June 3, 2020

Riffs: 01:01:08: Losing the Treasure of a Christ-Centered Assurance of Salvation

i-beli8.jpgUPDATE: John H has a helpful Lutheran response.

UPDATE II: A Lutheran view of Assurance.

: Mark Shea comments on assurance in Calvinism and Catholicism. I think Mark’s experience with Calvinism is not very nuanced, but it’s on target. (Buy the Rosenbladt presentation.)

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Q. 2. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?

A. Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.

-The Heidelberg Catechism

Eric Thoennes from Talbot is writing at CT answering the question how do you know you are a Christian if you can’t remember when you made your “decision.” I appreciate his desire to address an important question.

It’s the ever-present evangelical struggle with assurance. With our differing view of sacramental effacacy, most evangelicals get tossed back to their experience of conversion, hence the stereotypical “testimony of getting saved,” an evangelical sacrament if there ever was one. Many of us abandoned that approach long ago in our own rejection of the errors of revivalism and good riddance. But what does that leave us with? Thoennes says the answer is sanctification, i.e. “growth” in being like Jesus and in the fruit of the Spirit.

Here’s the last paragraph.

For those who question their salvation, the best evidence is not the memory of having raised a hand or prayed a prayer. Nor is it having been baptized or christened. The true test of the authentic work of God in one’s life is growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; James 2:18). A memorable conversion experience may serve as an important referent to God’s saving work in one’s life. But the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ.

Hmmmm. Revivalistic experience…..or…..works. Any other choices? How about “I believe Jesus Christ died and lives for me. I am a sinner, and Jesus Christ is my hope, savior and mediator. Jesus = my salvation.” How about sola fide, sola Christus?

I’ve addressed this numerous times here at IM. If you want to know why there is an ad for Rod Rosenbladt’s teaching on my sidebar, this is the reason. Let me suggest the good doctor’s cure on the doctrine of Justification and its pastoral use in the matter of assurance.

The “best evidence” is “growth” in “love” and “fruit.” Being more “like Jesus.” Good grief. Can anyone spell “despair?” Seeking assurance through a measurement like “growth in Christlikeness” is not reformation Christianity. It’s the other team, where justification and sanctification are two words for the same thing. It’s obliterating the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification in the matter of assurance.

This stuff matters, folks. It matters at the moments you really need the Gospel to matter most: moments of great sin, attacks of doubt/despair and deathbeds- a place where I understand the active righteousness of Christ can be very comforting.

Interestingly, the first time I gave specific attention to this was also the first time I found myself disagreeing with Dr. Piper. I have changed my views even more into the Lutheran/Capon camp since I wrote “On Faith’s Crumbling Edge,” but you can sense here that when Dr. Piper keeps tying assurance to the question of “have you made every effort,” I’m not with him at all.

My older essays, “When I Am Weak” and “Our Problem With Grace” are statements of my understanding of the kind of assurance produced by the Gospel by faith, NOT by works.

Back to Dr. Thoennes. It seems to me he’s saying we’ll get rid of aisle-walking and hand-raising, and instead offer the wounded conscience “Are you becoming like Jesus?” If that will do the job, see you at mass. I’m quite serious. I’d far prefer the out and out Roman view of “assurance,” plainly stated as something you can’t have with certainty, than the advice to look at my own life for evidence I’m a real Christian. As Catholic convert and commentator Mark Shea says, ““I became more secure in my relationship with God once I was no longer certain I was going to heaven.” This is where we end up when we self-reference assurance.

Why are the prodigal son, Peter’s denial and the publican on his face our models for faith? Why does Romans 7 precede Romans 8? Why are warned that when we think we stand, we are ready to fall? Who in the New Testament would have passed the test of “examine your life and see if you are growing in obedience?” The rich young ruler? Nicodemus? Saul of Tarsus?

Please go buy Rod Rosenbladt’s message on justification at New Reformation Press.

The Lutheran position remains, for me, the absolutely necessary antidote for revivalism, subjective experience or the despair of self-examiniation for “progress.” (I have no problem with the statements in scripture that urge examination to see if I am in the faith. Entirely different than being in some legalistic environment where there’s an “obedience scrorecard.”

There must be a clear and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ. In other words, even a Christian can be saved. This other gospel, in its various forms (“Higher Life,” legalistic, the “carnal Christian” teaching, etc.) is tearing us to pieces.

You might be surprised who gets this sort of thing. A reader sent me this quote:

“A seriously Catholic friend whose line of work has him hanging out with equally serious evangelical Protestants has a problem. “I’m not very good,” he says, “at giving the kind of formulaic ‘personal testimony’ that they seem to expect.” I know what he means. For many years I’ve been responding to evangelical friends who want to know when I was born again or, as it is commonly put, when I became a Christian. “I don’t remember it at all,” I say, “but I know precisely the time and place. It was at 357 Miller St., Pembroke, Ontario, on Sunday, June 2, 1936, when twelve days after my birth I was born again in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.” (I was baptized at home because the chicken pox was going around.) That usually elicits a wry smile, and then the question, “Yes, but when did you really become a Christian?” In sober truth, there have been not one but several moments in my life that would no doubt qualify as what most evangelicals mean by a conversion experience. In circumstances appropriate to the disclosure of intensely personal experiences, I have told others about these moments. And some day, in pathetically pale imitation of Augustine and other greats, I might write about them in detail. My public testimony, however, is not to my experience but to Christ. It is not upon my experience but upon Christ that I rest my confidence that I am a child of God.

