It seems to me that the fear of nominal professors, those with a false assurance, has led many to press home the question to people, “Do you trust Christ enough?” “Are you really resting and receiving Christ?” “Have you really repented?” I think it can be a mistake to proceed along these lines, to ask ourselves whether there is something in me that is enough. That is the route to doubt and despair, or else really false hope and pride in myself.
Good works, thankfulness and assurance
The third part of the Heidelberg Catechism, which is all about good works, is called “Thankfulness.” Good works in Heidelberg 64 are called “fruits of thankfulness.” In question 86, the first question in the third section of the Heidelberg, the first reason given for why we should do good works is to show our thankfulness to God. One of the prooftexts in this section in 1 Corinthians 6:20, in which Paul exhorts us to good works because of the fact that we were bought with a price. Thankfulness for that fact, for our having been bought with a price, motivates those good works.
Romans 12:1 likewise exhorts us to good works as the sacrifice of our whole lives to God. That cannot be a propitiatory or expiating sacrifice, since Christ is that sacrifice. The sacrifice instead is a thank offering, which is confirmed by Paul calling it our “reasonable service”- that is, the service (latreia, meaning service as worship) that is reasonable, appropriate. Our salvation can elicit no other response than this dedication of the whole life to God.
In short, all these speak of good works as flowing out of thankfulness. But how can I be thankful for what I am not sure I have? In other words, how can I do good works if they are not done out of a motivation of thankfulness? Are they even good works if they are not done out of that motive?
Differing Views of Assurance within the Reformed Camp
Earlier I asserted a real difference between the Heidelberg’s approach to the question of the assurance of salvation and that of the Westminster. There I used some quotes from John Owen to illustrate the point.
It is common in Reformed circles today to deny that there is any real difference. At most a difference of emphasis is allowed between the two camps, but no real difference. For some reason there seems to be a common tendency these days to gloss over the very real differences that existed on a number of topics within the Reformed world. There was a movement for a while that’s sometimes called the “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” school that greatly exaggerated these differences, and the current trend is pushback against that I think. But I believe they have overcorrected. There were real differences, and this is one of them.
From John Calvin, Institutes (1541), chapter 4:
“Here then, we have a complete defiition of faith: we describe it as a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodwill to us which, being founded on the free promise given in Jesus Christ, is revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
“In short, the genuine believer is the man who, assured with firm conviction that God is a propitious and kindly Father to him looks to his goodness for all things and who, resting on the promises of his goodwill, awaits his salvation with never a doubt, even as the apostle says, “keeping faith to the end, and glorying in our hope’ (Heb. 3:6). By these words he shows that no one can truly hope in God who does not confidently boast that he is an heir of the kingdom of heaven. The genuine believer, I repeat, is the one who, relying on the assurance of his salvation, dares unflinchingly to defy the devil and death, as the apostle explains in the conclusion which he draws in Romans (Romans 8:38-39). Accordingly the apostle does not consider the eyes of our minds to be truly enlightened until we behold the hope of the eternal inheritance to which we are called. As he everywhere teaches, we do not really understand God’s goodness unless we find in it our full assurance.”
Then he goes on to address the reality of the experience of believers doubting. This he attributes to temporary failures of faith, not to the need for something to be added to faith. Faith contains assurance, he clearly teaches, but sometimes our faith is weak. So doubts arise not from the fact that assurance is something separate from faith, but from the fact that our faith is often very weak. His point throughout is that true faith includes assurance, and that all true believers will have this assurance, though at times it will waver. This is very different from WCF which teaches that assurance is a fruit of faith, not part of faith itself, and that true believers may go their whole lives without any assurance of salvation.
The Westminster position is to say that it can be true faith to believe that Jesus Christ saves sinners, but be unsure that He has saved me. That is to say, it’s teaching that one can have true faith with no personal trust of Jesus. They would deny this, I’m sure, but I believe it to be the clear implications of the teaching.
Zacharius Ursinus was the author of the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 21 of that catechism says,
21. What is true faith?
True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
Here’s a quote from Ursinus, from his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, on question 21, which takes the same position on assurance as Calvin:
Justifying or saving faith differs, therefore, from the other kinds of faith, because it alone is that assured confidence by which we apply unto ourselves the merit of Christ, which is done when we firmly believe that the righteousness of Christ is granted and imputed unto us, so that we are accounted just in the sight of God.
So not only does the Heidelberg and Ursinus take the position that personal assurance of salvation is of the very nature of saving faith, but that personal assurance is chiefly that which distinguishes real faith from a temporary or merely intellectual faith. Many people will react with joy to the Gospel, and continue in it for a time, but they have no real, personal trust in Christ, and therefore when the Gospel fails to deliver the earthly goals they crave, they fall away.
