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.

The Certainty of Faith (Bavinck)

Bavinck, Herman. The Certainty of Faith. St Catherines, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1980.

This is one of those rare books that is able to make profound epistemological points while always remaining at the level of the layman. Reformed people might claim they are above the charismatic desire for “experience” and “emotion.” I suggest many are on the same level. If your faith is pointed towards the intensity of your emotions, if you don’t like celebrating the Lord’s Supper often (not necessarily weekly) because it wouldn’t be spay-shul, then I suggest you are much closer to the charismatic than you might want to admit.

Bavinck’s profound insight is that knowledge isn’t the same thing as certainty. He writes,

Truth is agreement between thought and reality and thus expresses a relation between the contents of our consciousness and the object of our knowledge. Certainty, however, is not a relationship but a capacity, a quality, a state of the knowing subject. One’s spirit may assume different states in reaction to different statements or propositions (Bavinck 19).

If you can’t grasp and appreciate this distinction, then you will be fair game for all sorts of philosophical con artists. In other words, how I feel about the truth is quite irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the proposition.

Pietism: The Harbinger of Humanism

The early Reformers certainly had their doubts like us. There was a crucial difference, though. Bavinck writes,

But the difference between the Reformers and their later disciples was that they did not foster or feed such a
condition. They saw no good in it and were not content to remain in doubt (39).

We can add one more point: you can look to the intensity of your emotions or you can look to Christ (corollary: The Lord’s Supper helps. Take it). Bavinck doesn’t mention it but this is the problem of the terrible Halfway Covenant. You didn’t look to Christ. You had to convince the sessions of the intensity of your emotional experience. The sick irony is that the membership requirements for Halfway members were the same as the membership requirements of full members in the better Calvinist churches on the continent.

A few pages later Bavinck notes that this pietism paved the way for secularism. He is correct but he doesn’t develop the point. I think it can be argued like this. This leads to common-ground, emotionally-based political orders. While it isn’t clear how that then leads to liberalism, it almost always does.

I truly hate pietism with all my heart.

Bavinck has a side line on the nature of revelation that is sometimes controversial but nevertheless correct: “Revelation is an organism with a life of its own” (61). He doesn’t mean it evolves evolutionistically or in a Hegelian fashion (fun fact: Hegel was actually skeptical of evolution, if only because he didn’t come up with it). Rather, it ties all facts together under a single idea. It is its own idea by which it must be grasped.

Another fatal problem with experience-based religion is that none of the essentials of the Christian faith can be deduced from experience. Nothing in my day-to-day life tells me of substitutionary atonement, the Trinity, or the Resurrection.

Faithful to covenant thinking, Bavinck contrasts experience-based religion with that of judicial, ethical choice. I either choose to believe in Christ or I don’t. Experience isn’t all that relevant (78ff). If faith includes understanding, either I believe in the promises or I don’t. I don’t have to answer “Do you know that you know that you really know” type questions.

That doesn’t mean emotions are wrong. Far from it. Bavinck is working with a creational view of man: man believes with his heart, his totality of existence (including both reason and emotion, the latter never controls the former).

The Mechanics of Faith

For more info, see Bavinck’s Prolegomena.

“Promise and faith are correlates. They address themselves to one another” (83). Moreover, “Faith is not the ground which carries the truth, nor is it the source from which knowledge flows to him. Rather, it is the soul’s organ.”

But can faith be certain? Answering this question might be tricky. We’ve already established that I can have varying degrees of certainty regarding something. Bavinck, however, suggests that faith can be absolutely certain. What is he getting at? This certainty is not something added on from the outside. Rather, it “is contained in faith from the outside and in time organically issues from it” (85). In other words, I do not trust salvation on the grounds of my faith but through it.

Bavinck has an admirable final section on the sacraments. It’s strange (well, not really) that many discussions on certainty and assurance often ignore the sacraments. The sacraments seal the promise of God to me (89). The final two pages end with the “cultural mandate,” though Bavinck doesn’t call it such. I share in Christ’s anointing and am a prophet, priest, and king.

