Plato (427–347) by John M. Frame

Plato was the greatest student of Socrates and one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The greatest philosophers (among whom I include also Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel) tend to be those who bring together many ideas that at first seem disparate. As an example: Parmenides said that Being is fundamentally changeless, Heraclitus that the elements of reality are in constant change. Plato’s genius is to see truth in both of these accounts and to bring them together into a broader systematic understanding. Similarly, Plato provides distinct roles for reason and sense experience, soul and body, concepts and matter, objects and subjects, and, of course, rationalism and irrationalism.

Plato’s epistemology begins with the observation that we can learn very little from our sense organs. So far, he agrees with the Sophists. Our eyes and ears easily deceive us. But the remarkable thing is that we have the rational ability to correct these deceptions and thus to find truth. It is by our reason also that we form concepts of things. We have never, for example, seen a perfect square. But somehow we know what a perfect square would be like, for we know the mathematical formula that generates one. Since we don’t learn the concept of squareness by sense experience, we must learn it from reason. Similarly concepts of treeness, horseness, humanity, justice, virtue, goodness, and on and on. We don’t see these, but somehow we know them.

These concepts Plato calls Forms or Ideas. Since we cannot find these Forms on earth, he says, they must exist in another realm, a world of Forms, as opposed to the world of sense. But what are Forms, exactly? In reading Plato we sometimes find ourselves thinking of the Form of treeness as a perfect, gigantic tree somewhere, which serves as a model for all trees on earth. But that can’t be right. Given the many different kinds of trees, how could one tree serve as a perfect model for all of them? And even if there were a gigantic tree somewhere, how could there be a gigantic justice, or virtue, or goodness? Further, Plato says that the Forms are not objects of sensation (as a gigantic tree would be). Rather, they are known through intelligence alone, through reason. Perhaps Plato is following the Pythagoreans here, conceiving the Forms as quasi-mathematical formulae, recipes that can be used to construct trees, horses, virtue, and justice as the Pythagorean theorem can be used to construct a triangle. I say “quasi” because Plato in the Republicsaid that “mathematicals are a class of entities between the sensibles and the Forms.”[1] Nevertheless, he does believe that Forms are real things and are the models of which things on earth are copies.

The Forms, then, are perfect, immaterial, changeless, invisible, intangible objects. Though abstract, they are more real than the objects of our sense experience, for only a perfect triangle, for example, is a real triangle. And the Forms are also more knowable than things on earth. We might be uncertain whether a particular judge is just, but we cannot be uncertain as to the justice of the Form Justice. Thus, the Forms serve as models, exemplars, indeed criteria for earthly things. It is the Forms that enable us to know the earthly things that imitate them. We can know that someone is virtuous only by comparing him with the norm of Ideal Virtue.

The Forms exist in a hierarchy, the highest being the Form of the Good. For we learn what triangles, trees, human beings, and justice are when we learn what each is “good for.” Everything is good for something, so everything that exists participates in the Form of the Good to some extent. The world of Forms, therefore, contains not only formulae for making objects, but also norms defining the purposes of objects.

In Euthyphro, Socrates argues that piety cannot be defined as “what the gods desire.” For why should they desire it? They must desire it because it is good. So piety is a form of goodness, and goodness must exist independently of what gods or men may think or say about it. So it must be a Form. We should note, however, that if courage, virtue, goodness, and so forth are abstract Forms, then they have no specific content. To know what is good, for Plato, is to know the Form of the Good. But Good is what all individual examples of goodness have in common. How, then, does it help us to know specifically what is good and what is bad?

