Assurance and Preaching the Word

On any given Sunday there are, sitting in the pews of church, myriad kinds of different people. There are, of course, the faithful who have battled well against unbelief throughout the previous week and are hungering and thirsting for the nourishment that comes from hearing God’s word preached among the fellowship of God’s people.

But there are also those saints who come to church much more bruised and beaten up; weary and entirely unsure of their standing before God. They are those “smoking flax” Christians where the flame of assurance has gone out. Though the smoke that rises evidences Christ’s gentle breath of love upon them, keeping that ever-so-small ember of faith alive, subjectively the Christian feels lost.  Of course, there are also those people who come with too much assurance. Folks who assume they are entirely safe and stand secure before God but when their lives are brought before the light of God’s word, it becomes evident that they ought not to have any assurance at all.

It is here where the preacher of God’s word is to apply the living and active word of God to each case. To the man who stands tall in false assurance, God’s word is the “hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). And to the man who stoops low, not even lifting his eyes up to heaven, burdened under the weight of doubt, God’s word is perfect, reviving the soul and rejoicing the heart (Psalm 19:7,8). And yet, when it comes to assurance, the preacher must use the sharp, two edged blade of Scripture with surgical precision, applying God’s word with wisdom and tact.

It is there, underneath the pulpit of a godly ministry, where a man preeminently must examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), giving diligence to make his calling and election sure (2 Peter 2:10). But how can a pastor rightly bring his preaching to bear upon each individual, working to either build up and bring assurance or, in contrast, ploughing up the hardness of heart found in so many? Here are three brief directives. 

First, pastors must pray. The Apostle Paul speaks of his authority to either build up or tear down (2 Cor. 13:10), and will do so according to what he see’s in the Corinthian congregation. And this too is what a preacher is called to every time he steps behind the pulpit. But ever before he begins to preach he must be on his knees praying. After Paul calls the Corinthians to examine themselves he says that he is “praying to God that you do not do wrong” (2 Cor. 13:7). The preacher must be in constant, earnest prayer for the people he’s preaching to, knowing that it is God who will ultimately do the work of building up in assurance or of tearing down in gospel humility, which leads to the second point.

Pastors have to know their people. Or, as it’s often stated, the Shepherd has to smell like his sheep. When working and preaching through any given text, the wise pastor will be continually thinking through each member in his church and seeking to press the implications of the text to specific individuals and instances. I am, of course, not saying the pastor needs to be naming names and pointing fingers from the pulpit; by no means! But his sermon should fit his context. His preaching should make sense to the particulars of the individuals God has given to him as he shepherds their souls. One great way to do this is to have your church directory open and in front of you throughout your sermon prep. Prayerfully work through your membership directory as you meditate upon your sermon passage and see how the Lord brings His word to apply to each individual.

Thirdly, preach the pathos of the passage. Each text carries its own individual flavor and has an emotional pathos all its own, and it behooves the preacher of God’s word to not only preach the exegetical and theological point of each passage but to rightly portray the pathos of the passage. Preaching Psalm 42 should not have the same emotional weight and feeling as preaching through Psalm 149. Likewise, when preaching through Romans 8 for example, take note of Paul’s emphasis on encouraging believers in assurance. The pathos of that passage should be carried over into the pathos of your preaching. In a subtle way, a preacher can work against the passage he’s preaching by trying to tear down when the inspired author is building up. What questions of application are you asking? Do they align with what the text is ultimately doing? When preaching through Hebrews 4, are you wanting your congregation to leave, in general, more uplifted and feeling positive, or, in keeping with the pathos of the text, do you want your congregation to “fear lest any of you should seemed to have failed to reach” the promised rest (Heb. 4:1)?

As the prophet Moses prepares to bring his ministry to an end and pass the torch to the younger preacher Joshua, he instructs his congregation, Israel, to “take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut. 32:46-47). He wants his people to find assurance in what God has promised and take careful heed of what God has warned.

The Scottish puritan pastor William Guthrie wrote in The Christian’s Great Interest, that attaining assurance “is a matter of the highest importance… and yet, very few have or seek after a saving interest in the covenant; and many foolishly think they have such a thing without any solid ground… This should alarm people to be serious about the matter, since it is of so great consequence to be in Christ, and since there be but few that may lay just claim to Him.” And so it must be with today’s pastor-preacher, bringing God’s word to bear rightly on each individual under his care, pressing them to take seriously this matter of highest importance. It is their very life.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

Assurance: a Pastoral Conversation

The best doctors are diagnosticians.  Those who have hidden the taxonomy of pathogens in their cerebral cortex and are able to ply their knowledge to the often distorted complex of a patient’s woes – that, is a doctor indeed.  The best of the Puritans were the best of spiritual doctors.  Let’s imagine that the year is 1735 and a farmer slogged the eight miles to the church on a Monday morning in late fall.  Cold and a bit agitated he finally found himself seated on an uncomfortable chair in the pastor’s study. His words came haltingly, “Pastor, I’ve been coming to church ever since I’ve been an infant in my mother’s arms.  But after your sermon yesterday, and a few before that, I don’t have any assurance of my salvation.”

