Puritan Assurance: A Cruel Doctrine of Doubt
The following is an excerpt from a work (available in its entirety online) entitled The Gift of Assurance by Prof. David J. Engelsma. With the rampant spread of puritan mysticism infecting protestant churches crossing all denominational lines, the subject is of the greatest import. I cannot recommend highly enough the reading of this small work. – JT
From the Forward:
The truth that the author of this pamphlet presents is of the greatest interest to the life of the church and the child of God in the world. It is the precious truth of the assurance of one’s salvation, that is, the absolute assurance and confidence that one is elect, a child of God, and the heir of all the blessings of salvation that are ours in the cross of Jesus Christ and by the application of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is in the confidence of this truth that the Apostle trumpets in Romans 8 that the believer, in the face of a host of differing trials and tribulations, is more than a conqueror. About this same confidence the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 15 that the absence of it makes us of all men most miserable.
It is deplorable that the Spirit’s work of assuring believers and the true, spiritual children of believers is controversial. I do not now refer to the open denial of the possibility of the assurance of salvation by the Roman Catholic Church, by all churches that proclaim the false gospel of Arminianism, and by the proponents of the covenant theology of the Federal [Covenant] Vision in reputedly Reformed and Presbyterian churches. By virtue of their common teaching that salvation is conditional, that is, dependent upon the will and works of the saved sinner, Rome, churches embracing the lie of free will, and the Federal [Covenant] Vision all openly proclaim that saints can fall away into eternal perdition. This is the denial of assurance of salvation with a vengeance.
But I refer to the controversy over assurance raised by the false teaching about the Holy Spirit and assurance of many, perhaps the majority, of the Puritans in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. These Puritans taught that the Spirit saves many whom He does not assure of salvation. From many of those whom He does finally assure of salvation He withholds assurance for a long time—years, many years—after their conversion and coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Some regenerated believers never receive the gift of assurance. These miserable souls must live all their troubled life and then die without assurance, without ever being able to confess the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, even though God elected them, Christ died for them, and the Spirit regenerated them and united them to Christ. Expressions by leading Puritans and the actual condition of churches held in bondage by this teaching leave the distinct impression that those believers who never receive assurance, but die in doubt, are the majority.
These Puritans taught that assurance is not so much the gift of the Holy Spirit as it is the work of the church member himself. Having convinced believers that they (the believers) had not received assurance with their faith, these Puritans then exhorted the believers to pray fervently, to work arduously, and to struggle heroically, often for many years, in order at last, by dint of all this spiritual work, to obtain assurance.
These Puritans taught that assurance is, and should be, a real problem for many, if not most, believers and children of believers. It is normal to lack assurance; normal to wonder whether one is really saved; normal to struggle with the question of assurance; normal that one’s relation to assurance is that of a “quest,” a long, even lifelong, “quest,” with no assurance of a favorable outcome of the quest, namely, finding assurance in this life; and, therefore, also, normal to abstain from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Leading Puritans, men who are highly regarded by contemporary disciples of the Puritans, taught that the Spirit gives assurance only to a very few of God’s children, leaving the rest of us, the vast majority of His children, to live and die in doubt.
Now though this full assurance is earnestly desired, and highly prized, and the want of it much lamented, and the enjoyment of it much endeavored after by all saints, yet it is only obtained by a few. Assurance is a mercy too good for most men’s hearts, it is a crown too weighty for most men’s heads. Assurance is optimum maximum, the best and greatest mercy; and therefore God will only give it to his best and dearest friends. Augustus in his solemn feasts, gave trifles to some, but gold to others. Honor and riches, etc., are trifles that God gives to the worst of men; but assurance is that ‘tried gold,’ Rev. 3:18, that God only gives to tried friends. Among those few that have a share or portion in the special love and favor of God, there are but a very few that have an assurance of his love. It is one mercy for God to love the soul, and another mercy for God to assure the soul of his love.
A Reformed student of Scripture and the Reformed creeds struggles for words with which to express opposition to, and indignation at, the Puritan doctrine of assurance. It is no doctrine of assurance at all, but a cruel doctrine of doubt, at least, for the great majority of those who “have a share or portion in the special love and favor of God.” Not only does it rob the great majority of God’s believing children of the precious, priceless assurance of the love of God for them and their salvation, shutting them up to the unspeakable misery of the fear, whether God hates them and will damn them at death, but it also casts the gravest aspersions on the Fatherhood of God in Jesus Christ. What godly, earthly father, loving all his children, gives assurance of his love to a “very few” of his children, but withholds this assurance from the majority of them? Such a father would make himself subject to the discipline of the church on the ground of the grossest dereliction of parental duty. Indeed, what earthly father would demand of his children that they “endeavor,” that is, work, for years in order to obtain after many years, or even at the end of life, the assurance that he in fact loves them? What Christian would swallow the assertion that it is one parental mercy for the believing father to love his children, but another parental mercy for the father to assure the children of his love? What strange mercy is it to love one’s children, but have them live in the terror that their father hates them?
