Even Christians who have enjoyed seasons of assured confidence of their right standing before God can and do have their assurance of faith shaken. At such times, they feel the ebbing and flowing of their assurance. The loss of assurance can be very disconcerting to them. Perhaps you also have struggled with this loss and wondered: How can I regain a strong sense of assurance? And in the future, how can I avoid the problem of losing assurance again? The Westminster Confession of Faith provides us with guidance:
True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF 18.4)
This paragraph is a magnificent statement of the links between biblical guidance, Reformed theology, and Puritan piety. It declares that the reasons for a lack of assurance are found primarily in the believer. They include negligence in preserving assurance, falling into a special or particular sin, and by the onslaught of sudden, powerful temptation. Anthony Burgess, unmatched even amoung the Puritans on issues related to assurance, wrote in Spiritual Refining,
It is true the most tender and exact godly ones, as Job and David are sometimes in desertions, and cry out God hath forsaken them, but ordinarily the more formal and careless we are in our approaches to God, the more are our doubts and fears.
Burgess said that assurance may be hindered, even temporarily lost, for several reasons. First, assurance can be diminished when we deeply feel the guilt of sin, for then we tend to look upon God as one who will take vengeance rather than forgive. Second, Satan hates assurance, and he will do everything he can to keep doubts and fears alive within us. Third and most commonly, the hypocrisy of our hearts and careless living hinder assurance.
Westminster Confession 18.4 teaches us that we cannot enjoy high levels of genuine assurance as Christians if we persist in low levels of obedience. Then "we chase away our assurance," Burgess explained. "Nothing will darken your soul more than dull, lazy and negligent walking." If assurance remains high while obedience falters, we may be taking our astounding privilege of adopted sonship for granted and growing spiritually lazy. Knowing that backsliding diminishes assurance ought to keep us active in searching our souls and pursuing holiness.
Note, however, that the Puritans did not simply ground assurance in our obedience or disobedience. They sought to refute both Arminianism and antinomianism. Salvation is all of grace; the human will, apart from divine grace, has no ability or strength to reach or retain full assurance. We cannot will or work ourselves into assurance. On the other hand, the loss of assurance shows that sin has serious consequences for believers, who do not fall into sin without great cost, for sin separates them from God (Isa. 59:2). The Puritan William Jenkyn explained that sin can never bereave a saint of the jewel of grace upon which his salvation is founded, but it may steal away the key of the cabinet—his assurance.
In chapter 17, the Westminster Confession affirms that all who belong to Christ will persevere, for our perseverance is secured by our persevering, preserving God. The Father perseveres in loving us, the Son perseveres in interceding for us, and the Spirit perseveres in abiding with us and working in us. God promises His own, "I will never leave you, nor forsake you" (Heb. 13:5). Thus, when we lack assurance, the responsibility is ours. No enemy can keep us out of heaven, but we may well keep heaven out of our hearts by sinning against God.
The confession doesn't stop there, however. It also asserts the possibility of God's involvement in the believer's lack or loss of assurance. Lost assurance, 18.4 says, may also be the result of "God's withdrawing of the light of His countenance."
Burgess acknowledges that it seems senseless at first sight for God to withhold assurance from a believer, for assurance is "wings and legs in a man's service to God. It would enflame him more to promote God's glory."
But Burgess then offers five reasons God might withhold assurance from His people. First, that we might understand how bitter sin is. Second, that God might keep us low and humble in ourselves. Third, that we might value assurance even more when we have it in larger measure. Fourth, that we might pursue obedience to God even more and give Him glory for our obedience to Him. Fifth, that we may become experienced Christians who know how to comfort others in distress over their lack of assurance.
We might question some of Burgess' reasons for God's "withdrawal." But remember two things: first, to understand Burgess, we need to recognize that the Puritans believed that withdrawal on God's part is always for holy reasons, but sometimes beyond the comprehension of the believer, who simply by faith has to trust God's intentions. Second, those reasons are like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, that is, possible and partial explanations, not a complete account of the problem. None of the Puritans offered a complete list of reasons. Rather, they grappled with the experiential and pastoral reality of times when they or their hearers might not be falling into sin yet might lack assurance and feel distant from God. Burgess wanted to deal compassionately with those who earnestly seek assurance of grace and salvation, but have not as yet partaken of it.
Westminster Confession 18.4 also asserts that God's withdrawal is often connected with what the Puritans called "vehement temptations," or providential afflictions. God's goal in our afflictions, however, is to glorify His name and to do us good (Rom. 8:28; Heb. 12:10). At first, we may feel a loss of assurance when cast into the furnace of affliction, but God's grand design is that affliction strengthens both our faith and our assurance. God uses afflictions to wean us from this world, to stimulate our spiritual growth, to open new vistas of faith, to increase our intimacy with God and submission to His providence, and to act overall as a healing tonic for our soul. In sum, God's withdrawal of the light of His countenance and allowing trials in our path are aspects of His fatherly discipline, teaching us to walk upright before Him, to depend on His fatherly sovereignty, and to confide in His fatherly wisdom—all of which do our soul great good.
According to the confession, loss of assurance does not destroy the germ or seed of faith in us because even our darkness cannot quench God's saving work. Saving faith cannot die, though its exercise may diminish to such a degree that we have little or no assurance. Even in our lowest spiritual condition, the Holy Spirit keeps us "from utter despair." Moreover, the Spirit will also revive our assurance "in due time."
Assurance is revived in the same way it is obtained in the first place. We should review our lives, confess our sins, and humbly cast ourselves upon our covenant-keeping God and His gracious promises, trusting in Christ and His mediatorial work. We should use the means of grace diligently, pursue holiness, exercise watchfulness, and take heed not to grieve, resist, or quench the Spirit. In other words, by faith and by grace, we are to turn to God afresh in repentance and faith. Such returning to the Lord will result in the revival and enlargement of our assurance of grace and salvation.
The road to assurance of grace and salvation has twists and turns, ups and downs. Many times, we wander from the path and have to retrace our steps and begin afresh to walk in the ways of God. Again and again, we find how necessary it is to trust increasingly in Christ, relying only on His merit and heeding His commands. In a 1990 article in the Westminster Theological Journal, Richard Hawkes summarizes this well:
The work of assurance is a continuing exercise, a cycle, but an ascending cycle because it is God working to raise the believer up to himself. . . . By a helical process of trust, obedience, evaluation, and learning, God draws the believer from an initial approbation of the way of salvation in Christ to a full restful assurance that encompasses all aspects of the believer's life and consciousness. . . . That is the very hopeful message of the Puritans' doctrine of assurance. It is by no means the heavy burden of self-justification or even self-assurance, but rather the light yoke of faith in the work of [Jesus Christ].
Thus, all of the Westminster Confession's statements on assurance have the goal of leading us to make our calling and election sure by finding everything necessary for our salvation in the Spirit-applied grace of God in Jesus Christ.