Assurance, Good Works, and Sovereign Grace (Berkhof)

Assurance of Faith The Heidelberg Catechism says that the Christian’s good works help in the assurance of faith: “we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits” (Q/A 86).  The Westminster Larger Catechism notes under assurance that the Holy Spirit enables Christians to “discern in themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made” (Q/A 80).  Biblically speaking, James said that true faith is shown to be true by works (James 2:18) and John wrote that we can tell we have new life when we love other Christians (1 John 3:14).

I appreciate Louis Berkhof’s explanation of how assurance of faith is related to good works in the Christian’s life:

…Reformed Confessional Standards also clearly indicate that assurance is based in part on the so-called syllogism of faith, in which the believer consciously and deliberately compares the graces that adorn his life and his general conduct, with the biblical description of the virtues and the godly conversation of those who are born of the Spirit, and on their relative correspondence bases the conclusion that he is indeed a child of God.

Berkhof ended the section this way – by emphasizing sovereign grace:

…Some object to this method of seeking assurance altogether. They claim that it directs believers to seek the ground of assurance within themselves, and thus encourages them to build on a self-righteous foundation. But this is clearly a mistake. Believers are not taught to regard their good works as the meritorious cause of their salvation, but only as the divinely wrought evidences of a faith that is itself a gift of God. Their conclusion is based exactly on the assumption that the qualities and works which they discover in their life, could never have been wrought by themselves, but can only be regarded as the products of sovereign grace.

 Louis Berkhof, The Assurance of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), chapter 6.

(As a side, The Assurance of Faith is only $5.99 on Logos.  It’s very much worth that!)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Nothing Done By Us… (Hodge)

Hodge ST Charles Hodge wrote that justification is…

…[A] declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous, that is, declares that the claims of justice, so far as he is concerned, are satisfied, so that he cannot be justly condemned, but is in justice entitled to the reward promised or due to perfect righteousness.

The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification. Nothing done by us or wrought in us satisfies the demands of justice, or can be the ground or reason of the declaration that justice as far as it concerns us is satisfied. The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ, active and passive, i.e., including his perfect obedience to the law as a covenant, and his enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and on our behalf.

The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.

What’s missing from these statements?  Scripture!  However, Hodge later gives all sorts of biblical references and implications as the source of these statements, including Romans 4:6-8; 5:18; 8:1, 33-34; John 3:17-18; Gal. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:24; Col. 2:14, and so forth.  The entire section is for sure reading when considering the great topic of justification by faith alone.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 118.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Assurance, Introspection, and Religious Feelings (Hodge)

 Assurance of faith is one of the great blessings of the Christian life.  To be sure, it comes and goes, waxes and wanes.  Sometimes the Christian is certain he or she is a beloved child of God.  Other times the Christian doubts whether it is so.  But assurance is something Christians should pray for, strive for, and be thankful when they have it.  Charles Hodge has a good word on the grounds, or basis, for assurance in volume three of his Systematic Theology:

Many sincere believers are too introspective. They look too exclusively within, so that their hope is graduated [grows] by the degree of evidence of regeneration which they find in their own experience. This, except in rare cases, can never lead to the assurance of hope. We may examine our hearts with all the microscopic care prescribed by President Edwards in his work on “The Religious Affections,” and never be satisfied that we have eliminated every ground of misgiving and doubt.

The grounds of assurance are not so much within, as without us. They are, according to Scripture,

(1.) The universal and unconditional promise of God that those who come to Him in Christ, He will in no wise cast out; that whosoever will, may take of the water of life without money and without price. We are bound to be assured that God is faithful and will certainly save those who believe.

(2.) The infinite, immutable, and gratuitous love of God. In the first ten verses of the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and in the eighth chapter of that epistle from the thirty-first verse to the end, the Apostle dwells on these characteristics of the love of God, as affording an immovable foundation of the believer’s hope.

(3.) The infinite merit of the satisfaction of Christ, and the prevalence of his continued intercession. Paul, in Romans 8:34, especially emphasizes these points.

(4.) The covenant of redemption in which it is promised that all given by the Father to the Son, shall come to Him, and that none of them shall be lost.

