Assurance: Historical, Biblical, and Pastoral Considerations

Sinclair B. Ferguson
Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary

What we are here to do, as this fellowship of students and scholars, pastors and professors is three-dimensional.  There is a theology that is biblical, there is a retrieval that is historical, and there is application that is pastoral. In looking at the subject of assurance (in which we will pay some attention to the Puritan view), I want to deal with the subject under these three headings. First of all, with some historical considerations. Secondly, some more biblical considerations. And thirdly, time permitting, with some practical and pastoral considerations.

Historical Considerations

In James Orr’s The Progress of Dogma[1] (a very different book from Newman’s Development of Doctrine), book, he makes the point that the flow of discussion of doctrine, and the story of the Christian church, follows the lines of systematic theology.  While an obvious objection to his thesis was the discussion of eschatology early on in the story of the Christian church, we can see how he might have reached that conclusion. The way in which the Church wrestles with the truth of God begins with first principles and builds upon them. And so, it should not, I think, be much of a surprise to us that serious discussion, locus-type discussion of the issue of assurance, comes later on in the story of the Christian church. In many ways it really comes to the fore, although not in massive discussion, in the Middle Ages. And if we bookended the Middle Ages between the views of Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), we would see a certain consistency running through the Middle Ages with, of course, individualized nuances. Gregory’s view seems to have been that assurance was highly improbable, and moreover, with regard to its effects, undesirable. The reason for the latter would come to the surface at the Reformation: if it was possible to have assurance, then the role of the sacramental system and the power and authority structure of the church would immediately be threatened.

Thomas was more measured, and much more sophisticated in many ways. His views at this point at least, I think, are typical of the late Middle Ages and of scholastic theology. They are more subtle, and certainly more judicious. Thomas thought that assurance was possible either on the basis of evident marks of grace in the believer’s life or by God vouchsafing assurance to an individual by special revelation. (He had written this before the experience in which he confessed that he had seen things that went beyond everything he had ever written.) But Thomas believed that this was for the few, and he also believed that assurance on the basis of marks of grace in one’s life was conjectural (conjecturaliter). This is, I think, significant. There is a certain inevitability about such a view when these marks of grace are the fruit of an infused grace that, virtually by definition, lies beyond our perception. How then can we be sure that we have received a sufficiency of grace that assures us of our salvation?

Granted that there were some exceptions to this perspective, it was the general view of the late medieval church.

It was built, of course, on the medieval ordo salutis. Contrary to much popular protestant assumption, that ordo was focused on how the individual was “saved by grace”. No self-respecting medieval theologian, I think, would ever have said “You are saved by your works, period.” But—and for the Reformers this was a very significant qualification which, if true would mean, at the end of the day, (to use Paul’s words) that “grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).  If it is co-operating with infused grace that leads to justification, which takes place at the end of a process mediated through the sacraments, then this is a doctrine of the justification of those who have been made righteous by co-operating with grace.  In essence the teaching was: eventually, if that grace infused into you works in you a faith that is suffused by love, then you are justified on the basis of what that infused grace has accomplished in you.  But within that matrix, in terms of such an ordo salutis, who in his or her right mind is ever going to be in the position of saying, “infused grace has worked into me such righteousness that God may justly justify me on that basis”?

This, then, was the reason it was highly unlikely in the medieval structure than an individual would experience assurance of salvation.

It is worth pausing here to note two things.  First, this view of grace was dissolved by the Reformation. The medieval theology reifies grace; it abstracts grace from the person of God and views grace as a “something,” makes it substantial, a tertium quid between God and the self. The New Testament then is (mis-)read in those terms. There is no such “thing” as grace!

But secondly, in my own view, the post-Reformation church was not immune from falling back into that view of grace. Indeed, it seems to me that it may be the dominant popular evangelical view: that grace is a tertium quid between God and the soul, and we “get it” (or we don’t get it). But what especially Calvin understood was that grace is not a something; it is not infused. Rather it is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is entirely personal.

When we survey the development of post-Reformation Christian experience at this point it becomes clear that this lapse back into the medieval conceptualization has bedeviled the church. It is as if there are individuals and communities in the reformation tradition where the twin notions of grace as a “something” and salvation on the basis of the work of God within rather than the atonement of Christ without, have continued to prevail.  It is certainly true in some branches of the reformed tradition in which assurance of salvation (and participation in the Lord’s Supper) have become the privilege of the minority and not the inheritance of the church as a whole.  I believe that this is true in my own country of Scotland, which is often thought of as being wholly captured by the Reformation. But I recall in my early Christian experience the extent to which claiming to have assurance was regarded virtually as a form of arrogance—for how could one so young know that “enough” had been done within for justification?

