Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors. By Joel R. Beeke. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999. 395 pp. Paper. $14.99.
For those that have it, assurance of eternal life is one of their most prized possessions. But, for those who don’t, it becomes a quest. The history of this Quest for Full Assurance is the topic of Beeke’s dissertation, which ultimately resulted in this book. In his introduction, he makes this line-in-the-sand purpose statement: “The following pages repudiate the sharp distinction many contemporary scholars make between Calvin and Calvinism” (p. 3).
Beeke’s work begins with Luther. He explains that: “Luther had no patience for any view of assurance that returned the burden of salvation from God to man” (p. 20). While Luther’s view of assurance was grounded on the promises of God, Beeke makes it clear that his successor, “Melanchthon indirectly led Lutheranism away from the doctrine of personal assurance” (p. 26). This is indeed where assurance was lost amongst the well known reformers. We are indebted to the Marrow Men for fighting for the belief that assurance is the essence of saving faith (See Makidon, “The Marrow Men,” JOTGES [Autumn 2003]: 65-77).
Beeke shows Calvin’s conflicting views on assurance. On the one hand he writes, “Calvin concluded that anyone who believes but lacks conviction that he is saved by God is not a true believer after all” (p. 40). Yet, on the other hand, Beeke writes, “According to Calvin, faith ought to be assuring, but no perfect assurance exists in this life” (p. 42). Calvin clearly believed that works “are the consequence, not the precondition of salvation” (pp. 71-72) and so Beeke shows how inconsistent Calvin was in his writings. It is unfortunate that this system’s namesake is a man who, as many scholars have shown, waffled between several of Calvinism’s own five points.
It is interesting to see the progression from Luther to Melanchthon and from Calvin to Beza. Beeke writes, “Calvin maintained a secondary status at best for assurance by works, but Beza nearly equalized the three grounds of assurance by using the practical syllogism more freely than Calvin. He wrote in A briefe and pithie summe, ‘Good works be certain testimonies of our faith, and also do assure us of our eternal election’” (p. 79). One does not have to look much further than Beza to see where the Reformed doctrine shifted personal assurance from the Bible (God) to works (man)—a shift that would have outraged Luther.
Beeke then turns to William Perkins and notes that he “provided a major link in Reformed thought between Beza and the Westminster Confession” (p. 83). Later, he explains that “Gordon Keddie wrote: ‘A cursory examination of the Westminster Confession must show the close approximation of its statement of the doctrine of assurance to that…of Perkins a half-century before’” (p. 111). Perkins believed that assurance was grounded in the Word of God but that “true gospel sorrow must thus flow from the inward conviction of having ‘offended so merciful a God and loving Father’ and must yield a wholehearted Godward change ‘of the mind and the whole man in affection, life, and conversation’” (p. 96).
Beeke spends the next several chapters discussing the Puritans, John Owen, and the merging of English and Dutch thinking. While you should be sure not to miss these chapters, I won’t give away the rest of the story. But then again, you know it already, at least as it stands in the twenty-first century. As Beeke reminds us: “we live in a day of minimal assurance. Sadly, the church, for the most part, is scarcely aware that it is crippled by a comparative absence of strong, full assurance” (p. 279).
While most would agree that the church is indeed crippled by their lack of assurance, the following statement clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between Beeke’s definition of “full assurance” and ours: “Scripture, the Reformers, and post-Reformers did not tire of saying that assurance is known by fruits of such as: close fellowship with God, involving childlike obedience; a thirsting after God and exercises that extol Him; a longing to glorify Him by carrying out the Great Commission” (p. 279). While this may be how the majority of the Reformers looked for assurance, this was certainly not the consensus.
Apart from several problems, Beeke’s work is otherwise informative. May it remind us that we need to study the history of the grace movement lest we be led to believe that grace theology is a novel theology. We should not forget men such as Robert Sandeman and the Marrow Men who stood in the gap in times when assurance could not be found so that we could have assurance of eternal life. May we, like those that came before us, never stop proclaiming the Bible’s message of assurance lest it die with our generation.
Michael D. Makidon
Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society