This article first appeared in the March 15, 1988 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema. It is part of a special issue, as explained by the editor: "This is the second of our special issues for the current volume-year, and also the fifth of our series on the Order of Salvation. It is devoted in its entirety to the subject of Sanctification."
Sanctification and Assurance
In one way or another our Reformed confessions speak of the Christian’s assurance rather frequently.
First of all, saving faith itself is assurance. This is very clear from Lord’s Day VII. True faith is not only acertain knowledge . . . but also an assured confidence . . . that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” In Question and Answer 44 this assurance is connected with Christ’s descension into hell: “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” In Question and Answer 54, concerning the holy catholic church, we find the familiar language of assurance on the part of the Christian: “. . . and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” Lords Day XXIII, concerning justification by faith, speaks the language of assurance. The sacraments, according to the Catechism, serve the purpose of assurance (Q. & A. 67, 69, 75). In answering the question, “Why must we still do good works?” the Catechism states in part: “. . . also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof . . . .”
Significantly, our Confession of Faith in Article 24 addresses the subject of assurance in connection with sanctification, and it does so at the conclusion of the article in a rather negative way, as follows: “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.”
The Canons of Dordrecht, so often characterized as being hard and without a pastoral element, address the subject of assurance more than once. Already in the First Head, where the subject is divine predestination, they speak of the assurance of election as follows:
The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc. (Article 12)
Notice that already here the Canons posit a connection between assurance and sanctification: “filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness” are all concrete manifestations of a walk in sanctification.
But it is in Canons V that the matter of assurance is addressed directly’ and in connection with preservation and perseverance. First of all, in Article 9’the truth of the possibility and the reality of assurance is set forth. The article reads as follows (in my own, corrected translation):
Of this keeping of the elect unto salvation, and of the perseverance of the true believers in faith, the believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain according to the measure of faith, by which they certainly believe that they are and always shall remain true and living members of the church, that they have the remission of sins and life eternal.
Notice the following in this article: 1) It speaks of the object of assurance as being: the keeping of the elect, and the perseverance of the true believers in faith. It further spells out this object as being “that they are and always shall remain, true and living members of the church,” (a reference to Q. & A. 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism) and “that they have the remission of sins and life eternal.” 2) It presents this assurance as being normal for believers. Assurance is not something elusive, something which is attained only by a few specially pious souls. But “believers themselves are able to be certain, and are certain.” 3) At the same time, it is plain that the article is speaking of the activity of faith, i.e., believing, not of the power of faith as such. Or to use a distinction which has sometimes been used, the article is speaking of the well-being of faith in distinction from the being of faith. For the article recognizes that the degree of this assurance can and does vary. Believers “are certain according to the measure of faith.” (emphasis added) Not only does one believer differ from another in degree of assurance; but the degree of assurance in the same believer may vary at different times. That variation is according to the measure of faith. If and when the activity of his faith is strong, his assurance is clear and bright; if and when the activity of his faith is weaker, the degree of assurance is also, smaller.
But it is Article 10 of Canons V which sets forth theway of assurance and which connects assurance very clearly with sanctification. This article reads as follows (again, in my own, slightly corrected translation):
This assurance, accordingly is not out of any special revelation, outside of the Word of God; but springs from faith. in God’s promises, which he has revealed in his Word most abundantly unto our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are children and heirs of God,
and lastly from an earnest and holy exercise of a good conscience and of good works. And if the elect of God in this world were deprived of this solid comfort, that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible earnest of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.
This article makes it plain, therefore, that the one way of assurance is threefold. It is: 1) The way of God’s Word, His promises. 2) The way of the testimony of the Holy Spirit that. we are children and heirs of God. 3) The way of a walk in sanctification: an earnest and holy exercise of a good conscience and of good works. These three elements belong to the one way of assurance. They belong together. Take any one of them away, and assurance becomes impossible, changes to doubt and despair.
Now it is impossible within the limitations of this article to expound the instruction of the Canons here completely. For a more thorough exposition, I refer the reader to my book, The Voice of our Fathers. But let me draw a few main lines.
