Assurance and Knowledge
Having assurance of one’s salvation is not the same as knowing that one is saved. I am not really sure why this is difficult for some people to grasp, but even some calling themselves “Scripturalists” have a hard time telling the difference.
So for those still confused, assurance of salvation means to be free from doubt. It is to possess a confidence derived from the promises of God and the finished work of Christ outside of ourselves revealed in the Gospel. Assurance is a blessing God gives to those who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity” and who endeavor “to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Westminster Confession states that even though “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,” genuine biblical assurance is “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.” Notice, assurance is not something deduced by “good and necessary” from Scripture. While assurance is “founded upon the divine truth,” it is an inference that is arrived at inductively as we seek to faithfully follow the Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit working within us both to will and to do God’s good pleasure. If our election were a necessary inference from Scripture I hardly think Paul would command believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” If our eternal state were a necessary inference deducible from Scripture Paul should have said; “deduce yourself and know you are in the faith.” As for Philippians 2:12 it would be meaningless (unless you’re a Pelagian , Armianian, or Roman Catholic) as there wouldn’t be anything to work out. As Calvin said concerning this verse; “For distrust of ourselves leads us to lean more confidently upon the mercy of God”; the one true source of Christian assurance.
A quick look at my online dictionary lists the following definitions for assurance:
1. a positive declaration intended to give confidence: He received assurances of support for the project.
2. promise or pledge; guaranty; surety: He gave his assurance that the job would be done.
3. full confidence; freedom from doubt; certainty: to act in the assurance of success.
4. freedom from timidity; self-confidence; belief in one’s abilities: She acted with speed and assurance.
5. presumptuous boldness; impudence.
While some calling themselves Christians, even while denying such non negotiables as justification by belief alone or the Triunity of God, arguably may have assurance in the fifth sense, it should be obvious that the idea of knowledge defined as true opinion with an account of its truth is nowhere to be found. Knowledge is not listed as a synonym for assurance in any sense, yet, for some bizarre reason, people keep equating the two.
I suspect in some cases confusion arises from ambiguity surrounding what it means to know. Speaking colloquially people routinely claim to know all sorts of things for which they cannot account. In this sense knowledge might be defined in terms of having a general understanding of some topic, an acquaintance with someone or something, or simply believing something is true. For example, I might say I know how to bake a cake or that Barrack Obama is the president of the United States. I believe both of these propositions to be true (although the cake thing might be a stretch), but since these are things for which I cannot account I would not call them knowledge in the epistemic sense.
As mentioned in a previous blog piece, if it’s admitted that we cannot know who God’s elect are, the same would seem to apply to us even when we look in the mirror. Epistemology is concerned with answering the question; How do you know? While we can say we know we are saved in a colloquial or evidential sense, we can’t say we know in an epistemological or Scripturalist sense. That’s because for Scripturalist knowledge consists of either the explicit propositions of Scripture or deductions from Scripture. Scripture alone provides both the content and account for knowledge. It may be true that a person may evidence genuine saving faith, but this is the result of an induction and something Sessions regularly struggle with when considering people for church membership. Questions like; is their profession of faith sincere? Or, do they even understand the Gospel and do their lives reflect someone “endeavoring” to walk in obedience before the Lord? What is alarming is when those who claim to understand the distinction between knowledge in the colloquial and epistemic sense claim that their knowledge of their own blessed and eternal state is in the latter sense rather than the former. It’s alarming because such claims smack of spiritual pride and as Gordon Clark rightly observed: “It may be suggested for sober consideration whether or not those who are most easily assured of salvation are least likely to be saved.” Or, as Paul put it; “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.”
In addition, the Confession stresses that assurance does not belong to the essence of belief and that “a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it.” Gordon Clark in What Do Presbyterians Believe explains that assurance is a fruit or consequence of true belief:
But the assurance spoken of in the Confession is a result of faith in Jesus Christ. It is an assurance that can be found only in those who love Him in sincerity and who endeavor to walk in all good conscience before Him. The Pharisees were no doubt very sure of themselves. Their great sin was spiritual pride. The assurance of grace, however, accompanies humility and a sense of unworthiness. The distinction is clear to anyone who wishes to see it . . . . In general one must be extremely cautious, not merely in asserting that faith and assurance are inseparable, but in making any universal statement of the psychology of Christians. The New Testament records a number of conversions, and psychologically they were all different, in fact very different. The New Testament and church history as well give abundant evidence of the infinite variety of Christian experience.
