Spiritual Refining: A Treatise of Grace and Assurance, Sermon 6,
by Anthony Burgess
“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 Corinthians 13:5)
“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
What are the characteristic differences between assurance and presumption? You have heard it to be the greatest delusion and madness that can be, to have a false persuasion of our estate, as if sound and godly, when it is the contrary; and yet the greatest part of Christians are delivered up to such a carnal confidence, and are like that mad Athenian who thought all the ships on the sea were his. How many are there, who when they hear the exact discoveries that are made of grace, whereby they may evidently conclude, that they are for the present shut out of this Kingdom, do yet bless themselves, as if all were well with them! It is therefore worth the while to ransack such false evidences, to discover between dross and gold, honey and gall, what is of the Flesh and what is of the Spirit.
Different Causes of True Assurance and Presumption
There is a vast difference in the efficient causes or principles of true assurance and presumption. And although causes are like the root under the ground, not so visible, yet they make much to the difference of things. Assurance is a fruit, whose root is in Heaven, the Spirit of God in a two-fold act, enlightening or revealing, and adopting or corroborating the heart with filial evangelical affections. But carnal presumption is a rush plant that grows in the puddled mire of our own hearts.
The internal causes that give life and breath to presumption include the following:
Ignorance and inexperienced apprehension of the depth and danger of sin.
They have never yet with Paul found the Law alive, and themselves dead; They have not seen the great abominations of their Nature; The foulness of sin, the purity of the Law, the exactness of God’s justice; and for want of these discoveries and apprehensions, they come quickly to be persuaded that everything is well with them.
This was Paul’s case, he was alive before these thoughts came into him, he had great confidence in himself; and generally this was the state of the Pharisees who justified themselves, and the Jews who trusted in their own righteousness, not that there was any ground for them so to do, but only they were blind and ignorant, not knowing themselves, as those of Laodicea, who thought themselves rich and full, when they were poor and miserable.
Thus the presumption of unregenerate men ariseth from the stupidity and blindness in them; whereas the godly assurance is wrought out of a gracious illumination about the height, depth, and breadth of sin, with a tender affection about the weight and burden of it. Art thou then one who presumest of the love of God, and restest in the goodness of thy heart? know, that if thou wert acquainted with all the wounds sin hath made upon thee, if thy eyes were opened to perceive the filthiness and vileness of thy nature and ways, thou wouldst sit like Job upon the dunghill, abhorring and loathing thyself.
Secondly, another internal cause is self-love; that is, the ivy which cleaveth so close unto us, till it hath devoured our substance; by this means we flatter ourselves, making everything to be good within us, and to be God, whereas it’s altogether fleshly and carnal. The wise-man observeth it, that every man’s ways are clean in his own eyes, but God pondereth the heart (Prov. 21:2). Quisquis se excusat sibi, accusat Deo, Whosoever doth excuse and acquit himself to himself, doth accuse himself before God. This was also the epidemic disease of the Jews. What Prophet could persuade them their hearts were not right with God? Who could bring them out of love with themselves?
Art thou therefore fully persuaded of thy good estate? Dost thou bless God for thy good heart and affections? Whence is the ground of this? Is it not from self-flattery and a carnal love to thy self? If thou wert diligent and observing of thyself, this would be found indeed the real ground of all thy carnal confidence. Whereas a godly assurance ariseth from an utter dissatisfaction, and loathing of ourselves.
Different Motives and Grounds of True Assurance and Presumption
A second vast difference is from the motives and grounds. Godly assurance is from and through the Word of God. That which is the means of our regeneration is also of our assurance. The Apostle saith (2 Cor. 1), that we through the Scriptures might have comfort, whereas a vain presumption comes from base and unworthy motives, which include the following:
1. A mere natural light and judgment about the state of Regeneration and Grace
True assurance comes by the light of the Spirit shining in God’s word. The works of grace in our hearts can be no more discerned by a natural light, than the physical senses can apprehend the actings and workings of reason, or the natural faculty of the will have power to do that which is supernaturally good.
