Peter (5): Maintaining an Assurance of Persevering
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is the fifth and final entry of a series of articles written by Rev. Martyn McGeown. The third entry is Peter (4): “Much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord.”
Let us recap: the Canons teach us several important truths about backsliding and recovery. We have been studying Peter as an example of such saints. First, Peter “sinfully deviated from the guidance of divine grace,” which was his fault, not God’s (Canons 5:4). Second, by his sin Peter “very highly offended God, incurred a deadly guilt, grieved the Holy Spirit, interrupted the exercise of faith, very grievously wounded his conscience, and lost the sense of God’s favor for a time” (Canons 5:5). Third, Peter was graciously restored: “certainly and effectually renewed to repentance” (Canons 5:7). Fourth, Peter, after his recovery, “more diligently worked out his own salvation with fear and trembling” (Canons 5:7) and was “much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord” (Canons 5:13).
Peter learned something: the experience of salvation is not linear, and it is affected, seriously affected, when a believer walks in sin. Jesus had taught this: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love” (John 15:10). (The present author wrote three blog posts on that text in 2019, see bottom of the page). Peter’s friend and fellow apostle John explains: “If we say that we have fellowship with [God], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7). Did Peter have fellowship with God, the conscious enjoyment of his Father’s favor, while he walked in the darkness of denying his Lord with oaths and curses? Did David have fellowship with God, while he walked in the darkness of adultery and murder? Do you have fellowship with God, while you abuse your spouse and children; malign the good name of your neighbor; watch pornography on the internet; neglect prayer, the Scriptures, and public worship; and live like the world or the devil? You do not. And if you say you do, John says that you lie. And if God gave you fellowship, sweet communion with himself, while you walked impenitently in such sins, he would deny himself, which God will never do.
The very fact that the Canons speak of a justified believer (yes, a justified believer, for there is no other kind of believer) incurring a deadly guilt and interrupting the exercise of faith demonstrates that salvation and the assurance/experience of salvation are not identical. Incurring a deadly guilt can refer only to guilt in one’s own conscience and consciousness; the exercise of faith can refer only to the activity of conscious faith. Peter was justified before he denied the Lord, and he was justified after his recovery (he did not “forfeit the state of justification,” that legal status before the Judgment Seat in heaven, Canons 5:6), but in his own consciousness, while he walked in darkness, he did not feel justified (a deadly guilt, whatever it is, is not the experience of justification). Peter was a believer both before and after his melancholy fall, but while he denied Christ, which is utterly inconsistent with the activity of faith, since faith is to know Christ, to embrace him, to appropriate him, and to trust in him, Peter “interrupted the exercise of faith” (Canons 5:5). Again, that can refer only to Peter’s conscious faith.
Peter learned that there is a sphere in which we enjoy assurance and the conscious experience of our salvation, and there is a sphere in which we do not. The Canons explain why Peter suffered so miserably: he departed from that sphere in which assurance of the experience of God’s fellowship is to be found; and he wandered for a while in that sphere in which assurance of the experience of God’s fellowship is withheld. Dancing in the darkness with the devil is the very antithesis of walking in the light with the God who is pure light and in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
The Canons explain this in order to refute the Arminians who slanderously asserted that the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints promotes ungodliness. “The doctrine of the certainty of perseverance and salvation, from its own character and nature, is a cause of indolence and is injurious to godliness, good morals, prayers, and other holy exercises” (Canons 5:R:6), said the Arminians. Not so, retorted our Reformed fathers. “This certainty of perseverance is [very far from] exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure” (Canons 5:12). “Renewed confidence of persevering does [not] produce licentiousness or a disregard to piety in those who are recovering from backsliding” (Canons 5:13). That’s the negative. Positively, “This certainty of perseverance… is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God” (Canons 5:12); while a “renewed confidence in persevering… renders them much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord” (Canons 5:13).
