THE ASSURANCE OF FAITH
Professor R. A. Finlayson*
On the assurance of faith, or the assurance of salvation as it is most often called, Christian thought is sharply divided. Some hold that it is impossible to attain to it, and that it is presumptuous either to ask for or expect it, while others have held that it is not only attainable, but absolutely essential to the very nature of faith, that it in fact, inseparable from a state of grace.
We believe that there is a middle way between these extremes of belief: that though assurance is neither essential to the nature of grace, nor inseparable from a state of grace, it is a condition to which every believer can attain and a blessing which it is the duty of every believer to labour for.
John in his First Epistle has stated the situation thus:
“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of he Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe in the name of the Son of God.”
Here we have three propositions submitted by the Apostle John:
1. They who believe have eternal life.
2. They may be brought to a knowledge that they have eternal life.
3. That knowledge is not to supersede their duty of living by direct faith on the Son of God.
I They who believe have eternal life.
This, we recall, is the theme of John’s Gospel, and it is reiterated with great urgency again and again in his First Epistle. It is the clearest and most unambiguous declaration of the way of salvation given to us in the New Testament. John here speaks of it as Â•’believing on the name of the Son of God.” That is John’s way of putting Christ before us in all His sufficiency and glory as the Son of God. The Name stands for the person as interpreted by the Gospel. The Name is the expression of the Person, a pointer to the nature and character and authority of the One who bears it.
And it is with a revealed Christ that faith deals: with Christ as interpreted by Himself and by the Spirit in the Word. Thus, faith is not a leap in the dark, a venture into the unknown, a gamble on the reality of the truth given. Faith is the act of one who has examined the facts and is satisfied with the evidence.
Furthermore, faith is not belief in any proposition about Christ. Though doctrinal propositions are there, and are necessary for the guidance of faith, and faith accepts them as true, yet the ultimate and decisive act of faith is in respect to a Person, the Person of Christ. It is, therefore, more than the assent of belief, it is the
commitment of trust, it is more than fides, it is fiducia, the trust of the heart.
This can be illustrated by the consistent Greek usage of the New testament. The word faith, whether verb or noun, has the reposition eis governing its object upwards of 20 times, and in not one of these instances is the object a proposition to be believed.
Some 19 times the word believe is used with oti, and in all these cases the object is a proposition either expressed or implied. For example, with eis we are enjoined to believe on God, on His Name, on the Son of God. With oti we have such sentences as: “Believe that I came forth from God;” “that they may believe that thou hast sent me;” “believe that Jesus is the Christ.”
Thus to believe in a person is quite different from believing about a person, and it is belief in or on the Person of Christ that brings eternal life into the experience of men.
So faith deals with the Person of Jesus Christ as interpreted by His Word and revealed by His Spirit. Nowhere can it be shown that the Apostles exhorted their hearers to trust to statements about Christ. Nowhere do they exhort their hearers to believe that God loved them, that Christ died for them, nowhere do they make that the foundation of their faith. And nowhere is it hinted that salvation consists in believing this.
To believe on Christ brings eternal life into human experience. When John says: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,”he is dealing with the fruit of faith, and he means that this faith is the effect and evidence of our regeneration, not the cause of it.
Thus, saving faith, reaching out to Christ and resting on Him, must be distinguished from assurance that something has happened. It is not a logical proposition to which we give assent. As for example:
God so loved the world,
I am of the world
Therefore God loves me.
Christ died for sinners,
I am a sinner,
Therefore Christ died for me.
He that believeth is saved,
Therefore I am saved.
There salvation and assurance are found at the end of a logical syllogism. But that is neither saving faith, nor the assurance of faith. Assurance does not come by a process of reasoning, however logical. Yet assurance does come from direct faith in Christ. That is the basic factor in assurance.
II John writes thus that they may be brought to a knowledge that they have eternal life.
It is possible to have this knowledge, else John had written his Epistle in vain. His purpose, more than once expressed, was to assist his converts to attain this knowledge.
Now it is clear from this Epistle that this assurance is attained by a coming together of certain things: it is the result of combined evidence.
First, there is this direct personal faith in Christ of which we have spoken. This alone channels eternal life into our experience. This is the faith that saves. But it does not always assure if it abide alone.
Secondly, there is the inward witness of the Spirit. This is subjective as the other was objective. Here the Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God: with our spirits, that is, with our spiritual nature, our inner beings, to the conscience in peace, to the heart in love, to the mind in light. The Spirit thus gives an inner illumination, sealing the truth upon our nature, and giving the filial spirit of love, trust, and obedience.
Thirdly, there is the evidence of the life. Here we examine our lives in the light of what the Christian character should be. We look for the fruit of the Spirit, as distinct from the works of the flesh. John finds the practical test of the Christian in love to the brethren, the kind of love that lays down our life for the brethren.
When these three meet and agree, there is solid ground for assurance. But each separately is not enough. Direct faith alone may prove inadequate.
Here is the case of one who can look back on a past transaction, a day, an hour perhaps, when he made the great committal. But it is not enough to say that that transaction stands and therefore you may be sure of your final salvation if you are not living now in the will of God and seeking to obey His commandments. That assurance is dead and may well breed presumption and disobedience. It can lead to the sin of antinomianism, a life in breach of the law of God.
Similarity, the inner consciousness is not enough.
It is not enough to derive our assurance from an inner consciousness of what we may call divine grace. This subjectivism, divorced from life, may well become a mysticism, unrelated to the item realities of life and unfit to do battle with sin and temptation.
Mysticism of this kind may foster delusion and unreality. He is a poor sailor, in any case, who casts his anchor in the hold of the ship in the storm!
Likewise, the outer life is not enough.
To base our assurance on our character alone and on our works of righteousness may breed a legalism that ends up in salvation by works.
But when these three – the Word, the inner witness and the life -come together there is a three-fold cord that is not easily broken. This assurance is a living thing, it has root, and branch, and fruit.
Ill The third proposition that John writes about is: “that ye may believe, or go on believing, in the name of the Son of God.”
No assurance that we may possess is to supersede or supplant a life of direct faith on the Son of God. The Christian can never afford to live on his past committal, or on his present feelings, or on his obedience of life. He must be looking unceasingly by faith to the Son of God. Too often it becomes a mere believing in believing, a believing in our salvation, a believing in prayer, and so on. Faith in faith is not the same as faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is significant that there is a distinction often made between the assurance of faith and the assurance of sense, or, as it is sometimes put, the assurance of faith and the assurance of hope. The one is the direct act of faith, the other the reflex act of faith.
The assurance of faith is thus an assurance regarding Christ, a confidence based on a certainty regarding Him. The assurance of sense is an assurance regarding ourselves, that we are in a state of grace. By the assurance of faith we are assured of the truth of what God has said to us. By the assurance of sense we are assured of what God has done in us. The first is the root, the other is the fruit.
* Extracted from The Shield of Faith, April 1965.