by Thomas Ridgley
QUESTION LXXX. Can true believers be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and that they shall persevere therein unto salvation?
ANSWER. Such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavour to walk in all good conscience before him, may, without extraordinary revelation, by faith grounded upon the truth of God's promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing witness with their spirits that they are the children of God, be infallibly assured that they are in the estate of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation.
WE have considered a believer as made partaker of those graces of the Holy Spirit which accompany salvation, and by which his state is rendered safe. We have considered also that he shall not draw back unto perdition, but shall attain the end of his faith, even the salvation of his soul. But it is necessary for the establishing of his comfort and joy, that he should know himself to be interested in this privilege. It is a great blessing to be redeemed by Christ, and sanctified by the Spirit; but it is a superadded privilege to know that we are so, or to be assured that we are in a state of grace. This is the subject insisted on in the present Answer. In discussing it we shall observe the following method. First, we shall say something concerning the nature of assurance, and how far persons may be said to be infallibly assured of their salvation. Secondly, we shall endeavour to prove that this blessing is attainable in this life. Thirdly, we shall consider the character of those to whom it belongs. Lastly, we shall consider the means whereby it may be attained.
The Nature and Degrees of Assurance
We shall speak first concerning the nature of assurance, and how far persons may be said to be infallibly assured of their salvation. Assurance is opposed to doubting, which is inconsistent with it. He who has attained this privilege, is carried above all those doubts and fears respecting the truth of grace, and his interest in the love of God, which others are exposed to, and by which their lives are rendered very uncomfortable. It may be considered also as containing something more than our being enabled to hope that we are in a state of grace; for though such hope affords relief against despair, yet it falls short of assurance, which is sometimes called a 'full assurance of hope.' And it certainly contains a great deal more than a probability or a conjectural persuasion relating to this matter; which is the only thing that some will allow to be attainable by believers, especially they who deny the doctrine of the saints' perseverance, and lay the greatest stress of man's salvation on his own free-will, rather than the efficacious grace of God. All that they will own as to this matter is, that persons may be in a hopeful way to salvation, and that it is probable they may attain it at last; but that they cannot be fully assured that they shall, unless they were assured concerning their perseverance. This, however, they suppose, no one can be; because, as they think, the carrying on of the work of grace, as well as the beginning of it, depends on the free-will of man, and because, according to their notion of liberty, as was observed under another Answer,b he who acts freely may act the contrary. They hence conclude that, as every thing which is done in the carrying on of the work of grace is done freely; no one can be assured that this work shall not miscarry; so that none can attain assurance. This is what some assert, but we deny. It is observed in this Answer, not only that believers may attain assurance that they 'are in a state of grace, and shall persevere therein unto salvation,' but that they may be 'infallibly assured' of this, and so possess the highest degree of assurance. How far this is attainable by believers, may be the subject of our farther inquiry.
It is a matter of dispute among some, whether assurance admits of any degrees; whether a person can be said to be more or less assured of a thing; or whether that which does not amount to the highest degree of certainty, may be called assurance. This is denied by some, for this reason, that assurance is the highest and strongest assent which can be given to the truth of any proposition; so that the least defect of evidence on which it is supposed to be founded, leaves the mind in a proportionable degree of doubt as to the truth of it; in which case there may be a probability, but not an assurance. If this method of explaining the meaning of the word be correct, it is beyond dispute that they who have attained assurance of their being in a state of grace, may be said to be 'infallibly assured.' Whether this be the sense of that expression in this Answer, I will not pretend to determine; neither shall I enter any farther into this dispute, which amounts to little more than what concerns the propriety or impropriety of the sense of the word 'assurance.' All that I shall add concerning it, is that, according to our common mode of speaking, it is reckoned no absurdity for a person to say he is sure of a thing, though it, be possible for him to have greater evidence of the truth of it, and consequently a greater degree of assurance. Thus the assurance which arises from the possession of a thing cannot but be greater than that which attends the mere expectation of it. Hence, whatever be the sense of the 'infallible assurance' which is here spoken of, we cannot suppose that there is any degree of assurance attainable in this life, concerning the happiness of the saints in heaven, equal to that which those have who are actually possessed of that blessedness. To suppose this would be to confound earth and heaven together, or expectation with actual fruition.
As to our assurance, there is among some another matter of dispute which I am not desirous to enter into, namely, whether it is possible for a believer to be as sure that he shall be saved, as he is that he exists, or that he is a sinner and so stands in need of salvation; or whether it is possible for a person to be as sure that he shall be saved, as he is sure of that truth which is matter of pure revelation, namely, that he that believes shall be saved; or whether it is possible for a person to be as sure that he has the truth of grace, as he may be that he performs any actions, whether natural or religious, such as speaking, praying, reading, hearing, &c.; or whether we may be as sure that we have a principle of grace, as we are that we put forth such actions as seem to proceed from that principle, when engaged in the performance of some religious duties. If any are disposed to defend the possibility of our attaining assurance in so great a degree as this, thinking it to be the meaning of what some divines have asserted, agreeably to what is contained in this Answer, that a believer may be 'infallibly assured of his salvation,' I will not enter the lists with them; though I very much question whether it will not be a matter of too great difficulty for them to support their argument, without the least appearance of exception to it.
I would not, however, extenuate or deny the privileges which some saints have been favoured with, who have been, as it were, in the suburbs of heaven, and had not only a prelibation but a kind of sensation of the enjoyments of it, and expressed as full an assurance as though they had been actually in heaven. It cannot be denied that this, in various instances, has amounted as near as possible to an assurance of infallibility. And that such a degree of assurance has been attained by some believers, both in former and later ages, will be proved under a following Head. Now, this, I am apt to think, is what is intended in this Answer by the possibility of a believer's being infallibly assured of salvation. But let it be considered that these are uncommon instances, in which the Spirit of God, by his immediate testimony, has favoured persons with as to this matter, and are not to be reckoned as a standard, whereby we may judge of that assurance which God's children desire and sometimes enjoy, which falls short of it. When God is pleased to give a believer such a degree of assurance as carries him above all his doubts and fears with respect to his being in a state of grace, and fills him with those consequent joys which are unspeakable and full of glory; the believer possesses that assurance which we are now to consider, and which, in this Answer, is called an infallible assurance. But as to whether it is more or less properly called 'an infallible assurance,' we have nothing farther to add.
The Attainableness of Assurance
We shall now proceed to prove that this privilege is attainable in the present life.
1. We observe, then, that if the knowledge of other things which are of less importance be attainable, certainly it is possible for us to attain that which is of the greatest importance. This argument is founded on the goodness of God. If he has given us sufficient means to lead us into the knowledge of things which respect our comfort and happiness in this world; has he left us altogether destitute of those means whereby we may conclude that it shall go well with us in a better? God has sometimes been pleased to favour his people with some intimations concerning the blessings of common providence, which they might expect for their encouragement, under the trials and difficulties which they were to meet with in the world. Our Saviour encourages his disciples to expect that, notwithstanding their present destitute circumstances, as to outward things, their Father, who 'knoweth that they had need of them,' would supply their wants; so that they had no reason to be over-solicitous in 'taking thought what they should eat and drink, and wherewithal they should be clothed.' God, that he may encourage the faith of his people, gives them assurance that 'no temptation shall befall them, but what is common to men,' or that they shall not be pressed down, so as to sink and despair of help from him, under the burdens and difficulties which, in the course of his providence, he lays on them. Now, if he is pleased to give such intimations to his people, with respect to their condition in this world, that they may be assured that it shall go well with them as to many things which concern their outward circumstances; may we not conclude that the assurance of those things which concern their everlasting salvation may be attained? Or, if the promises which respect the one may be depended on, so as to afford relief against all doubts and fears which may arise from our present circumstances in the world; may we not, with as good reason, suppose that the promises which respect the other, namely, the carrying on and perfecting of the work of grace, afford equal matter of encouragement? May we not hence conclude, that the one is as much to be depended on as the other; so that, as the apostle says, 'they who have fled for refuge, to lay hold upon the hope set before them, may have a strong consolation' arising thence?
It will be objected that the promises which respect outward blessings are not always fulfilled; so that we cannot be assured concerning our future condition, as to outward circumstances in the world; though godliness, as the apostle says, 'hath promise of the life that now is,' as well as of 'that which is to come.' This, say the objectors, appears from the uncommon instances of affliction which the best men often meet with, and which others are exempted from. It is hence inferred that the promises which respect the carrying on and completing of the work of grace, will not afford that assurance of salvation which we suppose a believer may attain to as founded on them. Now, we reply, that the promises of outward blessings are always fulfilled, either in kind or in value. Sometimes the destitute state of believers, as to the good things of this life, is abundantly compensated with those spiritual blessings which are bestowed on them at present, or are reserved for them hereafter. Hence, if their condition in the world be attended with little else but affliction, they have no reason to say that they are disappointed; for while they are denied lesser blessings, they have greater instead. Their assurance of the accomplishment of the promises of outward blessings, therefore must be understood with this limitation. But as to spiritual blessings which God has promised to his people, there is no foundation for any distinction of their being made good in kind or in value. If the promise of eternal life be not made good according to the letter of it, it cannot, in any sense, be said to be accomplished. Hence, as God gives his people these promises, as a foundation of hope, we may conclude that the assurance of believers relating to their salvation, is as much to be depended on as the assurance they have, founded on the promises of God, concerning any blessings which may tend to support them in their present condition in the world.
