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assurance

December 03, 2008

I have written often about the issues of doubt and assurance. They are, I think, issues that are well worth spending time on. Many fine Christians spend much of their lives doubting their salvation while other nominal Christians live in reckless assurance of their right standing before God. Meanwhile, many people today teach that doubt itself is a virtue while assurance is a mark of arrogance. John Frame offers some valuable perspective on this in his book Salvation Belongs To The Lord. Here is what he says about doubt as a virtue and assurance as spiritual arrogance.

“[T]he Bible presents doubt largely in negative terms. It is a spiritual impediment, an obstacle to doing God’s work (Matt. 14:31; 21:21; 28:17; Acts 10:20; 11:12; Rom. 14:23; 1 Tim. 2:8; James 1:6). In Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 it is the opposite of faith and therefore a sin. Of course, this sin, like other sins, may remain with us through our earthly life. But we should not be complacent about it. Just as the ideal for the Christian life is a perfect holiness, the ideal for the Christian mind is absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

“We should not conclude, however, that doubt is always sinful. Matthew 14:31 and Romans 14:23 (and indeed the other texts I have listed) speak of doubt in the fact of clear special revelation. To doubt what God has clearly spoken to us is wrong. But in other situations, it is not wrong to doubt. In many cases, in fact, it is wrong for us to claim knowledge, much less certainty. Indeed, often the best course is to admit our ignorance (Deut. 29:29, Rom. 11:33-36). Paul is not wrong to express uncertainty about the number of people he baptized (1 Cor. 1:16). Indeed, James tells us, we are not always ignorant of the future to some extent and we should not pretend to know more about it than we do (James 4:13-16). Job’s friends were wrong to think that they knew the reasons for his torment, and Job himself had to be humbled, as God reminded him of his ignorance (Job 38-42).

“But as to our salvation, God wants us to know that we know him (1 John 5:13)…”

I believe Frame is correct on several important accounts. The Bible presents doubt largely in negative terms. Doubt is not presented as a reason for pride and assurance is not presented as something that is shameful. And in fact, doubt is a hindrance to doing God’s work and is the very opposite of faith. A person who is filled with doubt may well be a person of weak faith. The faith we are to pursue is one that has absolute certainty about God’s revelation.

And so we are to pursue assurance, for assurance of salvation and assurance of God’s revelation is a mark of faith—true faith—not something that is opposed to it.

August 14, 2008

This morning brings us to our fifth reading in Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections. This week’s reading was a very short one—just a few pages. I know that several of you took the opportunity to catch up with last week’s lengthy reading. So hopefully by now we are all on the same page!

Summary

In the Introduction to the book’s third part, Edwards asks the reader to keep three things in mind as he describes the distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections (and here I’m relying on Sam Storms’ excellent summaries of these points):

  1. There will never be a time or system or standard of analysis of such issues that will yield infallible results. We will never be able to claim that we can, without error, discern who is a believer and who is not.
  2. We should not expect to find biblical signs that will enable a backslidden person to reassure himself that he is in a good way with God. It is God’s design that backslidden persons should have no assurance of their salvation.
  3. We should not expect that the signs by which we hope to differentiate between true and false affections will ever prove sufficient to convince those who are hypocrites and who have been deceived about their salvation.

Keeping these things in mind, we’ll turn in the following weeks to the twelve signs which will allow us to distinguish true religion from false religion.

Discussion

Because we read only a few pages, there was not a lot of content to interact with this week. However, there was one section that jumped off the pages at me. I very much appreciated Edwards’ exhortation that it is God’s design that men obtain assurance not by thinking a lot about assurance and not by a process of rigorous self-examination, but primarily through “mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.” So assurance is obtained less by self-examination and more by action.

Edwards gives the example of the Apostle Paul and says, “He obtained assurance of winning the prize, more by running than by considering. The swiftness of his pace did more towards his assurance of a conquest than the strictness of his examination.” This is such an important point and I am guessing it is one Edwards will return to later in the book. When we experience moments of concern or doubt about our salvation, so often we can spend time thinking about ourselves and looking primarily inward for assurance of our faith. But the Bible makes it clear that we will be known by what we do and what we are. So we need to look outwards to see if we are putting sin to death and if we are living in the way Christ tells us to live. Here we will see whether or not we are being conformed to His image and whether our not our trust is in Him.

