Thursday, February 06, 2014

Three Forms vs. WCF: Assurance

The first difference I would like to examine is not the Sabbath, but rather works and their role in assurance.  

It should probably be noted that the different places these works of a believer are discussed is probably important.  The Heidelberg starts with our sin, moves to salvation in Christ (where works are denied), then hits the sacraments before going on to Christian works of thankfulness.  The WCF starts with creation, sin, salvation in Christ (where works are denied), and then goes into works, assurance, the Law, and even civil government before getting around to the sacraments.  

Let us start with WCF 16.2: "These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments are the fruit and evidence of a true and lively faith and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their faith . . ."  

The WCF starts by letting us know that good works are an evidence of our salvation in Christ.  Thus, we can expect to see works as a major portion of our assurance of salvation.  The article does mention the role of works in strengthening our faith among other things.  The section does go on to mention the imperfection of even these works, but still the works are a reliable evidence of our salvation.  WCF 18.1 then does follow this logic by stressing assurance can be had for those who "truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before Him".  Notice the assurance seems to be looking primarily at ourselves including our works, which I would say falls under walking in a good conscience before God.  18.2 gives the ground of assurance as the "divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promise are made, the testimony of the Spirit witnessing with our spirits".  While this does add the outward promise of God the other are inward focused.  The Westminster Larger Catechism Q.80 answers assurance by combining those two making the stress again fall upon those who are endeavoring to walk in good conscience.  Absent from the assurance section is any mention of the sacraments.

The Heidelberg takes a very different view focusing outward on Christ for assurance.  Assurance shows up in Q65 about the sacraments where the Holy Ghost confirms our faith by the use of the holy sacraments.  Now the WCF uses the confirming one's faith language in their section on the sacraments, but the sacraments themselves do not show up in the section on assurance and works do, while works themselves have already been discussed.  The Heidelberg begins with the sacraments, which "declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel".  Thus, assurance is going to come from the means of grace, which are designed to direct us not to ourselves, but to the "sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only ground of salvation" (Q.67).  Then the in-depth discussion of both sacraments is slamming that fact home.  How do they direct us to the cross?  Where can you find that in the word?  Is the power in the sacraments themselves?  Now in HC.Q86 we do see the Heidelberg say that works have the function of assuring our faith by the fruits thereof, but it still comes out as third in a list of four.  Let us not forget that the Heidelberg has already taught us that our good works in this life are all defiled with sin (Q.62).  The discussion of the commandments is next, and it ends with this reminder that "even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of such obedience" (Q.114), and that the law for the believer is still ultimately to teach us our sinfulness and drive us to Christ for forgiveness and to Him in prayer for sanctification (Q.115).  It is not quite the same view of the Law shown in WCF 19.6 where the law itself is useful to the regenerate to "restrain their corruptions".  The Heidelberg seems to focus on the law as showing our corruption and leaves the making us ready and willing to live unto God up to the Spirit (HC#1).  

So it appears a very different method of assurance is found in the Three Forms as opposed to the WCF.  The WCF points heavily to oneself and the personal witness of the spirit and their own works, to serve as evidence of salvation and thus assurance.  The Heidelberg points much more toward preaching and the sacraments as the main route of assurance since those both point toward Christ on the cross.  The Belgic seems to agree more with the Heidelberg as it states in Article 24 if we looked to works "we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed".  No assurance that does not point to Jesus Christ.  Although it has to be admitted that the Canons of Dort 5th Head of Doctrine seem to point inward to a witnessing of the Spirit to one's spirit, and to one's work as the way to assurance.  

In summary assurance for the WCF is to look within oneself to see the fruits and for the Heidelberg and Belgic it is to look to what Christ has done.  

I open the floor for discussion and rebuttal.


Jeremy said...

Thanks Lee

I've heard a similar argument from Lutheran friends, perhaps it would be helpful to compare their Smaller Catechism as well.

What do you make of James 2:18?

David said...

Thanks, this is great stuff.

Jeremy said...

Just wanted to add, the WCF points to these works being through Christ and not of the individual

WCF 14.3 "This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith."

WCF 16.3 "Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ..."

Jeremy said...

Then again...doesn't HC 21 seems to say the same thing regarding assurance?

The "works in my heart" (or "works in me" in the RCUS version)

Lee said...

Both the WCF and Heidelberg acknowledge that good works come from the Spirit, although I am not sure 21 speaking of a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel is talking of works. Rather it seems to be pointing to trust that Christ has forgiven me with His works and righteousness.
I think the bigger point is that WCF points to works (which ability ultimately comes from the Spirit) as the main stay of assurance. The Heidelberg points instead to the Sacraments and the finished work on Christ.

I think James 2:18 is speaking of our works being evidence to others of our true faith. It is not really saying works is evidence to ourselves or a source of personal assurance.

Andrew D said...

How about including just a bit from the Westminster Larger Catechism. WLC 79 perserverance (which is entangled with assurance) and 80 which explicitly deals with assurance. WLC 79 founds assurance firmly on the unchangeable love of God, his decree and covenant, their inseparable union with Christ... WLC 80 says ... by faith grounded upon the truth of God's promises ... and by the Spirit enabling them to discern.

Those aren't introspective as you suggest, but all point outward to Christ as the fulfilment of God's promises.

Lee said...

WLC 79 found perseverance upon the unchangeable love of God and His decrees, but I disagree that it is bound up with assurance. The WLC is affirming that persevere because of God's love, but that is saying nothing about how people can find assurance for salvation.
And I do think WLC #80 is still primarily introspective. Remember that one begins with the qualification that only those who are attempting to walk in good conscience. And then with the power of the Spirit can still discern the evidence of grace within themselves and have the witness of the Holy Spirit to their spirit.
I am not trying to deny the WCF and WLC use the promise of God for some assurance, just as the Heidelberg mentions works. But the WCF focuses internal primarily for assurance while the Heidelberg focuses primarily external. At least that is my argument.

Jeremy said...

Thanks Lee

Not wanting to be misunderstood, objectively we look to Christ and His finished work - His mediation - His continued intercession -always from which anything else flows.

I agree on James 2, though there seems to be force in the "my faith by my works", a subjective assurance - or an assured confidence (HC 21) - that such a statement could be made. Also, 2 Corinthians 13:5, Hebrews 6:11-12, and even in direct connection with the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:28.

The point is undoubtedly better stated from Richard Sibbes on page 204ff, in discussing the 'testimony of our conscience' of 2 Corinthians 1:12

Jeremy said...

Then again...any discussion of the subjective should probably be peppered with a healthy dose of reality/caution given the fruits of German Pietism, English Puritanism, and the Further Reformation of the Netherlands.

Jeremy said...

Just a note, but the question of assurance came up during the Q&A session at last months conference at Westminster West. David Van Drunen spoke of the three elements spoken of, one of which was fruit.

Jeremy B said...

I just wanted to share a sermon series on Assurance, from Edward Donnelly of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland, preached out of a desire to see improved evangelism among the congregation.