2. That assurance of justification, sanctification, and salvation, may be attained in this life, is farther evident from the obligations which persons are under to pray for these privileges, and to bless God for the experience which they have of the one, and the ground which they have to expect the other. That it is our duty to pray for them is no less certain than that we stand in need of them. This, then, being taken for granted, it may be inferred that there is some way by which we may know that our prayers are answered. To think that there is not such a way would be a very discouraging consideration. Nor, if there were not such a way, could the experience of answer to prayer be alleged as a motive to the performance of the duty; as the psalmist says, 'O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come.' Nor could any believer have the least reason to say as he does elsewhere, 'Verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer.'f The apostle also says that, 'if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us;' and, in the following words, he adds, 'We know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.' It follows, therefore, that we may know, from the exercise of faith in prayer for the forgiveness of sin, that our iniquities are forgiven. The same may be said concerning prayer for all other blessings which accompany salvation; so that it is possible for us to know whether God has granted us these blessings or not.
It may be objected, that it is not absolutely necessary that an humble suppliant should have any intimations given him that his petition shall be granted; or that it would be a very unbecoming thing for such an one to say, that he will not ask for a favour, if he be not sure beforehand that it will be bestowed. We answer, that we are not only to pray for saving blessings, but to praise God for our experience of them. Thus it is said, 'Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me;' and 'Praise is comely for the upright.'i Now, this supposes that we know that God has bestowed upon us the blessings we prayed for. If the psalmist calls upon his soul to 'bless the Lord for forgiving him all his iniquities,' we must suppose that there was some method by which he attained the assurance of the blessing which he praises God for.
3. Some have attained the privilege of assurance; and therefore it is not impossible for others to attain it. That some have been assured of their salvation, is evident from the account we have in several scriptures. Thus the apostle tells the church he writes to, 'God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation;' and he says concerning himself, 'I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him, against that day.'m
It is objected that though some persons of old experienced this privilege, yet it does not follow that we have any ground to expect it; since they attained it by extraordinary revelation, in that age in which they were favoured with the spirit of inspiration, whereby they arrived at the knowledge of things future, even such as it was impossible for them otherwise to have known. At least, say the objectors, they could not, without these extraordinary intimations, have arrived at any more than a probable conjecture concerning this matter. Now, continue they, that by these means some obtained assurance, is not denied, while to pretend to more than this, is to suppose that we have it by extraordinary inspiration, which, at present, can be reckoned no other than enthusiasm. We answer, that though God does not give the church, at present, the least ground to expect extraordinary intimations concerning their interest in spiritual and saving blessings, as he formerly did; yet we must not conclude that there is no method whereby they may attain the assurance of that interest in a common and ordinary way, by the internal testimony of the Spirit,—a testimony, as will farther appear under a following Head, which differs very much from enthusiasm, since it is attended with and founded on those evidences which God has given in scripture, of their being in a state of grace, and which they, in a way of self-examination, are enabled to apprehend in themselves.
That this may appear, let it be considered that there never was any privilege conferred upon the church by extraordinary revelation, while that dispensation was continued in it, but the same, or some other which is equivalent to it, is still conferred in an ordinary way, provided it be absolutely necessary for the advancing of the glory of God, and their edification and consolation in Christ. If this were not true, the church could hardly subsist; much less would the present dispensation of the covenant of grace excel the other which the church was under in former ages, as to those spiritual privileges which they have ground to expect. It is, I think, allowed by all, that the gospel-dispensation, not only in the beginning of it, when extraordinary gifts were conferred, but in its continuance, now that they have ceased, excels that which went before it, with respect to the spiritual privileges which are conferred in it. Now, if God was pleased formerly to converse with men in an extraordinary way, and thereby to give them an intimation of things relating to their salvation, but at present withholds not only the way and manner of making such intimation to his people, but the blessings conveyed thereby; it will follow that the church is in a worse state than it was before, or else it must be supposed that these privileges are not absolutely necessary to enable them to glorify God, which they do by offering praise to him, and to their attaining that peace and joy which they are given to expect in a way of believing. If the church were destitute of this privilege, it would be in a very unhappy state, and retain nothing which could compensate the loss of those extraordinary gifts which have now ceased. They who insist on the objection, and charge the doctrine of assurance with savouring of enthusiasm, are obliged, by their own method of reasoning, to apply the same objection to the doctrine of internal, special, efficacious grace, which, under a foregoing Answer, we proved to be the work of the Spirit; and if these internal works are confined to the extraordinary dispensation of the Spirit, then the church is at present as much destitute of sanctification as it is of assurance. We must hence conclude, that the one no more savours of enthusiasm than the other; or that we have ground to hope for assurance of salvation, though not in an extraordinary way, as much as the saints had in former ages.
Our Saviour has promised his people the Spirit to perform what is necessary for carrying on the work of grace in all ages, even when extraordinary gifts should cease. Thus he says, 'The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.' Elsewhere, also, it is said, 'Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.'p And as to the privilege of assurance, it is said, 'We have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.' Besides, there are many other promises of the Spirit, which, though they had their accomplishment, as to what respects the conferring of extraordinary gifts, in the first age of the church, yet have a farther accomplishment in what the Spirit was to bestow on the church in following ages, though in an ordinary way. This seems very evident from scripture, inasmuch as the fruits of the Spirit are said to appear in the exercise of those graces which believers have in all ages, who never had extraordinary gifts. Thus it is said, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.'r Now, if these graces be produced by the Spirit, as they are called his 'fruits,' and the exercise of them be not confined to any particular age of the church, we must suppose that the Spirit's energy extends itself to all ages.—Again, believers are said to be 'led by the Spirit;' and their being so is assigned as an evidence of their being 'the sons of God.' On the other hand, it is said, 'If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.'t We may hence conclude that there was, in the apostle's days, an effusion of the Spirit common to all believers, besides that which was conferred in an extraordinary way on those who were favoured with the gift of inspiration; otherwise, having the Spirit would not have been considered as a privilege belonging only to believers, and being destitute of it an evidence of a person's not belonging to Christ. As to the extraordinary dispensation of the Holy Ghost, it was not inseparably connected with salvation. For many had it who were Christians only in name, and had nothing more than a form of godliness; and, on the other hand, many true believers brought forth those fruits which proceeded from the Spirit in an ordinary way, who had not these extraordinary gifts conferred on them. Moreover, the apostle speaks of believers 'through the Spirit mortifying the deeds of the body.' Now, if the work of mortification be incumbent on believers in all ages, then the influences of the Spirit, enabling to this work, may be expected in all ages. To apply this to our present argument,—the Spirit's bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, which is the foundation of that assurance which we are pleading for, is, together with the other fruits and effects of the Spirit just mentioned, a privilege which believers, as such, are given to desire and hope for, and which they stand in as much need of as those who had this or other privileges conferred on them in an extraordinary way in the first age of the gospel church.—We might add, that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were conferred on particular persons, and not on whole churches; while assurance is considered by the apostle as a privilege conferred on the church to which he writes, that is, the greatest part of them, whence the denomination is taken. On this account, the apostle, speaking to the believing Corinthians, says, 'We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.' Here he does not mean only himself and other ministers, but the generality of believers at that time who are described as walking by faith. There are many things said concerning them in the foregoing and following verses, which make it sufficiently evident that he intends more than himself and other ministers, when he speaks of their having assurance; since many had it who were not made partakers of extraordinary gifts. We must not conclude, therefore, that the church has at present no ground to expect this privilege; or that they are liable to the charge of enthusiasm if they claim it.
