One of the animating forces that drove the Reformation was problem and doctrine of assurance. In the medieval church (as in the Roman communion and in some Protestant quarters today) it was ordinarily impossible for a Christian to have confidence that he had been saved and was accepted by God. In medieval theology Christians were said to have been initially justified in baptism but that justification is lost upon the first actual sin. Thence the Christian life is the accumulation of personal, inherent righteousness by grace and cooperation with grace. Ordinarily a Christian hoped to die in a state of grace but then to enter into the intermediate state of purgation (Council of Florence, 1431–49 and Trent, session 6, 1547). There was no certainty, however, that a Christian would die in a state of grace. Like a dark cloud, the possibility of a mortal sin always hovered over the faithful. Anyone who died in mortal sin would be eternally condemned. Christians lived in a state of perpetual uncertainty. The practical goal of this agitation was to prompt Christians to greater sanctity. As a matter of history, however, this program was an utter failure. The late medieval church was a moral wreck, a fact recognized by the church herself. Nevertheless, the ordinary impossibility of assurance of salvation remains Roman dogma to this day. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, “This cannot mean a personal certainty of one’s own salvation or of one’s own state of grace, since the fragility and sinfulness of the human person can always be an obstacle to God’s love.”
Tragically, there are ostensibly evangelical and even allegedly “Reformed” Protestants who have taken similar positions such that assurance becomes a second blessing available only to a very few or not at all. They condition assurance on a particular degree of personal sanctification or upon the performance of certain “spiritual disciplines,” or upon a so-called “final salvation through works.” In the latter case, ones initial justification is said to be by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed by “final salvation” is said to be “through good works.” In such a case one can never be certain in this life that one shall cooperate sufficiently with grace so as to produce good works of sufficient quality and and quantity to meet the test.
The doctrine of the magisterial Reformation churches and of the Reformed churches in particular has always been that there is but one stage of justification and that, at the judgment, the reprobate are condemned on the basis of their unbelief manifested in their disobedience but the elect are vindicated on the basis of Christ’s righteousness forthem, given to them by grace alone (sola gratia) and received through faith alone (sola fide). Our good works are said to be the fruit and evidence of our new life and true faith. In the Reformation theology, piety, and practice, assurance is said to be of the essence of true faith. It is grounded in righteousness and merit of Christ for us and in the divine promise to us. Our good works in this life service to encourage and confirm in us that God the Spirit, through the gospel, has granted us new life and true faith and that we really are being conformed graciously and gradually to Christ.
It is true that, in the ordinary experience of the Christian, one does undergo periods of uncertainty but the remedy for such periods of doubt is not to turn inward to examine ones sins but to look outward to Christ, to his gospel, and to his righteousness for us. Faith is powerful not because because of its inherent qualities but because it is the gift of the Spirit and because it unites us to Christ and he is for us and has promised to keep us to the end: “No one shall snatch them from my hand” (John 10:28).
Dear Christian, you are a believer because God loved you from all eternity, in Christ. The Father gave you to the Son, who, in turn, promised to come to be your righteousness, your Savior, and your Mediator. The Spirit gave you new life and true faith because God loved you, in Christ, from eternity and because Christ obeyed and died for you, was raised for you, ascended for you, and intercedes for you now. Christ is for you now and he has been for you from eternity. He has not changed his mind toward and he shall never do.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:28–39; ESV).
Rest in Christ, in his gospel, and in his promises. Live your life freely, in the covenant of grace, seeking to obey him, love God and your neighbor, in union with Christ, out of gratitude for his grace. Make use of those means, those instruments that Christ has instituted for your encouragement: public worship, especially the preaching of the gospel, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. An isolated Christian is a discouraged Christian but a Christian enjoying the communion of the saints, hearing the gospel regularly, in regular communion with his Savior, resting on Christ and his gospel, is a robust Christian able to weather the storms that sometimes batter the soul.
Resources On The Assurance of Salvation»
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- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
Thought salvation was final when Jesus said, “It is finished.”
‘Tis but people are sinful and they do doubt and believers do need be assured.