What Is the Greatest of All Protestant “Heresies”?

The following is an article by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson: What Is the Greatest of All Protestant “Heresies”? (original source here)

Let us begin with a church history exam question. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) was a figure not to be taken lightly. He was Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian and one of the most able figures in the Counter-Reformation movement within sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. On one occasion, he wrote: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is _______ .” Complete, explain, and discuss Bellarmine’s statement.

How would you answer? What is the greatest of all Protestant heresies? Perhaps justification by faith? Perhaps Scripture alone, or one of the other Reformation watchwords?

Those answers make logical sense. But none of them completes Bellarmine’s sentence. What he wrote was: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.”

A moment’s reflection explains why. If justification is not by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone — if faith needs to be completed by works; if Christ’s work is somehow repeated; if grace is not free and sovereign, then something always needs to be done, to be “added” for final justification to be ours. That is exactly the problem. If final justification is dependent on something we have to complete it is not possible to enjoy assurance of salvation. For then, theologically, final justification is contingent and uncertain, and it is impossible for anyone (apart from special revelation, Rome conceded) to be sure of salvation. But if Christ has done everything, if justification is by grace, without contributory works; it is received by faith’s empty hands — then assurance, even “full assurance” is possible for every believer.

No wonder Bellarmine thought full, free, unfettered grace was dangerous! No wonder the Reformers loved the letter to the Hebrews!

This is why, as the author of Hebrews pauses for breath at the climax of his exposition of Christ’s work (Heb. 10:18), he continues his argument with a Paul-like “therefore” (Heb. 10:19). He then urges us to “draw near … in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We do not need to re-read the whole letter to see the logical power of his “therefore.” Christ is our High Priest; our hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience just as our bodies have been washed with pure water (v.22).

Christ has once-for-all become the sacrifice for our sins, and has been raised and vindicated in the power of an indestructible life as our representative priest. By faith in Him, we are as righteous before the throne of God as He is righteous. For we are justified in His righteousness, His justification alone is ours! And we can no more lose this justification than He can fall from heaven. Thus our justification does not need to be completed any more than does Christ’s!

With this in view, the author says, “by one offering He has perfected for all time those who come to God by him” (Heb. 10:14). The reason we can stand before God in full assurance is because we now experience our “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and … bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).

“Ah,” retorted Cardinal Bellarmine’s Rome, “teach this and those who believe it will live in license and antinomianism.” But listen instead to the logic of Hebrews. Enjoying this assurance leads to four things: First, an unwavering faithfulness to our confession of faith in Jesus Christ alone as our hope (v.23); second, a careful consideration of how we can encourage each other to “love and good works” (v.24); third, an ongoing communion with other Christians in worship and every aspect of our fellowship (v.25a); fourth, a life in which we exhort one another to keep looking to Christ and to be faithful to him, as the time of his return draws ever nearer (25b).

It is the good tree that produces good fruit, not the other way round. We are not saved by works; we are saved for works. In fact we are God’s workmanship at work (Eph. 2:9–10)! Thus, rather than lead to a life of moral and spiritual indifference, the once-for-all work of Jesus Christ and the full-assurance faith it produces, provides believers with the most powerful impetus to live for God’s glory and pleasure. Furthermore, this full assurance is rooted in the fact that God Himself has done all this for us. He has revealed His heart to us in Christ. The Father does not require the death of Christ to persuade Him to love us. Christ died because the Father loves us (John 3:16). He does not lurk behind His Son with sinister intent wishing He could do us ill — were it not for the sacrifice his Son had made! No, a thousand times no! — the Father Himself loves us in the love of the Son and the love of the Spirit.

Those who enjoy such assurance do not go to the saints or to Mary. Those who look only to Jesus need look nowhere else. In Him we enjoy full assurance of salvation. The greatest of all heresies? If heresy, let me enjoy this most blessed of “heresies”! For it is God’s own truth and grace!

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” – 1 John 5:13

The Test Of Our Profession

“If there was a drawn sword pointed to my breast and Christ at the other end of it, if I had no other way to be at Him and with Him, I would run myself upon it to be at Him and with Him forever: for He is my life, my heaven, and my all.” – Rev. Thomas Hog

(The test of our profession is the value, worth and preciousness of the Lord Jesus Christ to us. The mere professor would feel happy in heaven even if Christ is not there, whereas the true believer would rather suffer the torments of hell with Christ than be in heaven without Him. Christ is the greatest treasure of the true believer’s heart.)

