Gospel Assurance

Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
~ Luke 18:5

To the chief Musician upon Shoshannim, A Psalm of David. Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
~ Psalm 69:1-2

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
~ 1 Corinthians 15:58

How long, LORD? wilt thou be angry for ever? shall thy jealousy burn like fire? How long, LORD? wilt thou hide thyself for ever? shall thy wrath burn like fire?
~ Psalm 79:5, Psalm 89:46

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
~ 2 Corinthians 12:9

I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the LORD, keep not silence, And give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.
~ Isaiah 62:6-7

Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto thee daily.
~ Psalm 86:3

And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
~ Luke 18:7

Gospel Assurance, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from his work, “The Forgiveness of Sin: A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130”.

“Search the Scriptures.”—John 5:39

Rule II.

The nature of gospel assurance—What is consistent with it—What are the effects of it.

I shall, then, in the pursuit of the rule laid down, do these two things:—

1. Show what things they are which are not only consistent with assurance, but are even necessary concomitants of it; which yet, if not duly weighed and considered, may seem so far to impeach a man’s comfortable persuasion of his condition before God as to leave him beneath the assurance sought after. And,—

2. I shall speak somewhat of its nature, especially as manifesting itself by its effects.

1. (1.) A deep sense of the evil of sin, of the guilt of man’s own sin, is no way inconsistent with gospel assurance of acceptance with God through Christ, and of forgiveness in him. By a sense of the guilt of sin I understand two things:—First, A clear conviction of sin, by the Holy Ghost saying unto the soul, “Thou art the man;” and, Secondly, A sense of the displeasure of God, or the wrath due to sin, according to the sentence of the law. Both these David expresseth in that complaint, Ps. 31:10, “My life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing: my strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed.” His iniquity was before him, and a sense of it pressed him sore. But yet, notwithstanding all this, he had a comfortable persuasion that God was his God in covenant: verse 14, “I trusted in thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my God.” And the tenor of the covenant, wherein aloneGod is the God of any person, is, that he will be merciful unto their sin and iniquity. To whom he is a God, he is so according to the tenor of that covenant; so that here these two are conjoined. Saith he, “Lord, I am pressed with the sense of the guilt of mine iniquities; and thou art my God, who forgivest them.” And the ground hereof is, that God by the gospel hath divided the work of the law, and taken part of it out of its hand. Its whole work and duty is, to condemn the sin and the sinner. The sinner is freed by the gospel, but its right lies against the sin still; that it condemns, and that justly. Now, though the sinner himself be freed, yet finding his sin laid hold of and condemned, it fills him with a deep sense of its guilt and of the displeasure of God against it; which yet hinders not but that, at the same time, he may have such an insight as faith gives into his personal interest in a gospel acquitment. A man, then, may have a deep sense of sin all his days, walk under the sense of it continually, abhor himself for his ingratitude, unbelief, and rebellion against God, without any impeachment of his assurance.

(2.) Deep sorrow for sin is consistent with assurance of forgiveness; yea, it is a great means of preservation of it. Godly sorrow, mourning, humiliation, contriteness of spirit, are no less gospel graces and fruits of the Holy Ghost than faith itself, and so are consistent with the highest flourishings of faith whatever. It is the work of heaven itself, and not of the assurance of it, to wipe all tears from our eyes. Yea, these graces have the most eminent promises annexed to them, as Isa. 57:15, 66:2, with blessedness itself, Matt. 5:4; yea, they are themselves the matter of many gracious gospel promises, Zech. 12:10: so that they are assuredly consistent with any other grace or privilege that we may be made partakers of, or [any that] are promised unto us. Some, finding the weight and burden of their sins, and being called to mourning and humiliation on that account, are so taken up with it as to lose the sense of forgiveness, which, rightly improved, would promote their sorrow, as their sorrow seems directly to sweeten their sense of forgiveness. Sorrow, absolutely exclusive of the faith of forgiveness, is legal, and tendeth unto death; assurance, absolutely exclusive of godly sorrow, is presumption, and not a persuasion from Him that calleth us: but gospel sorrow and gospel assurance may well dwell in the same breast at the same time. Indeed, as in all worldly joys there is a secret wound, so in all godly sorrow and mourning, considered in itself, there is a secret joy and refreshment; hence it doth not wither and dry up, but rather enlarge, open, and sweeten the heart. I am persuaded that, generally, they mourn most who have most assurance. And all true gospel mourners will be found to have the root of assurance so grafted in them, that in its proper season,—a time of trouble,—it will undoubtedly flourish.

