Christian Assurance: A Balanced Trust
In the book, Between Two TruthsLiving with Biblical Tensions, the following illustration is given, "Once the Devil was walking along with one of his cohorts. They saw a man ahead of them pick up something shiny. 'What did he find?' asked the cohort. 'A piece of the truth,' the Devil replied. 'Doesn't it bother you that he found a piece of the truth?' asked the cohort. 'No,' said the Devil, I will see to it that he makes a religion out of it.' "i Travelers that have happened upon pieces of truth along the course of life, fashioning them into religions have, since its inception, plagued Christianity. Of the shiny nuggets of truth that have been fashioned by travelers along the road of Christendom into aberrant notions and false religions, the nugget of good works has caused far too much trouble. Too often misguided travelers have left the road of theology with either a doctrine of faith at the expense of works or a doctrine of works at the expense of faith. Rarely has a traveler succeeded in gleaning a balanced wealth of faith and works along the road of theology. A proper, balanced theology declares salvation by faith alone apart from works and works as the fruit of true faith has often escaped the traveler's grasp. Such nuggets have been difficult to gather. Thus, many have suffered theological poverty regarding a balance between the doctrines of justification and sanctification. A proper balance in our theology inculcates saving faith with sanctifying grace.
We must have balance in our theology if we are to avoid the pitfalls of faulty religion. Too many have made a religion out of works and too many have made a religion out of faith devoid of works. Biblical Christianity is balanced; true faith evidences itself in true works. The two are never to be separated, as both are gratuitously obtained by the mercies of Christ. You cannot have true faith without righteous works nor can you have righteous works without true faith. Luther said, "Faith is a living, daring, confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light fires." So it is impossible to separate true saving faith from its fruit. For the scriptures declare, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). Our electing, predestinating, sovereign God has not only ordained our call and our justification, but as well, our sanctification, and He has guaranteed the fruitfulness of his offspring.
The question that confronts our study today is seemingly complex; are good works a means of assurance for the Christian? Assurance can be said to rely solely upon the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. A previous article demonstrated from the text of Isaiah that it is the labor of the triune Godhead that has established righteousness and that righteousness has resulted in peace, safety, and assurance for the Christian. Faith alone then is the chief grounds of assurance for the Christian. Nevertheless, we can declare that faith shall never fail to produce the fruits of righteousness. Works, though having no place in our justification, are then a necessary component of our sanctification and a means to our assurance. Good theology balances justification by faith alone with a sanctification that bears the fruits of righteousness and demonstrates true saving faith. Anyone whose balance is faulty on the side of faith alone finds himself prone to construct the error of 'easy-believism' or a resultant lawlessness for the Christian. Equally, problems arise as men try to make good works the grounds of our assurance, rather than simply, the evidence of our assurance. This is works-righteousness, another damnable error. The enemy of the church has forever slain hapless souls by convincing them of their salvation with either a lifeless faith or a faithless life. As the Puritan Matthew Meade wrote, "There are many things like grace that are not grace. Now, it is the likeness and similitude of things that deceive and make one thing to be taken for another. Many take gifts for grace, common knowledge for saving knowledge, whereas a man may have great gifts and yet no grace. He may have great knowledge and yet not know Jesus Christ."
Hypocrisy then stands as a barrier to our use of good works as an indication of our salvation. We cannot simply examine a man's works and assure him of his salvation. The offspring of Charles Finney are ever wont to stamp every professor with undue assurance. Christian assurance is at once instantaneous but never to be afforded without examination. For many hypocrites perform works that mirror true faith. Consider the countless biblical examples of men who labored seemingly in allegiance with God: Cain, Korah and the vast multitudes of those that perished in the wilderness, Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, Judas, and Agrippa, just to name a few. Again Matthew Mead wrote, "There are two things which arise the one is how often a believer may miscarryhow low he may fall and yet have true grace. The other is how far a hypocrite may go in the way to heavenhow high he may attain and yet have no grace. The saint may be cast down very near to hell and yet shall never come there, and the hypocrite may be lifted up very near to heaven and yet never come there For the saint at worst is really a believer and the hypocrite at best is really a sinner." ii Are works then to be cast aside in our search for assurance as Christians? Are they too subjective and deceptive to afford us confidence of our hope in Christ? Certainly not. For one of the clearest evidences of our assurance is that our faith is not devoid of Christian labors. For the apostle John wrote, "by this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:10). James also writes, "for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). A balanced Christian's assurance is then grounded solely upon the merits of Christ alone and yet looks to subsequent good works as an evidence of true faith. Thus our proposition:
The works of faith are a means to assurance for the Christian, but are not the grounds of our assurance.
