Chapter 16: Full Assurance of Hope at the Cross
Nothing is more natural, or more reasonable than that the strength and ardor of hope should be regulated by the importance and magnitude of the objects on which it terminates. It is when the objects of their pursuit are vast and important, that the hopes of men become the stimulus to their greatest efforts. No man acts with a view to the past; and if a wise man, he even quits the stronghold of the present, and carries his designs into the future. He acts for the next hour, the next day, the next year; and if truly wise, he acts for eternity. This is one of the points of difference between the Christian and all other men, that he acts under the influence of the highest and the strongest hopes. He is the creature of presentiment—the purest and the noblest presentiment. Sometimes, like the Father of the faithful, he "hopes against hope," and where everything seems to be against him. If he has no hope in creatures, he has hope in God, and "out of weakness is made strong." The cross is the emblem of hope; hope constitutes one of its powerful attractions. At the cross, the field of hope is amplified; it is ever opening wider and wider. There is no grief to which it does not furnish mitigation, no evil for which it does not yield an antidote, nor any good which it does not promise. It is not so much over terrestrial things that this hope diffuses its radiance, as over scenes that are opening upon it from another world, where the last lights of time fade away in the brighter lights of eternity, and the last sounds of earth scarcely die on the ear before it is greeted with the songs of heaven.
There is nothing in Christianity that forbids the hope of the Christian rising to full assurance. Two preliminary questions settled, and every man is warranted in cherishing an assured hope of eternal life. The first is, is he sure that Jesus Christ is a Divine and all-sufficient Savior? the second is, is he sure that he believes in him? Doubt in regard to either of these points of inquiry disturbs his serenity, and necessarily produces hesitation and embarrassment. Where there is no doubt in relation to these, his hopes assume the form of confidence and certainty. They are not the illusions of the imagination, nor the offspring of credulity; but the "fruit of the Spirit," grown to maturity, and nurtured and invigorated by all the promises of God.
A mind that is satisfied of the truth of the cross, seeks no higher evidence of the Savior’s all-sufficiency, and asks no other, no surer way of salvation. The foundation is strong enough to support any hope that is built upon it; nor is there any room for apprehension, or place for doubt, where men build upon this corner-stone laid in Zion. The doubt and fear of good men arise not from any secret suspicion that the system of redemption through the cross is not worthy of their entire confidence, but rather from the fear that they do not believe in it, and from some lurking apprehension that they are deceived as to their own personal character. While it is true that hypocrites and unregenerate men may deceive themselves with false hopes, such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him, may be assured that they are in a state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. There is no impossibility in a believer being conscious of his faith, nor do we perceive that there is any obstacle in the way of this consciousness more than frequently exists to the consciousness of a multitude of his internal emotions. Faith in Christ so widely differs from unbelief, that the true believer may know when he exercises it. It is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion, but an assured reality. So long as it is founded upon Divine promises, and accompanied by the evidence of those graces to which these promises are made, there is sinful mistrust in not indulging the hope that "makes not ashamed."
We learn from the Scriptures, that God often gives to his people this full assurance. "Now the God of hope," says the apostle, "fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit." This apostle did not deem it an unusual attainment, when he said to the Thessalonians, "Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which has loved us, and given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work!" In writing to the Ephesians, he says, "In whom also, after that you believed, you were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession." In writing to the Corinthians, he expresses the same thought—"Now He which establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, is God; who has also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts." What higher evidence of belonging to the Divine family, than to be thus sealed by the Spirit of adoption; and what surer guarantee of the purchased possession, than thus to be made partakers of the earnest of that inheritance! It cannot have escaped the observation of careful readers of the New Testament, that one important point of difference between Christians in the apostolic age, and those of the age in which we live, is found in the assurance of their hopes, and the obscurity and doubt so often attending our own. Theirs was an age of trial, and God multiplied to them the consolations of his grace. The strong lines of the Christian character were more fully and perfectly developed in their experience and conduct than in ours. Theirs was the pattern church, and designed to be a guide to every subsequent age. From them we may therefore learn our own duty in this article of Christian experience. In what terms of unhesitating, glowing confidence, do we hear them giving utterance to the assurance of hope! "Though our outward man perish, yet is the inward man renewed day by day." "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." Who, "according to his abundant mercy, has begotten us again unto a lively hope, to an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fades not away." "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast." I am persuaded that nothing can "separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." "We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.—Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord." "Whom having not seen, you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." These are delightful expressions of the full assurance of hope. They describe the calm and tranquil state of the mind, safely anchored in the storm, as well as its placid and triumphant progress over the waters, under serener skies, with every sail spread to the wind, and the destined and long-desired haven full and constantly in view.
Nor have there been wanting instances, not a few, of the same triumphant hope in every age. Though this infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of piety, but that many a pious man may wait long, and pass through many conflicts before he attains to it, yet it is of frequent attainment. The life and death of many a child of God, among the taught, as well as among those who are teachers in spiritual things, among the afflicted and poor as well as among those who are the more favored objects of the Divine bounty, attest this same blessed experience. When I see those in whose bosoms the love of God appears to have predominant sway; in whose spirit the various graces of the Christian character are so blended as to exhibit the beauties of holiness; in whose conduct there is found an habitual conformity to the laws of rectitude; who are submissive in adversity, and humble in prosperity; who are as persevering as they are happy, and as laborious and self-denying as they are comforted; who are as distrustful of themselves as they are confident in the faithfulness of their Divine Lord; and who are habitually more anxious to do their duty in this world, than they are perplexed about their condition in the world to come; though I know that their characters still bear the marks of sinful imperfection, I honor their testimony, when they affirm that their prospects are habitually unobscured by doubts respecting their own salvation. Many such Christians I have known—more I have read of—and multitudes of such I believe are to be found in the church of God.
Since, then, the Christian hope often rises to full assurance, it is an inquiry of some interest, Whether all Christians may and ought not to possess this strong and undoubting confidence? I have before remarked that this assurance belongs not to the essence of true piety, and that good men there are, who not always, and it may be, never enjoy it. It were as untrue as it were cruel, to affirm that there is no genuine piety, where this assurance is wanting. Spiritual darkness and embarrassment do not necessarily prove an entire destitution of evangelical faith. We should be slow to affirm, or to admit, that every season of spiritual depression proves a state of mind at enmity with God. But while this is true, every man acquainted with the scope and design of the gospel, must see that there is no necessity for any good man in the world remaining in such a state of mind. It cannot be, that the system of truth and grace, which proclaims "glad tidings of great joy," was designed to encourage such a doubting hope and comfortless experience. The Scriptures do not describe true religion with such indefiniteness, that it cannot be distinctly seen and understood; nor is the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart so confused and obscure, as not to be discerned. Heavenly affections are not earthly; nor is the supreme love of God, the love of self and the world. There can be no insuperable difficulty in the way of distinguishing between them. The leading characteristics of these two classes of affections are strong and prominent, and need never be misconceived or misinterpreted. They are infallible; and when honestly applied, are clearly seen to determine the question whether men are, or are not, the disciples of Jesus Christ. The differences between the views and affections of good and bad men toward the method of redemption by the cross of Christ, are not of such a neutral character that it is impossible to determine what they are. They can certainly ascertain whether they fall in with this redemption, or fall out with it; and whether the atoning, interceding Savior is "precious" to them, or as "a root out of dry ground," in which they discover no form or loveliness. The Scriptures teach us that every humble man—every man who delights in God’s law, and takes enjoyment in the secret, social and public duties of piety—every man who finds his pleasure in his duty—every man who loves God and his people—and every man whose life and conversation are controlled by the precepts of the gospel, is the subject of regenerating grace. It cannot be impossible to decide whether we possess such a character as this. The condition of the people of God in the present world is singularly adapted to develop and bring out this character, and to exhibit the evidence of it, both to themselves and others. They are the subjects of a discipline, one great object of which is, to "show them what is in their hearts." New scenes, new associations, new duties, new mercies, new trials, new temptations, are perpetually arising which bring their religion to the test.
The best of all schools for the trial of the Christian character is, the school of experience. God teaches men, by his providence, in a way that is very apt to undeceive them, if they are deceived, and to confirm and establish them, if they are not deceived. He leads them, as he did the children of Israel, through the wilderness, to prove them, and humble them, and see whether they keep his commandments or no. They are put to the trial of time and circumstance—of men and things—of snares and enemies—of truth and duty. It is under such a discipline, that not a few who had strong hopes have been brought to see them crushed, and for the time annihilated; while in the issue, such have been the abounding faithfulness and mercy of God toward them, that, although the developments of their character have filled them with unwonted self-diffidence and trembling, they have renewed and stronger confidence in God than ever. Cautious Christians have learned to be slow in deciding upon their character by any one criterion, or by any sudden impulse of feeling, or by anything short of such a trial of it as shows them what manner of spirit they are of. There is an exception to this remark in the case of young converts; and their experience and joy present a most delightful view of the love and tenderness of the great Shepherd toward the lambs of his flock. The bruised reed he does not break, and the smoking flax he does not quench. His tenderness and love are specially discernible, in this respect, to those youthful Christians who, as subsequent events have shown, were destined to an early grave. Such youthful converts rarely have their confidence disturbed. They are more usually saved from those fearful conflicts which bring to the test the hopes of more experienced piety. Because their course is rapid and short, it is bright and clear, and the light of heaven shines upon it all the way. Some Christians honor God by their death—others by their life; and if young converts sometimes die in greater peace and triumph than many old believers, it is because older believers glorify him more by the life of the righteous, while the only way in which those whose race is short can glorify him, is, by their triumphant death. At the same time, it is not to be forgotten, that what older Christians sometimes lose in this vividness of joy, they gain by weathering the storm. They rarely pass through the varied scenes of a long life, without sometimes passing under the cloud. Tried piety is sterling piety, though not always, and indeed not often, unclouded. But what the Christian is, is no criterion of what he should be. This discipline itself is one of the means by which a more uniform assurance is rendered a practicable and reasonable attainment.
