Assurance of faith and assurance of sense

I posted yesterday on baptism as “an outward sign of an external reality.” This extract from Joel Beeke’s introduction to the Beauties of Ebenezer Erskine really helpfully distinguishes between the assurance of faith and the assurance of sense. On what basis should people be baptised? The assurance of faith, which has it’s object in Christ, or the assurance of faith and sense, when the candidate for baptism feels that they trust Christ?

Paedobaptists will baptise children based on the assurance of faith, because children rightly taught the gospel will understand that their baptism points outside of them to the cross and the empty tomb. Anti-paedobaptists, I believe, will only baptise people on the assurance of sense, when people feel that they believe in Christ and can make a conscious decision based on this feeling of being saved. This is what is meant by the saying “baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality.”

If baptism is an outward sign of an external reality, we’ll baptise all those who can say “I am sure of my salvation because Jesus died for my sin” whether they feel it or not, as Erskine writes, the assurance of sense is not necessary for salvation but for comfort.

11. Assurance and the Promises

Proper self-examination helps the believer grow in assurance
and sanctification. The Erskines differentiated between the assurance of faith that rests in the promises of God and the assurance of sense, or feeling, that rests in inward evidences of God’s grace. The former works justification; the latter, consolation. By assurance of faith, we receive Christ as ours; by assurance of sense, we know Him to be ours. Assurance of faith says, “I am sure because God says it,” while assurance of sense says, “I am sure because I feel it.”

Ralph Erskine said that every believer must experience some assurance of faith but that not every believer has assurance of sense (3:28-29, 348; 4:184). In his famous sermon “The Assurance of Faith,” Ebenezer Erskine said,

There is a great difference betwixt the assurance of faith, and the assurance of sense, which follows upon faith. The assurance of faith is a direct, but the assurance of sense is a reflex act of the soul. The assurance of faith hath its object and foundation from without, but that of sense has them within. The object of the assurance of faith is a Christ revealed, promised, and offered in the word; the object of the assurance of sense is a Christ formed within us by the Holy Spirit. The assurance of faith is the cause, that of sense is the effect; the first is the root, and the other is the fruit. The assurance of faith eyes the promise in its stability, flowing from the veracity of the promiser; the assurance of sense, it eyes the promise in its actual accomplishinent. By the assurance of faith, Abraham believed that he should have a son in his old age, because God who cannot lie had promised; but by the assurance of sense, he believed it when he got Isaac in his arms (1:254).

Assurance of sense, experiential piety, sanctification, and communion with God were highly treasured by the Erskines. Ralph Erskine spoke of “experimental sense and feeling” as a foretaste of heaven and an important means of glorifying God on earth. But he also warned against making the assurance of sense and experimental feelings the ground of faith, saying, “They are ebbing and flowing, up and down, it may be twenty times, in the space of one sermon; and your faith that is built thereupon, will be up and down therewith” (5:35). If we depend on our feelings rather than upon God’s promises, the water in our cistern will soon be used up, Ebenezer Erskine said.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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