The Assuring Spirit
Who is it now that actually assures me, a believer in Jesus Christ, not only that the Bible is true and that Jesus Christ is a complete Savior from sin for everyone who trusts in Him, but also that Jesus Christ is my Savior? Whence comes the certainty—the infallible certainty (which alone is certainty)—that I, even I personally, am saved, have been saved from eternity, and will be saved everlastingly?
Must I assure myself?
Is it the church that assures me?
The answer of Scripture to our question is clear: the one who gives assurance to the children of God is the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:1-17 identifies the Spirit as the worker of assurance. Verse 15 teaches that all those who believe the gospel that the apostle has been setting forth in the book of Romans cry, "Abba, Father," to the triune, true, and living God.
This is confidence!
This is confidence that God is our Father. We call upon God as our Father in two languages. We call upon God as our Father with the certainty that Jesus Himself had when He cried, "Abba, Father," in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). We call upon God as our Father with a loud, bold cry.
Our confidence that God is our Father includes, of course, the certainty that we are His children. We cannot cry, "Abba, Father," without knowing ourselves as the children of this Father.
All believers have this confidence: "we cry"—all of us who believe the gospel of sovereign grace as revealed in Romans.
We all have the confidence that God is our Father, that we are His children, and that we are saved. The apostle does not exhort the congregation, or even many in the congregation—the majority according to the Puritans—to undertake a quest after confidence, to try to obtain it, to work agonizingly for it for many years. But he says we have the confidence of salvation.
The explanation of this assurance is that we have "received the Spirit of adoption." This is the Spirit of God and of Christ (v. 9), who makes us know our adoption as God's children in the cross of Jesus Christ.
The one who gives certainty, or assurance, is the Spirit.
That the Spirit is the one who gives assurance is further emphasized and explained in Romans 8:16: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." This may well be the most outstanding text on assurance in the whole Bible. There is a witness, a living Word, of the Spirit within us, "with our spirit," that is, with our human spirit. This wonderful Word of the Spirit to us is, "You are a child of God."
This is assurance!
When I hear this witness, I cannot doubt.
And it is the Spirit who witnesses and thus assures.
One other set of passages concerning the assuring Spirit must be mentioned. These are the passages that describe the work of the Spirit within us as His sealing of us (II Cor. 1:19-22; Eph. 1:13; Eph. 4:30).
On the basis of these and other passages of Scripture, the Reformed creeds repeatedly ascribe the believer's assurance of salvation to the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg Catechism is representative. Q. 1 has every Reformed believer confessing that "by His Holy Spirit He [Jesus Christ my faithful Savior] also assures me of eternal life." Q. 21, as we have seen in earlier editorials, defines true faith as "an assured confidence." The twenty-first answer immediately adds, "which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart."
If the regenerated believer who is at the same time a doubting sinner is to have assurance of salvation, the Holy Spirit must work this assurance in him. I do not here intend to teach the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. But I point out what it is about the Holy Spirit that enables Him, and Him only, to assure us. First, the Holy Spirit is God. Only God can assure a human of salvation. Only God has the right to assure a human of salvation.
Who else knows with absolute certainty that someone is saved? Who else can work so powerfully in the heart of the elect sinner that all doubt and fear are overcome? Who else has such authority—authority in the matter of salvation from sin and entrance into heaven—that a sinner could possibly dare to receive the assurance?
If another human or even the church must assure me, I will respond, "No doubt you mean well, but you do not know with certainty that I am saved; I cannot depend on your testimony, not with absolute certainty; you are not God."
The Holy Spirit is God, the third person of the blessed Trinity. He is the God who knows all, because He determined all, particularly the number of the elect. As God, He is almighty, able powerfully to save us by assuring us, even as He is able to save us by regenerating us, by preserving us, and by raising our body from the grave. The testimony of God the Holy Spirit is authoritative and dependable. His assuring witness with our spirit is infallible. Upon His Word and witness we can depend.
Second, the Holy Spirit is now the Spirit of Jesus Christ. When Jesus ascended, God gave Him the Spirit to be His Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Jesus gave the Spirit, who had become His Spirit, to the church. The one who works assurance is the Spirit of Christ, as He is called in Romans 8:9. Only as the Spirit of Christ can He assure us. I dare say that the Holy Spirit simply as the third person of the Godhead could not assure us. It is Jesus who assures all of His own. Assurance, after all, is a work of salvation, and Jesus is the complete Savior. Jesus Christ assures us by the Spirit, who is His own Spirit.
Besides, the Spirit assures us by giving us Jesus Christ and by showing us Jesus Christ in all the riches of His redemption. There is no assurance for us sinners apart from Jesus Christ. And the Spirit can give and show us Christ because He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Third, the Spirit is the Breath of God. "Breath" is the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for "Spirit" in the Bible. The Breath of God, who is now the Breath of Jesus Christ, penetrates into the deepest recesses of our heart, where none else can come, there to convince us that, although we are guilty, depraved sinners, God loves us, Christ died for us, and we are adopted children of God.
