Assurance

John H at Confessing Evangelical gives us more proof that the Pope is a closet evangelical. Or perhaps, not so closet.

At the same time, I’m starting to have afterthoughts about my agreement with John on the Lutheran understanding of assurance. The Lutheran emphasis has always been on the word preached with authority. The gospel has it’s effect as it is preached, and the Christian can have confidence in his salvation because it has been proclaimed to him personally by Jesus Christ, via the preacher. In the standard Lutheran liturgy, there is a time for public confession of sin, after which the minister proclaims, “your sins are forgiven.” And they are, because Jesus Christ has said so. In the same way, doubts about true conversion can be allayed with “But I’m baptized!” or even, “I am baptized! So there!

And there’s an element of truth to it – particularly when compared to a Catholic understanding that says, “unless you see me putting my own effort into it as well, it didn’t take.” In other words, the Catholic understanding is typically that sanctification is an intrinsic part of justification, to the point that assurance is withheld against the collateral of the ongoing fruit of a Christ-like life. The Lutheran balks and says no, the word of God preached is always effective. The preacher says I have been buried in Christ and raised with him, and so I have been. The word of God does not fail. I am a Christian.

But I’m starting to veer toward a more Calvinistic perspective, which is more biblical, I think. Paul says that those “who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” In other words, I am a Christian because the Holy Spirit is functioning inside me, turning my heart (against my will) to cry out favorably toward God.

“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” You could see in Paul’s dillemma to the Galatians an echo of the disagreement between Catholic and Lutheran theology. Is it through working it out, or through the preached word? But note Paul’s plumb line of proof: Did you receive the spirit? The preached word is clearly how you get the Spirit, but I think it would be faulty to say, “I heard the gospel preached; I was baptized; I take communion. I must be saved!” Rather, it is by this word preached that I have the Holy Spirit working in me, causing me to turn to God.

Preaching isn’t magical any more than the sacraments. It’s the person of the Holy Spirit who converts us, assures us, and pushes us on toward the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

One thought on “Assurance”

  1. Thanks for the link, and your observations.

    Where you say, “Rather, it is by this word preached that I have the Holy Spirit working in me, causing me to turn to God”, it’s worth being aware that – far from moving from the Lutheran to the Calvinist view – you have just expressed the Lutheran view extremely clearly and succinctly!

    No-one is saying, “I heard the gospel preached; therefore I must be saved”. Rather, it is a case of saying: “I believe what Jesus said to me when he proclaimed the gospel to me through his minister; I believe what Jesus said to me when he said I am baptised”. And so on.

    But the crucial thing – and I admit that Lutherans can sometimes fail to communicate this as clearly as we ought – is that it is the Holy Spirit’s work that enables us to believe what we are told in the gospel and sacraments. See my blog posts on this subject here and here (particularly the latter, which includes a crucial quote from the Augsburg Confession). If you don’t have the Holy Spirit within you, you won’t believe what you’re told in the gospel and sacraments; if you do believe what you’re told in the gospel and sacraments, then you can be sure the Holy Spirit is at work within you (because no-one can say “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit).

    However, to make the question on which assurance hinges not “Do I believe these words that are proclaimed to me?” but “Do I have the Holy Spirit within me?” is to throw ourselves back on introspection and uncertainty. It also prompts me to ask the question: do you believe it is possible to believe the gospel, and yet not to have the Holy Spirit within you?

    To put it another way: the Holy Spirit’s work is to make us believe what we are told in the gospel, not to make us believe that he is working within us. He points our attention outwards, towards Christ and the promises, not inwards to his work within us.

    Like

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