One of the most striking features of the lives of the believers we meet in the Scriptures is that they were so confident about their relationship with God. Moses could despise the treasures of Egypt because he was certain of his heavenly reward (Heb. 11:26). David could speak of the Lord as ‘my’ shepherd (Ps. 23:1). Jesus taught all his disciples to address God confidently as ‘our Father’ (Mt. 6:9). The Apostle Paul could speak of Christ as ‘the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20); and later, as he waited for the footfall of the executioner, he could write, ‘I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness’ (2 Tim. 4: 7, 8). St. Peter was confident of the inheritance being kept for him in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4); and for St. John the wonder of God’s love lay in the fact that that he had been called to be one of the ‘children of God.’ (1 Jn. 3:1).
This assurance was one of the great discoveries, or rediscoveries, of the Reformation. The mediaeval church had kept its people in uncertainty all their lives, telling them that without a special personal revelation no one could know they were in a state of grace. It was presumption to be sure that you were going to heaven rather than to hell; and it was presumption, too, to be confident that you could conquer the flesh, the world and the devil and persevere in faith to the end.
In his commentary on Galatians 2:20, Luther paints a graphic picture of the result: ‘This noxious idea of Christ as the lawgiver had penetrated into my bones like oil, so that even the at the mention of the name of Christ I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that he was a judge.’ The only answer to this, he declared, was to acquire a whole new idea, ‘namely trust in Christ as the Justifier and the Saviour, the joy and sweetness of a trembling and troubled heart’; and for Luther all this was crystallised in the title that Paul gives to Christ, calling him the One ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ ‘Therefore,’ Luther concludes, ‘read these words me and for me with great emphasis, and accustom yourself to accepting this me with a sure faith and applying it to yourself. Do not doubt that you belong to the number of those who speak this me.’
Calvin, commenting on this passage, strikes exactly the same note: ‘For me, he writes, ‘is very emphatic. It is not enough to regard Christ as having died for the salvation of the world; each man must claim the effect and possession of this grace for himself personally.’
In the light of these comments, and especially the sentiments expressed by Luther, Herman Bavinck is fully justified in declaring that the Reformation ‘was born out of a deeply felt need for the assurance of salvation, and when he had discovered this treasure, Luther stood up against the entire Christendom of his time with heroic boldness.’ This doesn’t mean that neither he nor Calvin ever harboured any doubts, ‘But the difference between the Reformers and their later disciples was that they did not foster or feed such a condition. They saw no good in it and were not content to remain in doubt. They struggled to come out of doubt and they begged to be freed from it. The Reformers rose above it by the power of faith. Not doubt and fear, but steadfastness and certainty was the normal condition of their spiritual lives.’
Not an inference or deduction
This assurance was not an inference or deduction from the fact that we are believers, as if we must first prove to ourselves the genuineness of our faith and then draw from this the certainty that God loves us. This would leave our assurance hanging for ever ‘on our own certain knowledge of our own sincerity,’ and when the quest for this certainty becomes the governing preoccupation of our lives it leaves us limping all the way to the grave. Like the philosopher who doubts his own existence, it’s very difficult, once the doubt arises, to find cast-iron proof that you are not deluded. But for the Christian, the assurance that God is our heavenly Father lies at the heart of faith itself, because faith puts its trust, not in anything that’s true about ourselves but in the free mercy of God and in the once-for-all sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we can express that trust in very peculiar ways: ways that hide the truth even from ourselves, like the man who was asked, ‘Do you believe in the faithful saying that Christ came into the world to save sinners?’ and gave himself away by answering, ‘It’s a glorious truth whether I believe it or no!’ It is in that ‘glorious truth’ we put our trust: not in trust itself or in the authenticity of our new birth or in the fact that our conversion-narrative measures up to those of others. When tempted to go down any of these roads, we must pull ourselves up by asking, ‘Was faith crucified for you? Was the new birth crucified for you? Was any of your graces crucified for you?’ If we had to bring so much as a peppercorn to the throne of grace, then salvation would no longer be free. Everything of our own (our works, our repentance, our faith, our evangelical obedience, our surrendering our lives to Christ) is weak and variable. None of them, nor all of them together, can serve as our Rock. Their function is not to draw us to rely on themselves but to place us on the Rock of the sovereign promises and the free gifts of God.
Faith hears the promise, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). It believes that promise, and in believing it, it believes itself saved. It hears, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses from all sin,’ and it latches on to the word ‘all,’ and it knows that the blood of Christ cleanses my sin. It receives Christ as the propitiation for sin, accepts his righteousness as a gift, and in this same act it knows itself at peace with God.
