The evangelical internet has been in a state of moderate agitation the past couple of days in response to a sermon by John Piper in which he touches on the relationship between “faith” and “feeling.”
I have no intention of entering that particular conversation. But it does provide an occasion for addressing an issue of profound theological significance and pastoral relevance, namely, the nature of Christian assurance and the context within which we may expect such assurance to flourish.
Christian teaching on assurance is rather expansive in nature. Its dimensions are as broad and long, and as high and deep, as the triune God himself (Eph 1:17-19; 3:17-19). Our assurance has an eternal root in the Father’s eternal love for unworthy sinners, a love in which he appointed his Son to be the redeemer and head of the elect “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4-5), a love in which he granted us grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9). Our assurance, furthermore, is grounded in the solid redemptive-historical foundation of the Son’s redeeming love, whereby he purchased for us every blessing of salvation through his blood, and whereby he bestows those blessings upon us, along with the faith that enables us to receive them, from his exalted place at the Father’s right hand (Eph 1:7, 20-23; 2:8-9; 3:17; 4:10; 1 Tim 1:14). The fruits of the Father’s electing love and of the Son’s redeeming love come to us by means of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling love, as the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts, causing us to rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2, 5).
The Spirit creates, confirms, and strengthens saving faith in us through the ministry of Word and Sacrament (Eph 1:13; 5:26). This saving faith is sometimes weak (Mark 9:24) and sometimes strong (Ps 34:2). Sometimes saving faith abounds in fruits of joy and peace (Rom 15:13). Other times it suffers great trouble (John 12:22) and even senses divine abandonment (Ps 22:1; Mark 15:34). A living faith is a living organism that begins as a seed, flourishes and flounders along the way, and only at last receives in full the blessed object on which it rests and in which it hopes, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Pet 1:3-9).
Shepherding the faithful, who inevitably struggle with assurance, requires familiarity with the full scope of Christian teaching on assurance in its trinitarian breadth and length and height and depth. It also requires facility with the full set of means that God has given his church to cultivate assurance, preeminently the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Central to the former is the necessity of understanding the relationship between Christ’s work for us in his death, resurrection, heavenly session, and second coming and the Spirit’s work within us in creating, confirming, and cultivating faith (on this, see James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, chap. 15). Central to the latter is the necessity of understanding the relationship between the means whereby the Spirit produces and strengthens faith (i.e., the ministry of Word and Sacrament) and the products that ordinarily follow the faithful use of those means (i.e., faith, assurance, joy, peace, etc.).
We cannot cultivate Christian assurance among God’s people simply by means of correct teaching about faith and assurance, or by means of correct teaching about the joy and peace that accompany believing. Why not? Because faith and assurance, as well as the joy and peace that accompany believing, are downstream from the realities that constitute the fountain of Christian assurance, i.e., the Father’s eternal love and the Son’s redeeming love. (Put in dogmatic idiom, the realities of ordo salutis are downstream from the realities of pactum salutis and historia salutis.) Moreover, the means whereby the Spirit creates and cultivates faith and assurance lie outside of faith and outside of our subjective experience of assurance: in the faithful preaching of the Word and the faithful administration of the Sacraments (Rom 10:17; Gal 3:2).
This does not mean that the joy and peace that ordinarily accompany faith, or the life of good works that necessarily grows out of faith, contribute nothing to our assurance. Quite the contrary (2 Pet 1:3-11). But these realities contribute to our assurance when we recognize them as fruits rather than roots of God’s saving grace and when we see them as products that follow from attending to the external and ordinary means of grace rather than treating them as requisites for producing that grace.
When a lake is cut off from its spring, it will soon dry up. When a room’s windows are never opened, it will soon begin to smell stale. So too, when our teaching on faith and assurance is not set within a broader context of teaching about God’s triune work of salvation and within a faithful ministry of the external and ordinary means of grace, such teaching may not well serve the production of faith and assurance in God’s people.
Conversely, when we find our faith weak and our assurance wanting, we need only look up to the right hand of the Father, where Jesus Christ our righteousness sits, and out to the hand that holds forth the bread and the wine in Jesus’ name. Looking up, looking out: from there the Spirit flows, from there our faith and assurance grow. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
UPDATE: Patrick Ramsey posted a helpful thread summarizing John Ball on the relationship between faith and feeling. See here.