That’s Father Richard John Neuhaus, writing in First Things, April of 2000.


  1. “…it’s the other team…” – Uh, I know it’s New Year’s Day and all, but are we puttin’ on our jersies in this thing? You wear Orange, I wear Green I suppose. Poor choice of a “team sports” term Michael. Maybe we should all wear white.

    So, “it’s not reformation Christianity”? But is it ancient Christianity? So, it does start in the 1500’s then? Is the goal to live “reformation Christianity”? That’s all just coming off – not sounding so good.

    I’m thinkin’ I could, if I took the time to study out a homily right now, come up with a good many very connected, contextual Scriptural texts that talk very much about outward life-evidence of our conversion to Christ – reflections of our inner connection to Him – fruit, etc. That’s certainly not NOT the Gospel.

    If someone actually sounded like they were talking about saving one’s self by their good deeds, or by living like a Christian, or anything like that, I’d sure agree that they were wrong and were saying something that needed tweaking, slightly. None of what I’ve read in these quotes sounds anything like that though. I don’t know Michael. I’m not defending something just because of it being “Catholic” – and I’m sure not going to defend how every Catholic would talk about salvation and how it works. I’m just sayin’ there may not be as much in this as you’re seeing.

    Peace and Happy New Year.

  2. “The “best evidence” is “growth” in “love” and “fruit.” Being more “like Jesus.” Good grief. Can anyone spell “despair?” and etc…

    Brother Michael, you hit the nail on the head! Most drive you back onto yourself somehow. I found Piper back in my heavy Piper days the most depressing and just fell short of a bullet or a noose.

    It is best to seek out Luther on this. Luther keeps everything utterly Christ/cross centered in the Word and Sacrament. For always our experiences, how well we are doing (boy that’s a killer), feelings, and etc… will do NOTHING for assurance…in fact it will go the other direction!

    Something Luther said that has stuck with me regarding the Word (Meaning Gospel) and the sacraments according to the Gospel and not the opinion of the Law. It goes something like this (it goes to the heart of idolatry): God would not have sent His Son incarnate nor the sacraments to cause doubt. We create idolatry of THE God and form in reality that which is not God. We know of some of His general attributes; that He is, is righteous, sovereign, will punish wickedness, etc… But we do not know, outside of Christ HIS WILL/Heart toward us. This later part is where we turn inwardly and begin to take the other attributes to hone our idol. E.g. God is sovereign and punishes sinners, ergo, if I were God I’d punish the sinners. Luther poses the question of why Satan didn’t recognize, or refused to do so, Christ as God, didn’t see behind the curtain of flesh the deity? Being the arch type of fallen man who seeks righteousness by the law viewing it fundamentally as a legal approach, self seeking love, he could not in anyway come to see the REAL deity being altruistic love utterly unself seeking and without ANY self seeking. If Jesus had come to wipe out sinners He would have been immediately exalted as God among Satan and fallen man. Not knowing God’s will/heart toward us sinners results in nothing but idolatry even from Scriptures. The question is what is His will, heart and disposition toward me the sinner. I must have Christ ASSURED to actually KNOW God, else I will hone an idol and call it God even call it Jesus.

    Luther is so bold to say that Jesus’ work was not offered up so as to even “change” God’s will, heart or disposition toward man. NO! IT IS HIS WILL, HEART AND DISPOSITION toward sinful man. Jesus was given FOR US, not for God. To that:

    If what is not witnessed to in Scripture is that of Christ and Him crucified FOR YOU, like “Christian living” for example, even if scriptures are quoted against you, which the devil well does, even if it is distilled from Scripture, then it is of the devil. For even Jesus says that all of Scripture bears witness of Him, His work. THIS IS CRUCIAL TO GRASP: For the Word spoken of God is from His heart (what is spoken COMES from the very heart and will of God), and the Incarnate Word (Crucified and risen FOR YOU) is the spoken Word of God the Father Himself, THUS HIS WILL and DISPOSITION toward us. The Word spoke in the incarnation itself – as does breath that carries the voice of the speaker – speaks the heart of God (NOW you may better understand Luther’s Seal and its DEEP Gospel meaning). The Holy Spirit breathed into the womb Mary and the Word Incarnated so to speak so as to SPEAK God’s will, heart and disposition toward sinful mankind (…peace unto you…). You want to know the will of God, see Christ crucified and risen for you and that’s it, all else is derivative by vocation and normal calling. Thus, Christ’s sacrifice was not even given to God the Father to “change His will, heart or mind toward sinners”. No, the Incarnate Crucified Word of God IS the WORD of God spoken from His heart – IT IS HIS WILL, HEART and MIND toward us and NOT to change His mind toward us. When He gave us Christ, He gave us HIS Mind, Heart and Will. The Sacraments are greater condescension’s to our weakness to actually belief (trust for YOU/ME in particular, its FOR YOU/ME). When baptized, God baptizes and GIVES you HIS will, same with the supper. For Luther said, and is 100% correct, the sacraments ARE the will of God. If men reject them they reject His pure altruistic love towards sinners. The REAL Law, that which Christ did, altruistic selfless love, is IN the Gospel and that is FOR US.