There is a reason for that, which the Canons explain. It is because God has joined various things together, which we may not presume to separate. God has joined together assurance and godliness. God has joined together the conscious experience of his fellowship and godliness. God has done that because he is holy. God has done that because he desires, and purposes, that his people also be holy. “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). God does not say, “I am holy, but I do not care whether or not you are holy.” God does not say, “I am holy, and I know that you can never be holy, so be satisfied with being unholy.” God does not say, “I am holy, but holiness for you is optional.” God says, “Be ye holy, for (because) I am holy.” So important does God view holiness that he chooses us in Christ so that we shall be holy (Eph. 1:4); he redeems us in the blood of Jesus to sanctify and purify us (Eph. 5:25); and he gives us his Holy Spirit to work holiness in us, without which no man shall see the Lord (Tit. 3:5; Heb. 12:14).
The Canons connect (tightly, inseparably, inextricably) holiness to the assurance of salvation. In Canons 1:12 the issue is “the assurance of this [our] eternal and unchangeable election,” which we attain unto by “observing in [ourselves], with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God, such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” Canons 5:9 teach that “true believers may and do themselves obtain assurance” of their preservation to salvation “according to the measure of their faith.” This assurance, continues Canons 5:10, “springs from” three things (where the Latin has ex, which means out of, and indicates source): first, “from faith (ex fide) in God’s promises;” second, “from the testimony (ex testimonio) of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit, that we are the children and heirs of God” (see Rom. 8:16); and third, “and lastly, from a serious and holy desire (ex serio… studio) to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works.”
The first two are uncontroversial. Faith is, of course, the source of assurance, since assurance is of the essence of faith, it being, as the Catechism explains it, “an assured confidence” that we possess the blessings of salvation (Q&A 21). The object of our faith is the promises of God revealed in Holy Scripture. However, as we noted earlier, faith is only assurance when it is exercised, and that exercise can be interrupted; and when it is interrupted by our sins, assurance dries up in our souls under the hot displeasure of an angry God who turns our moisture into the drought of summer (Ps. 32:4). There are other times when we “struggle with various carnal doubts” and languish under “grievous temptations,” so that we are “not always sensible of this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering” (Canons 5:11). Nevertheless, by God’s grace, faith is victorious and “by the Holy Spirit [God] again inspires [us] with a comfortable assurance of persevering” (Canons 5:11).
The testimony of the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:16), not in a mystical, extra-biblical manner, but in accordance with God’s Word which reveals the marks of God’s children. As we read Scripture, and especially as we attend to the preaching of the gospel, the Spirit speaks to our souls, “You are a child of God. God is your Father. Be encouraged in, and comforted by, that truth.” “God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6).
Those two, I say, are uncontroversial. But what of the third: “This assurance... spring from (ex) faith… from (ex) the testimony of the Holy Spirit… and lastly, from (ex) a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works”? Those words need some careful explanation.
First, the word translated as “desire” is studium, which means more than a mere desire. It indicates a zeal, an endeavor, or a study, the disposition of the mind to a thing, as well as the activity which flows from it. The object of this desire (or this zealous endeavor) is “to maintain a good conscience and to perform good works.” More literally, we read, “from a serious and holy endeavor for a good conscience and for good works.” The believer is, as a fruit of Christ’s redemptive work, “zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). He also endeavors to keep a good conscience (Acts 24:16). Besides, in the Bible one does not merely desire to have a good conscience and to perform good works. If you desire it, you diligently seek it, and you do it. Otherwise, your “desire” is pretense or hypocrisy. “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after” (Ps. 27:4). If you studiously seek to maintain a good conscience, you will avoid those things by which you would grievously wound your conscience; if you studiously seek to do good works, your hand will find good works to do, you will “be careful to maintain good works” (Tit. 3:8), and you will “learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that [you] be not unfruitful” (Tit. 3:14).
This does not mean, of course, that we look to our good works, imperfect and defiled with many spots and blemishes as they are (Canons 5:2), for the assurance of our salvation and especially our justification.
By the way, the Canons do not present the believer’s good works as unutterable filth, but as really good, but spoiled with “spots” which “adhere” to them. That is also the presentation of Belgic Confession, Art 24, which calls our good works “good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace.” If our good works were only sins, nothing but sins, then we could not observe them in ourselves “with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure” (Canons 1:12), but rather with dismay, and even abhorrence. Of course, our good works do not merit salvation; and of course, our good works are defiled with many blemishes and spots, so that we must never trust in them or boast of them.
