Sinclair B. Ferguson
It is possible to approach the subject of assurance in terms of either the problem it poses or the doctrinal controversy it has aroused in the past. When a genuine desire for felt religion has been awakened in men’s souls, both of these approaches have been adopted. But it is necessary for us to be reminded that the Scriptures do not approach assurance from these standpoints. For the New Testament nothing is more perspicuous than that assurance is primarily a privilege and a blessing; indeed it is the summit of the blessings that the believer may know in this life. For that reason alone, most of what follows draws upon the great peak of truth which Paul scales in Romans chapter eight. He does not say all there is to say in these verses; but the aspects of experience on which he touches are fundamental dimensions in the Christian life.
1. THE POSSIBILITY OF ASSURANCE
The apostle indicates the magnitude of his assurance when he affirms that he is persuaded, or assured, that nothing can separate him from God’s love for him in Christ (v 38-9). This is, properly speaking, the assurance of salvation. In historical theology it has not always been realised sufficiently that the expression ‘assurance’ is an inexact term. Much confusion has arisen because the object of assurance has not been denoted. Is it assurance of Christ? Or assurance of faith? Or assurance of election? Often a wedge has been driven between Calvin and the Puritans in this respect, as though they taught diametrically opposed things. It is very striking therefore to see John Owen define justifying faith in almost exactly the same terms as John Calvin — in the recognition that faith itself depends on a certain kind of assurance, namely, of the grace and favour of God toward men.2 But this is not the assurance of which Paul speaks here. He refers to something more personal, and that is the present and future salvation of himself and those like him whose trust is in the Lord Jesus. Assurance in this sense is the experience of having the heart enlarged by a sense of the greatness and strength of the saving grace of God, and, as we shall see, the mind expanded to the riches of his salvation.
It is obvious, of course, that Paul has reached a pinnacle of emotional elation when he speaks of his assurance. But what he says in that poetic climax is not unique. Earlier in Romans he had spoken of the love of God being shed abroad in the heart by the Spirit; later in his life he was to speak of his assurance of salvation and the certainty of the crown of life. Similarly Peter rejoices with joy unspeakable and full of glory.3 Moreover, Paul does not in the process blind himself to the harsh realities of life. On the contrary, it is in the teeth of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword; things present and to come, powers, angels and principalities! And he spoke from experience!4 Few of the Lord’s servants have tasted the obstacles which this world puts in the way of full assurance more than Paul, and it is doubtful if any sinner has known them more intimately and continually. And it is in the face of such opposition that Paul affirms the possibility of assurance.
In the New Testament, this grand possibility is held out to us against a dark backcloth.
(i) There is the possibility of false assurance. It is one of the concerns of the New Testament to distinguish true and false assurance. Earlier in Romans 8.9 Paul warned that, whatever claims a man might make, if he did not have the Spirit, he was none of Christ’s. This is the amber light in spiritual experience. Again, in the teaching of Jesus from the commencement of his ministry, we find warnings against the possibility of appearing on the last day with an assurance that will be swept away. ‘I never knew you’, he will say, despite men’s claims to have served him.5 And there is the knub of the matter. Assurance, like salvation, is double-sided. It is not merely a matter of men ‘knowing Christ’, but of Christ ‘knowing’ men in this special and intimate sense. It is tragically possible to have a kind of faith and assurance that has never opened up the heart to the sweet influences of his grace which enable us to abandon self-reliance. It is not recognised as often as it should be that it is amongst evangelicals rather than liberals, and doctrinal rather than non-doctrinal Christians, that this danger is most subtle. So long as there is a vestige of reliance upon our righteousness, our service, our obedience, our knowledge, our understanding of doctrine, there can be no genuine assurance.
(ii) There is the possibility of a lack of assurance. God has not given us the Spirit of bondage again to fear, but it is not uncommon to find believers in a bondage frame of spirit, and the great hallmark of that is echoed in the words of our Lord’s parable: ‘I knew that you were a hard man’.6 This is, in many churches, the single greatest obstacle to the enjoyment of full assurance. It is also, by the way, an indication that for many Christians, assurance will not come by the study of it as a doctrine, nor by self-examination. It will come through ‘correction in righteousness’ in the mind and emotions; by the re-education of the thought patterns and feelings which have in the past been perverted by sin and the influences of Satan.
