurance found throughout the canons.” (p.93)

So the biblical doctrine of election, properly understood, is a matter of utmost importance, as it has to do not just with assurance of salvation, but even with our doctrine of God. Because God is immutable, so is His decree and purpose in election. And that should be a rather encouraging truth for believers.

Article 12

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but 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.”

Here in Article 12 we are taught the right way to understand the relationship between election and assurance. Believers are not to try to attain the assurance of their election by “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” which is impossible for us to do. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.) Rather, we are to seek to observe in ourselves “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.”

In other words, how do you know if you are one of God’s elect? You look to your true faith in Christ, repentance, desire to grow in holiness, etc. as the “infallible fruits” or evidence of God’s election. In this way we are to ‘make our calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10). How often do sincere believers lack a sense of assurance because we look to the wrong things as evidence of our salvation?

Election is known by its fruits. And the “infallible” or unmistakable fruits of election consist not in some secret, hidden knowledge of God’s decree, nor in some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather in simple and sincere faith in Christ, repentance, etc. And so if you want to know whether or not you are one of God’s elect, the thing to ask is simply, “Am I a believer in Christ? Have I sincerely turned from sin and turned to Christ by faith?”

And notice that Article 12 points out that the elect attain the assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election “in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures.” Assurance is not just automatic and may take some time, and it may come “in varying degrees” rather than in completeness or perfection.

Article 13

“The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”

Some who oppose the doctrine of election seem to confuse assurance with presumption, fearing that assurance would lead to loose living. But here we see the difference between assurance and presumption.

True faith and assurance lead to humility, adoration of God’s mercy and grace, and to seeking to grow in holiness and love for God because of His great love for us in Christ. It is sinful presumption (and not assurance) that rather leads to “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” and a neglect of holiness in the fear of God. And such as are remiss in these things will necessarily be lacking in any genuine assurance of salvation, as long as those “infallible fruits” of election are lacking or absent in their lives.

Calvin on the Great Blessing of the Knowledge of God’s Providence

Institutes CalvinThe doctrine of the providence of God has always proven to be a great source of peace and comfort to the believer in Christ. Sad to say, providence is a word that has largely fallen out of use among many in the church today. Worse yet, a right understanding and affirmation of the doctrine itself in some ways seems even more scarce.

What is providence? The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

“Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

God not only created all things from nothing in the beginning (Genesis chapter 1), but He also preserves or sustains all things as well. As Hebrews 1:3 puts it, Christ Himself “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (ESV) But more than that, the Lord governs or rules over all things as well, including not just “all his creatures” (i.e. everything that God has made), but also “all their actions” as well.

In other words, God’s providence is all-encompassing.

And this truth should be of great comfort to every believer in Christ. John Calvin writes,

“[I]f the light of God’s providence shines in the believers’s heart, not only will he be free of the fear and anguish which afflicted him before, he will also be relieved of every doubt. For as we have a justified fear of fate, so we are rightly bold to entrust ourselves to God. We are thus wonderfully comforted to know that the Lord so holds all things in his power, rules by his will and controls by his wisdom, that nothing can occur except as he has ordained it; and moreover that he has taken us under his protection and has given his angels charge over us [Psalm 91:11], so that neither flood nor fire nor sword nor anything else can hurt us unless his will determines otherwise.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541 Edition, p.511)

and also:

“Where does the believer get this assurance that can never be taken from him, except from the knowledge that, while the world seems completely topsy-turvy, God is actively guiding him, and from his hope that all God’s works will prove salutary to him?” (Ibid)

Our Lord Jesus Himself taught the truth of providence in order that His disciples might not fear. In Matthew 10:29–31 He says,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (ESV)

“Fear not.” That is the lesson and the comfort of God’s providence to the believer. Providence means that trouble and affliction may indeed come, but God will make all things work together for our good, even for our salvation (Romans 8:28-29)!

Calvin goes on to say:

“I would say that the greatest misery which can befall a man is to know nothing of God’s providence, and conversely that it is an exceptional blessing for him to know it well.” (p.512)

May every believer in Christ make it their aim to know the “exceptional blessing” of knowing God’s providence well, that in time of trial or affliction he or she may say with the Psalmist:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”” (Psalm 91:1–2, ESV)

 

J.C. Ryle on the Leading Marks of a Forgiven Soul

old-pathsHow do you know if your sins have been forgiven? It would be practically impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the answer to that question for oneself.

