The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 18

Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation

Section I: Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation [1] (which hope of theirs shall perish, [2] yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace,[3] and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.[4]

1. Micah 3:11; Deut. 29:19; John 8:41
2. Amos 9:10; Matt. 7:22-23
3. I John 2:3; 3:14, 18-19, 21, 24; 5:13
4. Rom. 5:2, 5

Section II. This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope;[5] but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation,[6] the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made,[7] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God,[8] which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.[9]

5. Heb. 6:11, 19
6. Heb. 6:17-18
7. II Peter 1:4-11; I John 2:3; 3:14; II Cor. 1:12
8. Rom. 8:15-16
9. Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; II Cor. 1:21-22

THESE sections teach the following propositions: --
1. There is a false assurance of salvation which unregenerate men sometimes indulge, in which they are deceived and which shall be finally disappointed.

2. There is, on the other hand, a true assurance, amounting to an infallible certainty, which sincere believers may entertain as to their own personal salvation, which shall not be confounded.

3. This infallible assurance of faith rests -- (1.) Upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation. (2.) Upon the inward evidence of those graces unto which those promises are made. (3.) The testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.

1.That unregenerate men, beguiled by the natural desire for happiness, flattered by self-love, and betrayed by a spirit of self-righteousness and self-confidence, should frequently indulge an unfounded assurance of their own gracious condition, is rendered antecedently probable from what we know of human nature, and rendered certain as a fact from common observation and from the declarations of Scripture. Micah iii.11; Job viii. 13, 14.

True assurance, however, may be distinguished from that which is false by the following tests: -- (1.) True assurance begets unfeigned humility; false assurance begets spiritual pride. 1 Cor. xv. 10; Gal. vi. 14. (2.) The true leads to increased diligence in the practice of holiness; the false leads to sloth and self-indulgence. Ps. li. 12, 13, 19. (3.) The true leads to candid self-examination and to a desire to be searched and corrected by God; the false leads to a disposition to be satisfied with appearance and to avoid accurate investigation. Ps. cxxxix. 23, 24. (4.) The true leads to constant aspirations after more intimate fellowship with God. 1 John iii. 2, 3.

2. That true believers may in this life attain to a certainty with regard to their own personal relations to Christ, and that this certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion founded on a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith, is proved from the fact -- (1.) That it is directly affirmed in Scripture: " The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." Rom. viii. 16. " hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments." 1 John ii. 3. "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." 1 John iii. 14. (2.) The attainment of it is commanded as a duty in Scripture. We are exhorted "to shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end," (Heb. vi. 11); and to "give diligence to make our calling and election sure, for if we do these things we shall never fall." 2 Pet. i. 10. (3.) There are examples of its attainment by ancient believers recorded in Scripture. Thus Paul: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able," etc. " I have fought a good fight,...... I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness," etc. 2 Tim. i. 12; iv. 7, 8; -- and John; 1 John ii. 3; iv. 16. (4.) There have been unquestionable instances in modern times in which sincere Christians have enjoyed a full assurance of their personal salvation, and in which their entire lives have vindicated the genuineness of their faith. The Protestant Reformers as a class were eminent examples of the possession of this assurance. God had qualified them for their great work with an extraordinary measure of this grace. Their controversy with the Romanists also led them to lay great stress upon the duty of this attainment, even going so far as to identify assurance with faith, making it essential to salvation. The Romanists held that faith is mere intellectual assent to the truth, not involving trust; and that hence faith has nothing to do with the judgment any one makes of his own personal salvation; and hence that no one could attain to any certainty upon that point in this life without an extraordinary revelation. Council of Trent, sess. vi., ch. ix. The Reformers, on the other hand, went so far as to teach that the special object of justifying faith is the favour of God toward us for Christ's sake: therefore to believe is to be assured of our own personal salvation. Thus Luther, Melancthon, and Calvin taught. This is the doctrine taught in the Augsburg Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. It is not, however, taught in any other of the Reformed Confessions, and, as will be seen below, is not the Doctrine of our Standards.

3. This infallible assurance of faith rests (1.) upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation. Although it is one thing to be assured that the promise is true, and another thing to be assured of our own personal interest in it, yet assurance of the truth of the promise tends, in connection with a sense of our personal reliance upon it, directly to strengthen our assured hope that it will be fu1filled in our case also. Therefore God confirmed his promise by an oath, " That by two immutable things" (his promise and his oath), " in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us in the gospel " Heb. vi. 18. Thus faith includes trust. Trust rests upon the divine truth of the promises, and in turn supports hope; and the fullness of hope is assurance. This assurance rests (2.) upon the inward evidence of those graces unto which the promises are made. Thus the Scriptures promise that whosoever believes shall have everlasting life. The believer whose faith is vigorous and intelligent has a distinct evidence in his own consciousness that he for one does believe. Hence the conclusion is obvious that he shall have everlasting life. The same promise is given to all who love God, to all who keep his commandments, to all who love the brethren, to the pure in heart, to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc. Hence, when these graces are possessed in such a degree, strength, and purity, that we are conscious of their genuineness, then the conclusion is immediate and irresistible, that we are in union with Christ, and have a right to appropriate the promises to ourselves. This assurance rests (3.) upon the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God. This language is taken from Rom. viii. 16. The sense in which this witnessing of the Holy Spirit to our spirits is to be understood has been much debated among theologians.