Not only because of particular sins and temptations, but also because of differences of temperament, of upbringing, of education, and of the cultural and historic conditions of one’s age, no one pattern of experience fits everybody. Some are too fearful of presumption, others are not fearful enough. Elijah went to heaven in a fiery chariot, but Jeremiah may have died in despondency. Assurance of salvation, like other blessings, does not come to all Christians; but it is a part of the fullness of God’s grace which we may legitimately and consistently hope to enjoy.
According to Clark and the WCF assurance is a matter of psychology, not epistemology.
Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent a discussion from raging on a Facebook “Clark” page with Ryan Hedrich leading the opposition insisting that knowledge of his own eternally blessed state was a necessary inference from Scripture; this in spite his rejection of the biblical doctrine of God and the Trinity. A number of years ago a similarly contentious debate broke out on the Yahoo Scripturalist group that ended up driving the group to a grinding halt. At that time those playing the role of Hedrich were Pat “The Lawyer Theologian” Sciacca and Reinhard Srajer. This debate occurred in 2006 and while Dr. Robbins did not participate in much of the discussion, he did offer this:
It seems that when a discussion gets underway on this list some members prefer to return to the question of whether one can now know one is saved. Then follows all sorts of confusion that would take days to sort out, probably to no one’s satisfaction. So no progress is made.
First, the issue is not skepticism. Even if a sinner cannot know (in the proper sense of the word) that he is saved — and so far no one has shown that he can — Scripturalism furnishes us with many truths when all other methods fail, and so skepticism is avoided.
Second, knowledge requires explicit statements in Scripture or deductions from Scripture. It is not the same as assurance or certitude or certainty.
Third, opinions may be true or false. (It is absurd to say that some propositions are neither true nor false.) So Jack’s (a hypothetical person) opinion that he is saved may indeed be true, but no one has yet shown how he can deduce it from Scripture. Those who think he can so deduce it must show how it can be so deduced — but don’t try it here for at least a year.
Fourth, Jack’s failure is not due to any doubt about Scripture (and it is impossible to doubt a proposition one believes — one either assents or one does not) but solely to the problem of self-knowledge. He knows the major premise, All believers are saved. He opines the minor premise, I am a believer. Therefore the conclusion, I am saved, can rise no higher than opinion.
Finally, the question is not how does one know one knows? but how does one know? Scripturalism says, one knows only by explicit statements in or valid inferences from Scripture.
Now, gentlemen, move on to another topic.
Sadly, that did not satisfy Sciacca or Srajer, who rather than moving on proceeded to essentially destroy the entire discussion group. I have no doubt that if Dr. Robbins were alive today Hedrich would not move on either. Hedrich remains steadfast insisting that he knows he is regenerate and the proposition “I am regenerate” is an object of knowledge in the strict or epistemic sense. Even more bizarre, while Hedrich claims to knows he is regenerate, he only opines that he is “Ryan Hedrich.” Huh? So when someone asked him where is he found in Scripture or deduced from it so that he might know he is regenerate, Hedrich replied:
I don’t have to provide an explicit reference, especially given I have never argued that I can communicate my self-knowledge to you or vice versa. It’s simply good and necessary consequence. If I were not regenerate, then I would not be able to know anything: by reductio ad absurdem, I must be regenerate.
Remember, this “reducito” so-called is coming from a young man who denies the Trinity, maintains that the Father alone is the “one true God” to the exclusion of the Son and the Spirit, and who militantly denies that Jesus Christ is the self-existent God himself. That said, I do agree that his “reducito” is absurd because I should think someone could know on the basis of divine revelation that David was King of Israel while denying that a person is justified by belief alone, through Christ alone, and by grace alone. I don’t see how it follows that regeneration is a prerequisite for any knowledge whatsoever even on Scripturalist terms. Regeneration is a necessary precondition for someone to come to believe in the one true God and Savior Jesus Christ, something it would seem Hedrich lacks (at least according to the evidence).
Notice too, that for Hedrich the presumed knowledge of his own regeneration, his own election, is incommunicable, yet he asserts it is a “good and necessary consequence.” But “good and necessary consequence” from what? His bellybutton? He certainly hasn’t deduced his eternal blessed state from the Scriptures otherwise it would a truth he could readily communicate to others. Instead, he irrationally appeals to occult knowledge that he alone posses. To put it another way, Hedrich begs the question.Theology