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) offers five (5) distinguishing characteristics or “leading marks” of those who have truly found forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ:

  1. Forgiven souls hate sin.  If you hate only the consequences of your sins, and would really much prefer to continue in them if only the consequences were once removed, then you have good reason to question whether or not you have truly experienced the grace of forgiveness. As Ryle adds, “If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet friends” (p.188).
  2. Forgiven souls love Christ. As Jesus says of the woman who wiped His feet with both her tears and her hair (!) in Luke 7:47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (ESV). She loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much. The better we know the greatness of the forgiveness that is only to be found through faith in Jesus Christ, the more and more we will love Him for it!
  3. Forgiven souls are humble. Forgiven souls know that they owe all that they have to the grace, love, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is an infinite debt that none of us could ever hope to repay, and so those who have had an infinite debt of sin forgiven on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have infinite cause for humility.
  4. Forgiven souls are holy. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (i.e. Forgiven souls hate sin). Ryle goes so far to say that anyone who is “deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and boasting that his sins are forgiven” is, in fact, “under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all” (p.190). As is often said, justification and sanctification go together and are “inseparably joined” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77). You cannot have one without the other. As Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV, emphasis mine).
  5. Forgiven souls are forgiving. As Ryle adds, “They do as they have been done by.” How can someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt of sin, then turn around and persist in refusing to forgive the much lesser debts of their fellow servants? (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Ryle concludes by stating, “Surely we know nothing of Christ’s love to us but the name of it, if we do not love our brethren” (p.190).

Of course, Ryle’s objective here is not to disturb the tender consciences of sincere believers in Christ, but to awaken the false professor of faith, those who claim to know Christ and forgiveness in His name, but yet exhibit none of these “leading marks” of having actually experiencing that forgiveness.

If you are reading of these things and do see the presence of them in your life (even if also certainly seeing your ever-present need to grow in them), take heart and thank God for His grace in your life. As Ryle puts it, “saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections” (p.191).

If you consider yourself a believer in Jesus Christ, and claim to be forgiven in His name, but honestly do not see the presence of these graces in your life, then (to use Paul’s words) “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Let this serve as a wake-up call if you find that you are not yet in Christ by faith. Turn to Him by faith, and you will at last know the joy of sins freely forgiven.

Thomas Brooks on the Lord’s Supper and Assurance

Brooks (Heaven on Earth)In his book, Heaven on Earth, Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) writes all about assurance of salvation – it is essentially a treatise on that great subject. There Brooks deals with such things as proving that believers may attain a well-grounded assurance, pointing out what means may be used in order to obtain assurance, giving reasons why believers may lack assurance,  and demonstrating the differences between true and counterfeit assurance. It is a very helpful and encouraging book.

There he also shows us the vital connection between the Lord’s Supper and assurance. He writes,

It was the principal end of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of the supper that he might assure them of his love, and that he might seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls, Mat. 26.27,28. The nature of a seal is to make things sure and firm among men; so the supper of the Lord is Christ’s broad seal; it is Christ’s privy-seal, whereby he seals and assures his people that they are happy here, that they shall be more happy hereafter, that they are everlastingly beloved of God, that his heart is set upon them, that their names are written in the book of life, that there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness, and that nothing shall be able to separate them from him who is their light, their life, their crown, their all in all. (p.27)

Brooks would have us to understand that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is primarily about assurance. It is “the principal end” (or main purpose) for which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted it for His people. The Supper is meant to reassure believers of Christ’s great love for them. It is, to use Brook’s words above, to “seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls.” A “seal” is given for the express purpose of assurance. It is “to make things sure and form among men.”

The Lord’s Supper is certainly not the only means whereby believers may attain, maintain, and be strengthened in their assurance of salvation, but it is certainly one of the most important, and one which must not be neglected. The very fact that the Lord Jesus instituted this Sacrament to be perpetually celebrated by His church until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26) shows us our perpetual need for assurance. It also shows us how greatly our faithful Savior desires that His beloved people would have assurance of His great love for them.

The Resurrection as a “Comfortable Sign” of the Believer’s Justification

GoodwinIn his book, Christ Set Forth, Puritan writer Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679) includes a chapter about how the Christian’s faith is supported by the resurrection of Christ. In other words, Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the 3rd day provides us with assurance that the price for our redemption really has been fully paid by Christ on the cross, and has been accepted by God as satisfaction for our sin.  Goodwin writes,

“Although Christ’s obedience in this life and his death past do alone afford the whole matter of our justification, and make up the sum of that price paid for us . . . , so as faith may see a fullness of worth and merit therein, to discharge the debt; yet faith has a comfortable sign and evidence to confirm itself in the belief of this, from Christ’s resurrection after his death. It may fully satisfy our faith, that God himself is satisfied, and that he reckons the debt as paid.” (p.62)

Have you ever thought about the resurrection that way? If you are a believer in Christ, you can look to Christ’s resurrection as a “comfortable sign” (i.e. a sign that gives you comfort and assurance) of the reality of your justification in Christ!

