Faith Is Assurance: The Reformation Gospel
True faith is assurance of personal salvation.
Assurance is not the fruit of faith for a few old people after many years of doubt. Assurance is not the "well-being" of faith (for the few believers who are "God's best and dearest friends") in distinction from the "being" of faith.
Assurance is what faith essentially is. Personal assurance of one's own salvation by the grace of God in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is the very being, or nature, of faith. Faith knows and trusts Jesus Christ as the Savior of the one who believes. Weak faith is certain of salvation, as well as strong faith. Faith is certain of salvation at the very beginning of the believing life, for example, in a covenant child, as well as faith at the very end of the way, for example, in a dying, old saint.
Faith is assurance.
Denial that faith is assurance was the fundamental cause of the deep, widespread, continuing doubt of salvation that characterized the congregations of the Puritans. It is the fundamental cause of the same doubt in Reformed and Presbyterian congregations today languishing under typically Puritan preaching. There are other causes of doubt as well: unsound emphasis on introspection; dependence on spiritual experiences; the deadly notion of "preparatory grace"; and the conditionality of the covenant and its salvation.
But the fundamental error is denial that faith is assurance. This error fills churches with doubters—comfortless, terrified doubters.
The previous editorial on assurance (Standard Bearer, March 15, 2004) showed that Scripture teaches faith as assurance.
Recovering the gospel of Scripture, the sixteenth century Reformation of the church taught that faith is assurance of salvation. With one accord, all the Reformers taught that assurance is the very nature of faith.
"Does Not Waver, Wobble, Shake, Tremble, or Doubt"
In his 1535 "Theses concerning Faith and Law," Martin Luther distinguished true faith from false faith this way: "True faith says, 'I certainly believe that the Son of God suffered and arose, but he did this all for me, for my sins, of that I am certain.'" Luther went on: "True faith with arms outstretched joyfully embraces the Son of God given for it and says, 'He is my beloved and I am his.'" According to Luther, it is exactly "that 'for me' or 'for us'" that "distinguishes it [true faith] from all other faith, which merely hears the things done."
Luther defined faith as "the firm and sure thought or trust that through Christ God is propitious and that through Christ His thoughts concerning us are thoughts of peace, not of affliction or wrath" (commentary on Gen. 15:6).
Late in his life, in 1543, Luther exulted in faith's essential certainty:
Faith is and, indeed, must be a steadfastness of the heart, which does not waver, wobble, shake, tremble, or doubt, but stands firm and is sure of its case.... When this Word enters the heart by true faith, it makes the heart as firm, sure, and certain as it is itself, so that the heart is unmoved, stubborn, and hard in the face of every temptation, the devil, death, and anything whatever, boldly and proudly despising and mocking everything that spells doubt, fear, evil, and wrath. For it knows that God's Word cannot lie. Such a person is . . . made certain, as the Word of the Lord is certain. So Paul says: "I know . . . and am persuaded (II Tim. 1:12)" (commentary on II Sam. 23:1).
Richard Marius is correct, in his recent, fine study of Luther, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, in stating that for Luther faith was assurance.
Faith is the only way to God, and as Luther presented it, faith seems always to have a warmhearted, existential content. It involves a personal, emotional binding with Christ. True faith is not merely to believe that the stories recounted in the Gospels are true; such belief "is no help, for all sinners and even the damned believe that." True faith, that faith filled with grace, is to know "that Christ was born for you, that his birth was for you, that it was all for your good."
Although Luther struggled all his believing life with hellish temptations to doubt the goodness and grace of God, he always affirmed that faith is assurance. All his life, despite his struggles against doubt, his own faith was assurance. By this confident faith, he constantly battled and overcame his temptation to doubt, and lived in the assurance of his own salvation.
Martin Bucer defined faith as "an undoubted persuasion of the mercy and fatherly good will of God towards us, made through the Holy Spirit and founded on the propitiation of Christ" (commentary on Romans).
The "Minutest Particle of Faith"
John Calvin's entire, lengthy treatment of faith in the Institutes—chapter two of book three—is a sustained argument that assurance is of the very being, or nature, of faith. "We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit."
Contrasting true believers with those who "are harassed by miserable anxiety while they doubt whether God will be merciful to them," Calvin declares that "our faith is not true unless it enables us to appear calmly in the presence of God. Such boldness springs only from confidence in the divine favor and salvation. So true is this, that the term faith is often used as equivalent to confidence."
Calvin expressly repudiates the later, Puritan notion that faith must grow into assurance over a long period of time, so that new, or young, believers cannot expect to enjoy assurance: "As soon as the minutest particle of faith is instilled into our minds, we begin to behold the face of God placid, serene, and propitious." The reason why even the believer with the smallest, least developed faith—the "minutest particle of faith"—has assurance of salvation is that the "clear knowledge of the divine favor ... holds the first and principal part in faith."
Although Calvin is well aware that "believers have a perpetual struggle with their own distrust," he insists that "he only is a true believer who, firmly persuaded that God is reconciled, and is a kind Father to him, hopes everything from his kindness, who, trusting to the promises of the divine favor, with undoubting confidence anticipates salvation."
