Assurance of Salvation: Seated on a Three-Legged Stool
Some years ago, while engaged in pastoral ministry in New England, I had an interesting conversation with an elderly Roman Catholic lady. Somewhat spontaneously we found ourselves talking about whether one could know if he or she was saved. This lady noted that it was not possible to know whether one was saved. As a young and rather inexperienced pastor I jumped in and argued that to the contrary, the Scriptures indicated that an individual could know that he or she was saved. I took my friend to 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” And I took her to Romans 10:9-13:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Additionally I pointed her to Romans 8: 15-17: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” I don't remember whether this woman ever acquiesced to my argument, but I was convinced then--and continue to be--that I had Scripture on my side. You and I can know that we are saved. We can know that Jesus is our Savior and that, to echo the words of John Calvin, in heaven we have a loving Father rather than a wrathful judge.
Many years later I was sitting in a Sunday School class when I suggested that there are Christians in our circles who had the strange notion that lack of assurance was a spur to holiness; that is to say, that questioning one’s eternal estate motivated one to perform good works. Presumably performing good works would prove to one’s self, and perhaps to others as well, that one was a true Christian believer. To put it bluntly, this view is Roman Catholic rather than Protestant9. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine many years ago called the Protestant doctrine of assurance the most pernicious doctrine of the Reformation. To be fair, Roman Catholicism has never affirmed that no one can know they are saved. Rather, assurance is not the experience of the average believer but of the special saint. It takes a special act of unique revelation to ground personal assurance of salvation. So it is rather disconcerting to find this kind of view rearing its ugly head in Reformed circles.
No doubt readers are aware of the recent controversy over the nature of sanctification and the relationship of sanctification to justification. Let us mark the fact that there is a right and wrong view of these matters. Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone. There is no doubt about that fact. It is a glorious truth. But justification is not the whole of salvation.
Salvation embraces the benefits of justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification among other things. Union with Christ, is, as a friend of mine frequently reminds me, the “central soteric blessing” that provides the context for enjoying all the benefits accruing to us by faith. We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. True faith is always accompanied by other graces (WCF 11.2) though those other graces do not factor into our justification. Additionally, true faith produces good works (James 2:14-26). They are, to be technical, consequentially necessary. That is, good works do not merit justification, but the justified person quite (super) naturally does them. One who is justified (and therefore one who is also adopted and definitively and progressively sanctified and on the way to being glorified) will, to a lesser or greater extent, endeavor after new obedience and will desire to please the Lord.
The recent controversy surrounding sanctification seems to be releated, at least in part, to the matter of assurance. How, in fact, does one know that one is saved, that one is a true Christian? That is a good--and most important--question. Thankfully we do not have to reinvent the wheel. The Westminster Confession of Faith ch. 18 (“Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation”) addresses this question in paragraph 2:
This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.
The Divines inform us that assurance is “infallible” and not just a “hope so” kind of hope. A Christian can know that he or she is saved and is united to Christ by that indissoluble bond of saving faith. The Divines go on to remind us that for various and sundry reasons this assurance may be waited on for a very long time and may be intermitted with periods of doubt (for instance, because of persistant sin), but that the true Christian never loses the seed of faith (WCF 18:3 & 4). Be this as it may, the Scripture references above remind us, one of the privileges of being a Christian is knowing that one is an accepted son (or daughter) of the Father, through faith in the Son, and by way of the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Christians often wrestle with the basis for assurance. What is the foundation for believing that one actually is accepted of the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit? The answer lies in that second paragraph of chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. There we find that the assurance of the faith is grounded in or founded upon or is firmly seated on a three-legged stool. You can be assured that you are saved, a recipient of divine grace, based upon (1) the objective promises of God in his Word, (2) the manifestation of the internal graces of redemption, and (3) the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s consider each of these in turn. We can say this at the outset: there are objective and subjective elements involved in proper Christian assurance. The first leg is objective, the second is subjective, and the third partakes of both objective and subjective elements. We, more often than not, tend to emphasize one of these over the others and so end up skewing our enjoyment of assurance.
The first leg involves the objective promises of God in his Word. The passages I brought to the conversation with the elderly Roman Catholic woman nearly 30 years ago stress this aspect of the basis for assurance. The Scriptures reveal that we can know for certain that we are saved. These promises are squarely based upon the sure promises of a truth-telling and trustworthy God. He is not playing a cat and mouse game with us. Not at all.
The second leg is subjective. If we are true recipients of God’s saving grace in Christ, that will result in changed affections. That is, our desires, motivations, and inclinations will differ from the unbeliever. This is not to say that we will not struggle with sin. But as a Christian you have been brought out from under the dominion of Satan and sin. You have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dearly beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). You will be grateful for your salvation as over against unbelieving ingratitude. You will desire to please God as over against desiring your own gratification.
This inward change (what we call regeneration in the beginning, and progressive sanctification in the continuation of the Christian life) in your attitude toward God will more or less work itself out in your behavior. You will, to use the language of the Westminster Standards, "endeavor after new obedience;" and because you are indwelt by the same Spirit of holiness who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 6:4) you will actually achieve obedience to some extent (i.e., you will perform good works as an evidence or manifestation of your justification, not as the meritorious cause of it). As Paul tells us in Romans 6:4, we will walk in newness of life. This subjective change and outward manifestation of grace will vary from person to person and from season to season within the same individual. One person starts at point A and another begins at point A-1. We must extend grace to each other in the Christian life.
The third and final leg is both objective and subjective. This third leg is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit that we are children of God. This is the declaration that we actually are children of the living and loving God. This third leg is objective in that it is the Holy Spirit (who is the third person the Triune Godhead and so is not to be confused with us or our inclinations). He witnesses with our spirit (Rom. 8:25). It is subjective because the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God. The Holy Spirit confirms the objective promises of God and the internal work he has worked in us that has resulted in changed affections. This is the Spirit of adoption that Paul tells us about in Romans 8.
Assurance of salvation is a gift of grace and it is a matter of fact that when we are robbed of this blessing we are not firmly grounded in our Christian experience. Instead, we end up being tossed to and fro on the raucous waves of ever-shifting experience. While our assurance can wax and wane, without it the Christian life would be reduced to a “hope so” faith rather than the certainty of faith that the apostle John tells us about. This is no theoretical chimera. I recently attended a graduation at a Christian college where a student stood up and in the midst of a testimonial to the benefit of a Christian education suggested faith and certainty were polar opposites. Really? Where did assurance evaporate to?
Beloved, you can know that you are saved. You can know that you are in a right relationship with the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Without this assurance you are robbed of your joy in the Holy Spirit; without it, it is doubtful whether you will make any progress in the Christian life. As John Calvin pointed out so many years ago, your relationship with God must be settled before you can grow in grace, before you can grow in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. In whatever ecclesiastical circle it surfaces, the idea that lack of assurance is a proper motivation for good works is erroneous too. Good works arise from changed affections which in turn arise from the work of the Holy Spirit. Our assurance rests firmly on the three-legged stool of the precious promises of God, the changed affections and their outward manifestation in the Christian life, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
Burk Parsons ed. Assured By God: Living in the Fullness of God's Grace (P&R, 2006)