Finally, I was glad to see Edwards affirm that we can never know perfectly whether or not another person is saved. “It was never God’s design to give us any rules by which we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are His, and to make a full and clear separation between sheep and goats.” God has reserved this infallible knowledge for Himself and so we look for distinguishing characteristics, always knowing that we are so easily fooled.

Next Time

For next week we will read the first distinguishing sign of truly gracious and holy affections. This is a long section (around 40 pages in my edition) but I don’t see any real benefit in dividing it into two readings. So please read that section for next Thursday. Because it is a lengthy reading, you may wish to begin in the next day or two!

Your Turn

As always, I am eager to know what you gained from this part of the book. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you can only say anything if you are going to say something that will wow us all. Just add a comment with some of the things you gained from the this week’s reading. To this point the discussion has been excellent!

October 30, 2007

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes…”

Dr. Criswell, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, was once traveling by plane to attend a speaking engagement on the East Coast. After boarding the aircraft and getting himself settled and situated, he was thrilled to recognize the man in the seat beside him as a well-known Christian theologian. Criswell greatly admired this man and was eager to get to know him. Soon the plane left the ground and after it settled into cruising altitude, Criswell introduced himself and the two began to speak.

The theologian told the pastor how he had recently lost his four-year old son to a terrible illness. It had begun innocently enough when the child was sent home from school one afternoon after developing a fever. At first the parents thought it was a typical childhood illness that would soon run its course. But the young boy’s condition continued to worsen and that evening his concerned mother and father took him to the hospital. The doctors ran a battery of tests and told the parents tragic news—their son had a virulent form of meningitis and there was nothing they could do for him. The child was beyond medical help and was going to die.

The loving parents did the only thing they could do, which was sit with their son in a death vigil. Not even a week later, in the middle of the day, the illness began to cause the little boy’s vision to fade. He looked up at his daddy and said softly,”Daddy, it’s getting dark, isn’t it?”

The professor replied, “Yes, son, it is dark. It’s very dark.” And for the father it was.

The little boy said, “I guess it’s time for me to get to sleep, isn’t it?”

“Yes son, it’s time for you to sleep,” said the father.

The theologian explained to Dr. Criswell how his son liked his pillow and his blankets arranged just so because he liked to lay his head on his hands while he slept. He told how he helped the child fix his pillow and how his boy rested his head on his hands and said, “Good night daddy. I’ll see you in the morning.” With that the little boy closed his eyes and fell asleep. Only a few minutes later his little chest rose and fell for the last time and his life was over almost before it began.

The professor stopped talking and looked out the window of the airplane for a good long while. Finally he turned to Dr. Criswell and with his voice breaking and tears spilling onto his cheeks gasped, “I can hardly wait for morning to come!”

Though it may merely sound like the cry of a grief-stricken parent, the father’s words speak of far more. They speak of a profoundly beautiful truth, for the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who cannot lie, promised us that the morning will come. Death has been defeated and even now we eagerly await the dawn when Christ will return and death shall be no more. Only through Jesus can we have the hope of eternal life that sustains the grief-stricken father. Only through Jesus can we have assurance that he “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.” (Revelation 21:4) Little boys will be reunited with their fathers so together they can dance for joy before the One who tasted and defeated death so others could have life.

God offers such assurance only to those who will look to Him. Do you believe in Him? Have you looked to Jesus and cried out for Him to give you life? Call out to Him today and do business with God. He will give you hope and will give you the blessed assurance that the dawn will soon break. You’ll hardly be able to wait for morning to come.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).
October 18, 2007

“We know that we are of God.” (1 John 5:19)

Today we come to the final chapter of the first classic we’re reading together. You can read more about this effort here: Reading the Classics Together. Even if you have not participated in this effort, please keep reading. I’m sure there will be something here to benefit you. At the very least read the end to see how you can join in our next effort.

The book’s previous chapters have covered Sin, Sanctification, Holiness, The Fight, The Cost and Growth. The final chapter concerns itself with Assurance—the believer’s privilege of being assured that he is a Christian. This is a doctrine that today, like in Ryle’s day, was too often neglected or, if not that, was the cause of much dispute. It is a doctrine, he is convinced, that has much to do with holiness. He approaches the subject cautiously and humbly, acknowledging that “the road between truth and error is here especially a narrow pass.”