Sunday School Lesson on Assurance

Main Idea: We should find assurance where Christ has promised to meet us. God has promised that Jesus meets us in Word and Sacrament.  God did not promise us that we will find assurance by prying into the eternal decree.

(Ligonier Video on Assurance)

Finding Assurance with the Church (not *in* the church).  

Dangers of Bad Assurance (or lack thereof). You can look for assurance not only in the wrong places, but in the wrong ways.  One minister in a Dutch American reformed church spoke of the dangers of never having assurance.:

“I have a large contingent of relatives who are, in fact, believing people, and godly in their lives. Some have never missed a church service in 80 years. Nevertheless, under the influence of this theology, they have lived all their lives doubting their salvation. And because they lack assurance, they never dare to take the Lord’s Supper. I have sat with them on their deathbeds, and watched as they died in terror, afraid of being damned. And after they were laid in the casket, their relatives were in terrible distress and despair over their loved ones. I find that doubt to be wicked. So, it is not just a theological matter for me, but a very practical matter.”

 Halfway Covenant. New England. Jonathan Edwards’ getting fired.

Conclusion:  true Covenantal thinking in the church arises from the preached Word.  It meets us with objective promises and threats. The sacraments seal the promise of the Gospel,  But this promise demands our faith. In my baptism I receive a concrete address from God–a message that proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally: if you believe you will be saved. 

At the Table.   Jesus wants to feed you. He wants to seal his covenant with you.

Review: John Owen on the Christian Life (Ferguson)

This book is exactly what you would expect from an Owen scholar writing on John Owen.  It is clear and rarely goes off rabbit-trails.  While it is old in some ways, and not every locus of systematic theology gets treated, a careful study of this work will repay pastoral ministry.

Ferguson begins with Owen’s covenant theology.  It seems, surprisingly, that Owen held to something like a “works-principle” in Sinai.  Covenant of Sinai: sometimes referred to as Old Covenant. Owen is aware of the tensions in saying that all covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Under the covenant of grace, yet in some way there were principles of the Covenant of Works (JO: 19:389). Sinai can’t simply be Covenant of Grace because of the sharp contrasts between “a better covenant.”

Covenant theology allows Ferguson to draw several inferences on soteriology: Union with Christ: the work of grace–”same instant wherein anyone is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified” (JO: 3.517). Effectual calling takes place in Christ, is an act of God the Father (JO: 20: 498), and binds the believer by the indwelling of the spirit (JO: 21:147). Effectual calling produces a change in both status (justification) and life (sanctification), yet it does not identity the two.

Sanctification is the pinnacle of this volume. Structure of sanctification.  The work of grace produces the exercise of duty (Ferguson 55). Owen gives a long definition in JO 3.369-370. In one sense it is an immediate work on believers, since it flows from regeneration and from our Head, yet it is also a process (56). The Lord Jesus is the Head from whom all gifts flow, yet the Spirit is the efficient cause who communicates them to us (Ferguson 58).

Very thorough chapter on Assurance and why the believer may experience varying degrees of it.  This lets Owen talk about the sealing of the Holy Spirit.  Owen: “No special act of the Spirit, but only in an especial effect of his communication unto us” (JO 4:400). He seals the believer by his personal indwelling, but there are no rules as to how/when the believer may recognize it.

With the volumes numerous quotations from Owen, from almost all of his works, we recommend this as a handy guidebook to navigating Owen.

 

Outline John Owen on the Christian Life

Ferguson, Sinclair.  John Owen on the Christian Life.  Banner of Truth.