Over against this whole way of thinking about the gospel, the Reformation’s emphasis on justification outside of me in Jesus Christ, true of me the moment I trusted in him and was united to him, immediately produced a massive outburst of deliverance and relief, joy and assurance.

It is not difficult to see why. Nor is it difficult to see why this approach to assurance was in the crosshairs of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Trent, of course, was by no means a united group of theologians; and it described things in a sophisticated way. But it states clearly enough that “no one can know with certainty of faith that he has obtained the grace of God.”[2] This comes within the general context of what follows under the heading on the increase of justification received.

Here then is the reason why in the process of the Counter-Reformation, we find Cardinal Bellarmine saying the principal heresy of Protestants is that saints may obtain to a certain assurance of their gracious and pardoned state before God.[3]  If I had been Cardinal Bellarmine writing this, I imagine would have written that the principal heresy of Protestants was justification by faith alone in Christ alone. But Bellarmine was probably shrewder because he saw that it was the fruit of this teaching that had the potential to destroy the Roman ordo salutis and with it the Church’s sacramental system, and with that the authority woven into the warp and woof of the Church’s whole priestly structure. It would render certain sacraments unnecessary (it did!); and it would alleviate the priesthood of its authority, which in a sense was the only mediation that could provide any objective hope of salvation to men and women. So, Bellarmine’s words were very telling.

This may well be at least part of the reason why – if I may coin the expression – in the Counter-Counter-Reformation, the theme of assurance became such an important thing. I am thinking of what lies behind the title of William Perkins’s’ 1592 work, A Case of Conscience: The Greatest that Ever Was: How a Man May Know Whether He is a Child of God or Not, Resolved by the Word of God. And this, in turn, is one reason why – and here we narrow our focus–it has been a big question in the history of reformed theology over the last 200 years, and also provoked a controversy in the academy and church in recent times.

I am thinking here of the issue of—

Calvin versus the Westminster Confession?

This is one of the areas in which if not total contradiction, a tension has been perceived between the teaching of Calvin and the Puritans in general and the statements of the Westminster Confession. To this we now turn.

Most of us will have encountered this fairly common discussion. It has tended to focus on two specific statements. The first is Calvin’s statement in the Institutes:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us. Founded on the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[4]

 A “firm and certain knowledge”—words often contrasted with the following from the Westminster Confession: “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it.” (XVIII.3)

In some ways, that tension seems to be strengthened if we read on in Calvin. For later in the same chapter, he writes:

From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension. . .   We add the words “sure and firm” in order to express a more solid constancy of persuasion.  For, as faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion, so is it not content with an obscure and confused conception, but requires    full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved…He alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well‑disposed Father toward him, lays   hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation . . .  No man is a believer, I say. except him who, leaning upon the assurance of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death . . . (Inst. III.ii.15,16,17)

Broadly, Calvin has been extolled on the one hand, because he seems to wax almost lyrical in giving no place to the practical syllogism that would cause me for a moment to look at myself.  But then, on the other hand, his words have been lamented by those who wish he had waxed less lyrical and been a lot more prosaic, like the Westminster Divines.  Thus a significant number of interpreters have drawn the conclusion that we are on much safer ground with the Westminster Confession of Faith’s affirmation that infallible assurance “doth not so belong to the essence of faith . . ..”

In my own view, for what it is worth, it ought to have been universally recognized that Calvin’s position is much more subtle. This is sufficiently important to take a little time to demonstrate. For what he says here in Institutes III. 2. 7 is set within both the larger context of his theology as a whole, and indeed this specific chapter, Calvin himself is the best interpreter of these somewhat crystallized statements. For example, he urges us to understand that the purpose of the sacraments is to encourage assurance.  If these visible expressions of the gospel have this function for those who may not be enjoying the fullness of assurance, then Calvin is implicitly recognizing that the confidence of a genuine believer may not be so “firm and certain” after all. Indeed, Calvin argues, this is a function of baptism that Satan seeks to hide from us: it is to produce in us

the singular fruit of assurance and spiritual joy which is to be gathered from it . . . how sweet is it to godly minds to be assured, not only by word, but by sight, that they obtain so much favor with the Heavenly Father . . . (Inst.IV.vxi.32).

