Gospel Assurance, Gospel Warnings (Washer)

Washer, Paul. Gospel Warnings and Gospel Assurance. Reformation Heritage Books.

While my views on churchly piety are on the opposite end of the spectrum, and while there is much in this book I disagree with, it is very well-written. Parts of it are quite elegant. For example, “Far too many evangelicals seem content to be ignorant of Scripture’s teaching, free from its reproof, untouched by its correction, and unshaped by its training” (Washer 124). Note how all the clauses balance one another.

I don’t disagree with him on looking for fruit, but he seems to think the general audience is living the carnal Corinthian life. I have a lot of sins in my life, but I am not sleeping with my step mom, getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, or denying the Resurrection. Moreover, as RHB published this book, I would imagine that most of those reading RHB literature aren’t living the Corinthian life, either.

My next criticism deals with a more subtle point. He sometimes shifts between “conversion experience” and “looking for the fruit of sanctification.” The latter is biblical. The former can be okay, but it certainly isn’t required. And while we should look for fruit in our lives, how do I know I have looked long enough or not enough? If someone is of a more tender conscience, he will certainly not be satisfied that he has good enough fruit. What’s needed at this point is God’s promise in his covenant seals.

Side note: Dissertation/Thesis topic: Contrast Klaas Schilder’s emphasis on promise with Washer’s emphasis on fruits.

We can also make a distinction between certainty and certitude. Geisler makes this distinction in terms of epistemology and I have found it helpful. Certainty is objective. Certitude is not. I have certainty of God’s assurance to me because of his promise and covenant seals, not because of how intensely I can feel. My certitude, however, can waver depending on growth in grace, indwelling sin, etc.

When we look for evidence, or to use Washer’s favorite phrase, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith,” following John, he says the order is hear, believe, live, know. I don’t have a problem with that. The difficulty comes, and at times he seems to be aware of it, is that a true believer with a tender conscience can come to the conclusion that he isn’t saved. In fact, if all you have to go on is your inward experience and seeing whether you measure up, then you can almost certainly conclude you aren’t saved.

The Good

>>>Helpful observation that a new relationship with God entails a new relationship with sin (23).

>>>The call to examine isn’t a call to perfection, but to test the inclinations of our hearts (56).

The Bad

Here is the problem: it is true that we are called to examine ourselves, but Washer’s tendency is to leave it there. True, he tells us to “look to Christ.” That sounds good and I am going to suggest the same thing, but Jesus isn’t just floating anywhere (or even worse, floating in our emotional states). Jesus meets us where he has promised to meet us: the promise of the Word and the signing and sealing of the Supper. Washer doesn’t mention any of that.

To his credit, Washer sees where the problem is going. He notes that “the believer’s assurance of sonship may vary in strength and intensity. Though our strong assurance of salvation is the Father’s will, even the most mature saint may struggle with doubt as he fights against the foes arrayed against him—the flesh, the world, and the devil” (151 n40). This is why simply relying on “examining oneself” apart from churchly piety and the promises in the sacraments simply punts the problem.

In his chapter “Purifying the self,” he does many word studies on “purity” and even notes that in the New Testament it sometimes refers to ritual cleansing. He not once mentions the sealing power of God in baptism. Of course, we aren’t suggesting that baptism regenerates, but it is a sign and seal and this chapter provided a perfect moment for it.

That’s the first half of the book. That was Gospel Assurance. Believe it or not, that was the good news. Now we are getting to the bad news, the warnings.

Other emphases are missing. There is another angle to consider:

Nehemiah 8:10: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Or consider the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, when asked why you are a Christian: “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may
as prophet confess his name,
as priest present myself
a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him,
and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.”

Instead of looking inward and failing to measure up, I know that Jesus poured the oil of his Holy Spirit on me. I am a king because I share in His anointing.


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