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Shepherds of Assurance

Twelve Lessons from the Puritans for Pastors

ABSTRACT: The Puritans wrote dozens of books on faith and assurance, seeking to clarify and apply these doctrines for the members of their churches, and especially for the weakest of the sheep. Among all the Puritans’ writings, chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith captures their pastoral wisdom on assurance in four clear, succinct paragraphs. Here, the Westminster divines clarify the hope of assurance, the ground of assurance, the means and fruits of assurance, and the loss and recovery of assurance — all with an eye toward offering wise pastoral counsel for all the believers in their flocks, whatever their spiritual circumstances.

With regard to Christian doctrines, the Puritans were not, for the most part, great innovators, but they were great appliers. Generally speaking, they were thoroughly Reformed and intentional in their theology. As with their theological forbears, the Reformers, the Puritans resolved to be thoroughly scriptural and happily stood on the shoulders of the Reformers and taught the same biblical doctrines to their generation. But they did so with a great deal more emphasis on application.

This ought not be surprising. The Reformers were occupied largely with hammering out great cardinal doctrines such as justification by faith alone, how to worship God publicly, God’s irresistible free grace versus human free will, and more — much of which is summarized in their five major solas: sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria. Thus, the Puritans, having the luxury of the Reformers’ biblical treatises before them, could afford the time to address the “how-to” questions of application: How does Bible doctrine apply to daily life? How can I live soli Deo Gloria as a godly husband, a godly wife, a godly child?

Hence, the Puritans wrote at least thirty books on how to live to God’s glory in marriage and family life. They wrote at least forty books on how to meditate. They added more volumes on how to do our daily work to God’s glory, how to live a godly life in our secular professions, and how to live zealously for the glory of God in every area of life.

How Can I Find Assurance?

The Puritans also wrote extensively on the practicalities of living by faith, practicalities that boiled down to this: How can I live so fully by faith that I may know with certainty that I have saving faith — that is to say, how can I be assured in the depths of my soul that, in union with Christ, I have been regenerated and adopted into God’s family, and will be with Christ forever in heaven? Hence, they wrote dozens of books on faith and assurance, and called their hearers to practice self-examination to “make their calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).

The Puritans did not write extensively on assurance of faith because they wanted to be excessively introspective or “navel-gazers,” as they have been accused by some who have, for the most part, not read their books. Rather, they wanted to trace out in detail the Holy Spirit’s saving work in their own souls in order to (1) give glory to the triune God for his mighty and miraculous work of salvation in them, (2) do good to their own souls by building up their convictions about God and their own salvation, and (3) assist weak believers who needed pastoral advice and assistance to grow in their knowledge and assurance of Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord, and through this precious Mediator, to grow in their knowledge of each divine person of the Trinity.

Look with me especially at this third point as we address the question, How did the Puritan pastors use their doctrine of personal assurance of salvation to assist believers in living the Christian life? And what lessons can we learn today from their pastoral specialization in the vast field of experiential Christianity connected with the assurance of salvation?

An exhaustive article on this subject would certainly turn into a book, as there are scores of areas that could be discussed. Rather than skate over the surface, I want to address twelve of the most important pastoral ways that Puritan pastors, as physicians of souls, assisted the members of their flocks, helping them to gain robust measures of full assurance of faith. We find the most important confessional chapter ever written on the subject in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 18, “Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” I will provide three pastoral helps from each of these four paragraphs (hereafter: WCF 18.1–4).

WCF 18.1: Hope of Assurance

Although hypocrites, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour 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, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.

Pastoral Help 1: An important distinction exists between the false hopes and carnal presumptions of the unbeliever on the one hand, and the true assurance and well-grounded hope of the believer on the other.

To make this distinction clear, Puritan pastors distinguished for their church members the difference between what they called historical and temporary faith on the one hand, and saving faith on the other. The former ultimately rests on self-confidence born merely out of intellectual convictions (historical faith) or emotional joy (temporary faith) — as, for example, in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:20–21) — while the latter humbles us before God and teaches us to rely wholly on the righteousness of Christ alone for salvation.

Pastoral Help 2: Some degree of assurance of salvation is biblical and normative in the lives of God’s people.

Pastorally, this helped Puritan pastors maintain in their people the conviction that though full, robust assurance of salvation may not be common to all believers, some degree of assurance is (even if it is only in seed form) and is always inseparable from saving faith in Christ. Every part of WCF 18.1 is connected with Jesus: believe in him; love him; walk before him. By maintaining this conviction, Puritan pastors sought to avoid the problem of a two-tier Christianity in which few in the first tier ever make it to the second. This emphasis also encouraged believers, whatever degree of assurance they may have possessed, always to strive for more, so that they might grow in the grace and knowledge of their Savior.

Pastoral Help 3: Assurance of salvation is not essential for salvation or for the being or existence of saving faith, though it is essential for the well-being of faith.

The Puritans made this distinction so that weak believers or newly saved believers would not despair if they did not yet possess full assurance of salvation, but also that they would not rest content without full assurance of salvation. This kept believers biblically balanced in recognizing that though it is possible to be saved without assurance, it is scarcely possible to be a healthy Christian without assurance.