He defines assurance in this way: “A true Christian, a converted man, may reach such a comfortable degree of faith in Christ, that in general he shall feel entirely confident as to the pardon and safety of his soul, shall seldom be troubled with doubts, seldom be distracted with fears, seldom be distressed by anxious questionings and, in short, though vexed by many an inward conflict with sin, shall look forward to death without trembling, and to judgment without dismay. This, I say, is the doctrine of the Bible.”

Ryle follows this outline:

Summary

  1. An assured hope is a scriptural thing
  2. A believer may never arrive at this assured hope, and yet be saved
  3. Reasons why an assured hope is exceedingly to be desired
    1. It provides present comfort
    2. It tends to make a Christian an active working Christian
    3. It tends to make a decided Christian
    4. It tends to make the holiest Christians
  4. Probable causes why an assured hope is never attained
    1. A defective view of the doctrine of Justification
    2. Slothfulness about growth in grace
    3. An inconsistent walk in life
  5. Application
    1. If you are not a Christian, learn from the privileges and comforts of a Christian and come to Christ
    2. If you are a Christian and do not have an assured hope, then resolve today to seek it.

Discussion

As with one or two of the other chapters in the book, this one was perhaps a bit unexpected. I would not have thought a chapter on assurance would merit a place in such a book. But because Ryle does a superb job of showing the close connection between assurance and holiness and because he proves the importance of this doctrine, I can understand why it was good and necessary to include it.

Ryle is, in his own right, a master of illustration and analogy. Yet at one point he turns to another author to suggest why some true Christians never receive assurance of pardon. “ ‘A letter,’ says an old writer, ‘may be written, which is not sealed; so grace may be written in the heart, yet the Spirit may not set the seal of assurance to it.’” He goes on to speak of a child who is the heir of a great fortune, yet is never made aware of the riches and wealth that are rightfully his. In this way a Christian may never come to know that assurance is his birthright and that he may have full confidence in the validity of his salvation.

But the illustration that most gripped my soul as I read this chapter had to do with the importance of the doctrine of assurance. This is a doctrine that few people regard as having any great importance, but listen to what Ryle says.

Take, for an illustration of this, two English emigrants, and suppose them set down side by side in New Zealand or Australia. Give each of them a piece of land to clear and cultivate. Let the portions allotted to them be the same, both in quantity and quality. Secure that land to them by every needful legal instrument; let it be conveyed as freehold to them and theirs forever; let the conveyance be publicly registered and the property made sure to them by every deed and security that man’s ingenuity can devise.

Suppose then that one of them shall set to work to clear his land and bring it into cultivation and labor at it day after day without intermission or cessation.

Suppose in the meanwhile that the other shall be continually leaving his work and going repeatedly to the public registry to ask whether the land really is his own, whether there is not some mistake, whether after all there is not some flaw in the legal instruments which conveyed it to him.

The one shall never doubt his title but just work diligently on. The other shall hardly ever feel sure of his title and spend half his time in going to Sydney or Melbourne or Auckland with needless inquiries about it.

Which now of these two men will have made most progress in a year’s time? Who will have done the most for his land, got the greatest breadth of soil under tillage, have the best crops to show, be altogether the most prosperous?

Anyone of common sense can answer that question. I need not supply an answer. There can be only one reply. Undivided attention will always attain the greatest success.

Those who dwell secure in their relationship with the Lord, taking confidence not in their own rightness but in the grip of the One who holds them—these people are free to focus on the things that need to be done. Rather than spending much of their time in deep concern that they may not be saved; rather than continually studying the Scripture to discern whether or not God has done His work in their lives, these people are free from the tyranny of uncertainty and are thus free to be active, working Christians. But for reading this chapter, I would not have considered the practical importance and the practical ramifications of getting this doctrine right and having it applied to my soul. That is my “take home” application this week.

Holiness has been a joy to read and has given me much to think about. It is a book I know that I will return to often. I’m grateful that it is more than a classic I can cross of my list—it is a book that is as relevant and as important today as the day Ryle penned it. And it spoke to me as it has spoken to generations of believers before. Thank you for reading it with me!

Next Time

Now that we’ve finished this book, I guess it’s time to choose another. I think we’ll begin the next reading project in a few weeks and, in all likelihood, will read some John Owen. Stay tuned for more information in the next couple of weeks.

Your Turn

I am interested in hearing what you took away from this chapter. Feel free to post comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Don’t feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or gave you pause or confused you. I’d also be glad to hear your comments about the book as a whole.