This is just part of what Goodwin understands the Apostle Paul to be saying in Romans 8:34, where we read:

“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

Christ’s resurrection puts God’s exclamation point on the gospel!

The Covenant of Grace as a Remedy for Sinful Fear

FlavelWhy study covenant theology? Is there any real benefit in studying the covenant of grace?

In his book, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear, John Flavel writes,

“The first rule for relieving slavish fear is to consider seriously and study thoroughly the covenant of grace in which all believers stand. A clear understanding of the covenant’s nature, extent, and stability, along with our interest in it, will go a long way to cure our sinful and slavish fear.” (p.63)

That quote is found in the chapter entitled “Remedies for Sinful Fear.” In that chapter Flavel discusses no less than 12 different remedies for sinful fear, including things like confirming your interest in Christ (seeking assurance), keeping your conscience pure, recording your experience’s of God’s past faithfulness (journaling!), and considering the providential rule of Christ over all things.

But what is the very first remedy that Flavel suggests? Serious consideration and thorough study of the covenant of grace! He goes on to remind us about what a covenant is:

“A covenant is more than a naked promise. In the covenant, God has graciously considered our fears, doubts, and weaknesses; therefore, He proceeds with us in the highest way of solemnity, confirming His promises by way of oath (Heb. 6:13, 17) and seals (Romans 6:11). He places Himself under the most solemn ties and engagements to His people so that we might take strong comfort from so firm a ratification of the covenant (Hebrews 6:18).” (p.63-64)

A covenant is more than just a promise. The promise of God is sure. But by His grace He gives us even more than that – He gives us a guarantee of His promise to us in Christ by way of an oath!

Book Review: Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart

9781433679216m

This book was written in order to help believers in Jesus Christ to (in the words of the author himself) “know, beyond all doubt, that they are saved” (p.3).  In other words, it is about assurance of salvation.  That is always a timely topic, as many sincere believers in Christ struggle with a lack of assurance for a whole host of different reasons.

The title grabs your attention right from the get-go (which is, no doubt, the intention).  How many of us have heard a pastor or evangelist present the call to faith in Christ in terms of asking Jesus into your heart?  It is an all-too-common formula.  And, as Greear points out, it is nowhere to be found in Scripture. (Hence the title of the book.)

Ultimately, though, the author’s concern is not so much the expressions that we commonly use to articulate the gospel (although he is rightly concerned about that as well), but that such practices in evangelism often lead to problems down the road in the form of a lack of assurance for believers who find themselves questioning whether or not they ‘did it right,’ so to speak.  The result is that many sincere believers (including the author!) have asked Jesus into their hearts over and over again down through the years.

The book is filled with the gospel of Jesus Christ, as any book on assurance worth its salt should be.  He notes the biblical basis for having assurance of salvation (chapter 2), as well as the benefits of having it (strength & motivation for living the Christian life).  He even emphasizes the active and passive obedience of Christ (although he does not use those terms to do so), and double-imputation (i.e. our sins imputed to Christ on the Cross and His perfect righteousness imputed to believers by faith alone).

He includes a whole chapter (5) entitled, “What Is Belief?” where he defines saving faith, followed by a chapter devoted to the topic of repentance (chapter 6).  He clearly defines what it is, what it is not, and why it is necessary as part of saving faith.  These chapters are very helpful.

A few points of criticism:

There are a lot of typos in the book (on p.12, 18, 21, 65 & 82 – find them for yourself if you care to do so).  That is not a big deal in and of itself, but that is a lot of typos for such a short book (121 pages).  Maybe his editor(s) needed more coffee that day? I found it to be somewhat distracting.

Also, there are a number of attempts at humor throughout the book that I found to be a little forced.  The humor seems to be a part of his writing style, and no doubt reflects his personality (not a bad thing in itself by any means), but I found it to be a bit distracting at times as well.

Of a more pressing concern is his advice in Appendix 1 (“What About Baptism?”).  The question that he is seeking to answer is what should you do about baptism if you become convinced that you were born again after you were initially baptized?  His advice? Get re-baptized (p.113)!  In other words, stop asking Jesus into your heart after the first time, but get baptized again?!?

