Can I Have Assurance?

Joel asks, “Is it possible for a person to want/desire to know Christ as his/her Savior and not be among the elect?”

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word;  but also a hearty trust,  which the Holy Spirit 3 works in me by the Gospel,  that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God,  merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

Yes, you and all Christians can and should have assurance. How? Trust the gospel promises of Christ! “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Do you trust in Christ as your righteousness alone? I did not’t ask if you trust enough but only if you trust him. When it comes to assurance, faith is a binary operation. It either exists or it doesn’t. Full stop. There’s no degree or faith, when it comes to justification and assurance.

Does faith grow? Yes, it does, day by day, but that is the fruit of justification not the ground of assurance. Yes, there is a secondary place for reflecting upon fruit. HC 86 does this:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing,  and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof;  and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.

The fruit of faith strengthens our assurance but it is not the basis of it. The sole basis/ground of assurance is Christ’s righteousness for us and his unshakable promises to us.

To refuse to have assurance on the ground that one is not sufficiently sanctified is a form of unbelief. Stop it. Repent of it. Of course you are not sanctified enough! You’re a wretch. Jesus didn’t obey and die for nice, sanctified people. He obeyed and died for you and me.

Will your assurance always be perfect and equally strong? No. The Westminster Confession ch 14 (as quoted above) deals with that question brilliantly. Our assurance ebbs and flows. We learn more and more to stop looking at ourselves — just as we learn to stop looking at garbage heaps — and we learn more and more to look at Christ and his promises.

One writer encouraged us to

Look to the Spirit for guidance and comfort, Romans 8:26-27 . Honestly and earnestly search your heart for the true fruits of the Spirit. And ask yourself, “Do I truly love Jesus?”, for He said “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.” – John 8.42.
To which I respond:

If I may take issue with some of the advice here. The question: “Do I truly love Jesus?”

That’s not the gospel. That’s law. The law and our obedience to it is no basis for assurance. Should we love Jesus? Yes. Must we love Jesus? Yes! Will we, by the grace of God, come to love Jesus more truly and fully than we do now? Yes. Do we now love Jesus as we ought? No. Substitute: “Do I love the Lord with all my faculties?” (Matt 22:37-40) The honest answer is no. We’re sinners. We don’t any of us love God as we ought. Thus, to ask, “do I love Jesus?” as part of the ground of justification or assurance is the path to doubt and despair. Our obedience will always ebb and flow. When our obedience is, or at least seems to us, to be at high tide, we will be confident, but as soon as we see ourselves, in the mirror of God’s law, for what we really are, then our assurance will be decimated — as it must be on such a basis.

To find genuine assurance, we start with the objective work of Christ. Secondarily, we may ask if we have any fruit. Yes, we look to the Spirit and we ask him to operate, as he has promised to do, through the preaching of the gospel. We should be careful about an overly subjective approach to this question.

The objective work of Christ is the oasis in the desert. But since faith is the means by which Christ’s objective work is appropriated, how can one escape the subjectivity of it?

This definition of faith is too subjective. It’s not my believing that makes faith efficacious. What makes faith, in the act of justification and relative to assurance, efficacious is the object of faith. Christ and his righteousness makes faith what it is: the sole instrument of justification and the sole means of resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. Thus, there is nothing, relative to justification or assurance, inherent to faith itself that makes it one thing or another. It either exists or it doesn’t.

For example, Christ’s work is only appropriated to some and in Reformed circles we say those “some” are the elect.

Some believe and some do not. Both of those are in the visible church and most all of those outside the visible church do not believe (there may be some extraordinary case where one is outside the visible church and yet believes).

We don’t decide for whom Christ died or who is elect a priori. We do it after the fact (a posteriori. We never ask, “Am I elect?” or “Did Christ die for me?” We only ask, “Do I believe?” If I believe, it is because I am elect and Christ died for me etc. Never, ever try to guess the secret will and providence and decree of God. It is forbidden in Deut 29:29.

In the works of the Puritans and others, there is a seemingly constant introspection about whether or not one is truly resting in Christ or is it Christ + something else and that the latter are damned because they are not trusting Christ alone.

Yes, but not in the better Reformed writers (whether they were English-speaking or not). There were subjectivists on the continent too. So what? What do we confess as churches?

Just because we sin doesn’t mean we’re not justified. We are simultaneously sinners and justified (simul iustus et peccator). We’re not Papists. We don’t confess that only the perfectly sanctified can be justified. Am I a sinner? Yes! Do I, sola gratia, trust that Christ is my righteousness? Yes.

