Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Assurance



If you were a pastor, what would you desire for your congregation? Paul had spent two years at the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. The believers there were dear to his heart. What did he want for them? He tells us in a prayer he has for them in Eph. 3:14-19. It is basically that they would have a meaningful relationship with God. But what does that entail?

The passage begins like this: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man” (v. 16; NKJV). Paul will go on to elaborate on this in Chapter 6. Suffice it to say here that we are engaged in a spiritual war, that ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12), and therefore we are to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (6:10). This strength comes from “His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16). It is the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us that gives us the strength to live the Christian life. Our own natural ability is not enough.

But then Paul goes on: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (v. 17). Christ, of course, is already in our hearts through faith if we are genuinely Christians. But here Paul seems to be talking about the full influence of Christ in our hearts. By “hearts” he means our whole inner being, not just our emotions. And as we walk by faith, as we trust and obey, we grow closer to Him and His influence is increasingly felt in our lives.

But Paul goes on. He says that we are to be “rooted and grounded in love” (v. 17). And then he goes on to elaborate further: that we “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge . . .” (vv. 18,19). In short, we as finite, mortal human beings are confronted with the infinite, eternal glory of God Himself, and we stagger at the prospect. He is beyond our comprehension.

And if we could but faintly glimpse the love that Christ has for us guilty, undeserving sinners, a love that led Him to give up His very life for us, how differently would we treat others around us! How patient, how understanding, how merciful we would be! That is what it means to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

But then Paul goes on. He prays that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (v. 19). This is a bit like trying to fit the ocean in a teacup. How can “all the fullness of God” fit into us? And yet Paul says “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” – that He would completely fill us, that He would fill us to overflowing, that He would fill us with all of His goodness, love, justice and mercy. At that point we truly become the image of God in man.

But how does it all work out in actual practice? The answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Part of the fruit of the Spirit, of course, is “love, joy, peace’ (Gal. 5:22). If we have the Holy Spirit, if we are walking according to the Spirit, these qualities will fill our hearts.

But more to the point, the Holy Spirit gives us an assurance of God’s love towards us individually. “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15,16). This is sometimes referred to as “the inner testimony of the Spirit,” and people experience it in various degrees. But according to the testimony of those who have experience it, it is truly “heaven on earth.”

It will be noted, once again, that this is a prayer: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened . . .” (vv. 14,16). A close, personal relationship with God, the experience of His love, is a privilege that must be bestowed by Him. He must grant it; we must ask for it. It is not something that we work up ourselves.

At the heart of the Christian life is a relationship with God. Mere church attendance is not enough. Not even doctrinal orthodoxy or financial giving are enough. What God wants is our hearts. Nothing less will do.


The Sealing of the Spirit

So far we have seen the roles that the Father and the Son play in our salvation. But it does not end there; the Holy Spirit has an important role to play as well, a role that is often overlooked by the modern church.

So far our text (Eph. 1:3-14) has told us that we have been predestined to adoption (v. 5), have received redemption (v. 7) and an inheritance (v. 11). But those things are either invisible or in the future; how can we know today that any of it is true?

The answer is that God has given us the Holy Spirit now. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13; NKJV). A seal was used to authenticate a letter or document, as well as to secure a door or container. In our context, when the Holy Spirit comes into a believer’s heart it has the effect of authenticating his salvation. The Spirit is something that we can possess now that guarantees what we will later possess in glory. This is further underscored in the next verse where the Holy Spirit is described as “the guarantee of our inheritance.” The word translated “guarantee” is an interesting one. It is actually an ancient Semitic word (not Greek) used in commercial transactions and it referred to a kind of security deposit or down payment that guaranteed full payment later on. Thus the Holy Spirit is a kind of pledge or down payment on future glory.

The text says that the Holy Spirit is a guarantee “until the redemption of the purchased possession” (v. 14). This phrase is difficult and has occasioned much debate among the commentators, but I think that the interpretation that best fits the context is that the “purchased possession” is the future glory that awaits us (cf. I Thess. 5:9) and the “redemption” is when we actually receive it (cf. Eph. 4:30).

Significantly the Holy Spirit is referred to in our text as “the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). As Jesus met with His disciples at the Last Supper He promised them that they would not be left alone, even though He would soon be departing from them. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:16; cf., 16:5-15). And thus when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered believers at Pentecost it was the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus had made to His disciples. It was also the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy about the end times:

“And it shall come to pass afterward

That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh . . .”

