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I wanted a brief series for the next three evening services and the Lord placed one in my lap. I have, as you know, been preaching on the first chapter of 1 Peter in the morning and it has somewhat bothered me that I was not paying much attention in those sermons to the theological data that Peter piles up in that chapter. There are data useful for the construction of a number of central doctrines of the Bible in that chapter, but it is a particularly rich mine for those digging for truth and wisdom on the subject of Christian assurance. In fact, I have a good bit of material stored in the margin of my Bible at 1 Peter 1 on the subject of assurance, none of which has made its way into my morning preaching on the chapter. So, here was an opportunity for me to make some use of that material that was staring back at me from the page, week after week as I prepared my morning sermons.
That is the way it occurred to me to consider “Assurance” over these next three Lord’s Day evenings. But, I never need a reason to return to that theme or doctrine. It is an issue so important that no faithful preaching will continue long without giving attention to it. That is easy to demonstrate.
- A great deal of the Bible’s own attention is devoted to the issue or the question of assurance in one way or another. You have books devoted to one or another of its aspects or facets (e.g. 1 John and Hebrews), a great deal of the preaching ministry of the OT prophets, of the Lord Jesus himself, and of his apostles was dedicated either to removing assurance from those who did not deserve it or bolstering it in the case of those who deserved it but struggled to obtain it. There is hardly a page of the Bible that does not, in one way or another, bear directly on these questions. In the first place, how may believers know that they are the objects of God’s saving love and have in their own possession the forgiveness of their sins and title to a place in the City of God? And, in the second, For what reasons do people imagine themselves to be at peace with God when, in fact, they are not?
- That is further an indication of the fact that the matter of assurance is beset with problems on all sides. The doctrine itself is complex and requires a lot of careful thinking to hold its many parts in proper equilibrium. What is more, the sinful heart is very subtle and can easily lead folk astray in judging their relationship to God. So, whether we are speaking of assurance as a question of Christian theology or a spiritual issue in an individual’s life, the subject is complicated. Indeed, I’m going to say that assurance of salvation is one of the most complicated problems in theology and an issue around which has swirled a great many controversies through the ages.
- Assurance of salvation relates so directly to other major doctrines that it was inevitable that different understandings of the gospel should lead to very different ideas about assurance. The Roman Catholics have one doctrine of assurance, the Arminians another, the Reformed another, and so on. And, even within these general groupings there are very different opinions to be found, all of which bear mightily on the practical issues of dealing with the souls of men in their various spiritual conditions.Our Westminster Confession of Faith devotes an entire chapter to the question of Assurance, indicating that it was a major issue in that day and that the divines thought it a very important piece of the theological system they were seeking to derive from the Bible.
- And, then, finally, assurance deserves our careful study and reflection because of its immense practical implications. Obviously, a person who thinks himself a Christian when he is not is in the most dangerous situation conceivable, for he is under the wrath of God but does not know it. He will not listen to warnings because he is sure they do not apply to him.
But, it is not just the falsely assured who need a true, sound assurance of salvation. Real Christians need this as well and need more and more of it. For assurance is, at the last, the sense of God’s love kept on the soul, the joy of salvation and the hope of everlasting life. When one lives in such a state of assurance he lives the Christian life as it ought to be lived! He gains strength from the knowledge that he is a child of God. We sometimes think of assurance as something one figures out he has a right to at some point and then goes on to think about other things. But, in the Bible, assurance is a permanent state of mind and heart leading to many wonderful things.
In Paul’s great statement on assurance in Rom. 8 he argues that the sense of God’s love and one’s own salvation kept on the soul is a powerful inducement to holiness, to prayer, and to hope in the midst of the troubles of life. Later, in his last letter, Paul gives his own witness to the strength he gained in times of trouble from the fact that he knew — as a living force — his Savior and his own salvation (2 Tim. 1:12).
We all need, you and I, more assurance of God’s love, a deeper conviction and sense of the fact that we are objects of God’s special interest and affection, of Christ’s redeeming work, and of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the heart. We need to know more surely than now we do that God is for us, that Christ is now in heaven preparing a place for us, that there is laid up for us a crown of righteousness, that our citizenship is in heaven. You may know that those things are so, though some of you struggle to know this, but no Christian can have too much certainty or too living a sense of this glorious fact. And most all Christians need to have much more of it than they do. I do!
Put it this way. You know in marriage how the relationship between a husband and a wife waxes and wanes. Sometimes it is very close, intimate, powerful, full of delight and pleasure and fire and hunger. Those are the moments that are treasured in life. But sometimes the marriage is much more prosaic, lacking emotion, and the husband and the wife are more companions than they are lovers, cohabitors rather than sweethearts or paramours. It is why first-love is so memorable, why first-love is the subject of Hollywood movies, much more so than marriage. First-love, by nature, is archetypical love, love such as we know love ought to be — strong, passionate, delightful.