We see a clear instance in Nicodemus, how blind was he about the work of regeneration? Now this is the motive of most men’s assurance: their gross mistake about the nature of the work of grace. Do not the most men think this godliness is consistent with frequent and constant practices of impiety and daily neglect of holy duties? How many say they have a good heart, notwithstanding their bad tongues and lives? But if they are not so gross as to be deluded herein, do not many take a fair, civil and moral conversation, void of scandal, to be the Scripture-godliness, and because they are so, though they have no more, are therefore persuaded of their sanctified condition?
Nay, a man’s mistake may yet go far higher, such as when they take those workings of God’s Spirit which are but for a season, or are in some imperfect and short degrees, being without root in the soul, for the peculiar saving work of grace, which is in the truly regenerated only. Now how easy it is to be deceived one of these ways, and with the foolish virgins (Matt. 25) to die confidently, and boldly go to meet the Bridegroom, when yet they want oil? See therefore if the motive of thy assurance be not an absolute mistake about the nature of sanctifying grace.
2. The Motive of a godly Assurance is not from any Worth, Merit or Perfection we deem in ourselves, but only from the Truth and Sincerity of Grace, with many defects that are washed away by Christ’s blood.
Hence Paul, though he knew nothing by himself, yet he was not thereby justified (Rom. 7:7; Phil. 3:4-7). Therefore the Popish description of their hope making it to arise partly from the merits of Christ, and partly from their own merits, is bold presumption. We do not defend such an assurance as shall arise from a full and perfect obedience unto God’s Law; (nay we have an assurance, such an obedience cannot be in this life) but only a certain persuasion of the uprightness of our hearts in the ways of God. Now the Popish arguments militate against assurance chiefly upon this ground: Because none can say, he hath a clean heart, and that in many things we offend. These places argue indeed strongly against a perfection in this life, but not against a gracious assurance.
3. A carnal Presumption ariseth many times from the outward comforts and plenty they enjoy.
Many Christians look upon their riches, children, and honors as testimonies of God’s love to them and rewards for their obedience. Because the Scripture hath many temporal promises unto those that walk in God’s ways, those who find themselves blessed with such advantages, do thence from infer their piety. But the Scripture gives many antidotes against this tumor and swelling, telling us that such stand in slippery places, yea that these things may become a snare unto them, increasing both their sin and torment. Quandoque divitae dantur ad poenam, said Augustine, as Solomon observed, riches can be for the hurt of the owners. That place in Ecclesiastes [9:1], no man knoweth love, or hatred by these things below, doth not, as the Papists would have it, prove no assurance at all, but no assurance by outward mercies and favours. Dives [the rich man] received his good things in this life, and Lazarus evil things.
But a genuine assurance is most powerful and operative in all outward distresses and miseries. You see it in David by some of his Psalms, how confident in God, when all outward things did witness the contrary! Thus Hezekiah when under the stroke of death, is supported with the truth of grace in his soul: but all carnal confidence vanisheth in time of distress, those without genuine assurance rage and rave in times of trouble, not knowing what to do. What beareth up thy heart, that keeps up thy spirit? Is it thy wealth, thy estate? Alas, how are these things bestowed many times upon those whom God hates. But if these go to happiness then Christ was not happy, who became poor that we might be rich.
It was well observed by Augustine, that God giveth riches sometimes to wicked men, that we may not think they are good in themselves; and sometimes he giveth them to godly men, that we may not think them evil in themselves. God may give thee these things, and not Christ, but if he giveth us Christ, how shall he not with him give us all things else?
Different Manners and Methods of True Assurance and Presumption
Although the wind bloweth where it wills, and God’s ways are many times diversified unto his people, yet the hearts of God’s people ordinarily come to assurance through the Spirit’s work in similar ways. Insomuch that what is Communis sensus fidelium [the common experience of the faithful], though it be not like Scripture, yet is of grave and serious authority, now in these ways the people of God come to have assurance:
1. By a deep and serious Humiliation for sin, and feeling the burden of it.
Matthew 11 tells us that only those who have been humbled deeply before God because of their sins are promised to find rest in their souls. Christ did not assure Mary Magdalene her sins were forgiven till she wept much for them. We do not limit this to any time or degree of humiliation, but unto the truth of it. Come we then to a man who is confident of all things, that it is well with his soul, we know what travails his soul must have suffered before he could have such joy. Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit of God is a spirit of bondage before he is a spirit of adoption. And this very particular is enough to shake the foundations of many men’s buildings. What deep digging was there in thy heart before this you found assurance?
