Introduction: The Christian's Great Interest
If a person has a clear understanding of the nature of salvation, then the assurance of it will be a blessing second in value only to the real possession of it. Forgiveness of sins and personal interest in Christ’s righteousness and the promise of eternity in the presence of God will bring unmitigated and ever-increasing joy. The possession of such salvation cannot be surpassed in value for a rational creature in time or eternity. The assurance that such a blessing is ours makes living in this fallen world a “light and momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and infuses “joy inexpressible full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8) into this present life. For this purpose, John wrote to the churches a breath-taking, highly textured doctrinal treatise in light of the need to describe the nature of true faith so that the confidence of Christians would be well-settled and the benefits of such assurance could be felt and enjoyed in this life. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,” John summarized, “that you may know that you have eternal life.” This has not only eternal consequences, but present comforts for, “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” The understanding of the will of God has so increased in the assured believer that he asks, not as a double-minded person (James 1:5–7; 4: 2, 3), but as one who delights in the sanctifying and proving purposes of God’s will, so that he has this knowledge: “And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:13–15).
That God operates in His providence to grant a well-founded assurance to His people serves to transform those events of life that would normally annoy, bring frustration, anger, and distress. When, however, we learn that God’s removal of occasions for worldly rejoicing reveals a heart that values eternal pleasure far more, and this contributes to assurance of salvation, we embrace the occasion for such proof. So Paul taught in Romans 5: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5). Paul is not saying that our suffering saves us; Christ’s suffering saves us, and we are connected savingly to His suffering and resurrection only by faith. “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). The possession of salvation is immutably established in human experience the moment that “we gain access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). Our suffering, however, reveals that the hope given objectively by union with Christ (“We rejoice in hope of the glory of God”), floods the consciousness and purifies the affections so that that objective hope becomes a subjective, conscious certainty that the redemptive love of God, which saved us through the offering of Christ, now grants us a sure joy in a tough pilgrimage.
Peter looked upon God’s gift of assurance in the same way. If we are “grieved by various trials” in such a way that our faith is proved genuine, such a process of testing and proving is more valuable than gold. Such faith will be “found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ,” and while we await “the salvation of our souls” we find that we indeed love Christ, though we have not seen Him, and our belief in Him even in His physical absence is penetrated with “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
James looked upon the experience of the Christian in this world in the same way. “Count it all joy, my brothers” he admonished the Jewish Christians scattered abroad, “when you meet trials of various kinds.” This testing produces steadfastness and steadfastness in its advancing journey gives full Christian maturity. This maturity gives a sense of blessedness and an anticipation of receiving the “crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2, 3, 12).
God afflicted His Son for our salvation and He afflicts us for our assurance.
The book of Hebrews gives warning about dependence on false hope (Hebrews 2:1–3; 3:12, 13; 4:1, 11; 6:1–6; 10:26–31; 12:3–6, 15, 25; 13:9) but does so to encourage a true assurance. The writer extends the kind of knowledge and experience that might be present even in a false hope that will finally result in a falling away and a crumbling to the opposition in a day of trial. One may live under the influence of extensive knowledge of the gospel and the transforming and miraculous powers of the Holy Spirit and in the end bear the fruit of thorns and thistles (Hebrews 6:4–6, 8). If the Israelites were punished severely and cast off for their faithless response to the law, of how much greater severity will judgment be for those who have had both law and gospel, who have been participants in a Christ-honoring community in the midst of the Spirit’s gracious operations, and yet fail to maintain faithfulness to the gospel in light of worldly opposition. If one has seen the light and the fulfillment, it is a damning move to return to the shadow and the type. Do not stop short of full submission to Christ as the only and eternal hope or resent the opportunities for demonstration of an approved faith. “Do not throw away your confidence … for you have need of endurance … that you may receive what is promised” (Hebrews 10: 35, 36).
The purpose of Christ is to save sinners and bring them safely to heaven where their earthly desire for holiness will be consummated. “Christ is faithful over God’s house as a Son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3:6). “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (3:14). “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end” (6: 11); “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (6: 17, 18). “Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (10:22, 23). “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39). The faith that saves is the faith that can be tested and approved. The one who may gain assurance of present salvation and the certainty of future glory is the one who pursues an approved faith and welcomes the testings by which it may be demonstrated.
Provoking perseverance which leads to assurance was one of the tasks assigned to the apostles. Not only did Paul proclaim the gospel in its power and purity as the power of God to salvation, he labored for the churches to produce maturity in doctrine and in devotion, for from this flows a double assurance. The first is the assurance of a settled and irrevocable knowledge of the certain truthfulness and beauty and wisdom of the gospel in its fullness. The second in the assurance that we have been true partakers of that work of the Spirit by which Christ and His work have been made precious to us and form the only foundation of our joy and hope. After writing of God’s purpose to present a blameless people to Himself, Paul warns, “If indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:23). In light of this need for a persevering trust in gospel content and growing affection for gospel hope, Paul described a major aspect of his ministry, “Him [Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28, 29). He wanted the profession of faith to flow from a true trust in Christ even as Paul’s service came from the internal operations of the Holy Spirit. A truly Spirit-prompted-and-produced faith would certainly persevere, would be distinguished from phantasmal appearances of faith, and would eventuate in the double assurance for which Paul labored among the churches. “For I want you to know,” Paul told the Colossians, “how great a struggle I have for you … that [your] hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:1, 2).
Seeking consistency with this apostolic purpose, we present an exposition of chapter 18 of the Second London Confession, entitled “Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” By the witness of God’s Spirit, we pray that this may contribute to true assurance of God’s saving work in our hearts and make us more faithful in the unintimidated, yet loving and merciful, proclamation of the full counsel of God.
—Tom J. Nettles