    The Scandal of the Cross is SO scandalous that even “Christian” preachers and teachers will not see the real Deity behind the incarnate flesh, but even draw up from Christ Himself a new false idol to worship (its not just arminians but you find this in MUCH of so called “sovereign grace” ministries and reformed Baptist circles, pure idolatry). This is why Luther could say that ‘even if the devil and Judas preach the pure Gospel I am to listen and if Paul and Peter preach another gospel I am not to listen’. Even the Scriptures, the written word, are subservient to Christ Himself and cannot contradict Him, the very will of God Spoken in Incarnation and openly displayed on the Cross of Christ for us. Thus, you find many many fools who say, “I preach the whole council of God”, deceive themselves and others for the whole council of God is Christ and the Christ that DID FOR YOU. There is NO other Word of God neither in Law or Gospel.

    Yours truly,


  3. I’m going to think this through a bit more, but my first reaction is that when I compare

    1) The Gospel and Pauline witness as to what “salvation” is and what the Christian’s stance to God, the world and other Christians is


    2) The “reformation” way of putting these questions, which you express here

    I see incredible dissonance. They just don’t match up.

    My salvation happens because of Christ’s action, something I “accept” into my life and – more importantly – something into which I am brought when I am baptized and become a part of his Body.

    It seems to me that your equation goes like this:

    Christ’s action
    My acceptance
    End of story

    The Scriptural/classic Christian equations seems to me to go more like this:

    Christ’s action
    My acceptance
    My absorption into Christ (which is really and truly expressed in His Body on Earth – the Church)

    For me, the Reformation way of shading this, with its neurotic, reflexive trembling about “WORKS” is profoundly counter to Scriptural witness, which is nuances and realistic about human nature and how God acts in our life

    Of course the Reformation was a reaction to terrible excesses and perversions on the RC end, and an understandable one. But that was 500 years ago, and I guess the resultant problems that this post reflects are what is meant when it is claimed that the Reformation is “over.”

    And Michael, I know you’ve heard this before, but I would really like to hear your response to something I’ve heard quite often.

    Jesus is asked throughout Scripture questions about “What must I do to obtain eternal life” and so on.

    What are his answers?

    How do those answers match up with the what hard-core reactive Reformers say about it?

  4. Alan, I’m going to write this with all the friendship and appreciation I can through this medium. I am your friend, and I respect and appreciate your convictions and your journey. I understand what you are going through as you go back to Rome with your family, and I’ve perceived your emotions about it. I deeply value your input.

    First, the team analogy is not spiteful, but realistic. I have a stack of books and two letters a week trying to get me to enter the RCC. If that’s not an effort to get me to change teams, then I’m not sure why I am receiving all this generosity.

    I have a generous view of the league. Like baseball, I think we are all preserving the game, and the game is more important than who wins this year. But I simply can’t buy the idea that, one way or another, I’m in communion with Christians I can’t commune with. So if the team analogy can be heard as a fellow player, and not an enemy, that would be good.

    Second, is Reformation Christianity ancient Christianity? In every discussion I have with roman Catholics on any subject, I am told to 1) read more and 2) study history more. Go the way of Newman, Spencer, and we’ll see you in RCIA.

    I don’t believe that. I believe the most ancient witness is the scriptures. I don’t believe anachronistic readings of tradition are always to be presumed right (and I don’t want to cite specifics, but you know what I mean) and I don’t see the Reformation as entirely innovation, which I know is the standard response of the RCC, even when being generous.

    Thirdly, I am a Reformation Christian. The reasons I am not a RC and won’t be are Reformation reasons. I believe the five solas, even though I don’t read them the same as other Protestants. I am confessionally Baptist and make that confession with integrity, though other Baptists don’t speak for me in every case of course.

    I have lived 8 months of obsessive study on the RCC and grown greatly in my understanding and appreciation. I have good guides and I treasure my Catholic friends. But let’s be clear. I’m not a candidate for coming home. I’m a candidate for someone who is a brother in Christ in the post-evangelical way.

    Finally, if my Mark Shea quote misrepresents the RC position, I’d like to know how. Mr. Shea seems fairly competent on this. Thomas Howard in On Being Catholic says the same thing, and it’s my reading of the catechism. But I am frequently wrong, and often need to be told that there’s a lot more to Catholicism than I will ever know, which- with all due respect- starts to sound a lot like “take it on authority because you can’t study out the details.” Well, you know what I’m going to say about that 🙂

    I love you, Alan, and I always rejoice that Fr. Louis is our friend, but I am a Reformation Christian, and on the subject of assurance, I believe Luther read Romans and the New Testament clearly.

  5. Tom…

    Let me simplify my view for for you.

    Jesus = Salvation I Tim 2:5-6a 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all,

    Luke 2:29 Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
    30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
    31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
    32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.

    On your word “acceptance:” If you are referring to something I do, no. If you are referring to my being accepted in the beloved, yes.



  6. Well, I love you too man. I’m glad we can say that to one another. We pretty much know where we disagree, at least in the areas about which we’ve talked or written. I disagree with some of my very close friends on many things. I hear you on the “league” deal. I think what I was reacting to, or doing, was calling you out a little bit on doing something that you’ve even recently called out yourself – “playing team sports.” Sure, we all know there are “teams” of a sort, and I hope, with you, that we can play well with each other. That’s all I meant in pointing that out.

    All that about all the letters you receive and Catholics trying to convert you to Rome – none of them were from me, and my comment wasn’t meant to steer you in that direction either. I hope you know that. I’m probably some kind of “unfaithful Catholic” to some who’ll read this because of that – oh well, I’ll have to live with that. I’m sure there are a bunch who are out for your proverbial head, and that’s unfortunate.

