Faith Is Assurance: Q. 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism

Faith is assurance.

Faith is assurance of personal salvation.

Faith is assurance that the one who, from the heart, believes the gospel is saved now, has been saved from eternity in the decree of election, and will be preserved unto everlasting salvation.

Faith is absolute certainty of personal salvation, the only kind of certainty that is certain. A certainty that is not absolutely certain is, in fact, uncertainty, that is, doubt. Such "certainty" is worthless.

Assurance belongs to the essence, or very nature, of faith. Assurance is what faith is.

That assurance belongs to faith's nature is the fundamental truth about assurance. Where this is preached, as an important aspect of the gospel, the congregation will be blessed with assurance, young and old, weak and strong. 

Where preachers deny that faith is assurance, congregations will be full of doubters—doubters who profess to believe the gospel. Many who profess to believe the gospel will live and die in the terror that they may be lost and damned. This is both a dreadful condition and an insult to the gospel. 

In addition, the worship, the preaching, the doctrine, and the Christian life of the members will be adapted to the prevailing doubt in the congregation. Worship will become a merely formal seeking after God, for doubters can neither pray, nor sing, nor read Scripture rightly, nor hear preaching properly, nor use the sacraments, nor, for that matter, even give in a God-glorifying way. Preaching in the church of Christ will become an offering of Christ to the doubters, who are regarded, with some right, as unconverted. Or it will be a beating down of the miserable doubters even further. The church's doctrine will emphasize the doubting sinner and his experience, rather than God and His glorious salvation. The life of the many doubting members of the congregation will be an anxious introspection, whether they may find some sign of salvation, and a strenuous exertion to perform good works, to prove to themselves that they are saved.

Make no mistake: that faith is assurance is a fundamental truth. It is fundamental, not only for the certainty of salvation of all God's believing people, but also for the gospel, the church, and the Christian life. This stands in the nature of the case. The truth that assurance belongs to the nature of faith is the truth about faith. And faith is the bond of union with Christ, the means of salvation, and the source of all Christian life, activity, and experience.

To go wrong with regard to faith is to ruin everything.

The issue is not whether a believer can doubt. The issue is not whether the odd believer can doubt for a long time. The issue is not even whether all believers struggle with doubt on occasion. 

But the issue is whether faith is assurance and, with this, whether assurance is normal in every believer from the moment he first believes and whether the heavenly Father wills the assurance of all His children.

In previous editorials, I demonstrated that Scripture teaches that faith is assurance and that the Reformation confessed that faith is assurance (Standard Bearer, March 15 and May 1, 2004).

An Assured Confidence

On the basis of Scripture and as the expression of the truth of the gospel recovered by the Reformation, the "Three Forms of Unity"—our Reformed confessions—teach that faith is assurance. The outstanding passage is Q. 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is true faith? True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.

According to the Catechism, faith is an "assured confidence."

Faith is an assured confidence in every believer.

Faith is an assured confidence in every believer that remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given to him by God. This is an assured confidence that he is saved now, has been elected from eternity, and will be saved everlastingly.

Assurance is what faith is. Faith is knowledge, and faith is confidence of personal salvation. Indeed, the emphasis of the Catechism falls on faith's being confidence: "not only certain knowledge . . . but also an assured confidence." The reason for the emphasis is that the Catechism intends to ward off the error that faith is merely objective, that is, that faith is merely knowledge of the truth of the Bible and the facts of salvation. The Catechism, with Rome in its sights, is intent on repudiating the error that denies that assurance is of the essence of faith. Glorious voice of the Reformation that it is, the Catechism is the enemy of doubt. It will not have a congregation filled with members professing to believe the gospel, but paralyzed with doubt.

Binding Doctrine

Q. 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism is the definitive statement on the issue, whether assurance belongs to the essence of faith or is merely the well-being of faith.

On all who subscribe the "Three Forms of Unity" as their creeds, Q. 21 is binding. No Reformed preacher may deny that assurance belongs to the nature of faith. No Reformed member may challenge this, perhaps because he is attracted, foolishly, to the Puritan teaching denying that assurance is of the essence of faith. No Reformed church may countenance any teaching to the contrary.