First of all, we must remember that any real assurance is the work of God. The question is not: how do I obtain assurance, as though the obtaining of assurance were my own work; Fundamentally the question is: how does God assure. His children? For any assurance that has its origin in me is not worthy of the name; it is like lifting one’s self up by his own bootstraps. If God, Who is really GOD, assures me, then I may be sure. Hence, the question is: what is God’s way of assurance? Then, when I know this, and when I walk according to this, I can grow in assurance day by day. For in order to enjoy assurance, I must be in Gods way. I must walk by faith in the way in which God always assures His children.
What is that way?
There is, in the first place, the element of the speech of God Himself, objectively, in His Word, the Word of the Scriptures, the Scriptures which are inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption. This does not merely mean that the way of assurance is the way of faithfully reading the Scriptures. No, it means that the way of assurance is the way of faithful use of the means of grace, primarily the preaching of the Word. These are the means through which God is pleased to assure us.
There is, in the second place, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, with our spirit. The Spirit takes that objective revelation of God’s promises in the Word and He applies it effectually and irresistibly—for He is God!—to our hearts.
In the third place, there results the faith-testimony of our own spirit (for the Spirit testifies with our spirit), “I am a child and heir of God. I am and forever shall remain a living member of the holy catholic church. I have the remission of sins and life eternal.”
That brings us to the place of sanctification, or rather, a walk in sanctification in relation to assurance. What is that place? Why is assurance possible only in the way of sanctification?
Is it thus, that here at last the matter of assurance becomes after all dependent on man, on the Christian? Is the exercise of a good conscience and of good works—briefly, sanctification—the condition of assurance, the ground of assurance?
Here we must be reminded that our Confession warns against this in Article 24: “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh and also punishable . . . .” It also warns that this is precisely not the way of assurance, but of doubt: “Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and’ fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.”
Nevertheless, the exclusive way of assurance is the way of sanctification. Outside of the latter there is no assurance possible. Without holiness no man shall see the Lord! And without holiness, therefore, no man can be sure that he shall see the Lord!
The root answer is that the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit Who assures us of our salvation through the Word is the HOLY Spirit, and He always operates as such. He operates to assure the people of God, therefore, only in the sphere of holiness, in the light, not in the darkness of sin and corruption. Further, He is the Author of holiness also in the heart and life of the elect. He applies the blessings of Christ to Gods elect. And when He does so, He not only gives assurance of adoption, but He realizes our adoption and changes us into actual children of God, renewed after the image of Christ. His work is such that its sure fruit is the production of a sanctified and holy child of God, a saint.
Now the Spirit’s work and the Spirit’s testimony can never be separated.
He does not assure children of the devil, who are and remain children of the devil, that they are children of God. No, He changes children of the devil into children of God; and to those children of God, and to them only, He gives the assurance that they are God’s children and heirs. It is, therefore, because sanctification is the sure fruit of the operation of the Spirit of adoption, that assurance springs from an earnest and holy exercise of a good conscience and of good works.
This also explains the fact that the degree of assurance can and does vary in the life of the child of God sometimes. If the life of sanctification is not strong and bright, then the degree of assurance is also not strong and bright. And if for a time a child of God departs completely from the way of sanctification and walks in sin, he may even lose his assurance for a time altogether. But in the way of a sanctified walk God’s people enjoy the testimony of the Spirit with their spirit, through and in connection with the Word, that they are children and heirs!
Homer C. Hoeksema was born in Grand Rapids, MI on January 30, 1923. He was the second son of Herman Hoeksema and born during the turmoil of the Common Grace controversy which led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
He graduated from Calvin College and then the Protestant Reformed Seminary. He served the Protestant Reformed congregation at Doon, Iowa from 1949 to 1955 and later the Protestant Reformed congregation at South Holland, Illinois from 1955 to 1959.
In 1959 he was called to serve as professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, a position he held until his emeritation in 1989. He taught the departments of Dogmatics and New Testament studies. He served for many years as the editor of The Standard Bearer and wrote various significant books--the main one, a study of the Canons of Dordt titled: The Voice of the Fathers.
He was taken to glory on July 17, 1989.