    On the quote from Shea, I wasn’t referring to that at all in anything I said. It sounded like he was talking about his own experience of something, so I’d have nothing to say about whether he was right or wrong. I was talking about the main quotes from articles. Someone talking about seeing yourself being transformed into the Image of Christ by evidence of your life doesn’t sound like a rejection of Salvation by Grace through Faith to me. I agree that we can’t depend on feelings or even on objectively seeing, even ourselves, “being good” as proof or assurance of Christ in us. Heathens are good all the time.

    Love, though, is definitely THE fruit of the Life of God’s Spirit in us, and we are called by the ancient witness of Scripture to grow in Love – to make sure that we are doing so, and to help each other to do so. It’s a little Scripturally hard to say how much in Christ we are without the Love of Christ flowing in our lives. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m sure we can both agree on that even if we don’t exactly agree on how it all works out.

    One of these days dude, beer will pass between us, or at least chicken wings or something. Peace to you.

  7. Patrick Kyle says


    What can I say? This touches on the cornerstone of my life as a Christian. I sojourned in evangelicalism for years and was tortured by questions of assurance. Any answer that depends on us is ultimately shifting sand. I despaired for a long time, and watched many friends give up on the faith and eventually abandon it altogether. My best friend in college, a man with whom I pastored a church, and who was brought up in the Holiness movement, repudiated his baptism and became Jewish. Others, once they realized that all the formulas for holiness and victorious living didn’t work(at least for them) slid into a low key nominal stance toward the faith. I had one friend tell me things were a lot easier once you didn’t take the whole “Christianity thing” so seriously. He still attends a church occasionally, and still believes,but he has no interest in the Scriptures and dismisses theology with a wave of his hand as “opinions of people who make their living from the church.”
    The doctrine of justification is really life or death for people on the margins. Thanks for putting this discussion in front of many who need to hear it.

  8. ***The “best evidence” is “growth” in “love” and “fruit.” Being more “like Jesus.” Good grief. Can anyone spell “despair?”****

    AMEN, Michael, AMMMMMEN!

  9. It’s back to Rom 1:16,17. Paul is eager to preach the Gospel to believers. You would think he would say this about unbelievers. But he is convinced that the truth of imputed and credited righteousness is an enlivening doctrine. Paul is convinced it will produce fruit. Tying assurance to sanctification is a most dangerous thing and will ultimately lead to the question, “how much sanctification?” No one can answer that. No one. The truth of free forgiveness based on the alien righteousness of another is the only place to stand. And when people take their stand there, I do not find libertinism or a lower ethical life. I find hearts set free. I love the Puritans and read them often. But both in England and New England they flamed out because of their frail doctrine of assurance. It produced a paranoid, fearful and unstable church. In three generations both movement were dead and unitarian.

  10. Dear IM,

    When my Evangelical friends ask me when I was born again, I say “today, and everyday”. Since I am a sinner, I return to my baptism daily. It is not a onetime event that we move away from, but rather it is a part of us, moving through life, in , under, and with us.
    Luther once wrote that the Christian life never progresses beyond baptism.
    There is an excellent article(albeit short)titled ‘Baptism and No Further’ at http://pastorlcm.blogspot.com/2007_10_1_archive.html

    Excellent topic! This question was, and is he heart of the Reformation.

    Keep up the good work IM!

    – Steve

  11. Someone pointed Mark Shea to your post and he gave his take on your dilemma here:


    I think a future series of interviews with him like you did with Josh S. would be mucho interesting.

    Thanks for this post. I don’t know where I fall on this right now. I thought some of this was already settled back during my “cage-phase” Calvinist days, but having studied some of Luther’s positions as well as that of the Anglican and Catholic traditions, I’m not so sure anymore. I can’t put my finger on it but it seems like to some degree, all of them are hitting on truth but only parts of it. My mind just can’t get around all of them to come to any solid conclusions yet.

  12. Bror Erickson says

    I have always had a problem with this question in the Heidleberg Catechism: What do you need to know to be saved?
    And I don’t mean to be picking on Calvinists here. But it is not what you know, or who you know that saves you. Rather it is entirely the other way around. It is who knows you. When Christ baptizes you into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are known and loved by Christ, adopted as it were by our Father in heaven, and made to be a child of God. There is assurance in that! Assurance that a baby is saved before they can articulate the Apostles Creed. Assurance that one afflicted with down syndrome is saved despite their intellectual deficiencies. (I often wonder if intellectual deficiencies on that level are really a blessing when it comes to salvation.)
    I am not hereby defending irrationalism, or decrying doctrinalism. Doctrine is very important, and should not be taken lightly. Mostly because, false doctrine is do destructive to belief, and leads to unbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice, for us with enough intellect to get in trouble. We should always remember that our intellect is a gift of God. We should be most willing to put that to use not only in our secular pursuits, but also in our spiritual pursuits. But memorizing a doctrinal text book does not save. Christ saves.

  13. Fr Alvin Kimel says

    God knows I have wrestled with the question of assurance for a very, very long time. At one point I too read everything I could get my hands on by Capon, as well as Lutherans like Robert Jenson and Gerhard Forde–and of course Luther himself. If assurance is one’s burning question, then to Luther and his disciples one must go.

    The more I think about this question, the more convinced I am that the problem lies in our understanding of God. Is it coincidental that this problem of assurance is more a Western than an Eastern problem? Might we still be suffering from the absolute predestinarianism of Augustine? At least that is what I have proposed in my recent blog piece “Disbelieving the Predestinarian God.”