With that the man’s spiritual doctor leaned forward.  In the light of the study the man looked fierce and kind all at once.  After a brief pause, the pastor asked, “Do you believe that man’s condition is such that he is in need of salvation?”  The man responded promptly, “Well, yes, of course.”  The minister leaned even further toward the man making him a bit uncomfortable.  “But,” said the minister, “do you believe that God has promised to save men and that this plan is revealed in the pages of God’s holy Word?”  Again, the answer was released as on a spring, “Yes, of course I do.  But, Pastor, my problem is not that!”  The pastor looked intently as if to say, “Well?”

With that the man explained.  I went to hear Mr. Jonathan Edwards preach not long ago and he helped me to frame my anxieties.  I know what he said, because I said it over and over until I had it committed to memory.  He said, “Faith is belief, in its general sense, of what God has revealed to us in the Gospel.  He has revealed to us that all who believe will be saved, and we must believe that on the ground of the Gospel assertion: but He has not revealed to us in the Gospel that I, Jonathan Edwards, of Northampton, shall be saved,….”[1]  The man slumped.  “That is my problem, Pastor.  My name, like Mr. Edwards, is not in that most holy Book.”

With that the Pastor took out some loose pages.  He told the man about an assembly which had met in England in 1643.  He even had a copy of the Confession which the assembly had produced, which was written on the pages he uncovered from his desk.  The man was aware of it and had heard the pastor speak of it but since he was unable to read himself he had never seen a copy.

The Pastor then comforted the man, “My dear man, let me begin by telling you that your foundation is secure.  You believe that the Bible is what it claims to be – the word of God!  There is no surer place to stand.  Now, these pastors of the Westminster Assembly tell us that since we need no further revelation in order to have assurance of our salvation it is best that we begin with our Bible.” At this the man seemed to straighten a bit.  “What is more,” the Pastor continued, “by your trudging here on this cold fall day I assume that you are ready to give all diligence to making your calling and election sure through the right use of God’s ordinary means of grace.  Is that true?”   The man nodded eagerly.

The Pastor continued, “Well, then let us refresh our memories as to what these means are according to the Westminster Assembly.[2]  First, we must believe that assurance is founded upon what the Bible says and to this you have already given your full assent. Second, we must determine whether there is inward evidence of the graces which are the fruit of believing the promises of God.  Now, only you will be able to answer this question in a satisfactory way.  And you will need to be honest with yourself and before God.”  With this last comment the Pastor seemed to look through him.

“However,” said the Pastor, “there is a third means.  It is outward.  The Assembly also wrote a larger catechism in which they say that all who truly believe in Christ will endeavor to walk in all good conscience before Him. This, though personal, is something others are able to see. And dear brother, I see this walk in your life.”  After a long pause, the Pastor leaned back in his chair and queried, “Do you?”  At this the man said, “I believe it to be the case however imperfectly.  However, my anxieties have not been relieved, for just yesterday, when I was praying, I was in such a state that I cried out, “Father, help me!”  The Pastor again smiled one smile and said, “Dear brother, this is another indication of the Spirit’s work in you.  And that same Spirit will bring His good work to completion on the day of Christ.” 

After some further conversation they prayed and the Pastor gave these final words at the end of their meeting.  “My brother, let me quote from a wise pastor by the name of Rutherford, who said, ‘Let us be putting on God’s armour and be strong in the Lord.  If the devil and Zion’s enemies strike a hole in that armour, let our Lord see to that – let us put it on, and stand.  We have Jesus on our side; and they are not worthy such a captain, who would not take a blow at His back.  We are in sight of His colours; His banner over us is love; look up to that white banner, and stand, I persuade you, in the Lord of victory.”[3]  And then, with an embrace, they parted.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor of Place for Truth.

[1] This account is fictitious.  The statement quoted is from a letter that Jonathan Edwards wrote to Ebeneezer Erskine.

[2] Westminster Confession, chapter 18, section 2.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984), 106.

Augustine, Happiness, and a Birthday Cake

If Augustine of Hippo was with us today, he might spend his birthday as he did shortly after his conversion, when he lived in Cassiciago, 25 miles north of Milan, Italy.  “After a meal light enough as not to hinder mental work,” he wrote, “I invited to the public baths all the people who lived with me (not just visitors for the day). It was a secluded place, fit for the occasion.”[1]

            Who were these people? His mother Monica, his brother Navigius, his friend Alypius, his cousins Lastidianus and Rusticus, his disciples Trigetius and Licentius, and his son Aeodatus, who was still young but had “a mind which, if my love doesn’t cause me to err, promises great things.”[2] Verecundus, the man who had lent the happy brigade his country villa, might have been there.

            There was, of course, a cake – a healthy delight made with spelt flour, almonds, and honey. Augustine was concerned about his brother, who was supposed to avoid sweets because of liver problems, but Navigius was not about to miss the treat. “On the contrary, it will be good for me,” he said, because the honey in the cake, coming from the Greek region of Imetto, was bitter-sweet and didn’t cause constipation.

            Characteristically for Augustine, the cake prompted a three-day discussion. The subject was happiness – one of his favorite themes – a universal instinct which is meant to lead us to true happiness in God. The treatise De Beata Vita (On the Blessed Life) was the happy result. For Augustine, happiness is enjoying God forever.

Augustine’s Life

It had taken Augustine a long time to arrive to that conclusion. Too long, he thought. “Late I have loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late I have loved you,” he wrote in his Confessions. His mother Monica would have agreed. She spent years praying for his conversion and crying so hard that a priest had to assure her, “A son of such tears cannot be lost.”

            Unlike her husband, Monica was a believer and raised Augustine in the church. As he grew, however, Augustine had many questions the church didn’t seem to answer. Fascinated by philosophy (particularly by Cicero), young Augustine felt unsatisfied with the Bible in the Latin translation of his time, which couldn’t compare, stylistically speaking, to the fine writings of Roman speakers and philosophers. He finally joined the Manichees, a gnostic group who promised higher knowledge. In 383, he left for Rome where he had been invited to teach – literally ditching at the last minute his mother who was expecting to go with him.

            Eventually, his mother followed him to Italy. Proud of the progress he had made in his career, she convinced him to put an end to his union with a concubine (which was legitimate in Ancient Rome) in order to marry a woman of higher status. As it turned out, the “better” marriage never happened because a series of events began to trouble Augustine’s conscience and eventually led him to seek the help of the local pastor, Bishop Ambrose. He was baptized in 387, at 33 years of age. After that, his friend Alypius persuaded him to forsake any thought of marriage in order to devote all his time to the Lord.

            Augustine would have been glad to continue the same life of reading, prayer, discussion, and peaceful enjoyment of God he experienced at Cassiciago, but God had something different in store. After being appointed first priest and then bishop of Hippo, in today’s Algeria, he began an intensely busy time of writing and debating in defense of Christian orthodoxy. He was able to put to use what he had learned in his studies and career as rhetorician by holding numerous discussions, most famously with Manichees, Donatists (who wished to rise above church failures by separating themselves as a new and purer people of God) and Pelagians (who taught that mankind has in itself the ability to obey God’s law).

            This last debate, with Augustine’s explanation of our inherent inability to obey, love, and even believe in God apart from the miraculous work of his grace, has greatly inspired Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Happiness in Augustine’s Main Writings

            Augustine’s Confessions have been considered the first Western autobiography ever written. In reality, it is much more than that. It’s a long and riveting prayer to God, which surprises and involves the reader through its honesty and ability to convey intimate thoughts and emotions. The last three of the twelve books leave the realm of biography altogether and propel us into absorbing reflections on the nature of memory and time and on the meaning of the six days of Creation. They represent a taste of the vastness of Augustine’s thought, which has prompted historian Richard W. Southern to compare him to a tempestuous and variegated ocean.[3]

            From start to finish, the Confessions are also a celebration of God’s goodness and a reminder of life’s purpose. The theme of happiness returns in the very first paragraph, as our natural search for it is only fulfilled in God (“You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You”). It then continues through the whole book as an account of Augustine’s personal quest, and is implicit in the end, with a reminder of the blessedness of “the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which has no evening.”[4]

            The same theme is expressed in Augustine’s last major book, the City of God, which has been considered his masterpiece. Writing in response to the general feelings of shock and dismay after the Visigoths’ sack of Rome in 410 AD (Rome, after all, was called “the Eternal City”), Augustine explains that there are two cities, “formed by two loves: the earthly [City of Man] by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly [City of God] by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”[5] These two cities should not be confused.

            Once again, the book ends with a reminder of the eternal Sabbath and of the final, never-ending, and complete achievement of the happiness we are all seeking: “How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!”[6]

            Today, 1663 years after this church father’s birth, all those who look forward to the same ultimate blessedness can say with confidence, “A truly happy birthday, Augustine of Hippo!”

[3] Richard W. Southern, St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 86.

[6] Idem, 22.30.

Assurance and the Westminster Confession of Faith

“The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.” Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621)[1]

Can we know that we’re saved? That question was at the heart of the Reformation. Rome taught that professing believers could never be certain of their salvation. For this reason, believers needed to be careful to perform all the duties and sacraments required to merit final justification. But even the most dedicated believers could not know for sure if they would be saved.

In contrast, the Reformers insisted that because salvation was accomplished by God’s work alone believers could know for certain that they were saved. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection secured the full salvation of all His people. Believers, instead of striving to add sufficient works to be saved, receive and rest upon Christ’s finished work for their salvation. By the work of the Spirit, believers are united to Christ and receive all of His benefits. These benefits include the perseverance of believers until the day of redemption.

Assurance of salvation is one of the most precious fruits of the Reformation. As the Reformers taught, we don’t have to wonder if we’ve done enough to be saved. We don’t have to live in fear that God will reject us at the judgment day. Our salvation has been accomplished. God has begun a good work in us, and He will bring it to completion. (Phil. 1:6)

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 18, “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” addresses four particular questions about assurance: what is (and isn’t) assurance, what is the purpose of assurance, how can we have assurance, and what do we do if our assurance is weakened?