Compare this with a quote from Charles Hodge, from his Systematic Theology, part 3, chapter 16, under the subheading of assurance:
To make assurance of personal salvation essential to faith, is contrary to Scripture and to the experience of God’s people.
Hodge’s discussion in the rest of this section is quite good, though. He attributes a want of assurance either to a weakness of faith or to bad teaching. But of course Calvin would say the same thing- and those two things really come to the same thing, since knowledge is a component of faith. Bad teaching leads to weak faith. He decries the overly introspective approach of many of the Puritans:
We may examine our hearts with all the microscopic care prescribed by President [Jonathan] Edwards in his work on “The Religious Affections,” and never be satisfied that we have eliminated every ground of misgiving and doubt. The grounds of assurance are not so much within, as without us.
Hodge does a good job then showing us the differences of approaches that exist within the Reformed world, and clearly reveals the pastoral issues at stake. Nonetheless, because he is a Westminster man, he must maintain that assurance is not of the essence of faith, and that certainty of salvation is an “effect of faith,” not of its essence.
So there are real differences on this question within the Reformed camp, a spectrum of approaches. We should not exaggerate those differences, but neither should we minimize them. I myself believe that Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism has it right, and that later in the Reformation, out of a concern over the many nominal Christians in the state churches of England and Holland, the Puritan movement developed with an intense focus on shaking people out of their complacency, challenging them on the genuineness of their faith, producing the overly introspective approach that Hodge challenges. I think a lot of this problem, along with many others, can be laid at the feet of the existence of state churches.
John Piper’s Hopelessly Subjective View of Faith
An article by John Piper was brought to my attention by a reader of a previous post on the subject of assurance. I think it is another illustration of the same kind of thinking that I took issue with there, presented even more boldly this time.
The title of the article is, “You Can Believe the Promises of God and Still Be Lost.” It’s obviously provocative, and designed to startle you and make you think. And I’m all in favor of provocation, of course. But not by saying things that aren’t true. The title of that article is manifestly not true.
The promise of the gospel is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” If I believe in that promise, then I am saved. It really is that simple. Now if Piper is meaning that if I believe that I am forgiven and going to heaven, but I do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then I am deluded and not going to heaven, like the falsely assured in Matthew 7:22. But the people in Matthew 7:22 did not believe the promises of the God. They made up a promise in their own head and believed that. They believed something God never said, that if you work miracles that proves you are saved. Nobody ever said that; that was just a comforting lie that they chose to believe. Their lack of faith is proven by their lack of repentance. But there is not a word said there about them believing in Jesus.
Yes, we also know that it is necessary to believe the truth about Jesus. There are many in the gospels who believe their own made-up lies about Jesus. They may even believe He is the Messiah, in the sense that the Messiah is the One who will come and solve all our problems. But they didn’t like the solutions He proposed, or even agree with the existence of the problems He actually came to fix. He came to free them from their sin, not to free them from the Romans, and so they rejected Him. Again, these are not examples of people who believed the promises of God. They believed lies made up in their own heads or told to them by Satan.
Satan himself cannot be used as an example of one who “believes the promises of God” as Piper tries to claim. Satan does not trust Jesus as his savior. Satan doesn’t even want to be saved. And the oft-cited passage in James, “The devils believe, and tremble” (James 2:19) says nothing about the demons believing in Christ, or in the gospel, or that Christ is the Savior, or anything like that. It says that they believe there is one God. That’s all. James’ point is merely that having certain correct doctrinal propositions does not make you saved. Being a monotheist in the first century was a pretty big commitment. But it did not indicate saving faith. James is nowhere making the point that I need to add some other element to believing in the promises of God in order to be saved. When he says that faith without works is dead, he makes very clear what he means. He does not say that faith without works is insufficient; he says it’s dead, not alive, not real faith. Real faith will produce repentance.
Even resting in Christ, says Piper, is not enough, since he claims the false professors in Matthew 7:22 are resting in Christ. But they’re not at all! They’re resting in their own works. When they are confronted, they do not say, “But we believed the promises of God!” (To which Piper would have Jesus respond, “It’s not enough! You did not apprehend properly the full spiritual beauty of the gospel promises!”) No, they say, “Did we not do all these wonderful works?” They never express any faith in Christ. They express confidence in their own working of miracles.