Nevertheless, it is proper to say, “God is working in me by his grace; but for his grace I would never have such desires for holiness and I would never do good works. These good works are the fruit that proves that I am a good tree and no longer an evil tree.” But we never say, “Lord, I have performed good works, and I even have holy desires to perform better works, and I even strive and endeavor after godliness: therefore, I am justified before thee. I take these good works as the ground, or part of the ground of my righteousness before thee.” We never say, “These good works that I have performed are the instrument by which I obtain the blessings of salvation.” That would be a gross misappropriation and misapplication of our good works. We know better than that: “Our good works [cannot] be the whole or part of our righteousness before God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q 62). “Faith (not works) is an instrument that keeps us in communion with [Christ] in all his benefits” (Belgic Confession, Article 22). “We by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved” (Canons 2:R.4).
Second, we must do justice to Canons 5:10, for there is a relationship, which the Canons would inculcate, between assurance and good works. It is not correct to call that relationship “source,” although ex often indicates source, and the two parallel phrases (ex fide; and ex testimonio Spiritus Sancti) seem to indicate source (“spring from”). Perhaps it would be best to call it “accompanying or concomitant circumstance,” which is really what we mean by “in the way of.” Walk in this way, and you will experience assurance. Deviate from this way, and walk in darkness, and you will not. Your walking in this way is not the ground or the condition of experiencing assurance. However, this is the way that God has ordained for his people, who will experience assurance in that way, and only in that way. If you expect to experience assurance while walking in darkness, you mock God; and God will not be mocked: “he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:8). Ask David, Samson, Jonah, Peter, and many others, and they will tell you: the way of disobedience is misery; the way of godliness is life and peace. “Ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). There is no rest for our souls in the evil way, but there is on the old paths, the good way.
Third, Canons 5:13 sheds further light on the question. There are two possible responses from one who is restored after a period of backsliding, as Peter was. Ordinarily, as was Peter’s response, they are “much more careful and solicitous to continue in the ways of the Lord.” The Lord has ordained those ways, paths of godliness and obedience to his commandments, for this purpose: “which he hath ordained THAT (there is the purpose of God) they who walk in them may maintain an assurance of persevering.” God has joined together the maintenance of an assurance of persevering and walking in his ways. The one who walks in God’s ways in obedience, holiness, and good works, eschewing evil and living in godliness, maintains an assurance of persevering. The one who does not, but who walks in darkness, does not maintain, but loses (even forfeits), an assurance of persevering. God purposes that it should be so; and God’s purposes are good, holy, just, and wise.
The other possibility is presumption in the child of God, even in the recovered backslider. Such a person “abuses [God’s] fatherly kindness.” He sees that God is kind to the penitent sinner, and he thinks, “God will be kind to me even if I am impenitent. Yes, I was chastised before, but God will turn a blind eye to my future sins. God is too kind to chastise me again.” Foolish beyond words is such a child of God! Listen to Canons 5:13 and shudder: “lest, by abusing his fatherly kindness, God should turn away his gracious countenance from them… and they in consequence hereof should fall into more grievous torments of conscience.” If you want to walk in darkness, know this: you are risking the turning away of God’s gracious countenance from you; you are risking that God frown upon you in his holy displeasure; you are risking even more grievous torments of conscience than those described in Canons 5:5! Re-read that article again, and ask yourself: “Is there a worse experience than that? Do I want to tempt God in order to find out?”
The Canons explain the significance of that. To behold God’s face (his countenance) and to know that God smiles upon us is “to the godly dearer than life.” Is that not true? “There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us” (Ps. 4:6). “Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee” (Ps. 63:3). “Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance” (Ps. 89:15). “The withdrawing [of God’s countenance] is more bitter than death.” Does that not resonate with you, dear reader? “Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation” (Ps. 27:9). “They perish at the rebuke of thy countenance” (Ps. 80:16). By walking in sin, by refusing to walk in God’s ways, we risk losing something sweeter, more precious, and dearer than life itself; and we risk tasting the misery of something more bitter than death. Who, then, would foolishly play with sin?
Let us, then, take our leave from Peter, having learned valuable lessons from him and his experience. Let us watch and pray, lest we, too, be led into temptation. Let us endeavor to keep a good conscience before the Lord. And let us, even in our lamentable falls, cast ourselves upon the mercy of our God in Jesus Christ, for he is faithful that promised. “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms, and powerfully preserves [us] herein, even to the end” (Canons 5:3).
By the same author: