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Assurance of Salvation in Reformed Theology

During the darkest moments of our lives—when it feels we’re taking more delight in sin instead of Christ—where should we turn for the assurance of our salvation? All believers struggle with this at times.  Even John Calvin said he could not “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.”

There are times a Christian will plead, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  The apostles implored Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). How can we know we’re truly a believer and not a self-deluded hypocrite?  Some say “just look to your baptism” others “look to your fruit.”  

The problem with “just look to your baptism” is we all know of people who have been baptized and later renounced the faith. Adolph Hitler was baptized!  Would one offer him assurance of his salvation?   

The problem with “look to your fruit” is that we’re more likely to struggle with our assurance when we’ve been cold to the things of God. During the bleakest moments of our lives, it can seem we have no legitimate fruit to point to. We also observe in our daily life that even unbelievers can excel in outward virtue.  

What is true faith?

To find true assurance of salvation, we must know upon what our salvation depends. As Reformed Christians we know the bedrock of our salvation is Christ. Justification is by faith alone in His finished work.  But what is true faith?  The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 21) describes it as:

“Not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”  

Drawing from this, Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof said there are 3 essential elements in faith:

  1. Notitia: Knowledge about Jesus Christ.
  2. Assensus: We intellectually ascent that the gospel is true.
  3. Fiducia: We entrust ourselves to Christ as Savior and Lord.

All three aspects must be present to constitute saving faith.   

Faith and Assurance

The Westminster Confession tells us “infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be a partaker of it” (18:3).  It’s possible for a person to have saving faith, but not 24/7 assurance. This is because assurance is a feeling.  It’s an emotion that stems from our confidence level.   

Faith and assurance aren’t the exact same thing. Truth can exist even when we don’t experience it at every moment. Just as it’s possible for a child to love and trust their parents, on their bad days they may not feel like they do. This feeling doesn’t cancel the fact they love their parents or that their parents love them.

So how do we gain assurance of salvation in our bleakest moments—when our faith seems like a flickering candle?  We look to Christ. Then we can look to our baptism in the sense that, as a sign and seal, we “might understand more clearly the benefits of the covenant of grace“, similar to the way a wedding ring reminds and assures us we belong to our spouse (Bavinck).

At the same time, we can’t ignore Scripture’s admonitions to make our “calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) and “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthians 13:5).  Why?  Because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:8).  These are hard words, but they are true.  It’s therefore every Christian’s duty to examine themselves to see if they have authentic faith.  

The Foundation of Salvation

In Reformed theology, our foundation for salvation is based on the unconditional election of God.  God predestined the believer before the foundation of the world.  We did not choose the Lord, but He chose us.  Salvation is truly a gift received through faith alone, and even this faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8).  Because God’s election is unconditional, it doesn’t change and it can’t be revoked.  It’s not rigged and there’s no recount!  

There’s a “golden chain” to our salvation:

“Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” – Romans 8:30

This chain is unbreakable.  If you have been justified you will be glorified.  There’s no middle ground.  It’s a certainty!

This is why Jesus warmly reassures us that no one, including ourselves, can snatch us from his hand.  We are truly in the grip of His grace.  Paul also encourages us that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  This is known in Reformed theology as the Perseverance of the Saints.

How do we know if we are one of God’s elect?

With this as our foundation—that all of God’s elect will be saved—the problem comes down to “Well, how do I know I’m one of the elect?”  

“All the Reformed have warned against any attempt to gain knowledge of one’s election apart from faith” – Herman Bavinck

Christ is the foundational piece to the equation. Faith in Him is the heart of knowing one’s election!

The Canons of Dort said “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God” are “a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness (Article 12).  

In gaining assurance we should first ask ourselves whether we believe the objective promise of the gospel that God gave “his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)?  Then, do we subjectively (inwardly) have a filial fear of the Lord?  Do we look at him as “Our Father” and ourself as his son or daughter?  Are we sorry for our sin and do we thirst for his righteousness?  

