The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes!’ Almighty God, in his Word, speaks clearly that Christians can be certain they are saved and be sure of their unchanging status in Christ.
Our actual experience seems so different though, since we easily follow fickle feelings and look away from the finished work of Christ as the foundation of our salvation. But problems of doubt are nothing new in the history of the church.
Past generations had similar doubts, and their pastors helpfully addressed this issue in their sermons and writings. From these older writings we can benefit today, and particularly from the treasure trove called puritan teaching.
An obvious place to start when we examine any puritan doctrine, including that of assurance, is with the documents drawn up by the Westminster Assembly (1643-1649). The Assembly’s confession and catechisms represented the collective efforts of English puritan, English Independent and Scottish Presbyterian pastors.
Question 36 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: ‘What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?’
The answer is: ‘The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification are assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace and perseverance therein to the end’.
The puritans also teach that ‘you cannot hope that God’s Holy Spirit will give you strong, joyful assurance unless you are labouring on a daily basis to live a holy life’ (Joel Beeke). True assurance goes hand-in-hand with sanctification and growth in grace.
Chapter XVIII in the Westminster Confession of Faith on ‘Assurance of grace and salvation’ is broken into four parts, exploring the various facets of assurance. They teach the difference between hypocritical presumption, resulting in false assurance, and the sure hope of the real believer.
They teach that the basis for this hope is found in the Bible’s promises relating to salvation and in the sealing of believers with the Spirit of adoption; that true believers may sometimes doubt their salvation; and that to combat such doubt we must use the prescribed means of grace, since it is our duty to ‘make our calling and election sure’.
The previous chapter of the Confession states: ‘They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved’.
Joel Beeke says that the Puritans ‘agreed that most of the forms and degrees of assurance experienced by true believers, especially daily assurance, are gradually acquired in the path of sanctification through careful cultivation of God’s Word, the other means of grace and corresponding obedience’.
An assurance of faith is therefore possible and desirable, but not essential for salvation. We will only be assured if we persevere in the faith as Christians and are diligent in the use of the means of grace provided by God.
These means include consistent prayer, Bible study, fellowship, sitting under biblical preaching and the right use of the sacraments. There are, therefore, things we can do to ensure our feelings match the reality of our experience in Christ.
The Puritan Thomas Brooks warmly encourages us to take positive action, saying, ‘It is the very drift and design of the whole Scripture, to bring souls first to an acquaintance with Christ, and then to an acceptance of Christ, and then to build them in a sweet assurance of their actual interest in Christ’.
The Puritans show us that it is all-important to have saving faith in Jesus Christ. But such saving faith can and should be followed by a sweet and comforting assurance.
Typical of the Puritans are the writings of the wise and godly bishop, Ezekiel Hopkins. Hopkins was born in 1634 in Devon. His preaching plumbed the ‘depths of the soul’. He was made Bishop of Raphoe, in County Donegal, in 1671 and, after spending a decade in Raphoe, moved to Londonderry as Bishop of Derry. In 1689 he moved to London, where he died the following year (June 1690).
Ezekiel Hopkins affirms that assurance cannot be separated from other scriptural truths. His holistic focus is seen, for example, in this title of one of his sermons: ‘The assurance of salvation, a powerful motive to serve God with fear’.
In this exposition of Hebrews 12:28-29 — ‘Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’ — he integrates assurance with Christian obedience and sanctification.
From the words ‘receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved’, he shows the certainty of inheriting the kingdom through exercising faith in God’s Word; we can be assured of our eternal security because of the dependability of the Saviour. ‘There is a full assurance, beyond all doubting and hesitation, of escaping wrath’.
Such assurance leads us on naturally to obey and serve God: ‘Therefore, let us serve God’. This motivation is powerfully reinforced by a consideration of God’s holy character, ‘for our God is a consuming fire’.
Hopkins teaches that full assurance is not only attainable, but what most people long for. ‘What is it men desire and wish for, next to heaven? Is it not assurance of it?’ And our ‘highest act of faith [is] when it flowers up into assurance’.
Yet feelings are not the yardstick, for ‘our pardon is infinitely more sure than our assurance of it in our own consciences can be satisfactory’. But God is graciously willing to bestow this assurance fully and abundantly on those who seek him for it; he does not grudgingly withhold it.
Concerning the new birth, Hopkins categorically states that, ‘It is possible for a Christian to attain an assured knowledge of his regeneration’. He ‘may have a full assurance beyond all doubts and fears’.
He teaches that the object of our faith is all-important, for our assurance is rooted in God, in the person and work of Christ. If we attempt to achieve salvation through our own works, we can never enjoy assurance.
In effect, Hopkins is declaring concerning the gospel, ‘If the Bible says it, if God declares it and promises it, then I believe it, teach it, and live it’. Why? Because God is always faithful to his promises and our confidence is rooted in the Lord and his perfect plan of salvation. It is God who ‘gives us peace and assurance’.
His aim then is to bring hope and encouragement to doubting Christians, while at the same time ensuring that believers who possess assurance don’t become complacent and stand still in their Christian lives.
To be concluded