First, what is assurance? According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, assurance is a true hope and a certainty of salvation for those who truly believe and love Jesus and who seek to live a life pleasing to Him.[2] This assurance is not the false hope of those who have not received and rested in Christ. It is not a guess or a wish. It is “an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation,”[3] the inward evidence, and the testimony of the Spirit. Because the Spirit is at work in us, we can know that we are saved and that God will keep us until the end.

What is the purpose of assurance? Besides knowing we’re saved, what does assurance do for believers? The Confession lists three “fruits of assurance.” These are having peace and love in the Spirit, love and thankfulness to God, and strength and cheerfulness in obedience.[4] The Roman Catholic Church, as evidenced by the quote above, rejected the doctrine of assurance, in part, because they believed such assurance would lead to lawless and licentious behavior. Someone who knows his salvation is secure would have no incentive to obey God, it was said.

The Reformers responded that, on the contrary, knowing that your salvation is secure, that you are at peace with God, lends “strength and cheerfulness” to obedience. As the Confession says, “so far is it from inclining men to looseness.”[5] Believers obey God, not out of fear or desperation, but out of gratitude and because of the Spirit’s continued work in their lives.

How can we have assurance? Is assurance a special blessing conferred only on the most pious believers? No, assurance is available to all believers through the work and enlightenment of the Spirit. It is built up, on the part of the believer, by diligent application of the ordinary means of grace: reading the Bible, praying, attending worship, partaking in the Lord’s Supper. By doing so, believers strive to make their calling and election sure. (2 Peter 1:10)[6] The emphasis is not on doing good works so that we may be saved, but rather on pursuing the fruit and evidence of our salvation because we have been saved so that we may be assured.

The Westminster Divines wrote pastorally in the section on assurance. They acknowledged that while the assurance is infallible the experience of it is not the same for all believers at all times. Assurance can take a long time to have and, therefore, is not so essential to faith that a person must have it to be saved. Assurance can also be weakened or damaged by neglect, sin, temptation, and even by a sense of “God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance.”[7]

What are we to do if we if our assurance is shaken? Thankfully, our assurance does not equal our salvation. Our doubts and feelings do not determine the security of our salvation in Christ. The Confession reminds us that even in those times of doubt, God does not leave us without some small seed of hope. It also provides encouragement for how to strengthen a weakened assurance. A believer is encouraged to pursue “love of Christ,” “sincerity of heart,” and “conscience of duty,” and to trust that through the work of the Spirit assurance will return. Until it does, these things will keep believers from despair.[8]

As believers who truly love Christ and who seek to serve Him, we can be assured of our salvation. The Spirit is our “earnest” or pledge and as such is the promise that we are sealed in Him. We cannot be lost. Our feelings may wax and wane, but the security we have in Christ is a firm foundation. We can love and obey God with the sure knowledge that nothing can separate us from Christ. We can look forward to Christ’s return with great joy and without fear. We can have assurance.

My name from the palms of His hands  Eternity will not erase;

Impressed on His heart it remains In marks of indelible grace.

Yes, I to the end shall endure, As sure as the earnest is given

More happy, but not more secure, The glorified spirits in heaven.[9]

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.

[2]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.1

[3]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.2

[4]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.3

[5]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.3

[6]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.3

[7]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.4

[8]    Westminster Confession of Faith, 18.4

[9]    Augustus Toplady, A Debtor to Mercy Alone

Doctrine Alone

The season of the Reformation ‘Solas’ has just ended and we have been reminded of the ‘aloneness’ of Scripture, grace, faith, Christ and the glory of God. But, hopefully, we will have also been reminded too that none of these are ‘alone’ in an absolute sense.

The Reformers never divorced Scripture totally from tradition, nor did they isolate grace from the God in whom and by whom we enjoy it. Faith alone is the means by which a sinner is justified, but faith that justifies is never alone. Christ as the incarnate Son of God can never be understood or experienced apart from the Father and the Spirit with whom he exists in the eternity of the godhead. And the glory that belongs exclusively to God cannot be divorced from the enjoyment of God that is bound up with his honour.

Yet how easily and with the best of intentions do we slip into oversimplifications of truths that really matter. We see this even in our zeal to safeguard truth from error. Whereas it is vital to be on our guard against any attempt to distort or deny the doctrines taught in Scripture, it would be a grave error to do so in a way that falls shorts of the Bible’s own expectations of how we are to do so. There is more to ‘contending for the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) than meets the eye.

There is a real danger that we become myopic in this area. Whereas we quite rightly aim for precision in our understanding and formulation of key Bible teachings; we can lose sight of the fact there is more to these teachings than formulaic accuracy.

In an earlier post entitled, ‘No Theology without Doxology’ I drew attention to the fact that, in Scripture, doctrine always leads to worship. It is impossible to truly grasp the wonder of God’s self-revelation in all its different dimensions without falling down before him in wonder, love and praise. Yet, sadly, all too often that is what happens and we end up with the theological equivalent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, ‘faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null: dead perfection.’

