Means of Assurance
In a world filled with sin, the flesh, and the devil, assurance of salvation is the soft feather bed on which the Christian rests. Assurance proves to be one of the greatest benefits of the Christian faith and the rightful inheritance of the child of God. In its enjoyment are found peace, hope, and joy unsurpassed in this fallen world.
The Scriptures clearly articulate that a child of God may and should possess a true sense of peace and confidence regarding personal salvation. Faith is trusting in Christ as Savior, so the seeds of assurance inherently lie within faith itself. Though the gift of assurance regularly accompanies saving faith, many Christians find it elusive or even nonexistent in their own experience. As John Calvin said, “We cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. . . . Believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief” (Institutes, 3.2.18). Every Christian knows this experience. Yet, this lack of assurance leads some Christians to assume they are counted among the lost. Such an error devastates—breeding inner turmoil and even despair.
The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully addresses the underlying error when it states “infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be a partaker of it” (18:3). The Westminster divines rightly understood that one may possess saving faith yet not possess the assurance that often accompanies that faith. In fact, the Westminster Assembly chose to address saving faith and assurance in separate chapters of the confession (WCF 14 and 18, respectively), because it recognized that the doctrines are not so inextricably linked that if one possesses saving faith he must also enjoy assurance. The Scriptures and Christian experience bear witness to the stark reality that saving faith and assurance of salvation do not always coexist in the believer.
“I believe; help my unbelief!” said the father of the demon-possessed child (Mark 9:24). Few men have uttered more honest words, and few honest words have benefited more men. Here is the cry of a man with faith who also recognizes that his faith remains weak, stumbling, and frail. Faith is present, but it remains mixed with doubt. Yet, Christ clearly recognizes this father’s faith. An ounce of saving faith is a faith that saves. Our Lord boldly proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26).
Dear Christian, it is not the degree, quality, or abundance of our faith that saves. Rather, it is the object of our faith that saves. Faith does not look to itself. It looks to another. And in Christ, the object of our faith, salvation lies (John 14:5). Therefore, it is also in Christ that our assurance lies. This father understood the necessary thing. As Calvin stated, “He who, struggling with his own weakness, presses toward faith in his moments of anxiety is already in large part victorious” (Institutes, 3.2.18).
In those moments when assurance escapes us, let us look to Christ in faith. Assurance is nurtured as we grow in our understanding of grace, especially in our union with Christ as it relates to our justification and adoption. How do we grow in this grace? The Westminster Confession proves helpful once again. It proclaims that one may “without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure” (WCF 18:3). The confession rightly points us to Christ by the very means He has given to His people for their growth, including growth in assurance. Those means are the Word, sacraments, and prayer (WCF 14.1).
Before we turn our attention to these means of grace, I want to note a pastoral issue that often emerges in this realm. Over the course of my pastoral ministry, I have found that many struggle with assurance because they direct their eyes within rather than without. Make no mistake, introspection serves its purpose in the Christian life. We are to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). This is necessary and good. Yet, I find that many Christians suffer from overzealous introspection. Like a medieval inquisitor, we lay our souls upon the rack and inflict torture with constant accusatory questions: Do I bear enough of the fruit of the Spirit? Is my faith solid enough? Have I confessed and repented sufficiently? Have I tricked myself into thinking I am a believer? And all the while, we forget to look to our Savior in faith. The Great Shepherd’s promise, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28), seems too foreign to too many of His sheep.
Dear struggling Christian, if our gaze is always within, assurance will remain fleeting. No doubt, we need to examine our lives and test the fruit, but true assurance, lasting assurance, secure assurance comes from looking to Christ and our union with Him. We want to see evidence of Christ’s grace in our lives, but we realize these evidences not by seeking after them, but by gaining a greater grasp on Christ. How do we gain this greater grasp of the King of Glory? How do we look to Him more? God has granted His means of grace to the struggling Christian for this very purpose.
Into this dark world God has sent the light of His Word. This Word, which is living and active (Heb. 4:12), works in the hearts and minds of His people. We hear the true, gracious voice of our Heavenly Father. As we sit under the preached Word, read it in our prayer closets, meditate upon it on our beds (Ps. 63:6), and talk of it on the way (Deut. 6:7), the Spirit attends to the Word, and it does not return void (Isa. 55:11). The truth of Christ occupies our minds, the promises of Christ comfort our souls, the beauty of Christ stirs our affections, and the commands of Christ move our spirits. As we attend to this means of grace, He encourages and affirms assurance within us. Too often, the voice of our adversary sounds loud in our ears: “You are no child of God. Would God allow a wretched sinner like you into His family?” Our flesh joins in as a ready accomplice and the struggle can be great. However, such indictments cannot stand in the light of God’s Word. His Word pierces such darkness and resounds louder than any accusations that our adversaries can hurl at the children of God.
The Lord not only gave us His written Word, but also His visible Word. The Lord, as an act of magnanimous grace, condescends to give us something we can see, touch, and taste. He knows that we, as corporeal beings, naturally gravitate toward the visible. So, He blesses His children with outward signs—the sacraments—that confirm to our senses what the ear has heard and the eye has read. Dear struggling Christian, partake of the Lord’s Table and be reminded that not only did Christ die for sinners, but Christ died for you. Not only did Christ shed His blood for sinners, but He shed it for you. Not only can sinners be united to Christ, but He is united to you. As real as the cup you hold is Christ’s love for you. As surely as you taste the bread and wine do you taste Christ’s peace. As the bread and cup sustain your body physically, so Christ’s grace sustains you spiritually. All the promises of Christ are not only true, but they are truly yours. Baptism serves the Christian in the same way. As surely as the water flowed over your head are you washed in the blood of the Lamb. As surely as you entered the waters of baptism are you united with Christ in His life, death, and resurrection (Rom. 6). The sacraments not only signify this truth to the struggling Christian but also seal it upon their soul.
Finally, the Lord blesses His people with the gift of prayer. What a relief this means of grace provides for the limping Christian. He grants to us the privilege and solace of crying out to Him, a cry granted only to His children. And our pleadings do not fall on deaf ears (Ps. 18:6). They ascend into the very throne room of God. We speak into His ear and may do so with boldness (Heb.4:16). James says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Let the Christian struggling with assurance cry out with the psalmist, “How long O Lord?” (Ps. 13:1). The desperate cries of God’s sons and daughters to their heavenly Father never fall on deaf ears. He loves to give good gifts to His children (Matt. 7:11). Let us cry out with the father of the tormented child, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Dear sinner, the Jesus who recognized the faith of the father is the same Jesus who sits enthroned above, hears our prayers, and says to His Father: “These are mine, the price has been paid, the law has been fulfilled, the blood has been shed. My righteousness belongs to them. Mercy has been purchased. Forgiveness is theirs.” If you have even the least bit of saving faith in Christ, all the blessings of salvation belong to you—including assurance. You may, as the Westminster Confession says, wait “long” for it, and it may only come through many struggles, but it is yours. Seek after it. And if we would hope to enjoy this grace more and more, let us seek Christ more and more by the means He has given. As God’s children, assurance is our rightful inheritance.