Assurance is certainty of personal salvation.
As the loving Father of His human family in Jesus Christ, God wills that all His children have assurance. It is not His will that only a very few of His children, His "best and dearest friends," as the Puritans and their followers today call these favored few, ever attain to certainty of salvation.
The previous editorial demonstrated from Scripture that God wills all His children to have and enjoy assurance.
Certainty in Q. 1 of the Catechism
That God wills all His children to have assurance of their salvation is the joyful—and binding—doctrine of the "Three Forms of Unity, our Reformed confessions." Upon the lips of every one who believes the gospel of grace as set forth in the Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism confidently places this confession:
[My only comfort in life and death is] that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him (Q. 1).
This is certainty. The one who confesses has no doubt about his belonging to Jesus Christ, for his certainty is assurance worked by the Holy Spirit. This assurance is not a doubtful assurance, which would be no assurance at all.
The assurance of Q. 1 of the Catechism is certainty of one's own personal salvation. It is not merely a certainty that Jesus is a Savior. It is not merely a certainty that Jesus has satisfied for some people's sins. It is not merely a certainty that Jesus would be adequate for my salvation, if some day I should attain to assurance that He is my Savior. Such a certainty is worthless. Satan has this certainty.
The one who confesses the first answer of the Catechism is certain that "I" myself personally belong to Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is "my" Savior, that Christ died to satisfy for all "my sins" and to deliver "me" from Satan's power, that everything must serve "my salvation," and that Christ "assures me of eternal life." Belonging to Jesus Christ is "my only comfort."
This certainty is a reality in the consciousness of the one who confesses Q. 1 of the Catechism. He does not express wistful hope of eventually acquiring certainty. He is not voicing an ideal that everyone should strive for, but that hardly anyone in the church—including himself—ever attains. He is not promising to seek assurance, until (perhaps) he obtains it.
To explain the first question and answer of the Catechism this way (as they must who follow the Puritans in restricting assurance to only a few special friends of God in the church) is violent wrenching of the confession.
"What is thy comfort?" is the question. "What is the comfort that you personally do truly have and enjoy?" And the living member of the Reformed congregation—every living member of the congregation—responds by declaring what is true of him by the Spirit of Christ: "I have comfort." "I belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ." "I am certain that Christ 'hath fully satisfied for all my sins.'" "Jesus Christ 'assures me of eternal life.'"
It is possible that a believing child of God so comes under the power of sinful doubt for a time that he loses his assurance of salvation and cannot make Q. 1 of the Catechism his own. The reasons for this spiritual disease, as well as the cure, we consider later in this series of articles. The Reformed church is compassionate to this member in the preaching. If the sad condition of this member comes to the attention of the pastor and elders, as it should if it continues for any time, the pastor and elders are to be pitiful and patient—very pitiful and very patient—with this diseased soul.
But the presence in a Reformed congregation of one or two sick sheep is not the same as a church full of members, many of them adults who have grown up in the church from their birth, who, by their own admission, do not have, and have never had, assurance of salvation. These cannot confess Q. 1 of the Catechism. If they repeat it, they merely recite significant words as they would recite any other document of general interest, say, the Gettysburg Address, or they lie. Q. 1 is not their confession. They do not know that they belong to Christ. They do not trust that He died for them. Christ does not assure them of eternal life by His Spirit. They lack the only comfort. If they are honest men and women, when the first question of the Catechism is read out in church on a Sunday morning they reply in anguish of soul, "I do not have the only comfort of belonging to Jesus, and therefore I have no comfort at all—no comfort in living and no comfort in dying."
Who he is who readily confesses assurance in Q. 1 of the Catechism, the Catechism itself makes plain in following Lord's Days. It is the believer who is speaking in Q. 1. It is the man, woman, or child in whom God has worked true faith, so that he or she believes all things promised him or her in the gospel and trusts in Jesus Christ for remission of sin (L. D. 7). It is every believer who speaks in Q. 1. The Catechism knows nothing of a restriction of assurance to a few favored believers, mostly old and gray, after they have lived in doubt for many years.
The one speaking confidently of his assurance in Q. 1 is identified already in Q. 2: the man, woman, or child who knows his or her sins and miseries, how he or she may be delivered from those sins and miseries, and how he or she shall express gratitude to God for such deliverance.
The certainty of salvation of Q. 1 of the Catechism belongs to every living member of the church. Since, as Q. 74 of the Catechism teaches, the children of believers are included in the church, also the children and young people of godly parents have assurance of their salvation and are able to confess the opening question and answer of the Catechism. Indeed, Ursinus and Olevianus wrote the Catechism especially for the benefit of the covenant children and young people. On the lips of covenant children and young people, as their own truthful confession, did these Reformed ministers place the words of Q. 1.
Certainty in the Rest of the Catechism
Q. 1 rules the rest of the Heidelberg Catechism. Q. 54 has every believer freely confessing that he is and ever shall remain a living member of the holy catholic church of Christ. This is assurance that he is saved: gathered, defended, and preserved by the Son of God by His Spirit and Word and possessing "true faith." This is assurance that he will persevere unto everlasting life and glory: "ever shall remain" a member of the church. This is assurance of election by God in eternity: Because the church is "chosen to everlasting life," to be member of the church is to be among the chosen. To know oneself as a member of the church is to know oneself as one of the elect.
