Assurance in theology, is affirm persuasion of our being in a state of salvation.
(1.) "The doctrine itself has been matter of dispute among divines, and when considered as implying not only that we are now accepted of God through Christ, but that we shall be finally saved, or when it is so taken as to deny a state of salvation to those who are not so assured as to be free from all doubt, it is in many views questionable. Assurance of final salvation must stand or fall with the doctrine of personal unconditional election, and is chiefly held by divines of the Calvinistic school. The 18th article of the Westminster Confession (Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation) says, 'Although hypocrites, and other unregenerated men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God and estate of salvation; which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him: in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in a state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed. This, certainly, is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption. This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he can be a partaker of it; yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And, therefore, it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance: so far is it from inclining men to looseness. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished and intermitted; as by negligence in preserving it; by falling into some special sin, which woundeth the conscience, and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation; by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light. Yet are they never utterly destitute of that need of God, and life of faith, that love: of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart and conscience of duty out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may in due time be revived, and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.'
On the other hand, that nothing is an evidence of a state of present salvation but so entire a persuasion as amounts to assurance in the strongest sense, might be denied upon the ground that degrees of grace, of real saving grace, are undoubtedly mentioned in Scripture. Assurance, however, is spoken of in the New Testament, and stands prominent as one of the leading doctrines of religious experience. We have 'full assurance of understanding;' that is, a perfect knowledge and entire persuasion of the truth of the doctrine of Christ. The 'assurance of faith,' in Heb 9:22, is an entire trust in the sacrifice and priestly office of Christ. The 'assurance of hope,' mentioned in Heb 6:11, relates to the heavenly inheritance, and must necessarily imply a full persuasion that we are the children of God, and therefore 'heirs of his glory;' and from this passage it must certainly be concluded that such an assurance is what every Christian ought to aim at, and that it is attainable. This, however, does not exclude occasional doubt and weakness of faith from the earlier stages of his experience.
(2.) "A comforting and abiding persuasion of present acceptance by God, through Christ, we may therefore affirm, must in various degrees follow true faith. In support of this view the following remarks may be offered: If the Bible teaches that man is by nature prone to evil, and that in-practice he violates God's law, and is thereby exposed to punishment; that an act of grace and pardon is promised on condition of repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; that repentance implies consideration of our ways, a sense of the displeasure of Almighty God, contrition of heart, and consequently trouble and grief of mind, mixed, however, with a hope inspired by the promise of forgiveness, and which leads to earnest supplication for the actual pardon of sin so promised; it will follow from these premises either,
1. that forgiveness is not to be expected till after the termination of our course of probation, that is, in another life; and that, therefore, this trouble and apprehension of mind can only be assuaged by the hope we may have of a favorable final decision on our case; or,
2. that sin is, in the present life, forgiven as often as it is thus repented of, and as often as we exercise the required and specific acts of trust in-the merits of our Saviour; but that this forgiveness of our sins is not in any way made known unto us; so that we are left, as to our feelings, in precisely the same -state as if sin were not forgiven till after death, namely, in grief and trouble of mind, relieved only by hope; or,
3. that (and this is the scriptural view) when sin is forgiven by the mercy of God through Christ, we are by some means assured of it, and peace and satisfaction of mind take the place of anxiety and fear. The first of these conclusions is sufficiently disproved by the authority of Scripture, which exhibits justification as a blessing attainable in this life, and represents it as actually experienced by true believers. 'Therefore being justified by faith.' 'There is now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.' 'Whosoever believeth is justified from all things,' etc. The quotations might be multiplied, but these are decisive. The notion that, though an act of forgiveness may take place, we are unable to ascertain a fact so important to us, is also irreconcilable with many passages, in which the writers of the New Testament speak of an experience not confined personally to themselves, or to those Christians who were endowed with spiritual gifts, but common to all Christians. 'Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.' 'We joy in God, by whom we have received the reconciliation.' 'Being reconciled unto God by the death of his Son.' 'We have not received the spirit of bondage again unto fear, but the spirit of adoption, by which we cry, Abba, Father.' To these may be added innumerable passages which express the comfort, the confidence, and the joy of Christians; their 'friendship' with God; their ' access' to him; their entire union and delightful intercourse with him; and their absolute confidence in the success of their prayers. All such passages are perfectly consistent with deep humility and self-diffidence, but they are irreconcilable with a state of hostility between the parties, and with an unascertained and only hoped-for restoration of friendship and favor. An assurance, therefore, that the sins which are felt to 'be a burden intolerable' are forgiven, and that the ground of that apprehension of future punishment which causes the penitent to ' bewail his manifold sins,' is taken away by restoration to the favor of the offended God, must be allowed, or nothing would be more incongruous and impossible than the comfort, the peace, the rejoicing of spirit, which in the Scriptures are attributed to believers.