“If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.” – 1 Corinthians 16:22 (NASB)

Assurance

This excerpt is taken from Can I Be Sure I’m Saved? by R.C. Sproul.

At a practical level, people who are struggling with their assurance of salvation often approach me and ask, “How can I know I am saved?” In response, I ask them three questions.

First I ask, “Do you love Jesus perfectly?” Every person to whom I have asked that question has responded candidly, “No, I don’t.” That’s why they are not sure of the state of their souls; they know there are deficiencies in their affection for Christ, because they know that if they loved Christ perfectly, they would obey Him perfectly. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So as soon as we disobey one of His commandments, that’s a signal to us that we do not love Him perfectly.

Second, when a person acknowledges that he doesn’t love Jesus perfectly, I ask, “Do you love Him as much as you ought to?” The person usually gives me a strange look and says, “Well, no, of course, I don’t.” That’s right; if the answer to the first question is no, the answer to the second question has to be no, because we’re supposed to love Him perfectly, but we don’t. Therein lies the tension that we experience about our salvation.

Third, I ask, “Well, do you love Jesus at all?” Before the person answers, I usually add that I’m asking about his love for the biblical Christ, the Christ whom we encounter in the pages of Holy Scripture. Why do I say that?”

Many years ago, I taught at the Young Life Institute in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and I did a lot of work in those days with and for Young Life. When I was training staff in Colorado, I said: “Let me warn you about one grave danger of this ministry. I don’t know personally of any ministry to young people in the world that’s more effective than Young Life at getting next to kids, getting involved in their issues, getting involved in their problems, ministering to kids where they are, and knowing how to get them to respond. That’s the greatest strength of this organization—and it’s also your greatest weakness. Because Young Life, as a ministry, makes Christianity so attractive to kids, it would be easy for kids to be converted to Young Life without ever being converted to Christ.”

In just the same way, it’s possible to love a caricature of Jesus rather than Jesus Himself.

So when I ask people “Do you love Jesus at all?” I’m not asking whether they love a Christ who is a hero for kids or a Christ who is a good moral teacher. I’m asking whether they love the Christ who appears in Scripture.

Now if someone can say “Yes” to that third question, that’s where theology comes in. Consider this question: “Is it possible for an unregenerate person to have any true affection for Christ?”

My answer is no; affection for Christ is a result of the Spirit’s work. That is what regeneration is all about; that is what the Spirit does in quickening. God the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of our souls and the inclination of our hearts.

Before regeneration, we are cold, hostile, or indifferent (which is the worst kind of hostility) to the things of God, having no honest affection for Him, because we are in the flesh, and the flesh does not love the things of God. Love for God is kindled by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, who pours the love of God into our hearts (Rom. 5:5).

So if a person can answer “Yes” when I ask whether he has an affection for Christ, even though he may not love Jesus as much as he ought to (i.e., perfectly), that assures me the Spirit has done this transforming work in his soul. This is so because we do not have the power in our flesh to conjure up any true affection for Jesus Christ.

HT: Rain Smith

The Helmet of Hope

Ephesians 6 refers to the helmet of salvation. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the helmet is called the hope of salvation. Biblical hope is a certain expectation of the future. How assured are you regarding your salvation? Only when you are fully assured can you truly say you have put on the helmet.

The Gospel & The True Christian

Recording from the conference “Back to the Word of God” at Holmavatn Mission Center in Rogaland, Norway in January, 2014.

Paul Washer:

Introduction:
Paul Washer preaches from 1 Timothy 3:14 – 4:16 about the importance of preaching the gospel. The gospel is the only message that both saves and sanctifies us, and he warns us not to change our focus to something else in the message we proclaim.

Translation into Norwegian by Bjorn Storm Johansen. Recording from meeting at Vigrestad Misjonshus on January 20, 2014.