Let us seek then to establish this proposal by examining two statements regarding a balanced theology of assurance; first, works are not the grounds for our assurance and second, works are the evidence that afford us greater assurance. Then, applying these principles, we shall seek to declare in what manner good works are to be used for our assurance. Now the first:
I. Works are not the grounds for our assurance
It has been argued that the central issue of the Christian faith is the Reformer's herald of Sola Fide. It has been said that upon this principle, the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone, Christianity stands or falls. The distinguishing mark of the Christian era, or the new covenant age, is righteousness established by Christ Jesus the Lord and imputed unto the church by faith alone. The two ages, that of the old covenant and that of the new covenant, stand as a contrast between works-righteousness and faith-righteousness. National Israel, the old covenant redeemed people of Jehovah, stand as a clear example of the futility and hopelessness of works-righteousness. False assurance and hypocrisy are distinguishing marks of national Israel. For they sought a righteousness apart from faith through the law. Thus Paul writes, "for I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God" (Rom. 10:2-3). If one were to ask an unregenerate covenant member of Israel, "Where lieth your assurance," surely he would look to his birth, his heritage, or his covenant, where old covenant law had become the ground of his assurance. Surely he would respond much as the rich young ruler, "All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?" For the result of the fallen conscience of man and the conscience bound by the covenant law of Sinai are similar, the entire world is guilty before God. Thus, like their father Adam, man is seen sewing together his own covering, as though he might construct for himself righteousness before the holy God. Thus, he is ever heard asking, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?"
True Christianity is distinguished by a righteousness that lends assurance to sinners apart from works. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul utilizes Abraham as an example of the assurance afforded the man that is justified by faith alone. There it is said of believing Abraham, "yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what he had promised he was able to perform. Therefore also, it was reckoned to him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:2022). Following on this declaration of an assurance through faith alone, Paul goes on in chapter five to speak of peace with God, hope in the glory of God, and full assurance that we shall be "saved from the wrath of God through Him [Christ]" (Rom. 4:9). Good works have no place in our consideration of the cause or certainty of our assurance that God's wrath has been placated on account of the labors of Christ. Unlike the rich young ruler, the Christian is not in his established covenant brought to ask, "Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?" Instead, his assurance rests solely upon the effectual salvation of the Father's decrees, the Son's merit, and the Spirit's effectuating of salvation to his heart. Thus good works have no part in the grounds and basis of the assurance of our salvationthat is, as it regards the grounds and establishment of our acceptance before God. Are good works then to be excluded in the construction of Christian assurance? Certainly not. For the scriptures go on to demonstrate that good works are a primary means for Christian assurance. How can this be if works have no part in our justification? In this manner:
II. Works are the evidence that afford us greater assurance
The New Testament is replete with statements that assert the importance of works in relation to Christian assurance. Christ in the Sermon on the Mount said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). To the rich Paul wrote instructing Timothy, "Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim 6:1719). To young men Paul instructed Titus, "Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded. In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you" (Titus 2:68). In the book of Hebrews, Christians are admonished to, "consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works" (Heb. 10:24). And to the persecuted Peter declared, "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Pet. 2:1112). One can see how the New Testament is filled with admonitions regarding the performance of good works; certainly then they have an important role in the life of the Christian. Good works are an evidence of our new nature and the victorious effects of Christ's lordship. John writes, "little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He appeared is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1 John 3:49).