"Few Christians of evangelical views have, therefore, denied the possibility of our becoming assured of the favor of God in a sufficient degree to give substantial comfort to the mind. Their differences have rather respected the means by which the contrite become assured of that change in: their relation to Almighty God, whom they have offended, which in Scripture is expressed by the term justification. The question has been (where the notion of an assurance of eternal salvation has not been under discussion), by what means the assurance of the divine favor is conveyed to the mind. Some have concluded that we obtain it by inference, others by the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit to the mind" (Watson, s.v.).
(3.) With regard to the history of the doctrine, Wesley remarks: "I apprehend that the whole Christian Church in the first centuries enjoyed it. For, though we have few points of doctrine explicitly taught in the small remains of the ante-Nicene fathers, yet I think none that carefully read Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, Polycarp, Origen, or any other of them, can doubt whether either the writer himself possessed it, or all whom he mentions as real Christians. And I really conceive, both from the Hurmonia Confessionum and whatever else I have occasionally read, that all reformed churches in Europe did once believe, 'Every true Christian has the divine evidence of his being in favor with God."' "I know likewise that Luther, Melancthon, and many other (if not all) of the reformers frequently and strongly assert that every believer is conscious of his own acceptance with God, and that by a supernatural evidence" (see below).
Thomas Aquinas supposed (Summn. pt. ii, 1, quest. 112, art. 5) a threefold way in which man could ascertain whether he was a subject of divine grace or not: 1. By direct revelation on the part of God; 2. By himself (certitudinaliter); 3. By certain indications (conjecturaliter per aliqua signa). But the last two were, in his opinion, uncertain; as for the first, God very seldom makes use of it, and only in particular cases (revelat Deus hoc aliquando aliquibus ex speciali privilegio), so that no one can have perfect certainty on the subject; only there are signs, if proper attention be paid, such as that a man has his joy in God, that he despises the world, and is conscious of no gross sins. A presage may thus be formed of his forgiveness (nullus certitudinaliter potest scire se habere caritatem, sed potest e aliquibus signis probabili. bus conjicere. -In lib. i. Sentt. dist. 17, quest. 1, art. 4). Alexander of Hales contended that on this point there was a peculiar knowledge-since neither the cause nor the effect fell within the province of human knowledge, yet a certain feeling of knowledge might be possessed upon it; only it is not infallible, but verifies itself by experience in ithe feelings when these three signs concur, light, peace, and joy. God does not will either to give to us complete certainty, or to leave us wholly in uncertainty.. If man experienced nothing of the sweetness of the divine life, he would not be attracted to the love of God; if he had perfect assurance it would easily seduce him into pride. Luther denounced the notion of the uncertainty of man being in a state of grace (in his Comment. upon Ga 4:6) as a dangerous and sophistical doctrine. The doctrine that personal assurance is involved in saving faith is taught in the Augsburg Confession (art. iv), and also in the Apologia Confessionis. The doctrine of the certitudo salutis (certainty of salvation) is taught by Calvin (Institutes, iii, c. 24, § 4).
Sir W. Hamilton, in a foot-note to his article on the English Universities (Discussions on Philosophy, etc.), while speaking on religious tests as a term of admission, has the following passage: " Assurance, personal assurance (the feeling of certainty that God is propitious to me, that my sins are forgiven, Judcia, plerophoriafideza), was long universally held in the Protestant communities to be the criterion and condition of a true or saving faith. Luther declares that he who hath not assurance spews faith out; and Melancthon makes assurance the discriminating line of Christianity from heathenism. It was maintained by Calvin, nay, even by Arminius, and is part and parcel of all the confessions of all the churches of the Reformation down to the Westminster Assembly. In that synod assurance was, in Protestantism, for the first time declared not to be of the essence of faith; and, accordingly, the Scottish General Assembly has subsequently, once and again, condemned the holders of this, the doctrine of Luther, of Calvin, and of the older Scottish Church itself. In the English, and more particularly in the Irish Establishment, it still stands a necessary tenet of belief. The doctrine is now, however, disavowed, when apprehended, by Anglican churchmen." These strong statements are controverted in the Brit. and For. Evangelical Review (Oct. 1856), by Cunningham (see the article, enlarged, in Cunningham, Theology of the Reformation, "Essay iii), who shows that Sir William Hamilton has greatly mistaken the reformed doctrine in representing assurance as, in the opinion of all the reformed churches, an essential part of saving faith. Dr. Cunningham proves, on the contrary, from several of the confessions of the churches of the Reformation, and from the writings of some leading reformers, that, in their opinion, "this assurance was not the proper act of justifying and saving faith, and did not belong to its essence;... that it was a result or consequence of faith, posterior to it in the order of nature, and frequently also of time." Regarded as an exposure of Sir William Hamilton's historical inaccuracies,. this essay is complete, but as an exhibition of the scriptural doctrine of assurance it is seriously defective. It not only encumbers the doctrine by adding the assurance of final salvation to that of present forgiveness-a mistake full both of embarrassment to timid consciences, and of peril to the interests of practical religion-but it almost puts out of sight that direct and blessed witness of the Spirit to the believer's acceptance which is so prominent a feature of the experimental theology of the Bible, and without which -the Christian life must be one of distressing uncertainty and doubt. But Sir William was quite right in saying that the Westminster Assembly was the first Protestant synod that formally declared assurance not to be of the essence of faith. Yet it declares that assurance is practicable and obligatory in very strong language, and calls it "an infallible assurance" [see above, (1)].
