We tend to battle against atheism and secularization and ignore a far worse degeneration, that of the church. I believe this is because it is easier to tell the world that they are unbelievers than to tell those in the church they are unconverted. This has always been a problem and today it is increasing. Although there are many faithful preachers of the biblical gospel, we should always desire more. This degeneration in the church has come in thousands of forms from thousands of places, but the problem is the same as usual, the erosion of the gospel. The church’s endeavor to accommodate our world in efforts to make the gospel more palatable to the itching ears of sinners has been a failed attempt. Regardless, God will always have his remnant and he will keep them faithful. The issue of assurance boils down to the mixing of goats and sheep in the church. This will always be a problem that will be with us until the cleansing in the last days.
In the bible we are told there are goats that resided in the body and some for an extensive amount of time, some were very incognito. Judas is a prime example of a hidding goat. His deceitful heart was obviously a surprise to the other apostles. Judas followed Christ for just as long as the other disciples, and at the Last Supper no one suspected that Judas was to betray Christ. And this is how it should be for the goats that are amongst the flock; they should not be easily recognized. If the goats are recognized, they should be exhorted to repent and believe or if unrepentant, they should be removed. If one of our (supposed) brothers falls away and proves that he never truly believed, it should shock us and cause us to weep. But these days, most congregations can hardly distinguish the true sheep from wolves, let alone goats.
A large concern of Protestantism has been the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sole fide). And this is of genuine concern. We most certainly are justified by an alien righteousness that was given free of charge and without our merit or good will for salvation. Unfortunately, some in their endeavor to eradicate the possibility of their own righteousness being the foundation of their justification have managed to abolish the power of God in conversion. It seems that we err into either pelagianism or antinomianism. We either try to earn our salvation or we take sanctification away from justification and thus lose them both. What we are missing is the doctrine of assurance.
Conversion is indeed a work of God. Is it not? And if we admit that salvation is only by his sovereign hand, would it be to far to suppose that his hand could also sanctify those he saves? This is at the root of the issue. It is not only good for the sheep to know they are sheep; it is good for the goats to now they are goats. If the sheep know what a true work of God looks like in a man, they will be less confused in deciphering their own state and the state of others. If the body of Christ can clearly see who are the goats they will be able to admonish them properly. For the goats, the benefits are doubly as good. They will know their own state of depravity and be admonished to truly put their faith in Christ.
When God works in a man he will be changed. Growth in a man will not be the same in every instance, for God gives grace in measure. All men that are changed will have a desire to grow in the love and knowledge of God and in all holiness. Calvin wrote, “It must be held to be an universally acknowledged point, that no man is a Christian who does not feel special love for righteousness.”(Inst. 3.6.Intro)
An increasingly amount of churches in America are developing the “easy-believism” that so many faithful preachers (such as John MacArthur) have pointed out. The solution is we must preach and teach the gospel clearly. This entails that we teach a biblical doctrine of assurance. The Puritans were constantly emphasizing this doctrine in their writings, lectures, and sermons. Nearly everything that they wrote was filled with godly introspection and an exhortation to holiness. Grace is a divine gift; it will be effectual, because it is not our own doing, but God’s. That is why Jesus said, “you will know a tree by its fruit.” True religion is of divine origin and will lead to the mortification of the flesh. Richard Baxter would commonly repeat the admonition of the apostle when he would exhort his people to see if there be “in them an evil and unbelieving heart.”
In his section on assurance in the book The Christian Directory, Baxter wrote, “This is the true character of a self deceiving hypocrite…he will not be any further religious, than may stand with his bodily welfare; resolving never to be undone by his godliness; but in the first place to save himself, and his prosperity in the world, as long as he can: and therefore he is truly a carnal-minded man; being denominated from what is predominate in him.” This is the first sign of an unconverted heart: only to seek holiness as much as it brings gain in this life and no more.
“O sirs! We must heed these warnings,” as Baxter would say. The unconverted are sorry and sick creatures abiding under the curse of God. Part of this curse is that the unconverted will not hate their sin. William Gurnall wrote eloquently on the matter, “Speak, O ye hypocrites, can ye show one tear that ever you shed in earnest for a wrong done to God? Possibly you weep to see the bed of sorrow which your sins are making for you in hell, but ye never loved God so well as to mourn for the injujury ye have done the name of God.”
The Scriptures frequently implore the use of our armour in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil. “The Christian's armour is made to be worn; no laying down, or putting off our armour; till we have done our warfare, and finished our course. Our armour and our flesh come off together, or we are not true soldiers of Christ,” Gurnall would boast. This is yet another mark that we are in Christ’s ranks.
If we have truly put faith in Christ we will also exhibit a love for our fellow brothers that is not a love of this world. 1 John 2:10-11 states, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
Baxter said, “If you be indeed Christians, the glory of God will be dearer to you than your lives.” A person who has had the love of God shed abroad in his heart will desire to do what God demands of him. That man will love to glorify God in all he does, and it will not be burdensome.
Most of all, if we love Christ we will find him beautiful. Baxter compels the unconverted to prove themselves to be true converts by coming “over to God, as your Father and felicity, as your only Savior, with thankfulness and joy; and set upon the way of godliness with pleasure and alacrity as your exceeding privilege.” If Christ caused your eyes to be open, he will look majestic to you. Jonathan Edwards clearly portrayed the difference between the true believer and the hypocrite, “This is the difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The [hypocrite rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the [true saint] rejoices in God… True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures… But the dependence of the affections of the hypocrites is in a contrary order: they first rejoice…that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground, he seems in a sort, lovely to them.”
The assurance we have of our salvation is rooted and grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Christ is the one who has done the work it will work! We must not forget that faith and grace are both gifts from Christ. It is sobering to peer into our souls and see if Christ is the author of our faith or if it is our own deceit using religion for worldly gain. If we repent and trust in Christ we can have hope that he will save us and change us. But we must always make sure our hearts are not deceived.
Suppose a man who thought he was a believer fell into some heinous sin. Should he hold to his assurance believing he is saved? No, he should repents and cling to Christ for grace and mercy. He must then realize that it does not matter if he was regenerated prior to this sin or not, what matters is, is his faith in Christ real now? All prior belief could have been faked or self-motivated; it could have been smoke and screens. We are to look to Christ and trust in him. If our prior actions do not reflect regeneration, then hope in Christ! If you thought that your prior actions reflected genuine faith until a scandalous sin, then fear! And then hope in Christ! Do not hold onto your assurance rather than Christ. Loss of our assurance is the fearful whip that Jesus uses to drive us to perseverance. We do look to our fruit to see if our faith is in the root(Christ), but that may not suffice when our lives falls apart because of adultery or some other grievous action. We should cry, as David did, “take not your Holy spirit from me,” and then plead for mercy and trust in Christ.
We know that God’s elect will never be let out of his hands, but I believe that he may use fear and trembling to bring us to our knees so that we do not fall out. Let us look to Christ and see if he is at work in us and if we cannot tell, let us fear, and have faith in Christ, for he is faithful.
For the sake of those who are truly converted and those who are goats, we must define these categories in the church to the best of our ability. This honors God, his word, and is loving to our fellow man.
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 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Religious Affections, ed. John Smith (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 249-250.