Some have maintained that the passage teaches that the Holy Spirit in some mysterious way directly reveals to our spirits the fact that we are the children of God, as one man immediately conveys information to another man. The objections to this view are, that Christians are not, and cannot be, conscious of any such injection of information from without into the mind, and that, as far as such testimony alone is concerned, we would be unable to distinguish certainly the testimony of the Spirit from the conclusions of our own reasons or the suggestions of our own hearts. An expectation of such direct communications would be likely to generate enthusiasm and presumption. Some have maintained, on the opposite extreme, that the Spirit witnesses with our spirits only indirectly, through the evidence afforded by the graces he has formed within us. The true view appears to be, that the witness of the Spirit to our spirits that we are the children of God comprehends a number of particulars, all of which are confined by the Spirit to this end. (1.) The Spirit is the author of the promises of Scripture, and of the marks of character indicating the persons to which the promises belong. (2.) The Spirit is the author of the graces of the saints, corresponding to the marks of character which are associated with these promises in the Scripture. (3) The Spirit gives to the true believer, especially to the Christian eminent for diligence and faithfulness, the grace of spiritual illumination, that he may possess a keen insight into his own character, that he may judge truly of the genuineness of his own graces, that he may rightly interpret the promises and the characters to which they are limited in the Scriptures; so that, comparing the outward standard with the inward experience, he may draw correct and unquestionable conclusions. (4.) The Holy Spirit is the direct author of faith in all its degrees, as also of love and hope. Full assurance, therefore -- which is the fullness of hope resting on the fullness of faith -- is a state of mind which it is the office of the Holy Ghost to induce in our minds in connection with the evidence of our gracious character above stated. In whatever way he works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure (Phil. ii. 13), or sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts (Rom. v. 5), or begets us again to a lively hope (1 Pet. i. 3), in that way he gives origin to the grace of full assurance -- not as a blind and fortuitous feeling, but as a legitimate and undoubting conclusion from appropriate evidence. (5.) The presence of the Holy Spirit is the first installment of the benefits of Christ's redemption, granted to those for whom they were purchased, and therefore the pledge and earnest of the completion of that redemption in due time. Thus Paul says of the Ephesians: " In whom also (Christ), after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession." Eph. i. 13, 14; iv. 30; 1 John ii. 20, 27; 2 Cor. i.22; v. 5

Section III: 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:[10] 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 ordinary means, attain thereunto.[11] And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure,[12] that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance;[13] so far is it from inclining men to looseness.[14]

10. I John 5:13
11. I Cor. 2:12; I John 4:13; Heb. 6:11-12; Eph. 3:17-19
12. II Peter 1:10
13. Rom. 5:1-2, 5; 14:17; 15:13; Eph. 1:3-4; Psa. 4:6-7; 119:32
14. I John 1:6-7; 2:1-2; 3:2-3; Rom. 6:1-2; 8:1, 12; Titus 2:11-12, 14; II Cor. 7:1; Psa. 130:4

Section IV: 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 woundeth the 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:[15] yet are they never utterly destitute of that 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;[16] and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair.[17]

15. Psa. 31:22; 51:8, 12, 14; 77:1-10; Eph. 4:30-31; Matt. 26:69-72 and Luke 22:31-44
16. I John 3:9; Luke 22:32; Psa. 51:8, 12; 73:15
17. Micah 7:7-9; Jer. 32:40; Isa. 54:7-14; II Cor. 4:8-10

These sections teach: --
1. That this infallible assurance is not of the essence of faith; that, on the contrary, a man may be a true believer and yet destitute of this assurance.

2. That being, nevertheless, as taught in the preceding sections, attainable in this life in the use of ordinary means, without extraordinary revelation, it is consequently the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure; because this assurance, instead of inclining men to negligence, tends properly to increase (1.) spiritual peace and joy, (2.) love and thankfulness to God, and (3.) strength and cheerfulness in the works of obedience.

3. True believers, after having attained this assurance, may have it shaken, diminished, and intermitted: the causes or occasions of which are such as -- (1.) negligence in preserving this grace in full exercise; (2.) falling into some special sin; (3.) some sudden and vehement temptations; (4.) God's temporary withdrawing of the light of his countenance.

4. nevertheless, since, as was shown under chapter xvii., no true believer is ever permitted totally to fall away from grace, he is never left entirely without any token of God's favour; and, the root of faith remaining, this assurance may in due time be revived.

1. That this infallible assurance is not of the essence of saving faith is affirmed over and over again in our Standards, and is true. Assurance, in one degree or another of it, is of the essence of faith, because just in proportion to the strength of our faith is our assurance of the truth of that which we believe; but since true faith exists in very various degrees of strength, and since its exercises are sometimes intermitted, it follows that the assurance which accompanies true faith is not always a full assurance. Conf. Faith, ch. xiv., section 8; L. Cat., q. 81.