    I have now been a Catholic for two and a half years. I have not noticed any experiential change in my assurance of God’s love, despite the fact that the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches that we cannot have absolute certainty of our subjective appropriation of salvation (or in the older language, we cannot know with absolute certainty whether we are in a state of grace). We cannot know because grace, whether uncreated or created, cannot be directly discerned by the finite human subject.

    But this does not mean that we cannot enjoy an assurance of salvation. This does not mean that we cannot know that we are intended by God’s unconditional love and mercy. Hence the important statement in the Joint Declaration:

    “Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life. In this sense, one cannot believe in God and at the same time consider the divine promise untrustworthy. No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.”

    Here we find the Catholic Church directly appropriating the critical insight of Luther: look not to oneself, not to one’s faith or to one’s works, but to the promises of Christ spoken to us in the sacraments. David Yeago has rightly noted that Luther’s insight represents “a run towards the core of the catholic tradition, a reaffirmation of its dogmatic and sacramental heart.” Phillip Cary makes a similar point in his lecture on the sola fide, contrasting Luther and Calvin (see especially Cary’s important essay “Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise,” Pro Ecclesia 14/4 [Fall 2005]: 447-486). The “Lutheran” approach to assurance is dependent upon a catholic sacramentology. When the gospel is divorced from a catholic understanding of sacrament, the crisis of assurance becomes perhaps irresolvable.

  14. Christians have always claimed the autority of the Bible, and every geneartion also claimed to understand it.

    Are not issues like this then a matter of whom to trust – the reformers or the early church?

    And what are the reasons for the discrepancy in interpretation – can social trends such as the pre-reformation Renaissance influence the theological dogma … or early Judaism, for that sake?

    We should not be ignorant in such matters.

  15. Fr Alvin Kimel says

    In light of this discussion, I have re-posted an article on assurance and Hans Urs von Balthasar. FYI.

  16. Very well done Michael, keep up the good work on the Good News, those who suffer know its value, those who don’t really don’t.

    Piper’s “have you made every effort,” sounds strangely like “doing what is within one”.

    All of this boils down to an inverting (perverting) of the love of God into an idol of fallen religion, or man’s fallen love or Satanic “love”. Luther’s entire base point! The love of God = the true Law = that altruistic love that is utterly selfless, in fact it despises self love in any form be it rank sin or outward apparent holiness. As Luther well said there is a difference in fulfilling the Law, that is being in the will of God which is absolute selfless love from the heart Vs. doing the works of the Law which ultimately derives from a selfish fallen heart out of fear of punishment or hope of reward. The very attack this selfless love makes on “hidden” self love itself and its invented “good works” and the response it brings merely bears open witness of men’s secret hatred of the true God. When men make God out to “save only those He makes pretty, even and especially ‘after conversion’, that is make them lovable and attractive, even by some ‘gracious power’”; this is nothing more than the base perversion of the Law/Love from the fall forward. It is Satanic love and at that attaching it to God Who is selfless love of utter purity and in the end to hone a false god out of the true God. True faith which actually does good works naturally and hidden to itself, doesn’t really talk about it. Faith makes much of Christ which is the glory of God, His fame and that fame is this: God selfless gives His pure love even and especially to the point of rejection.

    At the end of the day there is no theological difference, even if the outward doing differs before men’s eyes, as to the true fulfilling of the Law – being in God’s will, selfless love – between a Muslim who does his “good works”, for they are good in his eyes according to his idol of God, out of fear of punishment or hope of reward; and a professing christian man who does his “good works” of saving thousands of lives at the expense of himself externally out of fear of punishment or hope of reward. For if the later has the real Law pressed into his heart and soul and finds he ultimately has no reward for this “good work” or life of “good works” whatsoever and worse is damned because he sought this way – he will then begin to rage against God for this “injustice” done to him, “…did we not do these things in Your name…”. Seeing no reward the wicked fallen heart begins to transform into the beast it really is and not the façade it pretends to be by a mask of “good works”, thus revealing that “he would not have done these great deeds of saving thousands at his expense” if he knew this, proving that he would have allowed them just the opposite. The fallen heart proves its real intent when the true altruistic selfless love of God presses against it.

    Thus also, there is no theological difference between Allah and a jesus or a biblical “christian” god who requires to love only that which he changes over first to a lovable and attractive object. The only God that is utterly different and alien to all other false gods inside and outside of the church is the God Who loves that which is unattractive and unlovable, who died and was crucified for NO GAIN whatsoever for Himself and show HIS WILL toward that detestable object (namely us). Thus, this God reveals His true glory, His true fame…”I AM like THIS…not like you suppose”.

    Had Jesus come to strike sinners both Satan and the Pharisees, even all of Rome would have not only NOT crucified Him, but exalted Him. But then He would not have been THE JESUS, or THE GOD that IS, but rather the fallen idol that Satan, the archtype of fallen man, and fallen man had configured from a vain imagination. But when the God in flesh appeared and said, “I came to forgive sinners and die for them…forgive without an eye toward ANY repair…that’s the reason I came, so they would know!”, well we broke out the Cross for that God because to us that could not be God and He had to go.

    I don’t know which will be more stunning in eternity; the number of “good” Christians full of good works, elders, deacons and preachers in hell OR the number of murderers, prostitutes, adulterers and generally vial persons in heaven. I truly don’t know which will be more shocking.

