That fallen sinners may be safe in God’s saving grace in Christ is the great announcement – the good news – of the Christian faith. But how we can be assured that we ourselves are in fact safe in Christ is the question Dr. Joel Beeke takes up in his new book, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith.
I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and we have Dr. Beeke with us today to talk about his new book. Joel, welcome, and congratulations on your new book!
Thank you, Fred, it’s good to be with you.
First, let’s back up a bit. This is not your first work on the subject of assurance. Tell us about your history with this subject.
Originally, Fred, I grew up in a denomination where assurance was considered to be extremely rare; and my father trained me that assurance was something that happened in a one-time experience. You either had it completely or you didn’t have it at all. After I was converted, when I was 14, and came to spiritual liberty, when I was 15, I felt I had a large measure of assurance, because my experience in coming to liberty in Christ was actually very, very powerful in my life – the most real thing that ever happened to me, actually. But in the circles I grew up in it was considered really impossible for a young person to have assurance. After I felt called to the ministry, also powerfully applied to me, and I became a minister, I wanted to study the subject in great depth. So, in my second church, when I was in my upper 20s, I went to Westminster seminary and enrolled in a PhD program. I got my doctorate there through the dissertation that was then later published as On Assurance of Faith. That work was really an historical study looking at Luther and then especially Calvin and a few of the major reformers, and then studying the Puritans and the parallel movement, the Dutch Further Reformation, in great depth, a 500- page dissertation.
Then about 10 years after I finish that, I rewrote that on a somewhat simpler level and published that with Banner of Truth Trust in 1999, I think, called A Quest for Full Assurance. I always had a desire to do a popular level book on assurance in general, not just historical, but really grappling with the real problems that people in the pew face, and Christian Focus Publications asked me to do that about two years ago. And this new book really combines two things. It combines my original studies in a very simplified level, but it also combines my thinking upon it in the last 30 years since I finished my dissertation.
I’m assuming this new book stems from both your years of attention given to the doctrine in study and from pastoral experience with people struggling over the question also, right?
Yes, sir. I’ve actually dealt with, I think I can safely say, hundreds of people individually on assurance of faith. By God’s grace, I think my pastoral time with them, as well as preaching about it from the pulpit, have reinforced each other and a number of people have come, not everyone, but a number of people have come to a robust assurance of faith through good teaching – I think I can say good teaching, scriptural teaching, and a realization that assurance is not an all or nothing thing, but and ebbing and flowing thing. Because, when we do persist in low levels of obedience, we ought to expect low levels of assurance. And that’s something that people need to hear. If you say you love your wife and next week you go out and be a unfaithful to her and commit adultery, you better question whether you really love her. So, when we backslide seriously from the Lord over a prolonged period of time, our assurance had better be shaken. But, normatively, when a child of God finds everything in the Lord Jesus Christ and in his promises – that’s the bedrock of my assurance. And I cannot deny that the evidences and fruits of grace are in me, at least a good number of them; that I can see with the help of the Holy Spirit; and I find Christ to be my number one and my treasure, and my pleasure, my all in all; and I can’t wait for him to come again in the clouds, and to be with him forever – when you can say things like that out of sheer sovereign grace, you can have a robust sense of assurance in this Christian journey to the Celestial City.
I think everyone can immediately sense something of the importance of assurance, but unpack that a bit for us practically. Why is assurance of faith so important?
Well, for one thing, to have a real soundness of faith and a real life of faith, you need at least some measure of assurance. Otherwise, you’re living in doubt and fear all the time, even as a beginning Christian, and you just don’t have the joy and the ability to evangelize others when you’re always consumed with yourself and “am I or am I not a Christian?” Again, I go back to human relationships because people can usually understand these illustrations. But, Fred, if your wife doubted every single day whether you loved her or not, and every day she was looking for things in you and asking, “does he really loved me? Doesn’t he?” And every little flick of your hand, every little look of your eye, she’s wondering, wondering, wondering. Well, that would be a huge handicap in your relationship, obviously.
So, that’s one reason. The second reason is just a settled sense of peace with God. Thomas Brooks called it in his classic On Assurance, “heaven on earth.” Having this joy and peace. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace,” Isaiah 26:3 says, “whose mind is stayed on thee.” When our minds are fixed on God, and he’s our Savior, our help, and our joy, and our love, and our peace, it makes a whole different life. And if we’re biting our nails all the time wondering has the Lord begun with me… which leads to a third reason. And that is Christian service is absolutely augmented when you have assurance. In fact, the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin said, “a man who has full robust assurance is ten times more active than a Christian who isn’t.” Because, if you have assurance, man, you want everyone in the whole world to know, don’t you? That this is the way to live and you found what life is all about and you found God.
