When Horatius Bonar wrote The Everlasting Righteousness, he devoted a chapter to the doctrine of assurance. He defined the Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Arminian views of assurance. When he then compared Arminian and Calvinist views of assurance, he stated:
To an Arminian, who denies election and the perseverance of the saints, the knowledge of our present reconciliation to God might bring with it no assurance of final salvation; for, according to him, we may be in reconciliation today, and out of it tomorrow; but to a Calvinist there can be no such separation . . . Indeed, apart from God’s electing love, there can be no such thing as assurance. It becomes an impossibility.
Bonar shows how assurance accompanies the doctrines of election and perseverance of the saints. Therefore, the Canons of the Synod of Dort serve as an excellent resource for understanding assurance. When we focus on the first and fifth heads of doctrine (which define election and perseverance), we find five essential truths concerning the doctrine of assurance.
1. Assurance Starts with Election (I.12)
The Canons of Dort give a helpful definition of election in article 7 of the first head of doctrine. The article explains how “before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of [God’s] will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people.” Election is an immense truth. Scripture calls us to realize that the Lord had chosen His people before the world even began. How then does this overwhelming truth assure us? The Canons of Dort answer in article 12 of the first head of doctrine by stating that “assurance . . . is given to the chosen in due time . . . Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God.” We must realize that our God is completely different from us. Our Maker has chosen those who belong to Him. Therefore, as His creatures, we find assurance not by trying to delve into His hidden things but by reflecting on what He has revealed. We can receive immense assurance in the truth of election that He has revealed clearly throughout Scripture (Rom. 9–11).
2. Assurance Has Evidence (I.13)
Second, we see the fruit of assurance in article 13 of the first head of doctrine. The article states that in “the assurance of this election God’s children daily find greater cause to humble themselves before God . . . and to give fervent love in return to him.” The fruit of assurance answers one of the greatest allegations against the doctrine of election, as the canons go on to say that “this is far from saying that this teaching concerning election . . . make God’s children lax in observing his commandments or carnally self-assured.” As those who have full confidence that we are God’s elect, we also receive assurance in the evidence of our Christian lives.
3. Assurance Applies to Our Lost Infants (I.17)
Article 17 of the first head of doctrine gives great pastoral assurance for children of believers who die at a very young age. We are told, “not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God called out of this life at infancy.” An assurance of God’s covenantal promises is given for a specific sorrowful situation. We are pointed to the assurance of everlasting life even in the face of death’s sadness.
4. Assurance Is More than an Experience (V.9–11)
Sometimes we can be tempted to look entirely to our own experience for assurance. How we feel quickly becomes the measurement of our assurance. However, the fifth head of doctrine provides a helpful description of assurance that involves more than our personal experience in articles 9–11. Article 9 shows how our assurance comes “in accordance with the measure of [our] faith.” Article 10 goes on to show what ground this assurance must come from. We are told that “this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God . . . in his Word.” Furthermore, article 11 goes as far as to state that even our own doubts serve to strengthen our assurance (see 1 Cor. 10:13). So rather than looking for assurance in a personal experience or emotion, we are called to find assurance in the truth of faith in God’s Word.
5. Assurance Is Not Apathetic (V.13)
Finally, the assurance of salvation leaves no room for apathy. The idea of apathy was another allegation brought by the Remonstrants against the doctrines of election and perseverance of the saints. The argument was that if the Lord had sovereign power in election, and if the Holy Spirit was at work in preserving the saints, then wouldn’t we be tempted to be apathetic in the Christian life? Why would we not claim assurance and live in apathy? Article 13 of the fifth head of doctrine answers this allegation by stating that we seek “to observe carefully the ways of the Lord . . . in order that by walking in them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance.” In the second point, we considered how assurance has evidence. In this conclusion, we see how assurance desires evidence. Assurance cannot produce “immorality or lack of concern for godliness.” Rather, we find assurance as pilgrims on a journey. While we face doubts, difficulties, stumbles, and failures, we still may continue on a journey with full assurance that our Lord will not forsake us.
Robert M. Godfrey