Article of the Month
by Louis Berkhof
a. The Promises of God
IT WAS one of the great mistakes of the Pietism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that, in seeking the assurance of faith, or of salvation, it divorced itself too much from the Word of God. The basis of assurance was sought, not in the objective promises of the Gospel, but in the subjective experiences of believers. The knowledge of the experiences that were made the touch-stone of faith, was not gathered from the Word of God, but was obtained by an inductive study of the subjective states and affections of believers. In many cases these were not even put to the test of Scripture, so that the true was not always distinguished from the counterfeit. Moreover, there were unwarranted generalizations. Individual experiences and experiences of a very dubious character were often made normative, were set forth as the necessary marks of true faith. The result was that they who were concerned about the welfare of their soul turned attention to themselves rather than to the Word of God, and spent their life in morbid introspection. It is no wonder that this method did not promote the assurance of faith that fills the heart with heavenly joy, but rather engendered doubt and uncertainty and caused the soul to grope about in a labyrinth of anxious questionings, without an Ariadnethread to lead it out. This method of seeking assurance by looking within rather than by looking without, to Jesus Christ as He is presented in Scripture, and by making the experiences of others, especially of those who are regarded as “oaks of righteousness” normative, has not yet been abandoned entirely in our own circles. Yet it is a most disappointing one. Archibald Alexander in his Thoughts on Religious Experience quotes the narrative of a certain R— C—, who makes the following pertinent statement: “I had spent much time in reading accounts of Christian experience, and those which lay down the marks and evidences of true religion, such as Owen on Spiritual-Mindedness, Edwards on The Affections, Guthrie's Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ, Newton's Letters, Pike and Hayward's Cases of Conscience, etc. I also conversed much with old and experienced Christians, as well as with those of my own age. But all these having, as it seemed to me, very little facilitated my progress, and the evils of my heart seeming rather to increase, I hastily resolved to lay aside all books except the Bible, and to devote my whole time to prayer and reading until I experienced a favourable change.” The sequel shows that he did not make that trial in vain; by the study of God's Word and prayer he was led into light.
The experience of R— C— points the way. If we would have the assurance of faith, the first great requisite is that we make a diligent study of the Bible, and more particularly of the glorious promises of forgiveness and salvation. After all it is only in the Word of God and in the living Christ, as He is mirrored in the Word, that we find the objective basis for the assurance of grace and perseverance to the end. The free promises of God are the foundation of our faith, and it is only on the strength of these that we place our trust in Christ as our Saviour. These promises are absolutely reliable and have their confirmation in Jesus Christ. “For how many so-ever be the promises of God, in him is the yea; wherefore also through him is the Amen, unto the glory of God through us.” 2 Cor. 1:20. Desiring to give the heirs of salvation full assurance in this respect, God even confirmed his promise by an oath, “that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.” Heb. 6:18. A real conviction of the truth of the promises inspires trust, and trust confidence, and these, in turn, are the sure foundation of a living hope. The promises are not only sure, but also unconditional, i.e. they are not conditioned by any work of man. This is a very essential element in connection with the assurance of salvation. If they were not entirely gratuitous, they would throw us back upon our own works and thereby make assurance for the future impossible. Calvin says: “Therefore, if we would not have faith to waver and tremble, we must support it with the promise of salvation, which is offered by the Lord spontaneously and freely, from a regard to our misery, rather than our worth.” Faith has no firm footing until it rests in the mercy of God. Moreover, the promises of God are all-comprehensive. They make provision for our natural life and for our spiritual needs; they hold out prospects of strength for the weary and of joy for the afflicted; they give the assurance of sufficient grace for the present, of perseverance to the end, and of future blessedness.