Image result for sinclair ferguson john owen

The Plan of Salvation

  1. Doctrine of the Covenant
    1. The Covenant of Works. The reward of eternal life succeeds strict justice, since it is in the nature of a promise.  Further, there is a grace of promise, even if the covenant is not itself gracious.
    2. Covenant of grace: the conditions in the covenant of grace devolve on the mediator (JO: 11.210).
    3. Covenant of Redemption:
    4. Covenant of Sinai: sometimes referred to as Old Covenant. Owen is aware of the tensions in saying that all covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace.
      1. Under the covenant of grace, yet in some way there were principles of the Covenant of Works (JO: 19:389).
      2. Sinai can’t simply be Covenant of Grace because of the sharp contrasts between “a better covenant.”
  2. Union with Christ: the work of grace–”same instant wherein anyone is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified” (JO: 3.517).

    Effectual calling takes place in Christ, is an act of God the Father (JO: 20: 498), and binds the believer by the indwelling of the spirit (JO: 21:147). Effectual calling produces a change in both status (justification) and life (sanctification), yet it does not idenitfy the two.

Grace Reigns through Righteousness

  1. The effects of sin.
  2. Regeneration.
    1. Owen seems to favor “physical” language of regeneration (JO: 4.166; 10. 459; 11: 443, 448; 567). Physical is seen as the antithesis of moral.
    2. Even in effectual calling, the will is not compelled or destroyed. The will is passive in the first act, but in the moment of conversion it acts itself freely (Ferguson 44).
      1. Conversion is “wrought in us by God” (Phil. 2.13).
  3. Structure of sanctification.  The work of grace produces the exercise of duty (Ferguson 55). Owen gives a long definition in JO 3.369-370.
    1. In one sense it is an immediate work on believers, since it flows from regeneration and from our Head, yet it is also a process (56).
    2. The Lord Jesus is the Head from whom all gifts flow, yet the Spirit is the efficient cause who communicates them to us (Ferguson 58).

Fellowship with God

Theme: God communicates himself unto us with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him (JO 2.8).

  1. Communion with the Father.
  2. Communion with the Son.
  3. Communion with the Holy Spirit.
  4. Indwelling. It is real and personal.
    1. Sealing.
    2. Anointing. We receive our anointing immediately from Christ in this way: Jesus communicates the Holy Spirit unto us (JO 4.393).
    3. Earnest.

The Assurance of Salvation

Several things in the Christian life mitigate against assurance: Our conscience, God’s law, and our natural sense of justice.

  1. (2) Practical rules for Assurance.
    1. Christ is the ultimate judge of our spiritual condition. He who bears witness to our condition has the same Spirit with us (Ferguson 108).
    2. Sometimes patient waiting is required (JO 6.554).
    3. Self-examination, especially of sins of youth.  Nonetheless, the foundation of assurance is Christ, not our self-examination so don’t spend too much time on this.  The foundation is Christ alone. The building is holiness.
    4. Don’t let complaints against yourself take away from vigorous actings of grace.
  2. Hindrances to assurance.
    1. Desire for extraordinary assurances.  We should seek the regular workings of the Spirit.  He does give extraordinary assurance, but we should be careful seeking that while burdened with doubts and anxieties.
  3. Sealing of the Holy Spirit
    1. Calvin taught that the Spirit of God is himself the seal (Comm. 2 Cor. 1.21ff).
    2. Perkins: Sealing of the promise to the believer in experience (Ferguson 117). This means the seal is an activity. However, this lead to a between regeneration and a subsequent activity of the Spirit in addition to his indwelling.
    3. Sibbes: We first seal God’s truth by our believing, and then God seals the Spirit on us (118).With later Puritans this comes very close to seeing 2 or 3 different classes of Christians.
    4. Goodwin: “An immediate assurance of the Holy Ghost, by a heavenly and divine light, of a divine authority…” (Goodwin, Works I:233).
    5. Owen: “No special act of the Spirit, but only in an especial effect of his communication unto us” (JO 4:400). He seals the believer by his personal indwelling, but there are no rules as to how/when the believer may recognize it.