This is not to deny that there are degrees in assurance, but rather to affirm it. One man may be able to say ‘I know that my Redeemer lives’, while another may scarcely rise above ‘I believe, help my unbelief’. The Confession of Faith rightly tells us that ‘A true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it’.7 But these words were written for the souls who needed encouragement. They are not intended to represent the norm of Christian experience! In some areas of the reformed constituency the unusual has been twisted to such a degree that it has become the normal. What needs then to be emphasised, and is surely the possibility which Paul extends to all believers in his mighty affirmation, is that ‘such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus . . . may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’.8 That is where our emphasis must always lie!
2. THE FOUNDATION OF ASSURANCE
On what is the apostle’s confidence grounded? Romans 8.31-7 appears in the form of an argument, or debate, which brings him to the climax of his affirmation of assurance. It should, however, be noted that the argument is not the foundation of assurance. But the presuppositions on which the argument depends provide the elements of the foundation.
Let us look at this in reverse. There are four questions, each beginning with the word Who? They represent four great threats to assurance, and a case can be made out for thinking that Paul answers each question with another of his own, in the way a parent might instruct a child by responding to his question with another which would illuminate the answer.
In v. 35 there is the threat of final separation. But the believer is a super-conqueror of the very things that threaten to destroy his fellowship with Christ. In v. 34 there is the threat of condemnation. And there is One who can condemn men — for the Father has given all judgment into the hands of his Son. But this Judge of men died for the believer, rose for his justification, reigns at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool, and there intercedes for the church. Nothing could be further from the realm of the possible than that he should condemn! In v. 33 there is the fear of accusation, of being called in question. Every man who has known conviction of sin has experienced a little of what it means to be called in question by God; to have the foundations of self-confidence shaken and shattered by the knowledge of his justice and holiness. It can be an agonising and bitter discovery to see that one’s whole life counts for nothing. But when the believer comes to that arena where his life may be called in question, he discovers that God is his justifier! What then of the opposition mentioned in v. 32? It is possible, says Paul, but insignificant when we know that God is for us. Who can then ultimately be against us, when he works all things together for our good according to his purpose?
This leads to the ultimate question. How do we know that God is for us, that he will be our justifier, that Christ is on our side, that we are more than conquerors? The ultimate ground of our assurance, expressed in one of the most moving statements in the whole of the New Testament, is this:
He that spared not his own Son,
How does this bring assurance? It does so objectively because it provides the answers to my deepest doubts and fears. It shows me proof of God’s grace, in that, Abraham-like, he did not spare his own Son. It indicates the certainty of pardoned guilt. Christ was ‘delivered up’, not merely by the hands of Judas, or the chief priests and rulers, or by Pontius Pilate, all of whom, we are told ‘delivered him’.9 He was delivered more profoundly and mysteriously by the hand of his own Father, and according to his determinate counsel and foreknowledge. It pleased the Lord to bruise him. He hath put him to grief !10
From such a premise, only one conclusion is possible. It is the conclusion of assurance. If this be true, then how shall God not also freely give me everything else I need, in Christ, for eternal salvation? The assured faith rests on Christ, clothed in the facts of the gospel, and the apostolic interpretation of these facts which makes them a gospel.
But the atonement is also the foundation of the subjective experience of assurance. To come to Christ, and to keep coming to him, implies an abandoning of self-reliance. This is ever the pathway to more experience of grace, and it is the only pathway. The grounds of salvation are so constituted in the divine economy that both mind and soul are affected by them. More accurately, they are affected by him, that is by Jesus. This is also of greater significance than perhaps the systems of doctrine allow us to appreciate, for assurance is a psychological phenomenon. It has much to do with our perception of reality. One man may seem to have every reason to be fully assured; another far less obvious cause, and yet the latter may enjoy an assurance the former never does. It is noteworthy then that this Christ of whom Paul speaks is the One ‘who loved us’ (8.37). This simple matter is crucial. It is not doctrine which assures, although it encourages. It is love. It is not propositions about the atonement that save, but the death of the man Christ Jesus. And for many souls it is only the realisation that he will not break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick11 which begins to assure them that in Christ they have nothing to fear. It comes then as no surprise that it is in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which so largely expounds the common bond of our Lord Jesus in our sufferings and trials, that we are encouraged to draw near full assurance of faith’ (10.22). We need the love of such a ‘felt Christ’ if we are to enjoy a subjective assurance.