The gospel should be the main focus of our preaching:

1. The power of the gospel – Romans 1:16

2. Preach the gospel – 1 Tim 3:14 – 4:5

3. God’s holiness and man’s depravity – Romans 3

4. The Gospel of justification and redemption – Rom 3:23,25

5. The power of regeneration – 2 Cor 5:17-18

6. Assurance of Salvation – 1 John 5:13

The Cure for a Lack of Fruit

who called the Protestant doctrine of assurance “the greatest of all heresies.” What, after all, could be more offensive to a works-based and priest-imparted system of salvation than the possibility that assurance could be attained without either? If Christians can attain an assurance of eternal life apart from participation in the church’s rituals, what possible outcome could there be other than rampant antinomianism (the belief that God’s commandments are optional)?

But what exactly did the Westminster divines mean when they implied that our assurance is “founded upon” inward evidence? Behind this statement lies a practical syllogism:

(major premise) True believers demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit.
(minor premise) The fruit of the Spirit is present in me.
(conclusion) I am a true believer.

It should be obvious that the subjectivity of this argument is fraught with difficulty. While the certainty of salvation is grounded upon the (objective) work of Christ, the certainty of assurance is grounded upon the (objective) promises God gives us and the (subjective) discovery of those promises at work in us. And it is this latter consideration that gives rise to one or two problems.

Theologians have made a distinction between the direct and reflexive acts of faith. It is one thing to believe that Christ can save me (direct act of faith). It is another thing to believe that I have believed (reflexive act of faith). Apart from the first consideration (that Christ is both willing and able to save) there can be no assurance of faith. Indeed, it is pointless to move forward with the discussion about assurance apart from a conviction of the truthfulness of this statement: “Christ is able to save those who believe.”

Assuming, then, that there is no doubt as to the ability and willingness of Christ to save those who believe, how may I be assured that I have this belief? The answer of the New Testament at this point is clear: there is an “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). True faith manifests itself in outward, tangible ways. In other words, the New Testament draws a connection between faithfulness and the enjoyment of assurance. True believers demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, and this fruit is observable and measurable.

Four Ways of Knowing

The Apostle John addresses this very issue in his first epistle: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Apart from belief “in the name of the Son of God,” there is no point in furthering the discussion about assurance. The question at hand is, “How can I know if my belief is genuine?” And John’s answer emphasizes four moral characteristics of the Christian life.

First, there is obedience to the commandments of God. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:2–3). True faith is not and can never be antinomian.

Second, there is practicing righteousness: “You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). Those who have a genuine faith will display a life of faith, a life molded and shaped by the obedience of faith. They demonstrate a desire for godliness.

Third, there is a radical breach with one’s former life. John expresses it radically (by employing a relative contrast in absolute terms): “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18; cf. 3:6, 9). The explanation of this admittedly difficult language requires more space than is allotted here, but it is clear enough that a true and genuine faith is incompatible with a continuation in the pattern of sinful behavior that characterizes the life lived in unbelief.

Fourth, there is walking in love: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death … whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 3:14; 4:7). Loving our brothers and sisters is something dear to the Apostle John’s heart. After all, according to tradition, the elderly Apostle in Ephesus, carried by the arms of his disciples, was heard to repeat, “Little children, love one another.” And when asked why he kept repeating it, he answered: “It is the Lord’s command. And if this be done, it is enough.”

These four marks then collectively contribute to an assurance that our faith in Christ is genuine. But what if I cannot discern these outward evidences in myself and wonder if they are lacking? Should I then conclude that my faith is hypocritical or insincere? Yes, that is a possible conclusion. But it is not necessarily the correct conclusion, because our assessment of the evidence of outward faith in these four marks may be faulty. We may be too hard on ourselves. We may doubt what others can clearly see. Satan may cloud our thinking. The lack of consistency may lead us to conclude that no evidence at all is present. And personality and disposition may lead us to negative assessments when a more objective scrutiny deduces a different conclusion. But the possibility exists that our faith may be insincere. What then?

Faith in Evidence or Faith in Christ?

And it is here that differences of counsel appear. A predictable counsel might be, “Try harder.” It is a comment I most remember from annual school reports—“Could do better.” A person who doubts the genuineness of his faith due to inconsistency of behavior would then be urged to “be more consistent.” Read more Scripture, pray with greater fervency, love with greater altruism, and so on. But what would such counsel achieve? First of all, it is doubtful that someone predisposed to read the presence of fruit negatively would fare any better in his evaluation simply by increasing effort. But more importantly, such counsel is predisposed to commit the fatal error of viewing the fruit of the faith as the root of faith. It is fundamentally predisposed to appeal to self-justification—something for which we are all hardwired.

