Assurance of salvation is an aspect of true faith. Assurance belongs to the very nature of saving faith. Faith in Jesus Christ according to the gospel of the Scriptures is assurance. Faith is certainty of salvation.
A believer can doubt his salvation. He ought not doubt, but it is possible that he does. But doubt is not part of his faith. His doubt of his salvation is his corrupt, unbelieving nature getting the upper hand in his consciousness.
According to his faith, whether great or small, whether matured at the end of the Christian life or immature at the very beginning of the Christian life, the believer never doubts.
Assurance of salvation by any and every true believer is not presumption. Full assurance (to use a redundancy) by a believer at any stage of the life of faith is not a rarity. Certainty—absolute certainty (which is the only certainty there is or can be)—of personal salvation by the blood and Spirit of Christ in the eternal love of God is not an abnormality in the Reformed congregations. Certainty of salvation is simply the reality of faith.
Certainty of salvation is faith's assurance.
Assured Union with Christ
Faith is assurance by virtue of faith's being union with Jesus Christ. When the Spirit gives faith, He unites the elect with Christ. Faith is the bond of mystical union with the Savior. As Paul never tires of teaching, the one who has faith is "in Christ." And Christ is in him. In this union, the assurance of the believer that Christ is his and that he is Christ's is as normal, and necessary, as the certainty of the Christian wife that, united to her godly husband in marriage, she is his and he is hers.
Faith is assurance as regards the conscious activity of believing. Believing consists of two distinct, but inseparably related, elements. Believing is knowledge. It is knowledge of Jesus Christ as revealed in the gospel of Holy Scripture. Not only does faith know Jesus Christ as the Son of God sent by God into the world as the only Savior from sin and death by His atoning death. But faith recognizes Jesus as the Savior of the one who believes.
The knowledge of faith—the knowing that faith consists of—does not respond to Jesus Christ presented in the gospel by saying, "Ah, this is surely interesting, and undoubtedly very important; here is this person, Jesus, who is the Savior of the world." There may be a response like this, at least for a short while, on the part of some, but it is the response of a false faith. This false faith is sometimes referred to as "historical faith." It does not last. It soon manifests itself as outright unbelief, rejecting and despising the Savior by refusing to trust in Him, if not by blaspheming Him. In any case, historical faith is not the response to Jesus Christ of the faith worked in the elect by the Holy Spirit.
True faith responds, "My Savior and my Lord."
Faith knows Christ in a living, personal way—as the lost sheep knows his seeking shepherd, as a debtor knows his gracious creditor, as the sinful creature knows his loving God.
This knowledge of Christ as the believer's Savior is certain. There is no doubt about it. The reason is that faith's knowledge of Christ is Christ's own gift to the elect sinner. Christ makes Himself known to the sinner in the gift of faith, and faith knows Christ as the sinner's own. Christ makes Himself known with certainty.
Already, then, as regards the first element of faith, namely, knowledge—knowledge of Jesus Christ—faith is certainty—certainty of personal salvation. If it were not the case that faith knows Christ as the Savior of the one who believes, the guilty sinner would never dare to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. Faith is not a risky leap into the dark.
The second element of the activity of faith is trust. Logically dependent upon faith's knowledge of Christ, but one spiritual activity with this knowledge, trust is the believing sinner's coming to Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. The trusting sinner casts himself upon this Jesus Christ for salvation.
In this trusting, this casting oneself upon Christ, this seeking salvation where alone it is to be found, is assurance of one's salvation. Trust in Jesus, which is an essential element of faith, is not, and cannot be, merely the certainty that Jesus is the Savior. Merely to be sure that Jesus is the Savior is not trust. Trust is entrusting oneself to Christ, and to entrust oneself to Him, or confide in Him, or depend upon Him, is certainty that He is the Savior of the one who trusts.
He trusts in Jesus, and he alone, who is persuaded of the sure promise of the gospel that everyone who does trust in Jesus shall be received by Jesus and shall find righteousness and eternal life. The activity itself of trusting is certainty, not doubt.
In addition, when one has trusted, he does not find merely that Jesus is a Savior of sinners. But he finds that Jesus is his Savior personally. This is the promise. The promise is not, "Believe on Him, and you will be convinced that Jesus is the Savior of many people." What do I care about that? That is not my great need—to be convinced that Jesus saves some people. I suppose Satan is convinced that Jesus saves people. The promise of the gospel is, "Believe on Him, and you—you yourself personally—will have forgiveness and eternal life." And one who has forgiveness and eternal life certainly is assured that Jesus Christ, who gives him forgiveness and eternal life, is his Savior.
To speak of people's trusting in Jesus for salvation while lacking, indeed being denied, assurance of salvation is absurd.
We may distinguish faith's assurance that Jesus is the Savior and faith's assurance that Jesus is my Savior. But it is impossible to separate these two aspects of assurance. If a man does not have the certainty that he is saved by Jesus, the reason (apart now from certain special circumstances in his spiritual life to which we return later in this series) is that he does not trust in Jesus as Savior. And, I may add, he does not trust in Jesus, because he does not know Jesus with the knowledge of faith.
To know Him is to trust in Him, and to trust in Him is to be assured of salvation by Him.
An illustration may help to make clear both that we trust in one of whom we are certain that he is our helper and that the activity itself of trusting in a true and faithful helper necessarily implies assurance. When I was a little child, I knew my parents as my help and refuge. I went to them for everything—food for my hunger, comfort for my childish fears, relief in my pain. Sometimes I literally threw myself into their laps and arms. I trusted in them as in parents who loved me, and I trusted them because I knew them as my parents.