There is, however, another crucial dimension to understanding how theology should be done. Namely, to realise that it is not only doxological, but also ethical. If we have truly grasped the truth God has revealed, it will not only lead to praise, but also to obedience.

When Paul sent Titus to Crete ‘to straighten out what was left unfinished’ (Tit 1.5), it is clear that there were major gaps in the Cretans’ understanding of God’s truth that needed to be filled in. The apostle instructs his emissary on areas that needed particular attention. But we cannot help but be struck by the wording of Paul’s key directive:

You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no-one will malign the word of God. (Tit 2.1-5).

Three things stand out in this statement. The first is that instruction given in the church must be in accord with the ‘sound doctrine’ revealed in Holy Scripture. Paul makes this assertion over against the unsound [unhealthy] doctrines that were circulating at that time. Those who teach and preach God’s word should always aim for the clearest articulation of the truths it contains.

The second striking feature of the apostle’s words here is that his command to teach the truth goes hand in glove with his command to live it out in every sphere of life. He makes it clear that doctrine is not merely something intellectual; it is also ethical.

This should really come as no surprise. The Decalogue is prefaced by a great doctrinal declaration: ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt…’ (Ex 20.2), but it flows into a tenfold summary of ethical responsibility. So too, in the Great Commission, Jesus commands the apostles to ‘make disciples’ (which by definition means instructing them in biblical truth); but he spells out the implication of this with the words, ‘…teaching them to obey whatever I command’ (Mt 28.19-20). Doctrine is not only intended to redirect our thinking, it is also designed to redirect our lives in their entirety. (And Paul spells this out in terms of the intergenerational instruction in the things of God as one of the hallmarks of a faithful church.)

The third noteworthy detail in Paul’s instructions to Titus is the rationale he attached to it: ‘…so that no-one will malign the word of God’ (2.5). The transformed living that should characterise God’s family is not merely a matter for the reputation of the church; but for God’s reputation. Paul reinforces this in what he goes on to say about the behaviour of Christians who happen to be slaves. They should conduct themselves in such a way that ‘in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ (2.10).

Paul captures the weight of what is at stake in the very first sentence of this letter. In his greeting he states that his apostleship is ‘for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness’ (1.1) [italics added].

Going back to the solas of the Reformation, the Reformers were passionate about doctrine. They debated the best way to formulate the great truths of the Bible not merely with their opponents within the Roman Catholic church, but also with each other – allowing legitimate latitude for interpretation. But they were equally passionate for godly living: behaviour that was shaped by the truth of God’s word. There was no place for a sola doctrina that could be confined to the realm of theological debate. The truthfulness of God’s truth cannot be articulated by creed and confession in isolation from the conduct of its confessors.

Assurance and the Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism, penned mostly by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, is among the most beloved and best written statements of Reformed Christianity. The forms of assurance discussed in this catechism fall into two broad categories: 1) those benefits which accompany union with Christ and flow directly out of God’s character, and 2) various reminders and proofs of saving faith that continue throughout the Christian life and are secondary to our justification. The second category does not contribute to or bring about saving union with Christ, but these things are nonetheless a natural and necessary part of any Christian’s life.

1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?      

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

This question highlights three different sources of assurance. First, the believer is united to Christ and receives all the benefits thereof. Second, the sovereignty of God is such that He will certainly cause those who are saved to persevere. Third, the Holy Spirit indwells believers and provides assurance of eternal life.

The catechism states, “Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all His benefits.” (Q20) These benefits include the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, which makes us just before God the Father.

60. Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.

How do we know that our union with Christ will continue and that we will persevere until the end? The catechism tells us that the sovereignty of God is such that His purposes cannot fail. We are assured that “we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love; for all creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move.” (Q28) Furthermore, we have the witness of the Holy Spirit, who first worked saving faith in us and allows it to continue.

65. Q. Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all His benefits, where does this faith come from?

A. From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments.

We do not simply create faith in our own hearts, nor is our salvation suddenly in doubt if our faith seems imperfect on any given day. Rather, faith is the instrument by which we receive the saving righteousness of God.

61. Q. Why do you say that you are righteous only by faith?  

A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, for only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God. I can receive this righteousness and make it my own by faith only.

A secondary level of assurance comes from the sacraments and fruits of faith. The catechism states that the sacraments “were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel”. (Q66) However, the sacraments do not have saving power in and of themselves. Rather, they point us to what truly saves.

67. Q. Are both the Word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?

A. Yes, indeed. The Holy Spirit teaches us in the gospel and assures us by the sacraments that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.

While “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (Q62) and the rewards of God are gifts of grace, the catechism does stress that “we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits”. (Q86) Therefore, the ordinary means of grace and our sanctification point back to what Christ has already accomplished on our behalf, even as they point forward to the salvation that will be ours on the last day.

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

The Assurance of Salvation Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go our host, Dr. Jonathan Master will be on the receiving end of the questions.  So, Dr. Jeffrey Stivason joins the program to interview Dr. Master on the important topic of the assurance of salvation. 