In Puritan thinking, this also implies that believers may possess saving faith without the joy and full assurance that they possess it. This helped Puritan pastors deal with the reality that some believers seem to possess a great deal more faith and assurance than they realize, whereas other believers seem to more easily become fully conscious of possessing a full assurance of faith. In this, the Puritans followed Calvin, who said in his Commentary on John 20:3 that the disciples seem to have had saving faith without awareness that they had it as they approached the empty tomb.

WCF 18.2: Grounds of Assurance

This certainty 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.

Pastoral Help 4: Assurance of salvation is grounded in the promises of God and buttressed by personal sanctification and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The proper starting point for all true assurance of salvation is “the divine truth of the promises of salvation” set forth in Holy Scripture, “the promises of God” sealed with God’s own “yea and amen” in his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:19–20). Puritan pastors taught their hearers that though self-examination is important, they should nevertheless take ten looks to Christ for every look they take to their inner spiritual condition. They taught that as assurance grows, God’s promises become increasingly real to the believer personally and experientially, as they experience the truth and power of those promises. The promises ground our assurance, and our assurance emboldens our faith to make further appropriation of the promises, which brings us into fuller, more intimate communion with Christ.

“Though full, robust assurance of salvation may not be common to all believers, some degree of assurance is.”

Further to encourage believers pastorally, the Puritans stressed that the more we know experientially of all three kinds of assurance, the more robust our assurance will be and the more we will live entirely for God. Happily, the Puritans taught their parishioners that the Holy Spirit, upon whom we are dependent for all our assurance, is more than willing to work all three kinds of assurance in us — in fact, without him, we would lose all genuine assurance, and even faith itself.

Pastoral Help 5: Assurance of salvation is strengthened by the Spirit shedding light on the believer’s biblical marks of grace — such as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, and the various evidences sprinkled throughout 1 John — so that the believer can clearly see at least some of these saving marks of grace being worked out in his or her own heart and life by the very grace of that same Spirit, and thus cannot but conclude he or she is a child of God.

The Puritan pastor would tenderly advise the church member longing to grow in assurance of salvation, “Turn to the evidences of grace that are laid out for us in Scripture; ask the Spirit to shed light on them for you; then, as you examine yourself, if you can say with assurance that even one of these evidences is your experience, you can be assured that you are a child of God — even if you can’t see other evidences in you.”

Pastoral Help 6: Assurance of salvation is also strengthened by the direct witnessing testimony of the Holy Spirit himself speaking in God’s word.

A number of Puritans (such as Thomas Goodwin and Henry Scudder) taught that a direct witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer’s soul through the word can give a substantial increase to a believer’s assurance and comfort, especially in times of great need. For example, when the Spirit applies to the soul a special promise, such as, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3 KJV), with considerable power and sweetness — such that the believer enjoys a profound experience of communion with God and of his love and a profound sight of the beauty and glory of Christ — that immediate or direct witness of the Spirit to the believer can give a large boost to his or her assurance. At such times, the believer feels that the intimately personal application of the word to his soul seems to be the most suitable text in the entire Bible for his particular need.

WCF 18.3: Means and Fruits of Assurance

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 be 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.

Pastoral Help 7: Though God remains sovereign in granting various degrees of assurance, assurance of salvation usually grows by degrees within believers in conjunction with the growth of knowledge, faith, and experience, especially through trials.

To encourage young believers who struggled with acquiring larger degrees of assurance, the Puritans stated that “a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of” assurance (WCF 18.3), but the relationship between faith and assurance usually strengthens over time, “growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance” (WCF 14.3). Grace usually grows with age, and as faith increases, other graces increase. Age and experience, however, do not guarantee assurance. And it is possible for God to plant faith and full assurance simultaneously.

By maintaining the normativity of assurance growing over time through exercises of faith and various trials in the daily experience of life, and yet allowing for young believers at times to have large dosages of assurance, the Puritans aimed to minister pastorally to their people, encouraging them to press on to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:5–10).

Pastoral Help 8: God normally uses the spiritual disciplines he has appointed for his people as the means to grow assurance of salvation.

The Puritans are abundantly clear in stating that the believer “may, without extraordinary revelation [contrary to Roman Catholicism], in the right use of ordinary means, attain” to assurance (emphasis mine). Four means are predominant in Puritan thought: God’s word (read and preached and meditated upon), the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), prayer (personal, domestic, and public), and affliction (including conflicts, doubts, trials, and temptations). By stressing these spiritual disciplines as means that the Spirit uses to grow assurance, the Puritans were teaching their people that it is every believer’s duty to pursue assurance diligently, and how best to do it.

In short, God commands us to pursue assurance prayerfully, obediently, and fervently, promising that his normal way is to bless these endeavors. Then too, the Puritan stress on duty reinforced the conviction that assurance must never be regarded as the privilege only of exceptional saints, but that at least some degree of it is normative for every believer.

