Assurance of Salvation: Let’s Learn From History
It seems unnatural to separate how we feel with what we know as it relates to our assurance of salvation. For many, the pursuit of assurance has been primarily a task of evaluating feelings, actions, and emotions. While this method seems sufficient and natural, it will inevitably demonstrate itself ineffective against the overwhelming faithlessness that we are so prone to have. But, as we will see below, making the separation between the grounds for our salvation (the objective reality) and the evidence of our salvation (the subjective reality) is the only way a Christian can find true peace. To better understand the distinction between the objective and subjective realities of assurance, it will be helpful to look back to a time when these distinctions were being rediscovered.
The year was 1517 and a young monk by the name of Martin Luther was caught in the vicious cycle of trying to “become” and “feel” righteous before God. Luther was a devout catholic. He, after escaping a deadly lightning strike, declared that he would give his life to God. Luther thus dropped out of his studies at law school, immediately joined the monastery, and devoted his life fully to pleasing God. But during his studies he was continually plagued with the horror of God’s wrath in light of his devastating sin. Luther knew well that God was holy and righteous. It was undeniable through scripture that God hates sin and must, in accordance with his wrath, punish all unrighteousness. Luther was also very aware that God’s wrath was directed towards his unrighteousness. Thus, as was the custom and official teaching of the church, Luther set out to make himself righteous before God.
In order to assure himself of his salvation and to gain the righteousness that was required, he filled his life with prayer, meditation, fasting, confession of sin, and any/every act of piety he might produce. He so wanted to know and feel that he was saved. Yet, every time he discovered or committed another sin, he was thrown back into the pain of proving and producing righteousness through this own strength.
At this point in history, full assurance of your salvation was unheard of and even warned against. In a description of the times, Sinclair Ferguson writes,
“Thomas Aquinas (a scholar who lived 200 years prior to Luther) believed, that assurance might come by various means: by special revelation or by signs of grace in an individual’s life. But such special revelation was reserved for very few Christians, such as the apostle Paul, and in any case, Aquinas believed, the evidences of the marks of grace are very uncertain indeed. Assurance was possible-but only in theory. It could not be regarded as the inheritance of every Christian. Aquinas’s position was later confirmed as the orthodox position of Roman Catholicism by the Council of Trent. “No one can know with a certainty of faith … that he has obtained the grace of God” (Assured by God)
Luther was stuck in this ruthless system of knowing the holiness of God, the depravity of his sin, and the apparent unresolvable chasm that separated those two realities.
One day, in the seemingly endless agony of attempting to make himself righteous, Luther came to the shocking implications of Romans 1:16-17; “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Paul was not living in fear of the righteousness of God. He was not ashamed of the Gospel. Reading further in Romans, Luther came across 5:1-5 and realized he had missed the beauty of the Gospel. For the Gospel doesn’t bring torment, as Luther formerly felt, rather it produces peace!
Romans 5:1-5 declares,
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
The rediscovery that took place in the life and time of Luther was a renewed understanding of the distinction between Justification and Sanctification. No longer was justification viewed as a process working in tandem with Sanctification—Saints being made righteous through devout holy living. Rather Justification is the declaration of a sinner being declared righteous (forensically). At the moment of conversion, the sinner becomes a saint in the eyes of God. Not because of what the sinner does/did (Subjective), but because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross (Objective). Luther’s constant pursuit was to make himself righteous before God. Now that pursuit, the attempt to make himself righteous, is null and void. For on the basis of Christ’s work, Luther and all believers stand before the Lord declared righteous. Not because of their justifying work, but because of Christ’s work.
What Luther discovered in his study of Romans was the ability to rest. As Ferguson states,
“Indeed, in some senses, the Reformation was the great rediscovery of assurance. If the gospel was the power of God for salvation, if in Christ we are accounted righteous before the Father-so the Reformers understood-since earthly fathers lavish on their children assurances of their love, protection, and provision, how much more does our heavenly Father lavish on us his love, protection, and provision!” (Assured by God)
As an adopted child of God, Luther no longer had to fear the wrath of his father. Luther’s life no longer had to be lived in dread of what God might do to him because of his sin. The strict account of his daily actions no longer had to be produced and confessed. He could run to the presence of his Father with gladness, not constant anxiety and fear.
What changed? Why were joy and delight possible? The great rediscovery of the reformation is that our assurance of salvation does not come from the subjective realities of our life. Our assurance is not contingent upon how we live and what we do. Sinning, failing, not measuring up does not put our assurance at risk. Our assurance is found in the finished work of Christ. It is found in the objective reality that “we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This peace occurs not based upon our merit. Therefore, keeping this peace (having full assurance) does not require any particular merits. True assurance of salvation comes through the understanding that we cannot earn a right standing before God. It is only through Christ’s righteousness being declared to us that we can know we have peace with God.