That little child was sure that his parents would help him. He never doubted it.
In the very activity of trusting in them, the child was certain that he was helped by them, and that he was helped by them because he was their child, whom they loved. He never doubted this either.
And this was what his parents wanted. They encouraged trust because trust is assurance of parental love, which is basic to the relationship of parents and child.
It certainly was not the case (the thought is silly) that the child depended upon his parents and was helped by them with all that belongs to covenant nurture and rearing, but doubted for many years whether they were his parents, whether they loved him, and whether he was their child.
Trust is assurance. One can no more separate assurance from trust than he can separate wet from water. As trust is of the essence of faith, so is assurance of the essence of faith.
"Esse" and "Bene Esse"
The great evil of certain Reformed and Presbyterian churches resulting in the doubt of many members that they are saved is the churches' denial that assurance belongs to the very nature of faith. This grievous doctrinal error, with its dreadful practical consequences, they have inherited from the Puritans.
Many, if not most, of the Puritans taught that assurance is not of the "esse" (Latin for "essence," or "being") of faith, but only of the "bene esse" (Latin for "well-being") of faith. Faith, they said, is not itself assurance. Assurance is only a fruit of faith. One can have and exercise true faith without enjoying assurance of salvation. One can have faith for many years without enjoying assurance of salvation. Indeed, according to the Puritans, most Christians, although they have faith, lack assurance. Most Christians, although they believe, live in doubt much of their life. Most believers should expect to live in doubt—doubt whether they are saved—for a long time, very likely all their life. The Puritans taught that "full subjective assurance [that is, assurance—DJE] is often withheld until the moment of death" (William K. B. Stoever, 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven', Wesleyan University Press, 1978, p. 155).
For the Puritan, Thomas Brooks, assurance "is not essential to faith." Assurance is "of faith's bene esse [well-being], not of its esse [being]." Assurance of one's own salvation is "an aspect of faith which normally appears only when faith has reached a high degree of development, far beyond its minimal saving exercise." Brooks spoke of assurance as "a reward of faith."
Thomas Goodwin, another notable Puritan, taught that assurance is "a branch and appendix of faith, an addition or complement to faith." Insofar as he was willing to view assurance as related to faith, he described assurance as "faith elevated and raised up above its ordinary rate." "Scripture," said Goodwin, "speaks of [assurance] as a thing distinct from faith."
According to Puritan scholar James I. Packer, Brooks and Goodwin's doctrine of assurance "was the general Puritan conception of assurance" (James I. Packer, "The Witness of the Spirit: the Puritan Teaching," in Puritan Papers, vol. 1, P&R, 2000, pp. 20, 21; see also Packer's The Quest for Godliness, Crossway Books, 1990, pp. 179-189).
William Perkins, towering Puritan theologian, taught that "no Christian attaines to this full assurance at the first, but in some continuance of time, after that for a long space he hath kept a good conscience before God, and before men" (cited by Robert Letham, "Faith and Assurance in Early Calvinism: A Model of Continuity and Diversity," in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, ed. W. Fred Graham, Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994, p. 382). This was to separate assurance from faith with a vengeance.
The causes of the Puritan denial that assurance belongs to the very nature of faith are not now our concern. Certainly, two of the causes were the Puritan doctrine of a conditional covenant and the Puritan penchant for suspending the certainty of salvation upon "experience." If one must attain assurance of his salvation first by fulfilling conditions and then by discovering within himself a sufficient "experience," assurance is effectively put out of the reach of all but the spiritual elite. And insofar as the assurance of these elite rests on some "experience," by what the Puritans called the "mystical syllogism," their assurance leans on a broken reed.
What concerns us is the effect of the denial that faith is assurance. The effect is doubt. The Puritan preachers preach doubt into their people. They profess that they want the people to have assurance. No doubt they are sincere in this profession. But when they convince their people that faith in Jesus Christ—faith that believes from the heart the gospel of Scripture—is not assurance of one's own salvation by this Jesus, that faith in Jesus Christ is not sufficient for assurance, that faith in Jesus Christ is not itself the plainest proof from God in heaven that the one who has this faith is saved by Jesus Christ, they create doubters. They create whole congregations and denominations of doubters. They create lifelong doubters. They create doubters from generation to generation.
The very next chapter following James I. Packer's description and defense of the Puritan denial that faith is assurance, in volume one of Puritan Papers, is titled, "The Puritan's Dealings with Troubled Souls." Indeed!
Those who deny that assurance belongs to the very essence of faith are forever seeking assurance. To hear them, the believer's relation to assurance is a "quest" for assurance. This is the title of the chapter in Stoever's 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven' in which he describes the relation between a Puritan and assurance: "The Quest for Assurance." Always questing, and very likely never finding!
There is even, among these people, a perverse esteem of doubt as a spiritual virtue. The one who goes on doubting his salvation year after year, always seeking and never finding, is regarded as quite spiritual. Not infrequently he regards himself as quite spiritual. He looks down on those who claim to have assurance simply by their faith in Christ as "unspiritual." Stoever notes that the Puritan pastors made "a certain kind of earnest doubt itself a mark of blessedness" ('A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven', p. 148).
But doubt is not blessedness.
Doubt is misery, the misery of the sin of unbelief.
The misery of doubt is dreadful.
And the doubter knows it.
Try telling the old man on his deathbed, terrified at the prospect of impending judgment, that the assurance he lacks because of Puritan preaching merely belongs to the "bene esse" of faith, not the "esse."