No one who has the Catechism as his confession may explain Q. 21 away by saying that its teaching is theoretical and ideal (that is, that assurance belongs to the faith only of God's favored few, and then only after many years of doubt). Q. 21 describes the actual, living, breathing, knowing, trusting faith of every one to whom God gives faith.

Neither may anyone cleverly evade the plain force of the clear teaching of Q. 21 by grudgingly admitting that assurance belongs to faith "in a measure." What is intended by this "in a measure," of course, is that faith is, perhaps, 10% assurance, but 90% lack of assurance, that is, doubt. Since faith is less than 100% assurance, faith is doubt. Thus, the "in a measure" contradicts Q. 21 of the Catechism, which affirms that faith is "an assured confidence" of personal salvation. 

Faith is not lack of assurance, that is, doubt. It is not 90% lack of assurance, that is, doubt. It is not 1/100th% lack of assurance, that is, doubt. Faith is certainty. It is absolute certainty. It is as certain as is the promise of God upon which faith depends. It is as certain as is the Holy Spirit who works the assurance. 

The certainty of faith is the truth and faithfulness of the gracious God revealed in the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ. Therefore, great sinners, with vile natures, utterly unworthy of the least of God's blessings, who believe are absolutely certain of their justification and salvation. Therefore also, it is no mark of piety to doubt one's salvation, "because I am such a great sinner." On the contrary, such doubt is wicked unbelief and sinful discounting of the infinite worth and value of the death of the Son of God.

Every other description of faith in the "Three Forms of Unity" agrees with Q. 21, that faith is assurance. There are innumerable other descriptions of faith, implicit as well as explicit. Among the explicit descriptions of faith as assurance is the well-known Q. 1 of the Catechism, explained earlier in this series on assurance; Article 20 of the Belgic Confession, which has every believer confidently declaring that God laid "our" iniquities upon Christ, poured forth His mercy and goodness on "us," gave His Son unto death for "us," and raised Christ for "our" justification, so that "we" might obtain immortality and life eternal; and the Canons, 5/11, which confesses "the full assurance of faith" with reference to perseverance. The Canons acknowledge here that the believer is not "always sensible" of this full assurance. But "full assurance" belongs to faith.

Assurance in the Westminster Standards

It is hardly possible, in a treatment of the doctrine of assurance in the "Three Forms of Unity," to avoid taking note of certain statements on assurance in the Westminster Standards. These statements are commonly appealed to in opposition to the teaching that faith is assurance. There are especially three controversial statements in the Presbyterian creeds: the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), 14.3; WCF, 18:3; and the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), Q. 81. 

WCF, 14:3 states that faith "[grows] up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ." The article suggests that assurance is rather the fruit of faith than the essence of faith; that assurance can be expected only after the passing of some time in the believer's life; and that, even then, some believers, perhaps even many believers, never enjoy assurance. This is ominous.

WCF, 18.3 is ambiguous: "This infallible assurance [of salvation] doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it," etc. The wording of the article leaves the Presbyterian wondering: "Does, or does not, assurance belong to the essence of faith?" The statement might be understood as teaching that "infallible assurance" (there is no other kind of assurance) belongs to the essence of faith alright, but not in such a way that occasionally the rare believer might not have to wait long for it. 

One could say the same thing about the knowledge of faith. Knowledge does not so belong to the essence of faith that occasionally a believer might wait long for pure knowledge, or even fall away from the truth temporarily into heresy. This would be like saying that sight belongs to the eye, but not in such a way that it cannot occasionally be hindered or lost.

Or, WCF, 18.3 denies that assurance is of the essence of faith. In this case, it goes on to assert that, therefore, it is common and perfectly normal that true believers "wait long" to obtain assurance.

Q. 81 of the WLC seemingly denies outright that assurance belongs to the essence of faith.

Are all true believers at all times assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved? Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it, etc.