As a Baptist, he does not believe in paedo-baptism (baptizing the infant children of believers), so he is just being consistent with his own view.  The problem is that he addresses such an important topic as baptism in such a brief way (not even three full pages).  In my opinion his readers would have been much better-served if he had either treated the subject at some length or simply ignored it altogether.

He flatly (and wrongly, I might add) states that “Every baptism we see in the New Testament . . .was a believer confessing his or her own faith” (p.113).  There are a number of instances in the book of Acts where entire households were baptized (e.g. 16:15, 33). To simply assume that there were no children in those households seems more than a bit arbitrary.  Not only that, but for the Apostles to suddenly and without any explanation abandon the application of the sign & seal of the New Covenant to infants when the sign & seal of the Old Covenant had been commonly applied to infants for about two thousand years (i.e. since the days of Abraham) would be strange, to say the least.

That being said, I did find the book to be generally helpful and would recommend it to anyone who is struggling with a lack of assurance of salvation.   His words in the final chapter of the book are well-worth repeating here:

I’m simply saying that whenever you doubt your standing with God, the solution is the same: trust in the finished work of Jesus (p.107).

Very good advice!  If you want assurance, don’t look primarily to something that you have done in the past; don’t even look primarily to what you are doing now; certainly don’t look to what you promise to do in the future. Instead, look to what Jesus has done on your behalf in the past in His death and resurrection.  Look to what Jesus is doing for you even now – interceding for you at the right hand of the Father and preparing a place for you.  And look to what He has promised to do for you in the future (come back for you, that you might be with Him forever).  That is the primary way to assurance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a lack of assurance, this book may prove to be very helpful and encouraging.

You can order a copy of the book here: Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart

J.D. Greear on Assurance

9781433679216m

In his book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greear writes,

The Enemy – one of whose names in Scripture is “the Deceiver” – loves to keep truly saved believers unsure of their salvation because he knows that if he does they’ll never experience the freedom, joy, and confidence that God wants them to have. But he also loves to keep those on their way to hell deluded into thinking they are on their way to heaven, their consciences immunized from Jesus’ pleas to repent. (p.6)

How ironic that so often it does seem to be the case that many sincere believers in Christ who have no biblically valid reason to doubt their salvation lack assurance, while others who actually have every reason to doubt the validity of their own profession of faith often continue on in a blissful state of ignorance & delusion about the true state of their souls.

For the former, it is a painfully discouraging situation; for the latter it is truly, sadly, and (if left unchanged) eternally disastrous.

What solution does Greear suggest?  That we stop asking Jesus into our hearts over and over again (which is something far too many a modern evangelical can identify with) and “start resting in the finished work of Christ” (p.11).

In other words, remind yourself often, not of some past (and sometimes often-repeated!) experience or decision (i.e. walking an aisle, praying the sinner’s prayer, etc.), but of the gospel itself – the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on your behalf!  At the end of the day, the way to assurance is not so much to look within (essentially to look to yourself!), but rather to look to Jesus Christ and His perfect righteousness and death on the Cross for sinners.

John Murray on Sanctification

Murray

In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray writes the following about the sanctification of the believer in Christ:

There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin and the unregenerate complacent to sin. It is one thing for sin to live in us: it is another for us to live in sin. (p.145)

If you are a Christian and you struggle with sin . . . welcome to the club!  That is not a cause for worry or despair.   The work of the Lord in your sanctification is ongoing; it is lifelong.  You will spend the rest of your life repenting of sin, and you will do that because of the grace of God at work in you!

The time to worry (as Murray says) is if you are complacent in and about your sin.  That is a sign that sin is still reigning in your life.  It is a sign that, despite whatever profession of faith you may have made, you are simply not yet a Christian.

But if you are a believer in Christ, you are no longer a slave to sin.  As Paul writes in Romans 6:20-23,

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is vitally important that we understand the difference between “surviving sin and reigning sin.”  The better we understand not only the nature of our justification, but our sanctification in Christ as well, the better equipped we will be to deal with our sins and the doubts that sometimes accompany them.

Justification is an “act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.33).  So we are not justified by anything that we do (not by any righteousness of our own!), but only on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ, accounted to us by faith alone!

And sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.35).  So, unlike justification (which is a one-time act of God’s grace), sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s free grace in the life of a believer, conforming us more and more into the image of Christ.

Understanding the work of God’s grace in our sanctification (like the act of His grace in our justification) is a key to experiencing the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  In fact, truly understanding the difference between the two (our justification and our sanctification) is one of the keys to experiencing the assurance of our salvation.

And God most certainly does want every one of us who believes in the name of Jesus Christ to know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

Who said that theology wasn’t practical!