Dr. Master is dean of the school of divinity and professor of theology at Cairn University. In addition, he is the Alliance Editorial Director and the Executive Editor of the online magazine Place for Truth.  Jonathan is the host of this podcast, Theology on the Go.  He is also a sought after conference speaker and author. 

Having been a pastor and author of a book on the topic of assurance of salvation (A Question of Consensus: The Doctrine of Assurance After the Westminster Confession) Jonathan is well qualified to be in the hot seat today!  

Just for listening, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals would like to give you a free resource. Register to win a free copy of Jonathan’s book, Question of Consensus: The Doctrine of Assurance After the Westminster Confession by going to!  

Some books Jonathan mentions on Assurance:

1.  Joel Beeke, The Assurance of Faith

2.  Joel Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance (a modified version of his The Assurance of Faith)

3.  Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ

4.  Geoff Thomas, Assurance of Salvation (an article on the Banner of Truth website)

Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

Thomas Cranmer is often remembered for his last dramatic hours of this life. After signing four documents of submission to papal authority and two statements of recantation of his previous beliefs, he shocked his large complacent audience by turning his last repentance speech into a repudiation of “all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation.” Before being rushed to the pyre, he was able to shout, “forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished there-for!”

            Cranmer kept his promise of “punishing” his hand by thrusting it into the heart of the fire. He then ended with the prayer pronounced by Stephen in Acts 7, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit … I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Cranmer’s Life – in a Nutshell

Born on 2 July 1489 in a traditional Roman Catholic family, Cranmer was prepared for a clerical profession. After achieving his MA in 1515, however, he unexpectedly hindered his career by getting married. His marriage was short-lived. His wife Joan died in childbirth, together with the baby she was carrying, and Cranmer was ordained priest and admitted into the fellowship of Jesus College.

            His participation in a diplomatic mission brought him to the attention of Henry VIII, who granted him a half-hour interview and gave him rings of gold and silver. His correspondence with the king continued while Cranmer kept busy with university administration until, in 1529, Henry consulted him over his desire to annul his royal marriage to Katherine of Aragon. By that time, the king had already cast his eyes on Anne Boleyn.

            Cranmer produced arguments for the annulment by conducting a thorough research in primary sources, proving that the king – not the pope – had supreme jurisdiction over all matters concerning his kingdom. Quite speedily (Henry had already secretly married Anne, who was pregnant), the king arranged Cranmer’s consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury on March 30, 1533, allowing him to preside over the annulment trial. On May 23, Henry’s first marriage was annulled. Five days later, his marriage with Anne was validated. Anne’s baby, Elizabeth, was born in September.

            Cranmer’s research led him to question papal authority and to engage with Protestant reformers, first by mail and then in person. In 1532, during a visit to Germany, he married a young woman named Margaret, daughter of a German theologian. He then continued to follow the writings of the continental Reformers, which Henry approved only selectively. For example, Henry remained faithful to the traditional Roman Catholic theology of the mass and issued a conservative Act of Six Articles which, among other things, reaffirmed clerical celibacy, forcing Margaret Cranmer (who had at least one daughter by this time) to flee the country.

            In spite of this, Cranmer stayed by the king’s side, backing some of his decisions and opposing others (such as the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536, that of Thomas Cromwell in 1540, and an act “for the advancement of true religion” which restricted the reading of the Bible to persons of a higher social status).

            Things changed dramatically in 1547, when Henry died, leaving the throne to his young son Edward VI, under the supervision of Lord Protector Edward Seymour. From the start, Seymour and Cranmer planned a radical break with the medieval church, which Cranmer inaugurated by acknowledging his marriage and growing a beard (an outward gesture used by many reformers to show their distinction from medieval clergy). To consolidate the budding English reformation, Cranmer invited to England continental reformers, starting with Peter Martyr Vermigli and Bernardino Ochino. Martin Bucer followed in 1549.

            Cranmer’s efforts ended abruptly when Edward VI died of a sudden illness and the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor rose to the throne, bringing back the Latin Mass, the rituals, and some forms of monasticism.

            Mary’s persecution of Protestants, however, worked against her. Her large number of executions, even of people who had supported her ascent to the throne, eroded much of the popularity she had enjoyed as daughter of Henry VIII. Besides, the many people who were compelled to find refuge in Protestant countries became further strengthened in their convictions by the sample of Reformed liturgy and life they were able to experience. After Mary’s death and Elizabeth’s coronation, they returned with a new vision for a radical transformation of their country. 

            Cranmer was one of Mary’s victims. Arrested and imprisoned on September 14, 1553, he was tried and condemned for treason on November 13, together with Jane Grey (who had ruled for nine days after Edward’s death), her husband Guildford Dudley, and Guildford’s brothers Henry and Ambrose.

            After the failure of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion in February 1554, Cranmer was temporarily joined in prison by Nicholas Ridley, John Bradford, and Hugh Latimer, but was soon separated from them. His final condition of isolation weakened him considerably, leading to the recantation he later renounced.

