The “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine” of which Frances Alstyne wrote, and of which Christians can sing of so joyfully, speaks of that unshakable confidence that in Christ a believer’s standing with God is absolutely secure and cannot be lost. Assurance of salvation is the norm for a Christian believer. Yet, this blessed assurance stands on a knife edge. Not a knife edge of whether it is a true or false doctrine of the faith once revealed to the saints. It is! Assurance is the crowning glory of a believer’s faith in Jesus. Nor is it whether assurance belongs only to a certain type of Christin. No! Assurance is a foundational birth-right of every single Christian. The knife edge of assurance is in Christian experience. It rests on the distinction between assurance being a fruit of faith but not being of the essence of faith. A Christian can possess a true saving faith without the comforting experimental reality of assurance. A genuine regenerated faith can exist without a confidence of one being secure in Christ. The knife edge, then, is that between the objective truth set forth in scripture and the subjective reality in a believer’s experience; between the norm for faith in Christ to be accompanied by assurance, but its absence to be a possibility.
Dealing pastorally with such a delicate knife edge issue calls for one to possess biblical wisdom, spiritual sensitivity and discernment. Such a person was Charles Bridges. In 1827 Bridges put pen to paper to write on Psalm 119 and what he produced was a devotional classic. He wrote with rich pastoral insights that flowed from a deep biblical understanding, which combine throughout, to engage the reader in a thoughtful, yet sensitive, challenge of what it means to live by faith. It is a mark of the depths of Bridges’ work that in a lengthy footnote on verse 166 “Lord, I have hoped for your salvation and done your commandments,” he penned an exceptional piece on assurance.
(*) All subsequent quotes in bold and italics are taken from Bridges’ footnote on Psalm 119.166.
Being and well being
Let’s begin at the end of Bridges’ footnote to put this vital matter into its broadest context. He wrote of how many Puritan divines made the distinction, “That assurance is necessary to the Christian for his well being, not for his being; for his consolation and establishment, not for his salvation.” (*) Those words lay this knife edge of truth and experience open. Whilst assurance is essential for the saint’s well being and comfort, it is not necessary for it to be present for one to be a saint and know salvation!
In referencing the Puritans, Bridges is doing two things. First, he is setting this matter in the context of church history. The Puritan era that followed the Reformation was a time of unparalleled rich gospel ministry in the English speaking world. Theological perspicuity, combined with a rich doctrinal understanding and a commitment to faithful practical exposition of scripture were the hallmarks of Puritan ministry. Yet, it was a period in which a great deal of ink was spent and an enormous amount of time was invested in wrestling with the pastoral implications of the relationship between faith and assurance. Many Christian believers found themselves struggling with a disconnect between their personal faith in Christ and an inner assurance of a clear interest in Christ. Second, Bridges is highlighting that struggles with assurance are not uncommon amongst the followers of Jesus.
The grounds of assurance
However, to return to the footnote’s beginning, Bridges commences by laying down the foundation that assurance is not just possible but should be the norm in the life of faith. Our gracious God is not so perverse as to call people to faith and then have them live with doubts throughout their life of faith here on earth! He writes, “That a full sense of acceptance with God grounded upon the divine testimonies is attainable, there can be no doubt.” Faith, and the assurance of faith, is built upon God’s covenant. A covenant that is ordered and certain (2 Samuel 23.5). The promises it contains are full, free, many and belong to every Christian, who is to enjoy the “full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6.11).
