Three Ways of Assurance

John G. Reisinger

The Philadelphia Confession of Faith states there are three ways a Christian knows for sure that he is saved.

The assurance of Grace and Salvation is an infallible assurance of

1)  faith founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ {Heb. vi. 17,18) revealed in the gospel; and also upon the

2) inward {2 Pet. i.4,5,10,11) evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the

3) testimony of the (Rom. viii.15,16) Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and as a fruit thereof, keeping the heart both (1John iii.1,2,3) humble and holy.(Philadelphia Confession of Faith, Chapter 18, Section 2)

I believe the Confession is setting forth the truth of Scripture on the subject of assurance. I have a few reservations about that word infallible but taken on the whole, this is an excellent statement.

The first source of assurance is objective, that is, it is completely outside of ourselves. Our first taste of assurance comes from understanding and by faith applying the truth found in texts of Scripture that point us to faith in the atoning blood and righteousness of Christ. Notice that the confession does not just say, "Assurance is founded on the Scriptures." That is of course true. However, true assurance grows out of understanding the gospel message set forth in specific texts of Scripture. Assurance of salvation is "founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ" as that glorious truth is clearly revealed in the Gospel message.

No one will ever know heart-felt assurance of forgiveness until they look totally outside of themselves to the cross work of Christ. It is not what we do but what He did. It is not what we feel, it is what He felt. Assurance does not begin with what God does in us but with what Christ did for us. Just as our whole salvation is in the "doing and dying" of Christ and has nothing at all to do with works, so the ground of our assurance is 100% in the work of Christ and has nothing to do with our works. Every form of subjectivism must be discarded in this first method of assurance.

Many people have been brought to faith and assurance by applying the truth of John 3:16 to their hearts and lives. They have believed that "whosoever" included them and they have been enabled by the Holy Spirit to say, "I believe in Christ therefore I have eternal life." Likewise many sheep have been brought safely into the fold by understanding and believing John 1:12. They have, by faith, dared to call themselves "sons of God" purely on the ground of that text. The truth in these texts are the first, and ultimately, the only ground of assurance. The hymn writer puts it beautifully:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!

What more can He say than to you He hath said,

To you who for refuge to Jesus hath fled?

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose

I will not, I will not desert to its foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

Some may be thinking, "that sounds like 'easy believism' to me." I think it sounds like the "only believism" of the gospel of sovereign grace. I am sure that every reader will know that nobody has fought cheap grace and an "easy believism" gospel any harder than I have. However, some men have forgotten that the gospel is still "only believe and you will be saved." I heard a preacher recently ask, "What is hard believism." Does a poor sinner who "believes by grace" the truth of John 3:16 have a right to assurance of forgiveness the moment they believe? Unless we want to rewrite the Bible we must respond with a clear "Yes." Texts like Acts 16:30, 31 and Romans 10:13 mean exactly what they say, and they say nothing about waiting or adding something to immediate faith.

The second way a believer gains assurance is subjective, that is, he tests the fruits of his profession in order to be sure he has truly believed. We must understand the difference between proof texting our salvation and proof testing the validity of our faith. The first involves looking at and examining Christ alone as he is set forth in the Gospel. The second involves an honest evaluating of ourselves and the fruits of faith in our lives. The Confession puts it this way:

It [assurance] is also founded upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made,…

This second method (not ground) can get tricky. The moment we start examining, or inspecting, the fruits of faith we run into all kinds of dangers.

First of all, who determines such things as the nature of true biblical fruit as opposed to the pet ideas of a particular group. Likewise who are the fruit inspectors? Does the individual judge himself or does the leader do the inspecting and evaluating? If it is the leader, does he have a vested interest in the outcome of the inspection? We must always keep in mind that using guilt as a means of control is the first mark of a cult.

One man's good fruit is another man's green or rotten fruit. One man's "wood, hay, and stubble" is another man's "gold, silver, precious stones." The fruits of the Spirit are pure "sentimentality and enthusiasm" to some people. Correct theology is the only true test of a godly life for some men. Obedience to the rules of the group (meaning the rules of the leader) can easily become more important than the words of God. What is commended as Godly charity in one group will be condemned as compromise in another group. All of the "Reformed" ways of doing things are not necessarily the biblical way. The Pharisees were masters of having people disobey the Law of God under the guise of obeying the rules of the Pharisee's religion. The words of Christ are still very applicable to some zealots today. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. (Matt 23:15).

If you are concerned that you may have been brain-washed and are under the influence of a wrong leader with a cultic mentality just ask yourself this question: "As God sees my heart, am I am more afraid of offending my leader than I am of offending God?" If you have the slightest problem answering that question then ask another one: "Have I seen or heard my leader either teach something, or make a demand of me, that I knew was not biblical but I went along with it out of pure fear?" If you answer yes, you are either in a cultic situation or else you do not understand the gospel of sovereign grace.

Wherever you find a great emphasis on "obeying your leader because he is God's duly authorized spokesman" you will also find little emphasis on the biblical fruits of the Spirit. I have yet to see a "fruit list" that used the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22, 23 as essential marks of a true believer.