But promises do not necessarily constitute a sure foundation for faith and trust and hope. Experience teaches us that many promises fail. Men are often very liberal with their promises, but soon forget about them, or simply ignore them, or find that they have promised more than they can accomplish. And doubly unfortunate are they who accept such promises in good faith, who trust to their fulfilment, and who pin their hopes on them for the future. It is quite evident that the real value of promises as a foundation on which to build depends on the reliability, the faithfulness, and the power of their author. And it is exactly when believers consider the Author of the promises on which they build the house of their hope, and then only, that they are in a position to evaluate them aright and recognize in them a foundation firm and sure. In their perplexity they may occasionally ask, “Hath God forgotten to be gracious?” Yet they may rest assured that He will never forget his people (Isa. 44:21), nor be unmindful of his covenant (Jer. 50:5). He cannot forget the promises made to his people. “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, these may forget, yet will not I forget thee.” Isa. 49:15. Believers may and often do become unfaithful and ignore their covenant responsibilities, but in spite of the perversity of his children, God remains faithful to his covenant. The Bible is full of assurances respecting the faithfulness of God. We find a touching expression of it in the eighty-ninth psalm, verses 28-34:
“My lovingkindness will I keep him forevermore,
It is hardly possible to find a stronger statement of the faithfulness of our covenant God than is found in Isa. 54:10, “For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but my lovingkindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall my covenant of peace be removed, saith Jehovah, that hath mercy on thee.” But even the faithfulness of God would not be an absolute guarantee for the fulfilment of his promises, were there any power in heaven or on earth that could thwart his gracious purposes. But our covenant God is the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, the Ruler of the universe, who holds all things in the hollow of his hand, and has absolute control of all powers and principalities. In connection with the incredulous laughter of Sarah the Lord said: “Is anything too hard for Jehovah?” The expected answer to this question is an absolute negative. Of Abraham we are told that he believed against hope. Though the fulfilment of the promise which he had received seemed to be a physical impossibility, he wavered not through unbelief, but was fully assured that what God had promised He was able also to perform. A similar faith finds expression in the words of Paul: . “for I know Him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to guard that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” 2 Tim. 1:12.
Now the believer's trust in God and in Jesus Christ for the blessings of grace and the joys of salvation is based on the promises of their covenant God. These constitute the only objective foundation on which he can build. And the measure in which he trusts in Christ and thus appropriates the promises of the Gospel will, if all other things are equal, also determine the strength or weakness of the feeling of security that fills the heart, and the degree of the consciousness that his sins are forgiven, and that he is an heir of everlasting life. Isaiah says: “They that wait for Jehovah (i.e. who trust in Him and are confident that He will fulfill his promises) shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” 40:31. Mindful of the comforting significance of the statutes of the Lord, which are regarded as including his promises, the psalmist sings: “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” Ps. 119:54.
Well may believers utter their joy in the words of the well-known hymn:
“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
“Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed!
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
b. The Witness of the Holy Spirit
But the promises of God, no matter how beautiful and reliable, are not in and by themselves sufficient to awaken faith in the heart of the sinner. They are not seen in their beauty and strength until the eye of faith is opened by the operation of the Holy Spirit. And after faith has been wrought in the heart, it is ever dependent on the Spirit for its progressive growth and its increasing maturity. It is through the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit that the light gradually dawns on the Gospel promises, increases in strength, and finally reaches its mid-day height. Again, the first faltering steps that give evidence of trust in Christ, the increasing confidence based on the promises of the Gospel, and the final complete self-surrender to Christ,—they are all fruits of the Spirit. In view of all this it is but natural that we should have alongside of the objective ground of assurance in the promises of God, also a subjective ground in the witness of the Holy Spirit. Both are clearly recognized in the Canons of Dort: “This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to, or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in God's promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16); and, lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience, and to perform good works.
There is good Scriptural evidence for such a witnessing of the Holy Spirit. The most famous passage containing this truth, is Rom. 8:15-17, “For ye received not the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” A similar note is sounded, though not with the same fulness, in Gal. 4:6, “And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Again, we hear an echo of the same truth in a slightly different form in 1 Cor. 2:12, “But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given us of God.” The Holy Spirit is clearly set before us in Scripture as a witness, witnessing particularly to Christ and his saving work. He witnesses to the objective truth revealed in Christ, both in and through the disciples, John 15:26; 16; 13-15; Acts 5:32; 1 John 5:7, 9, 10; and also to the life of Christ in the hearts of believers, that expresses itself in a holy conversation.
