We’ve written on this before. See here for a 1997 article by Zane Hodges. And here is a 2017 article by Shawn Lazar. Here is a 2008 article by me. Here is my recent review of a booklet which argues that assurance is of the essence.
So why look at this issue again?
Today I ran across a quote from Louis Berkhof, the premier Reformed theologian, concerning this issue. He suggests that there are two different ways in which we might understand the idea that assurance is of the essence of saving faith. His statement that there are two ways to understand assurance is of the essence intrigued me.
Here is what Berkhof wrote in his Systematic Theology under the heading “G. Faith and Assurance”:
A very important question arises here, namely, whether assurance belongs to the essence of faith, or is something additional that is not included in faith. Because the expression “assurance of faith” is not always used in the same sense, it is necessary to discriminate carefully. There is a twofold assurance, namely, (1) The objective assurance of faith, which is “the certain and undoubting conviction that Christ is all He professes to be, and will do all He promises.” It is generally agreed that this assurance is of the essence of faith. (2) The subjective assurance of faith, or the assurance of grace and salvation, which consists in a sense of security and safety, rising in many instances to the height of an “assured conviction that the individual believer has had his sins pardoned and his soul saved.” As to the relation of this assurance to the essence of faith opinions differ (Systematic Theology, 1938, p. 507).
I had never seen this distinction made.
Berkhof says that “It is generally agreed that this assurance [Christ will do all He promises] is of the essence of faith. But then he says that “opinions differ” as to whether the second type of assurance [that Christ has given me everlasting life that can never be lost] is “[of] the essence of faith.”
He goes on to discuss four opinions. Roman Catholics, he says, deny that assurance is of the essence of faith in the second sense. They say that subjective assurance is impossible except in rare cases.
Berkhof said that Reformers so strongly reacted to the Roman Catholic position that “They sometimes spoke as if one who lacks the assurance of salvation, the positive conviction that his sins are forgiven, did not possess true faith” (p. 507).
The Reformed confessions, Berkhof notes, “vary somewhat” on this question. The Heidelberg Confession, he says, “places itself entirely on the standpoint of the Reformers, and conceives of the assurance of salvation as belonging to the essence of faith.” The Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession both deny that subjective assurance is of the essence of faith. However, “the Marrow-men in Scotland certainly gave a different interpretation of its [WCOF] position.”
I find it interesting that Berkhof says that the Reformers did teach that assurance was of the essence of saving faith in the subjective sense (though he qualified his statement a bit). And he said that the Heidelberg Confession and the Marrow Men both taught that as well.
Following Berkhof’s lead, I have noted over the past thirteen years that “opinions differ” in FG circles as to whether assurance is of the essence of faith in a subjective sense.
Some FG advocates say that a person must be assured in the first sense that Jesus is the Savior and is faithful to save, but not in the second sense that He has given me an irrevocable salvation because I believe in Christ.
Other FG advocates, like Zane Hodges, me, and Grace Evangelical Society, say that a person must be assured in the second sense that God has given me an irrevocable salvation because I believe in Christ for it.
There is a very practical reason why this difference of opinion exists in Free Grace circles. Many FG people are convinced that they came to faith in Christ before they were assured that they had irrevocable salvation. They had a major experience at some point in the past, and that experience convinced them that they were born again at the time. But it was only later that they came to believe their salvation was secure.
In addition, many FG people find it impossible to believe that wonderful Arminian people lack everlasting life. Arminians do not believe in eternal security. Hence, they are not sure of their salvation in the subjective sense. But they do believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, rose from the dead, is God incarnate, and is coming again soon.
We at GES are convinced that we did not come to faith until we believed in Jesus for what He promises, everlasting life. Prior to that, God was at work in our lives. But it wasn’t until we believed the promise of life that we were born again.
And GES people believe that it is important to share the promise of everlasting life with Arminians because it is quite possible that they never believed that promise. Yes, they might have believed the promise in the past and then lost their assurance under Arminian preaching. But if they have never believed the promise of life, they have not yet been born again.
So, some FG people think that assurance is a sanctification issue. And some think it is a justification issue.
What do you think? How do you understand John 3:16? John 5:24? John 6:35? John 11:26?