The third way a believer has assurance is mystical. The confession puts it this way:

…on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God;…

Most Reformed people have fits with this section. They are so afraid of emotions that they deny any possibility of any kind of a direct ministry of the Holy Spirit to the sinner. The Confession, and texts like Romans 8:14-16, are reduced to "a greater degree of assurance in the truth of the text." The phrase ". . . .The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" gives rise to page after page of the danger of being charismatic. I totally agree that the mind is supreme but that does not mean that the Holy Spirit cannot work immediately in your heart and soul. He will never do or lead anyone contrary to the written word but He is not 100% dependent upon a specific text to direct us or give us the assurance of His presence.

There is still a mystical element in salvation that cannot be put into a logical straitjacket.

The real danger that creates false views of assurance lies in taking only one of these three ways mentioned above and building the whole case on that one method. To illustrate—I can use three methods to prove that I am married. (1) I can produce a marriage license. That is the objective legal proof that I am married. (2) I can introduce you to my wife and children. They are the fruits that prove my marriage is real. (3) I can just smile and with an ecstatic look say, "I sure am." All three of the method prove that I am married. However, each one by itself can have problems.

In the first instance, the marriage license may be a forgery. In the second case, if you check the license bureau and cannot find a marriage license, you will conclude I am living with a woman to whom I am not really married. In the third case, you might think I am a mad man who needs to be locked up. The first instance is similar to someone quoting a verse of Scripture without having any valid change in their life. The second is like a "good religious" person who lives a Christian lifestyle but is not rooted to Scripture. They are as comfortable in a Roman Catholic church as in a Baptist. The third instance is like the person who "had a real experience" and is not interested in anything except feelings.

Someone has divided Christians up into "the doers, the thinkers, and the feelers." The doers are usually the Arminians with a "do" list, the thinkers tend to be Calvinists, and the feelers are the charismatic groups. Each of these groups will have a different view of assurance of salvation. The well-rounded "full assurance" of which the Bible speaks (Heb. 6:11, 12) involves all three things.

It is essential that we realize that a person's basic temperament will greatly affect their assurance. A melancholy person will struggle with assurance most of his life. This person needs to spend lots of time in Romans 8 and very little in I John. Likewise, an extrovert will easily fall into false assurance. He needs to spend a lot of time in I John and little time in Romans 8. Different people need to "test" themselves different ways.

I remember a girl in Mississippi who came to a series of meeting. Every night she cried. The pastor asked me to talk to her. She was sure she was not saved. She knew she had a wicked heart and could not be a Christian. She never missed church, gave of her money, and read the Bible every day. I final said to her, "Some people have a religious temperament and others do not. Apparently you do not. I fear you are going to have a nervous breakdown. Why don't you quit reading the Bible and only attend church once a month. I think that will help you emotionally." She was horrified and assured me she could never quit reading the Bible or missing church. I asked what made her read her Bible and never miss church. I said, "Is it your wicked heart that makes you come to church and read your Bible?" She looked at me for several moments and said, "Maybe I am Christian." I said, "I am not sure if you are or are not a Christian, but I do know that you sure act like one in many ways."

We must also remember that our soul has seasons just like the weather. When it is summer time in our soul there is lots of fruit and flowers. When it is winter time in our soul there is very little fruit. A tree expert can tell a peach tree from a cherry tree in January as well as in July but I cannot. I have to see the fruit hanging from the limbs. God knows our hearts. There are times we must go to Him and say, "I feel as lost as can be but I know your promise and I will hang on to it for dear life." Sometimes we must reason our way back to assurance when we have sinned. We need to go back over Romans 5:1-3 and Romans 8:1. We need to ask the questions that D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones suggests in his article.

It is safe to say that modern evangelism builds its whole doctrine of assurance, and how to "give people assurance" totally on the first, or objective, method. The problem is not that the method is wrong, but when standing alone there is no method of testing the validity of ones professed faith. We are exhorted to "examine ourselves and see if we be in the faith" (II Cor. 13:5). I will grant that many poor deluded saints make a life long calling out of constantly examining themselves but that does not negate the fact that Scripture clearly commands us to "examine ourselves."

When we take a text like I John 2:3,4, which clearly ties assurance to obedience in some sense, we must be careful not to make "obeying" to be sinless perfection. A sincere desire to obey God in all things, which is one of the indelible marks of a true Christian (I John 5:1-3), is a totally different thing from never disobeying God at all. Every Christian sincerely desires to obey God perfectly but no Christian has ever obeyed perfectly for even one hour. I think John is talking about the same kind of obedience that Paul is talking about in Romans 7:22.