(Joel 2:28,29).

But what exactly is the sealing of the Spirit? And how do we know if we have received it? First of all, the text indicates that it is something that happens to every genuinely born again believer: “. . . after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom also, having believed, you were seated with the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). In other words, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of believer that seals him. And every genuine believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him. “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:8).

But what does the Holy Spirit do in the life of a believer? First of all, He leads us and guides us into truth. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26; cf. John 16:12-15). This is not to say that we are to be guided by your personal, subjective feelings and do things that are contrary to Scripture. Rather, the Holy Spirit helps us understand and appreciate the spiritual realities described in Scripture. But more about that in our next blog post.

Then the Holy Spirit helps us in prayer. “Likewise the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26).

And then, of course, the Holy Spirit produces His “fruit” in us. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22,23). The new birth, the indwelling of the Spirit, results in a changed life. We now have a desire to live a life that is pleasing to God.

And then there is the presence of spiritual gifts. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (I Cor. 12:7). The passage then goes on to enumerate a variety of spiritual gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (v. 11).

And then there is the element of assurance. In Rom. 8:16 we read, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here the Holy Spirit, who dwells inside of us, is communicating directly with our spirits and assuring us that we truly are God’s. Surely this is “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! / O what a foretaste of glory divine!”

It must be kept in mind, however, that the Holy Spirit is a person and we are individually persons. Therefore the relationship between the Spirit and ourselves is dynamic and variable. It is possible to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). It is also possible to “grieve the Holy Spirit” as well (4:30).

What the modern church most desperately needs today is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. It needs to return to a theology that recognizes our dependence upon God, and it needs to fall on its knees and ask for the Spirit to return in power and glory. It needs to ask the Spirit to purify the church and empower its ministries. Only then will we see genuine revival.



    In our last blog post we began our review of the book Chosen or Not? by Doug Sayers, and we noted that the author tries to use human logic (“evident reason,” as he calls it) to defeat the force of biblical passages that describe what God does in salvation. We might ask the question, what does he offer as an alternative to Calvinism? If the Bible does not teach Calvinism, as he maintains, what does it teach? When we turn to Doug’s own theology we see that his logical method leas to some startling conclusions of his own.

    First of all, he maintains that “common grace” gives every human being sufficient ability to repent and believe on his own, apart from any supernatural work on God’s part. “Our non-Calvinist will be teaching that an unbeliever is capable of choosing to repent and embrace the gospel without being acted on by extraordinary and irresistible outside force. He teaches that the ability to repent comes by virtue of the common grace that God gives to everyone” (p. 40). He draws this conclusion from Rom. 1:19,20, which describes God’s revelation of Himself in nature (“His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” – NKJV) and Rom. 2:14,15, which states that even Gentiles have a conscience and “by nature do the things of the law.” But that is very far from saying that mane are able to repent and believe. The texts, in fact, say quite plainly that men do the exact opposite. The “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18); and the conclusion that Paul draws from this part of his argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Paul then goes on to say that “sin reigned in death” (5:12-21), that even as a Jew “in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (7:5-24), and that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (8:7,8). It is very far from the rosy, optimistic picture that Doug paints of human potential!

    Doug thinks that it is outrageous to suppose that the guilt of Adam’s sin could be imputed to his posterity. But he takes the argument one step further. Because small children are essentially ignorant of the law, their own sins are not imputed to them either. “As a result of God’s curse on Adam, our first sins as small children are not really preventable. Thus it is reasonable (for most of us) to think that the guilt of these sins would not be imputed to us. . . ” (p. 126). “. . . it is reasonable to conclude that every child is born with original sin, but may be considered in a state of grace before God. Their sin as children is not imputed to their account” (p. 127).

    But then what about adults who have never heard the gospel? Doug extends the principle even further: “Jesus died to reconcile the whole world to God . . . This means that there is hope for those who never hear about Jesus . . . His righteousness will be imputed to them if they humbly trust the truth to which they have been exposed” (p. 250). Doug cites the example of the Old Testament saints in support of his thesis, as well as Paul’s statement the “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).

    Doug is, of course, assuming his position on “common grace.” Supposedly there are people in the world who are capable of repenting and believing apart from any supernatural work of grace. Presumably this would include people in remote parts of the world or in closed countries that never have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Bible paints a far different picture. The whole world lies in sin and darkness. People suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They willfully sin against knowledge. Therefore they are justly under God’s wrath and condemnation even if they never hear about Jesus. It is simply not true that there are multitudes throughout the world who want to believe but do not have the opportunity to do so. Typically they have to be awakened by convicting preaching before they want to do anything.

