Against this teaching, which was and is fundamental
to the Puritan theology and project, it is to be confessed, and preached
publicly and from house to house, that God’s act of justifying the elect
sinner by faith alone is His forgiveness of the sinner’s sins and
imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner’s account in
such a way that the sinner is assured of his forgiveness and
righteousness and therefore of his present, past, and future salvation.
For, first, as the Reformation declared about
justification, it is justification in the forum of the sinner’s
consciousness. In the very nature of the case, it is as impossible,
indeed absurd, that God should justify the elect sinner (in the forum of
his consciousness) but that the sinner is unsure whether he is
justified, that is, forgiven and saved, as it would be that a man would
hear the judge pronounce him innocent in a courtroom, leave the
courtroom an acquitted man, but doubt whether the judge had really
declared him righteous with regard to the law of the land.
Second, it is the clear teaching of the Reformed
confessions—the blessed fruit of the Reformation (which needs no
"furthering" to complete its great work, least of all in the realm of
experience, but only demands maintenance and genuine development)—that
justification consists of the assurance of his forgiveness by the
justified sinner. I may refer to Article 23 of the Belgic Confession
(1561). The heading is "Justification." After describing justification,
the article adds that the justification of believers, every believer and
all believers, "give[s] us confidence in approaching to God [including
partaking of the Lord’s Supper]; freeing the conscience of fear, terror,
and dread." This is genuine "experience," not reserved for a few special
"questors," but the gift of God to all His justified children. This is
assurance of justification.
The Heidelberg Catechism explains the fifth
petition of the model prayer, "Forgive us our debts," that is, the
petition for justification, in terms of the believer’s experience and
certainty: "... even as we feel this evidence of Thy grace in us, that
it is our firm resolution from the heart to forgive our neighbour"
(Lord’s Day 51). The believer, who prays this petition, is and must be
sure of his resolution of heart to forgive the neighbour. So is he sure
of God’s forgiveness of him.
The Puritan doctrine contradicts the confessions and
is therefore un- and anti-Reformed.
Third, the Bible teaches that justification by faith
alone includes assurance of justification. The act of justifying
assures. Having set forth justification by faith alone, apart from all
works of the elect sinner himself, Paul declares in Romans 5:1, "we have
peace with God." Peace with God is experience. Peace with God is
assurance of the divine pardon and of the divine favour that lies behind
the pardon. Peace with God is the benefit of justification for every
justified sinner, as belonging to the essence of justification. And, as
the apostle significantly adds, this peace is "through our Lord Jesus
Christ," not through a lifelong, arduous quest on the part of the
believer himself or through a mystical experience that only a few saints
Similarly, Christ bids the sinful woman to "go in
peace," that is, at once, having been justified and saved by faith"
(Luke 7). This is radically different from, "Go out now on a lifelong
quest for peace."
Likewise, the parable of the publican and the
Pharisee has the publican going to his home justified (Luke 18). Just as
he very much experienced his guilt before being justified (beat his
breast, etc.), so also going home justified means, indeed emphasizes,
the publican’s assurance of justification. He went home with a smile on
his face, leaping and dancing for joy.
Fourth, the faith that is the means of justification
is not only knowledge of the gracious, forgiving God in Christ but also
"an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my
[i.e., every believer’s] 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" (Heidelberg
Catechism, Q. & A. 21).
Fifth, with regard to the somewhat broader truth of
assurance of salvation, the Bible teaches that it is the gift of the
Holy Spirit to the elect believer by means of his faith in Christ as
promised in the gospel (see Romans 8).
To teach justification by faith alone, but then to
deny that those who are justified know that they are justified is as
much a denial of justification as Rome’s teaching of justification by
faith and works, or the teaching of the Federal (Covenant) Vision that
one can lose his justification. The effect is the same: doubt of
salvation! the paralysing, terrifying doubt of salvation!
What good does justification by faith alone do me if
I am not conscious of it, if I do not know it, if I am not certain that
God has forgiven me, even me, that Christ died for me, and that God has
justified me because He loved me with an eternal love?
Here is the gospel: Believe the gospel from the
heart, and thus in Christ presented in the gospel, and in this way, when
you believe, you are forgiven, and the Spirit in and with and by this
forgiveness testifies with your spirit that you are a justified child of
God. Receive this gift of assurance thankfully, and live and die in the
comfort of it.
Or, in the words of Paul to the Philippian jailor:
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, that is, saved
in your consciousness—assuredly saved in your consciousness. And baptism
will be the confirmation of this assured salvation.
Thank God for justification by faith alone.
Thank God for the Reformation that was used by Christ
to give us the gospel of justification, including its experience.
Cordially in Christ,
P.S. I am necessarily brief in this defence of
assurance of justification and salvation. I recommend to those of the
forum who are interested in a more full apology for assurance and a more
thorough criticism of the Puritan denial of assurance my chapter in
The Work of the Holy Spirit, "The Holy Spirit and Assurance."
This is the result of my longstanding distress at the prevailing doubt
in certain Reformed churches; my effort to understand whence this doubt
arises, especially in view of the fact that one of main purposes of the
Reformation was to comfort believers; my recent more thorough study of
the issue; my alarm at the energetic efforts of popular theologians and
movements to defend and promote Puritan doubt; and my desire that God
will deliver some from their bondage of doubt by an exposure of the
error of the Puritan teaching on assurance.