The Westminster Standards on the Assurance of Faith (2)

In this second installment, we will discuss a Presbyterian explanation of the Westminster Standard’s teaching on the assurance of faith. We will mainly follow the commentary on the Westminster Confession by Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge (1823-1886).[1] Other commentators on the assurance of faith in the WS basically follow the same explanation.[2]



Full assurance

In the first installment we saw that the WS speak about a ‘full assurance’ of faith. Hodge noted this as well and comments:

“But since true faith exists in various degrees of strength, and since its exercises are sometimes intermitted, it follows that the assurance which accompanies true faith is not always a full assurance” (author’s emphasis).[3]


Is this a correct explanation of the WS? In our first installment we saw that the phrase ‘full’ or ‘infallible’ assurance in the WS does not refer primarily to the degree of faith, but to the certainty of the believer that he or she is in the state of grace. Perhaps Hodge’s commentary is fitting with section 14.3 of the WCF, but certainly not with WCF Chapter 18 and LC Q&A 81!


In this commentary, Hodge seems indeed to have had section 14.3 in mind, for after this comment he goes on to write:

Besides this, the phrase “full or infallible assurance”, in this Chapter (i.e. WCF chapter 18, MV), does not relate to the certainty of our faith or trust as to the truth of the object upon which the faith rests – that is, the divine promise of salvation in Christ –  but to the certainty of our hope or belief as to our own personal relation to Christ and eternal salvation” (editor’s emphasis).[4]


Here, Hodge correctly presents the teaching of the WS, as summarized in our first installment: a) the WS speak about the assurance of being in the state of grace, and b) this assurance is seen as non-essential to faith.


Assurance of hope

Hodge in length explains this teaching of the WS: according to him, the Standards speak about the ‘assurance of hope’ (Heb. 6:11) instead of the ‘assurance of faith’ (Heb. 10:22). The latter is a faith in the truth of Christ’s sufficiency and promises, while the first is the persuasion that we are true believers. The ‘assurance of hope’ is also called an ‘assurance of sense’, because it rests upon the inward sense the soul has about the reality of its own spiritual experiences:

The first (i.e. assurance of faith, MV) is of the essence of faith, and terminates directly upon Christ and his promise, and hence is called the direct act of faith. The latter (assurance of hope, MV) is not of the essence of faith, but its fruit, and is called the reflex act of faith, because it is drawn as an inference from the experience of the graces of the Spirit which the soul discerns when it reflects upon its own consciousness. God says that whosoever believes is saved – That is the object of direct faith. I believe – That is the matter of conscious experience. Therefore I am saved – That is the matter of inference and the essence of full assurance” (author’s emphasis).[5]


Three grounds

In our first installment, we saw that the WS’ teaching on assurance also had a third aspect, namely the ‘three grounds’ on which the assurance (‘assurance of hope’, as we just learned) is derived.


According to Hodge, the first ground of assurance (‘the divine truth of the promises of salvation’) in itself is not the assurance, it induces assurance:

assurance of the truth of the promise tends, in connection with a sense of our personal reliance upon it, directly to strengthen our assured hope that it will be fulfilled in our case also.[6]


The three foundation of assurance (the others being the ‘inward evidence of grace’ and ‘the testimony of the Holy Spirit’, see first installment) are all put together in the same framework by Hodge: faith includes trust, trust works hope, and the ‘fullness of hope’ is assurance:

Full assurance, therefore, which is the fullness of hope resting on the fullness of faith, is a state of mind which is the office of the Holy Ghost to induce in our minds in connection with the evidence or our gracious character above stated”.[7]


The Calvinists against Calvin?

Is this a Biblical doctrine on the assurance of faith, is it Reformed? Before we answer this question, let us take a look at how Hodge believes this doctrine relates to what the Reformers and ‘some Reformed confessions’ teach:

The Reformers (…) went so far as to teach that the special object of justifying faith is the favour of God towards us for Christ’s sake. Therefore to believe is to be assured of our own personal salvation. This Luther, Melanchton and Calvin taught. This is the doctrine taught in the Augsburg  Confession and Heidelberg Catechism. It is not, however, taught in any other of the Reformed Confessions, and, as will be seen below, is not the doctrine of our Standards” (emphasis MV).[8]


In our next installment, we will look at an approach to bring Calvin and that which is called later ‘Reformed orthodoxy’ in agreement.


[1] A.A. Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith – with questions of theological students and Bible classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869).

[2] See e.g. F.R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Richmond, Da.: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1896): p. 241 f., J. Macpherson, The Westminster Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1881): p. 113 f., and G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia, Pa.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1964): p. 131 f..

[3] A.A. Hodge, op. cit., p. 330.

[4] Ibid., p. 330.

[5] Ibid., p. 331.

[6] Ibid., .p. 325.

[7] Ibid., p. 327.

[8] Ibid., p. 325.