Assurance also promotes holiness. John says, in 1 John 3, that every man that has this hope in him purifies himself even as his Lord is pure. So, when you have full assurance you want to please the Lord and you want to be holy as he is holy, as he commands you to be.
And then I think, also, we need to counter the secularization of our day, today, and one of the best ways we can avoid falling into the pitfalls of worldliness is to live as robust assured Christians, because that enables us to live in the world but not become of the world, because our joys are so much greater than worldly joys. It actually takes the sharp edge off of temptation to be worldly, because we’ve got so much more in the Lord.
Those are some reasons – there’s more, but those are some reasons why assurance is important.
Isn’t that interesting, how it works? Some might have thought, and in fact it’s been charged that way, that a doctrine of assurance might make us indifferent to sin and indifferent to holiness, but it doesn’t at all.
No, no. Think again of your relationship with your wife. When you both know you love each other it makes you just want to please each other all the more, don’t you? I’m just telling my wife every day, “I love you. You’re so special. I’m crazy over you! You are really a special woman!” She thrives on that and I thrive on telling her, and I just want to please her. Love is what makes the world go around, we’re told, and in some sense that’s true. Love is what makes relationships steady. And the whole idea of Roman Catholicism, that you get motivated only by legalism and by fear, is dead wrong. Now, it is true, of course, that we need to have a healthy fear, childlike fear, of God, that we hold God in great, great reverence. But that’s something different.
Does assurance belong to saving faith? How are these two linked?
Yeah, that’s a really complex question. Let me try to answer it in one minute in a generalized form. There’s a difference between the being and the well-being of faith. To have faith exist inside of you and actually have faith and exercise and know that you have it can sometimes be different in people. I like to compare it this way: say you have an acorn that’s going to turn into an oak tree if you plant it. Is everything of the oak tree in the acorn? Well, yes and no. You can’t see the oak tree yet, so, no. But, yes, everything there is in seed form.
And so, we can say to your question, sort of a yes and no. Yes, assurance is of the essence of faith, because the smallest exercise of faith has the seed of assurance in it, because faith doesn’t doubt. So, when you exercise faith, you’re exercising something that doesn’t doubt. So, there is the seed of assurance. But, that’s different from living a life of robust assurance, because faith can go in and out of exercise in seconds. What the Puritans and reformers were talking about when they said, “Do you have assurance?” they were talking about the oak tree. They were talking about the fruits of assurance that you have when you really have a robust assurance – things like longing for Jesus to return, being filled with the mission zeal, having unspeakable joy in Christ, and these kinds of things that come with a robust assurance. So, in that sense, there are many Christians today, I’m convinced, who have saving faith but don’t have any measurable degree of assurance or very little of it. But, technically, theologically, organically, yes, assurance is of the essence of faith just as the whole oak tree is packed into that acorn.
That’s a good illustration; it’s helpful.
What are some reasons a genuine Christian might lack assurance? And how, then, would you counsel him or her in this regard? And how might a believer cultivate assurance?
Yeah, okay, that’s…
In 30 seconds (laughing).
Those three questions, combined, actually are like a whole book, but let me just try to summarize in a few minutes.
There’s lots of reasons, when you pastor people, you find out they lack assurance. One reason is because of their history and experience of sin. You got certain people that have just really big skeletons in their closet and just have a really hard time believing that God can ever love them. They don’t necessarily have a hard time believing they love God, but how could God ever love them? Or, they have the present experience of sin. That is, for example, I’ve talked to some young men over the years who just cannot get over the problem of masturbating and they fall into that sin again, and again, and again, so they think, “Well, I cannot be a child of God,” and they struggle with these things. But any besetting sin can help injure the degree of assurance that we have. Sins that we resort back to against our will, but we find ourselves falling into them – that’s a problem for people. That’s the struggle of Paul, also, in Romans 7, by the way.
But then there’s other things. One of the biggest things I’ve had to deal with his false conceptions of God’s character, where people see the Gospel only for very, very, very few exceptionally holy people. And see God’s character as being mostly justice and holiness and wrath, and secondarily, he’s a God of mercy. And that keeps people from trusting him and going to him. And then, of course, there’s the problem of lack of clarity in the hearts of many people on justification by faith alone, that Jesus Christ is our total righteousness.
I think, sometimes, people lack assurance or they don’t grow in assurance, because they keep their mouth closed. They don’t confess Christ to others; they are afraid; and so they bring darkness, sort of, on themselves, because they think, “who am I to speak about him when I’m such a small Christian?” and so on.