(3.) A deep sense of the indwelling power of sin is consistent with gospel assurance. Sense of indwelling sin will cause manifold perplexities in the soul. Trouble, disquietments, sorrow and anguish of heart, expressing themselves in sighs, mourning, groaning for deliverance, always attend it. To what purpose do you speak to a soul highly sensible of the restless power of indwelling sin concerning assurance? “Alas,” saith he, “I am ready to perish every moment. My lusts are strong, active, restless, yea, outrageous; they give me no rest, no liberty, and but little success do I obtain. Assurance is for conquerors, for them that live at rest and peace. I lie grovelling on the ground all my days, and must needs be uncertain what will be the issue.” But when such a one hath done all he can, he will not be able to make more woful complaints of this matter than Paul hath done before him, Rom. 7; and yet he closeth the discourse of it with as high an expression of assurance as any person needs to seek after, verse 25, and chap. 8:1. It is not assurance but enjoyment that excludes this sense and trouble. But if men will think they can have no assurance because they have that without which it is impossible they should have any, it is hard to give them relief. A little cruse of salt of the gospel cast into these bitter waters will make them sweet and wholesome. Sense of the guilt of sin may consist with faith of its pardon and forgiveness in the blood of Christ. Godly sorrow may dwell in the same heart, at the same time, with joy in the Holy Ghost, and groaning after deliverance from the power of sin with a gracious persuasion that “sin shall not have dominion over us, because we are not under the law, but under grace.”

(4.) Doubtings, fears, temptations, if not ordinarily prevailing, are consistent with gospel assurance. Though the devil’s power be limited in reference unto the saints, yet his hands are not tied; though he cannot prevail against them, yet he can assault them. And although there be not “an evil heart of unbelief” in believers, yet there will still be unbelief in their hearts. Such an evidence, conviction, and persuasion of acceptance with God as are exclusive of all contrary reasonings, that suffer the soul to hear nothing of objections, that free and quiet it from all assaults, are neither mentioned in the Scripture, nor consistent with that state wherein we walk before God, nor possible on the account of Satan’s will and ability to tempt, or of our own remaining unbelief. Assurance encourageth us in our combat; it delivereth us not from it. We may have peace with God when we have none from the assaults of Satan.

Now, unless a man do duly consider the tenor of the covenant wherein we walk with God, and the nature of that gospel obedience which he requires at our hands, with the state and condition which is our lot and portion whilst we live in this world, the daily sense of these things, with the trouble that must be undergone on their account, may keep him in the dark unto himself, and hinder him from that establishment in believing which otherwise he might attain unto. On this account, some as holy persons as any in this world, being wholly taken up with the consideration of these homebred perplexities, and not clearly acquainted with the way and tenor of assuring their souls before God according to the rule of the covenant of grace, have passed away their days in a bondage-frame of spirit, and unacquaintance with that strong consolation which God is abundantly willing that all the heirs of promise should receive.

2. Evangelical assurance is not a thing that consisteth in any point, and so incapable of variation. It may be higher or lower, greater or less, obscure or attended with more evidence. It is not quite lost when it is not quite at its highest. God sometimes marvellously raiseth the souls of his saints with some close and near approaches unto them,—gives them a sense of his eternal love, a taste of the embraces of his Son and the inhabitation of the Spirit, without the least intervening disturbance; then this is their assurance. But this life is not a season to be always taking wages in; our work is not yet done; we are not always to abide in this mount; we must down again into the battle,—fight again, cry again, complain again. Shall the soul be thought now to have lost its assurance? Not at all. It had before assurance with joy, triumph, and exultation; it hath it now, or may have, with wrestling, cries, tears, and supplications. And a man’s assurance may be as good, as true, when he lies on the earth with a sense of sin, as when he is carried up to the third heaven with a sense of love and foretaste of glory. In brief, this assurance of salvation is such a gracious, evangelical persuasion of acceptance with God in Christ, and of an interest in the promises of preservation unto the end, wrought in believers by the Holy Ghost, in and through the exercise of faith, as for the most part produceth these effects following:—