None of the above should be taken as a rebuke to Christians who lack assurance. It should be taken as good news for those who are discouraged because their graces seem so lack-lustre and their discipleship so far short of the ideal. It is for those who get depressed when they go looking within themselves for marks of grace. It is to call back every doubting believer to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and to remind them that faith alone means faith in Christ alone: alone; it cannot be repeated too often. His blood will cover the deficiencies of our faith, our prayers, our personal witness; and it will cover, too, our doubts; and it will cover the sinfulness of those ‘works of the flesh’ which in one form or another, and to one degree or another, mar every Christian life. We must go back to the Rock, and plant our feet there; and once we’ve done that, the God who put it there will establish our way and put a new song in our mouth (Ps. 40).
Faith, Walter Marshall reminds us, is not so much a condition of salvation as the instrument by which we receive it; or, as he puts it again, faith doesn’t merely give us a title to the inheritance: it gives us the inheritance itself; not merely a right to salvation, but the enjoyment of salvation. It makes us members of God’s family, and it makes us know that we are members of God’s family. Faith knows it’s not a slave, bound to stand trembling with fear before an irritable Master. The ‘spirit of bondage’ is gone. Once we knew ourselves as slaves, ‘fast bound in sin and nature’s night’. In Christ, the chains fall off; and faith knows they’ve fallen off. Now we know ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. St. John was in no doubt about it, and neither should we be: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him, purifies himself as he is pure.’
We need to be absolutely clear about the relation between faith and God’s love for us. God doesn’t love because we believe in him. It’s there before we believe. It’s what we believe in. ‘We cannot,’ to quote Marshall again, (101) ‘be beforehand with God in love, and we must receive His love to make us love Him, for if we look upon him as a God contrary to us, that hates us and will damn us, our own innate self-love will breed hatred and heart-risings against him’. Our faith is a response to the message of God’s love for the world (Jn. 3:16), and to the categorical promise that whoever believes in his Son will never perish but will have everlasting life.
Or take again Romans 5:8, ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ ‘Still sinners:’ still unjustified, still enemies, still ungodly, but God loved us. It is in this love we trust, and faith knows that nothing will ever separate us from it. Faith is secure, and feels secure, in the hands of eternal love (Jn. 10:29)
Assurance under suspicion
In the 17th century, Puritanism, especially in England, moved away from the idea that faith was in its very nature a trusting in God’s love for ourselves, and began to teach instead that assurance was something indirect: something to be enjoyed only once we were sure that we had the marks of grace. In this climate, assurance came under suspicion, even to the extent that doubting itself became the mark of a serious Christian.
What lay behind this abandonment of the sentiments of the Reformers? In a word, the fear of Antinomianism. Assurance, it was suggested, breeds moral complacency and undermines the appeal to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10).
This is a complete reversal of what we find in the New Testament. Here, assurance is the very thing that generates the impulse to holiness and obedience. The sum of the law, as the Lord himself reminds us, is to love God with all our heart. But what do we love him for? Is it not, surely, for the fact that he has forgiven us? This is the very point that Paul makes in Romans 12:1: ‘I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy acceptable to God’. Here spiritual service is rooted in our experience of the divine pity. Later, in the more mundane setting of encouraging the Corinthians to be liberal givers, it is to this same motive that he appeals: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 8:9). Later still, he writes in the same vein to the church at Ephesus, ‘Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (Eph. 5:1). It is not just that he loved us, but that we know that he loved us.
But precious though such sentiments are, the assurance that generates holiness incudes even more. The believer knows not only that God loves him: he also knows that that love has changed his life. He knows, for example, that he has died to sin. He knows that he has risen with Christ. He knows that he is filled with the Spirit. And he knows, above all, that he is so united to Christ that Christ can be said to live in him (Gal. 2:20). These experiences of the powerful grace of God are the spur to mortifying sin and to eliminating from our lives anything that might bring disgrace on our Father; the spur to purifying ourselves as God is pure (1 Jn. 3:3); the spur to imitating God as his dear children (Eph. 5:1); and the spur to being kind and forgiving towards one another (Eph. 4:32).
But divine grace is not only a spur. It is God’s power in action, ensuring that those who believe in his name will not, and can not, live as antinomians. Death to sin and union with Christ cannot bear the fruit of lawlessness and loveless-ness. Instead, it will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. It is not a matter merely of moral constraint or of the power of gratitude. It is a matter of grace operating from within and ensuring both the love of holiness and the pursuit of holiness. This, sadly, will not be a steady upward curve, and there will be many days when we echo St. Paul’s sad admission of defeat, ‘I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.’ (Rom. 7:18). But it is the very same Paul who cries triumphantly, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Rom. 7:25) And there, too, speaks the voice of assurance.