Anytime we try to define goodness in terms of specific qualities (justice, prudence, temperance, etc.), we have descended to something less than the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good serves as a norm for human goodness, because it is utterly general and abstract. Any principle that is more specific is less normative, less authoritative. Such is the consequence of trying to understand goodness as an abstract Form rather than, as in biblical theism, the will of a personal absolute.[2]

The world of sense experience is modeled on the world of Forms. Plato’s Timaeus is a sort of creation account in which the Demiurge, a godlike figure, forms matter into patterns reflecting the Forms, placing his sculpture into a receptacle (perhaps empty space, or an indeterminate “stuff” anticipating Aristotle’s matter). The Demiurge is very different from the God of the Bible, for he is subordinate to the Forms and limited by the nature of the matter. The matter resists formation, so the material objects cannot be perfect, as the Forms are. So the Demiurge must be satisfied with a defective product. It is not clear whether Plato intended this story to be taken literally. He sometimes resorted to myth when he could not come up with a properly philosophical account of something. But it is significant that he saw the need for some means to connect the Forms with the sensible world. And it is significant that he made that connection personal rather than impersonal.

But how do we know the Forms, located as we are in this defective, changing world? Here Plato reflects the subjectivism of the Sophists and Socrates: we look within. We find within ourselves recollections of the Forms. Recollections? Then at one time we must have had experience of the Forms. When? Not in this life, where our experiences are limited to imperfect and changing things, but in another life before this one. So Plato embraces the Pythagorean-Orphic doctrine of reincarnation. We lived once in a world in which the Forms were directly accessible to us. Then we “fell” from that existence into the sense-world, into bodies. Our knowledge of the Forms remains in memory, but sometimes it has to be coaxed out of us by Socratic questioning. One famous example is in Plato’s Meno, where Socrates asks questions of an uneducated slave boy, leading him to display a knowledge of geometry that nobody expected him to have.

The world of sense is not strictly knowable. Plato compares it to the shadows cast by a fire in a cave. Prisoners chained in the cave all their lives can see the shadows, but they mistake them for the truth, so in fact they know virtually nothing. Their notions are conjecture, not knowledge. We can move beyond conjecture to belief by distinguishing between images (such as shadows and pictures) and actual objects. Thus we come to know the visible world. But we do not “understand” the visible world until we see the things of the world as instances of general concepts. Thus we move from conjecture, to belief, to understanding. Pure knowledge is still a fourth stage: intuitive vision of the Forms. The first two stages Plato calls opinion, the last two knowledge. The first two come through sense experience, the last two through reason. Our sense experience is illumined by the sun; our knowledge of the intelligible world is illumined by the Form of the Good.

In Phaedrus, Plato considers knowledge from another perspective: knowledge is motivated by love. In beautiful objects,[3] we see an echo of true beauty, and we are moved by passion to seek the Form of Beauty itself. Here is another example of the Greek focus on inwardness. People have sometimes said that the search for knowledge must be disinterested, without passion. Although Plato advocated the dominance of intellect over the appetites, he saw a positive use of the passions, even in philosophy.

Since we once lived apart from the body in the world of the Forms, it must be the case that the human soul can exist separately from the body. In Phaedo, as Socrates prepares for death, he bases his hope for immortality on this epistemological argument. Plato divides the soul into three parts. The lowest is the appetitive, which seeks physical necessities and pleasures. Next higher is the spirited, which includes anger, ambition, desire for social honor, and so on. The highest is the rational, which seeks knowledge for its own sake.[4] We can see how, with a bit of emendation, these divisions correspond to the later common distinction between emotions, will, and intellect, respectively. They correspond even more closely to Freud’s distinction between id (appetitive), ego (spirited), and superego (rational). In Phaedrus, Plato sees the spirited part as a driver with two horses, white (the rational) and black (the appetitive). The spirited is swayed sometimes by the appetitive, sometimes by the rational. The more it subordinates its appetites to its intellect, the better off it will be; see fig. 2.1.

Fig. 2.1. Plato’s Analysis of the Individual Soul, with Comparisons

But Plato’s major interest, like that of Socrates, was to tell us how to live. His metaphysics and epistemology are all a prelude to his ethics and political theory. Yet it is in these areas that he is most disappointing. His Socrates discusses at length the nature of justice and courage, but comes to no firm conclusion. He does conclude that the definition of virtue is “knowledge.” One never does wrong except out of ignorance. If one knows what is right, he will necessarily do it. But most of Plato’s readers through the centuries (including his pupil Aristotle) have dismissed this statement as naive, and Christians have found it superficial in comparison with the Bible’s view of human depravity.