(5.) From the witness of the Spirit, Paul says, “We … rejoice in hope of the glory of God,” because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us. That is, the Holy Ghost assures us that we are the objects of that love which he goes on to describe as infinite, immutable, and gratuitous. (Rom. 5:3–5.) And again, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

If, therefore, any true believer lacks the assurance of faith, the fault is in himself and not in the plan of salvation, or in the promises of God.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 107.

(This is a re-blog from December 2016.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Judge Not the Lord by Feeble Sense (Feelings and Faith)

 The way we react or respond to the gospel is not the gospel.  My feelings and emotions about Christ are not good news.  The empty tomb does not depend upon how much I treasure Jesus.  My delighting in Christ is not at the heart of the apostolic preaching of the cross.  The level of my satisfaction in Jesus doesn’t affect the historical facts that he died and was raised.

Why are these things worth mentioning?  Well, for one thing, they have to do with assurance of salvation.  If a Christian thinks his response to the gospel is part of the gospel, his assurance will be like a roller coaster that rises and falls with his feelings.  If a believer thinks her delighting in Christ or finding satisfaction in Christ is part of the good news, her assurance will ebb and flow with her emotional state.  In other words, if I think my feelings and emotions are part of the gospel, my assurance will quickly decline on days I’m not treasuring Christ above all.

I appreciate how Thomas Brooks discussed this in his book The Unsearchable Riches of Christ.  When talking to Christians about growing in grace, one bit of counsel he gives is this: “Take heed of making sense and feeling a judge of your condition.”

Though there is nothing more dangerous, yet there is nothing more ordinary, than for weak saints to make their sense and feeling the judge of their condition. Ah, poor souls, this is dishonorable to God and very disadvantageous to yourselves.  Sense is sometimes opposite to reason, but always to faith.  Therefore do as those worthies did, ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5.8-9).

Brooks then lists many emotional worries a Christian may have, like not feeling God’s “enlivening presence” or not being “melted” or “enlarged” as earlier in his Christian life.  A Christian might not feel God’s nearness or perhaps not find prayer as sweet as before.  Brooks writes,

If you will make sense and feeling the judge of your state and condition, you will never have peace or comfort all your days.  Your state, O Christian, may be very good, when sense and feeling says it is very bad.  …The best of Christian men have at times lost that quickening, ravishing, and comforting presence of God that once they have enjoyed.  And verily, he that makes sense and carnal reason a judge of his condition, shall be happy and miserable, blessed and cursed, saved and lost, many times in a day, yes, in an hour.

The counsel that I would give to such a soul that is apt to set up reason [or feeling] in the place of faith is this: Whatsoever your state and condition is, never makes sense and feeling the judge of it, but only the word of God.  …It will never be well with you as long as you are swayed by carnal reason, and rely more on your five senses than the four evangelists.  Remember Job was famous for his confidence as for his patience: “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” (Job 13:15).

I don’t always feel like a good Christian.  I sometimes don’t think about satisfaction in Christ.  Other times I feel quite close to the Lord and am abundantly thankful for his blessings.  However, no matter how I feel, no matter what emotional state I’m in, I know that the gospel is still true.  The blood of Jesus that he shed on the cross still cleanses me from all my sin.  The tomb is still empty even if at the moment I’m not emotionally moved by that awesome truth.  My assurance stands firm because my faith rests in facts, not feelings.  Feelings come and go, but facts stay put.  As the old hymn says, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace.”

The above quote by Brooks is found on pages 94-95 of his Works, Volume III.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Faith and Submission (Hodge)

In chapter six of The Way of Life, Charles Hodge summarized some different ways the Bible speaks about justifying faith.  One of those examples is faith as submission (cf. Rom 10:3).

Another term by which faith is expressed is submitting. This is not to be understood as meaning a submission to the will of God as a sovereign ruler, a giving up all our controversy with him and resigning ourselves into his hands. All this is duty, but it is not saving faith. The submission required is submission to the revealed plan of salvation; it is the giving up all excuses for our sins, all dependence upon our own righteousness, and submitting to the righteousness which God has provided for our justification. This is what the Jews refused to do, and perished in unbelief.  This is what we must do, in order to be saved.

Men, when sensible of their guilt and danger, are perplexed and anxious about many things. But there is only one thing for them to do. They must submit to be saved as ungodly, as sinners, as entirely undeserving, solely for Christ’s sake. They must consent to allow the robe of his righteousness to be cast over all their nakedness and blood, that they may be found in him, not having their own righteousness, but the righteousness which is by faith in Jesus Christ. Then will they be prepared to join that great multitude which stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palms in their hands, crying with a loud voice, ‘Salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us unto God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and people, and tongue, and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests.’

