Pillar Journal

Assurance Is Normally Attained by the Use of Ordinary Means

If you truly want to grow in assurance, prayerfully use the ordinary means of Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and even your afflictions, while walking with a good conscience before God.

Westminster Confession 18.3 goes on to say that, “being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, [the believer] may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain” to assurance.

Anthony Burgess said the believer has a lifelong call to make diligent use of the means of grace in pursuit of ever greater degrees of assurance, because God uses both sovereignty and means to bequeath assurance.8 Four means are predominant: God’s Word, the sacraments, prayer, and affliction. These are the most common means God uses to increase assurance.

The first predominant means of cultivating assurance is the Word of God.

God’s Word—both law and gospel, precept and promise—read and heard, believed and obeyed, memorized and meditated on, prayed and sung, is God’s primary road to holiness, spiritual growth, and assurance of faith. That’s why Peter advises, “Desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).

If you would grow in assurance, read through the Bible habitually. Even more importantly, memorize the Scriptures (Ps. 119:11), search them (John 5:39), live them, and love them (Pss. 19:10; 119). And listen to sermons of faithful preachers on the Lord’s Day and during the week. Compare Scripture with Scripture; take time to study the Word. Do not expect growth in assurance if you spend little time alone with God and do not take His Word seriously.

A former elder in my church who is now in glory called me one day just as I was leaving for a conference in California. He said, “Pastor, I need to see you right away. I have lost all assurance. I am in dire straits—and in total darkness. God is angry with me. I’m thinking I must be a reprobate.” I told him that I would love to come over, but had to leave for the airport immediately, but that I would come and see him in three days. “Meanwhile,” I said, “spend thirty minutes with God each day—ten minutes in reading the Bible, ten minutes in meditation, and ten minutes in prayer.”

“I can’t do that,” he said. “My prayers would be an abomination to God,” he said. “Do it anyway; not praying to God would be a double abomination,” I said firmly. “Just follow my advice, no matter how much the devil tells you not to.”

When I returned home, there was a note on my chair: “No need to see Elder N., all is well with his soul.” In his case, the solution was simple: get back into the Word, meditation, and prayer. The Holy Spirit used these ordinary means to restore his assurance.

If the Bible is to get into us and grow our assurance, we must get into it. Charles Spurgeon said, “Backsliders begin with dusty Bibles and end with filthy garments.”1John Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold: A Treasury of Quotations for Christians (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 62. To neglect the Word is to neglect the Lord, but those who read Scripture “as a love-letter sent to you from God,” as Thomas Watson put it, will profit from it and grow in assurance. “Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you,” Watson went on to say; then, by the Spirit’s enlightening, you will experience its warming, transforming, assuring power.2Cf. Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm (1670; repr., Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 12–15.

Be consistent and disciplined in your reading of Scripture, remembering you are reading God’s Word. Commit to a time, find a place, and develop a plan for reading your Bible. Approach your reading of Scripture with a reverential fear of God, being “swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19), determined like Mary to lay up God’s Word in your heart. Approach Scripture with faith in Christ, looking on Him as the lion out of the tribe of Judah to whom it is given to open the book of God (Rev. 5:5–8; 6:1).

Always approach Scripture with a teachable heart, with a sincere desire to learn about God and about yourself. And read the Bible diligently. Richard Greenham said that we ought to read our Bibles with more diligence than men dig for hidden treasure. Diligence makes rough places plain, the difficult easy, and the unsavory tasty.3Richard Greenham, The Works of the Reverend and faithfull servant of Iesus Christ M. Richard Greenham (London: Felix Kingston for Robert Dexter, 1599), 390–91.

Meditating on what we read in the Bible is critical. Reading may give you some breadth of knowledge, but only meditation and study will give you depth and growing assurance. The difference between reading and meditation is like the difference between drifting and rowing toward a destination in a boat. If you only read, you will drift aimlessly; if you meditate and pray over what you read, you will have oars that will propel you to your destination.

Put into practice what you read by praying about what you are reading, by sharing with others what you are learning, and by pursuing holiness. Study one Bible book, one chapter, one verse, and one subject or doctrine at a time. Ask yourself: What is this particular verse saying to me in a practical way today? Can I grow in my knowledge of a particular doctrine from this verse? Does the study of this verse prompt me to see some guidance for my daily life—perhaps something to be thankful for or some change that must be made, by the strength of the Spirit? Is there some sin exposed here that I must fight more earnestly, some righteousness that I must pursue more aggressively, some promise that I must embrace more fully? How should I feel concerning this passage? Should I respond with joy, sorrow, or a mixture of the two? How can I grow in assurance through assimilating my Scripture reading today into the very fabric of my life?

Read and study the Bible to be wise; believe it to be safe; practice it to be holy. Lay hold of it until it lays hold of you. Don’t merely aim to master the Bible; aim to be mastered by the Bible. Let Scripture be your compass to guide you in cultivating assurance and holiness, in making life’s decisions, and in encountering the high waves of personal affliction.

The second predominant means of cultivating assurance is the sacraments.

