November 29th, 2011 at 8:04 am
Steven and Jim,
There is a subtle but important difference between the Puritan and the Continental Reformed position on assurance. According to the former, faith does not include assurance; one is directed to look to Christ alone and be saved, but the assurance of that salvation may be lacking. The pastoral advice ranges widely, from “You wouldn’t even be worried about your salvation if you weren’t a believer” to “God has surely rejected you because of that sin you keep committing.” According to the latter, faith includes assurance in the very definition. To look to Christ IS to be assured of salvation in him.
Proving our enduring attraction toward the law for our approval, many Christians in the wake of the Reformation shifted their anxiety from the quality of their works to the quality of their faith. “If we’re justified through faith alone, do I really believe?” Most of the leading Puritan pastors sought to comfort weak consciences, by directing them to Christ for justification, regardless of whether they experienced assurance. Yet this wedge between faith and assurance could also create a situation in which one trusted in Christ for justification, but spent his or her whole life searching for assurance through signs of sanctification. Aiming at comforting distraught consciences, the better Puritan ministers were eager to lead believers to discern the reality of their faith through the fruit of something tangible like receiving the Lord’s Supper with thanksgiving for Christ’s all-sufficient redemption. Others, aiming at separating the sheep from the goats, tortured consciences as mercilessly as any medieval priest or Anabaptist perfectionist. Some today who think they are following the Puritans on this question are actually closer to the Anabaptists.
On exegetical grounds, I affirm the view stated in the Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21: “True faith is…a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit THROUGH THE GOSPEL that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others, but I too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.”
The fruit of faith may encourage us. Further, there are warnings that branches that do not bear fruit will be cut off of the covenantal vine.
However, if that referred to continuing struggles with particular sins–even sinful habits–rather than an unrepentant and unbelieving stance, then why would Jesus contrast himself with the religious leaders by saying that he won’t put out a smoldering candle or break off a bruised reed? What pastoral counsel would some of us have given David just after a string of violent, selfish, and adulterous acts? Or to Peter after he had denied Christ three times? Or Paul’s acknowledgement that “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19)?
The unregenerate may struggle with guilt, shame, or embarrassment. They may recognize that their vices may weaken their performance at work, their relationships, or ruin their reputation. They may even struggle with the wrong they inflicted on someone else. However, only the regenerate struggle with sin–that is, an offence against God, and hate it. Only the regenerate struggle with the paradox of being already justified and regenerate and yet find themselves giving in to temptation. Every regenerate believer is divorced from the law of sin and death and is married to Christ; agrees with God about sin and hates it, vowing to use everything in his or her God-given arsenal against it. However, that does not exclude the possibility of continuing struggles with sin–even the same sin–until Jesus raises us in glorified righteousness.
It is not by looking within, to the quality of your faith and the fruit of your repentance, but by looking outside to the quality of Christ in his Gospel that the Spirit assures you of a saving union with him. And it is that assurance that bears fruit in the constant battle with sin. Assurance is not the reward that crowns our victory, but the gift of Christ’s victory to keep us going in our pilgrimage.
It simply doesn’t matter how much one might insist upon justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone if final salvation depends ultimately on our sanctification. As the Belgic Confession explains regarding sanctification, “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.
Thus, then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Art. 24).