There are few topics of greater practical concern to the average Christian than assurance of salvation. While some people may be blessed with a strong assurance of their justification before God from an early age, others struggle with doubts for years on end, which create a major hindrance in their Christian walk. Our sense of assurance is directly connected to our experience of communion with God, for how can we feel close to that which terrifies us?
The early Protestant theologians of the Reformation period made assurance one of their chief priorities. The belief that average Christians can know God has declared them righteous was one of the things that differentiated these men and women from their Catholic counterparts, and the major confessions of that era all have something to say about this topic. The 1689 London Baptist Confession is no exception, and it continues many of the themes that were developed in such doctrinal statements as the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession.
The 1689 LBC, which was originally published in 1677 and is sometimes called the Second London Confession, lays out four points related to assurance in Chapter 18, “Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation”. As this document is in line with Calvinist (i.e. monergist) soteriology, it teaches that God acts to regenerate the elect, who will persevere in their faith. However, this begs the question, “How can I know if I am one of the elect?”
The confession recognizes that there are a few different situations out there: 1) People who are truly regenerate and thoroughly convinced of that fact, 2) People who are truly regenerate but experience periods of doubt, and 3) People who are unregenerate and have a false sense of assurance. While the authors of the 1689 LBC, like many Reformed theologians before them, were convinced that it was possible for a person to know they possessed salvation, they also acknowledged the possibilities that non-believers could deceive themselves and genuine believers could experience times of weak faith. Point 1 of chapter 18 states,
“Although temporary believers, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God and state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.”
In support of this statement, the authors point us to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, when He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7:21) For the opposite situation, they list several verses from John’s first epistle, such as this one: “The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” (1 John 3:24)
The confession also states that the believer’s assurance is not simply a form of wishful thinking. It is based on real events and promises, the latter of which are manifested in the lives of those who are truly in Christ.
“This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel; and also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and, as a fruit thereof, keeping the heart both humble and holy.”
The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer was particularly important to this group of Baptists. They took the doctrines of our regeneration and indwelling by the Spirit very seriously, and as they believed these were the main sources of assurance mentioned in scripture, they looked to such things as evidence of who belonged to the true Church. One of the scriptural proofs listed for the passage above comes from the Book of Romans. “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:16-17) The authors of the confession also mentioned the importance of the fruits of faith in keeping with sanctification, which are only produced with the help of the Spirit.
The authors also addressed the question of whether a true Christian can experience doubts about their salvation. Their answer was that, at least in the short-term, this was certainly possible, and it was simply something to be worked through by the grace of God.
“This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it; yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of means, attain thereunto: and therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; -so far is it from inclining men to looseness.”
Note that these men did not simply want people to know that it was possible for them to have assurance. They actively encouraged believers to pursue assurance “in the right use of means”. A person could achieve this, according to the confession, without any “extraordinary revelation”, but simply by allowing the Spirit to work in their hearts as they pursued the things of God. The authors also seemed to hit back against Catholic critics when they said that assurance would not incline “men to looseness”, but rather make their hearts “enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God” and help them fulfill “the duties of obedience”.
One of the scriptural references they provide for these points is Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” The authors also cite something else Paul said in the same book. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)
Finally, the confession gives some encouragement to those who are struggling with doubts: if they are truly in Christ, they will come to have assurance of their faith in time.
“True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeththe conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light, yet are they never destitute of the seed of God and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart and conscience of duty out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may in due time be revived, and by the which, in the meantime, they are preserved from utter despair.”
In support of this point, the authors reference Jesus’ words to Peter that “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) They also mention several words of the Psalmist, such as the following: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.” (Psalm 42:11) As the 1689 LBC also says in chapter 17,
“Those whom God hath accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without repentance, whence he still begets and nourisheth in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality; and though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon; notwithstanding, through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraven upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity.”
(All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.)
Amy Mantravadi is a writer of theological essays and historical fiction novels. She holds a B.A. from Taylor University and an M.A. from King's College London. You can visit her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi. She lives with her husband in Dayton, Ohio.