There is a similar passage in Luke 13:25-26, where Jesus is similarly attacking the false confidence of many of the Jews:
“When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying,`Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you,`I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say,`We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ “But He will say,`I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ (Luk 13:25-27 NKJ)
Once again, there is no protest on the basis of belief, to which Jesus responds, Piper-like, that their faith lacks some vague subjective quality of apprehending beauty. No, they thought they were in the kingdom just because they were around Jesus, because they were present when His ministry was happening. This rings very true to this pastor’s experience. Many seem to think just because they show up from time to time when Christianity is going on, that they are in the kingdom. But we should not put words in Jesus’ mouth and make Him say more than He says.
What does Piper say is actually necessary for saving faith?
Another way to say it would be that in all the acts of saving faith the Holy Spirit enables us not only to perceive and affirm factual truth, but also to apprehend and embrace spiritual beauty. It is the “embracing of spiritual beauty” that is the essential core of saving faith. And this embrace is what will shape our lives most deeply and receive the “well done” at the Last Day.
“Embracing of spiritual beauty” is the core of saving faith. He’s even going farther than Owens in the article I quoted before. Owens was just talking about assurance. Piper is talking about what constitutes real faith. And into real faith he inserts the idea that embracing of spiritual beauty is necessary to be justified.
What does this even mean? How can I know whether I have embraced enough spiritual beauty? What particular definition of beauty does Piper endorse? And what Scripture would Piper use to defend this idea?
This idea destroys assurance, which one suspects may be the real goal here. The Puritan-minded (and Piper is a big fan of the Puritans) seem to view assurance as dangerous, as Lee Johnson says. They are so concerned about false professors and nominal believers that they seem to be willing to all but destroy the possibility of assurance in order to guard against that error. But in doing so they risk changing the definition of faith, and by doing so, overthrowing the Gospel, that very thing they are trying to preserve. It is the confidence in salvation worked by the Spirit which is the engine of spiritual growth. Spiritual growth essentially comes out of thankfulness, but to be thankful I have to be confident that I have a thing. It is impossible to be thankful for something which one is not sure one has.
Otherwise, sanctification becomes a means of achieving justification, the hallmark of legalism. And that is what Piper (perhaps unwittingly) is advocating for here, that the Christian be required to do a lot of work before that Christian has any right to view himself as saved. He says this is something revealed by the Spirit to the believer, but when I suspend my salvation on something subjective like this, the inevitable result is the necessity of doing a lot of work in order to assure that I have achieved that subjective standard. “Embracing spiritual beauty” is not something the believer automatically has when they come to faith. And how can we be certain we have enough of it? If I believe in the promises of God, but am uncertain that I “embrace the spiritual beauty” sufficiently, how do I go about getting it?
Here’s what I prefer:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (Joh 11:25-27 NKJ)
Believing in Christ, here, is said to be the guaranteed ticket to eternal life. And what is believing in Christ? It’s believing that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. It’s trusting Him completely. It’s resting in Him. If I believe the promises of God, then I will believe in Christ. There is really no air between those two things.
Or as Paul and Silas said,
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Act 16:31 NKJ)
Isn’t that enough? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that people are going to be confident and joyful in their salvation when they have not shed as many tears as I think they need to, or have been raised to the same ecstatic heights that I believe to be necessary? Is it the fear that there are people who are going to believe the gospel, rest in Christ, repent of their sins, trust in their salvation, but will actually have been deluded and will go to hell because they didn’t “embrace the spiritual beauty” of the gospel enough? Does Piper actually think God would do that?
Well, boo on that. Trust Christ. And of course there is the need to unpack everything that means, and understand the implications of that. The idea of repentance, of rethinking our lives and committing to a different way is implicit in what it means to trust Christ as my Lord and Savior. But many a new Christian won’t have any kind of clear idea of the real nature of their sin, of its true horror, or of the full spiritual beauty of the gospel of Christ. Those things come in time. But they grow out of trust and thankfulness, that is to say, out of assurance. If you deny assurance until someone has reached some subjective level of apprehension, then you have destroyed the very spiritual principle that will produce that growth. Sanctification grows out of trust, not out of doubt.
The Heidelberg Catechism in Question 2 teaches us that three things are necessary to live and die in the comfort of belonging to Christ- the greatness of my sin and misery, how Christ has redeemed me from my sin and misery, and how I am to be thankful for that redemption. That’s simple. And more important, it’s not subjective. These are simply Biblical facts to be learned and embraced and applied to our lives. These are the promises of God. Believing them will certainly preserve your soul from hell.
John Owen’s Wrong View of Assurance
There is a very real difference within different camps of the Reformed faith on the subject of assurance. We might identify the two different perspectives on the subject as the Westminster position and Heidelberg position. The Westminster position might also be identified as the Puritan position. This is well illustrated by John Owen’s book, The Mortification of Sin. This is a worthy book in a lot of ways, with much helpful advice. But there is a consistent emphasis throughout the book on the question of whether one can rightly view oneself as saved or not, based on rather subjective standards.
