The Problem of Assurance

Ryan Glomsrud
Thursday, March 1st 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

Do you know if your name is written in the book of life?
Unless your parents named you after a Bible hero like
David, Sarah, Mary, or Abraham, how can you really know for sure? This is the so-called problem of assurance that most serious-minded Christians wrestle with at some point in their lives.

There have been a number of different approaches taken to the issue. Puritan moral theology vigorously pursued "orthopraxy" or "right living" as the fruit of "orthodoxy," or "right believing." In relation to the question of assurance, they examined this fruit in what is called the "practical syllogism."

The Practical Syllogism

  • A true Christian will perform good works.
  • I perform good works.
  • Ergo: I am a true Christian.

Recall that if the premises of a syllogism are true, its conclusion is certain. In this case there can be little doubt about the first premise, based on the overwhelming testimony of Scripture that faith produces fruit. The second premise, however, is the sticking point on a personal level and can sometimes leave assurance vulnerable to doubt. Here the truth of the premise guaranteeing the conclusion requires a kind of moral conjecture. Take a personal inventory: Are you progressing in holiness? Are you becoming more Christ-like?

Those are important questions to ask ourselves, especially since the apostle Paul exhorts us to "examine ourselves" to see whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). But uncertainty is inevitable for the simple reason that our personal sanctity does not have the same visibility from month to month, much less day to day. Can assurance of our justification be secured when it rests on our sanctification? For this reason, many other Reformed thinkers articulated a different kind of syllogism that keeps faith in focus, instead of centering on moral obedience.

The Reflex Act of Faith

  • Salvation is given to those who have faith in Christ.
  • I have faith in Christ.
  • Ergo: I am a recipient of salvation.

In this argument, the deciding issue is whether or not genuine faith is present. This is sometimes called the "reflex act" of faith’namely, when a Christian steps outside of himself, metaphorically speaking, to determine whether he is in fact in possession of faith. This presupposes a distinction between faith in Christ in a direct act and the reflex act that searches out self-awareness of faith. For Calvin and many Reformed, the Holy Spirit accomplishes the work of the reflex act of faith. In other words, it is the Spirit who brings assurance and helps us know that we are beloved of God. This is closely related to the "mystical syllogism."

The Mystical Syllogism

  • True believers will experience the peace and joy of salvation.
  • By the Holy Spirit I experience the peace of a cleansed conscience.
  • Ergo: I am a true believer.

This can be a powerful testimony of assurance in the Christian life, though it must be seen in its proper place. Unfortunately, evangelical pietism’even of the Calvinist variety’sometimes overemphasizes the importance of these syllogisms, which can have the effect of subtly diverting one's focus from Christ and his person and work to oneself. Introspection of either the moral, faith-reflexive, or experiential variety has some value but is always open to question and doubt.

For this reason, Reformed theology on the whole tends to follow Calvin, who approached assurance by another route. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith (sometimes held to be in tension with Calvin on assurance) grounds the doctrine in the following order of priority. For the Divines at the Assembly, taking pride of place is:

  1. The divine truth of the promises of salvation;
  2. The inward evidence of those graces (i.e., the practical syllogism);
  3. The testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (i.e., the mystical syllogism).

Taking precedence then is the reliability of God's covenant oath, his unchangeable promise of salvation, and the certainty of Christ's finished work. That is the foundation of all assurance. In other words, Christians should first look to Christ himself in the gospel, something that is accomplished by the direct act of faith. As one classic
Reformed text explains:

Therefore I would have you to close with Christ in the promise, without making any question whether you are in the faith or no; for there is an assurance which rises from the exercise of faith by a direct act, and that is, when a man, by faith, directly lays hold upon Christ, and concludes assurance from thence. (1)

According to Westminster then, self-examination is useful but secondary. The witness of the Spirit, in much the same way, is a genuine reality but still not the starting point for assurance. Instead, like Calvin the confession teaches that if Christ has found you, and you have embraced him in faith, then your first assurance derives directly from the strength of his saving office. Assurance is, in other words, a necessary implication of knowledge, assent, and hearty trust.

It is important to answer moments of doubt in the Christian life with faith, returning again and again to Christ in his shepherding ministry. We should fight doubt with faith that God's promises are sure and salvation has been accomplished in Christ.

1 [ Back ] Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (repr. Christian Heritage, 2009), 243.
Thursday, March 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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