    We are told , “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and Paul asks the very pointed question, “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). We are afraid that Doug has undermined the whole basis for missions.

    But then this leads Doug to a further conclusion. If infants are born in a state of grace, and no supernatural work of the Spirit is required to bring a sinner to Christ, what is the new birth? Doug denies that it is an instantaneous and miraculous change of heart that results in new life in Christ. “Saving faith is also best understood as the culmination of many choices. It is not something that we do once in a moment of time . . . that counts for all time” (p. 265). Citing Col. 2:13 (“And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses”), he argues that the new birth basically involves the removal of our guilt in the sight of God. Regeneration, then, is essentially the same as justification. “The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the new birth are two ways of describing the same thing. They both describe our forgiveness” (p. 166).

    But the text in Colossians does not necessarily equate the two. It simply states that two occur together; and in the parallel passage in Eph. 2:1-10 the sinner’s spiritual and moral condition is very much in view. And as Doug himself notes, I John makes it clear that a spiritual change is clearly the result of the new birth.

    This, then, brings us to the problem that Doug addresses at the end of his book, the problem of assurance and eternal security. He tells us that Calvinism “engenders confusion and is prone to a dangerous presumption” (p. 404). Curiously, the example he cites, that of David Brainerd, is the very opposite of “dangerous presumption.” Brainerd went through a protracted period of spiritual struggle before he arrived at an assurance of salvation. It is a fairly typical Puritan conversion experience.

    Doug would have us to believe that “It seems that the poor young man went through all kinds of agony trying to decide if he was unconditionally elect and irresistibly converted” (p. 419). He then adds, “He was probably a believer long before he would dare let himself believe it.” “He was looking for his experience to line up with his flawed doctrines” (Ibid.)

    It is with keen anticipation, then, that we look to see what Doug has to offer as the alternative to the alleged “confusion” caused by Calvinism. And when we do we are astonished to find that his overall view of assurance is similar to the Calvinistic one. Like Calvinists Doug encourages us to look for evidence that our faith is real and genuine. “. . .saving faith is best proven by the humble confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, combined with a practice of loving obedience to His commandments” (p. 412). In other words, we must do pretty much what Brainerd did: he looked at his heart to see if the inward graces were present. It is hard to see how we would arrive at a different result.

    There are, however, some key differences between Doug’s view and the Calvinistic one. First of all, Doug does not want to tie assurance to a specific conversion experience. “We desperately need to get free from the notion that saving faith is merely done once, in a moment of time. We need to see that saving faith must be maintained until we die” (p. 411). Moreover, Doug would dismiss any notion of the inner testimony of the Spirit. He criticizes those who “are looking for divine revelation that goes beyond the biblical promise of God” (p. 410).

    But then there is also this critical difference: “saving faith must be maintained until we die,” and “It remains to be seen if we keep our faith” (p. 411). Obviously if faith is not the result of irresistible grace, then there is no irresistible grace that can keep us in the faith. “It is hard to believe that a finite and fallible sinner could have an ‘infallible’ knowledge regarding any future event, especially an event, which occurs, on the other side of the grave” (pp. 409-410). In other words, we will be saved only if we persevere to the end, and there is no guarantee that that will happen. It appears David Brainerd had good reason to worry! His “dangerous presumption” consisted in his ever concluding that he was saved at all! It is hard to see how assurance is possible at all under these criteria.

    We fear that the net effect of Doug’s theology is to minimize the role that God plays in our salvation. To hear Doug tell it, instead of actively saving us, God simply puts an offer on the table and leaves us to our own devices.

    In many ways Doug has his own unique way of presenting his case, and for this reason we have hesitated to identify his view with those of some of the vocal critics in the past.of Calvinism. (We’re not sure that some of them would have wanted to be identified with some of Doug’s positions!) But is certain key aspects Doug’s theology is much in line with the general trend in American evangelical thinking over the past two centuries, especially with the emphasis on human ability. And it can be argued that in the case of Evangelicalism generally the spiritual effects of this type of thinking have been catastrophic. We have lost our sense of God’s transcendence. We have ceased to pray. Our worship has become entertainment. Our lives are inconsistent with our profession. And is it not, at least in part, because we have come to rely on human means to promote an institutional church? We have lost our confidence in the sovereign power of God and have ceased to seek it. The results speak for themselves.