Most of us can sing from memory the first verse of the hymn by Fanny Crosby:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
Through Christ's perfect sacrifice on the cross, we have been redeemed. We have been freed from the guilt of sin and, through the power of the Spirit, we have been cleansed from its pollution. United with Christ, we have the assurance that we are his and that he is ours. We have fellowship with Him. We are confident that we shall be transformed into his image. We know that Christ will come again, according to his promise, to claim His purchased possession and to let us inherit the salvation he has prepared for us, even before the beginning of time.
The assurance we have in Christ follows naturally from our union, with him. In him we receive all of the benefits of salvation, and assurance is one of them. But we must be clear as to the source of this assurance. It belongs to our Christian experience, but it does not flow from this experience itself. It is not rooted in the authority of the church or dependent on our good works as believers.
As we speak about assurance, we must be alert to the dangers of pietism, which overemphasizes the drama of the Christian's inner life and tends to seek assurance in human experience. We must also be alert to the challenges of an increasingly aggressive Roman Catholic Church, which is accusing Protestants of breaking with the tradition of "the Church" (as expounded in its authoritative teaching ministry) and of having fallen into individualistic arbitrariness and confusion. Protestants arc accused of having left the comfort of the Church's fellowship, and of having downplayed good works, which are necessary if one is to receive the assistance of God's grace. Faced with such challenges, Reformed Christians should seriously inquire into the foundations of their assurance in Jesus Christ.
We should be very respectful of Christ's church and its teaching ministry. The church is indeed the church of Christ, and he said that hell itself would not be able to resist its onslaughts. But we should keep things in perspective. The church has authority, but it is not infallible. The church is not the source of the Word of God; rather, it is built upon the Word. It is not the lord of the Word; rather, it is subject to the Word. Therefore, even the humblest believer has the right to appeal the decisions and pronouncements of the church, if these do not agree with the Word of God.
We should be ready, and even eager, to perform good works. The Christian will be known by the fruit that he bears. The Scriptures portray the life of the Christian as a constant exercise of faith and growth into conformity to Jesus Christ. Yet, we do not perform good works so that we can become right with God. Justification is not a product of Christian life; rather, it stands at its entranceway. The apostle Paul speaks of justification as the Christian's present possession:
Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.Romans 5:1
We should cherish the assurance we have in Christ. It is a natural part of our Christian experience. Yet, our assurance is not grounded in our experience. True experience will not exchange true piety for pietism and turn in on itself; it will look beyond itself to Christ and what he has done for us. Our assurance is grounded in God's Word and is confirmed by the witness of the Spirit in our hearts. It is rooted in the perfect work of Christ, and, because of its perfection, it brings with it an assurance that cannot be shaken. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that we can have an infallible assurance that we are sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ (chapter 18).
The biblical doctrine of assurance has often been attacked. A sense of assurance, it is said, leads to deadness in one's Christian life. If one is to be vital, one must be kept in a state of uncertainty. Some go even farther. They say that faith cannot be genuine unless it is accompanied by doubt. According to the Roman Church, one may allow for assurance only in the collective life of the church. Because the Christian has not yet finished his race, matters still remain undecided. Short of glory individual certainty is impossible.
But there is certainty for the believer in Christ. Is a faithful husband any less devoted and faithful because he is confident of his wife's love? Is a wife any less devoted and faithful because her husband belongs to her? Analogously, the fact that Christ is ours and we are his does not at all detract from the vitality of the relationship. Jesus said that the believer draws life from him like a branch draws its life from the vine. He calls himself the bread of life and the water of life. The assurance of the Christian flows from the witness of the Spirit in his heart, and the work of the Spirit is like an artesian well, constantly springing up unto eternal life. Indeed, assurance of salvation is a normal and vital part of Christian living.