3. HINDRANCES TO ASSURANCE
‘True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted’.12 In Romans 8, Paul alludes to at least three of these ‘divers ways’.
i) An inconsistent Christian life. At the outset of the chapter, he sets up an antithesis between the natural man and the spiritual man. The natural man lives according to the flesh (v. 4), sets his mind on the things of the flesh (v. 5), is a debtor to the flesh (v. 12) and does not submit to God’s law (v. 7). On the other hand, the spiritual man lives according to the Spirit (v. 4), sets his mind on the things of the Spirit (v. 5), is a debtor to the Spirit (v.12), and finds the law’s requirements fulfilled in his life (v. 4). But the possibility which concerns Paul is that the spiritual man may adopt the principles of the life of the carnal man! His true identity may be obscured by the inconsistency of his walk. Elsewhere he calls on these same Christians to make no provision for the flesh to fulfil its lusts,13 and it is clear that his exhortation is not empty rhetoric. We may therefore take it as axiomatic that high degrees of true assurance cannot be enjoyed by those who persist in low levels of obedience. There is only one answer when such inconsistency gains the ascendency. We need to be led afresh by the Spirit, to show that we are sons of God by mortifying the deeds of the flesh (vv. 13-14). Assurance in this respect always accompanies single-mindedness. It is the double-minded man only who is unstable (lacks assurance) in all his ways [ James 1.8].
(ii) Failure to appreciate the indwelling of the Spirit. We have already noted that a bondage spirit is an immense hindrance to assurance. Conversely, dwelling on the presence of the Spirit of adoption is a great aid to it, and failure to do so brings with it a lowering of the sense of grace that is freely ours in Christ.
But how does the Spirit of adoption help? He does so by bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God. But what does this mean? John Owen illustrates it very finely.14 Here is a man before the court, seeking to establish his rights in some matter. He brings forward his evidences and pleads his case. But then comes the opposition; the arguments against him, the doubts and accusations to deny him possession of his privileges. The man begins to despair — but then into the court comes someone of undisputed integrity, and bears witness on his side, agrees with his plea and confirms it, and the man’s position is both confirmed and assured! So it is with the believer. He brings forward the reasons why he believes he possesses Christ as his Saviour. But then the voices of Law, Conscience, Satan and other accusers are heard in the court-room. Then comes the Spirit of adoption! The case against the believer is dismissed when he comes in his divine integrity and bears his joint witness!
This picture is borne out by the very language Paul employs. The witness of the Spirit is often thought of as a gentle, quiescent experience. That is not here denied; but it is certainly not affirmed. The verb Paul uses is krazein, and it signifies a loud, often deeply emotional cry. It is the cry of the child for help. But it is more than the cry ‘O God!’ It is the cry ‘Abba! Father!’ This is the supreme distinguishing mark of God’s children.
iii) The perplexity of our afflictions. It is natural for us to wonder, in the midst of suffering, whether God cares. The Psalms especially are full of such cries, and it will not be forgotten how easily this thought came to the disciples in the storm on Galilee. We ‘groan inwardly’ says Paul (v. 23). And we inevitably see afflictions as potentially destructive of our assurance of salvation, since they so obviously appear to militate against God’s saving purpose. But that is not the biblical perspective. Paul rather suggests that they are part of his purposes! And if so, they will build rather than destroy assurance. We catch the sense of this when we notice that the ‘groan’ of which Paul speaks is common to creation, the Spirit, and the believer (vv. 22, 26, 23). But the Spirit groans for answered prayer; the creation groans with longing to share in the liberty of the glory of God’s children. The believer groans, waiting for his final redemption! If we understand them aright, the groans of our hearts are not depressive but prospective, not groans of doubt but of certainty, for the simple reason that the afflictions the believer now knows are part of his pathway to eternal joy. The present light affliction works an exceeding weight of glory. The present travail leads to unmitigated joy!
