Am I Saved? A Brief History of Assurance

By Obbie Todd

There’s hardly a more relevant question in the Christian life than that of assurance. Peter affirms that the telos (the end) of our faith is salvation. (1 Pet. 1:9) So the stakes are pretty high. Yet for a question of such ultimate importance, it’s hardly ever asked. In the church today, there are often more assumptions than answers. And that can be dangerous. In reality, the simple question “How do I know I’m saved?” seems to be one of the best indications that someone takes their faith, and thus their salvation, seriously. So let’s be serious for a moment. How do we know? Can we know? Let’s go back to the first Protestant. To a man plagued with the question of assurance.

It could be said that the entire Protestant Reformation was an issue over assurance. Much of the Reformers’ critique of the old church was leveled precisely against those features of the Roman Catholic system that left people doubtful and anxious about their salvation. This is why Martin Luther deemed the doctrine of justification by faith “the central article of our teaching.” It helped him to reconcile the obvious tension between God’s holiness and persistent human sinfulness. For Luther, theology wasn’t an exercise in scholasticism. It was a life-and-death matter. His extremely tender conscience couldn’t bear the weight of God’s impending judgment, nor could it find sufficient assurance in the Catholic system of penance and priestly absolution. The system of indulgences not only failed to engender the necessary repentance that came with sincere faith, it also left the sinner without any real spiritual security. Was God up there? Was he pleased? Was he angry? The troubled young Luther was plagued with such a sense of panic under God’s wrath that eventually his supervising monk, Johann von Staupitz, ordered him to stop concocting sins in his head! Luther had too many transgressions to confess! This sense of foreboding dread and despair was what Luther called Anfechtung, a sense of doom before God’s watchful eye: “I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations (Anfechtungen) took me…Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living, nay, rather dying and being damned make a theologian.” Here in his anxiety-ridden state, Luther found the mercy of a God who was both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26) What abbots and bishops could not furnish for Martin Luther, Christ could. Because of assurance, young Luther became disillusioned with the fabricated religion of Rome: “No man can be assured of his salvation by any episcopal function…because the Apostle (Paul) orders us to work out our salvation constantly in fear and trembling.” Luther continued, “the first and only duty of the bishops, however, is to see that people learn the gospel and the love of Christ.” Therefore to be Protestant, to some degree, is to be certain of one’s salvation. But as we’ll see, that hard-fought assurance became more difficult to define.

Luther’s discovery of assurance and subsequent break with Rome coincided with his new understanding of the ‘justice of God’ in Romans 1:17. For years, the word δικαιοσυνη had struck fear into the heart of the sinful Augustinian monk. The ‘righteousness’ of God was a divine attribute that Luther dreaded, as he knew himself to be wholly unrighteous, and worthy of a righteous punishment. Luther’s conversion, however, came with his eventual re-interpretation of Romans 1:17: the ‘righteousness of God’ was in fact an “alien righteousness” given to sinners. “For He Himself is our sole righteousness until we are conformed to His likeness.” Christ had satisfied the righteousness of God by supplying His own to sinners. Where Augustine had interpreted the verb δικαιοω as “make righteous”, the former University of Erfurt law student interpreted it as “declare righteous.” Justification was a legal action performed by Christ on behalf of the sinner, not worked from within, but declared from without. This is how sinners could remain sinful and have certainty that they were indeed saved. Christians were “simul justus et peccator”: simultaneously just and sinner. Thus the Protestant doctrine of assurance was born. To have faith in Christ is not to achieve salvation personally, but to personally accept Christ’s salvific work done on our behalf. To Luther and to all of his spiritual offspring, Christ Himself is the assurance of sinners. Unlike Roman Catholicism that teaches that grace must be conferred and infused via physical sacraments, Protestants boast in the finished work of Christ via faith. And the result isn’t infused righteousness, but imputed righteousness! We receive the credit for the perfect life of Christ. This of course is modeled for us in the ‘man of faith’ Abraham. (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4:3, Gal. 3:9)

After the formative years of the Reformation, the pastoral application of the doctrine of assurance became a growing issue. How did classroom teaching translate into pulpit preaching? How exactly did sola fide fit inside of a church? How could Christians balance the assurance of their salvation with Gospel perseverance? Luther had placed Law and Gospel in distant theological corners. But not everyone saw it that way. To answer these questions, many post-Reformation Protestants engineered a system of Christian practice known as covenant theology (traditionally attributed to Heinrich Bullinger, successor to Huldrych Zwingi). After the rise of Protestant thought, the threat of Antinomianism became an ever-increasing reality in Reformed communities. Antinomianism teaches that the believer is completely free from all obligation to the law, and that any concession to legal duty was an infringement upon free grace. In short, once the Reformation principle of sola fide took shape, Protestant churches faced the new temptation to dispense with all works whatsoever and indulge in licentious, worldly behavior. As a result, pastors were forced to balance the comfort of assurance with the divine mandate to finish the spiritual race set before the church. Endemic to covenant Puritan orthopraxy is what many scholars have called the “third use of the Law.” The first use of the law was civil, guiding magistrates and leaders in rewarding good and punishing evil. (Rom. 13:3-4, 1 Tim. 2:1-2) According to Luther, “The first understanding and use of the Law is to restrain the wicked…This civil restraint is extremely necessary and was instituted by God.” The second use is evangelical, driving sinners away from their own righteousness to trust in Christ alone. (Gal. 3:10, 24) John Calvin wrote, “The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both – just as the mirrors shows us the spots on our face.” Finally, Puritans exercised a third use of the law: directive or normative. In this light, Christians looked to the Law as a “rule of life” to guide them in ways pleasing to God. While Luther never explicitly developed such a use, Calvin did reference the Law as a “rule of life”, though not with the same drawn-out, conditional requirements of Puritan covenant theology. (Calvin, for example, was not a strict Sabbatarian)

From Geneva, John Calvin aided the Elizabethan Puritan movement by serving as a refuge for Protestant exiles during the reign of ‘bloody Mary.’ He also wrote important letters to critical leaders during the incipient years of Puritanism. However, Calvin differed from traditional Puritanism in one significant way: assurance. While Calvin defined assurance into the essence of faith, many Puritans (including the Westminster Assembly) did not necessarily equate the two. For this reason, many scholars through the years have posited that Puritans fundamentally departed from classical Reformed theology, compromising the sola fide principle that Protestantism was built upon. (R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649) Christopher Hill even suggested that English covenant theology was a means of “smuggling works into Calvinism,” due to its seeming conditions upon God’s grace. (Hill, Puritanism and Revolution)

Such false assertions reflect the tension that exists in biblical soteriology. One way or another, all theology must be wrapped in ecclesiology. Pastors are called to balance the beautiful assurance that believers possess in Christ with the call to persevere to the end of the Christian life with holiness and love. The Holy Spirit that comforts the church with the words “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” also exhorts that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Rom. 8:1, Matt. 24:13) Christians carry promise and perseverance hand-in-hand. The spiritual imbalance of these two crucial principles has become the avenue for some of the church’s most dangerous heresies. Antinomianism itself is the certainty of God’s promises without the observance of His commands. This is in essence the sin of Hyper-Calvinism. Antinomians will correctly affirm Romans 8:16 as cause for godly assurance: “The Spirit Himself bears witness without our spirit that we are children of God.” However, without a proper Christian ethic, it’s not difficult to see how Antinomian assurance easily translates into direct divine revelation, the likes of which America witnessed in its first major heretic: Anne Hutchinson. Sydney Ahlstrom has called the Antinomian Controversy “the opening chapter in American intellectual history.” Today we see the spiritual offspring of such extra-biblical revelationists in the Pentecostal movement. On the other hand, to carry perseverance without God’s sovereign promise is the foundation for legalism, the sin of Arminianism. Arminians correctly affirm John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” However, without a correct understanding of God’s sovereign grace, Christianity tends toward moralism, the likes of which America witnessed in Deism and Unitarian virtue. Puritans, in their obsessive quest for conversion, cultivated a means to confirm salvation called “practical syllogism,” a mode of observing one’s holiness as practiced in everyday life. However, without a proper sense of the Spirit’s witness and the inherent human temptation for self-trust, this ‘syllogism’ could often lead to legalism masked as Reformed covenant theology. (Theodore D. Bozeman explores the connection between Puritan covenant theology and the Antinomian controversy in his The Precisianist Strain)

The question of assurance is perhaps the most necessary question in the Christian life. And in an age when many evangelicals tout “once saved, always saved” only to live a life identical to the world, a biblical view of assurance should be restored. An unbeliever who was baptized when he or she was eight years old needs a biblical model of perseverance as badly as the thief on the cross needed the sweet words of assurance. Pastors are called to balance both. And when sinners are baptized and then told that they “can’t lose their salvation,” something else is missing. By the same token, no Christian should ever walk through this life thinking they must add something to the finished work of Christ. If there is no assurance, there is no Christ. And if there is no race, there is no faith.

Reforming with Ryle

rsz_jc_ryle_2By Evan Knies

John Charles Ryle was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire (1816) and educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He entered ministry around the year 1841, and served many churches up until his retirement in 1900, when he was aged 83. He died later that year.