There’s a lot of ignorance, too, about various evidences of grace. Most people don’t have a clear concept of how to use the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, and the eleven marks that John gives for assurance in 1 John, which is really the epistle of assurance. They don’t understand the Puritan concept, which is so plain, so clear, that you get down on your knees… Now, you’re trusting the promises of God, so there’s the bedrock of your insurance… But you get down on your knees and you say, “Jesus said, ‘by their fruits, you shall know them,’ here are eleven fruits in John, eight in Galatians 5, seven or eight in the Beatitudes, Lord, I want to examine myself by these. Please help me, Holy Spirit, to do that.” You then pick one of them; you set out a major premise which goes something like this: say you’re using Matthew 5:6, “Lord, I read here, ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ So, that means to me that this is a mark of grace of which Jesus said, ‘by their fruits you shall know them.’ So, major premise is: those, and those only, but all those who truly hunger and thirst after the righteousness of Christ are children of God. Minor premise is: I cannot deny, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and try what I know of my own heart, the Spirit testifies with my conscience. I do know what it means to hunger and thirst, at least at some points in my life, after Christ’s righteousness. Conclusion: I must be a child of God.” People are ignorant of how to go about that, and sometimes people think they need to have all 24 marks that I just mentioned. But actually, what the Puritans taught was: the works of grace are like beads on a necklace around someone’s neck. If you can pull on one bead and feel a tug there and say I can identify with that one, all of the other 23 you actually have as well, even if you can’t see them or feel them, because the Holy Spirit doesn’t do an incomplete work when he saves a sinner. That’s what the Puritans said. So, you look for these marks of grace, you examine yourself; but, most people don’t know how to do that, so they’re expecting perfection from themselves; and they’re trying to build off of their own righteousness. These are all huge, huge mistakes.
Then you’ve got other people, Fred, who just have a very sour, negative disposition. The Puritans called them melancholic people. They are prone to depression and, you know, if the cup is three quarters filled, they say it’s one quarter empty. They just can’t believe that God would have mercy. Just a negative disposition sometimes can impact assurance, as well.
I’ve counseled people, also, who are just looking for the wrong kind of experience. They’re looking for something earthshaking, some Damascus Road kind of experience that Saul had, in order to get assurance. If they don’t get that, they can’t believe that they have assurance.
Now, all of these people, no matter what error they’re embracing, need to go back to the three or four kinds of assurance. They need to have it explained to them simply, and they need to examine themselves by it, prayerfully. The promises of God, number one, do you really trust in the promise of God, in Christ, alone, for salvation? Are you looking to anyone else, even one percent, for salvation? Is Christ your only hope? If that is so, you have the bedrock of assurance within you. Number two, the fruits of grace, or the evidences of grace, or the marks of grace, or whatever you want to call it, which I just explained. Number three is the witnessing testimony of the Holy Spirit so that he witnesses with my spirit, Romans 8:16, as I examine myself, that I am indeed a child of God. And he can also witness more directly by taking the word of God and applying it powerfully to my soul. That can help assurance. And then, number four, which the Westminster Assembly and the Canons of Dort don’t mention, but comes from my own thinking over the years, is: I think that God’s track record is a wonderful ground of assurance. So, again, I go back to marriage. I married my wife almost 30 years ago, now. Was I assured that she loved me and assured that I loved her when I married her? Absolutely! Am my more assured now that she loves me and more assured that I love her? Absolutely! How is that possible? Well, because this woman has never failed me in 30 years. She’s shown 10,000 times that she loves me. How could I ever deny it? And so, as a Christian, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress goes through Vanity Fair and walks his way to the Celestial City, he encounters all kinds of experiences including afflictions. And when he looks back at his life he has to say, “You know what? God’s never made one mistake with me. I needed every affliction I’ve ever had. He’s been good to me – far better to me, even at my worst moments, then I’ve been to him at my best moments.” So, God’s track record helps me grow and grow and grow in assurance and keep trusting him more and more.
That’s very helpful.
My confidence before God must center in Christ. But at the same time, part of assurance is seeing his work in me and the reality of his work in me. So my confidence is in Christ, not myself, but yet I’m to look to see what he’s done in me. So how do you sort that out? That’s a common question that comes up. My confidence is not in myself, but in Christ, but yet I’m to look to see what’s happening in me for some degree of assurance. How does that work out?
Yes. Yes, well, if you look only at what’s in you, apart from Christ, as John Calvin said, that is sure damnation, because then, you’ll see nothing but your sin, or primarily your sin, because we’re still sinners, we’re still Romans 7 people that groan within us. But, if Christ is the bedrock of the promises of God, which he is, and therefore the promise of your salvation, and your trust is only in him, then, you see, you look for inward evidences in yourself just to corroborate that those promises have been made true in your life. You don’t do the inward evidences or the fruits of the spirit, apart from Christ, but they’re grounded in Christ. Just as the promises tell me that Christ is my justification, the inward evidences are telling me that Christ is my sanctification. And so, I look to him for everything. But, in sanctification, of course, you do have to look inside yourself. But even then, as the Puritans used to say, for every look you take inside yourself make sure you take at least ten looks to Jesus, because he’s the strength of your sanctification, as well.
