The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (1): Heidelberg Catechism, A. 86
Reformed Free Publishing Association
by Martyn McGeown
Assurance is one of the important themes of the Reformed confessions, in particular of the Three Forms of Unity. The theme of the Heidelberg Catechism is comfort, which is impossible without assurance. In fact, we read in Answer 1, “by His Holy Spirit, He (Jesus Christ, my faithful Savior) also assures me of eternal life.” In Answer 21, where the Catechism defines faith, we read, “True faith is … a certain knowledge … [and] also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel.” That assurance, the believer confesses in Answer 44, includes the fact that Jesus Christ “hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell,” something about which “I may be assured and wholly comfort myself.”
Assurance is also one of the main functions of the sacraments: “The Holy Ghost… confirms [faith] by the use of the sacraments” (A 65). We are “admonished and assured by holy baptism that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross is of real advantage to [us]” (Q 69). “By this divine pledge (baptism) [God assures us] that we are as spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (A 73). Again, the same truth applies to the Lord’s Supper: “How art thou admonished and assured in the Lord’s Supper that thou art a partaker of that one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross and of all His benefits?” (Q 75). And “by these visible signs and pledges [God assures us] that we are as really partakers of His true body and blood (by the operation of the Holy Ghost) as we receive by the mouths of our bodies these holy signs in remembrance of Him; and that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly ours as if we had in our own persons suffered and made satisfaction for our sins to God” (A 79).
Indeed, the Heidelberg Catechism ends with assurance for we cannot pray unless we already have assurance: “my prayer is more assuredly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him” (A 129).
Assurance, then, is by faith alone in Jesus Christ, who is the object of faith. God not only saves us from our sins, but he causes us to know that we are saved. God assures us not by our works, not on the basis of our works, not through, or by means of, or by the instrumentality of our works, but through faith alone, which is God’s gift to us, not something which we conjure up in our own souls, but something that the Holy Spirit “kindleth in our hearts” (Belgic Confession, Article 22). Quite simply, to believe is to be assured: “Not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given of God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” is the testimony of every believer (Heidelberg Catechism, A 21).
If good works are not the basis, the cause, the reason, the instrument, or the means of our assurance, what do we make of Answer 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which gives our good works a certain role? Answer 86 in response to the question, “Why must we—who are saved “merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours” (Q86)—“still do good works,” we read (among other things) this: “also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by [German, "aus;" or "out of"] the fruits thereof.”
Notice that Answer 86 does not say that “every one may be assured of his salvation by his works.” It does not say, “Your salvation and your assurance of your salvation rest on your good works, the number of them, and the quality of them.” It does not say, “The assurance of your salvation is strengthened or increased by good works.” The believer does not trust in his good works for anything: good works never obtain anything with God; good works never merit with God. True faith does not rely on works, but on Christ alone. True faith "embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him" (Belgic Confession, Article 22).
Instead, Answer 86 concerns the assurance of faith. It concerns the assurance that the person who walks in such good works has faith, and is in the faith. If someone does not walk in good works, and if he refuses to walk in good works, and instead stubbornly and impenitently walks in sin and disobedience, he has no right to call himself a believer: his wicked walk proves that his profession of faith is a lie. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, 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). “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 John 2:3-5).
Be careful, we must not look at our works as the basis of our assurance; if we do, we will be disappointed and will even despair. We will see so many imperfections in our works that we will be lost in a quagmire of doubt. Could I, with such sins, be a true child of God? Instead, for assurance we look to Christ alone: we trust in his finished work on the cross. “His benefits, [which when] become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins” (Belgic Confession, Article 22). “[We rely and rest upon] the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities and to give us confidence in approaching to God” (Belgic Confession, Article 23).
Good works are the fruit of faith, for only a believer produces them. If we have good works, no matter how imperfect, we know that we have faith or we know that we are walking in faith. If we walk in sin, the Holy Spirit, who is grieved when we do so, withdraws from us, which has a devastating effect upon our assurance. To put it very simply: God assures us only in the way of a godly life, for that is how God works. He does not assure us when we walk in sin. To assure someone who walks in darkness would be for the holy God to deny himself, which he will never do. We must not tempt God to do what he has said he will never do: allow us to walk in sin and still expect to enjoy the light of his countenance.
This is also Herman Hoeksema’s explanation of LD 32. “I can,” he writes, “nevertheless be assured from the fruits of good works of the fact of my faith, or rather, of the blessed fact that I am in the faith” (The Triple Knowledge: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism [RFPA: 1972], vol. 3, 50). Hoeksema continues,
Just as a walk in sin can never produce in him that continues in sin the assurance of faith, so a walk in sanctification produces in him that walks in a new and holy life the glad assurance of faith that he belongs to Christ… This assurance of faith, which is the assurance of God’s unchangeable election … is wrought spontaneously in his heart by the Holy Spirit as he walks in the way of sanctification … [the Spirit] works that assurance of faith in our hearts, so that we are confident that we are in the faith, not in the way of sin, but in the way of sanctification only (ibid, 50-51, italics added).
After quoting Romans 8:12-16 Hoeksema remarks, “From this it is very plain that the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the assurance of faith, cannot possibly be our experience, unless we walk in the way of sanctification, not living after the flesh, but mortifying the deeds of the body” (ibid, 51, italics added). Hoeksema explains further:
Both faith and sanctification are the work of the Holy Spirit. He makes us walk in the way of God’s precepts, and we walk. He gives us the faith, and we believe. God works within us to will and to do of His good pleasure; and as the fruit of His work we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. He gives us the strength to fight, and we fight. It is all of God, nothing of us. The Spirit is the author of our faith. He is also the author of the fruits of our faith, though we bear those fruits. And thus He is the author of our faith in the way of sanctification” (ibid, 52, italics added).
Assurance of salvation, then, is not by good works, but one who walks in sin cannot be assured of his faith, for it is impossible that true faith not bring forth good works of obedience as fruit. “This holy faith,” declares the Belgic Confession “[cannot] be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word” (Article 24).
Who enjoys assurance of his salvation? The one who trusts in Christ alone to the exclusion of all his works. Who is assured of his faith? The one who walks in sanctification bringing forth good works to the glory of the God of his salvation.