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.