But, how does that work? It works – actually, I just explained it – with hunger and thirst after righteousness. I go to God; I ask him to help me as I examine myself; and some of those fruits, maybe I won’t be able to see in myself, but then I just go to another one. I could tell you a really interesting story of a minister who was on his deathbed, and suddenly it was like God withdrew himself. It grew very dark for him and he wondered if he was even a child of God as he was going through the pains of death and crossing the Jordan. People tried all kinds of things and he just couldn’t see hardly anything of the Spirit’s work in him. And finally, someone said, “Do you love the brethren?” And he said, “Well, that I can say – I have a special love for God’s people.” “Well,” the person said, “then you are a child of God, because John said we know we’ve passed from life to death because we love the brethren.” And his darkness broke, because he said, “yes, by the grace of God, I can say that, so I must be a child of God.” It’s not that you have to see all of them in you, but sometimes one is clearer than another. But, you see, an unbeliever never will have that special bond, that special love for the people of God.
This has been helpful. Before we sign off here, a couple more questions about the book itself.
Tell us about this new book. What is the contribution you hope to make? And maybe you can give us just a brief thumbnail sketch overview of it.
In the first chapter, what I do, is I just set out a number of reasons why assurance is important, more than I’ve just given you. In the second chapter I summarize why Christians often lack assurance, today. And, again, I’ve said more in this chapter, more reasons, then I shared with you. Then, in the third chapter I looked through the Bible itself, running from Genesis to Revelation, showing that assurance of faith is biblical and normative, to some degree, for God’s people.
Then I have six chapters looking at the most famous statement ever made on assurance of faith, which is of course, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 18. Four paragraphs I look at the various possibilities concerning assurance, then I look at assurance from God’s promises, from the evidences of grace, from the Spirit’s testimony, and then the closing paragraphs talk about how to cultivate assurance. And you did ask me that question, as well, which I didn’t fully answer, earlier, but there I talk a lot about doing the spiritual disciplines and how you use them to grow in grace and assurance.
Then, a chapter on how assurance is lost and how it gets renewed. And then I have two final chapters, one on the Holy Spirit’s role in assurance, how he’s active in all of these areas; and then I have just a chapter with different kinds of practical questions that people ask as they search for more assurance.
Before I let you go, maybe you could tell our listeners about the major writing project you have in the works right now, so they can be looking for it.
Sure. By the way, if they want the book, Fred, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith, we sell it at Reformation Heritage Books because we’ve ordered thousands of copies. We sell it at very, very low prices, the lowest they could get it. I think it’s just nine dollars or so. They can order it from email@example.com, or they could just simply go to the web at heritagebooks.org.
We’ll make sure we have that on the webpage here, too.
Okay. Now, in terms of the project you asked about. Thanks for asking that. Actually, I’ve got two projects going right now with Crossway. The first is a book called Reformed Experiential Preaching, which is being edited right now and hopes to come out in October of this year. It’s the first book of its kind ever written in English, because there’s been no book, ever, written on this very important subject, which just amazes me. So, I’m very excited about that and I want to get that in the hands of every pastor, and also laypeople, that they can understand what to expect from their pastor in terms of speaking to the heart. The subtitle is going to be, God’s Word Proclaimed from the Preacher’s Heart to His People’s Hearts.
But the really big project is: I’ve been teaching systematic theology for thirty some years, I guess, and together with my teacher’s assistant we’re co-authoring. It’s rooted in my lecture notes, but he’s fleshing things out and putting footnotes in and so on. We’re co-authoring my systematic theology, which will be a four-volume project, God willing, if the Lord spares me for four or five years, with Crossway at about 1000 pages per volume. It’s going to be a systematic theology that is accessible, very readable for an interested person in the congregation who has average or higher intelligence. It’s written at an entry seminary level so that it will relate to seminary students and pastors, but also educated lay people would have no trouble with it, whatsoever. We try to keep it simple. It addresses all the doctrines of the Bible and also debatable issues going on, today, but it does it all from a very biblical perspective. Everything is proven by Scripture, every statement. There’s thousands and tens of thousands of scriptural citations throughout the work as a whole. But it also speaks to the heart and talks about how the doctrines of grace are lived out and experienced along the lines that the Puritans would advocate.
We will watch for that, for sure.
We’re talking to Dr. Joel Beeke about his new book, Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith. It’s a great little book that we are happy to commend. We encourage you to pick up a copy for your own strengthening in faith and for a Christian friend who may have questions that deserve answers. It’s a great resource you’ll want to get it.
Joel, thanks for your good ministry, and thanks for talking to us today.
Thank you so much, Fred. God bless you.
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Knowing and Growing in Assurance of Faith