Conflict with Sin

  1. Sin’s dominion ended. Owen makes a distinction between the dominion of sin and the influence of sin.
  2. Sin’s dominion is more than a force; it has the character of law.
  3. How do we know whether sin has dominion or not?

 

Scripture and Ministry

  1. Scripture. Owen locates Scripture’s authority primarily in God, rather than the autographa (Ferguson 185n 4).  God is the divine original, upon whom Scripture depends.
    1. Inspiration.  
    2. Authority of Scripture.  It is a correlate of the character of God (JO 16.303).
    3. Preservation of Scripture.
    4. Attestation of Scripture. The Scriptures are like light.  They are self-evidencing, but “light” is not “eyes.” Light does not remove men’s blindness.  Faith in Scripture finds its motive cause in Scripture itself, and in its efficient cause in the testimony of the Spirit.
    5. Understanding Scripture.
  2. Ministry.
    1. Gifts and graces.  A spiritual gift is not the same as the grace of the Spirit.  This explains how some “fall away.” Graces are evidences of the Spirit’s personal indwelling.
    2. Extraordinary gifts. Only differ in degree from other gifts.  This is a rather unique cessationist approach.

Sacraments and Prayer

  1. Have both objective and subjective content: they signify and seal (objective) yet the Holy Spirit is involved in each of the means of communication to ratify subjectively the objective message (Ferguson 211).
    1. Baptism. Ferguson calls attention to the quasi-Baptistic views of paedobaptists like Bannerman and Cunningham, who view adult baptism as the norm and infant baptism as the exception (215 n64).
    2. The Lord’s Supper. Our faith is directed to the human nature of Christ (220).
  2. Prayer.

Apostasy and its Prevention

  1. Danger of Apostasy. Those mentioned in Hebrews 6 received the outward benefits of the substance of the covenant.
  2. Apostasy from Gospel Doctrine.
  3. Apostasy from holiness of Gospel precepts.
  4. Apostasy from Gospel Worship.

Perseverance and the Goal

  1. Perseverance
    1. Immutability of the divine nature.
    2. Immutability of the divine purposes.
    3. Principium essendi of the covenant of grace
    4. Promises of God
    5. Mediatorial work of Christ
      1. He became a surety (JO 11:289).
      2. Satisfied requirements of divine justice.
      3. Intercedes for us.
  2. The Goal
    1. Eternal glory.
      1. The mind will be freed from all darkness.
      2. A new light, light of glory, will be implanted.
      3. Our body will be glorified through union with Christ.

 

An Army of Psalm Chanters

Taken from an old post on Jim Jordan, with some new material.

But let us consider what a Christian view of the Church would be. It would be a place of transformation, not merely of information. Marshaling the people into an army of psalm chanters would be at the top of the list. Indeed, in seminary several psalms would be chanted every day in chapel. The music in the church would be loud, fast, vigorous, instrumental, martial. There would be real feasts. People would be taught that when God splashes water on you, He’s really doing something: He’s putting you into His rainbow.

Elsewhere Jordan says

I should like to offer what I regard as a considerable caveat. I do not believe that men who sing pop choruses or plodding Trinity Hymnal songs on Sunday can get very far into Luther or Calvin, or for that matter Turretin. Men whose personal opinion is that society can be left to the devil cannot really get into the outlook of the Reformers.

I submit that it is important to have some feel for what people were singing and how they were singing it at various times in history. Is it a coincidence that “Reformed scholasticism” began to develop at the same time that the fiery dance-like chorales and psalms of the Reformation began to die down into slow, plodding, even-note mush? It is a coincidence that the “Puritans” had problems with assurance of salvation, given their destruction of enthusiastic singing? I don’t think so. People who sing the psalms as real war chants, as war dances that precedebattle, don’t have problems with assurance and don’t have time for scholasticism. Neither do people with strong, fully-sung liturgies.

EO guys used to attack me on assurance.  “Well, how can you know?”  Well, there you have it.