And if virtue is knowledge, knowledge of what? Knowledge of the Good? But good is more difficult to define than virtue is. Like all other Forms, it is abstract. So how can it settle concrete ethical disputes, such as whether abortion is right or wrong? For Plato, to live right is to know the Good. But to say that is to leave all specific ethical questions unanswered.

Plato did come to some specific recommendations in the area of politics. But these recommendations have been almost universally rejected. In the Republic, he divides the body politic into groups corresponding to the divisions of the soul. In his ideal state, the peasants are governed by the appetitive soul, the military by the spirited, and the rulers by the rational. So the rulers of the state must be philosophers, those who understand the Forms. Such a state will be totalitarian, claiming authority over all areas of life. The upper classes will share their women communally, and children will be raised by the rulers. Art will be severely restricted, because it is a kind of shadow of which one can have only conjecture, the lowest form of opinion. Images detract from knowledge of Beauty itself (the Form), and they can incite to anarchy. Donald Palmer says that Plato’s Republic “can be viewed as a plea that philosophy take over the role which art had hitherto played in Greek culture.”[5]

Most modern readers look at these ideas with distaste. Where did Plato get them? It would not be credible for him to claim that he got them by contemplating the Good. Rather, the whole business sounds like special pleading. Plato the philosopher thinks that philosophers should rule. He is rather like a Sophist here, claiming to be the expert in the means of governance. But he certainly has not shown that philosophers in general have any of the special qualities needed to govern. And the Sophists denied what Plato claims: access to absolute truth. We may applaud Plato’s rejection of relativism. But his absolutism is what makes him a totalitarian. He thinks the philosophers have Knowledge, so they must rule everything.

Plato engages in special pleading because he has no nonarbitrary way of determining what is right and wrong. But as we’ve seen, once one identifies Goodness as an abstract Form, one cannot derive from it any specific content. So Plato’s ideas about ethics and politics lack any firm basis or credibility.

The best thing that can be said of Plato is that he knew and considered seriously the criticisms that could be made against his system. He treats a number of these in the Parmenides, without actually answering them. In this dialogue, Parmenides asks the young Socrates whether there are Ideas (Forms) of such things as mud, hair, and filth. He might also have asked whether there are Ideas of evil, of imperfection, of negation. But how can there be a Form of imperfection, if the Forms by definition are of perfection? But if there is no Form of imperfection, then the Forms fail to account for all the qualities of the material world.

Another objection (called the third man): if the similarity between men requires us to invoke the Form Man to account for it, then what of the similarity between men and the Form Man? Does that require another Form (a Third Man)? And does the similarity between the second Form and the third Form require a fourth, ad infinitum?

The first objection shows that the Forms are inadequate to account for experience. The second objection shows that on Plato’s basis the Forms themselves require explanation, and that they are inadequate to provide that explanation themselves.

Plato also explores other objections to his theory that I can’t take the time to describe here. The main problem is that the Forms cannot do their job. The Forms are supposed to be models for everything in the sensible world. In fact they are not, for perfect Forms cannot model imperfection; changeless Forms cannot model change. So the imperfection and change of the experienced world have no rational explanation. Plato tries to explain them by the story of the Demiurge in Timaeus. But that, after all, is myth. Plato gives us no reason to believe in a Demiurge, and in any case the Demiurge does not account for the existence of matter or the receptacle. So the changing world of matter and space is for Plato, as for Parmenides, ultimately irrational. Parmenides had the courage to say that the changing world is therefore unreal. Plato does not go quite this far; rather, he ascribed a greater degree of reality to the Forms than to the sense-world. But we must question Plato’s assumption that there are degrees of reality. What does it mean to say that one thing is “more real” than another?