The regenerate nature of the Christian presupposes the evidence of good works. We note the certainty of production of good works in the statements of our Lord, who declared, "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit" (John 15:5). There is a certainty in the statement of our Lord that every one in Him is sure to bring forth the fruits of righteousness, that which we call 'good works.' Consider again the definitive statement of Paul to the Ephesians, where he writes, "for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). The sovereign declaration of God has predestined the means of our labors in his plan unto his end and glory. In Galatians Paul writes, "for you were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal. 5:13). The freedom that he speaks of is freedom to go forth and conduct ourselves in a righteousness of works. If we are to ask, "Why does a Christian conduct himself in good works," we declare, "Because it is in accordance with his nature." Just as in our fallen state we "conducted ourselves according to the course of this world," because we were, "by nature the children of wrath" (cf. Eph. 2:2-3). Thus we now are by nature the children of God. What does this then entail? Consider that while we were by nature the children of wrath, we willfully conducted ourselves in accordance with this world, because it was the natural outflow of our affections for this world and our disdain of God. Now that we are born of God, by His Spirit, we naturally now conduct ourselves in accordance with righteousness. Thus it is in accordance with the nature of a true Christian that he conducts himself in good worksfor God has ordained it, Christ has freed us from bondage and guilt, and the Spirit of God now works within us both to will and to do. Hypocrites that perform works do so contrary to both their nature and will. They may fool men, but they cannot fool God. For it is God that searches the heart and knows the heart of man. True Christians act like true Christians willingly; false professors may perform seemingly good works, but only out of compulsion or threat. Now that we have balanced our theology of good works, let us now inquire as to:
III. Works useful for the strengthening of our assurance
Faith is the ground of our assurance; works are the evidence of our assurance. But how do good works contribute to our assurance? Which works lend us confidence and assure us of our salvation? As it has been demonstrated, good works undoubtedly are a well from which the Christian might plumb for assurance, even though they can never be the sole and certain cause for our assurance. For Christ alone continues to be our chief ground of assurance. Yet, works do have a function in Christian assurance. But works can be deceptive. Let us not forget that works are but the by-product of true saving faith. Shall we then as Christians construct for ourselves a ledger of deeds that are to be considered good works, in order to increase our confidence? If so, then which statutes are we to employ and gather as a compilation of deeds that we might gather confidence regarding our salvation? Shall we look to Moses or a particular commandment of Christ? Surely such a practice would do nothing more than place us dangerously close to legalism and works-righteousness. Christianity is not about codification of specific deeds and actions that we might set our hopes upon an especial action. Christianity is about liberty unto good works that are both willful and glorifying to God.
How then might we examine ourselves and employ our labors in Christ as a means to Christian assurance? The heart must be examined if we are to find the works of faith to be a ground for our assurance. We must apply what I phrase 'John Piper's kissing model' which is, of every work we perform in Christ, we must muse ourselves with this thought, "If I kiss my wife simply because it is right, and not because it is my delight, I would not honor her so well." iii We must examine the heart behind the kiss of our lips, that is, we must search our hearts and motives to insure that we be no Judas with betraying lips. For as we have seen, we may labor in appearance and perform deeds that may appear good, but they may be shrouded in hypocrisy. The heart and the will of the Christian have become the chief means to our confidence of the surety of our profession. Yet, the heart is never to be devoid of action. For James writes, "but someone may well say, 'You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works' " (James 2:18). He also states, "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled, and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being by itself" (James 2:1517). How might we then examine ourselves and employ our labors in Christ as a means to assurance? By deed and by faith, that is, by willing action.
Let us take a moment and examine a passage of scripture that will illustrate how a Christian might examine himself to determine whether or not he evidences good works of true faith. In the eighth chapter of First Corinthians, an apparent dispute had arisen in the church at Corinth. It appears that certain Christians had been publicly attending feasts where meat sacrificed to idols was served. When confronted with their actions they seemingly declared themselves wiser than their weaker Christian brethren, whose consciences forbade their partaking of such meats. Thus the question of whether it was right to partake of meat sacrificed to idols was presented to the apostle Paul. Who were behaving in the more Christian manner? Were those who boasted in their knowledge and liberty that had partaken of the meats in spite of their weaker brethren? Or were those whose consciences were yet weak in their understanding of their liberty that accused their other brethren of misconduct? If the question were asked to Moses the question would be easy to answer. Moses would simply declare, "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Ex. 20:46). If the question were asked in heaven above, Paul's answer that all things that are of God would abide, for Peter heard heaven declare, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (Acts 10:15). If we were to take the consensus of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, we would read, "abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well " (Acts 15:29). But how did Paul choose to answer the Corinthian dispute?
If we were to examine simply the external actions of each group, we would declare with Paul that, "food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse" (1 Cor. 8:8). Thus, those that sought to forbid the eating of meat appeared still bound in their understanding of their liberty in Christ. For they seemingly still postulated an external discernment of works as a grounds for their identification with Christ. In this vein of thought, Paul should have sided with the self-titled 'wise men' of Corinth. Yet we find that Paul's answer is condemning to both sides. For to the weaker he instructs them, "Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled" (1 Cor. 8:47). Yet to the strong he chides them in their vain boasting, declaring, "And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (1 Cor. 8:1112).
