Paul commands us, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:5). It is a responsibility of great importance for the people of God to be assured that there is a true and saving work of grace in them, so as to distinguish them from hypocrites. There are certain signs of grace by which a man may discern what he is. In the weeks to follow, I would like to discuss with you assurance by utilizing Anthony Burgess’ (d. 1664) masterpiece, Spiritual Refining: Or a Treatise of Grace and Assurance (vol. 1, vol. 2).
Assurance involves a practical and experiential knowledge, which is much more than mere head knowledge. There is a great difference between hearing that honey is sweet, and tasting it. This is what the Bible often means by “knowing” something—experiential knowledge, not mere knowledge in the brain. We need a practical, experiential, and well-tested knowledge of our spiritual condition for several reasons. First, Jesus pressed this point upon those who heard his sermons. Consider his parables on the sower and the soils (Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23), the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1–13), and the two builders (Matt. 7:24–27). Second, it is easy to make a mistake on this matter, given our tendency to deceive ourselves and have false confidence (Rom. 2:17). Third, it is very dangerous to make a mistake here. Unless you go beyond mere outward morality and religion, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven. Fourth, it is difficult to see the difference between true grace and its counterfeits.
Furthermore, there are many advantages that experiential knowledge brings. It gives us an inward feeling and sense of holiness. It’s the difference between seeing a place on a map and going there to see it yourself. It makes our hearts a copy of the Bible, so that all God’s promises and warnings have their echo there. This knowledge of holiness makes us dead to all human greatness and worldly delights. It makes the Word and worship sweet to our souls, and helps us to leave behind empty controversies about religion. It gives us the kind of knowledge that produces godly action. It establishes the truth to us in a way that we will endure persecution rather than let it go.
However, this experiential testing of ourselves faces real obstacles. First, we might approach this question with sinful self-love and self-confidence. “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26). Second, we might look at good actions but ignore the motives. Real godliness is inward, not outward (Rom. 2:28). Third, we might test ourselves by false standards. Instead of the Word of God, the Bible, we might take up what is old, or popular, or traditional for our guide. Fourth, we might confuse morality or good manners for godliness.
In general, there are three kinds of people who take the name of Christians. Some have only the name but no power so that they deny Christ by their works. Others have some influences and operations of the Spirit of God upon them. But they are like embryos that miscarry before the new birth. Their affections are somewhat moved by the truth (Matt. 13:20–22), but the Holy Spirit does not dwell in them as members of the body of Christ. However, some are part of Christ’s body, and receive a life-giving influence from him, as branches do from the vine (John 15:5). The least of believers is far above the best of hypocrites, because he is born again into a true experiential knowledge of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection. Someone may have experienced something of the power of spiritual gifts for ministry, the bitterness of sin, a desire for spiritual benefits, an enjoyment of the Word, and a change in their lifestyle—but still be unsaved. The true believer has a different heart (Luke 8:15), for spiritual light dwells in him permanently to make him more holy and dependent on the Lord.
The Bible presents such clear signs of the state of grace that a godly man who faithfully applies them to himself may by the guidance and help of the Spirit of God become assured that is in that state. That's what we'll discuss in the posts that follow.