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January 30, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about differences between Lutheran and Reformed approaches to the assurance of salvation.  Soon I will post some thoughts that are finally beginning to settle in my mind.  But first, here’s a sermon on assurance I preached last year that will give some necessary background…

Romans 8:16  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

So the Spirit himself is the one who gives us assurance that we are children of God.  We are not left to ourselves to assure ourselves that we are God’s children.  It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to assure us that we are God’s children. 

Now how does He do this?  There are some commentators who say that Paul is saying nothing in verse 16 that he hasn’t already said earlier in the chapter.  The way the Holy Spirit bears witness to the fact that we are children of God is by inclining our minds to the things of the Spirit (verse 5), by leading us to put to death our sins (verse 14) by stirring us to pray “Abba, Father” (verse 15).  When you see that happening in your life, you know that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in you and so you inductively conclude that you are a child of God. 

But I believe that verse 16 is saying more than that.  Notice the emphatic construction, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit.”  There are two witnesses.  Our spirit witnesses to the fact that we are children of God when we by the Spirit put to death our sins and think on things above and pray to the Father.  But, in addition to this, the Holy Spirit himself witnesses that we are children of God. 

I believe that Paul is here describing a direct, immediate, experiential revelation of the love of God along the lines of what he said in Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” 

When we looked at that verse just over a year ago, I told you that theologians like John Owen have helpfully distinguished between 3 kinds of assurance of salvation: Objective, Subjective, and Immediate. 

Objective assurance works like this: The Bible says that if you believe in the name of the Son of God you have eternal life.  Do you believe in the name of the Son of God?  Then you have eternal life.  That’s it.  God said it, you can be assured of it.  Subjective assurance means looking at your own life for evidence that you are born again.  And immediate assurance is what Paul is talking about in Romans 5:5 and 8:16.  It is a direct experiential revelation of the love of God through the indwelling Holy Spirit.    

This morning I’m going to handle these three kinds of assurance in reverse order.  For although the immediate assurance by the witness of the Holy Spirit himself can be called the highest kind of assurance in that it is the most ecstatic, I believe that it is the objective assurance that is actually most important in the sense of being most essential to practically persevering in the faith.   And I suspect that the call to be more objective in our thinking about assurance is the call that most of us most need to hear, so I want to end on that note. 

But I begin now with the kind of assurance spoken of in this morning’s text, and that is

I. Immediate Assurance

William Guthrie describes it this way, “”It is a glorious manifestation of God unto the soul…It is a thing better felt than spoke of. It is no audible voice, but it is a ray of glory filling the soul with God, as He is life, light, love and liberty, corresponding to that audible voice, [heard by Daniel in Daniel 9:23] ‘O man, greatly loved’”

John Piper preached on this verse, “We don’t infer logically the fatherhood of God from the testimony of the Spirit. We enjoy emotionally the Fatherhood of God by the testimony of the Spirit. The testimony of the Spirit is not a premise from which we deduce that we are children of God; it is a power by which we delight in being the children of God.”

And I can testify that there have been times when I do not need to deduce that I am a child of God from principles in Scripture, nor do I need to induce that I am a child of God from looking at evidences of grace in my life.  Rather, I simply perceive immediately the witness of the Holy Spirit that I am a child of God.  I know that I am a child of God because the Spirit sheds abroad the love of God in my heart.  It is not something perceived by bodily senses; it is something more unquestionable than bodily senses.  It is Spirit-to-spirit communion.  Now this is not, of course, a constant and unchanging awareness.  But it has happened to me enough that I don’t doubt it much anymore. 

Now perhaps this is not your experience.  Perhaps you are one of the many Christians I have know who struggle very deeply with assurance.  You must not conclude that the absence of the experiences I’ve described means you are not a child of God.  No, there are better foundations for your assurance than these experiences and we’re going there in a minute.  So don’t accuse yourself; don’t beat yourself up.

But on the other hand, although this experience is not essential to your having practical assurance, it is very helpful and wonderful and I want to encourage you to seek it.  Pray like David in Psalm 35 who when he was in great distress and pursued by his enemies prayed this to God in verse 3 “Say unto my soul, ‘I am your salvation’”.   David not only asked God to save him, he asked God to speak these words to his soul, “I am your salvation.”   Would you pray and ask God to do this for you?  Ask him to assure you of your salvation rather that striving so hard to assure yourself.   Ask God to witness directly to your Spirit that you are his beloved child. 

But then after you pray this, don’t just sit there waiting for a whisper in your ear.  Remember that the ministry of the Spirit is to take of what is Christ’s and make it known to us.  The Spirit is given to open our eyes to know every good thing given us in Christ.  So, after praying for him to do this, look to Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Meditate on the glories of Jesus in his Word and as you do this the Holy Spirit will shed abroad the love of the Father in your heart.  Right after we are told in Romans 5:5 that the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we are told in Romans 5:8 that God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.   So gaze upon the cross as you pray for the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, for it is through opening your eyes to the love of God shown on the cross that the Spirit will shed abroad that love in your heart.

(To be continued…)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2008 11:09 am

    I posted my newest thoughts in the Boars Head Tavern today

  2. Albert Lee permalink
    January 30, 2008 4:32 pm

    Do your newest thoughts conflict with what you just stated about objective assurance: “The Bible says that if you believe in the name of the Son of God you have eternal life. Do you believe in the name of the Son of God? Then you have eternal life. That’s it.”? Or am I out to lunch?

  3. January 31, 2008 10:01 am

    I don’t think my new thoughts conflict with that statement, but I now understand that my statement quoted above is not an accurate summary of the Lutheran view of assurance. They would say that’s still too subjective. I’m guessing you read Cary’s article and you see that he rejects my statement as “The Protestant syllogism”? I’m not disowning the Protestant syllogism. I’m just changing the way I think about the nature of saving faith and self-examination.

  4. Albert Lee permalink
    February 4, 2008 5:08 pm

    I see now what you mean. I’m reading your 3-part series on Assurance with much interest.

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