    In Christ’s sufficiency alone,


  17. Michael,

    Timing is everything. Two days ago we received our hard copy issue of “The Lutheran Magazine,” the magazine of the ELCA, and lo and behold,there is an article that is germane to this conversation on the Augsburg Confession. It is available online at http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=6905&id=1.


  18. You all have given me food for thought–I John 5:13 says–“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.”–so he wrote I John so we could know that we have eternal life (this is what assurance is about). What Dr. Thoennes is saying lines up with parts of I John and also what you have said lines up with parts of I John. Soooooooo -I see both sides expressed in I John—-Dr.Toennes side and your side–such verses as “If we say that we have fellowhip with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowhip with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly, the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.” “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now.””If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” “Whoever does not pratice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.” “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit….Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments.” “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” SO somehow it all ties together–both sides.

  19. a simple bloggTRotter says


    I realize that you modrate the comments, so maybe you can just read this and delete it if it seems out of line. Or, maybe you can delete it if I am not supposed to be reprinting Pastor John Piper’s e-mail thing I get.

    God Bless

    “Therefore, our deeds confirm that our names are in the book and should be in the book—that is, they confirm that we trust Christ and are united to him. Our deeds are the fruit of our faith and union with Christ.

    For example, consider the thief on the cross. Jesus said that he would enter paradise (Luke 23:43). But what will judgment be like for him when the books are opened? 99.9% of his life will be sin. And only the final hours will be the fruit of faith. I think God will open the book of life and show the name of the thief on the cross. His salvation will be secured by the blood of Christ. Then God will open the books and will use the record of sin to glorify his Son’s supreme sacrifice, and he use the last page to show the change that was wrought in the thief’s attitudes and words. That last page—the last hours on the cross—will be the public confirmation of the thief’s faith and union with Christ.

    Therefore, when I say that what is written in the books is a public confirmation of our faith and of union with Christ, I do not mean that the record will contain more good works than bad works. I mean that there will be recorded there the kind of change that shows the reality of faith—the reality of regeneration and union with Christ. There will be enough evidences of grace that God will be able to make a public display of what is in the books to verify the born-again reality of those written in the book of life. No one is saved on the basis of his works. But everyone who is saved does new works. Not perfectly, but with humble longing for more holiness. That is how I enter 2008, confident that my condemnation is past (Romans 8:3), and that my name is in the book of life, and that the one who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Christ. I pray for you, that you are with me.”

  20. Dr. Piper is fine, but he always leans too far one way. None of our works are perfect and often they are absent. I appreciate it when he’s clear, but often he is not. He often puts the relationship of faith and works in a way that causes me to despair. Most glaring example is his constant use of “delight in God” as a command.

  21. a simple bloggTRotter says

    I think I understand what you are saying, even though I would respectfully disagree. I am bouncing between Pipers latest book and The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, and I am not ashamed to say I think I know a little about despair. I do enjoy your blog, and your candor.

    God Bless

  22. a simple bloggTRotter says

    I meant to write that the books are both pointing me to comfort and food in God’s word and encouraging me along.


  23. Patrick Kyle says


    Brilliant. You make a very subtle but important point about “delight in God” as a command. Piper here makes the classic mistake of confusing the law and the Gospel. The proper distinction between the law and the Gospel is of paramount importance in preaching and exegesis, but is all but forgotten in the modern church, except in some Lutheran and Reformed circles. Distinguishing the modes of God’s speech to us, and their respective purposes hit me like a ligthning bolt when I finally understood it, and it cracked the Scriptures wide open for me. It also helped me better understand the preaching I was hearing, and what and how various preachers were doing what they were doing. Often times a sermon can seem doctrinally correct and Scripturally faithful on the surface but something about it just doesn’t sit right. The answer can usually be found in how the preacher or teacher is using the categories of law and Gospel, even if they are not aware of it.

  24. Patrick Kyle says


    Thanks for the links in your above comment. In the last year or so I have become a real Phillip Carey fan. How that man has read so much must surely be one of the 7 Wonders of the western world. His genius and clarity of theological and historical vision bring me such joy, that I would speak in tongues if I were Pentecostal. Here is the link again to Carey’s paper.


    For anyone interested in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, and the similarities and differences between the Lutheran and Reformed positions, this paper is a “must read.”

  25. We are talking about assurance of our salvation; not necessarily the fact of our salvation. If we, ourselves want to have assurance then how we live , what we delight in, the Spirit’s work, etc all according to I John and James is evidence. So this in turn gives us assurance—-as does the fact of being in Christ—-just two sides of the same coin. I think, that when I am deliberately choosing sin, which of course I do…..if I do not want to repent or discard it then it may weaken my assurance….it may not weaken the fact of my salvation, just my assurance of it. How we live proves to us that we are trusting Christ not just believing in Him as the demons do. It is proof to us that we have a trusting belief and not a belief like the demons have—they truly believe but it is not the right kind. I Peter 1 makes this -topic of assurance pretty clear, I think. In verse 10 he says, “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things,you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”–How do we make certain about His calling? The “therefore” of verse 10 points back, I believe, to all of the qualities listed–being partakers of the divine nature—applying diligence in your faith supply moral excellence…knowledge, self-control etc–a long lits. Our fruit is our proof to ourselves that we believe and trust and are not believers as the demons are. (Don’t ya thing??? ) Kim

  26. ooooops –I meant don’t ya think–not thing!!! ps, I hate to say it but I love Piper too ;-(

  27. Patrick, thank you for bringing out Piper’s confusion of the Lutheran hermeneutic of law and gospel. Making “delight in God” a command can lead to works righteousness if one is not careful. Peace.