In chapter 13, Precautions Against False Peace, he says,
When men are wounded by sin, disquieted and perplexed, and knowing that there is no remedy for them but only in the mercies of God, through the blood of Christ, do therefore look to him, and to the promises of the covenant in him, and thereupon quiet their hearts that it shall be well with them, and that God will be exalted, that he may be gracious to them, and, yet their souls are not wrought to the greatest detestation of the sin or sins upon the account whereof they are disquieted, — this is to heal themselves, and not to be healed of God.
Just the title of that chapter made me nervous. Owens here teaches us that unless we are “wrought with the greatest detestation” of sin, we have no right to rest in the promise of the gospel. After getting over my initial alarm at this passage, I thought perhaps Owen was just being hyperbolic. After all, if I really had the “greatest detestation” of my sin, that is, I hated my sin in the superlative, to the greatest degree possible, with no love of any kind at all for my sin, then I wouldn’t sin. Why do people sin? Because it’s fun, because they enjoy it. Now that just shows the corruption of our hearts, that we think it’s fun to engage in the misery and bondage of sin, but that’s the nature of it. And Owens doesn’t just mean hatred of the worst sins I commit, or the overt sin, but all of them, even the pride I hide in my heart.
Now don’t get me wrong. We ought to have such hatred. And it is a valuable and necessary part of sanctification to cultivate such a hatred. But Owens is saying that I must have this hatred before I can even be confident of my justification.
The really disturbing thing about this is that Owen asserts that a man can have sorrow for sin, have faith in Christ as his savior, believe in the covenant, believe in the shed blood of Jesus Christ on his behalf, and still have no right to consider himself saved unless he have this “greatest detestation of sin”.
The thrust of the chapter might be summed up as this, “take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it; but hearken what he says to thy soul.” This statement is emphasized at the beginning of this chapter as a sort of thesis statement for the whole chapter. Owen’s point throughout the chapter is that we must not console ourselves with the promise of forgiveness until we have the requisite level of hatred for our sin, at which God will “speak peace” to us. To speak peace to ourselves before that point is to illegitimately claim the promise of the gospel.
The next question is obvious- how do we know that God has “spoken peace” to us? And what does that mean? Assurance of pardon is the question- how can I be assured that I am truly forgiven?
Owen’s answer to this is entirely subjective. One who is accustomed to fellowshipping with Jesus will recognize His voice:
There is, if I may so say, a secret instinct in faith, whereby it knows the voice of Christ when he speaks indeed; as the babe leaped in the womb when the blessed Virgin came to Elisabeth, faith leaps in the heart when Christ indeed draws nigh to it. Mortification of Sin, p. 64.
In other words, you’ll just know when it happens.
Why didn’t he point us to the promises of the Scriptures? Why not simply say, “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved”? What are we afraid of here? I know that many of the Puritans were especially concerned about nominal Christians, and in the context of a state church where everyone was baptized just because they were born within the bounds of that church, that the problem of nominal Christians was a real one. It’s still a problem today. But there’s another problem as well, and that is robbing people of their confidence and rest of the gospel, “robbing them of their reward” in the words of Paul.
If we believe in election, as Owen certainly did, then we ought to know that the false confessor is not going to be turned into a true confessor because you beat him up with guilt. All Owen is really doing here is beating up the tender consciences of the true believer; they’re the only ones that will even hear this.
Owen’s perspective is similar to what the Westminster Confession states, though Owen states it more strongly. But the Westminster Confession, in Chapter XVII, denies that assurance is of the essence of faith, but teaches that believers will often not possess that assurance and must labor long with the means of grace to achieve it.
Compare this to the Heidelberg Catechism. In Lord’s Day 23, after the examination of the Apostles Creed, question 59 asks,
59. What does it help you now, that you believe all this?
That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal
How simple. I believe the gospel, therefore I can be confident that I am saved.
Later in question 86, the Catechism does tell us that good works are an aid to assurance. One of the reasons to do good works is that “we may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof.” When we turn from sin and live more righteously instead, and we experience the benefits that flow from this repentance, we see further confirmation of the truth of the claims of the gospel and begin to experience the blessings of salvation as an “earnest” or downpayment of all the blessings God has for us in future (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5). But the Catechism roots assurance firmly in belief in the premises of the gospel, in putting our trust in Christ for salvation.
Yes, that’s going to work sorrow for sin. But the process of the Christian life is in manifold ways driven by the knowledge of my forgiveness. If you take away the assurance of salvation from people, you have taken away the engine that drives the Christian life. It is not guilt and fear that drives sanctification. It is thankfulness, trust and peace.