Or take his teaching on the Lord’s Supper. The cup is called the “covenant in his blood” Calvin explains,

For he in some measure renews, or rather continues, the covenant which he once for all ratified with his blood (as far as it pertains to the strengthening of our faith) whenever he proffers that sacred blood for us to taste. . ..   Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament . . .. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him . . . (Inst. IV.xvii.1‑2).

Thus, baptism because it tells you who you are, and the Supper, because it is communion with Christ in whom all grace is to be found sufficient to your needs, minister assurance to the struggling believer.

Not only so, but Calvin also gives a place to the value of the practical syllogism. He recognizes that in Scripture, saints encourage their souls in God by looking not only to the objective work of Christ, but to the subjective ministry of the Holy Spirit:

The saints quite often strengthen themselves and are comforted by remembering their own innocence and uprightness, and they do not even refrain at times from proclaiming it … the saints by innocence of conscience strengthen their faith and take from it occasion to exult.

Calvin explains very carefully that this is not a denial of salvation by grace: a conscience that is erected on grace—

is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us . . . Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness. But we do not forbid him from under girding and strengthening this faith by signs of the divine benevolence toward him . . . the grace of good works shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us. (Inst. III.xiv.18)

What we see here is Calvin’s deep Trinitarianism emerging in the application of redemption, his sense that the opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.  There is a ministry of the Spirit in the believer correlative to the ministry of the mediator outside of the believer. Thus he says the saints quite often strengthen themselves and are comforted by remembering their own innocence and uprightness, and they do not even refrain at times from proclaiming it—not thereby falling back on their own works as a ground for salvation, but recognizing the fruit of the Spirit as a reason for confidence that they are truly Christ’s.

Of course, Calvin’s point is there is an inherent consistency in, albeit there is an eschatological already and not-yet character to  the relationship between the work of Christ for us in his death, resurrection, and ascension in anticipation of his coming in glory, and the ministry of the allos paraklētos, who is given to us to work the fruit of this into our souls.  Recall his arresting opening statement in Book III of the Institutes as he transitions from the exposition of the accomplishing of redemption to its application:

First, we must understand this that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. . .

And so, we need to remember: The secret energy of the Spirit by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits. (Inst. III.i.1)

So when we need to set Calvin’s statement here about our “sure and certain” conviction about God’s fatherly benevolence towards us, revealed in the once-for-all accomplishing of redemption within his recognition of the ongoing nature of the ministry of the Spirit within us enabling us to enter progressively into the enjoyment of Christ and his benefits.

As an aside, it is fascinating that some who seem to underline the contrast (even contradiction) at this point between Calvin and Westminster are also condemnatory of the so-called “proof-text” theology of the Divines (ignoring the fact that those same Divines were opposed to using proof texts for the simple reason they did not do their theological work by that method!  The proof texts were required by Parliament despite their protestations).

I mention this because they themselves fall into the error of “proof-texting” Calvin without properly contextualizing him. For had they read on patiently and sensitively, without leaping to conclusions, they would have heard Calvin say:

But someone will say: “Believers experience something far different: In recognizing the grace of God toward themselves they are not only tried by disquiet, which often comes upon them, but they are repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors.  For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.”  Accordingly we shall have to solve this difficulty if we wish the above‑stated doctrine to stand.  Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.  On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual     conflict with their own unbelief.  Far, indeed, are we from putting their consciences in any peaceful repose, undisturbed by any tumult at all. (Inst.III.ii.17)

Further, Calvin writes of the fact that the disciples were true but weak believers before the resurrection:

We ought not to seek any more intimate proof of this than that unbelief is, in all men [i.e. who are believers] always mixed with faith. (Inst.III.ii.4).

Thus it is:

He who, struggling with his own weakness, presses toward faith in his moments of anxiety, [who] is already in large part victorious. (Inst.III.ii.17)


I have not forgotten what I have previously said, the memory of which is repeatedly renewed by experience: faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace—at least they do not always enjoy a peaceful state. (Inst.III.ii.37)

What is the explanation for this?  Here is Calvin’s response, significantly to be found just before his definition of faith: “Experience obviously teaches that until we put off the flesh, we attain less than we should like” (Inst.III.ii.14). If we ask how Calvin harmonizes all that he has said, he gives us his answer: “In order to understand this, it is necessary to return to that division of flesh and spirit which we have mentioned elsewhere” (Inst.III.ii.18).