Calvin demolishes the Puritan notion that one can be a believer, indeed, can be a believer for years, but lack assurance of salvation, and that, in fact, this is the case with most believers. "No man, I say, is a believer but he who, trusting to the security of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death." In support of this contention, Calvin appeals to the glorious words of assurance that the Holy Spirit puts in the heart and on the lips of every one who believes the gospel of grace, in Romans 8:38, 39: "I am persuaded that [nothing] shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Lack of assurance is unbelief. One who lives persistently in doubt, perhaps under the sickly preaching that assures him that doubt is normal for most believers, is an unbeliever.
That faith is assurance is for Calvin a matter of the greatest importance. He does not simply teach this. But he emphasizes this at every opportunity. In his Sermons on Melchizedek & Abraham, preaching to his congregation on Genesis 15:6, Calvin asks, "What then is Belief?" His answer is: "It is to receive whatsoever is spoken unto us from the mouth of God, with such reverence, as that we hold it to be certain and sure." But this is "not enough." This is not enough to constitute "Belief." Belief, or faith, regards the Word of God as "such a sure and certain word unto us as may make us approach near unto God, and make us partakers of his bounty and goodness: and not to doubt but that he will be our Father and Savior, and so thereupon may be bold to call upon him, and hold ourselves for his children, and fly unto him for succor and aid."
Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor in Geneva, likewise taught assurance as faith's very nature. In his handbook of Reformed theology, The Christian Faith, under the heading, "How faith is necessary, and what faith is," Beza gave this description of faith:
The faith of which we speak does not consist only in believing that God is God, and that the contents of His Word are true:—for the devils indeed have this faith, and it only makes them tremble (James 2:19)—But we call "faith" a certain knowledge which, by His grace and goodness alone, the Holy Spirit engraves more and more in the hearts of the elect of God (I Cor. 2:6-8). By this knowledge, each of them, being assured in his heart of his election, appropriates to himself and applies to himself the promise of his salvation in Jesus Christ.... Whosoever truly believes trusts in Him alone and is assured of his salvation to the point of no longer doubting it (Eph 3:12) [emphasis added].
A Lame Defense of Apostasy
From the teaching of the Reformation that faith is assurance, the Puritan doctrine of assurance is a radical departure. Advocates of the Puritan doctrine have noticed this, of course, and have offered what must certainly rank as one of the lamest defenses of apostasy from Reformation orthodoxy in all the history of doctrine. The Presbyterian theologian William Cunningham acknowledged that the Reformers spoke "very strongly of the importance and necessity of men being personally assured about their own salvation." But the Reformers were mistaken in their doctrine of assurance. Their views on assurance were "extreme and exaggerated." The later Puritans and Presbyterians were right in denying that assurance is of the essence of faith and in denying assurance to most believers. According to Cunningham, the reason for the Reformers' "high views" of assurance was that they themselves received a special dispensation of grace: "God seems to have given to them the grace of assurance more fully and more generally than He does to believers in ordinary circumstances."
Apart now from his explanation of the Reformers' doctrine of assurance, Cunningham made significant admissions. He admitted that the later Puritan denial that assurance belongs to the essence of faith conflicts with the teaching of the Reformation. He also admitted that this deviation from the Reformation tends towards Roman Catholicism. "It is no doubt true that in so far as there has been a deviation from the views [on assurance] generally held by the Reformers, it has proceeded in a direction which tends to diminish the differences between Protestants and papists" (see William Cunningham, "The Reformers and the Doctrine of Assurance," in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation).
In the language of the warning of the Canons of Dordt, by the Puritan doctrine of assurance, particularly the denial that assurance belongs to the essence of faith, "the doubts of the papist are again introduced into the church" (Canons, V, Rejection of Errors/5).
Cunningham's explanation of the Reformer's doctrine of assurance is mistaken. The Reformers' doctrine of assurance had nothing to do with their own, allegedly special experience and certainly nothing to do with a special dispensation of grace in the sixteenth century. One could as well explain away their doctrine of justification by arguing that the Reformers were justified in a special way at a special time in the history of salvation.
The Reformers taught that faith is assurance for all believers, in all times, because this is what the Bible teaches about faith.
The Reformers taught that faith is assurance for all believers, because the Reformers saw that faith has respect to God's work of sovereign grace in Jesus Christ. Looking to grace, in dependence upon a sure promise, faith is certain. Assurance is the blessed fruit of the gospel of grace.
The Puritan teaching on assurance, therefore, is serious error. It is radical deviation from the teaching of the Reformation. It is false doctrine about faith. It robs many of the only comfort in life and death. And it betrays a grievous departure from the gospel of grace. The Puritans and those who followed them shifted the center of faith's attention away from the work of God in Jesus Christ, including the work of God in Jesus Christ within the elect sinner, to the sinner's experience of salvation. Puritanism did this deliberately. It was bold to proclaim itself a "second reformation." Thus Puritanism, with no little arrogance, judged the sixteenth century Reformation inadequate and heralded itself as accomplishing the vital thing left undone by the "first" Reformation. The vital thing consisted of concentrating on the sinner and his experience.
The result was fatal.