08 July 2004

assurance and sacraments

RC Sproul Jr had some comments over at his Highlands Study Center on the role of the sacraments in assurance, in a entry entitled, "Cutting Off One's Nose." Meanwhile, Larry Ball has a related article over at the Center for Cultural Leadership entitled, "For the Bible Tells Me So."

I don't read either of those websites regularly, but links to both articles had been forwarded to me and I was asked for my input and perspective. The following is, therefore, how I would generally approach the question of assurance and the role of the sacraments in that. It's not designed exactly as a response to Sproul Jr or a comment on Ball or even a defense of the so-called "Federal Vision" folks. It's simply an elaboration of my own perspective, which I hope is grounded in Scripture as that is understood within the Reformed tradition.

There are certain people for whom, for whatever reason, assurance of salvation is a difficult thing--whether that is a matter of temperament, depression, weak faith, life circumstances, theological error, ongoing struggle with sin, or some other situation.

Of course, sometimes one should be worried, for instance, a person who, on a continuing basis, indulges in sin without remorse, without desire to be set free from it, particularly in the face of correction and opportunity for repentance and offers of forgiveness. Such a sin pattern rightly undermines assurance of salvation and should be an occasion for repentance and renewed faith.

But there are others for whom assurance is a difficulty quite apart from patterns of sin and the like. For such persons, I suspect, there are no easy answers. RC Sproul Jr is correct to suggest that there are some who are overwhelmed by a peculiar logic of the divine decrees, one that attempts to look into the eternal purposes of God and thereby access one's own election as a matter of sheer information. This is a losing proposition. It is an attempt to somehow get into the mind of God and his will for one's life apart from Christ as he is offered to us in the Gospel. As such, it is not truly of faith and therefore cannot provide assurance.

But certain temperaments are attracted to the logical system of a decretal theology of that particular sort and thereby make trouble for themselves, rejecting any sort of mystery or paradox in favor of a sheer and remorseless consistency. This is the kind of logic that makes election and reprobation wholly symmetrical and has little room for the free offer of the Gospel. There is often more involved in such a temperament and some persons face completely different problems with regard to assurance (e.g., someone who, due to past betrayals, finds all trust difficult). But Reformed theology in particular seems to attract this kind of rationalistic mindset.

In light of these observatons about temperament and circumstances, it seems to me that the question of assurance is not one of how we can provide such assurance of salvation to everyone, willy-nilly. Pastoral concern will always address the Gospel to each person in his or her own context and circumstances, sometimes ministering assurance to a simple faith, sometimes unsettling a too-easy presumption of salvation, sometimes challenging a human logic that undoes the truth of the Gospel, and so on.

The question, instead, is the general question of what precise resources and means God has provided his people with for the assurance of salvation and, among those assurances he has provided, how are they received and how are they interrelated? That is to say, what is the overall shape of Gospel assurance as God wants us to present and teach it within the wider ministry of the church, even recognizing that in specific cases of pastoral care, these general truths may need to be shaped to specific circumstances?

The general answer, of course, is that we are to look to Christ in the Gospel, and to do so in faith, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Assurance is always the assurance "of faith," that is, an assurance that proceeds from faith in God's promises, all of which are found in the person of Jesus Christ, as the very revelation of God's mind and heart. Assurance is not first and foremost a matter of our looking inward, to our own works, to a sense of God's presence, to signs of the Spirit, and so on.

All of these may have some role in assurance and their complete absence might be an apt occasion for concern. But assurance in itself is a matter of faith in Christ and these other matters are accompaniments of, subsidiary to, and consequent from that faith, by which alone we receive and rest upon Chirst for salvation.

If, for instance, we look to our own works as a sure sign of salvation apart from faith in the promises of God in Christ, then either we will despair, seeing the wretchedness of our own strivings and mixed motives, all tainted with sin, or we will become presumptuous, relying more upon what we do than what God has done for us, thinking that our works are somehow pleasing to God in themselves.

While the Gospel of John and 1 John both give the love of God and of God's people a place in assurance, it is subsumed under the overarching concern for us to "believe on the name of the Son of God" (1 Jn 5:13). Or, as Jesus replied to those who asked what they must do, to be doing the works of God: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (Jn 6:28-29).

Since abiding in Christ by faith is the wellspring of our love for him and for our brothers, works of love can only be contemplated with regard to assurance insofar as they emerge out of the faith we have in Christ and remain under the trusting gaze of that faith.

So, if faith in Christ himself--as the Son of God in whom we find every promise and blessing of salvation--is the only basis God gives us for true assurance, then the next question is where do we find Christ in order to place our faith in him? Where is this Christ to be found whom God offers us?

The first answer, naturally, is that Christ is to be found in the Word of the Gospel as that is given to us the Scriptures, particularly as they are proclaimed and preached and applied. This is a clear and pervasive teaching of the Scriptures themselves, one we find in the mouth of Jesus and from the pen of Paul, and as such needs little further comment. In looking to Christ in the Gospel, we are not looking into ourselves to find Christ, but his to Word of promise that comes to us from outside of us, as the instrument of the Spirit for our faith and salvation. And all the Word points to Christ and offers Christ since he is that very Word Incarnate.