It is thus that the Bible answers the question, What must we do to be saved? We are told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; and to set forth the nature, the object and office of this faith, the Scriptures employ the most significant terms and illustrations, in order that we may learn to renounce ourselves and our works, and to be found in Christ depending solely upon what He has done and suffered as the ground of our acceptance with God. Those who thus believe, have passed from death unto life; they are no longer under condemnation; they have peace with God and rejoice in hope of his glory. As this faith unites them with Christ, it makes them not only partakers of his death, but of his life. The Holy Spirit, given without measure to him, is through him given unto them, and works in them the fruits of holiness, which are unto the praise and glory of God.

Charles Hodge, The Way of Life (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1841), 216–218.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)You may have heard someone talk about coming to Christ with an empty hand of faith.  What does this mean?  This phrase has a historical background.  In the 17th century, some Christian teachers were saying in order to be forgiven and justified a sinner needs to have repentance.  [Repentance in this context has a broad meaning which includes hating sin, turning to God, and endeavoring unto new obedience (see WLC 76 or HC 88-90)].  For example, Richard Baxter taught that a person must be forsaking sin and following Christ to be pardoned and justified.  This led some Reformed preachers to say that Baxter was setting up a new covenant of works!

I appreciate how Thomas Boston discussed this topic.  Here are some things he said in a treatise on this topic:

“I conceive that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe (Acts 10:43 ‘Through his name, whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins’).

Boston noted that if someone does need to be forsaking sin and following Jesus to obtain forgiveness, it would be like earning forgiveness.  Boston quotes Preston favorably: “It is a fault to think that God’s pardons are not free and that you must bring something in your hand.”

Upon the whole we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for remission of sins and God’s favor.  But he does not come empty-handed who brings repentance along with him.  If any shall say we screw up matters so high in this point that we must also cast away faith as well as repentance for obtaining pardon, as if faith is something we bring to attain pardon, I say this:

For the safety of God’s grace, let the ‘work-faith’ and the ‘inherent-quality-faith’ go, and be made to stand back, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified – that the empty-handed, ‘taking-faith’ may alone have place.  Hasn’t the Lord made pardon to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand and receives all?

Boston then said that in this matter there’s a big difference between faith and repentance (conversion/living a new life), for one receives (faith) and the other gives (repentance).  In fact, Boston exhorted readers not to turn the covenant of grace into a “bastard covenant of works” by saying we have to bring something when we come to Jesus to obtain his favor.

So what does “the empty hand of faith” mean?  It means coming to Christ empty-handed simply to receive the free, gracious gift of full forgiveness.  When we come to Jesus for pardon and justification, we don’t need to bring Him anything in exchange; we don’t need to clean up our act, put nice clothes on, or do a few good deeds so He notices us.  We come like a beggar would come before a king with nothing but an open hand to receive a gift from the king.  And as the Bible teaches, this King blesses beggars who come with an empty hand of faith!

The above-edited quotes are found in Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 6, p. 87ff

Shane Lems

Faith Follows Regeneration (Phillips)

What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? by [Phillips, Richard D.] Here’s a brief but biblical explanation of the truth that faith follows regeneration:

“…It is clear from the Bible that the Spirit’s regenerating work always precedes and causes faith.  Jesus stated this to Nicodemus: ‘Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  This is reflected more or less clearly in every conversation recorded in the New Testament.  An excellent example is the conversion of Lydia, which Luke records by writing, ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).  Likewise, Jesus ascribed Peter’s great confession not to the operations of his flesh but to divine grace: ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’ (Matt. 16:17).”

“Regeneration – the new birth – precedes faith, so that prior to being born again it is impossible for anyone to believe on Jesus.  Paul explains why: ‘The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14).  Therefore, if regeneration had to result from faith – if unregenerate sinners had to believe in order to be saved – then according to Paul, no one would ever be regenerated and saved.  Instead, the Bible uniformly teaches what our sinful condition demands: regeneration precedes and causes saving faith.  The apostle John put it succinctly: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God’ (1 John 5:1).”

Richard Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace, p. 76-7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015