UPDATE II: A Lutheran view of Assurance.
UPDATE III: Mark Shea comments on assurance in Calvinism and Catholicism. I think Mark’s experience with Calvinism is not very nuanced, but it’s on target. (Buy the Rosenbladt presentation.)
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Q. 2. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?
A. Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.
-The Heidelberg Catechism
Eric Thoennes from Talbot is writing at CT answering the question how do you know you are a Christian if you can’t remember when you made your “decision.” I appreciate his desire to address an important question.
It’s the ever-present evangelical struggle with assurance. With our differing view of sacramental effacacy, most evangelicals get tossed back to their experience of conversion, hence the stereotypical “testimony of getting saved,” an evangelical sacrament if there ever was one. Many of us abandoned that approach long ago in our own rejection of the errors of revivalism and good riddance. But what does that leave us with? Thoennes says the answer is sanctification, i.e. “growth” in being like Jesus and in the fruit of the Spirit.
Here’s the last paragraph.
For those who question their salvation, the best evidence is not the memory of having raised a hand or prayed a prayer. Nor is it having been baptized or christened. The true test of the authentic work of God in one’s life is growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; James 2:18). A memorable conversion experience may serve as an important referent to God’s saving work in one’s life. But the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ.
Hmmmm. Revivalistic experience…..or…..works. Any other choices? How about “I believe Jesus Christ died and lives for me. I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ is my hope, savior and mediator. Jesus = my salvation.” How about sola fide, sola Christus?
I’ve addressed this numerous times here at IM. If you want to know why there is an ad for Rod Rosenbladt’s teaching on my sidebar, this is the reason. Let me suggest the good doctor’s cure on the doctrine of Justification and its pastoral use in the matter of assurance.
The “best evidence” is “growth” in “love” and “fruit.” Being more “like Jesus.” Good grief. Can anyone spell “despair?” Seeking assurance through a measurement like “growth in Christlikeness” is not reformation Christianity. It’s the other team, where justification and sanctification are two words for the same thing. It’s obliterating the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification in the matter of assurance.
This stuff matters, folks. It matters at the moments you really need the Gospel to matter most: moments of great sin, attacks of doubt/despair and deathbeds- a place where I understand the active righteousness of Christ can be very comforting.
Interestingly, the first time I gave specific attention to this was also the first time I found myself disagreeing with Dr. Piper. I have changed my views even more into the Lutheran/Capon camp since I wrote “On Faith’s Crumbling Edge,” but you can sense here that when Dr. Piper keeps tying assurance to the question of “have you made every effort,” I’m not with him at all.
Back to Dr. Thoennes. It seems to me he’s saying we’ll get rid of aisle-walking and hand-raising, and instead offer the wounded conscience “Are you becoming like Jesus?” If that will do the job, see you at mass. I’m quite serious. I’d far prefer the out and out Roman view of “assurance,” plainly stated as something you can’t have with certainty, than the advice to look at my own life for evidence I’m a real Christian. As Catholic convert and commentator Mark Shea says, “â€œI became more secure in my relationship with God once I was no longer certain I was going to heaven.â€ This is where we end up when we self-reference assurance.
Why are the prodigal son, Peter’s denial and the publican on his face our models for faith? Why does Romans 7 precede Romans 8? Why are warned that when we think we stand, we are ready to fall? Who in the New Testament would have passed the test of “examine your life and see if you are growing in obedience?” The rich young ruler? Nicodemus? Saul of Tarsus?
The Lutheran position remains, for me, the absolutely necessary antidote for revivalism, subjective experience or the despair of self-examiniation for “progress.” (I have no problem with the statements in scripture that urge examination to see if I am in the faith. Entirely different than being in some legalistic environment where there’s an “obedience scrorecard.”
There must be a clear and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ. In other words, even a Christian can be saved. This other gospel, in its various forms (“Higher Life,” legalistic, the “carnal Christian” teaching, etc.) is tearing us to pieces.
You might be surprised who gets this sort of thing. A reader sent me this quote:
“A seriously Catholic friend whose line of work has him hanging out with equally serious evangelical Protestants has a problem. “Iâ€™m not very good,” he says, “at giving the kind of formulaic â€˜personal testimonyâ€™ that they seem to expect.” I know what he means. For many years Iâ€™ve been responding to evangelical friends who want to know when I was born again or, as it is commonly put, when I became a Christian. “I donâ€™t remember it at all,” I say, “but I know precisely the time and place. It was at 357 Miller St., Pembroke, Ontario, on Sunday, June 2, 1936, when twelve days after my birth I was born again in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.” (I was baptized at home because the chicken pox was going around.) That usually elicits a wry smile, and then the question, “Yes, but when did you really become a Christian?” In sober truth, there have been not one but several moments in my life that would no doubt qualify as what most evangelicals mean by a conversion experience. In circumstances appropriate to the disclosure of intensely personal experiences, I have told others about these moments. And some day, in pathetically pale imitation of Augustine and other greats, I might write about them in detail. My public testimony, however, is not to my experience but to Christ. It is not upon my experience but upon Christ that I rest my confidence that I am a child of God.
That’s Father Richard John Neuhaus, writing in First Things, April of 2000.