The Assurance of Salvation: Biblical Hope for Our Struggles. By Robert A. Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019. 191 pp. Paper, $16.99.
Robert Peterson was a Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Seminary for over twenty-five years. He has written or edited thirty books.
There is much to like about this book.
The tone is very irenic and pastoral. He demonstrates a strong concern that the readers “grasp the certainty of their salvation” (back cover).
Peterson’s style is very reader friendly. He is easy to understand and he uses a large number of illustrations from his many years of ministry as a professor and pastor.
While many Christian books today have outlines that do not make sense, The Assurance of Salvation (TAOS) has a very simple and effective one. Peterson breaks the subject in three parts, with each part being one of the three bases of assurance of salvation according to Reformed thought. Part 1 is “Assurance and God’s Word.” Part 2 is “Assurance and the Holy Spirit.” The last section is “Assurance and the Transformed Life.”
Before getting to part one, Peterson has a brief introduction and then a chapter entitled, “Troublers of Assurance.” Here are the issues Peterson cites as troubling people concerning assurance: “Difficult Backgrounds” (including “An Absent and Cold Father” and “A Propensity to Doubt”), “Intellectual Doubts,” “Sensitive Hearts, Strong Emotions, and Fear,” “Hypocrisy and Apostasy,” and “Overconfidence.” Of course, these are all troublers of assurance for people from within Reformed churches. (Overconfidence according to Peterson gives false assurance. The only example he gives is of a young man named Jason who walked an aisle and prayed the sinner’s prayer. Jason was assured that he was eternally secure on the basis of the evangelists promise that anyone who came forward and prayed the prayer was “eternally secure in the family of God.”)
Each of the three sections of TAOS is divided into two or three chapters. “Assurance and God’s Word” (Part 1) has three chapters, dealing with assurance and the gospel, assurance in Paul, and assurance in John. “Assurance and the Holy Spirit” (Part 2) has two chapters, dealing with the Holy Spirit’s Person and work and the Holy Spirit’s role in assurance. Romans 8:16 is the primary text considered in part 2. Part 3, “Assurance and the Transformed Life,” has two chapters, dealing with the role of good works in assurance and the church and defenders of assurance.
The problem with Peterson’s book is the same problem which plagues most Reformed writings about assurance. It is the problem of subjectivity. According to Reformed thought, assurance is based in part on the promises to the believer in the Bible, and in part on the so-called inner witness of the Holy Spirit, and in part on one’s good works (which are regarded as God’s works, since in Reformed thought any good works are done by God, not by the believer).
It is often said that two of those bases of assurance, the inner witness and the works we do, are subjective, but the promises in the Bible to the believer are objective. However, as Peterson shows so well in part 1, even the promises in the Bible to the believer are subjective for Reformed people. The reason is simple. According to Reformed theology, saving faith is unknowable on any objective basis. False professors have the same intellectual beliefs as true professors. The way to determine if you are one of the people to whom the promise of eternal salvation applies is to examine your life.
In part 1, Peterson indicates that the purpose of First John is to give the readers tests to see if they are genuine believers (pp. 53-54). Those tests include perseverance. Peterson writes, “Genuine faith perseveres. True believers do not merely make an initial profession of faith in Jesus. They do so and then continue to trust him for salvation. They go on with him. They often struggle and sometimes doubt. But they never fall away ‘totally and finally’…God works in their lives as a confirmation of his love…We continue to believe God’s promise of salvation. We keep going to church with God’s people, where the Word of God is honored and proclaimed. And these faithful practices give us confidence that God belongs to us and we belong to him” (pp. 56-57, emphasis added). Note how assurance is a mixture of believing God’s promise of salvation and faithful practices, which include not falling away doctrinally or morally, God constantly working in our lives, and continuing to keep on going to church. Peterson goes on to say that the genuine believer endures in the faith, morally and doctrinally, when temptations come (pp. 57-58).
Likewise, when discussing assurance in Paul, Peterson finds in Phil 1:4-6 a promise that all who genuinely believe in Jesus will persevere in new creation living and works until Christ returns (pp. 89-91). Of course, the person who does not see in himself a life of new creation works cannot benefit from God’s promise of salvation to the believer, for he would lack any confidence that he is a believer.
Part 1 ends with a sad story about someone called Tom. He was “a brilliant [seminary] student…an outstanding scholar” (p. 94). But he felt he “lacked the proper feelings of a Christian man” and hence doubted his salvation (p. 94). Peterson felt that he should have had assurance anyway by “standing on the promises of God, regardless of [his] feelings or lack thereof” (p. 94). But then he adds a solution for people like Tom, “That is why the Lord graciously assures us in three ways, through the gospel, by the Spirit, and by working in our lives” (p. 94). Well, if a person can’t have assurance by objective promises in the Bible to the believer, how could he possibly gain assurance by looking for inward feelings (exactly Tom’s problem) or for God’s work in his life?
I very much like the fact that TAOS has a Scripture index and a subject index as well.
The subject index shows that Peterson cites Tom Schreiner and the book he co-authored with Ardel Caneday, The Race Set Before Us, twice (pp. 61, 70). That book stands out since the authors argue that what they call final salvation is a prize to be won by staying in the race which is the Christian life. He also cites Schreiner by himself seven other times (pp. 49, 50, 81, 84, 118, 124, 144). Other Lordship Salvation authors that Peterson cites frequently include D. A. Carson (four times), John Stott (three times), and J. I. Packer (three times).
I am honored that Peterson cited me and Grace Evangelical Society concerning the role of good works in assurance (Chap. 7). He cites me as saying that “We do not look to our works for assurance” (p. 137) and contrasts that with the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says that good works “strengthen assurance” (p. 138).
Chapter 7 shows the impossibility of assurance by works, though that is not Peterson’s intention. Look at some of the headings in the conclusion of that chapter: “Salvation Makes a Difference in People’s Lives,” “The Lost Are Recognizable,” and “The Saved Are Recognizable” (pp. 154 55). Verses cited here include Matt 7:13-14, Matt 7:16, 20 and the expression “by their fruit you shall know them” (which refers to false prophets, but Peterson thinks that the Lord then “broadens it to distinguish believers from unbelievers,” p. 154), Matt 7:21-23, Gal 5:21-23, 1 John 1:6-7, and 2 Pet 1:5-11, all popular Lordship Salvation texts. While Peterson says, “changed lives play a secondary role in assurance to God’s Word” (p. 155), it seems that changed lives play a primary role in his way of thinking since God’s Word only gives assurance to believers and Reformed thought is convinced that belief is unknowable apart from the works that it produces in a person’s life.
I do not recommend TAOS for believers who are struggling with doubts about their salvation. However, I do recommend it for Free Grace pastors, teachers, and leaders who should be aware of the teachings of Reformed theology regarding assurance of salvation.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society