But that the objection which we are examining may farther appear not to be sufficient to overthrow our argument, we may appeal to the experience of many believers in the present age, who pretend not to extraordinary revelation. Let it be considered, then, that many, in later ages, since extraordinary revelation has ceased, have attained this privilege, and consequently it is now attainable. To deny this would be to offend against the generation of God's people, of whom many have given their testimony to this truth, and have declared what a comfortable sense they have had of their interest in Christ, and what sensible impressions they have enjoyed of his love shed abroad in their hearts, whereby they have had, as it were, a prelibation of the heavenly blessedness. This assurance has been attended with the most powerful influence of the Spirit of God, enabling them to exercise those graces which correspond with these comfortable experiences, whereby they have been carried through and enabled to surmount the greatest difficulties which have attended them in life. Many, too, have been supported and comforted therewith at the approach of death; so that the sting of death has been taken away, and they have expressed themselves with a kind of triumph over it, in the apostle's words, 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'—That some have been favoured with this invaluable privilege, is undeniable. The account we have in the history of the lives and deaths of many who have been burning and shining lights in their generation, puts it out of all doubt. And if this were not sufficient, we might appeal to the experience of many now living; for there is scarcely any age or place in which the gospel comes with power, but we have some instances of the Spirit's testimony to his own work, whereby it comes, with much assurance, a comfortable sense of God's love, peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which are the first-fruits and earnest of eternal life. But since this point will be particularly insisted on, and farther proofs given of it under a following Answer,z we may at present take it for granted, that many have been assured of their being in a state of grace, who have not made the least pretension to inspiration; while to charge them with enthusiasm, or a vain ungrounded delusion, is to cast a reflection on the best of men, as well as on one of the highest privileges which we can enjoy in this world.—I am sensible that it will be objected that, though some have indeed expressed such a degree of assurance, yet this will afford conviction only to those who have it, who are the best judges of their own experience, and of the evidence on which their assurance is founded, but is not a sufficient proof to us, with respect to whom it is only a matter of report. It may also be said, on the other hand, that it is possible these persons might be mistaken who have been so sure of their own salvation. It is very unreasonable, however, to suppose that all have been mistaken or deluded who have declared that they have been favoured with this blessing. Charity will hardly admit of such a supposition; and if there be no possibility of attaining this assurance, they must all have been deceived who have concluded that they had it. Moreover, this privilege has been attained, not only by a few persons, and these the more credulous part of mankind, or by such as have not been able to assign any marks or evidences tending to support it; but by many believers who, at the same time, have been far from discovering any weakness of judgment, or disposition to unwarrantable credulity. Yea, they have enjoyed it at a time when they have been most sensible of the deceitfulness of their own hearts, and could not but own that there was a peculiar hand of God in it; and the same persons, when destitute of the Spirit's testimony, have acknowledged themselves to have used their utmost endeavours to attain it, but in vain. It is alleged, indeed, that though we suppose assurance true to a demonstration to those who have it, as being matter of sensation to them, it is only matter of report to us; and that we are no farther bound to believe it, than we can depend on the credibility of their evidence who have declared that they have experienced it. But if there be such a thing as certainty founded on report, to deny which would be the greatest degree of scepticism, and if the truth of assurance has been transmitted to us by a great number of those who cannot be charged with any thing which looks like a disposition to deceive either themselves or others, we are bound to believe, from their own testimony, that there is such an assurance to be attained by those who pretend not to receive it by extraordinary inspiration from the Spirit of God.
The Character of the Persons who enjoy Assurance
We are now led to consider the character of the persons to whom this privilege belongs. They are described, in this Answer, as 'such as truly believe in Christ, and endeavour to walk in all good conscience before him.' These only have ground to expect this privilege. It is an assurance of our having the truth of grace that we are considering; which supposes a person truly to believe in Christ. Accordingly, it is distinguished from that unwarrantable presumption whereby many persuade themselves that they shall be saved, though they be not sanctified. It is not 'the hope of the hypocrite' we are speaking of, which shall 'perish' and be 'cut off;' 'whose trust shall be as the spider's web,' which shall be swept away with the besom of destruction, and be like 'the giving up of the ghost,' which shall end in everlasting despair. What we are speaking of is a well-grounded hope, such as is accompanied with and supported by the life of faith; so that we are first enabled to act grace, and then to discern the truth of it in our own souls, and accordingly reap the comfortable fruits and effects which attend this assurance; as the apostle prays in behalf of the believing Romans, that 'the God of hope would fill them with all joy and peace in believing.'b An unbeliever, therefore, has no right to this privilege. Indeed, from the nature of the thing, it is preposterous for a person to be assured of that which in itself has no reality; as the apostle says, 'If a man think himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.' And if faith be necessary to assurance, it follows, as is farther observed in this Answer, that they who have attained this privilege walk in all good conscience before God; whereby the sincerity of their faith is evinced. Accordingly, the apostle says, 'Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world.'d
The Means of attaining Assurance
We are now to consider the means by which assurance is to be attained, namely, not by extraordinary revelation, but by faith, founded on the promises of God. As to the former, we have already considered that assurance may be attained without extraordinary revelation; as it has been experienced by some in the present dispensation of the gospel, in which extraordinary revelation has ceased. Indeed, it may be observed, in the account the scripture gives of this privilege, that it does not appear that, when extraordinary revelation was granted to many in the first age of the gospel, the design of it was to lead men into the knowledge of their own state, so that they should by means of it attain assurance of their interest in Christ and right to eternal life. The main design of inspiration was to qualify ministers in an extraordinary way to preach the gospel; as the necessity of affairs seemed then to require it. It was necessary also for the imparting of some doctrines which could not otherwise be known. Inasmuch, too, as it was an extraordinary dispensation of divine providence, it was an expedient to give conviction to the world concerning the truth of the Christian religion; since God hereby was pleased to converse in an immediate way with men, to testify the great regard he had to his church, and to promote the great ends of inspiration in propagating that religion which was then to be set up in the world. But we do not find that by extraordinary revelation the work of grace was ordinarily wrought or carried on; nor was it God's instituted means without which believers could not attain assurance, for, in that age of extraordinary inspiration, they arrived at that privilege in the same way in which we are to expect to attain it. It is true, God occasionally intimated, by immediate revelation, that he would save some particular persons, and that their 'names were written in the book of life;' but these were special and extraordinary instances of divine condescension; and it is not designed by them that others should expect to attain the privilege of assurance in the same way. Hence, it will be hard to prove that the apostle Paul, and others whom he speaks of, who were assured of their salvation, though they received the knowledge of other things by inspiration, were led into the knowledge of their own state in such a way, much less may we expect to attain assurance by extraordinary revelation.
We are now led to consider the ordinary means whereby we may attain assurance. This means is, in this Answer, said to be faith, grounded on the truth of God's promises, and the Spirit's testimony, whereby we are enabled to discern in ourselves those graces which accompany salvation. Accordingly, in order to our arriving at a comfortable persuasion that we shall be saved, there must be revealed those promises of life and salvation which are contained in the gospel. These are remotely necessary to assurance; for without a promise of salvation we can have no hope of it. Yet though these promises are contained in the gospel, many are destitute of assurance. Again, it is necessary, in order to our attaining assurance, that there should be some marks and evidences revealed in the word of God as a rule for persons to try themselves by, in order to their knowing that they are in a state of grace. Now, we may say concerning this rule, as well as concerning the promises of salvation revealed, that, though it is necessary to assurance, yet it is only an objective means for our attaining it; inasmuch as we are hereby led to see what graces experienced, or duties performed by us, have the promise of salvation annexed to them. Hence, it is further necessary that we should discern in ourselves those marks and evidences of grace to which the promise of salvation is annexed; otherwise we have no right to lay claim to it. Accordingly, it is our duty to look into ourselves, and observe what marks of grace we have, whence we may, by the Spirit's testimony with ours, discern ourselves to be in a state of grace. We shall, then, in examining this subject, consider the following points;—that in order to our attaining assurance, we must exercise the duty of self-examination; what we may truly call a mark or evidence of grace, whereby we may discern that we are in a state of salvation; and that we are to depend on, hope, and pray for, the testimony of the Spirit with our spirits, that we are the children of God, and that the evidences of grace are found in us.
I. In order to our attaining assurance, it is necessary that we exercise the duty of self-examination, which is God's ordinance for this end. It is certainly a duty and privilege for us to know ourselves,—not only what we do, but what we are; for without knowing this, whatever knowledge we may have of other things, we are chargeable with great ignorance in a matter of the highest importance; nor can we be sufficiently humble for those sins we commit, or thankful for the mercies we receive. If we reckon it an advantage to know what is done in the world, and are very inquisitive into the affairs of others, it is much more necessary and reasonable for us to endeavour to know what more immediately relates to ourselves; or if we are very desirous to know those things which concern our natural or civil affairs in the world, whether we are in prosperous or adverse circumstances; ought we not much more to inquire, how matters stand with us as to what concerns a better world?—Again, we cannot know the state of our souls, without impartial self-examination. This is evident from the nature of the thing. As inquiry is the means for our attaining knowledge; so looking into ourselves is a means of attaining self-acquaintance.—Further, self-examination is a duty founded on a divine command, and an ordinance appointed for our attaining the knowledge of our state. Thus the apostle says, 'Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.' Now, whatever duty God has commanded us to engage in, as expecting any spiritual privilege to attend it, is properly an ordinance for the attaining of that privilege; and its being so is an argument to enforce the performance of that duty.