  28. Michael, assurance is one area where I differ with you. You seem to operate with this common assumption that all who seek assurance should be assured; that all who seek assurance truly are Christians and merely need to become sure of that fact. I disagree. For example, you wrote, “The ‘best evidence’ is ‘growth’ in ‘love’ and ‘fruit.’ Being more ‘like Jesus.’ Good grief. Can anyone spell ‘despair?'” So what if that causes despair? Maybe temporary despair is the correct response, and that would help drive someone to Christ – to truly believe, and therefore truly follow Him, and therefore have some assurance. Perhaps then we’d see some of the reforms which we both desire! The pastoral task is not like that of the pop psychologist – it is not to just make everyone feel better. Before we ask how we can make a person feel sure, we must ask if we should make that person feel sure. The paramount concern is not a person’s psychological state, but their spiritual state. It is a bleak tragedy to give someone a false and temporary happiness at the expense of eternal happiness – that is, to give false assurance, and thereby keep people from finding salvation.

    You can have sola fide and sola Christus with your interpretation – I’ll take 1 John 2:3-6, Matthew 7:21-23, and James 2:14-26. And I would gladly follow the Bible to Rome if it were as simple as this issue.

  29. Patrick Kyle says

    Phil, nannykim,

    What Michael is talking about is not the false assurance of the unbeliever, but the doubt and despair of the true believer, who while trying to hammer out the implications of his or her faith, is confronted with the enormity of their sin. How much ‘fruit’ is needed to be really sure you are ‘in’? Are you then sure the works were true fruit? Maybe they were the product of your selfish heart or subtle attempts to validate your faith. If that is the case, do they count as fruit of the Spirit? What if you are dealing with a besetting sin? That nagging doubt about God’s word, the resentment that burns like a low grade fever against your boss, that funny feeling you get when you look at that smoking hot woman(or guy) at school. The Word of God is clear about sin- in for a penny, in for a pound. God fordid that you actually commit a flagrant sin(and then secretly like it), what then?
    Furthermore, to point people, both believer and unbeliever, back to Christ and His finished work will result in salvation. To point an unbeliever to his lack of fruit will cause him to trust his works and not Christ. This is also a fantastic way to breed hypocrites and pharisees.

  30. Great discussion, especially because I feel like such a pathetic Christian. But a funny thing happened way back when I was a “spiritual giant”. I felt just as unworthy and just as pathetic. No matter how many bible verses I memorized or how often I prayed sin just wouldn’t let go. It’s a great irony of the grace and mercy of God that the more fruit we see in our lives, when we think we’re starting to get the hang of this thing, that our pride becomes worse than the sin we avoid. Or maybe that’s why we get knocked on our keister again, to remind us where our salvation lies. “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”. That’s why I became a non-RC in the first place. Hell scared the Hell out of me, and why the Reformed understanding of salvation won me over some years later.

    In these discussions it is often brought up that the early church was the more authentic version of the faith than what came later, i.e. protestantism. I’m reading a very interesting book by Paul Johnson, one of the great living historians, called “A History of Christianity”. He makes a very convincing case that the early church, from Acts on, was a mess. Jesus didn’t leave his followers a whole lot to go on, especially when they realized that the second coming wasn’t quite as near as they had hoped. The fighting, the disagreements, the curious motivations, makes our day seem positively like one big group hug. For me, I think the Reformers were on to something.

  31. Michael: Thank you for the link to the archived ACE article by Dr. Rosenbladt. That was a much-needed breath of fresh, rarefied air. God bless you.

  32. “delight in God”, “be joyful” and all such commands so used are law and lead the despairing deeper into despair and the last thing they are is delighting, joyful and etc… Dr. Rosenbladt once pulled me out of a DEEP DEEP hole of despair pointing this out, such commands. He said those that have had this done to them usually ‘get it’ (when its pointed out to be law) immediately because we’ve had it done to us all our life. He quoted C. S. Lewis to me on this issue that ‘one sure way to make a person NOT be joyful…that way? Tell him to ‘be joyful’. Brilliant Law/Gospel distinction. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I first was shown this and felt like an ever unending burden was removed from my soul. People tend to take the ‘command’ tact with fruits of the Spirit.

    BUT herein lay the great paradox and irony: When receive the Gospel afresh FOR you in Word or Sacrament and it “registers” with mind and soul, ‘its REALLY REALLY FOR ME’, nothing but joy, happiness, yes even delight in God and etc… arise naturally. Yet it comes not from a command but from a faith that nakedly passively is receiving Christ. That’s how the fruits of the Spirit arise, “love, peace, joy…etc…” not from “trying to get or do them” which ironically will lead to works of the flesh at length. Rather from receiving Christ FOR YOU.

    It’s EXACTLY like Luther said (paraphrasing from memory), “…many speak much and talk much (blow hard – my preferred way of stating it) about faith and good works and know absolutely NOTHING of EITHER…” And elsewhere, “…I (Luther) am not against good works, I’m trying to show you where they ONLY come from…” (again from memory paraphrased).

    That’s the difference in a true theologian of the Cross versus a theologian of glory, or at least a one with confounding theologian of glory tendencies.


