In its theological response to the teachings of the Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) maintained that a “believer’s assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence”. More pointedly the Council declared in Canon 16 on Justification, ‘If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema’ (The Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth, London: Dolman, 1848). Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, perhaps the greatest of the Roman post-Tridentine theologians, called assurance of salvation “a prime error of heretics.”1
According to the Church of Rome, a few especially holy men and women, through special revelation, may attain to assurance of salvation, but they are the exception and certainly not the rule. It is not hard to understand why Rome is so opposed to the doctrine of Christian assurance: If ‘ordinary’ Christians can, and should, be assured of their salvation, what need do they have of the church’s priestly, sacramental mediation?
For Protestants, the controversy with the Church of Rome over assurance was at heart a controversy over its failure to understand the nature of the holy Trinity, especially the grace of the Father’s love, the perfection of the Son’s atonement, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. Rather than leave his believing children uncertain of his love and uncertain of the perfect efficacy of the Saviour’s atonement, the Bible assures us that God, being the good God he is, wants his children to live in the joy and assurance of his love and his Son’s ‘It is finished’ (Jn.19:30).
Christian assurance was a major theme in the writings of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), along with John Owen perhaps the greatest of the Puritan pastoral theologians. In his Christ Set Forth, Goodwin seeks to persuade us that we especially find assurance first, and supremely by looking to Christ and trusting in him and his finished work on the cross. He is not saying that we should not be encouraged by the gospel transforming presence of God’s grace in our lives. He is saying, however, that too many Christians ‘in the ordinary course and way of their spirits have been too much carried away with the rudiments of Christ in their own hearts, and not after Christ himself.’3
Later in life, Goodwin reflected on his own early struggle to find assurance of salvation: ‘I was diverted from Christ for several years, to search only into the signs of grace in me. It was almost seven years ere I was taken off to live by faith on Christ, and God’s free love, which are alike the object of faith.”4
Goodwin`s experience of God`s grace has much to teach us. Above all, that the believer’s primary focus is Christ, not himself. “I am come to this pass now,” wrote Goodwin to a Mr Price, “that signs will do me no good alone; I have trusted too much to habitual grace for assurance of salvation; I tell you Christ is worth all’. He writes, let us ‘see what matter of support and encouragement faith may fetch from Christ’s death for justification. And surely that which hath long ago satisfied God himself for the sins of many thousand souls now in heaven, may very well serve to satisfy the heart and conscience of any sinner now upon earth, in any doubts in respect of the guilt of any sins that can arise’.5
Do you grasp what Goodwin is saying? Our sins rise to condemn us. Our sins are many and not few. Our sins are wicked and deserving of God’s just condemnation. What good can be gained by looking in to ourselves? What do you see when you look into yourself? Paul told us what he saw, ‘O wretched man that I am’ (Rom.7:24). There is no comfort to be found looking in; we must learn to look out to Christ. The sin-bearing, sin-atoning death of Christ satisfied God. He accepted the Saviour’s sacrifice in our place, as our covenant Head. He was satisfied with his sacrifice. Now, Goodwin is saying to us, if God is satisfied, should we not also be satisfied? If all our sins were laid on God’s own Son and were forever put behind God’s back, buried in the deepest sea and remembered no more (Mic.7:19; Isa.43:25), should that not be our assurance?
The Christian’s God-planted graces may, through the lens of Christ (never apart from him), bring him a measure of comfort. But our graces ebb and flow, they rise and fall, they are here today and all but gone tomorrow. But Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’. He is at God’s right hand. He is our justification and our eternal acceptance with God (Rom.8:34).
Listen again to Goodwin: ‘Were any of your duties crucified for you?’6 Goodwin’s question is plain but profound, don’t look in, look out to your crucified Saviour who alone is your righteousness (1Cor.1:30). ‘Therefore’, says Goodwin, ‘get your hearts and consciences distinctly and particularly satisfied in the all-sufficiency of worth and merit which is in the satisfaction that Christ hath made’.7 For Goodwin, the Christian’s great need is to grasp what he calls ‘the transcendent all-sufficiency of (Christ’s) death’.8
This is no abstract doctrinal concern. Goodwin looks ahead to the day of Christ: ‘Now you will all be thus called one day to dispute for your souls, sooner or later; and therefore such skill you should endeavour to get in Christ’s righteousness, how in its fullness and perfection it answereth to all your sinfulness’.9
The Church of Rome wants to leave the believer tentative and uncertain. It wants to leave the child of God fearful and doubting, looking not to Christ and his finished work, but to the church and its priestly mediation. The Bible teaches us otherwise. In Christ we have a ‘living hope’ (1Pt.1:3), a ‘sure and certain hope’ (Heb.6:20). No Christian need languish in doubts and fears as to the assurance of the heavenly Father’s love. Trust the good heart of your Father, a heart that desires all his children know that they are his children. Trust the finished, atoning work of your Saviour, a work that has been accepted by the Father. Trust the indwelling Holy Spirit who has come to unite you to Christ, seal to you his salvation and give you the boldness to cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom.8:15-16).
1. Quoted in J.C.Ryle, Holiness (Banner of Truth Trust ed., Edinburgh, 2014), 139
2. Thomas Goodwin, Christ Set Forth (Banner of Truth ed. Edinburgh, 2015. First published 1642)
3. Christ Set Forth, Introduction XV.
4. Works of Thomas Goodwin, (Edinburgh, James Nichol, 1861), Vol. 2, lxviii
5. Christ Set Forth, p. 43.
6. Christ Set Forth, p. 43
7. Christ Set Forth, p. 50.
8. Christ Set Forth, p. 50
9. Christ Set Forth, p. 51