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Posts Tagged ‘Assurance’

How does one know he or she is a Christian?

Many who believe that the gospel is true, and would say Jesus died and rose again for the sins of the world, often still have a most difficult time believing this gospel is true for them personally. So they labor under a painful conscience and eventually give up hope of every finding a remedy. What can one do? Is there any hope for one like this?

The answer is most certainly, Yes!

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes out the only prescription:

To make it quite practical let me say that there is a very simple way of testing yourself to know whether you believe that. We betray ourselves by what we say. The Lord Himself said we should be justified by our words, and how true it is. I have often had to deal with this point with people, and I have explained the way of justification by faith and told them how it is all in Christ, and that God puts His righteousness upon us. I have explained it all to them, and then I have said: ‘Well, now are you quite happy about it, do you believe that?’ And they say, ‘Yes’. Then I say: ‘Well, then, you are now ready to say that you are a Christian’. And they hesitate. And I know they have not understood. Then I say: ‘What is the matter, why are you hesitating?’ And they say: ‘I do not feel that I am good enough’…. They are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian, good enough to be accepted with Chirst. They have to do it! ‘I am not good enough.’ It sounds very modest, but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith. You think that you are being humble. But you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good eough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him! – Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and its Cure (1965), 33-4.

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If you have ever ready any of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, perhaps you have wondered how it relates to one’s Reformed piety? I remember the book came highly recommend to me by a fellow Presbyterian as one of the most impacting books I should read to better understand the Christian faith. I was lent the book and began reading.

But after a little while I was astonished at the absence of Christ being set fourth as the foundation of one’s righteousness and assurance before God. It seemed to me little more than Medieval moralism.

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711), a Dutch Puritan and leader in the Dutch Further Reformation, offers a helpful balance:

Thomas à Kempis….. having written that excellent treatise The Imitation of Christ in three volumes. The fourth volume is not authored by him; it is idolatrous and has been added by someone else. However… à Kempis [has] little to say about the Lord Jesus as being the ransom and righteousness of sinners–about how He, by a truth faith, must be used unto justification and in approaching unto God, beholding in His countenance the glory of God, and practicing true holiness as originating in Him and in union with Him. Readers must note this about [à Kempis], keeping this in mind when they read… They will then be able to benefit from [his] writings.
The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, pp.  640-41.

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Calvin, Divine Mercy, and Assurance

“There are very many also who form such an idea of the divine mercy as yields them very little comfort. For they are harassed by miserable anxiety while they doubt whether God will be merciful to them. They think, indeed, that they are most fully persuaded of the divine mercy, but they confine it within too narrow limits. The idea they entertain is, that this mercy is great and abundant, is shed upon many, is offered and ready to be bestowed upon all; but that it is uncertain whether it will reach to them individually, or rather whether they can reach to it. Thus their knowledge stopping short leaves them only midway; not so much confirming and tranquillising the mind as harassing it with doubt and disquietude. Very different is that feeling of full assurance which the Scriptures uniformly attribute to faith an assurance which leaves no doubt that the goodness of God is clearly offered to us.”

“Doubtless, if we are to determine by our works in what way the Lord stands affected towards us, I admit that we cannot even get the length of a feeble conjecture: but since faith should accord with the free and simple promise, there is no room left for ambiguity.”

“Therefore, if we would know whether God cares for our salvation, let us ask whether he has committed us to Christ, whom he has appointed to be the only Saviour of all his people. Then, if we doubt whether we are received into the protection of Christ, he obviates the doubt when he spontaneously offers himself as our Shepherd, and declares that we are of the number of his sheep if we hear his voice (John 10: 3, 16). Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, who is kindly offered to us, and comes forth to meet us: he will number us among his flock, and keep us within his fold.”

(Calvin’s Institutes, Book III).

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Do you ever wonder what people think about you? If they like you, or dislike you? If they’re mad at you, or happy with you? And sometimes we don’t have an indicator about these things and we are left uncertain and uneasy. If only we had a glimpse, maybe a smile, or a laugh. Or even better, a pleasant word.

Often times I can remember wondering what God really thought about me. Was he pleased with me? What would he say if I got a chance to talk to him? Oh, if only I could get some reassurance that he wasn’t upset with me, that I was doing okay, that he still approved of me.