The Book of Common Prayer

Cranmer’s greatest achievement, the Book of Common Prayer, was issued in March 1549. It included a new liturgy in English, as opposed to the old liturgy in Latin. It was also much simpler than the old Roman Catholic missal, giving prominence to the reading of Scriptures, and restoring the Lord’s Supper to a distribution of both bread and wine to the laity. By emphasizing prayer, praise, and study, he was hoping to bring a greater knowledge of God and His Word to a people who were used to delegating those activities to the clergy.

            The prayer book was not unopposed. It provoked much resistance of both traditionalists and radicals (such as John Hooper, who refused for a time to wear any religious vestments, and John Knox, who opposed the practice of kneeling during the Lord’s Supper). The English people was also not completely on board, because changes are always disconcerting. Compromises had to be made (for example, Cranmer issued a “black rubric” to be inserted in each book to reassure the people that kneeling during the Lord’s Supper didn’t mean worshiping the elements).

            Ultimately, even Cranmer was not completely happy with the result, especially after his old colleague Stephen Gardiner told him that the book could very well be used in support of Roman Catholic theology. The 1552 version was closer to what was done and taught in Geneva and Zurich, but this edition lasted only eight months, because Mary I outlawed it.

            Re-introduced in 1559, with some modifications, by Elizabeth I, the book became mandatory. Once again, opposition continued, especially from Puritans who wanted a purer form of worship. Thomas Cartwright called it “an unperfect book, culled and picked out of that Popish dunghill.” This went along with the Puritan hostility toward the vestments, images, and choirs that Elizabeth had kept in the Church of England.

            Many Scots were also horrified to discover that their King James VI liked this “middle way,” as opposed to the simple and somber worship instituted by the Scottish Reformers. He also liked the hierarchy of the Church of England, which affirmed the king as head of the church. Things worsened as he became king of Great Britain, uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

            These feelings of discontent culminated in the English Civil War, as the Puritans fought for a last chance to purge their churches of popish superstitions. In Scotland, riots started when King Charles I tried to impose a version of the Book of Common Prayer (closer to the 1549 version). Most famous is the rebellion of a congregation who attacked a preaching bishop with a bombardment of Bibles and even a wooden stool. The opposition escalated to the point that a bishop conducted his service while holding a pair of loaded pistols. Finally, in February 1638, a group of Scottish nobles, clergy and gentry signed the National Covenant, promising to defend the Scottish kirk against impositions of liturgy or vestments by the crown.

            Even in England, the Book of Common Prayer was replaced for some time by a Book of Common Order (similar to what the church in Scotland used). Ultimately, after a long time of discussions, reworkings, and compromises, the church produced the 1662 version which is still used today. Obviously imperfect, as every human document will always be, this version is still at the heart of Anglican worship and contains some of the most beautiful prayers ever expressed. Even non-believers have praised it as a masterful literary work, which has deeply influenced the English language and thought.

Westminster & Ordination: A Fourfold State of the Call

I could take you to the exact spot where, while rolling down the road in our two-tone brown, 1984 Chevy Cavalier, I shyly said: “Dad, I think I’m being called into the ministry.” If you count both streams of my family, I’m a 5th generation minister. One might say: “It’s the family business!” or “It’s all I know.” But that didn’t diminish the need to be clear in what the Lord’s calling was on my life, reconciling that inner sense with outer activity. I’m thankful my Father didn’t feel the need to shove me one direction (toward the calling that he fulfilled for over half a century) or another (away from that same calling that had brought much suffering and sacrifice over those decades), but simply replied: “Keep putting yourself in opportunities to serve and see what becomes clear to you and those around you.” The simple fact he was laying before me is that there is an inner and outer aspect to the call of ministry. When both of those align clearly, the man is ordained. In other words, the outward laying on of hands, confirming one’s call, is simply acknowledging that the Holy Spirit was first to beckon the man to serve Christ and his Church through the ministry. Paul reminds Timothy of this in his letter to him, that ordination is an inner calling (1:14) with the outward element of the laying on of hands (1:6).

The Westminster Divines also knew this to be true. The Westminster Form Of Presbyterial Church-Government gives an extensive outline as to how a man should be examined (in Biblical Languages, Latin, Theology, Preaching, Philosophy, Logic, etc.) and for what purpose (for the sake of the charge to which he would be called)! Woven throughout is this matter of weighing what the man senses as his call and what the Presbytery and Congregation sense as his call. The inner call is acknowledged throughout the section “Touching the Doctrine of Ordination” as the work is set forth to determine if the man who senses a calling should indeed fill the role in Christ’s Church. The inner call is legitimized by the outer call. This gives us, then, Four States of Calling in the life of the believer.

1. No Internal Call & No External Call: This man is quite happy. He doesn’t have to lead the church, and he doesn’t believe he’s called to lead the church.