Use the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper diligently as means of grace to strengthen your faith in Christ. Though the Word and the promises of God remain primary in assurance, the sacraments are divine seals that confirm God’s eternal commitments to His elect, thereby enlarging assurance. Burgess wrote, “Although God’s promises to us will not be broken, and nothing can be surer than that, yet He adds sacraments to seal and confirm His promises to us.”4Anthony Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 145–46; cf., Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining: The Anatomy of True and False Conversion (1652; repr., Ames, Iowa: International Outreach, 1996), 53. When the believer receives the sacraments by faith, he receives certification of that which is promised by God and renews covenant with Him. Covenant assurance and obligation then unite. The promises of God are made visible, cyclical, and personal in the sacraments.

God’s sacraments complement His Word. They point us away from ourselves. Each sign—the water, the bread, the wine—directs us to believe in Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. The sacraments are visible means through which He invisibly communes with us and we with Him, by which He gives Himself to us and we receive and feed on Him by faith. The sacraments are spurs to Christlikeness and therefore to holiness and assurance.

The Puritans often spoke of “sacramental assurance”—not because the assurance believers receive in the sacraments is different from that received under the preached Word, but because it was a common experience of God’s people to receive large doses of assurance as they received the sacraments with faith, focusing on what their suffering Savior has done and is doing for them. Both preaching and the sacraments convey the same Christ. But as Robert Bruce put it, “While we do not get a better Christ in the sacraments than we do in the Word, there are times when we get Christ better.”5Robert Bruce, The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper, trans. and ed. Thomas F. Torrance (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958), 82.

This begs the conscience question of some Christians: “Should I abstain from partaking of the Lord’s Supper when I struggle with low levels of assurance, or indeed, whether I have any assurance at all? Is it right under such a condition to neglect the command of Christ to partake of the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him?”

The tender consciences of Christians who lack assurance of faith ought to remember that the Lord’s Supper is peculiarly designed to strengthen weak faith—hence it intends to be an “assuring sacrament” in which Christ assures the weak believer that as surely as he, by true faith, eats and drinks the bread and wine in remembrance of Him, so surely he may be assured that all his sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary death. The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this issue even more pointedly and pastorally:

Q. 172. May one who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation, come to the Lord’s Supper?

A. One who doubteth of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity: in which case (because promises are made, and this sacrament is appointed, for the relief even of weak and doubting Christians) he is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord’s supper, that he may be further strengthened.

Practically speaking, I also wish to add to this clear confessional statement that in my pastoral experience of over four decades, I have repeatedly observed that when needy believers with low levels of assurance do come to the Lord’s Table, their faith is commonly strengthened and their assurance grows, but when they abstain from partaking and neglect the command of Christ, they commonly bring a period of spiritual darkness over their own souls.

The third predominant means of cultivating assurance is prayer.

Word and sacrament must be accompanied by prayer. Burgess wrote, “We must give all diligence and heed to obtain this privilege [of assurance]. We must make it our business to importunately beg for assurance in prayer.”6Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance, 174–75 (Spiritual Refining, 673); cf. Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification, 273.

Take every phrase of John Bunyan’s remarkably helpful definition of prayer and turn it into a petition that God would teach you to pray with assurance: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”7John Bunyan, Prayer (1662; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 1. And then remember these two wise Bunyanesque applications of his own definition: “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed”;8I. D. E. Thomas, comp., The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 210. and, “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan.”9John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor (1854; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 1:65.

If you would grow in assurance, take hold of yourself in prayer: treasure the value of prayer, maintain the priority of prayer, speak with sincerity to God in prayer, cultivate a continual attitude and spirit of prayer, be an intercessory petitioner, and read the Bible for prayer. Take hold of God in prayer: bring God His own Word in prayer, plead His promises in prayer, lay hold of the blessed Trinity in each of His persons, and believe that God answers prayer.10For a more detailed explanation of these thoughts, see my chapter, “Prayerful Praying Today,” in Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 223–40. By the Spirit’s grace, through taking hold of both God and yourself in prayer, you will almost certainly experience, as Francis Taylor said, “The more we seek God’s favor by fervent prayer, the more will He assure us.”11Francis Taylor, Gods Choise and Mans Diligence (London, 1625), 199.

The fourth predominant means of cultivating assurance is affliction.

Though afflictions cannot technically be called a means, God uses conflicts, doubts, and trials to mature the believer’s faith. Assurance usually follows intense spiritual warfare; it wears battle scars. Burgess wrote, “This privilege of assurance is given to those who have been acquainted with God for a long time, are much exercised in his ways, and have endured much for Him.”12Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance, 97 (Spiritual Refining, 35). Assurance is the fruit of strengthened and seasoned faith. Not that age and experience guarantee assurance, however, or that new converts cannot be blessed with assurance. As Burgess went on to say, “That is not to say that God does not grant assurance at times to new converts who discover the love of His espousals to them because they are spiritually tender and need it, being much oppressed by sin. As Aristotle said, parents are often most tender to their youngest child because that child is least capable of caring for himself or herself.”13Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance, 97 (Spiritual Refining, 35).

If you truly want to grow in assurance, therefore, prayerfully use the ordinary means of Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, and even your afflictions, while walking with a good conscience before God. Couple these means with other valuable spiritual disciplines such as reading sound biblical literature, fellowshiping with believers, sanctifying the Lord’s Day, keeping a spiritual journal, evangelizing, and serving others. God can bless each of these to help grow your assurance. As a general rule, assurance sought diligently through divine means of grace and the spiritual disciplines will be granted by God in varying degrees.14Burgess, The True Doctrine of Iustification, 273.

Excerpt From
Growing in Grace
By Joel Beeke