The counsel to “do more” in the belief that works provide the ground of assurance rather than the evidence of assurance is the path to legalism—and legalism in its proper sense. In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair B. Ferguson urges a “gospel logic” to the effect that “there is no assurance of faith that can be experienced apart from faith.”

And it is here that one perceives a counterintuitive counsel that must be given to the one lacking assurance. To look to works (and the counsel to “do more works”) as a means of gaining assurance is essentially counterproductive and pastorally deadly. Only Christ can save us, and assurance, when lacking, must be found by looking to Him. Apart from faith in Christ, no work on our part will assure us of anything except Pharisaism.

Far from being a counsel to laxity, what this counsel intends to secure is an understanding that faith gives rise to obedience rather than obedience’s giving rise to faith. And the difference is crucial. One gives rise to legalism; the other to evidentiary, evangelical (gospel-based) works.

Abiding in Christ

Is not this counsel (to look first to Christ) precisely what Jesus said in His final word to the disciples in the Upper Room?

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4–5) Bearing fruit, something that Jesus identifies as keeping His commandments (15:10), is intimately related to abiding in Him. It is in the sphere of abiding in Christ and not apart from it that fruit emerges.

There is only one cure for a lack of fruit in our Christian lives. It is to go back to Christ and enjoy (yes, enjoy) our union with Him. The “love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). The Greek verb translated here as “controls” is elsewhere rendered as “surrounds” and “hems in” (Luke 8:45; 19:43). That’s what the experience of abiding in Christ does—it hems us in to obedience. From such gracious love, compliance with His commands emerges. Disobedience drives Him away. But when we enjoy His presence, we also desire to “please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). And as we bear the fruit of this union, assurance grows.

“Make Your Calling and Election Sure” Predestination and Assurance In Reformation Theology

hortonArticle by Dr. Michael Horton

According to the most lengthy of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

The godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh in their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God. And yet, the study of the subject has most dangerous effects on the “carnal professor.”1

Speaking of the doctrine of election as “a comforting article when it is correctly treated,” the Formula of Concord (Lutheran) offers a similar caution:

Accordingly we believe and maintain that if anybody teaches the doctrine of the gracious election of God to eternal life in such a way that disconsolate Christians can find no comfort in this doctrine but are driven to doubt and despair, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their self-will, he is not teaching the doctrine according to the Word and will of God…2

During the magisterial Reformation, the doctrine of election was regarded as a corollary to justification, the nail in the coffin of synergism (justification and regeneration by human cooperation with grace). Pastorally, election was used to drive away despair and anxiety over one’s salvation. John Bradford, an Edwardian divine who was martyred under “bloody Mary,” wrote that this doctrine was a “most principal” tenet since it places our salvation entirely in God’s hands. “This, I say, let us do, and not be too busybodies in searching the majesty and glory of God, or in nourishing doubting of salvation: whereto we all are ready enough.”3 As we will see, all of this is carefully expounded by Calvin as well.

Did Calvin Invent Predestination?
More than anything else, Calvin and Calvinism are known for this doctrine. In one sense, that is quite surprising. First, the doctrine held by Calvin–namely, predestination to both salvation (election) and damnation (reprobation)–was insisted upon by many of the church fathers. Augustine took it for granted as the catholic teaching, in opposition especially to Pelagius. Aquinas wrote,

From all eternity some are preordained and directed to heaven; they are called the predestined ones: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children according to the good pleasure of his will” [Eph. 1:5]. From all eternity, too, it has been settled that others will not be given grace, and these are called the reprobate or rejected ones: “I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” [Mal. 1:2-3]. Divine choice is the reason for the distinction: “…according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.”… God predestines because he loves… The choice is not dictated by any goodness to be discovered in those who are chosen; there is no antecedent prompting of God’s love [Rom. 9:11-13].4

Lodging the cause of election in the foreknowledge of human decision and action, says Aquinas, is the fountainhead of Pelagianism.5 Thomas Bradwardine, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, recalled his discovery of this great truth:

Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth… In this philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins, and much more along this line… But every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will–as in the case in Romans 9, “It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,” and its many parallels–grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was… However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works… That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a gift.6 Continue reading

Many Hear the Gospel with Joy but Don’t Continue in the Faith

“Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You” (Matt. 12:47, NASB). But Jesus answers, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” (v. 48, NASB). Then, indicating His disciples, He says: “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (vv. 49–50, NASB). Jesus says that His true brother is the one who does the will of the Father, not one who simply makes a decision to follow Him.