If I were to ask a congregation, "Do all you men earnestly desire that you never again lust for power, flesh, or money? Is the earnest intention of your heart to treat your wife as a gift of God and not a maid?" Every true Christian man would have to say "yes." If I then asked, "Do all of you Christian women earnestly desire to be an obedient wife who helps and encourages her husband instead of nagging and criticizing him?" Again, every true Christian wife would have to say "yes." Can I assure the pastor of that church that he will not be involved in any more marriage counseling since all the wives and husbands are going to fulfill their marital duties unless they were hypocrites a few moment ago. Do I hear an outcry? "Wait a minute! Wait A minute! We were sincere when we testified that our hearts longed for perfection in our marriages. However, we are also sadly aware of indwelling sin and we know that it will not be long before we will be professing our failure in tears of repentance." The "good that I would" is sinless perfection but I cannot attain that while in this body.

Rolfe Barnard said, "Follow holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. You ain't going to catch it but you better be a lightin out after it!" I John is talking about the sincere intention of the heart and not the actual experience of every hour of every day.

It is also safe to say that much modern day Reformed theology, especially Reformed Baptist theology, has gone to the other extreme. They have rightly fought easy-believism but have forgotten to preach only-believism. They are so afraid of joyous assurance that they treat open joy as a sure sign of a deceived heart. I do not question their motive but their method is wrong. They treat their congregation as if they were all suspect and needed constant examination. I do not care how long and hard you look into your heart, you will never find a single ounce of anything inside of you upon which you can build assurance. All you find in self examination is sin.

We keep saying that the Law of God can neither make a believer feel good nor bad. If you examine yourself with the Law and question your salvation then you do not understand justification by faith. If you examine yourself with the Law and honestly feel in any way pleased with yourself you are a deceived Pharisee that knows nothing of the true state of your heart. I repeat, the Law of God can neither bless a Christian or curse a Christian.

The Confession correctly points out that a true believer may lose his assurance.

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation in divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; (Cant. v.2,3,6) by negligence in preserving of it, by (Ps. li.8,12,14) falling into some special sin, which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit, or by some sudden or (Ps. cxvi.11; lxxvii.7,8; xxxi.22) vehement temptation, or by God's withdrawing the (Ps. xxx.7)light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light;… (Ibid., Section 4)

We do not have space to cover all of the reasons that may cause a believer to lose his assurance. I do want to mention "God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light;" One would think that as long as a child of God walked in obedience he would enjoy unbroken assurance but such is not the case. Job is a clear illustration. Isaiah gives us some clear instruction on this point:

Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow. (Isa. 50:10-11)

First of all, these words describe a true believer walking in obedience. He is obeying the servant, Christ, but nonetheless he is walking in darkness. He has no assurance and awareness of God's presence. What is he to do? Isaiah says, "Keep on obeying, trusting, and staying upon in the name of the Lord." When God hides His face, we still trust him. In verse 11, we are told what we must not do at times like that. We dare not create our own fire. This is creating our own enthusiasm and ecstatic feelings with music, emotional preaching, and a lot of Christian gobbledygook that panders to the flesh. A.W. Tozer used to talk about getting a "fix" or a "goof ball experience" at a religious side show. A clown comes out and warms up the audience with some "everybody who is happy say 'Amen!'" shouts. Granted, you may feel better but, as Isaiah says, ". . . ye shall lie down in sorrow." The kind of feeling aroused by that kind of fire lasts only as long as the meeting that engendered it.

If God has withdrawn His presence from you then get alone with Him and plead with Him to restore the joy of your salvation. If there is anything "in between" deal with it and get it out of the way. What ever you do, don't build your own fires with the energy of the flesh. Don't walk in a flesh-created enthusiasm that evaporates like dew the next morning.

I remember hearing a story that helped me illustrate assurance. A farmer had to go to town for supplies. He discovered the river had frozen over, then there was a quick thaw and the large chunks of ice had pushed the bridge down. It had again gotten cold and the river was frozen solid but the man was afraid the ice might not be thick enough to support him. He decided to get down on his hands and knees so his weight would be distributed over four different points. He slowly crawled across the river saying, "I hope I make it! I hope I make it!" He pulled himself up on the bank and said, "I made it!"

A neighbor came by and drove across the river in his horse and buggy without the ice cracking an inch. The man was so angry at himself that when he came back from town he stomped on the ice as hard he could all the way across the ice. The question is this: Which time was the man the safest? When he had his weight distributed on four points and he was scared to death, or when he was stomping his feet in full assurance of his safety? If you say, that is a dumb question, you are correct. The man was just as safe both times! His safety had nothing to do with his faith but was dependent upon the thickness of the ice. You may believe with all your heart that the ice is thick enough to hold you, but if it is not thick enough you better know how to swim. Likewise, you can have a near heart attack as you carefully crawl across the ice, but if the ice is thick enough, all your fear is needless.

It is not either our faith or the strength of our faith that saves us. It is Christ alone. The Gospel of John examines the ice (Christ) and says, "Sinner, He is able to save and keep you. Trust him! Walk on the ice." The First Epistle of John says, "Man look down at your feet and make sure you are on the ice and not still on the bank."

From: "Sound of Grace Online"

For more help with assurance, see:

"Assurance Of Salvation: Can I Really Be Sure?" ,

"The Faith of the Saints"  &  "Christian Assurance: A Balanced Trust"


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