But the promise and offer of Christ in the Gospel comes to us in various ways for our salvation and not only once, but in an ongoing way throughout the Christian life. Each and every time we are offered the Gospel, God is renewing his promises to us in Christ, and as we receive those promises in faith we persevere in our salvation, receiving the forgiveness of sins and walking in newness of life, a work of the Spirit in us.

This ongoing growth and renewal in Christ through the Gospel by faith happens in various ways: through the public reading of the Scriptures, through preaching, through mutual exhortation and encouragement, through confession and absolution, through receiving God's blessing from his ministers, and so on. Sometimes these are more public and general occasions (e.g., preaching) and sometimes these are more personal and specific (e.g., recieving private counsel and assurance of God's forgiveness from a pastor or brother). In addition, within the context of the Word of the Gospel, recieved in faith, we may also sometimes find ourselves experiencing God's forgiveness, a sense of the Spirit's presence, greater love for his people, and so on.

Moreover, among those occasions upon which Christ is offered to us personally and specifically we must also place the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, though these naturally occur within a more public and general context. Nevertheless, the same Word of the Gospel--that is, the same Christ with all his benefits--is offered to us in Baptism and in the Supper, enacted and conjoined with material elements, there also to be received by faith unto the forgiveness of sins and newness of life.

And these sacraments are particularly effectual means by which God, through the Spirit, assures us of our salvation, confirming and strengthening the very faith by which they are rightly received (and how else could they be rightly received, inasmuch as they are signs and seals of God's own faithfulness in Christ?).

Perhaps I've heard the preaching of the Gospel, but how do I know that God means to offer Christ specifically to me? If I am baptized, then I know that God has placed his own name upon me and has promised that Christ is mine if only I believe in him. If I receive the Body of Christ in the Supper, then I know that this Body is truly given for me if only I partake in faith.

Moreover, these sacraments identify us as God's people and call upon us to reckon ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection. As such, through faith, these sacraments, as instruments of the Spirit, begin to produce in us the fruit and evidence of faith, apart from which faith is no true faith. In addition, they provide part of the objective and stable theological and liturgical context within which experiential religion can thrive and grow.

None of this is to say that all who are baptized automatically have Christ and all his benefits in a saving way. But the Holy Spirit truly offers Christ to them in a personal, concrete way. They have received that offer inasmuch as they have received the sacraments. But they will not have truly received Christ unto salvation until they receive him aright, that is by faith.

This kind of perspective on assurance of salvation is, I think, what God has provided for us generally in the Gospel. The sometimes difficult pastoral labor of applying this perspective to particular persons in their various circumstances is another, though closely related matter and beyond what I can address here in detail.

A remaining question, I suppose, is the one raised by those who are hypocrites or only enjoy a temporary faith. If such persons can be self-deceived regarding their own assurance of salvation, how can we be sure that we are not likewise deceived. After all, the human heart is deceitful above all things and who can fathom it?

Does this mean that, at the end of the day, assurance is impossible? I don't think so, but it does raise the question of what we mean by "assurance" and what exactly it is of which we are assured. Remember that the Reformers' concern with assurance grew from an apprehension of human sinfulness and weakness. Each of us would surely apostatize were it not for the work and grace of God. Thus they maintained that, while subjective certainty of salvation may waver, the objective certainty of salvation for each of us is held forth in Jesus Christ, given to us in the Gospel promises communicated through Word and Sacrament. A personal sense of assurance is a hope grounded in faith in those Gospel promises.

With this assurance by faith in the promises, however, we must never nullify the equally certain warnings against apostasy. Since we are in a relationship with God, we must take his warnings seriously and thereby daily receive his offers to renew our faith in the promises of the Gospel. If we persevere we know, by faith, that we have only done so through the electing grace of God. And if we fall away, we shall have no one to blame but ourselves, though as apostates we are not likely to admit it.

Does this mean we can have no hope of future perseverance, but only an assurance of presently being in a "state of grace" and possibly even self-deceived? No. The revelation of God's electing grace is not to be received merely as quasi-scientific "data" from which we may or may not deduce our future perseverance, but rather as a Gospel revelation which is to be apprehended by faith. It is precisely when we try to deduce logically how God must deal with us, that assurance is undermined by presumption or by supposing that God could not let us falter. But if we set aside presumption and any claim to our own merits or boasting, we must all the more cling to Christ in faith. But such a faith--continually aware of its own nature as a gift of grace, which sets aside all presumption, which clings only to the promises of the Gospel--such a faith provides a most certain and sure hope of salvation.

And such hope is not only present, but also looks to the future since, by faith, we see the consummation of salvation in the person of Jesus himself, who persevered and received the promise. He, then, is the Elect One, the pioneer and finisher of all faith.

Such an approach to assurance, it seems to me, both allows for the reality of apostasy, resolves the practical difficulty of self-deception, takes the Gospel warnings quite seriously, and still provides the assurace of faith in the person and promises of Jesus. In all these ways, then, I think can we avoid the snare of an overly logical and deductive decretal theology that destroys the possibility of assurance or a self-assured legalism that glories in its own works.

Thankfully, for most Christians assurance of salvation is not a struggle, but a simple joy and reflex of the faith by which we rest upon Christ and apprehend what he has done for us and continues to do among us by his Spirit.