Pastoral Help 9: Assurance produces God-glorifying, delightful fruit.

The Puritans conclude WCF 18.3 by stating that these fruits are such that the believer’s “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.” They taught that assurance elevates God-glorifying and soul-enlarging affections. It produces holy living marked by spiritual peace, joyful love, humble gratitude, cheerful obedience, and heartfelt mortification of sin.

In a word, assurance enables faith to reach greater heights, from which all other aspects of Christian character flow. This invigoration of faith results in a new release of spiritual energy at every point in a person’s Christian life. All of these fruits helped the Puritan pastor make assurance of salvation appear most desirable, and certainly worth the effort of pursuing and cultivating with all of one’s soul, mind, and strength.

WCF 18.4: Loss and Recovery of Assurance

True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of 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 have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed 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.

Pastoral Help 10: Assurance of salvation may be disturbed, diminished, or even lost for a time, in the experience of a believer, due to his or her own fault or due to God’s sovereign withdrawal.

WCF 18.4 stresses that the reasons for a loss of assurance are found primarily in the believer. They include negligence and spiritual slothfulness, falling into sin, or yielding to some temptation. The Puritans are clear here and elsewhere in teaching pastorally that the Christian cannot enjoy high levels of assurance while he persists in low levels of obedience. They stressed this linkage between assurance and obedience in very practical ways, stating that the believer ought to lose his assurance when he backslides and starts acting like an unbeliever. For example, if you are unfaithful to your spouse, you had better lose your assurance that you have a wonderful marital union in which you both are assured of each other’s love. The Puritan pastor used this truth to encourage believers to walk in faithfulness before God in accord with his word, and to avoid every backsliding as a serious offense to God and as destructive to their own soul.

“The Christian cannot enjoy high levels of assurance while he persists in low levels of obedience.”

A second reason for the loss of assurance is not in the believer as such but in God. For the Puritans, this point is preeminently pastoral, because each minister would have believers in his flock who at times would seem to lose ground in growing their assurance even when they were diligently engaging in the spiritual disciplines. How encouraging then it was for the believer to hear from his pastor that, according to his sovereign and mysterious will, God may withdraw the light of his countenance, or permit a believer to be tried with vehement temptations or intense afflictions that do violence to his peace and joy. The Puritans taught that this may actually benefit believers, as it may have the purpose of allowing them to taste the bitterness of sin, or to grow in humility, or to treasure the gift of assurance more, or to depend more fully on the grace of Christ and endeavor after a closer walk with God. God’s withdrawals and his placing of trials in the path of the believer are motivated by his fatherly discipline, which teaches them to walk uprightly; by his fatherly sovereignty, which teaches dependence; and by his fatherly wisdom, which teaches that he knows and does what is best for his own. God ordains these trials for his glory and the benefit of his elect, so that they learn, like Job, to trust in a withdrawing God as our greatest friend, even when he seems to come out against us as our greatest enemy (Job 13:15).

Pastoral Help 11: Happily, assurance of salvation can be revived.

The Puritans stress in WCF 18.4 that even in the believer’s darkest struggles for assurance of salvation, the Holy Spirit abides in him and bears him up, keeping him from “utter despair.” Indeed, the child of God may be losing assurance even while he advances in grace. This is because the grace and essence of faith abides with the believer even though he is blind to the acts and practice of faith. This gracious preservation of faith offers hope for the revival of assurance, for the flame of God’s life within the soul can never be completely snuffed out. The embers burn, although barely and subtly at times, but can be fanned into the full flame of assurance by the persevering use of God’s appointed means.

Pastoral Help 12: Assurance is revived the same way it was obtained the first time.

“If Job and David recovered from their loss of assurance, why shouldn’t the believer today?”

Believers should review their lives, confess their backsliding, and humbly cast themselves upon their covenant-keeping God and his gracious promises in Christ, being sure to engage continually in fresh acts of ongoing conversion through faith and repentance. If Job and David recovered from their loss of assurance (Job 19:25–27; Psalms 42:5–8; 51:12), why shouldn’t the believer today? The loss here is only for a short time; soon we will have perfect assurance and perfect enjoyment of God forever in the eternal Celestial City.

Physicians of Souls

The Puritans fleshed out the doctrine of assurance of salvation in WCF 18 with pastoral precision to undeceive the false professor of faith, to awaken the unsaved, to mature the young in grace, to comfort the mature in faith, to arrest the backslider, and to provide wise pastoral counsel for all believers in their flock, tailored to each one’s spiritual circumstances. The terminology they developed, their treatises on assurance, their pastoral compassion for the weak in faith, and their pressing admonitions and invitations to grow in faith showed their great appreciation for vital union and communion with Christ.

Their laudable goals can still help pastors today to assist their church members in developing assurance, all the while recognizing the individuality of each one. As with the Puritan pastors, God calls pastors today to be wise physicians of souls who prescribe the right medicines for each believer — medicines that the Holy Spirit uses to lead them to cultivate and grow in the assurance of their salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord.

is chancellor and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.