The Westminster Confession of Faith: Assurance
In today’s church, there are a number of significant questions about the doctrine of assurance. Some argue that you cannot ever really know if you’re saved at all; others insist that if you made some kind of profession of faith, then you ought never to doubt the reality of your salvation.
The Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] is the first major confession that devotes a chapter to assurance, and it makes several major points that can serve as correctives for our churches today.
I’d encourage you to read the chapter on assurance (Chapter 18) for yourself here: http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/, but I won’t reprint it in its entirety. What I’ll give is a short guide and some concluding applications.
The WCF statement on assurance is divided into four sections. Section I makes two essential points. The first is that there is a real possibility of false assurance. People can be misled into believing that they’re Christians. They can deceive themselves or be deceived about the issue of their relationship with God. For some in pastoral ministry, this will come as no surprise; we’ve seen people who were clearly deceived about their faith. But how many churches today seriously countenance this possibility? For many, it is enough that someone claims to be a Christian or feels they are saved. For the WCF, however, ‘carnal presumptions’ are a real possibility, something to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
But the second point about which Section I speaks clearly is the possibility of true and certain assurance. The section does not suggest that there is a promise of such assurance – even for true believer; but the possibility of certainty is held out nonetheless. Some today have been taught that there is no real possibility of knowing for sure about salvation. The Roman Catholic Church – then and now – teaches this explicitly. But the Westminster divines argued differently. False assurance is possible; but true assurance is also something that Christians can possess. The possibility of this certainty is held out in the case of those who sincerely love the Lord Jesus and who strive to walk in a good conscience toward him.
Section II builds upon the possibility. It argues that assurance is not mere probability or hope in a vague sense; rather, it is an infallible assurance. This possible infallible assurance is based, it seems, on two things: first, on the promises of salvation; and second, on an inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. The internal witness of the Spirit is specifically cited as the ‘Spirit of adoption,’ ‘the earnest of our inheritance,’ and the means, ‘whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.’ The sentences on the internal witness have no fewer than eight passages and fourteen verses cited.
While Section III is the most controversial part of the chapter for modern scholars, it is essentially making one major point. The point is that someone may be a genuine Christian without feeling some infallible sense of assurance within her- or himself. It is striking to observe once again the emphasis placed on the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing this assurance. While Section III makes it clear that the Spirit works through means in order ‘that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ The assurance is something one feels, and it is brought about through a work of the Spirit.
Finally, Section IV makes two basic points. The first is that the assurance of a Christian may be severely damaged: ‘shaken, diminished, and intermitted.’ The second facet of this section is related: that God will never allow someone who has experienced this infallible assurance to remain fully destitute. This section is both a comfort and a realistic portrayal. It is realistic in presenting how assurance can come and go, and comforting, in reminding that God will never leave his child destitute forever.
So how does all of this connect with our questions today? Contrary to some teaching, the WCF recognizes that real assurance is possible for the Christian. Christians can know for sure that they have been accepted by God and are bound for heaven. The Holy Spirit ministers this assurance in various ways, mostly using the means provided by God within the church. While this assurance may be shaken at times, this doesn’t mean that salvation is lost, and it shouldn’t lead to utter despair.
But finally, in contrast to so much of what is preached and taught today, there is a real danger of false assurance. The WCF warns us that we need to exercise discernment in our care and counsel of others, and look carefully at ourselves as well, “making our calling and election sure.”
 The passages cited to support the notion of the internal witness of the Spirit are: 2 Peter 1:4, 5, 10, 11; 1 John 2:3; 3:14; 2 Corinthians 1:12; Romans 8:15, 16; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22. Quoted in Hodge, Confession of Faith, 238, f.n. 7, 8, 9.
 Ibid., 243.
 Ibid., 243.
Jonathan L. Master is dean of the school of divinity and professor of theology at Cairn University. In addition, he is executive editor of the online magazine Place for Truth and is host of the podcast Theology on the Go. He is the author of A Question of Consensus, and editor of a new volume, entitled, The God We Worship.