Every believer has this assurance (such is the viewpoint of the Catechism), and he has it by virtue of faith.
That God wills the assurance of all His children is expressly stated in Q. 86 of the Catechism. It is the gracious, Fatherly will of God that "every one [of His elect children, whom Christ redeemed] may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof." To realize this gracious will, Christ renews every one of them, so that they do good works as fruits of faith. The Spirit uses these good works to assure every one of them of his faith: Where the fruits of faith are found, there faith must be, which produces these fruits. Assured that he has a true and living faith, every one of God's redeemed and renewed children is certain of his salvation, for the promise is that whoever believes is, and shall be, saved.
The previous editorial pointed out that the address of the model prayer, "Our Father," reveals the will of God that all His children have the certainty of His Fatherly love to them, which is the assurance of salvation. This certainty of salvation, without which one cannot pray—and may not "try to pray"—runs throughout the Catechism's explanation of the model prayer in Lord's Days 45-52. Confidence that God is become our Father in Christ, which is confidence of our salvation, is the very "foundation of our prayer" (Q. 120).
Certainty in the Belgic Confession and the Canons
The Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt are one with the Catechism in teaching that God wills assurance for all His people, and gives it to them. In these Reformed creeds are any number of statements expressing that all believers have, and are expected to have, assurance of salvation. Article 23 of the Belgic Confession affirms that justification, which every believer has by his faith in Christ, gives "us confidence in approaching to God, freeing the conscience of fear, terror, and dread." Article 24 warns that if we found our salvation on our good works we "would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty." The implication is that when we found our salvation only on the work of Christ for us, as faith does, we are not in doubt, but have certainty of our salvation. Article 33 teaches that by the sacraments God works "inwardly in our hearts" that is, in the hearts of all believers who use the sacraments in obedience to Christ's command, "assuring and confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us."
A main purpose of the Canons of Dordt is to safeguard for Reformed believers the assurance that the Arminian heresy robs them of. I/12, although recognizing with a pastoral spirit that some struggle for a time with doubt and that the strength of assurance, like the strength of faith itself, is not the same for all, declares that all "the elect ... attain the assurance of ... their eternal and unchangeable election." All attain assurance of their election in time. In Rejection of Errors/7 of the first head, the Canons insist that this assurance of election is "certainty," repudiating as absurdity the notion of "an uncertain certainty."
Canons V/9 declares as glorious gospel-truth and official Reformed doctrine that "true believers"—all true believers—"may and do obtain assurance" both of their present salvation in Christ and of their persevering in the faith unto eternal life. This assurance is "certain persuasion." True believers are certain of the forgiveness of their sins, of being living members of the church, and of eternal life.
The Canons reject as an error any teaching that in any way denies or threatens this assurance by all true believers. Such teaching again introduces "the doubts of the papist" into the Reformed church. This is particularly true of the teaching that assurance is reserved for a few, favored saints who enjoy it by a "special and extraordinary revelation." "Special revelation" includes mystical experiences, a direct voice from heaven, a strange event in one's everyday life, and opening the Bible at random to a supposedly significant text (Canons V, Rejection of Errors/5).
Certainty, Not a Problem
What stands out so prominently concerning assurance in the "Three Forms of Unity," and can for this reason be overlooked, is that the certainty of believers is matter-of-factly taken for granted. (Lest any misunderstand, this taking of the assurance of the believer for granted is faith's undoubted conviction about faith.) Against the Arminian denial of any certainty of salvation, the Canons must argue for assurance, but also the Canons regard the assurance of salvation as the normal experience of all who believe the gospel of grace from the heart.
Assurance is not a special problem for the "Three Forms of Unity." Lack of assurance by many church members is not a major issue demanding careful attention by the creeds and virtually controlling the preaching and teaching of the church. Widespread and deep-seated doubt in the church does not demand all kinds of distinctions among church members, especially the distinction between a few members who are God's "best and dearest friends," who have no doubt, and the majority who doubt their salvation.
On the very surface of the confessions, perfectly obvious to everyone, is the truth that the "I," "me," "we," and "us" who speak or are spoken of in the confessions are people of certainty. They are certain about everything. They are certain about Scripture, about the Trinity, about creation, about angels and devils, about the fall, about the incarnation, about justification, about the church, and about heaven and hell. They are also certain about their salvation: that God elected "us"; that Christ made satisfaction "for us"; that "we" have faith; that providence governs all things for "our benefit"; and countless other, similar expressions, using the first person, personal pronouns.
These "I," "me," "we," and "us" are believers. They are simply believers. They are believers and nothing more—not old believers, not believers with great faith, not believers who have struggled and worked heroically for years in order finally to be able to speak of certainty as the confessions do, and certainly not believers who presume on special experiences.
This undeniable feature of the creeds regarding assurance is part and parcel of the fundamental gospel truth that God saves His elect by faith only.
"Easy believism" charge the Reformed doubters against the confession that all believers have, and have a right to have, assurance—full assurance. Works must be added: the work of agonizing doubting; the work of ardently seeking assurance; all kinds of works making the seeker worthy of assurance—worthy of becoming God's "best and dearest friend"; the works of doubting, seeking, and striving to be worthy for many years.
To which the Reformed confessions respond with the testimony of the gospel of grace: by faith alone.
To be sure, assurance is rare and precious.
It is as rare and precious as the faith itself of which assurance is an essential element.
And this is the issue.