Assurance in the Reformed Confessions (1)
As evangelical Calvinists and Reformed Christians continue to sort through the complexities of justification, sanctification, law, gospel, and union with Christ, they are also considering what it means to have assurance of salvation. Thankfully, we are not the first persons to wrestle with the topic. The historic Reformed confessions can help us understand what the Bible teaches about assurance.
Let’s look at two of these confessions: the Canons of Dort (1618-19) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). We’ll tackle one today and one tomorrow.
Assurance in the Canons of Dort
The fifth main point of doctrine in Dort deals with the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints. Because the believer will never be entirely free from sin in this life (5.1) and “blemishes cling to even the best works of God’s people” (5.2), we who have been converted could not remain in grace left to our own resources (5.3). That’s the bad news. The good news: God is faithful to powerfully preserve his elect to the end (5.3).
This promise of preservation does not mean, however, that true believers will never fall into serious sin (5.4). On the contrary, even believers can commit “monstrous sins” that “greatly offend God.” When we sin in such egregious ways, we “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time” until we repent and God’s fatherly face shines upon us again (5.5). God being for us in Christ in a legal and ultimate sense does not mean he will never frown upon our disobedience. But it does mean that God will always effectively renew us to repentance and bring us to “experience again the grace of reconciled God” (5.7). Therefore, we ought to be assured that true believers “are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life” (5.9).
But what are the grounds for this assurance? That’s the topic under consideration in Article 10. In asking that question, Dort is not asking about the grounds for our justification or are right standing with God. The question, instead, is about where our assurance of this right standing comes from. Dort asserts, first of all negatively, that “this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word” (5.10). That is to say, we don’t need a dream or a vision from God or some angel to confirm that we are bound for heaven.
So if not from external revelation, where then does assurance come from? Dort gives three answers:
1. Assurance comes from faith in the promises of God.
2. Assurance comes from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God.
3. Assurance comes from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (5.10).
In other words, believers find assurance in the promises of God, the witness of the Spirit, and evidences of Christ’s grace in our lives.
A Few Other Points
As precious as assurance is for the believer, it is not itself a requirement of true faith. Believers contend with doubts in this life and do not always experience this full assurance of faith (5.11). But assurance of perseverance is the goal. God wants us to have confidence. This is one of the reasons the perseverance of the saints should never lead to sloth and immorality. When we are confident of the Lord’s undying love “it produces a much greater concern to observe carefully the way of the Lord which he prepared in advance” (5.13). In fact, we walk in God’s ways “in order that by walking them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance” (5.13). Clearly, Dort believes that holiness is not only a ground for assurance, the desire for assurance is itself a motivation unto holiness.
Let me also say a few words about Article 14:
And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.
Notice two things here. First, God causes us to persevere by several means. He makes promises to us, but he also threatens. He works by the hearing of the gospel and by the use of the sacraments. He has not bound himself to one method. Surely, this helps us make sense of the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. Threats and exhortations do not undermine perseverance; they help to complete it.
Second, notice the broad way in which Dort understands the gospel (in this context). In being gospel-centered Christians, we meditate on the “exhortations, threats, and promises” of the gospel. In a strict sense we might say that the gospel is only the good news of how we can be saved. But in a wider sense, the gospel encompasses the whole story of salvation, which includes not only gospel promises but also the threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel.
Dort’s theology of perseverance and assurance is just as relevant today as it was four hundred years ago. Consider some implications for us:
- Believers should not look only to their holy living for assurance, but this should be one place they look. When we see evidences of God’s grace in us, we should have confidence that God is at work. And he who begins the good work will be faithful to complete it.
- While we must affirm the continuing imperfection of our obedience, we should not so disregard it that we can no longer find real evidences of assuring grace at work.
- God’s relentless love and the legal standing of our justification do not nullify the real consequence of our sin. We can grieve the Spirit and offend God. His face may turn away from us for a time, until we are led by his grace to repent once again.
- Exhortations, threats, and promises are all part of the proclamation of the gospel and instrumental in God’s plan to grow us in grace. We should not neglect any of the three in the overall diet of our counseling, preaching, and teaching.
- The sacraments are essential in the cause of gospel confidence. They remind our eyes, our hands, our noses, and our mouths of the good news we hear with our ears.
Praise God for old confessions. And praise God for mercies which are new every morning–unto the very end.
Tomorrow: The Westminster Confession of Faith on assurance.