  33. Patrick , I see your point.–It was a good point. I guess with me when I have chosen to live in sin that I know is sin or when I have dealt with besetting sins–I have had constant unsettlement from the Holy Spirit and my conscience. This then has been an affirmation to me of my salvation, because the Spirit of God would not leave me alone. My husband has said the same thing—this is even if we have spent years in these sins (we spent years of being pricked by the Holy Spirit). So I do believe that the Spirit of God gives us that unsettled pricking and this, ironically enough, gives us assurance that we indeed are owned by Him and know Him.

    Larry, the commad to Delight ourselves in the Lord is given in scripture. But I agree that often commands sometimes work negatively in us because of our sinful hearts—just like when you tell a kid not to do something it makes him think about it all the more!! However, there are times when the commands bring joy. For the first time in my 39 years as a Christian, this year I have at long last come to see the beauty in the law and laws of God—yup, it took me 39 years to see that HEY those laws bring me joy because I finally clearly see that when I follow the commands given by God to me it actually really is for my good. When I don’t follow them or aim to follow them I am suffering the many side effects which obviously are not good ones!! How dumb could I be to take 39 years to see the beauty of them and to agree with Psalm 119!! God loves me and that is why his commands are for my good–duh…that should have been obvious for me. Yes, sometimes we don’t see our fruit, but I guess with me I have always felt His presence even if it is a pricking and unsettling presence. Guess some do not always feel His presence and therefore may struggle more…so trusting those promises of our salvationin brings assurance when we doubt our fruit.

  34. Nannykim,

    How do we really love the Law as the Psalmist says? It’s not as many think. It’s tricky because we are using the term “law” in two ways. That’s the distinction I’m making, the Law, the REAL Law in as much as it reflects the will and heart of God, that altruistic selfless love He shows us is GOOD and WONDERFUL, but when the Law becomes that which determines my relationship toward God, ‘if I do this, He will love me, justify me, etc…” (whether explicitly stated or implied) THAT is Satanic for the Devil has, as Luther said, turned everything upside down. Turning God’s Love (selfless love, loving the unlovable/unattractive, true godly Love WHO HE IS) into selfish love that arises from its object. THAT is to make an idol of God and in the end to NOT have THE GOD. We fell from reflecting that LOVE, the true will/heart of God. THAT love (selfless love, loving the unlovable/unattractive, true godly Love WHO HE IS) is the same love that begets the Gospel and THAT Love (= real Law = WHO HE IS) is also the same love that invades and presses into the Satanic “love” (self love), the fallen love man is in bondage to UNDER the Law that is condemned.

    This is why (and HOW) we love the Law as the Psalmist says, the real Law (selfless love, loving the unlovable/unattractive, true godly Love WHO HE IS), through the Gospel. The Gospel brings the “switch” or reorientation as it should be so that we actually DO love the Law. For example the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage, you shall have no other gods in front of Me.” (See why did Jesus tell through Peter Satan ‘get behind me’!). Heard through fallen selflove ears that becomes a way and struggle to be in the pleasure of God, as if to “move” Him, worship is inverted from earth to heaven. That is how out of a command from Scripture we 1. hone an idol of the real God, 2. develop false worship. Yet, the same would say, “see I like the Psalmist ‘love the law of God’”. But such a person is deceived and no more really loves the REAL Law, nor God, though he/she says so, than the speed limit laws when rushed. But through the Gospel, this command becomes a WONDERFUL Law and is in reality “no law at all”. As Luther says the Law really desires to NOT BE LAW to us, but we IN the WILL of God (selfless love, loving the unlovable/unattractive, true godly Love WHO HE IS) itself. To the one so in via Christ this “Law”, the first command, then becomes a wonderful friend and ally if you will, you REALL LOVE IT. Because one is not using it inverted, earth to heaven, and honing an idol of God and of the real law making it false. Rather worship is set right, heaven to earth, receiving from God HIS LOVE which IS HIS LAW and to let HIM BE God to us and we the creature, once again, to HIM (our reflexive act to the Gospel if you will). Then this first command becomes a MIGHTY weapon against flesh, the world and Satan. E.g. if the devil and the flesh plague you with thoughts of “am I elect, predestine and alike” one can now use the sword of the Spirit and quote this Law aright to flesh and the devil and the world and say, “I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage, you shall have no other gods in front of Me.” And say to the flesh, devil and world: I am not to become anxious about myself, do not be anxious Jesus says, especially about my salvation for Jesus is the revelation of God’s WILL and HEART toward me in Word and Sacraments. And if I do become this way it is a sure sign it is flesh and/or the devil tempting me to be anxious for they wish me to doubt God and become my own god to myself and try to peer into the deep majesty of God as if to see because I doubt Him and some how save myself by finding by some other way election or predestination for myself excepting through the Cross by Word and Sacrament (God’s will to me). And the first command CLEARLY says, devil and flesh, “I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage, you shall have no other gods in front of Me. Thus, HE is my God and not me be gone, the Lord rebuke you, get behind Christ.”

    See how the Law is WONDERFUL through the Gospel, see how we LOVE IT. And we love it because it serves the Gospel serving to kill our self willed works toward heaven so that we seek out the promise of God all the MORE and TRUST HIM boldly. THIS is to truly love God and the Law, this IS the cry behind the Psalmist. This is the reflexive thanksgiving and love of the Law that rises up from our redeemed hearts in true love and thanksgiving. This is why the Psalmist says, “…I delight in and love Thy Law…” But, again, as I said before in the previous post, it comes through the Gospel…even the command to “delight in the Lord” and NOT as a naked command which is merely to return to fallen love.

    Yours truly,