When it comes to assurance, the equation stops with Christ. Did he finish the work? Is he enough? You will NEVER (yes, I’m raising my voice a bit) achieve the sanctity you want without first trusting in the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ. Must we die to self? Yes. We must die to sin daily. Does my lack of mortification mean I am not justified? No. It means I’m not yet glorified.

§

I, too, have never understood how one can be completely objective. I can look at Christ and his work for sinners and believe that he truly died for the elect and yet doubt that I am one of them. How do you get from looking at Christ to knowing that you are in Christ? It seems like it has to be subjective to some extent.

Faith isn’t completely objective. The ground/basis of our justification and of our assurance is completely objective. Faith apprehends that ground: Christ and his righteousness for me. Is faith perfect? No, but it is sufficient. That’s why it’s the sole instrument. It looks away from self and to Christ.

Faith doesn’t do it. Christ does it and we receive his benefits through faith, as defined in HC 21 and WCF 11 and 14.

UPDATE February 5, 2016

Korey writes to ask, “Hi Dr. Clark, …I have a question. Could you possibly give me a short list of other resources on assurance from the Reformed perspective ? Thank you for your encouraging post!”

Hi Korey,

Great question. Here are some of my favorite resources:

16 comments

  1. Classic stuff.

    You should write a book and call it something like Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice. I bet it would be really, really good.

  2. My word you’ve been busy on the blog today, Dr. Clark. Slow Saturday?

    As a Calvinist, let me play devil’s advocate, however? Maybe to have you address some of the common arguments against assurance within a Reformed view.

    If Christ died only for the elect and I have no objective way to know that I am elect, how can I have assurance or even faith for that matter? Faith rests and trusts in Christ’s work for sinners.. but if there is a potential that he didn’t perform that work for me doesn’t that force me to look inward and say “I must determine if I have saving faith, because unless I determine that first, I cannot rest simply in Christ’s finished work.” In other words, unless I determine a subjective reality first how can I trust the objective?

    This is THE most common objection I get from Arminian and Lutheran friends.

  3. Dear Matthew,

    The statements “Christ died for all sinners” and that “Christ paid the price only for the elect” are not contradictory (although they do seem contradictory at first glance). That is why we can proclaim to everyone that they should believe that Jesus took the cross from them; and at the same time, since the redemptive price was paid only for the elect, we don’t proclaim universal salvation.

    Now, instead of giving you full explanation why we don’t have a contradiction, let me just mention one important point and then an illustrative analogy. First, we know that the Scripture teaches us Double Predestination, and at the same time that Jesus took the cross for all; so let us just except both, trusting that God’s written revelation is not contradictory.

    Now the analogy: Consider this statement “I have a piece of paper; but I can cut it into pieces, glue it together, and come up with two exact replica of the original paper” This might seem contradictory, but it is not. The statement is true and is related to the “Banach-Tarski Paradox”. The statement can be reversed, and it is true that given two sheet of papers, I can cut them into pieces and glue them together (without throwing away any of them) and come up with only one of them. I hope you can see the analogy; we have two group of people, each needing a paper (to enter the Kingdom of God), and it is not contradictory to say that Jesus prepared for two but actually made if effective for only one of them without wasting his original work. I have written this matter up in more detail in my blog (http://pneumatikos.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/바나하-타르스키-역설-banach–tarski-paradox/) unfortunately it’s written in Korean.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I am one who agonizes over whether I’m saved. The question I’m almost constantly asking myself is “Do I believe?” (i.e., am I trusting in Christ alone for righteousness?) Now I profess that I do believe, but how do I know that I really do?

    In truth I see a heart full of unbelief–a heart that would much rather go the way of works-righteousness than go through Jesus and his work for me on the cross; a heart that has—I confess and do not deny–contempt for the gospel. (Yet at the same time I love the gospel. How can this be?)

    So do I believe? Am I trusting in Christ alone? It appears–from the evidence of my heart–that I’m unregenerate. But what if there’s a very small faith looking to Him and crying out “I do believe; help my unbelief!”? Well, if that’s the case–if such a faith is present–then I believe that that faith, although pitiful, saves–that is, it lays hold of the mighty object of righteousness, Jesus Christ.

    But that “what if” is the rub–how does one know one even has such a pitiful faith? I go round and round.

    By the way, I’m a professing member of an OPC and attend to the means of grace on the Lord’s Day (morning and evening). I have a very difficult time eating the Lord’s Supper. This is the very thing I need to strengthen my weak faith, so eat and drink, I tell myself; yet if I have no faith, then I’m profaning the Lord Jesus–you’d better not eat and drink! Twice a month I go through this. I choose to eat and drink; yet I may be storing up wrath for myself.

    What do you say to a “believer” like this?