Ryle was a minister that wrote many popular gospel tracts in his day, but he is known for his books. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels are very helpful for young and old ministers alike. He has also written books such as Holiness, Practical Religion, and Light from Old Times. 

Reading Ryle, I have learned two primary things this summer that I’d like to share with you:

1. Ryle pushes you to the text and draws theology from it. 

Ryle writes in a way so that the Christian reader must rest in the Scripture. His examples in Holiness are straight from biblical examples (i.e. Lots wife). Ryle was a minister who rested in the sufficiency of Scripture because he rested in a sufficient God.

2. Ryle points to the martyrs as an example for the Christian life. 

In Light from Old Times, Ryle allows the martyrs to speak for themselves. They suffered and died because of what they believed. Ryle has written this work to encourage the church on its mission in declaring the truths of the gospel of grace. Ryle has a chapter on “Why the Reformers were Burned,” the conclusion is that they were burned because of their view of the Lord’s Supper:

“The end of Rowland Taylor’s weary imprisonment came at last. On the 22nd of January 1555, he was brought before the Lord Chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, and other Commissioners, and subjected to a lengthy examination. To go into the details of all that was said on this occasion would be wearisome and unprofitable. The whole affair was conducted with the same gross unfairness and partiality which characterized all the proceedings against the English Reformers, and the result, as a matter of course, was the good man’s condemnation. To use his own words, in a letter to a friend, he was pronounced a heretic because he defended the marriage of priests, and denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. Never let it be forgotten in these days, that the denial of any corporal presence of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper, was the turning point which decided the fate of our martyred Reformers. If they gave way on that point they might have lived. Because they would not admit any corporal presence they died. These things are recorded for our learning.” – pg. 109-110 (Light From Old Times) 

May we learn from these martyrs the importance of doctrine, and also the sanctity of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Doctrine matters. In a day where doctrine seems to go by the wayside, we can read first and foremost our Bibles and see that martyrs died because of what they believe about Jesus (Acts 7, Hebrews 11). We also learn from Ryle that men before us, many reformers especially, died because of important doctrinal issues. This should cause us to think more deeply about what songs we sing on Sundays, what books we hand out, etc. Doctrine is not dead. Orthodoxy did not die at the cross. But the cross influences orthodoxy. Sound doctrine is tied up in Paul’s Statement, “I wish to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2)”. To say you don’t desire sound doctrine, you don’t desire Christ. What you believe matters.

From the works of Ryle, we are able to see the importance of preaching, ordinances of the local church, deaths of martyrs and a clear gospel. I am thankful to God for men like Ryle who have helped the church long past their life here on earth.

Friends, you only get one life and it will soon pass. Only what is done for Christ will last!

Evan Knies (B.A., Boyce College) and his wife Lauren are originally from Louisiana. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is serving as as student pastor at Bullitt Lick Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @Evan_Knies.


Righteous Judgment, Radical Grace: Reflections on Exodus 11

By Mathew Gilbert

Kids are great at pushing the limits. Parents know the moment they set a limit on anything, their children will try to push them to the edge. Erica and I have already seen how much our son, Jude, loves to push the limits. We will bring him in our room to play on the bed in the morning. Every single morning he will start crawling to the edge of the bed. We place large pillows at the end of the bed to block him. But Jude doesn’t care about those pillows. He just grins and crawls toward the edge of the bed. He starts out crawling fast, but once he gets close to the edge he moves really slowly. It’s like he wants to see how close he can get to the edge without falling headfirst to the floor. Without being stopped, Jude would keep pushing the limits until he seriously hurt himself.

Pharaoh’s hard heart was causing him to push the limits of God’s mercy. After each and every plague, Pharaoh only cared about immediate consequences and continued to rebel against the word of God. Pharaoh has reached the edge and he has taken that final, deadly step. The sovereign, righteous judgment of the Lord is about to fall hard on Egypt. The final plague is the most devastating of them all. It is the reversal of Pharaoh’s actions in Exodus 1. Before God even tells Moses the nature of the plague, he tells him the result. After this plague, Pharaoh’s heart will still be hard, but he will let the people of Israel go (Ex. 11:1).

The final judgment of God in Egypt is similar to the final judgment of God for all who reject Christ—death. The final judgment in Egypt is the death of the firstborn. “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle” (Ex. 11:5). The point here is that there is no avoiding this judgment. No one can outrun this devastating judgment of God. Exodus 11 is the Lord’s final warning to Pharaoh. Like leaflets dropped by planes in war, Moses’ final address to Pharaoh is not a request, but an announcement of coming death and destruction.