Christ’s person and work is the ground on which God’s covenant is certain and secure. Jesus’ righteousness alone is the solid foundation of the believers’ perfection before God, purging their conscience from dead works (Hebrews 9.9; 10.14). This is why the experience of the Saints, in both the Old and New Testament, is one of assurance. Their faith could confess those sublime, sweet, simple words “I know” (Job 19.25; 2 Timothy 1.12). This conviction is the right of every believer to confess (Romans 8.35, 38, 39). In a most penetrating and perceptive comment Bridges goes on to clarify, “It is built, not on the work of grace in us, but on the work of Christ for us.” And followed this up by saying, “the fullness of Christ and the promises of God in him are the only basis of a full assurance of salvation.” In other words, “In Christ Alone” the Christian’s hope of assurance is found. He writes in his exposition of verse 166, “The fullness of Christ and the promises of God in him, are the only basis of a full assurance of salvation … Hence the most assured believers will be the most devoted servants of their Master.”
Bridges points out that if assurance was not the prerogative of faith in Christ why are Christians challenged (2 Corinthians 13.5) and encouraged to examine themselves? A call not given to throw the believer into turmoil but rather to ground them on faith’s assurance in Christ. This is also why Christians are encouraged to press on to pursue assurance (Hebrews 6 .11; 2 Peter 1 .10). Bridges writes,“It is evidently our Father’s will, that his children’s complete acceptance should not be with them a matter of present uncertainty. For the Father intends that “not only his children should reach heaven at last, but that heaven should commence on earth in a state of conscious security and peace.” Christians are meant to “know that they have eternal life” (1 John 5.13). “The gospel, instead of forbidding this privilege, warrants, produces and establishes it.”
Faith without assurance
Assurance then is a true companion to faith in Christ. Yet, in a believer’s experience it is possible that assurance may not be present. Bridges highlights this in a telling way when he writes, “We must not so identify assurance with faith, as to conclude all that are destitute of it (assurance) to be unbelievers.” How vital to draw that distinction! An absence of assurance does not mean that one is an unbeliever. Assurance does indeed grow from the root of faith, and the want of assurance is in fact a want of faith. Yet, we have to separate “between the principle and the conscious interest in the objects of faith.” This separation between “principle” and “conscious interest” is Bridges’ way of saying that assurance belongs to faith but faith may be present where assurance is not. “We cannot absolutely identify faith and assurance. Adoption into the family of God by faith (Galatians 3.26) does not depend upon, nor is it in all cases connected with, consciousness of this relation.” A young baby may have no consciousness of their true family relationship, yet they can cry to their parents and be comforted by their parents’ loving embrace.
Believing and knowing
In order to validate this Bridges gives instances in the gospels of those who clearly exercised a faith in Jesus but had doubts about his willingness or power to heal? (Matthew 8.2, 3; Mark 9.22). Dependence on Christ did not always amount to certainty! Yet, “The assurance of faith (dependency) … is indeed the essential principle of the Christian life.” Why then may assurance be lacking? Bridges lists amongst others matters a Christian being negligent in their walk of faith; spiritual sloth; self righteousness; an indistinct perception of faith, and the power of unbelief.
He helpfully goes on to explain that an indistinct perception of faith (let’s call it an inadequate appreciation of God’s gift of faith) will often mean a Christian fails to enjoy the fullness of what faith in Christ brings. Yet, this does not preclude them being inheritors of faith’s blessings in Jesus. Just as an heir’s inheritance is not dependent upon their conscious awareness of their title, but rather upon the legitimacy of their being a family member; so too with the child of God. This is why Peter exhorts to assurance those who have “precious faith” (2 Peter 1.1-10). This is why John distinguishes between “believing and knowing” (1 John 5.13). This is why Paul writes of faith coming by hearing preceding the sealing of the Spirit (Ephesians 1.13); and the distinction between the things freely given to us by God and our perception of them being necessary by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2.12). The Christian’s experience rests on a knife edge of believing and knowing.
