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 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.