The Bible offers a similar warning to all who are outside of Christ. Jesus puts it this way: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). The wrath of God remains on everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. And there is no escaping this judgment on our own. We have all pushed and crossed the limits. We have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We have all exchanged the glory of the Creator for the creation (Rom. 1:21). We all deserve the righteous wrath and judgment of God—eternal death (Rom. 6:23).

But praise be to God for his immense grace. On the cross, Jesus bore the wrath of God in our place. Even though we deserved to die, Jesus died for us, so we can be with the one we have rejected. Exodus 11 shows us how God always provides for his people and punishes his enemies for the glory of his name.

Originally posted at Grace Satisfies.

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

JC Ryle on the Foundation of the Church

By Evan Knies

“The foundation of the true church was laid at a mighty cost. It needed that the Son of God should take our nature upon him, and in that nature live, suffer, and die, not for his own sins, but for ours. It needed that in that nature Christ should go to the grave, and rise again. It needed that in that nature Christ should go up to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God, having obtained eternal redemption for all his people. No other foundation could have met the necessities of lost, guilty, corrupt, weak, helpless sinners.” – pg. 293 (Holiness)

The past few weeks have been tough. The weeks ahead will be tough. Christians, remember that our foundation is Christ. Rest in the Foundation that does not crumble under pressure. Rest in the Sovereign Solid Rock of Christ.

You only get one life and it will soon pass. Only what is done for Christ will last!

One Honorable Man

13082681_10153731025622515_4832902311049097219_nBy Evan Knies

Today is Howard Coy’s birthday. He’s 90 years old. I could describe so many great qualities about this man, but I will just say a few. He has been faithful to His Lord, his wife, his church, and whatever job that has come his way. I had the privilege of meeting this man about six years ago. My wife Lauren, who was my girlfriend at the time, invited me to come to her church. That’s where I met Howard Coy. He and his wife were sitting in the front row, I introduced myself, and we have been friends ever since. He is one of my mentors, my adopted grandfather, and he calls me his adopted grandson. Ever since I met him he has been a great encouragement to me. He and his wife have supported me and Lauren with love and care. He is also one of the funniest men that I know. If you’re around him for long enough, you will laugh.  June 14th is Flag Day, but his joke is that people fly flags for his birthday.

Three specific attributes that I have seen from Mr. Coy have had a great impact on my life:

  1. He loves his church. Mr. Coy has been faithful to the local church. He has cared for the people in the local church. He has served as a deacon for many years. He has trained deacons. He has supported his pastors and loved them. There have been a few occasions where Howard has had to stand up for the truth. He is a man that stands on the solid rock of truth and does not waver from it. He has not buckled under pressure. He has also been a man  I am able to come pray with, laugh with, and cry with. It has been a joy to see this man as an example in this part of his life because I have seen many neglect this area of their own lives. He would say that his faithfulness to the church is because of Jesus and that Jesus has been faithful to him even though tough times have come Mr. Coy’s way. Jesus has been faithful.
  2. He loves his wife. Mrs. Marie is one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. Mr. Coy would definitely not be where he is if it wasn’t for his wife, but the same could be said for Mrs. Marie. They are like Sweet Tea and a Hot Summer day. You can’t separate the two. For Lauren and I, they have been a tremendous example that have given great godly wisdom and seasoned advice. You can even tell by the way they look at each other that there is just this love there. When I go home and see them, there is just something different about them. I pray that if the Lord allows Lauren and I to live to 90 that I am able to talk about my wife with the tenderness, love, and affection that Mr. Coy talks about his sweet wife Mrs. Marie.
  3. He loves the next generation of pastors and church members. Mr. Coy did not have to invest in me. He did not have to take his time and care for me and disciple me. But he chose to do it and he continues to invest, care and disciple me. I think it is very sad in the state of some of our churches that older men do not seek younger men to disciple/teach/lead. I also think it is a sad state when younger men think they know it all and do not need the men that have gone before them. I have heard countless stories from him and every story that he has told me has had a point that will impact my life and ministry whether it’s in the ministry of the church or with my wife. Every story that he has told me has impacted me in some form or fashion. It is hard to write about a man who has meant so much in your life and has always pointed you to Jesus. If you are a “young gun” and not being poured into by an older, wiser, seasoned follower of Christ, please seek that out. If you are a seasoned follower of Jesus and you are not pouring into a follower of the next generation, seek that out. Mr. Coy has been a godly example for me and will continue to be until I see Jesus face to face. Ten thousand years from now we will be rejoicing together with the King of Kings whom his life has pointed towards.

We only get one life and it will soon pass. Only what is done for Christ will last!

Happy Birthday Mr. Coy! I love you!

Evan Knies, and his wife Lauren, are natives of Louisiana. He is an alumnus of Boyce College and is currently a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is Pastor to Students at Bullitt Lick Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @Evan_Knies.