In Christ we are no longer dominated by the flesh, but by the Spirit; but we are not yet delivered from the flesh. So long as this eschatological tension exists for the believer, so long will there be, according to Calvin, a possible gap between the definition of faith and the actual experience of the believer:

The greatest doubt and trepidation must be mixed up with such wrappings of ignorance, since our heart especially inclines by its own natural instinct toward unbelief. Besides this, there are innumerable and varied temptations that constantly assail us with great violence. But it is especially our conscience itself that, weighed down by a mass of sins, now complains and groans, now accuses itself, now murmurs secretly, now breaks out in open tumult.  And so, whether adversities reveal God’s wrath, or the conscience finds in itself the proof and ground thereof, thence unbelief obtains weapons and devices to overthrow faith. (Inst.III.ii.20)

Yet, Calvin insists, faith triumphs, for one simple reason: faith is not an abstraction; it is personal trust in Jesus Christ; it is fiducia.  Here Calvin and the Puritans speak absolutely with one voice: the least faith gives us a strong, whole, and saving Christ.  He saves completely those who come to God by him:

The root of faith can never be torn apart from the godly breast, but clings so fast to the inmost parts that, however faith seems to be shaken or to bend this way or that, its light is never so extinguished or snuffed out that it does not at least lurk as it were beneath the ashes . . . . though it be assailed a thousand times, it will prevail over the entire world. (Inst. III.ii.21)

With this should be compared the words of the Confession:

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. (XIV.3)

Here then are clues that suggest Calvin and Westminster are on the same trajectory. That should have been obvious whenever these two statements, from Institutes III. ii. 7 and Chapter XVIII of the Westminster Confession were compared. To do so was to “compare apples with oranges” as though the statements were about an identical topic. But Calvin’s statement is a definition of faith; the Westminster Confession’s statement is a description of the believer’s experience. Definition and experience are not the same thing.

Calvin defines faith in its pure form, as it were, but then he goes on to explain that nobody actually experiences faith this way. The Westminster divines, having explained that faith is a resting trust in the Lord Jesus Christ (not so different from Calvin, after all) are describing the vicissitudes of the Christian life in the light of the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. In both contexts the same emphasis is placed on everything we need for salvation and assurance of it being found in Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit uniting us to him so that we enjoy both him and his benefits. The assurance of salvation is our inheritance, our birthright the moment we are united to Christ. But like every other aspect of living for Christ in a fallen world, an individual believer will experience that in diverse ways, at diverse times in his or her life. And diverse believers will experience that in ways that are diverse from one another. Yet at the end of the day, all that is needed for our assurance of salvation is to be found in him and experienced by us through the ministry of the Spirit.

So much then, however briefly, for the historical context in which many of us find ourselves in this Calvinian tradition of Reformed theology. Let me turn secondly to some biblical considerations in relationship to the experience of assurance.

Biblical Considerations

In what I say here there will obviously be echoes both of Calvin and the Puritan theology. What are our principles here?

(1) Assurance of salvation comes to us through faith in Christ. It is not received by us by viewing anything that is outside of Christ. If one thing is common to Calvin and the Genevan Puritan tradition, it is surely this, since the essence of faith is fiducia, that is an entrusting of ourselves to Jesus Christ.

Faith, in this sense, is inherently marked by assurance. It is the act of receiving Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, as mine. Christ is all he is quite apart from my faith. Faith with empty hands takes hold of Christ and therefore that faith contains within itself, as reformed theologians have often expressed it, the germ of assurance. John Murray puts it like this: “The germ of assurance is surely implicit in the salvation which the believer comes to possess by faith, it is implicit in the change that has been wrought in his state and condition.” [5]

He goes on to say:

However weak may be the faith of a true believer, however severe may be his temptations, however perturbed his heart may be respecting his own condition, he is never, as regards consciousness, in the condition that preceded the exercise of faith. The consciousness of the believer differs by a whole diameter from that of the unbeliever. At the lowest ebb of faith and hope and love his consciousness never drops to the level of the un‑believer at its highest pitch of confidence and assurance. [6]

Does that seem an overly bold statement? Murray is saying that if you are a believer, then at the level of consciousness you can never be in the same position you were in when you were an unbeliever. The consciousness of the believer differs by a whole diameter from that of the unbeliever. And if we can fast-forward for a moment, one of the pastoral tasks that we have is showing people, if they are believers, how it is that there is evidence this is true of them when they come to us doubting it. It is a basic pastoral principle that we adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion here; we do not assume that the person seeking help understands himself or herself properly. Therein may lie the problem.