Does this mean, then, that we should dispense with all self-examination? By no means, so long as we remember the proper order: the assurance comes before the self-examination. Earlier on, we saw that when we enquire why we believe in God, this is not a case of arguing ourselves into faith, but a case of faith examining itself. The faith is there first. Similarly, once we come to the assurance that we have been saved by grace, this assurance will examine itself, if only because we know that many people have a misplaced faith about spiritual things: a real faith, but misplaced. The atheist, for example, can die without fear because he firmly believes that there is no after-life and no final judgement. The orthodox Jew has faith in his own ethnic identity: he belongs to the Chosen People. The radical Muslim may trust in his jihadist zeal, the Anglo-Catholic in his baptism, the nominal Presbyterian in his church connection, the honest citizen in the fact that he is as good as any Christian.
Such trust can produce real certainty, but a thing is not necessarily true or trustworthy simply because we are certain about it. This why our assurance has to ask itself, ‘What have I put my faith in? Is it in the mercy of God and the sacrifice of Christ? Or is it in my personal religion (the Evangelical version of the doctrine of salvation by works)?’
Can we really know? According to the Apostle Paul, we can: ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he writes (2 Tim. 1:12). Of course, that faith had shown itself in its profound results in his life, not least his prodigious missionary labours. But there is no hint that Paul drew his assurance from such marks of grace or that he was aware of his faith only indirectly, from its effects. The human mind knows itself. It knows what it knows and what it wants and what it feels and what it loves; and by the same token it knows what it believes, and it knows whom it trusts. The mother knows that she loves her child and the wife that she loves her husband. The young man knows that he wants to be a footballer, the ship’s master knows that he trusts his charts, and the modern biologist knows that he takes for granted the Theory of Evolution.
In the same way, the Christian knows his mind. I know that I believe that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, that one day he stilled a tempest, and that three days after his death he rose again; and I know that in the matter of salvation I trust him and him alone. I know that I could never put my trust in the quality of my personal life, or in anything I’ve felt or experienced, or even in my faith itself; and I don’t put my trust in them, in any of them, for the simple reason that they’re all flawed: my best things, as well as my worst things.
But if I know what I don’t trust, I also know what I do trust. I trust Christ. I trust what he teaches, I trust what he commands, and above all I trust what he did to atone for the sin of the world. Solus Christus: Christ alone.
Yet it would be a grave mistake to assume that the only point of self-examination is to show us that our assurance that we are in a state of grace is warranted. No less important is the fact that it shows up the many areas in our Christian lives where we are missing the mark and swerving from the way. This is one reason why Paul laid down that self-examination must be part of our preparation every time we take Communion (1Cor.11:28); and if we assume that the Sacrament should be administered frequently, then self-examination must be a regular and recurring feature of our lives.
Faith in Christ cannot mean self-complacency. We must face the truth about ourselves. There are sins to confess, duties neglected, vices taking hold. There are relationships to be mended, gifts to be fanned into flame, motives to be adjusted. There are spiritual cancers such as envy, ambition and paranoia to be diagnosed and treated. And, of course, there are all God’s mercies to be surveyed and to drive us to our knees in gratitude.
We are not directed to this pre-Communion self-examination as the road to the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine. It is precisely because we already have this assurance that we need to monitor our conduct. We are God’s children, called to live in such a way that people will glorify our Father in heaven (Mt.5:16). The sons and daughters of the King of Kings must live like true spiritual royalty.
Merely nominal faith
Finally, and sadly, there is the need to challenge the merely nominal faith that so often robs the church of both credibility and energy: pulpits filled with preachers who don’t preach Christ crucified, and pews filled with more or less regular church-goers who couldn’t begin to understand what St. Peter meant when he spoke of loving a Christ we have never seen and of rejoicing in the hope of glory with a joy unspeakable (1 Pet. 1:8). Instead, it is a religion based on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace:’ forgiveness without repentance, Communion without church discipline, Christianity without the cross.
This is no pretext for a purge or for the futile quest for a pure church. It was always so, and we must leave it to the infallible judge himself to separate the wheat from the tares. But every preacher must look at themselves and ask whether they are heralds of the same gospel as was preached by Saints Peter and Paul; every church must ask itself whether it is not just a club, but a vibrant witnessing community held together by love of the truth; and everyone who ‘eats this bread and drinks this cup’ must ask themselves whether it is really true that for them to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21).
Honesty may force us to conclude that we are not faithful gospel preachers, or that we are not a living church, or even that we are not Christians at all. But that must never be the last word. The last word must always be spoken by the One who said, ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.’ (Rev. 3:20).
 Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians 1535 (Luther’s Works, Vol. 26, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), p. 178.
 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, tr. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 44.
 Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith (republished Potchefstroomse, 1998), p. 16.
 Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification,(Welwyn: Evangelical Press, 1981) p. 135.
The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 51.
The Gospel Mystery of Salvation, p. 101.