Last month (June ET), we answered this question with an emphatic ‘Yes!’, since this is the clear teaching of the Bible.
The Puritans are particularly helpful in explaining and applying the doctrine of Christian assurance in a pastorally warm and helpful way. Typical of their teaching are the writings of Ezekiel Hopkins, bishop of Raphoe and later of Derry (1671).
Hopkins explains how all three persons of the Trinity are involved in assuring Christians of their salvation. Having God as our omnipotent Father gives us ‘abundance of assurance, that we shall receive at his hands what we ask, if it be good for us’.
Christ’s work on the cross was complete, perfect and secure, and we thereby obtain ‘an infallible assurance’. And the Holy Spirit indwells Christians and aids their growth in holiness.
‘The witness, that the Spirit gives, is such a full assurance, as removes all doubts and fears; for it is the witness of God himself’. ‘The Spirit of adoption … seals us up unto the day of redemption; and works in the hearts of many believers a full assurance, that grace is already wrought in them, and that glory shall hereafter be bestowed upon them’.
It is this assurance that motivates us to serve Christ. Christians lacking assurance don’t live their life to the full or serve God as effectively as they could. But compared to Israelites in the Old Testament, ‘our yoke is made easy and our burden light’ by Jesus Christ.
So we should serve God with all readiness, since we know we are safe and secure in Christ. Released from worry and doubt, and moved by gratitude to our Saviour, we should live zealously for him.
At the same time, serving God and having other inward ‘signs of truth and grace’ reinforces our assurance, since they provide evidence of the transformation that has happened in us. ‘O Christian, thy sanctification be the best evidence of thy justification and pardon!’
Hopkins reminds us of Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 13:5: ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?’; and of Peter’s instruction in 2 Peter 1:10: to ‘be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election’.
‘The usual way, whereby Christians come to be assured of their regeneration, is by the joint testimony, both of marks and signs of grace, and also by the Spirit’s witnessing to us that these marks and signs are in us’.
Good signs, that strengthen our assurance, include: if we are willing to examine our hearts to see if we are ‘gracious or not’; if we have love for our Christian brothers and sisters; and if we strive to obey all of God’s commandments and live a sinless life.
With such signs in our lives, we will be further heartened and energised towards an even deeper assurance. This, in turn, will lead to more sanctification and inward signs of the Spirit’s work. And so the virtuous circle or upward spiral of assurance is increasingly at work.
Ups and downs
But Ezekiel Hopkins, like the Westminster Confession of Faith itself, acknowledges that Christians do have their ups and downs in the matter of assurance. He admits: ‘None have assurance at all times.
‘As in a walk that is shaded with trees and chequered with light and shadow, some tracks and paths in it are dark and others are sunshine. Such is usually the life of the most assured Christian’.
Indeed, all Christians are inconsistent to some extent. ‘It is true, among Christians some may not have this assurance at all, and none have it at all times’. But, even when we waver, this does not affect our salvation the slightest bit.
He declares: ‘That grace, to which our salvation is principally ascribed, is our faith: now it is not said, he only, whose faith is so strong as to overcome all temptations and all doubts and to flourish up into assurance, he only shall be saved; but, whosoever believes shall be saved, though his faith be very weak and very wavering’.
In this way, Hopkins gives hope even to Christians with a low level of assurance. He says, ‘The least degree of true grace is a sufficient ground of joy and comfort; for comfort and satisfaction, for joy and assurance’.
We might say that, if you have assurance the size of a mustard seed, it is of great value and benefit and will eventually result in growth, godliness, and sanctification — all leading, in turn, to further assurance.
Hopkins concludes that the incomparable joy brought by an assurance of faith is very precious. ‘If the soul hath assurance, and knows beyond all doubt and fallibility, that heavenly treasure is his, he will value himself according to that treasure’.
So you should ‘never rest satisfied, till you have got a full assurance that this treasure is yours, and that you are enriched by it’.
As we approach our death, this assurance will become all the more precious to us. Assurance enables Christians to face the certainty and inevitability of death with godly confidence, strengthened to finish their course well.
‘Whosoever hath but such an assurance as this, cannot but welcome death with embraces; and, while his soul struggles to unclasp itself and get loose from the body, cannot but, with holy panting and longing, say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly’.
Finally, Hopkins paints a glorious picture of heaven as a place where all our longings are eternally met.
He says, ‘In heaven, hope itself shall be abolished, much more shall fear be abolished; for, there, every saint shall have much more than a full assurance, even a full fruition of glory, and they shall know themselves to be forever confirmed in that blessed state, which shall prevent all doubts and fears’. What a hope true assurance gives to those who have experienced salvation!
Ezekiel Hopkins is clear that, first and foremost, saving faith is required from each of us. But he then goes on to rouse every believer to press on in using the God-given means to flourish and mature in God-given sanctification and God-given assurance.