I can also remember vividly thinking of how lucky the disciples were for this reason. They got to walk and talk with God every day. They could’ve asked him anything they wanted. If there was ever a pressing issue on their minds or a decision they needed to make, the Lord of the universe was at hand saying things like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28). Sometimes I would wonder, Did those disciples have any idea how lucky they were?

Another character in the Bible is Jacob. He actually got to talk with God face to face — more than that, he even wrestled with God! That’s when Jacob said to the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And we can read in the account that the Lord then gave Jacob a new name and blessed him. What is interesting is how Jacob responds after this. We read, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Gen. 32:20).

Can you imagine? Getting to talk to God (let alone wrestle him) and then walking away thinking, “Not only did he not destroy me, he even blessed me! God just blessed me! That means he’s not mad at me. The greatest person in all the world, whose opinion about me means more than anything, just smiled upon me and declared his favor toward me. That means I’m not going to die. That means I’m going to live!” Although we can only tell a little from the narrative, it seems fair to assume that Jacob must have been beside himself with joy.

Luther comments on this passage,

Jacob was comforted by showers of blessings from God. he also received the benefits of the blessings that were given to his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. Nevertheless, he struggled with his weaknesses. You should say to yourself, “I am not alone when I’m afraid of God’s anger, when I wonder if God has chosen me, and when I worry about losing my faith. I am not alone!” All believers–every believer past and present who has ever believed in God’s son–experiences the same struggle. God uses these experiences to refine us. Eventually, like Jacob, you’ll be able to stand up and joyfully proclaim, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

Unlike Jacob, we don’t get to talk face to face with our Lord, let a lone wrestle with him. No, we’re left far away with seemingly so little to go on.

Wait a minute. Are we? When we hear God speak to us in his word; when we read of his promise of forgiveness and life everlasting; are we really left so alone and in the dark? When we hear the declaration of pardon every Lord’s day; when we see our baby brothers and sisters receiving the sign and seal of the covenant in baptism; when we taste the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper; do we really have so little to go on? When we hear Christ’s words,

“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”’

Are we really left with so little to go on? Oh, my friends, I think not. For all of these are Christ’s word to us. He has given us a new name and blessed us. Here, we are at a better place than even the disciples. For they could talk to Christ when he was on Earth. But he didn’t disclose nor explain everything to them. For he said it would be too much for them. They had to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. And Jacob, he may have been beside himself that the Angel of the Lord did not destroy him, but oh how we have even a greater word, a clearer promise, and the surest blessings as he ever received — eternal blessings in the heavenly realms, where we are seated presently with Jesus Christ.

What does that mean? Well, that means God is not mad at us! That means we’re going to live. That means we’re going to live forever!

Brothers and sisters, if you hear the word of Christ, his promise of eternal life, the forgiveness of your sins, and everlasting righteousness; If you have believed that word, if you are trusting only on that promise to save you, a poor miserable sinner, and you are not banking on any of your merit, works, or righteousness; then you can be comforted and assured that God is not mad at you. Instead of God coming face to face and seeing your ugly sins, he comes face to face and sees Christ’s beautiful obedience. Just like Esther who was robed in royal gowns so that her King found her pleasing in his eyes and adored her, so we also have found favor in God’s sight because of the righteous robes of Christ.

We don’t have to wonder what God thinks of us. We don’t have to worry whether he is mad, or upset with us. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is well pleased with his son Jesus. And we are in his son. Thus we, too, are safe.

Yes, we can be sure that God smiles upon us. He has given us his word.

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“This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus” (1 John 4:17). Calvin comments:

But he seems thus to place a part of our confidence on works. Hence the Papists raise their crests here, as though John denied that we, relying on God’s grace alone, can have a sure confidence as to salvation without the help of works. But in this they are deceived, because they do not consider that the Apostle here does not refer to the cause of salvation, but to what is added to it. And we readily allow that no one is reconciled to God through Christ, except he is also renewed after God’s image, and that the one cannot be disjoined from the other. Right then is what is done by the Apostle, who excludes from the confidence of grace all those in whom no image of God is seen; for it is certain that such are wholly aliens to the Spirit of God and to Christ. Nor do we deny that newness of life, as it is the effect of divine adoption, serves to confirm confidence, as a prop, so to speak, of the second order; but in the meantime we ought to have our foundation on grace alone. Nor indeed does the doctrine of John appear otherwise consistent with itself; for experience proves, and even Papists are forced to confess, that as to works they always give an occasion for trembling. Therefore no one can come with a tranquil mind to God’s tribunal, except he believes that he is freely loved.

