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?”

HC 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 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 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 does not. Full stop. There is no degree of 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 says 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 are a wretch. Jesus did not 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 of Faith (particularly 14.3) deals with that question brilliantly.

This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

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 encourages 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?” is not born of the gospel. It is born of the 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. We should substitute the question: “Do I love the Lord with all my faculties?” (Matt 22:37–40). The honest answer is no. We are sinners. We do not 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.

Another writer weighs in:

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 is not my believing that makes faith efficacious. What makes faith efficacious, in the act of justification and relative to assurance, 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 does not.

He goes on to say,

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 do not 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. Never, ever try to guess the secret will and providence and decree of God. It is forbidden in Deuteronomy 29:29.

He continues:

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 plus 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 does not mean we are not justified. We are simultaneously sinners and justified (simul iustus et peccator). We are not Papists. We do not 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 am not yet glorified.

One more writer poses a question:

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 is not 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 is why it is the sole instrument. It looks away from self and to Christ.

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

UPDATE:

Korey writes to ask, “Could you possibly give me a short list of other resources on assurance from the Reformed perspective? Thank you for your encouraging post!”

Great question. Here are some of my favorite resources:

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2009, drawn from a discussion on the Puritan Board.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. Thank you for this great reminder that we can (should) have assurance through Jesus our Lord. Midway through reading all of the scripture and Catechism Q & A, I found myself having to stop and profusely thank Christ for all that he has done for me. “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it”. Machen

  2. It’s not about how strong our faith is, but what it believes and trusts in. It’s all about the object of faith. That object must be Christ alone. Beware of looking at any thing else for assurance. Heidelberg 21 says it so well, “forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” True good works are only the fruit of gratitude to God, for His undeserved grace, they are never our the doing of our part for justification and it is a fatal mistake to look to them for any assurance for acceptance with God. Faith is reliance on Christ alone, and good works demonstrate gratitude for undeserved grace. They assure us in the sense that they are evidence of our gratitude, but never as having any merit for acceptance by God. Making that distinction is absolutely crucial to understand what true faith is.

  3. Assurance is a blessing that I enjoy now. But before coming into a true, Reformed Church, to hear the Gospel preached from Confessional, Covenantal, Christ-centered, Reformed Theology I did not know that I was saved by Grace, through faith. I had many confusing ideas and beliefs. Though I believed John 3:16, I did not understand justification is ‘by Grace through Faith’.
    Was the Spirit with me when I first believed? I believe the Spirit is and was with me.
    Did the Spirit depart from me in the midst of the confusion of wrong theology? No.
    Did my lack of assurance mean God’s Grace on me was invalidated? No

    As I reflect on God’s providence in my life, I see His faithfulness through His Spirit in me guiding me to hear and study sound doctrines in Scripture about His Spirit: BC11, HC53, WLC11. To see the Spirit at work in me now assures me that I am Christ’s 1 Cor.6:19-20.

    Now I see and join the work of the Spirit sanctifying me, and I praise God actively, praying daily and throughout the day. These works are the result of belief in Christ which is by Grace, through Faith.

    It seems God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit has always loved me from before the foundation of the world even though as a creature in the fallen world there is this bag of flesh (His temple because of Christ) which is enmity with God.

    I treasure God’s Grace, good questions, and sound theology.

  4. My husband and I can experience no aporia (new favorite word; thanks, Dr. Trueman) with the teaching, preaching, and reflections of Dr. Clark. We are grateful for Dr. Clark’s scholarship, his straight talk, and his timeliness. The season of celebration of Christ Jesus’ advent is surely a time of study and reflection, toward resting in the certain assurance of our blessed hope. Though Dr. Clark wouldn’t recognize us if we were the only couple in the room, it is still true that we look to the Heidelblog, expecting goodness, truth, and beauty.

  5. Good article. Coming out of a Roman Catholic background, I struggled with assurance. There were a number of factors, law keeping was one of them. Another thing that helped was a book my Pastor recommended. It has been years ago, so my memory may have faded, but it was by Os Guiness and I think it was called “In Two Minds”. He explained the difference between faith, doubt and unbelief. Doubt is not unbelief. Unbelief is willful rejection. As I said, it has been years since I read it and I may have some things confused, but it was one of the things that helped me better understand and gain assurance. Ultimately though, I had to repent. I had to take my thoughts captive anytime I looked to anything other than the all sufficient work of Christ. Thank you for posting the article.

  6. Truly excellent, brother. I’m currently in the D. Min at TMS in Los Angeles, CA on assurance and 1 John. My primary point and argument is articulated well in this article. I’m pulling from Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth and Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ. But I will definitely keep this article amongst my research. Thank you.

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