Though the fact of the Spirit's witnessing to the sonship of believers is well established by Scripture, there is considerable difference of opinion as to the manner in which He gives his testimony. Our Confessional Standards simply speak of the “testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God.” This statement clearly proceeds on the assumption, based on Rom. 8:16, that there is a joint testimony of the spirit of believers and of the Holy Spirit, but does not indicate the precise nature of this testimony. Wesley and the Wesleyan Methodists conceive of the witness of the Holy Spirit as being of the nature of an immediate and overpowering impression upon the soul, almost if not quite a special revelation, at the time of the believer's justification, respecting his spiritual state. Says Wesley: “By the testimony of the Spirit, I mean an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me, that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” He distinguishes sharply between the witness of the Holy Spirit and that of the spirit of believers, and regards the latter as an inferential judgment, based on a comparison of the believer's experience with the Scriptural delineation of the Christian life. It is really the result of reflection on the Christian graces which the believer discovers in his own soul.
Reformed theologians generally have a somewhat different conception of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, added to that of our own spirit. While some are inclined to think that Paul in Rom. 8:15, 16 speaks of but a single witness, that of the Holy Spirit, the majority are of the opinion that he has two witnesses in mind, the witness of the believing spirit and that of the Spirit of God. There can be little doubt that the apostle refers to a double testimony. At the same time it is perfectly clear that he conceives of the two as most intimately related, the one as grounded in the other. This is evident from the fact that, according to Rom. 8:15, believers cry “in the Spirit,” Abba, Father; and that Gal. 4:6 represents this cry as that of the Spirit himself. It may be said that the Spirit of God testifies through our spirit, but also to our spirit.
Even in Reformed circles the testimony of the human spirit is often represented as being exclusively the product of a reflective process, and not at all the result of a spontaneous conviction which issues, without any consciousness of argumentative procedure, from living spiritual affections. And yet it would seem that Paul has in mind such an instinctive witnessing, when he says that we cry in the Spirit, Abba, Father. Certainly a man's judgment, on reviewing himself and finding that he has the fruits of the Spirit, is a witness of his own spirit that he is a child of God. “But,” says Sheldon, “there is a swifter and intenser witness than this. The mother whose heart is actually bound up in her child does not need, in order to convince herself that she has parental love, to reflect upon an approved catalogue of the fruits of parental love. The outgoing of her heart to her offspring is an immediate experience of parental love, an original knowledge which reflection may ratify, but to whose vivacity and certainty it can add little or nothing. So spiritual emotions and affections in the heart,—the feeling of trust, the blended reverence and confidence, the joyful complacency which accompanies the thought of God, the thirst for divine fellowship, and the sense of that fellowship,—irradiate one's relation to God before time is taken for any formal induction.” And it is just this immediate consciousness of love to God, of trust and confidence in him, of reverence and childlike fear, of longings for God and satisfaction in his blessed communion, and of joy in obedient service, that prompts the spontaneous cry, arising from the depths of the soul, “Abba, Father.” It is a human cry, but a cry of divine origin, born of the Spirit of God.
But the believer, knowing the deceitfulness of his own heart, and conscious of his inability to understand, to fathom, and to evaluate the deep things of God, may be inclined to doubt his own testimony, especially in seasons of spiritual darkness and when Satan sows the seeds of distrust in the heart. Therefore the apostle points to the fact that there is another and more fundamental testimony than that of the human consciousness; a testimony of one who knows, a testimony that is absolutely reliable, a testimony that can never be invalidated. It is the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who knows the deep things of God, who is absolutely infallible in his judgment, and who will maintain his estimate of believers in spite of all adversaries. “The spirit himself beareth witness with (or, to) our spirit, that we are children of God.” If the believer confidently addresses God as his Father in heaven, God recognizes the believer as his child.