Professor Murray’s somewhat startling statement is, I think, very significant. Both faith and assurance are realities embedded in complex and complicated individuals. We need to be simplified. Sin complicates, Christ simplifies.  This is true when it comes to assurance. We are dealing with complicated people.  The act of believing in Christ is embodied in hugely complicated, complex, sinful individuals. So often our pastoral task involves clearing away the rubble in the thinking of Christians who come to us in need of help and counsel.

It is in this context that what we noted earlier is important, namely that we need to have a right understanding of the grace of Christ. That is to say, we need to see that all grace is in Christ.

(2) The theological masters in this area where theology and experience, objective and subjective coalesce, have often recognized this. A failure rightly to understand the grace of God in Christ usually leads to an inability to take in that they are as loved by the Father as they are by the Son; and as loved by the Spirit as they are by the Father and the Son. The inability to believe that the Father really loves me is at root a theological issue.

The younger contemporary of the Westminster Divines, John Owen, has a very striking statement about this. He writes about the inability of Christians to apprehend the love of God the Father. They live

. . .  with anxious, doubtful thoughts . . . What fears, what questionings are there, of his good‑ will and kindness!  At the best many think there is no sweetness at all in him towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus. [7]

And he adds, tellingly, “at the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in [the Father] towards us but what has been purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus.”

Sometimes this very theology is purveyed from evangelical pulpits in such statements as: “The reason the Father loves you is because Christ died for you.” But that verges on heresy. It is virtually the opposite of what John 3:16 affirms (although that may be the very text of the sermon!). For the truth is “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” where “God” is the antecedent of “his only Son” and therefore a reference to the Father. “The Father himself loves you” (Jn. 16:27). This is the mighty truth embedded in the biblical gospel.

Now this might seem to some to be a recondite comment, outside the scope of their own observations. But it underlines the way in which biblical theology and biblical psychology belong together. A wrong view of the gospel at this point leads to a theology that implies “the Father has begun to love me because his Son persuaded him to do so by dying for me on the cross.”

But that paradigm leaves a permanent, one might almost say eternal, problem: the Father himself is not the fountain of God’s love for sinners; he has been constrained to love them.  If so, not only is the harmony of the Trinity technically destroyed, but the possibility of genuine assurance has been deconstructed because there is uncertainty about the disposition of one member of the Trinity!

So it is a vitally important part of our theology to recognize that the gospel teaches us that Christ truly reveals the heart of the Father to sinners.

(3) It is the work of the Spirit to produce in us a life style that so conforms to the gospel that we ourselves begin to recognize that while we are not yet what we shall be, or even what we desire to be, we are no longer what we once were. We are now Christ’s, and as such heirs of assurance.

And this, of course, is where the teaching of 1 John comes into its own, in terms of what Robert Law called “the tests of life”.  Perhaps the language can mislead, as though John were speaking about qualifying tests rather than diagnostic tools. When that is the case, the principles that are given to encourage are sometimes unfortunately misused as sticks with which to beat down the people of God.  But their proper work is to enable Christians to see themselves as they really are in Christ—those who believe in him, who experience a wholly different attitude to sin, who love their fellow believers.  These are the marks of those who have been born from above and have a title to see themselves as children of God.

Assurance comes through faith in Christ; it is encouraged by walking in the way of Christ; it involves understanding the grace of Christ. But there is more; there is the mystery of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the testimonium internum Spiritus sancti. Paul speaks about the witness of the Spirit in Romans 8:18 and refers to it without thus describing it in Galatians 4.

Among expositors there is a significant disagreement about whether Paul is speaking about the testimony of the Spirit to our spirit or with (i.e. in concert with) our spirit. Perhaps most notably C.E.B. Cranfield has argued that Paul’s use of the συν compound verb summartureō here should not be read to suggest that the Spirit’s testimony is with, i.e. alongside and in addition to the witness of our spirit. Our spirit, he argues, has no standing in this matter of whether we are the children of God or not.