Nor may it be forgotten that it is a duty expressly required in the Scriptures. Paul says to the Hebrews, "We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end." To the Corinthians he says, "Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know you not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except you be reprobates?" To the Galatians he writes, "Let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another." The confidence of our fellow-men that we are Christians is not always proof of our Christianity. Our confidence should arise from the evidence which we ourselves perceive, and not merely from the good opinion which others form concerning us. To the "saints that are scattered abroad," Peter writes—"Wherefore, the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure." It is a very plain truth, therefore, that no Christian ought to rest satisfied with a doubtful hope. Whether he is dead in sin, or begins to live; whether Christ is his life, or whether he glories in another; whether he is the friend of God, or his enemy; whether he has some gracious affection, or none at all; are inquiries concerning which an enlightened conscience may be satisfied. "Beloved, if our heart condemn us not," says the apostle, "then have we confidence toward God."
Since, then, the full assurance of hope is attainable, and it is the duty of all Christians to make the attainment, it may not be unprofitable to institute the inquiry, Why is this attainment so rarely possessed? This melancholy fact may be accounted for on some, or all, of the following principles.
The first that we shall notice is, the want of knowledge. The more doubting and fearful will often be found among those who are partially ignorant of some of those great truths which lie at the foundation of a confident assurance. They are apt to have indistinct and unsatisfactory views of the nature of true religion, and are partially or badly instructed in regard to the difference between what is spurious and what is genuine. Others there are who are misinformed with respect to the proper evidence of true religion in the soul. They have imbibed the impression that it is communicated in some mysterious way, which cannot be intelligibly explained; from the unexpected suggestion of some passage of Scripture; or from some marvelous dream, or vision; or from some strong impression made upon their minds, that they have found mercy, and which they cannot account for, unless it be immediately from God. Or, perhaps, they are looking for just such evidence as they have read or heard of in the experience of others, and perceived in the same way as others have perceived it. It would not be surprising that such people are found in darkness, nor, indeed, if, when they find peace, they are fatally deceived. The true and only way of coming at the evidence of piety, is by comparing the principles and affections of our own minds, and the conduct of our lives, with the word of God, and ascertaining by that standard, whether we possess the character of his children. Others have very imperfect and indistinct views of the way of salvation by the cross of Christ. They do not apprehend and take strong hold of the truth, that their sins are all atoned for by the blood of the Lamb; that, on their believing in Jesus Christ, his righteousness becomes theirs; and that this great truth is able to sustain the most confident hope which perishing men ever rested upon it. They do not discover the full provision made in the covenant of grace for their comfort and assurance. They do not understand and bring home to their own wants, nor apply to all the dangers and difficulties of their spiritual career, the unfailing promises which the God who cannot lie has made to the "righteousness of faith." The most wary and cautious mind can ask for nothing more than the cross furnishes, in order to impart vigor, and buoyancy, and assurance to its expectations. His salvation does not rest upon himself, but upon the all-sufficient God, who, "Willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath—that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us." This fullness, this preciousness, this immutability of the cross, are not present to the minds of doubting and weak believers. This most wonderful and most glorious way of salvation, by which the chief of sinners is made an heir of God, and a fellow-heir with Jesus Christ, is too coldly received. Their minds do not dwell and their hopes do not rest upon it; nor do they lose their apprehensions in an entire surrender and perfect abandonment of themselves to the sufficiency and faithfulness of this Almighty Redeemer. Others doubt if, though they have once taken strong hold of the cross, they may not let go their hold. They are not satisfied of the certain and final perseverance of all those to whom God has once given true faith in his dear Son. Doubts as to this truth must exert a disastrous influence on all their hopes of heaven. If there be no absolute pledge of salvation to all who once come to Jesus Christ—if it be a possible thing even for the best of Christians to be justified today, and under condemnation tomorrow—who knows but he may die in a state of condemnation? Without clear views of God’s covenant faithfulness in making his people faithful to the last, there is no certain evidence of the final salvation of any, and can therefore be no such thing as the full assurance of hope. Ignorance or hesitation in any of these important
articles of God’s revealed truth necessarily begets a doubtful hope.