It is deeply instructive to notice how well Simon Peter learned this lesson. Terrified in the boat in the storm on Galilee, lacking assurance that his Master cared, he joined those who cried out: ‘Do you not care that we are perishing?’ But later, endowed with the Spirit of adoption, when captured and imprisoned, when God sent his angel to rescue him from the clutches of Herod who intended to take him out from prison and presumably execute him, how did the servant of the Lord find him? In the midst of affliction, he enjoyed the assurance of salvation. He was learning the lesson his Master taught him. He was sleeping!’15
We are assured that we are true children when our Father uses the same pattern in our lives as he employed in the life of his Son — who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of his glory.
4. THE EXPERIENCE OF ASSURANCE
When we enjoy assurance of salvation, what is it that captures our attention? It is the assurance that God works for our present good [Rom 8.28]; that he has a continuing purpose for the whole of our lives (v. 29); that he has made complete provision for our final salvation (v. 30). Those he has predestined he calls, justifies and glorifies. And the assurance which these facts encapsulate is unmistakable. It may come in different ways: as we study God’s Word privately; as we sit under the ministry of the Word; as we pray and worship. It may come as we wait on the Lord; it may come without any apparent waiting. It may come through obvious use of the means of grace, when we are, as it were, in its way; or it may come when we do not expect it. Some discover assurance after long battles, others never know what it is to be without it; for some it comes through sorrows, for others through joys. It is as individual as it is sovereign, and necessarily so, because it leads us to say ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’.16 But individually experienced though it is, the assurance of salvation is always evidenced by four marks of its presence:
i) It is accompanied by satisfaction with God’s way of salvation. The humbling of our sinful hearts before a crucified Saviour becomes the sweetest and most precious thing in our experience, whereas before it simply revealed a root of bitterness and antagonism against the wisdom and grace of God.
ii) It brings a new sense of security which in turn is a spur to our duties. Paul laboured more than all — but it was not he. It was the grace of God given to him.
iii) It fills our hearts with Christ. He is not only the fountain of assurance, but he is himself the stream from which we daily drink. He it is who quenches our thirst. Assurance of salvation is assurance of Jesus.
iv) It produces a holy boldness in our lives, an apostolic parrhesia, which is the stamp of those who reign in life by Christ Jesus, and have begun to appreciate what it is to be more than a conqueror of sin and Satan and all the powers of hell.
Surely this is one of our greatest needs! Let us look for it, pray for it, preach it as a grand possibility, and enjoy it ourselves. Or better, let us look to him, pray to know more of him, preach him, and experience in ever more profound ways that his banner over us is love.
M.A., University of Aberdeen, 1968; B.D., 1971; Ph.D., 1979; Pastoral ministry, Scotland, 1971-1982; Associate Editor, Banner of Truth Trust, 1976-; Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Texas campus, 1982-.
Author: Taking the Christian Life Seriously; Man Overboard; Know your Christian Life; Grow in Grace; Discovering God’s Will; Handle with Care; A Heart for God; Kingdom Life in a Fallen World; Children of the Living God; John Owen on the Christian Life; Undaunted Spirit; Daniel (Communicator’s Commentary); Understanding the Gospel; Healthy Christian Growth; Read Any Good Books?; Deserted By God?; If I Should Die Before I Wake (co-author); The Pundit’s Folly; The Holy Spirit; The Big Book of Questions and Answers; Let’s Study Philippians; Let’s Study Mark; The Big Book of Questions and Answers About Jesus.
Contributor: Worship Now; The Westminster Confession Today; The Preacher and Preaching; New Dictionary of Theology (editor); Inside the Sermon; Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate; Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; Christian Spirituality; Geneva Study Bible; Handbook of Evangelical Theologians; If I Had Only One Sermon to Preach; Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology; Blackwell’s Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860; The New Bible Commentary; Sola Scriptura; Doubt and Assurance; Here We Stand; The Glory of the Atonement.
Representative Articles: “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” The Christian Graduate, June 1982; “For Jesus’ Sake,” Discipleship, July 1984; “John Owen on the Spirit in the Life of Christ,” Banner of Truth, February, March, 1988; “The Whole Counsel of God: Fifty Years of Theological Studies,” Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1988; “The Fear of the Lord: Seeing God As He Is,” Discipleship, July-August, 1989.
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