I know this true and safe practical divinity is rejected by some upstart flashy spirits who turn religion into notions and opinions. But Paul, in Romans 7 and 8, doth fully describe such a progress and method upon himself. First, the discovery of sin by the Law, whereby he judged himself miserable and out of measure sinful, and then the apprehension of Christ’s grace upon him. True assurance will not grow upon a heart not plowed up. The needle must pierce the heart before this silk can follow.
2. Another Method whereby God worketh assurance, is by conflicts of doubts, and opposition to unbelief.
For seeing that Assurance is a fruit of God’s Spirit, and doubting a working of the Flesh, it cannot be but the Apostle’s rule must be made good, The Flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the Flesh. I like not the assurance that never doubted; it is like the temper of that man who said, all these have I kept from my youth (Matt. 19:20). It cannot be thought that so great and spiritual a mercy should be brought into thy soul, and thy heart not be in many commotions. Apprehensions of grace in us, accompanied with sense and feeling of our imperfections are always good symptoms, as in that man (Mark 9:24), “Lord, I believe (there was his assurance of grace in him) help my unbelief” (there was a perceiving of his defects in faith). As David hath sometimes the sunshine of God’s favour, and it’s clear with him; so at other times he is in the dark, and much wavering.
3. God worketh Assurance out of the vehement and fiery assaults of Satan.
As Christ himself escaped not Satan’s arrows; so neither do his members. Woe to that man whose peace the Devil doth not disquiet. The strong one who is the Devil kept all things in quiet, till Christ the stronger come. As the Basilisk hateth the very picture of a man; so doth the Devil oppose the resemblance of Christ. Think therefore that vain presumption, and not godly assurance, which is not opposed by hell itself. He is an Egyptian, not an Israelite, if Pharaoh does not oppress him.
Different Effects of Godly Assurance and Presumption
A fourth real difference is in the effects of godly assurance, whereby it doth as much outstrip presumption as light doth darkness.
1. This godly Assurance is diligent in the use of the means, careful to perform all Duties
The neglect of these means causes assurance to either perish or weaken. Give all diligence (saith the Apostle) to make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). So that where diligence, and all diligence is not used, there is no assurance. This is the oil which keeps the lamp burning; in earnest prayer, holy use of the sacraments, walking universally in all God’s ways maintain this godly certainty. Whereas carnal confidence is big and swells even in the neglect or profane contempt of the means. A man that doth not pray, that polluteth himself with daily sins, can be thoroughly persuaded of his happiness. As therefore in the ordinary passages of God’s providence, he is rightly judged a presumer who will persuade himself of life, when yet he will neither eat or drink, be assured of wealth and riches, when yet he will use no diligence: such an arrogant insobriety is in a spiritual presumer.
2. The greater Godly Assurance is, the more it inflames the heart with love to God.
True assurance is like the burning glass that by the reflection of the Sun-beams doth cause a fire to be kindled within, as we told you of David and Paul. And none do so highly bless God and praise him as those that have this assurance, whereas carnal presumption worketh into a love of the creature, or comforts he enjoys, while caring little for God. The more confident an adulteress is of her husband’s love, the more bold and impudent she is to abuse it. The Spirit of Adoption giving a filial disposition, and assurance of a Father’s love doth much melt a filial frame of heart. But if love is shown to a servile slavish spirit, it makes this spirit more haughty and lofty. Consider therefore how thy assurance worketh in thee. Doth it extinguish all thy love to sin and the world? Doth it kill inordinate affections to things below, and raise up thy heart to God, delighting and rejoicing in him? This is a comfortable demonstration of good assurance.
3. Godly Assurance is potent and able to keep up the heart under all discouragements and desolations.
Thus David, in that sad exigence, encouraged himself in the Lord his God (1 Sam. 30:6). This certainty of our propriety and interest in God, is an ark to the soul in the midst of many waters, whereas the heart of a carnally confident man becomes like a stone within him, when all carnal hopes fail. When Heaven and Earth seem to be mingled together, what makes thee rejoice and to lift up thy head with gladness? Is it that knowledge thou hast of God to be thy God? Is it those pledges and pawns in thy soul of his eternal love and goodness unto thee? This is something.