Another reason why this attainment is comparatively so rare is, the want of larger measures of grace. If the power of holiness in the heart be the only evidence of being in a gracious state, it is not wonderful that this evidence is not discovered in those who have but small measures of holiness. "Christ in you the hope of glory." Where the image of Christ is but faintly drawn, it is but faintly discovered. Remaining depravity, indwelling, and especially outward sin, are always the source of doubt and uncertainty. They shake our hopes. Where the conscience is sensitive, it is very difficult to live at a distance from God, and in a state of coldness and formality, remissness and negligence, without questioning the genuineness of our faith. God never meant that careless Christians, and those who are in a state of declension, and live without an abiding impression of his presence should enjoy a full assurance. Distressing apprehensions and deep darkness overshadow the minds of all that class of Christians. "He that follows me," says the Savior, "shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." Another reason why this attainment is so infrequently made is, that Christians are very apt to make their hopes their idol. They think more of their hopes than of their holiness; more of their hopes than of God. And God smites their Dagon, and it falls headless, and with its lifeless trunk before the ark. They are more anxious to have the evidence that they are Christians, than to be Christians. What if they discover no evidence; do they less desire to fear God and love his Son? What if they "walk in darkness, and have no light;" would they desire on this account to trust no more "in the name of the Lord, and stay upon their God?" There is too much selfishness in such a religion as this, to be buoyant with hope. Such Christians are always thinking of themselves, and talking about themselves. Their hopes, their darkness, their experience, are more to them than all the world beside! I have seen not a little religion like this, and I doubt whether it be possible for the human mind, in this morbid state, ever to possess the silent, strong, steady assurance of hope. An assured hope is not like the mountain torrent, but like a stream flowing from a living fountain, and often so quietly that it is scarcely visible but for the verdure on its banks. Nor does it cease to flow, though it sometimes runs under ground; nor does it less certainly find its way to the ocean of a blessed eternity. It is rarely attained in the direct pursuit of it. It comes in the pursuit of holiness, and in the faithful and diligent performance of every duty. It comes as the gift of God, with all the other graces that he gives, and is never found alone.
Another reason which prevents the more frequent enjoyment of this assurance will be found in the deep and strong impressions which many good men possess of the subtlety and deceitfulness of their own hearts. They know that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." It is not often, if ever, that our impressions of this truth exceed the reality of the truth itself. Sin often puts on the appearance of holiness, both in its inward emotions and its outward expression and conduct. There is, doubtless, great danger, and especially in minds that are characteristically disingenuous, lest those apparent graces which flow from a supremely selfish heart, should be substituted for those which are the genuine fruits of the Spirit. Men sometimes make greater efforts to persuade themselves and others that they are Christians, than to be Christians in reality. It were no unexpected event that such people should take up with a false hope. Very much the same outward conduct that flows from holy, may, for a time at least, also be the effect of unholy and ungracious principles. A well-governed selfishness, wise discretion and policy, may lead an immoral man to reform his outward conduct—a dishonest man to acts of justice and honesty—a selfish man to acts of kindness and beneficence. The strong Pharisaism and self-righteousness of the natural heart, have also produced many striking examples of formal devotion. Many a Christian, in frequently reflecting on facts like these, feels afraid of accrediting the genuineness of his own piety. He does not see why he may not be deceived as well as others, nor why his graces may not be counterfeit as well as those of other men.