    David

  5. David,

    What is your definition of faith? Are you waiting for some experience or are you simply trusting in Christ and in his finished work? I’m not asking if you’re trusting perfectly, but are you trusting?

    Of course you see a heart of unbelief! You’re not entirely sanctified and you won’t be in this life. Don’t look at your heart. Why, having left a garbage dump, would you turn around and go back? The object of faith is not your rotten (or mine!) but Christ and his righteousness.

    You’ve made faith into a work. When you say, “Do I trust Christ?” One can almost hear you mouthing the last, unspoken word: “enough.” That’s the killer. It turns faith from the alone instrument of justification into a quantitative work. “This much faith” or “that much faith.” It begins to focus on the quality of faith rather than on the quality of the Savior. You’re faith will never be good enough. It will never be perfect. That’s just the point. Faith receives Christ. He is good enough.

    We all have a pitiful faith. Repent of your perfectionist expectations and trust in Christ and in his perfections.

    Christ said, “I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, “I will give you rest if you’re just so” if your heart is pure. He died for sinners. He justifies the ungodly.

    Unless you are under discipline, go to the table. Trust what you cannot see. Stop looking at what your feelings, experiences, and sin. Believe what the table teaches: Christ is sufficient.

  6. Matthew,

    See the above reply to David.

    There’s a false premise in your question.

    We don’t reason a priori from election. We reason a posteriori to election from faith. Only the elect believe. I believe. Ergo I am elect. See Calvin, Institutes book 3.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Yes, I confess I’m a perfectionist; I often see the Lord in this light–that is, I hear him saying, “You can come to Me when you truly believe (enough).” That’s not the gospel.

    Thank you for your encouragement. No, I’m not under discipline, and my pastor, who knows I struggle with assurance, tells me to come to the table. I want to come to the table!

    Looking to feelings, experiences–these are the remnants of my growing up in a Southern Baptist Church.

    David

  8. David,

    I understand. I didn’t grow up in Reformed Churches either. I was 4-5 years in an SBC. It took me a long time to stop listening for “small, still” voices and waiting for the second blessing.

    Luther says that we must say over and over again, “Christ for me.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for the post. It helped clear the gathering fog (again). Like one of the other bloggers, I have a perennial struggle with perfectionism (in many areas of life, but particularly religion). My perfectionism is always trying to deform God’s glorious grace for sinners into a reward for good works. Whether it’s nature or nurture, it’s sin, and thank you for the reminder that perfectionism is not a virtue but it’s something I must repent of constantly. Grace properly understood is something completely alien to me.

    And I say this as someone who grew up in a Reformed denomination. Strange currents flow even in what you might consider “safe” congregations. For instance, I was led to believe for the longest time that the only way to be prepared for communion was to spend the previous week in laborious introspection. And I’ve spent more time than I care to admit navel-gazing. Thank God for the Savior who does not snuff out the smoldering wick or break the bruised reed or cast out the hungry and the thirsty who come to him.

    Mike

    P.S. I don’t know what your view is, but in my view there are too many modern Reformed writers/pastors/theologians (not part the Federal Vision crowd) who still place more emphasis on personal sanctification as “evidence” of election than our confession and trust in Christ. This troubles me.

  10. And can it be that I should gain
    An interest in the Savior’s blood?
    Died He for me, who caused His pain—
    For me, who Him to death pursued?
    Amazing love! How can it be,
    That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
    Amazing love! How can it be,
    That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

    ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
    Who can explore His strange design?
    In vain the firstborn seraph tries
    To sound the depths of love divine.
    ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
    Let angel minds inquire no more.
    ’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
    Let angel minds inquire no more.

    He left His Father’s throne above
    So free, so infinite His grace—
    Emptied Himself of all but love,
    And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
    ’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
    For O my God, it found out me!
    ’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
    For O my God, it found out me!

    Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
    Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
    Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
    My chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
    My chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

    Still the small inward voice I hear,
    That whispers all my sins forgiven;
    Still the atoning blood is near,
    That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
    I feel the life His wounds impart;
    I feel the Savior in my heart.
    I feel the life His wounds impart;
    I feel the Savior in my heart.

    No condemnation now I dread;
    Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
    Alive in Him, my living Head,
    And clothed in righteousness divine,
    Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
    And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
    Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
    And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

  11. This post is the freshest water I have ever drunk of. Oh that I could have read something like this in the past 12 years, all of which I struggled with assurance. I finally found assurance just last year, and I found it in the way you speak of it, Dr. Clark.

    Truly the Law/Gospel distinction saved my life.

  12. HeidelPing: R. Scott Clark on Assurance | Between Two Kingdoms

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