If it is true that the one who assures us of salvation is Jesus Christ, the risen, glorified man on God's right hand, it is also true that Jesus does not assure us apart from the Spirit. Indeed, if Jesus were bodily in the room where I am typing this editorial and were to say to me, "David, you are one of my own," without the inner work of the Spirit in my heart I would not believe Him. I would not, and could not, be assured of my salvation.
Jesus taught this very truth about the necessity of the Spirit for the comfort of His disciples on the occasion of His departure from the world. "It is expedient for you that I go away." Why? "For if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send him unto you."
A fourth characteristic of the Spirit that qualifies Him to assure us of our salvation is that He is a person. He is a thinking, knowing, willing, feeling subject. He is not a mere force, or power, like electricity, or the wind, or love. This person comes into each elect child of God in such a way that the Spirit personally dwells in us. Acting as a person, He teaches us and overcomes our doubts, as only a person can do. He makes us certain of salvation by truth, logical reasoning, and argument. This is the idea of His bearing witness in Romans 8:16. A person bears witness with intelligible testimony and with convincing, conclusive argument based on truth.
Christ comes to me in the gospel. The Spirit makes me believe the gospel and trust in Christ for salvation. With the gospel and by faith, the Spirit assures me, "You are saved."
Then, perhaps, I begin to question my salvation: "But I am a wretched, vile, totally unworthy sinner." The Spirit responds, in my heart, "This is the only kind of sinner Jesus came to save. Besides, the very fact that you confess your sinfulness is itself evidence that you are saved."
I may argue (for I am really desperately wicked, far worse than I know): "But my sorrow for sin is not nearly what it should be, and my love for God is pitifully weak." Responds the Spirit, patiently, in my heart, "This has nothing to do with your salvation. Salvation is of grace alone. Trust in Christ presented in the gospel, not in your sorrow for sin or your love for God. But as regards sorrow for sin and love for God, the least sorrow is sign of salvation, as is the weakest love for God."
Finally, I might, foolishly and wickedly, raise my last-ditch objection: "But I am not sure my faith is genuine. Perhaps it is merely a historical faith, like the faith of the devils." "Oh," replies the Spirit, in my heart, "I will not let you get away with this clever lie! Stop scrutinizing your faith, inside yourself, and rather scrutinize the Christ outside yourself in the gospel of the Scriptures! Do not become a practical Arminian by grounding your salvation and its assurance upon your faith! There is no assurance in Arminianism! Be Reformed practically, as you are Reformed in confession! Ground your salvation, including the assurance of salvation, upon Christ Jesus in the doctrine of the gospel!
"With regard to your faith, though, you do believe the gospel, don't you, not spurning it, but holding it for truth precious to you? You love and honor Jesus Christ, don't you, not saying, 'Cursed Jesus! Crucify Him!' but at the very least, 'I wish He were mine'? You grieve, don't you, at the thought that He and His salvation might not be yours? And you desire Him and His salvation. This is salvation. The desire for Christ and salvation is salvation. All these spiritual activities are evidences of salvation, the marks of a child of God."
So witnesses the Spirit of Christ, convincingly.
Because the Spirit is a person, if a believer is plagued with doubt, the cause likely is that he is grieving the Holy Spirit. (The widespread doubt due to the Puritan doctrine that faith is not assurance and that therefore most believers must expect to doubt much, if not all, of their life is another story. In this case, it is the doctrine itself which does not so much grieve as anger the Spirit.) "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God," the apostle admonishes in Ephesians 4:30, adding, "whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption." The Christian can cause the Spirit grief, which, of course, is true only of a person. And when the Christian grieves, or offends, the Spirit, the sealing work of the Spirit is affected. But sealing is this, that the Spirit makes the believer sure of his salvation, certain of God's love for him, confident that Christ and His redemptive work are his own.
Am I living in unconfessed sin?
Am I bitter against God because of disappointments and troubles in my life?
Do I harbor hatred in my heart for a brother or sister?
Am I living an unspiritual, careless life—hardly ever praying, hardly ever paying attention to the Word of God (even in church), hardly ever meditating on God and eternal things, hardly ever talking about the doctrines of the gospel (even in my family), hardly ever reading a theological book?
I must not be surprised then that I lack assurance. I am grieving the Spirit.
I cannot hide these otherwise secret things from Him. He is the all-knowing person in the depths of my heart and at the center of my life. I am an open book to Him.
He makes me feel the grief I cause Him by withholding His sealing of me in my consciousness.
I must stop grieving Him, by repenting of my sin and again yielding myself to Him to work in me the holiness of obedience to the law. And the Spirit will work this conversion exactly by afflicting me with the intolerable grief of doubt concerning the love of God and my salvation.
"Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation," I will then pray—confidently, "and uphold me with thy free spirit" (Ps. 51:12).