There are two things which may serve to chasten, if not entirely subdue and eradicate, this causeless diffidence. The one is, that the apparent goodness which flows from an unregenerated heart is seldom, if ever, permanent. When the storm rages, and the sun beats, the fruit that grows upon such a tree becomes blighted, and withers, and falls off. There is a weak point in the character of the hypocrite and self-deceived, that sooner or later discovers itself. The cares of this world, some unexpected change in his outward condition, bringing with it unlooked-for prosperity, or sudden and disheartening tribulation, prove to be a trial of his faith which he cannot endure. The obligations of his apparent piety perplex and embarrass him, and he throws them off. They are not suited to his depraved mind, and he returns to his idols. He is not governed by the principles of the gospel, nor does he feel the force of its motives. When sorely pressed with temptation, the restraints of a Christian profession will not bind him, and he is sure to break through them, and show, by incontestable signs, that his heart is not right with God. God is used to place his true and faithful people in situations in which they exhibit their true character, and in which it appears unclouded, and in all the light of truth and beauties of holiness; and he is also used to place the hypocritical, and faithless, and self-deceived in situations in which all their once favorable appearances vanish, and they show themselves to be just what they are. He has said, "All the churches shall know that I am he which searches the reins and hearts." He tries the faithful until he manifests their faithfulness, and he more usually tries the unfaithful until their unfaithfulness is manifest. There is no evidence of piety so decisive, as habitual and persevering obedience to the will of God. The other thought to which I refer is, that good men may be unduly afraid of being deceived. They may be rational on every other subject, and irrational on this. They may be governed by the laws of evidence on every other subject, and on this be perfect sceptics. The great adversary is not a little interested in fostering this sort of scepticism, and thus spoiling their comfort. There are no graces so humble and vigorous, no light of God’s countenance so clear and joyous, and no hope so tranquil, as not to be obscured and disturbed by the suggestion. Is it not possible that, after all, I am deceived? What if good men should always reason thus? What if, at the moment when the psalmist was affirming, "As the deer pants after the water-brooks, so pants my soul after you, O God;" what if, in the midst of that triumphant announcement of Paul, "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand;" these holy men had given way to the suggestion, Is it not a possible thing that I may be deceived?—who does not see the absurdity of such an hypothesis? If there be, as we have seen, certain evidence of piety, every Christian is bound to discern and rely upon it. Objections to a man’s piety, when it is fairly proved to his own mind by certain evidence, are of no weight. The proof rests upon his knowledge; the objection upon his ignorance. We cannot conceive a stronger objection to the piety of Peter than his thrice-repeated and profane denial of his Master; but it did not and could not prove that he was destitute of grace, because other things had furnished, and continued to furnish, certain evidence that he was a renewed man. He could still say, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
It becomes the people of God, in forming a judgment of their own character, to judge of themselves with unbiased impartiality. They have no right to judge too favorably of themselves, nor too unfavorably; nor are they any more justified in mistaking gracious for ungracious affections, than those which are ungracious for those that are gracious. If they are impartially attentive to what passes within their own bosoms, they will not form an unrighteous judgment, nor will they so often be involved in perplexity. No good ever comes from a gloomy and disconsolate state of mind, nor is it any expression of any one Christian grace. Those people who take a painful satisfaction in pondering upon their outward troubles and inward conflicts, who choose to dwell on their disconsolate state, and who do little else than call in all the melancholy objects and associations in their power, to augment their despondency, have very mistaken views of the nature of true piety. If I am addressing any one child of God of this character, I would say to such a Christian, that he dishonors the sources of consolation that are treasured up in the Lord Jesus; that he has much more reason to contemplate the goodness of God than his severity, and his past and promised mercies than his present frowns; and that it is his own spirit of distrust which is his greatest enemy.
There is one way of obtaining the full assurance of hope, which is almost always successful—it is, by growing in grace. Large and replenished measures of grace have a happy tendency in removing those doubts which distress the mind, and so often make it like the troubled sea when it cannot rest. They are naturally attended by increasing knowledge of the truth, by invigorated confidence in God, and by that heaven-imparted gratitude and cheerfulness which make the yoke of Christ easy, and his burden light. "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord; his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth." That is a most precious exhortation of the affectionate apostle, "Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which has great recompense of reward." Those seasons are the most humble, the most distinguished for prayer, the most active, and the most strongly marked by self-denying effort, that are the most full of hope. Piety is then the most winning and lovely. Assurance is no phantom. Press after it. "Give diligence to make your calling and election sure." When the storm lowers, look aloft. Your shattered bark may labor and plunge, but the wind is fair, and the land is near. There is but one class of people that have a Divine warrant for despair—they are those whose impenitence is incorrigible. We can assure all such people that religion is the sweetest consolation under every trial of this life, effectual support in the hour of death, and the triumphant expectation of a "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;" but we must also assure them, that the same reasons which urge the penitent to hope, urge the incorrigible to fear. Sooner or later, every incorrigible sinner must despair. He will outlive his hopes. Absolute, perfect despair will, before long, be one of the very elements of his being. And is this the heritage, the frightful heritage, of any one of those who read these pages? Where is the man that must be such a sufferer? My heart fails me in thinking of his woes. Of all the spectacles of grief ever contemplated, the most mournful is such a man.
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