But, surely, this is exactly the point. My spirit may have a consciousness that I am a child of God, but yet be assailed and I be engulfed with doubt whether I am a child of God or not. Am I to be left in distress? There are too many συν compound verbs in Romans 8:16-17 to doubt this thrust; and so, we ought to take Paul to be speaking about the Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are the children of God. In addition, Cranfield’s alternative seems (at least to me) to verge on special and individual revelation and unintentionally opens the door to a form of continuing revelation.

The simplest way to understand Paul here lies partly in the Deuteronomic principle of two witnesses establishing the truth of the matter (Deut. 17:6); here the witness of my spirit is confirmed in the court of conscience by the conjoint witness of the Spirit.

In Romans Paul illustrates this witness of the Spirit with our spirit in our cry “Abba, Father!” In the earlier and somewhat parallel passage in Galatians 4:6 he tells us that “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’”  When we take these statements together it leads to the conclusion that there is a parallel between the believer saying, “Jesus is Lord!” (1 Cor. 12:3) and saying “Abba, Father!”  No one can say the former “except in the Holy Spirit.”  It is not that two distinct voices are heard, the believer’s and that of the Spirit. Rather, in the believer’s cry (“Jesus is Lord!” or “Abba, Father!” the consciousness from which the cry arises is effected through the ministry of the Spirit in us.  When he or she utters these cries, the Spirit is bearing witness with, not to, their spirit.

So, what is that witness? How does it come out? Within the flow of Romans 8:15-17 it comes out when we cry, “Abba, Father!”  Here we should make two observations. As B.B. Warfield says, “Distinct in source, it [the testimony of the Spirit] is yet delivered confluently with the testimony of our own consciousness.” It is, then,

 . . . in a word, not a substitute for the proper evidence of our childship; but a divine enhancement of that evidence.  A man who has none of the marks of a Christian is not entitled to believe himself to be a Christian; only those who are being led by the Spirit of God are children of God. But a man who has all the marks of being a Christian may fall short of his privilege of assurance. It is to such that the witness of the Spirit is super‑added, not to take the place of the evidence of “signs” but to enhance their effect and raise it to a higher plane; not to produce an irrational, unjustified, conviction, but to produce a higher and more stable conviction than he would be, all unaided, able to draw; not to supply the lack of evidence, but to cure a disease of the mind which will not profit fully by the evidence. . . .  The Spirit . . . does not operate by producing conviction without reason; an unreasonable conclusion. Nor yet apart from the reason; equally unreasonable. Nor by producing more reasons for the conclusion.  But by giving their true weight and validity to the reasons which exist and so leading to the true conclusion, with Divine assurance.

The function of the witness of the Spirit of God is, therefore, to give to our halting conclusions the weight of His Divine certitude.[8]

Significant in this context—and confirmatory of Professor Murray’s comment cited earlier—is the Paul’s employment in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 of the onomatopoeic verb krazein.  It is used of Christ crying out on the cross (Mk. 15:39) and of a woman crying out in childbirth (Rev. 12:2).  Its context is weakness, frailty, being overwhelmed. This is not (contrary to Käsemann) glossolalia. Rather it stretches to express the cry of the believer when he or she has been broken down. It is then that the witness of the Spirit is so significant—and so full of grace. For in the cry for help that issues from the heart, “Abba Father” the germ of assurance is present.  The merely religious person who is capable of saying the Pater Noster will rise no higher than to cry out in a crisis “Oh God.”  But the child of God, however frail, experiences the Spirit bearing witness with his or her spirit, and cries out “Abba, Father!”

Enshrined in that cry is the instinctive sense, and the subliminal knowledge that we are the children of God.  And that is assurance.

Pastoral Dimensions

Well, that brings us, briefly, to our closing section and to some pastoral reflections. First of all, we need to remind ourselves that in pastoral ministry we are dealing with complex and often very complicated individuals. Part of our responsibility as spiritual physicians therefore is to have an adequate biblical understanding of the anthropology and pastoral anatomy and pathology of the soul so that we are able to diagnose the spiritual dysfunctions better than those who seek our help are able to do—and to know our biblical pharmaceuticals well enough to prescribe the divine remedies.