And we also know, those of us who are married, from long experience in some cases, how the assurance of our partner’s love is so often the means to deeper, more passionate love. This is especially true, is it not, in the case of women wanting to know, needing to know that their husbands love them and love them powerfully and deeply, that they long for them and treasure them. A man who is always taking care to communicate his love to his wife, a man who lets her know in no uncertain terms how taken he is with her, is, ordinarily — you understand that there are certain exceptions, especially when faith is not shared — is ordinarily a man whose marriage is going to be what a marriage ought to be and what everyone longs for his or her marriage to be: a powerful, romantic, erotic bond of pleasure and delight between a man and a woman. Assurance is, in this way, the life blood of married love!
Well, we are — all Christians are — the bride of Christ! And our relationship with him, likewise, its quality and character and strength and fruitfulness, depends a great deal on our assurance of his love for us, our sense of that love, our experience of that love, our certainty of the strength of his affection and longing for us! Nothing is more practically important or vital to each one of our Christian lives than this matter of our assurance and the strength of our assurance that God loves us!
So assurance is not simply a matter of being sure, for the right reasons, that you are saved. It is also a matter of living in the active confidence of God’s love and forgiveness, of the near approach of the glories of heaven, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s soul.
This is the viewpoint of the WCF (xviii, 3):
“…it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance…”
You remember that the language of that paragraph (“be diligent to make your calling and election sure”) comes from 2 Peter 1:10. In 1 Peter 1:3-5 the accent falls more on the objective side: what God has done and given and promised. The subjective is not absent, for we read in v. 5 that we are “kept by the power of God through faith.” But the basis of our certainty here is
- the new birth (and its immutability! cf. v. 23: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”);
- the gift of God (which is also immutable — v. 4 “which can never perish, spoil, or fade, kept in heaven for you”);
- the “keeping” power of God.
There is more here, of course, that bears on assurance but is not directly related to it in Peter’s argument: election in vv. 1-2; the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice in v. 2; the present working of the Holy Spirit in v. 2, etc.
And we are well aware of so much else that bears on this question, so much else of both kinds, that which affirms our right to be sure of God’s love and that which complicates it.
In the first case we have:
- Many texts teaching the immutable love of God for his people: “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “If God is for us, who can be against us.”
- Many texts teaching the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for his people. “I give eternal life to them and they shall never perish. No one can snatch them out of my hand.” “…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14).
Toplady put this confidence in the work of our shepherd this way.
If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.
But, his point is, the shepherd knows his sheep and is willing to leave those 99 who are in safety to rescue even one who has wandered away and has put himself in some danger. “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” “I shall lose not one of those the Father has given me, but raise them up at the last day.”
- Many texts teaching the efficacy of Christ’s continuing intercession for his people. “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb. 7:25).
As Toplady puts it in another verse:
Be mindful of Jesus and Me!
My pardon He suffer’d to buy;
And what he procur’d on the tree,
For me He demands in the sky.
- Many texts teaching us that by his power and government at God’s Right Hand, Christ can and does ensure the safety of his people. “…his incomparably great power for us who believe… And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body…” (Eph. 1:19-23).
And so much more. There are arguments from adoption (“Can a mother forget the child at her breast…”); from justification (“There is therefore now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus”); from sanctification (“He who began a good work in you shall perform unto the day of Jesus Christ”); from the promises of God (“All are yea and Amen in Christ”); from the divine calling (“the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable”); from the covenant (“I shall never leave you nor forsake you”); from the new creation (“Make the tree good and the fruit will be good”); and so on.
Let me summarize it all with this citation from the Bremen Confession (ix, 9), an early Reformed creed (Heppe, Dogmatik, 464).
“…this whole business cannot be made plainer or clearer than by keeping the parable of the parents and the children before one’s eyes. Because believers are God’s elect children and God for them is eternally their father in Christ, they also sin as children, not as enemies, and it is with them also with God the Father as with children, when they anger Him by disobedience. Children commonly sin from childish folly — but never from hate or envy of their father — the child’s love remains in them, although the appearance is otherwise.”
We could not ask for a more solid foundation for our hope than all of this, so often and so powerfully presented to us for our hope and encouragement in God’s Word.
But, we are aware that there are complications. All of that which we have so far said pertains to God’s elect, to those who truly believe in Christ. How can we be sure that we are among them? After all the Bible is full of the evidence that many who thought themselves saved deluded themselves and that many others who at one time walked with God later gave up doing so. We know of backsliding and of apostasy and we know that there is no simple way to tell them apart at the time. The other disciples were surprised by Judas and Paul was surprised by Demas. We also hear the Bible warning us of a judgment according to our works and we cannot help but wonder whether our works are such as will be required to demonstrate a true and living faith? How do we know that we are among those true believers who have a right to rest on all that wonderful evidence of God’s immutable love for his people, Christ’s certain accomplishment on their behalf, and the Holy Spirit’s indefectible gifts? That is the question.
And that is the question we will take up in some detail the next two Lord’s Day evenings. But, let’s be clear in our minds. Assurance is a part of the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life. We ought to have it, the Bible is intent that we should have it. We need it and more and more of it. We have a solid foundation for it, many such foundations indeed. Our task will be to apply that glorious truth to ourselves and “possess our possessions.”