This testimony of the Holy Spirit should not be conceived of as a communication, conveyed to the believer by a secret voice, and giving him the assurance that he is a child of God; nor as a specific operation of the Holy Spirit on the mind, by which he directs attention to a passage of Scripture containing that assurance. Neither should it be regarded as a testimony that is given once for all at the moment of conversion, to which the believer can confidently appeal ever after, no matter whether he be yielding the fruits of the Spirit, or be following the lusts of the flesh. The Spirit of God testifies continually by his indwelling in the hearts of those that fear the Lord, and by all those gracious operations in the renewal of man that are so manifestly divine. He opens the eye of faith to the beauty and glory of the promises of God, illumines the mind so that their spiritual import is understood, and fills the heart with a sense of their appropriateness for lost sinners. He discloses to the spiritual eye the gracious character of the Saviour, causes the sinner to flee to him for refuge and to seek shelter in the shadow of his wings, and leads the soul to a trustful repose, safe in the arms of Jesus. He speaks in all the movements of the new life: in the love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts, in the filial spirit, the spirit of love and reverence and obedience, in his intercessions in the inner man with groanings that cannot be uttered, in the manifold experiences of comfort in suffering, strength in weakness, victory in seasons of temptation, and perseverance under the trials of faith. These are all works of the Holy Spirit. In so far as they are in us and abound, they bear witness to the reality of our reconciliation with God, and in the very voice of the Spirit give us the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we are children of God. These vital spiritual affections shine with their own light, and thus constitute the testimony of the Holy Spirit that carries conviction to the soul. The more the life of faith develops, the greater our progress in the way of sanctification, the clearer will the voice of the spirit ring out, dispelling all doubts and filling the heart with joy and peace.
We meet with a closely related idea, where Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as a seal with which believers are sealed, and as an earnest of their inheritance. This twofold significance of the Spirit finds expression in a single passage, Eph. 1:13, 14 ... “in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.” Now a seal is used for various purposes: (1) to authenticate or mark as true and genuine; (2) to mark as one's property; and (3) to insure security or safety. The sealing of believers has this threefold significance. Being in possession of the Holy Spirit, they have the witness within themselves that they are true children of God, 1 John 5:10; Rom. 5:5; 8:16. By the seal of the Spirit that is impressed upon them they are also marked as belonging to God, so that others readily recognize them as children of God. Moreover, the fact that they are said to be sealed unto the day of redemption, Eph. 4:30, clearly indicates that the sealing of God secures their safety, that they are thereby rendered sure of their final salvation. The Spirit is even the earnest of their inheritance. In him believers possess the first fruits of the full harvest of salvation that will be reaped in the great day of the coming of Jesus Christ.
c. The Testimony of the Christian Graces
Finally, Reformed Confessional Standards also clearly indicate that assurance is based in part on the so-called syllogism of faith, in which the believer consciously and deliberately compares the graces that adorn his life and his general conduct, with the biblical description of the virtues and the godly conversation of those who are born of the Spirit, and on their relative correspondence bases the conclusion that he is indeed a child of God. The Bible says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, ... blessed are they that mourn, . blessed are the meek, . blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness,” etc. And the believer who is purposely in quest of assurance examines his heart and life to discover, whether he is poor in spirit and truly humble, and whether he mourns on account of his sin and really hungers and thirsts after righteousness. His self-examination determines the conclusion to which he comes. If he finds that these graces do really and truly adorn his life, he will naturally infer from this that he belongs to the number of those whom Jesus pronounces blessed.
It is quite evident that in this logical deduction we are operating with premises derived from the two grounds of assurance to which attention was called in the preceding, viz. the promises of God in his Word and the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of believers. When the Holy Spirit originates, strengthens, and increases faith in God's children so that they not only begin but also continue to appropriate the promises of God, this will at once carry with it a certain measure of assurance. It may be that this instinctive and immediate assurance will be but vaguely felt at first; but it will naturally rise to the level of a conscious certitude in the measure in which faith increases and becomes abundant in spiritual fruits, and often rises to that height without any conscious reflection on the grounds, the nature and the operations of faith. Many Christians who enjoy the assurance of faith are not able to give an intelligent explanation of it, and are at a loss what to say when they are asked for the grounds of their assurance, or for proof of the genuineness of their faith. They may be able only to repeat the words of the man whom Jesus cured of his blindness: “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” Their lack of clear knowledge on this point, however, may cause them to reflect on the nature and grounds of their faith, and on the evidences of the life of the spirit that is born within their hearts. And then they are invariably led to base their assurance consciously and deliberately on the objective promises of God in connection with the subjective fruits of the Spirit.