Assurance, humility and godly fear
Pursuing this vital matter further, Bridges deals with the opposite extreme and puts to the sword a pseudo-spirituality surrounding the Christian’s personal assurance. It is the notion that it is the utmost presumption to speak of possessing assurance at all. Here, one begins to enter the dark cave of Roman Catholic dogma, from which the where assurance is not to be known and a person is dependent on the church. In contrast, Bridges writes that the true assurance of faith rather than “savouring of presumption … is the very principle of humility.” The biblical doctrine of assurance is meant to be for the Christian “the life of present privilege and the spring of practical devotedness.” Indeed, it is not only the ground of humility but also of a godly fear, for “the assured hope of the gospel is the principle, not the hindrance, of godly fear” (Hebrews 12.28). This godly fear leads to a “vigorous and healthy habit of faith” that galvanises the Christian’s daily walk with Jesus.
Feelings and assurance
Another aspect of pseudo-spirituality, one that has brought much harm to the serenity of many believers, is that which insists that assurance is the prerogative or right of only mature Christians. Yet, John writes of “little children who know their sins are forgiven” (1 John 2.12). Bridges comments, “It is undoubtedly the equal and common right of every member of the family – the youngest as well as the oldest – according to the terms of the covenant of grace.”
Bridges also raises the issue of mistaking feelings for assurance. “The glow of the affections is the choicest joy of life. But a religion grounded upon feelings is a religion of delusion.” Assurance is not to be identified with warm and sensible excitement or feelings, for “the assurance of feeling, is not the assurance of faith.” Christians assurance is, “I know, – not what I feel or what I’ve felt but – whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1.12). Assurance is grounded, “not upon spiritual sensation but on the person, work and office of the Saviour” (Hebrews 10.19-22). The Christian must keep a clear demarcation between assurance and feelings in order that their faith does not morph into “a spirit of evangelical self-righteousness,” that will see their salvation resting upon “some feeling or sensation of our mind,” rather than on Christ.
Assurance and weakness
Finally, Bridges helpfully goes on to point out that personal assurance can, and does, live with both a personal sense of trust in Christ and a personal sense of our own weakness and liability to fall. (Compare 2 Timothy 1. 12 to 1 Corinthians 9. 27). Many a dear child of God will experience crying out to their Father in heaven without any real consciousness that they are his child! Or what of those dear believers, like the renowned poet William Cowper, whose faith was battered by mental illness. Bridges, with great sensitivity, speaks of such folks who struggle in this manner as possessing “obscureed spiritual optics.” Such a dear believer is in a state of a “swoon, not of a corpse.”
This is why it is such a comforting truth when we hold together that as much as assurance belongs to faith, it is not of the essence of faith. It is the norm but it is not abnormal for it to be absent. Genuine faith can genuinely lack assurance. On the contrary, however, if we mistakenly believe that assurance is of the essences of faith; if one lives by the dogma that where faith is there must always be assurance, then faith can never be considered as imperfect! For a perfect faith cannot possibly lose its assurance! Now, if faith can never be imperfect; if there is no room for Christian weakness or failure, what hope has any believer!
Yet, if the imperfections of faith can go hand in hand with assurance, what comfort. And if the weakness of an imperfect faith can exist with assurance what hope believers have in drawing near to God “with a true heart and full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10.22). “Blessed indeed is that helplessness, that makes us lie in the bosom of our Saviour, supported and cherished … so that our insufficiency and all-sufficiency are visible at one glance: and when we are weak we are most strong (2 Corinthians 12.10).” (1)
Let Bridges have the final word. “Let not the trembling believer conclude too hastily against himself from the want of assurance. Diligence and dependence will ensure the blessing. Let him remember, when he prays for stronger faith, to ACT IN THE FAITH THAT IS GIVEN, AND EXPECT THE STRENGTH TO BE VOUCHSAFED” (certainly given).
(1) Bridges’ comment on Psalm 119.173
Charles Bridges was an evangelical Anglican (1794-1869) who served parishes near Stowmarket, Suffolk and Weymouth, Dorset. His work on Psalm 119 came forth from his pen at 33 years of age! The footnote can be found in the Banner of Truth edition of Psalm 119. It is taken from verse 166 (page 444 ff.)