But alas, as the hypocrites joy, so his confidence will quickly perish. It is not a star fixed in the orb made of quintessential matter, but a blazing star composed of slimy materials, which will quickly consume and vanish away. True assurance (saith Origen) is tried by this, if it can endure the hammer, if under the hammer above, and the anvil below, it continue more obdurate, then it is true metal: So it is with true assurance, it abideth though billows and waves come upon it. So that troubles will discern the truth of thy graces and comforts, sooner than any thing else. Hence Richard Cameron (1648-1680) observeth that mercies are never called temptations in the Scripture, but afflictions, because it is so difficult to be deprived of that we desire.
Different Companions or Concomitants of True Assurance and Presumption
There is a palpable difference in the companions and concomitants of true assurance, which include the following:
1. It’s accompanied with holy fear and trembling
God’s Word doth not contradict itself. In some places it calls upon us to make our calling sure, and in other places to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. So neither may these two graces contradict one another, as they are in the subject. So then, they who are assured, though they rejoice, yet they rejoice with trembling. Those who are assured they shall stand, yet take heed lest they fall. As a man that holds onto battlements knoweth he cannot fall, yet when he looks to the ground, that is so deep below him, he cannot but fear he should fall; so that at the same time he hath both an assurance of not falling, and a fear of falling, though not from the same considerations. Thus it is with the people of God, whereas carnal presumption excludeth all kind of fear, and obstructeth all diligence.
2. A second Companion is Humility and lowliness of mind
The greater mercies God bestoweth upon his people, the lowlier they are in their own eyes. For example, the Virgin Mary testifies of God’s grace to her, a humble servant, while David writes psalms to describe God’s kindness to him. By contrast, in carnal presumption, the more confidence, the more pride in ourselves, and despising of others.
How might we prove that a Pharisee had not assurance of grace in him, but vain-confidence, in that he despised other men as sinners compared to himself? And this may make us justly doubt, whether many that speak of immediate revelations and assurances they have from God’s Spirit, be not in a proud delusion, by contemning others as low, and not acquainted with the Spirit of God. For if there be such a danger even in godly men, when lifted up to great privileges, as in Paul, caught up into the third Heaven, of becoming proud, that Paul is assaulted with buffetings of Satan, to keep him low, and he repeats it twice (2 Cor. 12:7). “Lest I should be lifted up above measure,” in the beginning of the verse; and again, “Lest I should be lifted up,” in the end of the verse. Jerome compareth this Temptation of Satan exercising Paul in the midst of his revelations, to the boy that was a monitor, who cried aloud to him that rode in triumph, Mementote esse hominem, “Remember thyself to be a man.“
If there be such danger even in godly men, when they have the real works of God’s Spirit, what cause is there of pride in corrupted men, who have only infected delusions of Satan? When therefore thy persuasion of God’s love to thee raiseth up lofty mountains in thy soul, thou lookest upon thyself in Heaven, while others grovel upon the ground, thou deemest thyself to be as much above other Christians as an angel is above a worm; then fear this, coming from the devil transforming himself into an angel of light.
Different Opposites of True Assurance and Presumption
Lastly, true assurance differeth in the contrary or opposite which will destroy it. Assurance being wrought by God’s Spirit, is only interrupted by sin. Grieve not the Spirit of God, by which ye are sealed (Eph. 4:30). So that even corrupt and idle communication, even little sins (as the world judgeth) may greatly disturb our certainty, whereas carnal presumption is not weakened through sin. Only outward troubles or horrours of conscience vanquish presumption. As the Casuists give a difference between melancholy, and trouble of conscience for sin; melancholy is removed by bodily remedies, merry company, variety of employment; but trouble of conscience can only be taken away by comforts out of the Scripture. Though Cain travailed and built cities, yet that could not free him from that trembling guilt within him. Thus it is on the contrary, peace in the Holy Ghost wrought by assurance, is only excluded by sin or lukewarmness in holy duties: but sinful confidence abideth the same, till it be shaken, or removed by some outward troubles.