2. Internal Call & No External Call: A man in this condition tends to be heartbroken in his approach to life in the church. He may become overly sensitive to any perceived failing on the part of his church’s leadership, often playing “Monday morning quarterback” on decisions that differ from where HE would have taken the congregation. This man must be on guard, watching his heart carefully. Perhaps, in time, others will come to understand that he really is called to the work of minister or elder. However, if he grows bitter, they will not, exacerbating the man all the more.

3. No Internal Call & External Call: This man is dangerous.  While he’s been “handed the wheel,” so to speak, he hasn’t earned truly acquired his driver’s license. Decisions he helps to make for the congregation will be expedient, fleshly, convenient, and, ultimately damaging. A constant friction will undergird even the most brilliant moments of his ministry or shepherding, a friction that comes from the basis of his work (worldly and vain philosophies) being at odds with the ends of his work (a spiritual house built up for God’s glory)! These men either root themselves out or must be dug out. Much pain and confusion comes when those with no internal call are ordained and installed to an office in Christ’s Church as if they did. This is why those gathered at Westminster were so intentional regarding examinations. They had seen, first hand, the damage done to so many parishes by those who had no business being elders or ministers. May we be patient and faithful if we must undo what those before us have done!

4. Internal Call & External Call: What a blessing to Christ’s Church! This man knows the call of Christ in his life and the call the Church on his ministry. He operates in his giftedness as it has been granted by the Holy Spirit and as those gifts have been built up by the Seminary, as he has prepared himself to be a minister of Christ Jesus, “stir[ring] up the gift of God, which is in you by the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:6)”.

There is an internal calling of God, accompanied by gifts. There is an external calling of the church, accompanied by education, examination, and accountability. These intersect at Ordination. Let us pray for more men to be called internally and externally, gifted and trained, ordained to meet the need of godly elders and pastors in Christ’s Church! And may we pray for and generously give to those Seminaries that are faithfully training these faithful ministers.

Joel Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Westminster & Ordination: The Vows

The men whom we mean are seeking not membership in the Church, but a place in the ministry, and they desire not to learn but to teach. … Whether it be desirable or not, the ordination declaration is part of the constitution of the Church. If a man can stand on that platform he may be an officer in the Presbyterian Church; if he cannot stand on it he has no right to be an officer in the Presbyterian Church.[1]

Twenty-five years ago, my dad was preparing for his ordination exam to be a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. In order to be ordained as a pastor in the PCA (or other NAPARC churches), a man must pass a thorough examination by the men of the presbytery. As part of his preparation, he was studying the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order. To help him get ready, Dad made study cards and had us all take turns quizzing him. It was a family effort. He’d hand us another stack while he sat across from us and say jokingly, “More questions! More questions!” By the time of his examination, we were all well-versed.

Having grown up in the Southern Baptist denomination (except my mother who was raised Presbyterian), rigorous questions on confessional standards were not what we’d experienced before. But we were learning that such standards and examinations were a blessing and a benefit both for the elders and for the congregations.

Denominations with confessional standards require their elders to know the confession and catechisms, to affirm them, and to uphold them. This is intended to protect the sheep and to promote the peace and purity of the church and denomination. As the Machen wrote in the quote above, the requirement is different for those men seeking ordination. We require more of our ordained leaders than we do of the lay members in the church.

In the PCA and OPC, elders vow to “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”[2] The same is not required of lay members of the church in their membership vows. The reason for the difference is that the elders are responsible to lead the church faithfully and to teach sound doctrine that conforms to the Bible and to the confessional standards of their church.

These vows are a serious business and not to be taken lightly. It requires honesty and integrity on the part of the elders and those who approve them for ordination. When a man vows to “receive and adopt” the confessional standards of his denomination, he is promising that his personal views are in accord with the standards. He’s also promising that he will maintain and uphold those standards for as long as he is an elder in his denomination.

For this reason, if a man holds a view different from what the confessional standards teach, he must make his view known during his examination. This is so that the men of the presbytery may determine if his views are within acceptable bounds.[3] In the PCA, the ordination question goes on to ask

do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?[4]

Over time, a man’s views may change. He may find himself to be in fundamental disagreement with what the confessional standards teach. If so, it is his responsibility to make his new views known to his presbytery. If he can no longer affirm that he is in accord with the standards, he should publicly say so. This protects his congregation and denomination by removing someone who is out of accord with the standards.

Some, especially those in non-confessional denominations, believe that having confessional standards for ordination that elders are required to know, affirm, and uphold is unnecessarily strict. Some have called the standards a “straitjacket.” On the contrary, the structure and protection the standards provide should be a great comfort both for elders and for members of the congregation. Each knows what to expect.

By requiring elders to “receive and adopt” the confessional standards of their denomination, the men, women, and children of the congregation are protected from false teaching and the peace and purity of the church and denomination are upheld.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;  until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming – Ephesians 4:11-14, NASB

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She has a BA in History from Texas A&M University. She is a member of a PCA church in the Houston area and the homeschooling mother of three boys.

[1]    John Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923, pg 164)

[2]    PCA, OPC Ordination Question 2

[3]    The relative merits of strict subscription versus good faith subscription are beyond the scope of this article.

[4]    PCA Ordination Question 2