Besides this, the phrase full or " infallible assurance," in this chapter, does not relate to the certainty of our faith or trust as to the truth of the object upon which the faith rests -- that is, the divine promise of salvation in Christ -- but to the certainty of our hope or belief as to our own personal relation to Christ and eternal salvation. Hence it follows that while assurance, in some degree of it, does belong to the essence of all real faith in the sufficiency of Christ and the truth of the promises, it is not in any degree essential to a genuine faith that the believer should be persuaded of the truth of his own experience and the safety of his estate. Theologians consequently have distinguished between the assurance of faith (Heb. x. 22) -- that is, a strong faith as to the truth of Christ -- and the assurance of hope (Heb. vi. 11) -- that is, a certain persuasion that we are true believers, and therefore safe. This latter is also called the assurance of sense, because it rests upon the inward sense the soul has of the reality of its own spiritual experiences. The first is of the essence of faith, and terminates directly upon Christ and his promise; and hence is called the direct act of faith. The latter is not of the essence of faith, but is its fruit; and is called the reflex act of faith, because it is drawn as an inference from the experience of the graces of the Spirit which the soul discerns when it reflects upon its own consciousness. God says that whosoever believes is saved -- that is the object of direct faith: I believe -- that is the matter of conscious experience: therefore I am saved -- that is the matter of inference and the essence of full assurance.

That this full assurance of our own gracious state is not of the essence of saving faith is proved -- (1.) From the form in which the offer of salvation in Christ -- which is the object of saving faith -- is set forth in the Scriptures: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;" " whosoever will, let him take," etc.; "Him that cometh to me, I wi11 in no wise cast out." Acts xvi. 31; Rev. xxii. 1 7; John vi. 37. The matter revealed, and therefore the truth accepted by faith, is, not that God is reconciled to me in Christ, but that Christ is presented to me as the foundation of truth, and will save me if I do truly trust. It is evident that trust itself is something different from the certainty that we do trust, and that our trust is of the right kind. (2.) All the promises of the Bible are made to classes -- to believers, to saints, etc. -- and not to individuals. (3.) Paul appeared to doubt as to the genuineness of his faith long after he was a true believer. (4.) As we saw above, the Bible contains many exhortations addressed to believers to go on to the grace of full assurance, as something beyond their present attainments. Heb. x. 22; vi. 11; 2 Pet. i. 10. (5.) The experience of the great body of God's people in modern times proves the same thing.

2. Since this infallible assurance is not of the essence of faith, but its fruit, and one of the highest attainments of the divine life; and since it may be attained in this life in the use of ordinary means, without extraordinary revelation -- it follows necessarily that its attainment is a duty as well as a grace, that all that leads to it should be diligently sought, and that all that prevents it should be carefully avoided. Genuine assurance cannot lead to looseness and indifference in the cultivation of grace and the performance of religious duties, since its very existence depends -- (1.) Upon the evidence afforded by diligence in those duties, and by the strength of those graces, that we are true believers; and (2.) Upon the approving witness of the Holy Spirit. As we have seen above, under sections i. and ii., a false and presumptuous assurance is to be discriminated from a genuine assurance by certain clear, practical marks. On the contrary, genuine assurance naturally leads to a legitimate and abiding peace and joy, and to love and thankfulness to God; and these, from the very laws of our being, to greater buoyancy, strength, and cheerfulness in the practice of obedience in every department of duty. It hence follows that every principle of self-interest and every obligation resting upon us as Christians conspire to induce us to use all diligence in seeking the full attainment and the abiding enjoyment of this grace.

3. Since this assurance rests upon the consciousness of gracious experiences and the witness of the Holy Ghost; and as we have seen, under chapters xiii. and xvii., that true Christians may temporarily, though never totally, fall from the exercise of grace; and since these exercises in this life are never perfect and unmixed with carnal elements -- it necessarily follows that the assurance which rests upon them must be subject to be shaken, diminished, and intermitted in divers ways. (1.) Since it is a duty as well as a grace, it must be imperiled by any want of diligence in preserving it in full exercise. (2.) Since it rests upon the consciousness of gracious exercises, it must be marred, if not intermitted, by any notable fall into sin which grieves the Holy Spirit and wounds the conscience, thus clouding the sense of forgiveness and diminishing the evidence of grace. (3.) The same may evidently be effected by some vehement temptation. (4.) The same effect may be produced by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, in the way of fatherly discipline, for the purpose of trying our faith, of convincing us of our entire dependence, and of the all-sufficiency of his gracious help.

4. Since the true believer may fall into sin, but may never fall totally from grace, it is self-evident, as taught in these sections, that he may lose the exercise of full assurance, but that he cannot lose the principle from which it springs; and that hence, through the blessing of God upon the diligent use of the appropriate means, it may be strengthened when weakened and recovered when lost.

Scanned and edited by Michael Bremmer

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