The Puritans on Assurance
In this brief clip from his teaching series A Survey of Church History, W. Robert Godfrey examines how the Puritans sought to separate faith from assurance and the consequences of doing so. Watch this entire message for free.
But for many Protestants, part of the essential joy of being a Christian was that you could know that you are right with God, that you could know you have peace with God. The Apostle Paul, of course, says that so clearly, but the Roman Catholic apologist, said, “Well, that was a special revelation to Paul, that wasn’t meant for everybody.” But Paul doesn’t say, “I have peace with God,” he says, “We have peace with God,” that’s the assurance. And in the early days of the Reformation, that was a great theme that was preached, powerfully preached, by Calvin, incorporated in the Heidelberg Catechism. But by the seventeenth-century, in Puritan circles, assurance was beginning to become something of a problem, there were more and more people who said, “Well, I want to believe, I think I believe, but I don’t know that I believe. Now, what should I think about that? How should I feel about that?” And some of the Puritan pastors began to say, maybe it would be helpful to separate faith from assurance. And say to people, “Well, you know, it’s possible to have faith and not know it fully. It’s possible to have peace with God, but not realize that you have peace with God. So let’s separate faith from assurance, so we can more easily help people become assured.” Well, you know, whenever you try to improve on John Calvin, it’s like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, you don’t — you have added something, but you haven’t improved it.
And that’s what many of the Puritans found, that the separation of faith and assurance actually led to a growing problem of assurance. And when they came to write the Westminster Standards, they weren’t quite sure what to put in there. And many people have said, “Well, Westminster teaches that assurance is not of the essence of faith.” Now, there are a couple of passages in Westminster that seem to say that, but if you really read them carefully in context, what you discover, that’s not what they say. Westminster is carefully written so that both, the original Reformed point of view of Calvin and the later Puritan point of view, both sides can agree with the Westminster Standards. Thomas Boston made a great argument about that in the Church of Scotland, in the eighteenth-century, very convincing. So whether you think assurance is of the essence of faith or not, you can subscribe to the Westminster Confession, but to subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism, you have to believe that assurance, at least some kind of assurance is essential to faith. It’s not enough to say, “I believe,” you have to have some confidence that you are actually resting in Christ, and he’s done his work for you, but that’s the preacher in me coming out.