True faith in Christ is the foundational characteristic of an elect person, because “without faith it is impossible to please God” – Hebrews 11:6

The inward promise of the gospel is that when we “believed in him” we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13).  Thus, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).  Jesus is “the vine and we are the branches” (John 15:1).  This is why spiritual growth occurs.  Our good works flow from faith—they are the fruits of faith. 

Election –> True Faith –> Fruits of faith

Everything flows from faith.  Jesus said “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). Regeneration is the beginning of spiritual life.  No one can say “Abba, Father” unless God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts (Galatians 4:6).

It’s important to point out that we’re not only predestined to faith but also to good works, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).   

A “slothful Christian cannot expect to enjoy the blessed assurance of salvation. The more our faith grows, the greater will be our assurance” – Louis Berkhof

By God’s design, a believer won’t be comfortable living a licentious life.  The Spirit wars with our flesh (Galatians 5:17). 

Staying Connected to the Body of Christ

We also shouldn’t underestimate how important it is to be connected to the church.  It’s the body of Christ and the “house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2)

Being disconnected from other believers is detrimental to our spiritual health.  Just as an ember from the fire goes out when it’s separated from the other coals, so our spiritual life can cool when it’s separated from the body of believers.  Spiritual coldness can lead to a lack of assurance.   

We need each other!  This is God’s design for the perseverance of the saints.  The church is the place where we gather and hear the Law and Gospel, pray, worship, and receive the Lord’s Supper.  These are all vital as they provide “spiritual nourishment and growth in” Christ (WCF 29.1).

Truth faith vs Hypocrisy

Mere outward conformity to the law can just as easily give a false sense of assurance as a false profession of faith.  Experience demonstrates that unbelievers can have excellent outward virtue.

The Westminster Confession explains the difference between hypocrisy and true faith:

“Hypocrites…vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God…yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may…be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace” (18.1).   

Like a chameleon, a hypocrite may blend in for a season (Mark 4:18-19), but a true believer will not only talk the talk, but will strive to love the Lord in sincerity and live a life that is pleasing to Him (1 Thessalonians 4:1).  When they fall, the believer will get up from the mud and continue on the journey, because God’s Spirit empowers them onward.

We never want to be a tyrannical “fruit checker,” but how does the Bible tell us to recognize true faith from a hypocritical one?  Jesus says “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).  For this reason, we should be careful about maliciously stomping on the fruits of faith.

Even in Luther’s day, antinomians (against God’s Law) came out of the woodwork proclaiming it’s not necessary for a Christian to perform good works. Luther responded:

“Without repentance theirs is an imagined faith. True faith brings comfort and joy in God, and we do not feel such comfort [assurance] and joy where there is no repentance.” 

God desires that good works flow from our faith.  He “does not want faith without good works or works without faith. But he wants faith first and good works in addition to and flowing from faith” (Luther).

The Lutheran Confessions also agree: “Good works always follow justifying faith and are certainly found with it—when it is a true and living faith” (Formula of Concord: Epitome).

Concluding Thoughts

Assurance is not a one size fits all.  We all have individual temperaments.  We shouldn’t compare ourselves to other men of renown or our favorite Reformation hero. 

Because we are human, our conscious experience of the feeling of faith can vary.  Assurance ebbs and flows, especially when we stay focused on our outward works. In the dark, it’s hard to see the “tender plant of spiritual life” (Bavinck).  But during these dark moments, embrace the promise of Christ by faith alone. Remember that your baptism was a sign and seal of this.  

When you’re feeling weak in faith, remember:

“However weak you are, know that you are a Christian, whether you believe perfectly or imperfectly, even while weakness and a feeling of death and sin remain with you. To such a person we must say, “Brother, your situation is not desperate, but pray…for the perfection of your faith” – Luther 

Press forward in faith knowing “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

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