But that none of these things please the Papists, there is no reason for any one to wonder, since being miserable they know no faith except that which is entangled with doubts. Besides, hypocrisy brings darkness over them, so that they do not seriously consider how formidable is God’s judgment when Christ the Mediator is not present, and some of them regard the resurrection as fabulous. But that we may cheerfully and joyfully go forth to meet Christ, we must have our faith fixed on his grace alone.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Calvin again,

There is no fear. He now commends the excellency of this blessing by stating the contrary effect, for he says that we are continually tormented until God delivers us from misery and anguish by the remedy of his own love towards us. The meaning is, that as there is nothing more miserable than to be harassed by continual inquietude, we obtain by knowing God’s love towards us the benefit of a peaceful calmness beyond the reach of fear. It hence appears what a singular gift of God it is to be favored with his love. Moreover from this doctrine, he will presently draw an exhortation; but before he exhorts us to duty, he commends to us this gift of God, which by faith removes our fear.

This passage, I know, is explained otherwise by many; but I regard what the Apostle means, not what others think…. for the Apostle only teaches us, that when the love of God is by us seen and known by faith, peace is given to our consciences, so that they no longer tremble and fear.

It may, however, be asked, when does perfect love expel fear, for since we are endued with some taste only of divine love towards us, we can never be wholly freed from fear? To this I answer, that, though fear is not wholly shaken off, yet when we flee to God as to a quiet harbor, safe and free from all danger of shipwreck and of tempests, fear is really expelled, for it gives way to faith. Then fear is not so expelled, but that it assails our minds, but it is so expelled that it does not torment us nor impede that peace which we obtain by faith.

Fear hath torment. Here the Apostle amplifies still further the greatness of that grace of which he speaks; for as it is a most miserable condition to suffer continual torments, there is nothing more to be wished than to present ourselves before God with a quiet conscience and a calm mind. What some say, that servants fear, because they have before their eyes punishment and the rod, and that they do not their duty except when forced, has nothing to do, as it has been already stated, with what the Apostle says here. So in the next clause, the exposition given, that he who fears is not perfect in love, because he submits not willingly to God, but would rather free himself from his service, does not comport at all with the context. For the Apostle, on the contrary, reminds us, that it is owing to unbelief when any one fears, that is, has a disturbed mind; for the love of God, really known, tranquilizes the heart. – Calvin’s Commentaries

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Where do we find our chief assurance of salvation in this life? Is it in the goodness of our works? Or in Christ? Do we find it in our repentance, our sorrow for sin, our affections for Christ, and our love toward our neighbors?

These are all the fruit of faith. But do they provide the foundation for our assurance before God? Here’s what Calvin has to say:

…for though faith is confirmed by all the graces of God as aids, yet it ceases not to have its foundation in the mercy of God only. As for instance, when we enjoy the light, we are certain that the sun shines; if the sun shines on the place in which we are, we have a clearer view of it; but yet when the visible rays do not come to us, we are satisfied that the sun diffuses its brightness for our benefit. So when faith is founded on Christ, some things may happen to assist it, still it rests on Christ’s grace alone. – Calvin, Commentary of 1 John 3:14

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In John 10:28 we have the very comforting words of Christ regarding his sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Calvin comments:

It is an inestimable fruit of faith, that Christ bids us be convinced of our security when we are brought by faith into his fold. But we must also observe on what foundation this certainty rests. It is because he will be a faithful guardian of our salvation, for he testifies that our salvation is in his hand And if this were not enough, he says that they will be safely guarded by the power of his Father. This is a remarkable passage, by which we are taught that the salvation of all the elect is not less certain than the power of God is invincible.

Besides, Christ did not intend to throw this word foolishly into the air, but to give a promise which should remain deeply axed in their minds; and, therefore, we infer that the statement of Christ is intended to show that the elect are absolutely certain of their salvation. We are surrounded, indeed, by powerful adversaries, and so great is our weakness, that we are every moment in imminent danger of death; but as He who keeps what we have committed to him (2 Timothy 1:12) is greater or more powerful than all, we have no reason to tremble as if our life were in danger.

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