That God’s Fatherhood does not suffer in comparison with the fatherhood of the godly man is evident from the fact that Jesus taught everyone who believes the gospel, and thus believes on Jesus Christ, from the heart, whether aged saint or new convert, grandparent or little covenant child, to call upon God in prayer and to call upon Him as “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). To say “Our Father” to God is to express that the one who prays has assurance that God loves him, has redeemed him, saves him, and will preserve him unto eternal glory.
Here, according to Puritan theology, is a grace of salvation about which it is not true, that the one who seeks shall find. All believers seek assurance as a grace “earnestly desired and highly prized,” but only a “few,” indeed, a “very few,” ever find it. And the reason is that this grace of salvation, which rightly is “highly prized” as the “best and greatest mercy,” is obtained, not by the free gift of the Spirit of Christ, but by the working and works of the believer. “He that will have it [assurance] must work, and sweat, and weep, and wait to obtain it…none can obtain it [assurance] but such as labor for it…a man must win it [assurance] before he can wear it.” The Puritan doctrine of assurance is a form of salvation by works. A doctrine of works is necessarily also a doctrine of doubt.
Despite the clear, powerful testimony of the “Three Forms of Unity” against it, the Puritan doctrine of assurance has infected certain churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition. This occurred largely through the influence of Puritanism upon some Reformed theologians and ministers in the Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The movement influenced by Puritanism, particularly the Puritan doctrine of assurance, called itself the “nadere reformatie.” This name should be translated, and understood, as ‘further reformation,’ expressing the movement’s conviction that the sixteenth century Reformation did not do justice to piety and experience and that it was the high calling of the “nadere reformatie” to complete the sixteenth century Reformation. This, the men of the “nadere reformatie” set out to accomplish by a theology and ministry that emphasized personal piety and introspective experience.
Puritanism’s erroneous doctrine of assurance is being spread throughout Great Britain, North America, and the world by influential organizations and theologians who promote Puritan and “further reformation” theology.
The effects of this false doctrine of assurance are dreadful. Entire Reformed and Presbyterian congregations languish in doubt of their salvation and, therefore, persist in open disobedience to Christ’s command to His church and to all who believe on Him, that they partake of the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29). It is reliably reported that in the Netherlands today (2008) is a Reformed congregation of more than one thousand members of which only five or ten old members regularly partake of the Lord’s Supper. The rest of the members, in the bondage of the Puritan doctrine of assurance, abstain, lacking assurance of salvation. All too believable is the rest of the report: The minister of the congregation recently issued a warning against too great liberty in the congregation in coming to the Lord’s Table. Presbyterian churches in Scotland suffer from the same dread malady.
Many persons, publicly professing faith in Christ and living regular lives of obedience to the law in love for God, live all their life doubting whether they are loved by God and saved, and die in the terror of the real possibility of being damned.
The Puritan doctrine of assurance was not that of the Reformers. This is freely admitted by Reformed theologians who defend the Puritan doctrine of assurance. The Presbyterian theologian William Cunningham condemns the teaching of Calvin and all the other Reformers on assurance as “exaggerated and erroneous.” Calvin’s doctrine of assurance and its radical difference from that of the Puritans are expressed in his definition of faith:
Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
For Calvin, all the Reformers, and the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, faith is assurance of salvation, faith essentially is assurance: “Faith [is] a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.” Assurance, therefore, is the gift of God by the Holy Spirit to everyone to whom God gives faith. The Spirit works assurance in everyone in whom He works faith, and He works assurance in and with the working of faith. Of vital importance in Calvin’s definition, in view of the separation of faith and assurance by the Puritans and the promoters of the “nadere reformatie,” past and present, is Calvin’s deliberate identification of the sealing by the Spirit, which refers to the Spirit’s assuring the child of God of his salvation, as the giving of faith itself. The Holy Spirit seals the believer, not years after giving him faith, if at all in this life, as was the doctrine of the Puritans, but when He gives him faith.