(1.) It gives delight in obedience, and draws out love in the duties that unto God we do perform. So much assurance of a comfortable issue of their obedience, of a blessed end of their labours and duties, of their purifying their hearts, and pressing after universal renovation of mind and life, as may make them cheerful in them, as may give love and delight in the pursuit of what they are engaged in, is needful for the saints, and they do not often go without it; and where this is, there is gospel assurance. To run as men uncertain, to fight as those that beat the air, to travel as not any way persuaded of a comfortable entertainment or refreshment at the journey’s end, is a state and condition that God doth not frequently leave his people unto; and when he doth, it is a season wherein he receives very little of glory from them, and they very little increase of grace in themselves. Many things, as hath been showed, do interpose,—many doubts arise and entangling perplexities; but still there is a comfortable persuasion kept alive that there is a rest provided, which makes them willing unto, and cheerful in, their most difficult duties. This prevaileth in them, that their labour in the Lord, their watchings, praying, suffering, alms, mortification, fighting against temptation, crucifying the flesh with the lusts thereof, shall not be in vain. This gives them such a delight in their most difficult duties as men have in a hard journey towards a desirable home or a place of rest.

(2.) It casts out fear, tormenting fear, such as fills the soul with perplexing uncertainties, hard thoughts of God, and dreadful apprehensions of wrath to come. There are three things spoken concerning that fear which is inconsistent with the assurance of forgiveness:—First, With respect unto its principle, it is from a “spirit of bondage:” Rom. 8:15, “We have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear.” It is not such a fear as makes an occasionad incursion upon the mind or soul, such as is excited and occasioned by incident darkness and temptation, such as the best, and persons of the highest assurance, are liable and obnoxious unto; but it is such as hath a complete abiding principle in the soul, even a “spirit of bondage,”—a prevailing frame constantly inclining it to fear, or dreadful apprehensions of God and its own condition. Secondly, That it tends to bondage. It brings the soul into bondage: Heb. 2:14, 15, he died “to deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Fear of death as penal, as it lies in the curse, which is that fear that proceeds from a “spirit of bondage,” brings the persons in whom it is into bondage; that is, it adds weariness, trouble, and anxiety of mind unto fear, and puts them upon all ways and means imaginable, unduly and disorderly, to seek for a remedy or relief. Thirdly, It hath torment: “Fear hath torment,” 1 John 4:18. It gives no rest, no quietness, unto the mind. Now, this is so cast out by gospel assurance of forgiveness, that, though it may assault the soul, it shall not possess it; though it make incursions upon it, it shall not dwell, abide, and prevail in it.

(3.) It gives the soul a hope and expectation of “the glory that shall be revealed,” and secretly stirs it up and enlivens it unto a supportment in sufferings, trials, and temptations. This is the “hope which maketh not ashamed,” Rom. 5:5, and that because it will never expose the soul unto disappointment. Wherever there is the root of assurance, there will be this fruit of hope. The proper object of it is things absent, invisible, eternal,—the promised reward, in all the notions, respects, and concernments of it. This hope goes out unto, in distresses, temptations, failings, and under a sense of the guilt and power of sin. Hence ariseth a spring of secret relief in the soul, something that calms the heart and quiets the spirit in the midst of many a storm. Now, as, wherever assurance is, there will be this hope; so wherever this secret relieving hope is, it grows on no other root but a living persuasion of a personal interest in the things hoped for.

(4.) As it will do many other things, so, that I may give one comprehensive instance, it will carry them out, in whom it is, to die for Christ. Death, unto men who saw not one step beyond it, was esteemed of all things most terrible. The way and means of its approach add unto its terror. But this is nothing in comparison of what it is unto them who look through it as a passage into ensuing eternity. For a man, then, to choose death rather than life, in the most terrible manner of its approach, expecting an eternity to ensue, it argues a comfortable persuasion of a good state and condition after death. Now, I am persuaded that there are hundreds who, upon gospel, saving accounts, would embrace a stake for the testimony of Jesus, who yet know not at all that they have the assurance we speak of; and yet nothing else would enable them thereunto. But these things being beside the main of my intendment, I shall pursue them no farther; only, the rule is of use:—Let the soul be sure to be well acquainted with the nature of that which it seeks after, and confesseth a sense of the want of.