Having thus proved self-examination to be a Christian's duty, we shall now consider how it ought to be performed. Here let it be observed that, as it is God's ordinance, we are to have a due regard to his presence, and consider him as an heart-searching God, and depend on his assistance, without which it cannot be performed to any great advantage. But more particularly, we are to engage in this duty deliberately. It cannot well be performed while we are in a hurry of business. As every thing is beautiful in its season, so we ought to redeem time and to retire from the world, to apply ourselves to this as well as other secret duties. We have the more need to do this, that a rash and hasty judgment concerning any thing is generally faulty, and must be reckoned an evidence of weakness in him who passes it, and will be much more so when the thing to be determined is of such vast importance.—Again, the duty of self-examination ought to be done frequently; not like those things which are to be performed but once in our lives, or only upon some extraordinary occasions, but often, at least so often that no presumptuous sin may be committed, or any extraordinary judgment inflicted on us, or mercy vouchsafed to us, without a due observation being made of it, in order to our improving it aright to the glory of God and our own edification. We cannot, however, exactly determine what relates to the frequency of this duty, any more than we can prescribe to those who are in a way of trade and business in the world, how often they are to cast up their accounts, and set their books in order, that they may judge whether they go forward or backward in the world. Yet, as the neglect of these mercantile duties has been detrimental to many, as to their worldly affairs; so the neglect of self-examination has been often found an hinderance to our comfortable procedure in our Christian course. So far, however, as we may advise concerning the frequency of this duty, it would redound much to the glory of God and our own advantage if, at the close of every day, we would call to mind the experiences we have had, and observe the frame of spirit with which we have engaged in all its business. This the psalmist advises when he says, 'Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.' Moreover, it is advisable for us to perform this duty whenever we engage in other solemn stated religious duties, whether public or private, that we may know what matter we have for prayer or praise, what help we want from God against the prevalency of corruption or temptation, what answers of prayer we have received from him, or what success we have had under any ordinance in which we have engaged, as well as what the present frame of our spirit is when drawing nigh to God in any holy duty.
The duty of self-examination ought to be performed with great diligence. To arrive at a knowledge of ourselves, and the secret working of our hearts and affections in what respects things divine and heavenly, or to discern the truth of grace, so as not to mistake that for a saving work which has the external show of godliness without the power of it, requires great diligence and industry. Accordingly, the psalmist, in speaking concerning the performance of this duty, says, 'I commune with mine own heart, and my spirit made diligent search.' The thing to be inquired into is not merely, whether we are sinners in general, or exposed to many miseries in this life in consequence of being so, for this is sufficiently evident by daily experience. But we are to endeavour after a more particular knowledge of ourselves; and, accordingly are to inquire whether sin hath dominion over us to such a degree that all the powers and faculties of our souls are enslaved by it, and whether we commit sin in such a way as denominates us, as our Saviour expresses it, 'servants of sin,'i or, whether sin be loathed and abhorred, avoided and repented of. As to our state, we are to inquire whether we have ground to conclude that we are justified, and in consequence delivered from the guilt of sin, and the condemning sentence of the law; or whether we remain in a state of condemnation, and the wrath of God abideth on us. We must inquire whether the work of grace be really begun, so that we are effectually called, and enabled to put forth spiritual actions from a renewed nature; and whether this work is going forward or declining, what is the strength or weakness of our faith. We are to inquire also what is the general tenor of our actions; whether the ends we design in all religious duties are right and warrantable; whether our improvement in grace bears any proportion to the means we are favoured with. Moreover, we are to examine whether we perform all those relative duties which are incumbent on us, so as to glorify God in our conversation with men; whether we endeavour to do good to them, and receive good from them, and so improve our talents to the glory of God, from whom we received them. These and similar things are to be inquired into; and our examining ourselves respecting them will be more immediately subservient to the attaining of the privilege of assurance.
Self-examination ought to be performed with the greatest impartiality. Conscience, which is to act the part of a judge and a witness, must be faithful in its dictates and determinations, the matter in question being one of the greatest importance. Hence, in passing a judgment on our state, we must proceed according to the rules of strict justice, not denying, on the one hand, what we have received from God, or resolutely concluding against ourselves that there is no hope, when there are many things which afford matter of peace and comfort to us; nor, on the other hand, are we to think ourselves something when we are nothing. Some are obliged to conclude, as the result of this inquiry into their state, that they are unregenerate and destitute of the saving grace of God. This sentence those are obliged to pass on themselves who are grossly ignorant, not sensible of the plague of their own hearts; who are altogether unacquainted with the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, or the method prescribed in the gospel for a sinner's justification or freedom from the guilt of sin, in a fiducial application of Christ's righteousness, which is the only means conducive to it; and who know not what is included in evangelical repentance, how sin is to be mortified, and what it is to depend on Christ in the execution of his offices of prophet, priest, and king. At least, if they have not such a degree of the knowledge of these things, though they cannot fully and clearly describe them, as may influence their practice, and excite those graces which all true converts are enabled to exercise, they have ground to conclude that they are in a state of unregeneracy. We may add, that a person must conclude against himself that he is destitute of the grace of God, if he allows himself in the omission of known duties, or the commission of known sins, and is content with a form of godliness without the power of it, or values and esteems the praise of men more than of God. Such must conclude that their hearts are not right with him.
Again, we must examine ourselves concerning our state, with a resolution, by the grace of God, to make a right improvement of that judgment which we are bound to pass on ourselves. If we apprehend that we are in a state of unregeneracy, we are not to sink into despair; but we are to wait on God in all his appointed means and ordinances, in order to our obtaining the first grace, that, by the powerful influences of the Spirit, there may be such a true change wrought in us that we may have ground to hope better things concerning ourselves, even things which accompany salvation. If, on the other hand, we find that we have experienced the grace of God in truth, we must be disposed to give him all the glory, to exercise a continued dependence on him for what is still lacking to complete the work, and, as we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, to walk in him.—Finally, this duty must be performed with judgment. We are to compare our hearts and actions with the rule which is prescribed in the word of God, whereby we may know whether we have those marks and evidences of grace whence we may conclude that we have a good foundation to build on, and that our hope is such as shall never make ashamed.
II. We are thus led to consider what we may truly call a mark or evidence of grace, whereby we may discern that we are in a state of salvation. In order to our understanding this, we must consider two rules. First, every thing which is a mark or evidence of a thing, must, be more known than that which is designed to be evinced by it. The sign must always be more known than the thing signified by it; inasmuch as it is a means of our knowing that which we are at present in doubt about; as when the finger is placed in a cross-road, to direct the traveller which way he is to take. Again, a mark or evidence of a thing must contain some essential property of that which it is designed to evince. Thus the inferring of consequences from premises is an essential property belonging to every intelligent creature, and to none else. It is hence a mark or evidence of an intelligent creature. So to design the best end, and use those means which are conducive to it, is an essential property of a wise man, and consequently a mark or evidence of wisdom. On the other hand, there are some things which are not essential properties, but accidental, as a healthful constitution is to a man, or a particular action which has some appearance but not all the necessary ingredients of wisdom and goodness to a wise or good man. Now, let these rules be applied to our present purpose, in determining what we may call marks or evidences of grace. With respect to the former of them, namely, that a mark must be more known than the thing which is evinced by it, we may conclude that eternal election, and the Spirit's implanting a principle of grace in regeneration, cannot be said to be marks or evidences of sanctification, since these are less known than the thing designed to be evinced. As to the other rule, namely, that a mark must contain an essential property of that which it evinces, it follows from it, that our engaging in holy duties without the exercise of grace, or our extending charity to the poor when it does not proceed from faith or love to God, &c., is no certain evidence of the truth of grace; for a person may perform these duties and yet be destitute of grace, while that which is essential to a thing is inseparable from it.—I could not but think it necessary to premise these general observations respecting marks of grace; inasmuch as some have entertained prejudices against all marks of grace, and seemed to assert that a believer is not to judge of his state by them. Nothing seems more absurd than this opinion. If they who adopt it have nothing to say in its defence, but that some assign those things to be marks of grace which are not so, and thereby lead themselves and others into mistakes about them; what has been premised concerning the nature of a mark or evidence, may, in some measure, guard against this prejudice, as well as prepare our way for what may be said concerning them. In treating this subject, we shall consider, first, those things which can hardly be reckoned marks of grace; and, secondly, what marks we may judge of ourselves by.
1. As to what are not to be reckoned marks of grace, we are not to conclude that a person is in a state of grace, merely because he has a strong impression on his own spirit that he is so. Such an impression is accidental, and not essential to grace; and many are mistaken with respect to it. It is not to be doubted that they whom our Saviour represents as saying, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works?' had a strong persuasion founded on this evidence, that they were in a state of grace, till they found themselves mistaken, when he commanded them to 'depart from him.' Nothing is more obvious than that many presume that they are something when they are nothing. Indeed, a persuasion that a person is in a state of grace, merely because he cannot think otherwise of himself, the thing being impressed on his spirit, without any other evidence, lays him too open to the charge of enthusiasm.
Again, an external profession of religion, discovered in the performance of several holy duties, is no certain sign of the truth of grace; for this many make who are not effectually called. Of such Christ speaks when he says, 'Many are called, but few are chosen.' We may add, that persons may have some degree of raised affections when attending on the ordinances, some sudden flashes of joy when they hear of the privileges of believers, both in this and in a better world; though their conversation be not agreeable to their confident and presumptuous expectation. On the other hand, some have their fears very much awakened under the ordinances, as the subject of their meditations has a tendency to excite such fears; others have such a degree of sorrow that it gives vent to itself in a flood of tears, as Esau is said to have 'sought the blessing with tears;' but still there is something else wanting to evince the truth of grace. I do not deny that it is a great blessing to have raised affections in holy duties. But when these are experienced only in particular instances, and are excited principally by some external motives or circumstances attending the ordinance the persons are engaged in; and when the impressions made on them wear off as soon as the ordinance is over; we can hardly determine them, on the evidence of these raised affections, to be in a state of grace. The affections, indeed, are warmed in holy duties; but their being so is like iron heated in the fire, which, when taken out, soon grows cold again, and not like that natural heat which remains in the body of man, which is an abiding sign of life. This subject, however, is to be treated with the utmost caution; inasmuch as many are apt to conclude that they have no grace, because they have no raised affections in holy duties, as truly as others presume that they have grace merely because they experience such affections. Let it be considered, then, that when we speak of raised affections not being a certain mark of grace, we consider the persons who experience them as being destitute of other evidences which contain some essential properties of grace. The affections are often raised by insignificant sounds, or by the tone of the voice, when there is nothing in the matter delivered which is adapted to excite any grace, the judgment not informed thereby, nor the will persuaded to embrace Christ as offered in the gospel. There may be transports of joy in hearing the word, when, at the same time, corrupt nature retains its opposition to the spirituality of the divine truth. A person may conceive the greatest pleasure in an ungrounded hope of heaven, as a state of freedom from the miseries of this life, when he has no favour or relish of that holiness which is its glory, in which respect his conversation is not in heaven. He may also be very much terrified with the wrath of God, and the punishment of sin in hell; when, at the same time, he has not a due sense of the vile and odious nature of sin, or an abhorrence of it. Such instances of raised affections we intend when we speak of them as no marks or evidences of the truth of grace. But, on the other hand, when, together with raised affections, there is the exercise of suitable graces, and the impression of the raised affections remains after their fervency is abated or lost, a good sign is afforded of grace; though, when they are not accompanied with the exercise of any grace, they afford no mark or evidence of the truth of it. Now, that we may not be mistaken as to this matter, we ought to inquire, not only what it is that has a tendency to raise the affections, but whether our understandings are rightly informed in the doctrines of the gospel, and our wills choose and embrace what is therein revealed. If we find it a difficult matter for our affections to be raised in holy duties, we ought farther to inquire whether this may not proceed from our natural constitution. And if the passions are not easily moved with any other things in the common affairs of life, we have then no reason to conclude that our being destitute of raised affections in the exercise of holy duties is a sign that we have not the truth of grace, especially if Christ and divine things are the objects of our settled choice, and our hearts are fixed, trusting in him.
Further, the performance of those moral duties which are materially good, is no certain sign of the truth of grace. I do not say that this is not necessary; for when we speak of a mark of grace, as containing what is essential to it, we distinguish between that which is a necessary prerequisite, without which no one can have grace, and that which is an essential ingredient in it. Where there is no morality, there is certainly no grace; but if there be nothing more than morality, there is wanting an essential ingredient by which this matter must be determined. A person may abstain from gross enormities, such as murder, adultery, theft, reviling, extortion, covetousness, &c., and, in many respects, perform the contrary duties, and yet be destitute of faith in Christ. The Pharisee, whom our Saviour mentions in the gospel, had as much to say on this subject as any one; yet his heart was not right with God, nor was his boasting approved by Christ. There are multitudes who perform many religious duties, when their doing so comports with their secular interests,—they adhere to Christ in a time of prosperity, but in a time of adversity they fall from him,—and then, that which seemed to be most excellent in them is lost, and they appear to be, what they always were, destitute of the truth of grace.
2. We now proceed to consider what are those marks by which persons may safely conclude themselves to be in a state of grace. In order to our determining this matter, we must consider what are the true and genuine effects of faith, as mentioned in scripture. There are other graces which accompany or flow from it; as when faith is said to 'work by love,' or to enable us to 'overcome the world,'o or despise its honours, riches, and pleasures, especially when standing in competition with Christ, or drawing our hearts aside from him. This effect it produced in Moses, when he 'refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt;' and in others, who 'confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth,'q who 'desired a better country, that is, an heavenly,' whose 'conversation was in heaven.' Moreover, we are to inquire whether faith has a tendency to 'purify the heart,'s and so puts us upon abhorring, fleeing from, watching and striving against, every thing which tends to corrupt and defile the soul; and whether it tends to excite us to universal obedience, called 'the obedience of faith,' and a carefulness to 'maintain good works,'u which proceed from it and are evidences of its truth; as the apostle says, 'Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works,' or as our Saviour says, 'The tree is known by its fruit.' But that we may more particularly judge of the truth of grace by its marks and evidences, we must consider its beginning and progress, or with what frame of spirit we first embraced and closed with Christ, and what our conversation has been since that time.
As to the former of these, our judging of the truth of grace by the beginning of it, we are to inquire what were the motives and inducements which inclined us to accept Christ. Did we first see ourselves lost and undone, as sinful, fallen creatures; and were we thence determined to have recourse to him for salvation, as the only refuge we could betake ourselves to? Did we first consider ourselves as guilty; did this guilt sit very uneasy upon us; and, in order to the removal of it, did we betake ourselves to Christ for forgiveness? Did we first consider ourselves as weak and unable to do what is good, and so apply ourselves to him for strength against indwelling sin, and victory over the temptations which prevailed against us?—Moreover, we ought to inquire whether it was only a slavish fear and dread of the wrath of God, and the punishment of sin in hell, which gave the first turn to our thoughts and affections, so as to put us on altering our course of life; or, whether, besides this, we saw the evil of sin arising from its intrinsic nature, and its opposition to the holiness of God; and whether our so seeing it was attended with shame and self-abhorrence, with a perception of the excellency and loveliness of Christ, with a feeling that he was 'precious' to us 'as he is to them that believe.' We ought farther to inquire, what were the workings of our spirits when we first closed with Christ. Did we close with him with judgment, duly weighing what he demands of us in a way of duty, as well as what we are encouraged to expect from him? Were we made willing to accept him in all his offices, and to have respect to all his commandments? Were we earnestly desirous to have communion with him here, as well as to be glorified with him hereafter? Were we content to submit to the cross of Christ, to bear his reproach, and to count this preferable to all the glories of the world? Were we willing to be conformed to an humbled suffering Jesus, and to take our lot with his servants, though they might be reckoned the refuse and offscouring of all things?—Again, we ought to inquire whether we acted thus with reliance on his assistance, as being sensible of the treachery and deceitfulness of our own hearts, and of our utter inability, without the aids of his grace, to do what is good. Did we, accordingly, give up ourselves to him in hope of obtaining help from him, in order to the right discharge of every duty? Did we reckon ourselves nothing, and Christ all in all, that all our springs are in him? This was a good beginning of the work of grace; and will prepare the way for this grace of assurance which we are now considering.
Some will object against what has been said concerning our inquiring into, or being able to discern, the first acts of faith, or that frame of spirit wherewith we first closed with Christ, that they know not the time of their conversion, if ever they were converted. They cannot remember or determine what was the particular ordinance or providence which gave them the first conviction of sin and of their need of Christ, and induced them to close with him. Much less can they tell what were the workings of their hearts at such a time. It is impossible for them to trace the footsteps of providence, so as to point out the way and manner in which this work was begun in their souls. Objectors will infer, therefore, that the frame of spirit in which persons first closed with Christ, which so few are able to discern, is not to be laid down as a mark or evidence of grace.—Now, I am not insensible that the case described is that of the greatest number of believers. There are very few who, like the apostle Paul, can tell the time and place of their conversion and every circumstance leading to it; or who are like those converts who, when the gospel was first preached by Peter, 'were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter, and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?' or like the jailer, who broke forth into an affectionate inquiry very similar to this, 'Sirs, What must I do to be saved?'a though the ordinance leading to it was of a different nature. Sometimes the way of the Spirit of God in the soul at first, is so discernible that it cannot but be observed by those who are brought into a state of grace. Others, however, know nothing of this, especially they who have not run in all excess of riot, and been stopped in their course on a sudden by the grace of God; in whom the change made in conversion was real, though it could not, from the nature of the thing, be so plainly discerned in all its circumstances. Some have been regenerate from the womb; and others have had a great degree of restraining grace, and been trained up in the knowledge of the doctrines of the gospel from their very childhood, and retain the impressions of a religious education. These cannot so easily discern the first beginnings of the work of grace in their souls. Yet they may and ought to inquire, whether they ever found, in the course of their lives, such a frame of spirit as has been already described, which believers have when the work of grace is first begun. Nor is it very material for them to be able to discern whether these were the first actings of grace or not. The main thing to be determined is, whether they have ground to conclude that ever they experienced the grace of God in truth. In this case, the most which some can say concerning themselves, is, as the blind man says in the gospel, when the Pharisees were inquisitive about the restoring of his sight, and the way and manner in which it was done, 'Whereas I was blind, now I see.' The true convert says, 'Whereas I was once dead in trespasses and sins, I am now alive, and enabled to put forth living and spiritual actions to the glory of God.' This evidence will give as much ground to believers to conclude that they are in a state of grace, as though they were able to determine when they were first brought into it.
Again, we may judge of the truth of grace by the method in which it has been carried on, whether we are able to determine the way and manner in which it was first begun, or not. Sanctification is a progressive work. Hence, in order to our concluding that we are in a state of grace, it is not enough for us to set our faces heavenwards, but we must make advances towards it, and be found in the daily exercise of grace. A believer must not only set out in the right way, but he must hold on in it. He must live by faith, if he would conclude that the work of faith is begun in truth. It is not sufficient to call upon God, or implore help from him when under some distressing providences, and afterwards to grow remiss in or lay aside the duty of prayer,—it must be our constant work. A true Christian is distinguished from an hypocrite in its being said concerning the latter, 'Will he delight himself in the Almighty? will he always call upon God?' denoting that a true believer will do so. He is either habitually or actually inclined to it; and that in such a way as is attended with the daily exercise of those graces which are the fruits and effects of faith, whereby we may conclude that he is in a state of grace.
III. Thus far we have considered those marks or evidences of grace which, in order to our attaining assurance, we must be able to discern in ourselves. But a believer may understand what are the marks of grace contained in scripture, and, at the same time, inquire into the state of his soul to know whether he can apprehend in himself any evidences of the truth of grace, and yet not be able to arrive at a satisfaction as to this matter, so as to have his doubts and fears removed. Let it be considered, therefore, that he must depend on, hope, and pray for the testimony of the Spirit with his spirit, that he is a child of God. It will be a difficult matter for us to conclude that we have the truth of grace, till the Spirit is pleased to shine on his own work. But when he does this, all things will appear clear and bright to us; though formerly we might have walked in darkness, and had no light.
In speaking concerning this inward testimony of the Spirit, which is necessary to enable a believer to discern in himself the marks of grace, on his doing which his assurance of salvation is founded, let it be premised that, as it is a branch of the Spirit's divine glory, by his internal influence, to deal with the hearts of his people; so he does this in various ways, according to the various faculties of the soul, which are the subjects of his influence. In particular, when by his power he renews the will, and causes it to act those graces which are the effects of his divine power, he is said to sanctify a believer. But when he deals with the understanding and conscience, enabling us to discern the truth of the work of grace that we may take the comfort of it, he is described in scripture as a witness to our being in a state of grace, or as witnessing with our spirits that we are in that state; and the consequence is, that 'the eyes of our understanding being enlightened, we know what is the hope of his calling.' Accordingly, he gives us to discern that he has called us by his grace; and that, as the result of his having done so, he has granted us a hope of eternal life.
This testimony of the Spirit is a privilege plainly mentioned in scripture. Nor must we suppose that none had it but those who had extraordinary revelation; since it is so necessary to a believer's attaining peace and joy, which the church is certainly not less possessed of in the present dispensation than it was in former ages. That the Spirit gives his testimony to the work of grace in the souls of believers, though extraordinary revelation has ceased, is evident from what is matter of daily experience. For there are many instances of those who have used their utmost endeavours in examining themselves to know whether they had any marks of grace, who have not been able to discern any, though they have been thought to be sincere believers by others, till, on a sudden, light has broke forth out of darkness, and their evidences for eternal life cleared up, so that all their doubts have been removed. This attaining of assurance they could not but attribute to a divine hand; inasmuch as formerly they could meditate nothing but terror to themselves. In this case, what the apostle prays for with respect to the church, 'that the God of hope would fill them with all joy and peace in believing, that they might abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost,' is experienced by them. On this account they are said to be 'sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise'f whereby their hope is established, and whereby that is now confirmed to them which they were before in perplexity about. We have therefore as much ground to conclude that the Spirit is the author of assurance in believers, as we have that he is the author of sanctification.
But that this doctrine may not appear liable to the charge of enthusiasm, let it be considered that the Spirit never gives his testimony to the truth of grace in any in whom he has not first wrought it; for to do this would be, as it were, a setting his seal to a blank. We may add, that, at the time when he gives his testimony to the truth of grace in believers, he excites the lively exercise of it, whereby they are enabled to discern that it is true and genuine; so that their assurance, though it is not without some internal impressive influences which they are favoured with, yet is not wholly dependent on these. Hence, if you demand a reason of the hope which is in them, though they ascribe the glory of that hope to the Holy Spirit, as enabling them to discern the truth of grace, yet they are able to prove their own selves, after having examined themselves whether they are in the faith, by discovering their evidences of the faith of God's elect. This fact argues that their assurance is no delusion.
DESTITUTION OF ASSURANCE
QUESTION LXXXI. Are all true believers, at all times, assured of their present being in the estate of grace, and that they shall be saved?
ANSWER. Assurance of grace and salvation not being of the essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they obtain it; and after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and intermitted through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair.
HAVING considered some believers as favoured with assurance of their being in a state of grace, we are, in this Answer, led to speak of others who are destitute of it. Here something is supposed, namely, that assurance of grace and salvation is not of the essence of saving faith. Again, some things are inferred from this supposition; first, that true believers may wait long before they obtain assurance; secondly, that, after the enjoyment of assurance, it may be weakened and intermitted through bodily distempers, sins, temptations, and divine desertions; yet, thirdly, that they are never left without the support of the Spirit of God, and so are kept from sinking into utter despair.
Assurance not of the Essence of Faith
As to the thing supposed in this Answer, namely, that assurance of grace and salvation is not of the essence of faith, many persons who, in other respects, explain the nature of faith in such a way as is unexceptionable, assert that assurance is of the essence of it. Now, in this we cannot but think they express themselves very unwarily; at least, they ought to have more clearly discovered what they mean by faith, and what by assurance, than they appear to do. If by assurance being of the essence of faith, they mean that no one has saving faith but he who has an assurance of his own salvation; they not only assert what is contrary to the experience of many believers, but lay a stumbling-block in the way of weak Christians, who will be induced to conclude that, because they cannot tell whether they are true believers or not, they are destitute of saving faith. On this account, it is necessary for us to inquire how far the opinion in question is to be allowed, and in what respect denied.
It is certain that there are many excellent divines in our own and foreign nations, who have defined faith by assurance; which they have supposed so essential to it, that without it no one can be reckoned a believer. It may be they were inclined thus to express themselves in consequence of the sense in which they understood several texts of scripture, in which assurance seems to be considered as a necessary ingredient in faith. Thus it is said, 'Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith.' Again, the apostle speaks of assurance as a privilege which belonged to the church to which he wrote, 'We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.'h Elsewhere, also, he so far blames their not knowing themselves, or their being destitute of this assurance, that he will hardly allow those to have any faith who were without it: 'Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?' From such expressions as these, they who plead for assurance being of the essence of faith are ready to conclude that they who are destitute of it can hardly be called believers. But that this matter may be set in a true light, we must distinguish between assurance of the object, namely, the great and important doctrines of the gospel, being of the essence of faith; and assurance of our interest in Christ being so. The former we will not deny; for no one can come to Christ who is not assured that he will receive him, or trust in him till he is fully assured that he is able to save him. But the latter we must take leave to deny; for if no one is a believer but he who knows himself to be so, then he who doubts of his salvation must be concluded to be no believer. This is certainly a very discouraging doctrine to weak Christians; and, according to it, when we lose the comfortable persuasion we once had of our interest in Christ, we are bound to question all our former experiences, and to determine ourselves to be in a state of unregeneracy. But to do this would be in effect to withhold from God the glory of that powerful work which was formerly wrought in us, which we then thought to be a work of grace.—If, indeed, they mean by assurance being of the essence of faith, that an assurance of our interest in Christ is essential to the highest or most comfortable acts of faith, meaning by this doctrine that we ought to be incited to press after assurance if we have not attained it, and that God is very much glorified by it, and a foundation laid for our offering praise to him for the experience we have had of his grace, which a doubting Christian cannot be said to do; we have nothing to say against it. Or if they should assert that doubting is no ingredient in faith, nor a commendable excellency in a Christian; we do not oppose them. All we are contending for is, that there may be a direct act of faith, or a faith of reliance, in those who are destitute of assurance that they are in a state of grace. This is the thing supposed in this Answer, when it is said that assurance is not of the essence of faith.
That this may be better understood, and we be led into the sense of scriptures, such as those just mentioned and others of a similar kind, which describe believers as having assurance, let it be considered that there are many scriptures in which believers are said to have such an assurance as respects only the object of faith, namely, the person, offices, and glory of Christ, and the truth and promises of the gospel,—an assurance which we do not deny to be of the essence of faith. Thus the apostle prays for the church, 'That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.' Elsewhere he says, 'Our gospel came to you in much assurance.'l And he exhorts persons to 'draw near to God, with a true heart, in full assurance of faith.' Now, it is probable that, in these and several other scriptures of similar import, he means no more than an assurance of the object of faith. As for the scripturen where he seems to assert that all who are destitute of this privilege are 'reprobates,' some understand the word which we translate 'reprobates,' as signifying only injudicious Christians; and if this be its meaning, the thing which it denotes is not inconsistent with the character of believers. Others, however, with an equal degree of probability, render it 'disapproved;' and so the meaning is, 'If you know not your ownselves, that Christ is in you, you are greatly to be blamed, or disapproved; especially as your not knowing this proceeds from your neglect of the duty of self-examination; by which means you have no proof of Christ's being in you, who are so ready to demand a proof of his speaking in his ministers.' It does not appear from this text, then, that every one who endeavours to know that he is in a state of grace by diligent self examination, but cannot conclude that he is so, must be determined to be destitute of faith; which would necessarily follow from our asserting that assurance of our interest in Christ is of the essence of saving faith.—There are other scriptures which speak of assurance as a distinguishing character of Christians in general; which are usually brought to prove that assurance is of the essence of faith. Thus, 'We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.'q Again, 'We know that we are of God.' There are also several places in the New Testament in which the apostle addresses his discourse to whole churches, as having assurance as well as the grace of faith. Thus the apostle Peter speaks of them as 'loving Christ, believing in him, rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory, and receiving the end of their faith, even the salvation of their souls;'s which could hardly be said of them, if they were destitute of assurance of their own salvation. All, however, that I would infer from these and similar scriptures is, that it seems probable that assurance was a privilege more commonly experienced in that age of the church than it is in our day. There may be two reasons assigned for this. First, the change which passed upon them when they were converted, was so apparent that it was hardly possible for it not to be discerned. They turned from dead idols and the practice of the vilest abominations, to serve the living God; which two extremes are so opposite, that their being brought from the one to the other could not but be remarked by themselves, and consequently more visible to them, than if their conversion had been otherwise. The other principal reason is, that the church was called at that time to bear a public testimony to the gospel, by enduring persecutions of various kinds; and some of them were to resist even unto blood. Now, that God might prepare them for these sufferings, and that he might encourage others to embrace the faith of the gospel, which was then in its infant-state, he was pleased to favour them with this great privilege. And it may be hereafter, if God should call the church to endure like trials, that he will in mercy grant them a greater degree of assurance than is ordinarily experienced. Nevertheless, it may be questioned whether those scriptures which speak of assurance as if it were a privilege common to the whole church, are not to be understood as applicable to the greater part of them, rather than to every individual believer among them. For though the apostle, in one of the scriptures before-mentioned, considers the church at Corinth as enjoying this privilege, and as concluding that it should go well with them in another world when this earthly tabernacle was dissolved; yet, in the same epistle, he speaks of some of them as not knowing their ownselves, that Jesus Christ was in them. The apostle John also, notwithstanding his saying to the church, 'We know that we are of God,' which argues that many of them had assurance, plainly intimates that all had it not; for he says, 'These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life.'u Though, too, in another scripture, just mentioned, the apostle Peter speaks to the church to which he writes, as having 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' consequent upon their faith, which argues that they had assurance; yet he exhorts others of them to 'give diligence to make their calling and election sure;' so that these are supposed, at that time, not to have had it. From all this it may be concluded, that assurance of grace and salvation is not of the essence of saving faith; which is the thing supposed in this Answer.
Assurance may not be soon attained
We proceed to consider the first of those things which are inferred from this supposition, namely, that a believer may wait long before he attains assurance. This appears from daily experience and observation. The sovereignty of God discovers itself in it, as much as it does when he makes the ordinances effectual to salvation in giving converting grace to those who attend upon them. Some are called early to be made partakers of the salvation which is in Christ; others late. The same may be said with respect to God's giving assurance. Some are favoured with this privilege soon after or when first they believe; others are like those whom the apostle speaks of, 'who, through fear of death, are all their lifetime subject to bondage.' Many have often inquired into the state of their souls, and been unable to discern any marks or evidences of grace in themselves, whose conversation is such that others cannot but conclude them to be true believers. Their spirits are depressed; doubts and fears prevail, and tend to make their lives very uncomfortable; they wait and pray for the evidence and sense of God's love to them, but cannot immediately find it. This state of feeling the psalmist speaks of, either in his own person, or as representing the case of many who had the truth of grace but not the assurance of it, when he says, 'O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee; I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up; while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.'z God suffers it to be thus with his people for wise ends. Hereby he lets them know that assurance of his love is a special gift and work of the Spirit; without which they remain destitute of it, and cannot take comfort from either former or present experiences.
Assurance may be weakened and intermitted
We observe next, that they who once enjoyed assurance may have it weakened and intermitted. Whether it may be entirely lost, will be considered under a following Head, when we speak concerning the supports which believers have, and how far they are kept by these from sinking into utter despair. It is one thing to fall from the truth of grace; another thing to lose the comfortable sense of it. The joy of faith may be suspended, when the acts and habits of faith remain firm and unshaken. As the brightest morning may be followed with clouds and tempests; so our clearest discoveries of our interest in the love of God may be followed with the withdrawment of the light of his countenance, and we be left under many discouraging circumstances concerning our state, having lost the assurance we once had. If it be inquired, what reason may be assigned for this? I answer, that it must, in a great measure, be resolved into the sovereignty of God, who will bring his people to heaven which way he pleases, and may take away those comforts which had their first rise from himself; and, at the same time, none must say, why dost thou thus? We may observe some particular reasons, however, which the providence of God points out to us, to which we may in other respects ascribe our want of assurance; and these may be reduced to four heads, particularly mentioned in this Answer.
1. The weakening or intermitting of assurance is sometimes occasioned by manifold distempers, or bodily diseases. The soul and body are so closely joined to and dependent on each other, that the one can hardly suffer without the other. Hence it is that bodily distempers affect the mind, excite and give disturbance to the passions, a circumstance which greatly adds to the uneasiness which follows these distempers. When the spirits are depressed, and we are under the prevalence of a melancholy disposition, we are often inclined to think that we are not in a state of grace; and though we were formerly disposed to comfort others in similar cases, we are now unable to take the least encouragement ourselves. All things look black and dismal; our former hope is reckoned no other than delusive; and we are brought to the very brink of despair. It may be observed, too, that these sad and melancholy apprehensions concerning our state increase or abate, as the distemper which gives occasion to them more or less prevails. Now, that we may be able to determine whether our want of assurance proceeds from some natural cause, or bodily distemper, we must inquire whether we formerly endeavoured to walk in all good conscience in the sight of God, to hate every false way, and make religion the great business of life, so that we cannot assign any reigning sin as the cause of our present desponding frame; and also whether we have been diligent in performing the duty of self-examination, and have been sensible that we stood in need of the Spirit's witness with ours, in order to our arriving at a comfortable persuasion that we are in a state of grace. If, as the result of these inquiries, we cannot see any cause but the unavoidable infirmities to which we are daily liable leading to this dejection of spirit, we may probably conclude that it arises from a distemper of body. But in order to our determining this matter, we must farther inquire whether some afflictive providence has not had an influence upon us, to bring us into a melancholy temper; and whether our depression of spirit does not appear in what relates to our secular, as well as our spiritual concerns. If this be the case, though it be very afflictive, it is not attended with that guilt which it would be, had it been occasioned by some presumptuous sin. In this case, too, there are other medicines to be used besides those which are of a spiritual nature, and are contained in the gospel, but what these are, it is not our business in this place to determine.
