Assurance: a Pastoral Conversation

The best doctors are diagnosticians.  Those who have hidden the taxonomy of pathogens in their cerebral cortex and are able to ply their knowledge to the often distorted complex of a patient’s woes – that, is a doctor indeed.  The best of the Puritans were the best of spiritual doctors.  Let’s imagine that the year is 1735 and a farmer slogged the eight miles to the church on a Monday morning in late fall.  Cold and a bit agitated he finally found himself seated on an uncomfortable chair in the pastor’s study. His words came haltingly, “Pastor, I’ve been coming to church ever since I’ve been an infant in my mother’s arms.  But after your sermon yesterday, and a few before that, I don’t have any assurance of my salvation.”

With that the man’s spiritual doctor leaned forward.  In the light of the study the man looked fierce and kind all at once.  After a brief pause, the pastor asked, “Do you believe that man’s condition is such that he is in need of salvation?”  The man responded promptly, “Well, yes, of course.”  The minister leaned even further toward the man making him a bit uncomfortable.  “But,” said the minister, “do you believe that God has promised to save men and that this plan is revealed in the pages of God’s holy Word?”  Again, the answer was released as on a spring, “Yes, of course I do.  But, Pastor, my problem is not that!”  The pastor looked intently as if to say, “Well?”

With that the man explained.  I went to hear Mr. Jonathan Edwards preach not long ago and he helped me to frame my anxieties.  I know what he said, because I said it over and over until I had it committed to memory.  He said, “Faith is belief, in its general sense, of what God has revealed to us in the Gospel.  He has revealed to us that all who believe will be saved, and we must believe that on the ground of the Gospel assertion: but He has not revealed to us in the Gospel that I, Jonathan Edwards, of Northampton, shall be saved,….”[1]  The man slumped.  “That is my problem, Pastor.  My name, like Mr. Edwards, is not in that most holy Book.”

With that the Pastor took out some loose pages.  He told the man about an assembly which had met in England in 1643.  He even had a copy of the Confession which the assembly had produced, which was written on the pages he uncovered from his desk.  The man was aware of it and had heard the pastor speak of it but since he was unable to read himself he had never seen a copy.

The Pastor then comforted the man, “My dear man, let me begin by telling you that your foundation is secure.  You believe that the Bible is what it claims to be – the word of God!  There is no surer place to stand.  Now, these pastors of the Westminster Assembly tell us that since we need no further revelation in order to have assurance of our salvation it is best that we begin with our Bible.” At this the man seemed to straighten a bit.  “What is more,” the Pastor continued, “by your trudging here on this cold fall day I assume that you are ready to give all diligence to making your calling and election sure through the right use of God’s ordinary means of grace.  Is that true?”   The man nodded eagerly.

The Pastor continued, “Well, then let us refresh our memories as to what these means are according to the Westminster Assembly.[2]  First, we must believe that assurance is founded upon what the Bible says and to this you have already given your full assent. Second, we must determine whether there is inward evidence of the graces which are the fruit of believing the promises of God.  Now, only you will be able to answer this question in a satisfactory way.  And you will need to be honest with yourself and before God.”  With this last comment the Pastor seemed to look through him.

“However,” said the Pastor, “there is a third means.  It is outward.  The Assembly also wrote a larger catechism in which they say that all who truly believe in Christ will endeavor to walk in all good conscience before Him. This, though personal, is something others are able to see. And dear brother, I see this walk in your life.”  After a long pause, the Pastor leaned back in his chair and queried, “Do you?”  At this the man said, “I believe it to be the case however imperfectly.  However, my anxieties have not been relieved, for just yesterday, when I was praying, I was in such a state that I cried out, “Father, help me!”  The Pastor again smiled one smile and said, “Dear brother, this is another indication of the Spirit’s work in you.  And that same Spirit will bring His good work to completion on the day of Christ.” 

After some further conversation they prayed and the Pastor gave these final words at the end of their meeting.  “My brother, let me quote from a wise pastor by the name of Rutherford, who said, ‘Let us be putting on God’s armour and be strong in the Lord.  If the devil and Zion’s enemies strike a hole in that armour, let our Lord see to that – let us put it on, and stand.  We have Jesus on our side; and they are not worthy such a captain, who would not take a blow at His back.  We are in sight of His colours; His banner over us is love; look up to that white banner, and stand, I persuade you, in the Lord of victory.”[3]  And then, with an embrace, they parted.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor of Place for Truth.

[1] This account is fictitious.  The statement quoted is from a letter that Jonathan Edwards wrote to Ebeneezer Erskine.

[2] Westminster Confession, chapter 18, section 2.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984), 106.


Jeffrey Stivason