People assume they know themselves. But often their tools of self-interpretation are faulty.  Certainly that is true in this area of assurance. But as we grow in our understanding of the body of divinity, we are better able to diagnose what is going wrong in the body of Christ and its individual members. It is this that enables us, physician like, to probe and poke—“Does it hurt here? do you find this happening there? do you have these symptoms? what are you taking into your body?   We are able thus to come to a diagnosis and thus to a prescription and prognosis.

Against this background, let me mention some ways in which symptoms that damage assurance present themselves. It will add a practical dimension to these reflections if the reader is left to work out the remedies!

  1. The tendency to confuse the foundation of our salvation and the means of our assurance. There is a sister danger: thinking of the experience of assurance as being subjectively rather than objectively grounded. The maxim is still true “For every look you take at yourself, take ten at Christ.” Or a hundred.
  2. Misunderstanding the role of affliction in the Christian life. How many Christians come asking why these things are happening in their lives who are not framing their lives against the biblical background of how and why it is that God employs affliction?
  3. A misunderstanding of the power of the nature of sin. Here Anselm’s watchword to Boso in another context is just as applicable here: “You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.”
  4. The role of natural temperament or past experience may be a special hindrance to assurance. Assurance is a psychological as well as a theological reality. There is of course a doctrine of assurance. But having or not having assurance is a psychological phenomenon and is intimately related to who and what I see myself to be and how I understand myself in relationship to God. People come with different views of themselves, with different conditions and life-baggage. There are undoubtedly some psyches and patterns of experience that create such strong knots in the spiritual anatomy that powerful medicine, patient and prolonged treatment is necessary for the knot to be first loosened and then unraveled. That may require time and will involve the frequent inpouring of the gospel. Here those of us who preach need to make sure that as we proclaim Christ we keep well in view the emphasis of especially the Letter to the Hebrews on the way in which assurance is related to the wonder of the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is able to save to the uttermost all those who come to God through him.
  5. Attacks of the devil are hindrances to assurance and they often have that as their specific aim. This was already true in the Garden of Eden where in denying the veracity and authority of God’s word aimed at destabilizing our first parents’ assurance of the goodness of God. How interesting therefore that when Paul comes to the end of Romans 8, his rapid-fire questions in 8:31 employ the personal interrogative who? While he lists impersonal forces (“Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” are impersonal but he does not ask “What shall separate us from the love of Christ?” but Who shall . . . .?”).

For Paul there is more than a “what…?” in view. And he shows us how Christ is all sufficient to bring us to share his full assurance, even in the face of the opposition of the devil.

  1. Our own consciences can hinder assurance. It is right that we live by our conscience. But it would be a mistake to trust our conscience absolutely. There are strong consciences and there are weak consciences; and sometimes those who regard themselves as having a “strong” conscience are in Pauline terms “weak” believers. They believe God has restricted their lives in ways that he has not. The inevitable result is either a false and unstable assurance based on their conformity to their conscience or a real loss of assurance because they cannot live comfortably in the presence of the Father. Like the elder brother in our Lord’s parable, they will eventually feel “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me . .” (Lk. 15:29, NIV—it is significant that he casts a side glance to his brother’s failure to live a life dominated by a moral conscience, v. 30).

Assurance is nourished when the conscience is fully illuminated by the truth of the gospel and the knowledge of the love and generosity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

  1. Last, but not least, is the simple principle that either ignoring or being hindered from being present at the means of grace is bound to cloud our assurance.

When these dysfunctions, and others, are relieved by “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God [the Father] and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14), then, as the Westminster Divines underscore, this will lead to a heart

Enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, And, rather than lead to the presumption or antinomianism that the medieval and Tridentine tradition feared, it produces strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance. (XVIII.3)

No wonder, when it dawns on us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have conspired to save us, and to bring us into fellowship with God, give us assurance that we are loved and that we are secure in Christ, and to experience our “chief end” of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.

[1] James Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[2] Session VI. Chapter 9, Against the Vain Confidence of Heretics.

[3] In De Controversiis:  De Justificatione Impii, III.ii. 3.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trs. F.L. Battles, ed. J.T. McNeill (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960), III. ii. 7.

[5] John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977) 2:265.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold (New York: Robert Carter & Sons, 1851) II:32.

[8] B.B. Warfield, Faith and Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 184, 187, 191.