Justification and Assurance
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life…
1 John 5:13aNKJ
The Protestant Reformation is most often remembered and celebrated as the time God restored the crucial doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone to the church. We also think of the five solas of the Reformation, which in addition to “faith alone” include: “Scripture alone,” “grace alone,” “Christ alone,” and “to the glory of God alone.” However, during the Counter Reformation, when the Jesuit Order was founded and then employed to stop the Protestant movement, it was the doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation that was their primary target. In the latter half of the 16th century, Jesuit Priest and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine wrote in his work On Justification, “The principle heresy of Protestants is that saints may obtain to a certain assurance of their gracious and pardoned state before God.” Echoing the Council of Trent, Bellarmine understood that if Christians could be assured of their salvation simply through faith, its fruits, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then the whole Roman sacerdotal priestly hierarchy, who alone were held to be able to distribute the continued infusion of sacramental grace claimed to be essential for justification, would necessarily fall to the ground. Therefore, to try and snuff out Protestantism, Roman Jesuits focused their attention of the doctrine of Assurance. If they could only get men to reject or lose their assurance, then all of the Protestant solas would be defeated, including therefore, the heart of the gospel: Justification by Faith Alone.
Accordingly, an accurate awareness and articulation of the doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation is extremely important to Reformed Theology. We must make it clear that only true believers who live out their faith can be assured of their salvation. The doctrine of assurance does not promote antinomianism, as it is often slandered of doing. The Bible condemns those who say “Let us do evil that good may come,” (Rom. 3:8), or “who turn the grace of our God into lewdness,” (Jud 1:4). Justification is by grace alone through faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Since the faith that justifies is a living faith, which must evidence itself in good works, all Christians who truly believe in Christ should be able to look at their lives and, as the Westminster Larger Catechism 80 states it, “discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made.” If true and false prophets are to be distinguished by their fruits (Mat. 7:16-20), how much more should true and false believers? The former distinction addresses simply the accurate functioning of the spiritual gift of prophecy, the latter refers to the Holy Spirit’s substantial presence in the new nature birthed in regeneration. The uniform teaching of Scripture is that ordinary Christians, should be able to make their “call and election sure,” (2 Pet. 1:10), and that not by some “extraordinary revelation,” such as Rome taught, but merely by looking for the unmistakable and certain evidences of the work of the Spirit in their lives. It would have been pointless for Paul to command the Corinthian believers: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5), unless they could by ordinary self-examination certainly learn the answer.
Consequently, the Scripture at the head of this article is from that book of the Bible, which explicitly declares that its purpose for being written was to give believers assurance of salvation. One of the things that ministers have to do when they preach or teach the Word of God is to determine the context of the passage they are teaching. Why was this book written? What was the issue the apostle was addressing? Who was his audience? The answers to questions like these are crucial if you are going to rightly understand and apply Scripture to your life. Therefore, theologians love to have a book like First John, which states its purpose! Bible-believing ministers do not have to work very hard to discern the reason why First John was written. John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Joh. 5:13a). Almighty God considered the doctrine of the Assurance of Salvation so important that He gave His Church, His beloved bride, an entire inspired book to teach it! We can and should make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). And doing so will not drive us from God to embrace sin, but will draw us nearer to Him in the full assurance, that comes not from an extraordinary revelation, but from simple faith (Heb. 10:22).
Ray Heiple (M.Div. RPTS, D.Min. RPTS) is the Senior Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA), host for the TV program Origins (CTVN), teacher of Bible and Apologetics at Robinson Township Christian School (RTCS), and author of Preaching with Biblical Motivation (P&R, 2017), and Pocket History of the PCA (CDM, 2017).