This method of seeking assurance is perfectly Scriptural. While Paul emphasizes the significance of the inner witness of the spirit in connection with the assurance of faith, John lays the chief stress on the ethical tests of faith and thus illustrates the method now under consideration. “We know,” says he, “that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” 1 John 3:14. Referring to that same test of love to the brethren, a love in deed and truth, he continues in the 19th verse of the same chapter: “Hereby we shall know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him.” Again, he sounds the language of assurance in the words: “We know that we have come to a knowledge of him, if we keep his commandments,” 2:3; and, “Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily hath the love of God been perfected. Hereby we know that we are in him: he that saith he abideth in him ought himself also to walk even as he walked,” 2:5, 6. We may find the same line of thought indicated in 2 Pet. 1:5-10, where the apostle exhorts his readers to assure themselves of their calling and election by adding to faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge temperance, to temperance patience, to patience godliness, to godliness brotherly love, and to brotherly love, love to all.
But it is quite possible to expect too much of this method of comparison. It seems to be a very easy matter, but in reality it is extremely difficult. Disappointment may follow the attempt to gain assurance by contemplating the fruits of faith. There are several reasons for this. The inner life of man, and especially the religious side of it, is very complicated and therefore constitutes a difficult field to explore. Moreover, in view of the deceitfulness of man's heart, it is not easy to maintain strict impartiality, seeing that he who collects the evidence and passes judgment on it, is also the interested party. By nature man is not inclined to see himself just as he is, in all his sinfulness and corruption; and even in the regenerated man it requires a large measure of grace to overcome this natural aversion. Then, too, a faithful self-inspection usually reveals so much that is defective, that the first result is apt to be discouragement rather than the glad assurance of hope. Again, in testing the genuineness of his faith by good works as the fruit of faith, a person may find that he is after all merely reasoning in a circle. The question naturally arises, What are good works? And the Heidelberg Catechism answers: “Those only which are done from true faith, according to the law of God, for his glory.” He who would know whether his faith is genuine, must investigate, whether it bears real spiritual fruit; and in order to determine whether the fruit is genuine, he must consider whether it springs from a true and living faith. And finally, it should be borne in mind that, while genuine fruits of righteousness do indeed testify to the presence of a living faith, the fact that these fruits have not yet made their appearance does not prove the absence of true faith. How extremely difficult it is to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian by their respective fruits is clearly apparent from the attempts of some eighteenth century theologians to discriminate between the believer at his worst and the unbeliever at his best. In order to know men by their fruits, the real character of these fruits must be clearly apparent.
It would seem to be a mistake, therefore, to make a comparison of the graces that adorn the Christian's life and the requirements of God, together with the self-inspection which it involves, the only or even the chief ground of his assurance. It can only serve to confirm a conviction that is already more or less present in the mind, and in many cases adds little or nothing to the assurance of faith. Where faith is weak and does not reveal its vitality in the development of Christian graces and in the production of good works, there is no subjective basis for the comparison, and therefore no ground for the certitude of faith. And where faith is strong and vital and abounds in spiritual fruits, it carries an immediate assurance with it, which a deliberate comparison would not be able to make more sure, though it might render it more intelligible. Whatever assurance may be attained in this way, can only result from a true spiritual insight into the promises of God; from a self-examination that is performed with candid honesty, with great thoroughness, in a prayerful frame of mind, and above all under the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit; and from a conclusion that is based on a correct interpretation of the promises of God, and of such Christian graces as are clearly and unmistakably recognized as fruits of the Spirit.
Some object to this method of seeking assurance altogether. They claim that it directs believers to seek the ground of assurance within themselves, and thus encourages them to build on a self-righteous foundation. But this is clearly a mistake. Believers are not taught to regard their good works as the meritorious cause of their salvation, but only as the divinely wrought evidences of a faith that is itself a gift of God. Their conclusion is based exactly on the assumption that the qualities and works which they discover in their life, could never have been wrought by themselves, but can only be regarded as the products of sovereign grace.
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was born in the Netherlands and emigrated as a child to the United States where his family joined the Christian Reformed Church. His theological training began at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He then went on to study at Princeton Seminary. After briefly serving as a pastor of a local congregation he was called to teach at Calvin Seminary in 1906 where he remained for three decades. His magnum opus was the still popular, Reformed Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) published by Eerdmans. This work was condensed into the Manual of Christian Doctrine, 1933. He was also the author of The History of Christian Doctrines, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.
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