2. There are many sins which are the occasion of a person's being destitute of assurance. As all the troubles of life are brought upon us by sin; so are all our doubts and fears, arising from the want of a comfortable sense of or interest in the love of God. It pleases God in the method of his providence, thus to deal with his people, that he may humble them for presumptuous sins; more especially those which are committed against light and conviction of conscience, that he may bring to remembrance their sins of omission, or neglect to exercise those graces, in which the life of faith consists, that they may feel the effect of their stupidity, indifference, and carnal security, or their engaging in religious duties in their own strength, without dependence on the Spirit and grace of God, or a due sense of their inability to perform any duty in a right way. Or sometimes, as was formerly observed, they want assurance because they do not practise self-examination, which is God's ordinance for the attaining of this privilege; or if they do practise it, they neglect to give that glory to the Holy Spirit which is due to him, by depending on his enlightening influence to bring them to a comfortable persuasion of their interest in Christ.
3. Assurance is often weakened and intermitted through manifold temptations. Satan is very active in this matter, and shows his enmity against the interest of Christ in the souls of his people, as much as lies in his power. Hence, though it is impossible for him to ruin the soul, by rooting out the grace which is implanted in it; yet he tries to disturb its peace, and weaken its assurance, and, if not prevented, to hurry it into despair. In this case the general design of his temptations is to represent God as a sin-revenging Judge, a consuming fire, to present to our view the threatenings by which his wrath is revealed against sinners, and to endeavour to set aside the promises of the gospel from which alone relief may be had. Moreover, he puts us upon considering sin, not only as heinously aggravated—and it may for the most part be so considered with justice—but also as altogether unpardonable; and, at the same time, pretends to insinuate to us that we are not elected, or that Christ did not die for us, and that, therefore, what he has done and suffered will not redound to our advantage. Now, there is apparently the hand of Satan in this matter; inasmuch as he attempts, by false methods of reasoning, to persuade us that we are not in a state of grace, that God is an enemy to us, and that therefore our condition is desperate. Here he uses the arts of the old serpent, that he may deceive us by drawing conclusions against ourselves from false premises. He induces us to reason that, because we daily experience the internal workings of corrupt nature, which incline us to many sins, both of omission and of commission, there is no room for us to expect mercy and forgiveness from God. From our barrenness also and unprofitableness under the means of grace, our improvements not being proportioned to the obligations we have been laid under, or from our having great reason to charge ourselves with many declensions and backslidings, which afford matter for deep humiliation, and should put us upon sincere repentance, he endeavours to persuade us that we are altogether destitute of special grace. Again, whenever we are unprepared or indisposed for the right performance of holy duties, and our affections are not suitably raised in them, but grow stupid, remiss, and careless, he puts us upon concluding that it is a vain thing for us to draw nigh to God, and that he has utterly rejected both our persons and our services. Or if we are not favoured with immediate answers to prayer, and sensible communion with God in the performance of that duty, he tempts us to infer that we shall never obtain the blessing we are pressing after, and that we may as well lay aside this duty, and say, 'Why should I wait on the Lord any longer?' If by this method he cannot discourage us from engaging in holy duties, he sometimes injects blasphemous thoughts or unbecoming conceptions of the divine Majesty, which fill the soul with the greatest grief and uneasiness, that in consequence of these he might give us occasion to conclude that we sin in persisting in holy duties. By all these temptations he endeavours to plunge us into the depths of despair.
He tempts us also as to the purpose of God relating to the event of things. When we are led to determine that we are not elected, we come to this conclusion without sufficient ground. In presenting the question to us, he deceives us by pursuing false methods of reasoning, and puts us upon presuming to enter into those secret things which do not belong to us, or to infer that God has rejected us, because we deserve to be cast off by him for our sins, instead of giving diligence to make our calling and election sure. It is one thing not to be able to conclude that we are elected; and another thing to say that we are not so. The former is the consequence of our present doubts and desponding apprehensions concerning our state; the latter is plainly a temptation of Satan. This we are often subject to, when we have lost that assurance of our interest in Christ which we once enjoyed.
4. A believer's want of assurance is, for the most part, attended with, and arises from, divine desertion. Not that we are to suppose that God will cast off his people, whom he has foreknown, effectually called, and preserved hitherto, so as to forsake them utterly; for to suppose this is inconsistent with his everlasting love, and the promises of the covenant of grace which respect their salvation. What we understand by divine desertion, is God's withdrawing his comforting presence, and withholding the witness of his Spirit to the work of grace in the soul; whence arise those doubts and fears which attend the want of assurance. Thus God says to his people, 'For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.' In this respect they are destitute of God's comforting presence; though at the same time they may be favoured with his supporting presence, and those powerful influences which are necessary to maintain the work of grace, which at present appears to be very weak and languishing.
The State of Believers who want Assurance
We are thus led to consider the last thing mentioned in this Answer, namely, that, though believers are thus described, they are not left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair. This observation ought to be explained and considered with certain limitations, lest, while, on the one hand, we assert that which affords matter of encouragement to believers when they have some degree of hope, we should, on the other hand, throw discouragements in the way of others who will be apt to imagine, when they are ready to sink into despair, that what they experience is wholly inconsistent with any direct act of faith. I dare not say that no believer was ever so far deserted as to be left for a while to despair of his interest in Christ; for scripture and daily experience give us instances of some, whose conversation in many respects discovers them to have had the truth of grace, whom God has been pleased, for wise ends, to leave to the terror of their own thoughts, and who have remained for some time in the depths of despair; while others have gone out of the world under a cloud, concerning whom there has been ground of hope that their state was safe. It is somewhat difficult, therefore, to determine what is meant in this Answer, by a believer's being kept from sinking into utter despair. If the meaning is, that they have the supports of the Spirit of God, so as to be kept from relapsing into a state of unregeneracy, in their despairing condition, that may be easily accounted for; or, if the meaning is, that believers are not generally given up to the greatest degree of despair, especially such as is inconsistent with the exercise of any grace, that is not to be denied. I would rather say, however, that, though a believer may have despairing apprehensions concerning his state, and though the guilt of sin may lie upon him like a great weight so as to depress his spirits; yet he shall not sink into endless misery; for though darkness may continue for a night, light and joy shall come in the morning. Accordingly, though there are many who are far from having assurance, yet they are, at some times, favoured with a small glimmering of hope, which keeps them from utter despair. Again, if they are in deep despair, yet they are not so far left as not to desire grace, though they conclude themselves to be destitute of it, or not to lament the loss of those comforts and inability to exercise those graces which once they thought themselves possessed of. Further, a believer, when in a despairing way, is notwithstanding enabled, by a direct act of faith, to give himself up to Christ, though he cannot see his interest in him, and to long for those experiences and comforts which he once enjoyed; and when he is at the worst, he can say with Job, 'Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.' Moreover, in this case a person has generally such a degree of the presence of God that he is enabled to justify him in all his dealings with him, and lay the blame of all the troubles which he is under on himself; and this is attended with shame and confusion of face, self-abhorrence, and godly sorrow. Finally, despairing believers have, notwithstanding, such a presence of God with them as keeps them from abandoning his interest, or running with sinners into all excess of riot, which would give occasion to others to conclude that they never had the truth of grace.
From what has been said concerning true believers being destitute of assurance, and yet having at the same time some degree of the presence of God, we may draw several inferences. First, this is not inconsistent with what was said concerning a believer's perseverance in grace. Yet it must be considered with this limitation, that though the truth of grace shall not be lost, the comforts and evidences of it may and often are.—Again, this should put us upon circumspect walking and watchfulness against presumptuous sins, which, as was formerly observed, are often the occasion of the loss of assurance; and also on the exercise of a faith of reliance on Christ, for maintaining the acts of grace, as well as restoring its comforts.—Further, this should instruct believers what to do when destitute of the privilege of assurance. We have observed that want of assurance is attended with divine desertion, which is generally occasioned by sins committed. Therefore let us say with Job, 'Show me wherefore thou contendest with me.' "Let me know what are those secret sins by which I have provoked thee to leave me destitute of thy comforting presence; enable me to be affected with, and humbled for them, and unfeignedly to repent of them, and to exercise that faith in Christ which may be a means of my recovering that hope or assurance of which I am at present destitute."—Again, what has been said concerning a believer's being sometimes destitute of assurance, should put us upon sympathizing with those who are in a despairing way, and using endeavours to administer comfort to them, rather than to censure them or conclude them to be in an unregenerate state; as Job's friends did him, because the hand of God had touched him, and he was destitute of his comforting presence.—Finally, from what has been said concerning that degree of the presence of God which believers enjoy, which has a tendency to keep them from utter despair, at least from sinking into perdition, how disconsolate soever their case may be at present, we may be induced to admire the goodness and faithfulness of God in his dealings with his people, who will not lay more on them than he will enable them to bear. Though they are comfortless and hopeless, yet they shall not be destroyed; and, in the end, they shall be satisfied with God's loving-kindness; and, when the clouds are all dispersed, they shall have a bright and glorious day in his immediate presence, where 'there is fulness of joy,' and at his 'right hand,' where 'there are pleasures for evermore.'
Source: A Body of Divinity by Thomas Ridgley