We should always keep in mind that nobody forced Judas to become a disciple. Judas chose to follow Jesus; he made his own decision to enter the school of Jesus, and he stayed with our Lord during His earthly ministry for three years. Yet we are told that he was a devil (John 6:70). It wasn’t that Judas was genuinely converted and then fell out of grace and was lost; rather, although he was close to Jesus, he was never a converted man. That ought to give us pause as we consider the states of our own souls.

A little later in the book of Matthew, Jesus gives an explanation of His parable of the sower. It is one of the rare times in the Gospel accounts where we are given an explanation of a parable. That explanation is most helpful because this parable differs from normal parabolic instruction. Most parables have just one point. It is generally dangerous, therefore, to turn parables into allegories, which tend to have symbolic meanings sprinkled throughout the story. But the parable of the sower approaches the level of an allegory as Jesus makes several points of application.

Jesus begins His explanation by saying: “Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path” (Matt. 13:18–19). The first group He is talking about is represented by the seed that fell on the path. In antiquity, at planting time, a farmer sowed his seed first, then plowed the ground. But any seed that fell on a roadway or pathway was not plowed under. Lying on the hardened path, it had no way to take root, and was devoured by birds. Jesus likens the birds to Satan. Many people are like this seed. They hear the preaching of the gospel, but it makes no impact on them. It does not take root in their lives.

Jesus continues, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (vv. 20–21).

If you go to an evangelistic meeting or watch one on TV, you may see huge crowds thronging to the front of the church in response to the call of the gospel. In fact, I once saw a report about a massive international evangelistic campaign in which millions of people supposedly had made decisions for Christ. When I read that, I wondered how many of those decisions for Christ were true conversions and how many of them were spurious. People like what they hear at these events and can be emotionally moved to make a decision to follow Christ. However, it is an established fact that many of those who come forward at evangelistic meetings soon abandon their commitments altogether. Their spur-of-the-moment responses are often groundless.

I don’t want to be too harsh in my response to reports about the successes of evangelistic events. I recognize that all outreach ministries face the problem of measuring their effectiveness. Churches generally do it by reporting the number of members in their congregations and how much they have grown over a period of time. Evangelistic ministries often do it by reporting the number of people who come to the front, raise a hand, sign a card, or pray a prayer. These ministries want to have some kind of statistic to measure the response people are making.

But how does one measure a spiritual reality? Anyone who has been involved in evangelism knows that we cannot see the heart, so the next best thing is to count the number of decisions that people make. But Jesus warns us about that here in the parable of the sower when He says that many people hear the gospel with joy—but they don’t continue in the faith. This second type of seed falls on stony ground—ground that is so shallow the seed cannot put down roots, and as soon as the sun comes up, the seedlings begin to wither. The result is that they die away and never bear fruit. Jesus tells us that these people fall away because of the tribulations and persecutions that inevitably arise in the way of faith.”

Explaining the third type of seed, Jesus says, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). This seed represents a category of people who also hear and receive the Word, but who are overwhelmed by the cares of this world. Like thorns, worldly cares “choke the word.”

Lastly, Jesus says: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (Matt. 13:23a).

Clearly, then, there are many who respond to the message of the gospel with joy but ultimately do not continue in the faith. Not everyone who hears the Word of God is saved, and the same is true for many who respond to it initially. Those who are genuinely saved are those who prove themselves to be doers of the Word. When the seed takes root and grows, there is fruit.

The Struggle For Assurance

How can I know I am one of the elect? It is a question many have grappled and struggled with, and rightfully so. How do any of us reach right conclusions on this? This sermon seeks to answer this question decisively.

Text: Romans 8:28-39