The error of the first group was an inability to understand the full import of justifying faith. The error of the second group was an inability to understand the manner of conduct for a Christian in accordance with his justification. Both sides held an unbalanced theology. Thus Paul in this chapter presents three specific principles that we as Christians might take with us as a discerning corpus to examine the content of our works. If we ask, "Are my good works pleasing to the Lord," simply apply these three principles. Ask, is it charitable, second, is it edifying, and third, is it free from scandal (is it a stumbling block to the weak)? Charity speaks to motive, edification speaks of love for Christ and his church, and scandal speaks of humiliation. In these three principles we see that both the heart and the action are necessary to declare a work good. For to simply perform a deed is no clear indication that the deed is done well. Equally, to abstain from action with the wrong motive is just as errant a practice. Christians then are to be a people of examination. For in their self-examination they find both a continuing need for mercy and a continuing demonstration of grace. At the same time, they understand that their heart, their affections, their wills, and their actions, are all to be applied toward righteous living. When a Christian finds himself rejoicing in his liberty, in which Christ has set him free, he glorifies God and demonstrates his unity with him. Yet the more, when a Christian finds himself rejoicing in charity towards his Christ and the chosen church of his Christ, he finds that his affections are further evidence of the fruit of true faith. And finally, when a Christian marvels at the infusion of grace that can bring a selfish sinner to cast aside his liberty if need be, for the sake of a weak brother, how much more is he filled with confidence that Christ dwells richly in him. Where then are good works to be found that breed assurance for the Christian? Not as the grounds of our justification, but rather, in these three things, charity, edification, and humility.
We must have balance in our theology if we are to avoid the pitfalls of faulty religion. Too many have made a religion out of works and too many have made a religion out of faith devoid of works. Biblical Christianity is balanced; true faith evidences itself in true works. The two are never to be separated, as both are gratuitously obtained by the mercies of Christ. You cannot have true faith without righteous works nor can you have righteous works without true faith. Christian assurance is grounded upon the meritorious accomplishments of our Savior Jesus Christ alone, and the fruits of regeneration in our obedient living encourage it. Luther wrote, "our liberty is, therefore, no fleshly liberty, which is not obligated to do anything, but a liberty that does many works of all kinds, and thus is free from the demands and the debts of the law." iv Balanced Christianity is a Christianity that relentlessly asserts the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works, while never discarding or diminishing the importance of works that precede from true saving faith as an addendum to our assurance. Are good works a means of assurance for the Christian? Absolutely, and we must look to them as a manifestation of God's abiding and effectual grace with us. Yet we must never look beyond our Savior and His cross for the certainty of our assurance. As John wrote, "Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us" (1 John 4:1719). Cling to Christ alone, then look to your living, examine yourselves, and give thanks to God daily if your affections and labors do continue to assure you that you are His own. "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God" (1 John 5:13).
But weary and wondering soul, you who linger in doubt or fester under
the afflictions of remarkable providence, cast aside everything but Christ.
Like a weak and naked beggar take no hold but upon Him. "I see faith's necessity
in a fair day is never known aright; but now I miss nothing so much as faith.
Hunger in me; runneth to fair and sweet promises; but when I come, I am like
a hungry man that wanteth teeth, or a weak stomach having a sharp appetite
that is filled with the very sight of meat, or like one stupefied with cold
under water, that would fain come to land, but cannot grip anything casten
to him. I can let Christ grip me, but I cannot grip Him. I cannot set my
feet to the ground, for afflictions bring the cramp upon my faith. All I
doth do is to hold out a lame faith to Christ, like a beggar holding out
a stump instead of an arm or leg, and cry, 'Lord Jesus, work a miracle!'
Oh what would I give to have hands and arms to grip strongly. I see that
mortification, and to be crucified to the world, is not so highly accounted
of by us as it should be. Oh how heavenly a thing it is to be dead and dumb
and deaf to this world's sweet music! As I am at this present, I would scorn
to buy this world's kindness with a bow of my knee. I scarce now either see
or hear what it is that this world offereth me; I know that it is little
that it can take from me, and as little that it can give me." (Samuel
Rutherford).v Solus Christus. Amen.
From: "Sound of Grace Online"
For more help with assurance, see:
i Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two TruthsLiving with Biblical Tensions, (Zondervan Publishing House, 1990) p 35
ii Matthew Mead, The Almost Christian Discovered, (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993) p. 6.
iii John Piper, Desiring God (Sisters: Mulnomah Books, 1996) p. 29.
iv Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1954) p. xxii.
v Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, (from the internet)