Wesley, and the Methodist theologians generally, advocate the doctrine of assurance of present (not of eternal) salvation in the sense stated above (2), connecting it with the "witness of the Spirit," as in the following practical passage: "Every man, applying the scriptural marks to himself, may know whether he is a child of God. Thus, if he know, first, As many as are led by the Spirit of God into all holy tempers and actions, they are the sons of God (for which he has the infallible assurance of Holy Writ); secondly, I am thus 'led by the Spirit of God,' he will easily conclude, therefore I am a son of God. Agreeably to this are those plain declarations of John in his first epistle: 'Hereby we know that we do know him, if we keep his commandments' (ch. ii, 3). 'Whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him;' that we are indeed the children of God (ver. 5). 'If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him' (ver. 29). 'We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren' (ch. iii, 14). 'Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him' (ver. 19), namely, because we ' love one another, not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.' See also ch. iii, 24, and 4:13. It is highly probable there never were any children of God, from the beginning of the world unto this day, who were further advanced in the grace of God, and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, than the apostle John at' the time when he wrote these words, and the fathers in Christ to whom he wrote. Notwithstanding which, it is evident both the apostle himself, and all those pillars in God's temple, were very far from despising these marks of their being the children of God; and that they applied them to their own souls for the confirmation of their faith. Yet all this is no other than rational evidence, the witness of our spirit, our reason, our understanding. It all resolves into this: Those who have these marks are children of God: but we have these marks, therefore we are children of God. But how does it appear that we have these marks? This is a question which still remains. How does it appear that we do love God and our neighbor, and that we keep his commandments ? Observe that the meaning of the question is, How does it appear to ourselves? not to others. I would ask him, then, that proposes this question, How does it appear to you that you are alive? and that you are now in ease, and not in pain ? Are you not immediately conscious of it? By the same immediate consciousness you will know if your soul is alive to God; if you are saved from the pain of proud wrath, and have the ease of a meek and quiet spirit. By the same means you cannot but perceive if you love, rejoice, and delight in God. By the same you must be directly assured if you love your neighbor as yourself; if you are kindly affectioned to all mankind, and full of gentleness and long-suffering. And with regard to the outward mark of the children of God, which is, according to John, the keeping his commandments, you undoubtedly know in your own breasts if, by the grace of God, it belongs to you. Now this is properly the testimony of our own spirit, even the testimony of our own conscience, that God hath given us to be holy of heart, and 'holy in outward conversation. It is a consciousness that we are inwardly conformed, by the Spirit of God, to the image of his Son, and that we walk before him in justice, mercy, and truth, doing the things which are pleasing in his sight' (Wesley, Sermons, i, 86, 87). SEE SPIRIT, WITNESS OF.
The Council of Trent (sess. 6:ch. 9:De. Justificatione) decided that it is on no account to e maintained that those who are really justified ought to feel fully assured of the fact, without any doubt whatever; or that none are absolved and justified but those who believe themselves to be so; or that by this faith only absolution and justification are procured; as if he who does not believe this doubts the promises of God, and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For, while no godly person ought to doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ, or the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, so, on the other hand, whoever considers his own infirmity and corruption may doubt and fear whether he is in a state of grace, since no one can certainly and infallibly know that he has obtained the grace of God." For the Roman Catholic doctrine as contrasted with that of Calvin, see Mohler, Symbolism, § 20. See also the Methodist Quarterly, Oct. 1857, art. iv; Watson, Theol. Inst. ii, 280; Smith's Hagenlach, Hist. of Doctrines, ii, 65, 277; Neander, Hist. of Dogmas, ii, 586; Wesley, Works, v, 19 sq.; Cole, Godly Assurance (1633, 4to); Petto, Treatise on Assurance (1693); Hamilton, On Assurance of Faith (1830, 12mo).