Presbyterian commentators on these statements acknowledge that the Westminster Standards teach that assurance belongs to the well-being of faith, rather than to faith's being. They admit, as well, that in this point of doctrine Westminster departs from the teaching of the Reformation. Usually, they frankly attribute this departure from the teaching of the Reformation to the influence of the Puritans (see A. A. Hodge, Robert Shaw, William Cunningham, and Barry H. Howson).

Curiously, at the same time, these Presbyterian theologians strive mightily to get assurance back into the essence of faith in some respect. They make strange distinctions, for example, between assurance of faith (supposedly of the essence of faith after all, but not experienced) and assurance of sense (experienced assurance, which is what assurance is by definition); or between absolute, unwavering assurance and doubtful, wavering assurance (which is no assurance), or between an objective assurance (of which a believer is supposed to be unconscious) and a conscious assurance (which is what assurance is by definition). Thus, these Presbyterians indicate deep unease with their and their creeds' denial that faith is assurance, as well they might. The Bible is overwhelmingly clear and powerful, that faith is confidence, not doubt.

If the Westminster Standards deny that assurance belongs to the very nature of true faith, in this important point they contradict Q. 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, depart radically from the entire Reformation, and are in conflict with Scripture.

But the Westminster Standards are not the binding creeds of most of the readers of the Standard Bearer. The "Three Forms of Unity" are. For most of us, Q. 21 of the Catechism is authoritative.

Spontaneous Assurance

Faith is assurance.

Blessed assurance! Without it, life is intolerable.

Since assurance belongs to faith—God-given, Spirit-worked faith—blessed faith! Thank God for faith. Thank God for faith that knows and trusts in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and in this very activity assures the believer: "This Christ is mine, and I am His."

The practical implications of the truth that faith is assurance are precious. God wants all His believing children to enjoy assurance. Assurance is normal for all believers. Those united to Christ by a true faith have assurance, as the rule, from the very first moment of their conscious exercise of faith. Covenant children have assurance, as well as their gray headed, covenant grandparents.

The believer has assurance, as the gift of the Spirit of Christ, mainly in the very activity of his knowing and trusting in Christ as presented in the gospel. Looking away in trust to Christ crucified as set forth in the gospel, the repentant sinner has forgiveness and assurance of salvation. He has assurance spontaneously.

There is some place in faith's assurance for what is known as the "practical syllogism." The "practical syllogism" refers to a certain confirming of assurance by the believer's notice of the evidences of salvation in his life, for example, sorrow over sin, love for God, and good works. A syllogism is an argument. The "practical syllogism" is an argument on behalf of assurance of salvation. It goes like this: 1) All who perform good works are saved; 2) I perform good works; 3) Therefore, I must be saved.

The Puritans made far too much of the "practical syllogism" in the matter of assurance, to say nothing of the "mystical syllogism," which argued for assurance on the basis of mysterious spiritual experiences. And the more they argued with themselves, the less assured they were. 

The believer does not ordinarily, and certainly not chiefly, argue himself into assurance. "Let me see—am I saved? All who are sorry for their sins are saved; I am sorry for my sins; therefore, I may conclude that I am saved."

This is not how life is. This is not how earthly life is. I do not argue myself into certainty that I am alive physically. In the course of thinking, moving, and doing, spontaneously and naturally I am sure that I am alive. Neither does a child usually argue himself into the conviction that he is the son of his parents and that they are his parents. In the normal course of good family life, he is spontaneously certain of his place in the family.

So it is in the spiritual realm. By the working of the Spirit through the gospel of grace, in the believer's knowing, trusting in, and embracing Jesus Christ the believer is certain of his salvation. His holy life (which is imperfect, indeed polluted with sin) and his experience of sorrow over sin and love for God (which is often very weak) are a secondary confirmation of the witness of the Spirit by the promise of the gospel.

The promise of the gospel is, "Believe, and you shall be saved."

An essential aspect of the promised salvation, which is by faith alone, is assurance of salvation. 

"Believe, and you shall be assured of your salvation."

— DJE