With the entire Reformation, Calvin taught that the fatherly love of God for all His children dear expresses itself by giving all of them, young and old, hoary-headed saints and new converts, the assurance of His love for them.
Not only did Calvin and the entire Reformation affirm that the gospel of grace assures all believers of God’s love and their salvation, this assurance of God’s people was one of the main purposes of the Reformation. The necessity of the Reformation was Rome’s holding the people in the bondage of doubt concerning their salvation. Calvin stated this in his great treatise, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (1544).
Lastly, there was another most pestilential error, which not only occupied the minds of men, but was regarded as one of the principal articles of faith, of which it was impious to doubt, viz., that believers ought to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil, the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the salvation of men overthrown. For, as Paul declares, that faith only is Christian faith which inspires our hearts with confidence, and emboldens us to appear in the presence of God (Rom. 5:2). On no other view could his doctrine in another passage be maintained, viz., that “we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).
Those churches in which the majority of the members, often the large majority of members, professing faith, languish year after year in doubt of their salvation, under the influence of the theology of Puritanism and the “nadere reformatie,” are not furthering the Reformation. They are not even continuing the Reformation. On the contrary, their gospel, which does not work assurance, but doubt, is a radical deviation from the gospel of the Reformation. In the vitally important matter of the experience of salvation, about which the disciples of the Puritans are always boasting, their miserable people do not differ from the doubting hordes of Rome. Those churches need the Reformation and its gospel of assurance.
As for the testimony of the Reformed confessions concerning assurance, God’s gift of it to all His children, and the enjoyment of it by every believer, the Heidelberg Catechism is representative. Question and Answer 1 has every believer confess that he possesses and enjoys the only comfort in life and death, knowing with certainty that he belongs to Jesus Christ, his faithful Savior. The believer concludes: “Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life.”
Question and Answer 53 make assurance the normal work of the Spirit in His saving of every elect child of God: “What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost?…that he is also given unto me, makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.”
In flat contradiction of Brooks, the Puritans, and the “nadere reformatie,” that “it is one thing for me to have faith, and another thing for me to know that I have faith,”the Reformed confession teaches that the gift of true faith includes sure knowledge that one has faith; certainty that one is partaker of Christ and all His benefits; the comfort that one belongs to Christ; the confidence of preservation; and the hope of everlasting life.
This is assurance! This is assurance of one’s own personal salvation, now and everlastingly!
2 For Rome’s denial of assurance, see the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session (“Decree of Justification”), chapters 12, 13, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 103, 104); for the Arminian denial of assurance, see the “Opinions of the Remonstrants [Arminians],” D. (“The Opinion of the Remonstrants with respect to the fifth article, which concerns Perseverance”), in Crisis in the Reformed Churches,ed. Peter Y. De Jong (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1968), 227-229; for the denial of assurance by the men of the Federal [Covenant] Vision, see my The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 135-232. A representative statement by a leading spokesman for the Federal [Covenant] Vision is in order: “Those who ultimately prove to be reprobate may be in covenant with God. They may enjoy for a season the blessings of the covenant, including the forgiveness of sins, adoption, possession of the kingdom, sanctification, etc., and yet apostatize and fall short of the grace of God…The apostate doesn’t forfeit ‘apparent blessings’ that were never his in reality, but real blessings that were his in covenant with God” (Steve Wilkins, quoted in The Covenant of God, 193).
3 Thomas Brooks, “Heaven on Earth: A Serious Discourse, Touching a Well-Grounded Assurance,” in The Works of Thomas Brooks, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, repr. 1980), 335. The quotation is given in part in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 181. Of Thomas Brooks, Puritan scholar J. I. Packer says that he was “one of the greatest of the later Puritans” and one of the “finest Puritan minds.” Packer states that Brooks’ teaching on assurance “represent[s] the main current of Puritan thinking” and is the “particular” aspect of “the Puritans’ most valuable contributions to the church’s theological heritage” (see Packer, 179, 180). In the name of the sixteenth century Reformation of the church, confessional Reformed doctrine, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the comfort of believers and their children, I say no to the Puritan doctrine of assurance. Saying no to the Puritan doctrine of assurance, I am saying no to a teaching that is not incidental, but fundamental to Puritanism.
