Today’s guest post is by Dr Tang U-Liang
One less talked about heritage of the Reformation is perhaps on the topic of assurance. It follows naturally from Luther’s (re)discovery that justification is by faith alone. But the connection is perhaps not as straightforward as one might think.
It is perhaps been supposed in Christian circles that we can have assurance of salvation because we are not saved on the basis of our good works or good behaviour. Instead, since we only need to believe, we can be assured of our salvation. If salvation had been by works, so the argument goes, then our success in works is not certain, for we may fail. We are after all merely human. So therefore, since salvation is not by works (but by faith), we have full assurance.
But I don’t think it follows, logically speaking, that one’s assurance of salvation as a Christian is obtained on the basis of our faith alone. After all, in 2 Peter 1:3-11, Peter talks about the effort to attain to godliness, virtue and love in addition to faith as a way to “confirm your calling and election.” The assurance of salvation therefore cannot be just obtained from mere introspection of our confession in absence of evidence. On the contrary, we see here that Peter recognises that “for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” There is no entrance through the pearly gates without evidence of a changed life.
It could seem like a “betrayal” to some Christians to discover that Christianity isn’t just about believing, but that it demands some thing from us. But what then of assurance? How can we still say that we can go to heaven if we die tomorrow but yet need to “confirm our election”. It does seem like a contradiction in terms.
The thinking that salvation is tied to the success or failure of our good works is so hard wired into our human psyche that assurance is often mistakenly interpreted in terms of a basic opposition between what we need to do for ourselves versus what we cannot do for ourselves (i.e. for which matters does God have intervene).
Instead, assurance rightly understood in the context of God’s covenant with us upon our putting our trust in him. After conversion, to be assured of salvation is to believe first and foremost that God is no longer angry with us because of sin, but have forgiven us completely. It is His convenant with us that He will never abandon us after conversion but will continually be with us until the day we die and see Him again. This is what assurance is. In assurance the question is not so much “Will I go to heaven?” as it is “Does God still love me?” to which the answer (to both questions) is a resounding “YES!”
So often in discussions of assurance and in the debate between Calvinists and Arminians on the correctness of “once saved always saved” what is often an unspoken assumption on both sides is that salvation is tied to the sincerity or genuineness of faith. Well, then we ask, how do we know that our faith is genuine? The assumption here is that a Christian can finally fall away by just finally denying Christ.
But I contend that nobody, once making a profession for Christ, will suddenly one day just say “ I no longer believe” for no good reason at all. Indeed, a Christian may renounce the faith, but usually under extreme persecution and even so, I very doubt that that counts as apostasy. And because true apostasy is final (c.f. Hebrews 6:1-8), mere public denunciations of the faith does not necessarily mean apostasy. If so, people like Peter (who denied Christ) and Wang Ming Dao were irrevocably “unsaved”. Instead, the great danger for all Christians is not renunciation of belief, but an abandoning of their walk with God. Merely maintaining the outward forms of a religion while the inner man does not love God anymore.
How then does assurance fit in into this? There is at least three aspects of assurance that I can think of that relate to the life of a Christian in the body: The assurance of justification, the assurance of perseverance (or sanctification) and the assurance that we will see God again (the second coming of Christ). It is in that we know that we are justified, that we can draw near to God. The Father is no longer angry with us and loves us, so we have that assurance that He will never cast us out (from our proverbial Eden) ever again. The assurance of justification is our rainbow in the sky, for when evil befalls us, it is not a punishment for sins, but the discipline of a loving Father. It is through this assurance that we need not put barriers between us and God (Hebrews 4:16). No longer any need to pray to the saints, or Mary or have a priest intercede on our behalf because we have Christ to do all these for us. We do not need to worship from afar – the curtain rent from top to bottom.
There is at least three aspects of assurance that I can think of that relate to the life of a Christian in the body: The assurance of justification, the assurance of perseverance (or sanctification) and the assurance that we will see God again (the second coming of Christ).
The assurance of perseverance is the assurance that we will never lack in the energy to godliness throughout our entire lives. We are promised a “new heart” (Ezekiel 36:26) and so while there is striving, and effort and much denying of self, it is not exhausting, nor a burdensome and empty ritual we perform. It done out of love, and therefore its place in our salvation becomes less a matter of earning marks, as it is to please our Father in heaven. We can see that even though God demands works of us, he does not demand it as exchange for a place in heaven, but because he is a holy God and we are to be like him.
And finally we have assurance that our salvation will be completed. God is the author and perfecter of our faith. If we have been called, we will be assured that God will finish the job. Once again, we will meet him on the beautiful shore, where every tear will be wiped from our eyes and death, the final enemy is no more. All the warnings about falling away, all the cajoling and the encouragement to live a god fearing life are fulfilled in the second coming of Christ. Once it was a warning, and when Christ comes again, we see how it was used to turn our stubborn hearts around. Once we felt that God was far away, but when we finally see his face, we realise that he never left us. Month after month, we ate the bread and drank the wine of his presence, waiting for the day when we will feast with him in heaven, that day is now, when Christ comes again.
It is a bare cold rock, far from the warmth that heaven brings. But come it will, borne on a chariot and peals of trumpet song. Bright sound, He comes announced and To all who hear him cry, “At last!”