5 See the brief introduction to the “further reformation” in English in Arie de Reuver, tr. James A. De Jong, Sweet Communion: Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 15-24. de Reuver notes that the very nameof the movement in the Netherlands was the importation of a distinctively English, Puritan term: “Teellinck…the father of the Further Reformation introduced the Puritan term ‘further reformation’ from England to the Netherlands” (16). de Reuver indicates that the characteristic Puritan doctrine of assurance was central to the purpose and theology of the men of the “nadere reformatie”: “The Further Reformation developed a comprehensive pastoral psychology by which it intended to provide guidance on the manner in which the applied work of the Holy Spirit brought people to certainty of faith [that is, assurance of salvation—DJE]” (17). The significance of de Reuver’s work is his frank acknowledgment that the experientialism and spirituality of the further reformation were (and are!) derived from the medieval (Roman Catholic) mystics. Almost all reliable analysis of the “nadere reformatie” is found in the Dutch language. de Reuver gives the sources. Completely unreliable, indeed misleading, is Joel R. Beeke’s account of assurance in Calvin and the Reformed tradition. His book is ominously titledThe Quest for (not: “Gift of”) Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Banner of Truth, 1999). As the subtitle indicates, Beeke contends that the Puritan and “nadere reformatie” doctrine of assurance was a faithful development of the doctrine of Calvin, when, in fact, it was a radical departure from the Reformer’s and, indeed, the entire Reformation’s doctrine, as the Puritans themselves acknowledged. Playing on the ambiguity of the adjective, “full” (“full assurance”), Beeke assures his Reformed readers that the Puritan and “nadere reformatie” doctrine of assurance can be harmonized with the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, that “true faith…is…a hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God,” etc. (Heid. Cat., Q&A 21, in Schaff, Creeds, vol. 3, 313; emphasis added). In fact, the Puritan and “nadere reformatie” doctrine flatly contradicts the Catechism. Regarding the fundamental issue, whether assurance is an aspect of the essence of faith (what faith is) or merely a possible “fruit” of faith (for a few favored saints after years of agonizing, laborious “quest” for assurance), Dr. Beeke hunts with the hounds and runs with the hares. Treating Calvin (and the Reformation), Beeke acknowledges that “it [faith] possesses assurance in its very nature. Assurance, certainty, trust — such is the essence of faith” (Quest, 38). Summing up, however, and expressing the Puritan and “nadere reformatie” thinking on assurance (which is his own thinking), Beeke tells us that “full assurance of personal salvation constitutes the well-being or fruit of faith rather than the essence of faith” (Quest, 276). Assurance now is a “goal, duty, and desire” (Quest, 275). The injurious thrust of The Quest for Full Assurance is a wholehearted defense and promotion of the Puritan and “nadere reformatie” doctrine of assurance (which robs many of the comfort of the gospel and drives them to doubt and despair) as though it were the teaching of Calvin, the Reformation, and the confessions (which emphatically it is not). Stoeffler affirms, and demonstrates, the influence of Puritanism on the “nadere reformatie”: “Reformed Pietism on the Continent was heavily indebted to the Puritans” (F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965, 118).
6 Ironically, it was a Puritan theologian who exposed the gross wickedness of the Reformed preachers who are responsible for keeping adult members of their congregation from the Lord’s Supper: “[Satan] discourages them [church members] from duty by suggesting to them their unworthiness…By this temptation, the devil takes many off from coming to the Lord’s table. Oh, says he [through ministers devoted to the discouraging of the saints—DJE], this is a solemn ordinance, and requires much holiness: how darest thou so unworthily come? you will eat and
drink unworthily. Thus, as Saul kept the people from eating honey, so the devil by this temptation, scares many from this ordinance, which is sweeter than honey and the honey-comb” (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1979), 592.
8 John Calvin, Institutes, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7. Contrary to the foolish dodge of Puritanism, the “further reformation,” Cunningham, and others, that Calvin (and the entire Reformation) defined faith only as faith existed in Europe at the extraordinary time of the Reformation, this, namely, knowledgeable (full) assurance of one’s own personal salvation, is what faith is always and everywhere—at the time of the Reformation in Europe, in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, in seventeenth century England and the Netherlands, and in twenty-first century Scotland and North America. Of Calvin’s definition of faith, Herman Bavinck judges that it is “correct as well as complete.” Indeed, “no more beautiful definition is conceivable than that faith is a firm and certain knowledge of the mercy that God has shown us in Christ. Essentially, what else is Christian faith but the assurance…that ‘the eternal Faith (sic; should be “Father”—DJE) of our Lord Jesus Christ…is our God and Father because of Christ His Son’” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008, 128).
9 John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Presented to the Imperial Diet of Spires, A.D. 1544, in the Name of All Who Wish Christ to Reign,” in Calvin’s Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 136.