The picture should be clear by now. Though Plato is far more sophisticated than the pre-Socratics, his position, like theirs, incorporates rationalism and irrationalism. He is rationalistic about the Forms, irrationalistic about the sense-world. For him, reason is totally competent to understand the Forms, incompetent to make sense of the changing world of experience. Yet he tries to analyze the changing world by means of changeless Forms, an irrational world by a rationalistic principle. Eventually, in the Parmenides, he has the integrity to admit that his fundamental questions remain unanswered; see fig. 2.2.

Fig. 2.2. Plato’s Rationalism and Irrationalism

With Plato as with the pre-Socratics, the tension between rationalism and irrationalism has a religious root. If Plato had known the God of Scripture, he would have known in what fundamental ways our reason is competent, yet limited. And he would have understood that the world of change is knowable, but not exhaustively, because God made it that way. He would also have been able to consult God’s revelation for ethical guidance, rather than teaching his students to rely on the abstract Form of the Good, which has nothing specific to say to them.

John Frame is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series, and previously taught theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) and at Westminster Seminary California.

John M. Frame (BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; AM, MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) is J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 20. Allen’s further comments on this issue are helpful.

[2] And if anyone asks the relation of goodness to the God of the Bible, the answer is as follows: (1) Goodness is not something above him, that he must submit to; (2) nor is it something below him, that he could alter at will, but (3) it is his own nature: his actions and attributes, given to human beings for imitation. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

[3] His example is the beauty of a boy, as a pederastic love interest. As did many other Greek thinkers, Plato favored homosexual relationships between men and boys, another indication of how far the Greeks were from the biblical revelation. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 presents homosexuality as a particularly vivid example of the depths to which people fall when they reject God’s revelation.

[4] In Phaedo, the soul is only the higher part, but in Phaedrus, the soul includes all three parts, even prior to its bodily existence.

[5] Donald Palmer, Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1994), 73.

Two Worlds by David Talcott

Plato famously creates “two worlds”: the world perceived by the senses and the world perceived by the mind. The world of the senses is impermanent and shifting (more on that later), while the world of reason is eternal and unchanging. Individual things may become more or less beautiful, but beauty itself never changes. Individual dogs may come and go out of existence, but what it is to be a dog never changes. These two worlds are, of course, only two different aspects of the same world—there is only one world. But the spiritual realm is more fundamental and real than the physical. The one is eternal and unchanging, while the other is transitory and quickly shifts. The physical realm derives its being and reality from the spiritual. If beauty didn’t exist, nothing could be beautiful. If there were no such thing as what it is to be a human being, then no human beings would exist. Even the colors and shapes that are basic to physical objects have a nature or essence that makes them what they are. There are such things as redness and being square.

This view explains what is otherwise a very puzzling feature of our language. We have nouns that are names for individual things like “Bob Dylan” or “the Empire State Building,” but we also use nouns for things that are not individual, but are common to multiple individuals, such as “house,” “dog,” “red,” and “beauty.” The name “Bob Dylan” refer to only one object. But “house” is quite different. There are many houses, each of which is equally a house. There’s only one thing that is truly Bob Dylan. So why do we call multiple things by the same name? The most natural explanation is that there is something in common to all those things, by virtue of whose presence we apply the same name. There is something shared by all houses by virtue of which we call them a house. This shared thing, Plato says, is a “form” (eidosor idea, sometimes translated “Form” or “Idea”) or “essence” (ousia). The form or essence is what the thing really is.

We cannot explain the world around us without including these forms or essences. They make things what they are, even more than the material out of which they are composed. They tell us what kind of thing something is—where it fits into the overall scheme of the world. It’s not just “that thing”; it’s “a book.” Yes, it is a concrete, specific thing, but its essence tells us what kind of thing it is—where it fits in our taxonomy of being. Things would not be what they are without the presence of these essences. And individual things become what they are through participation in these nonphysical essences.

The relationship between these two worlds is one of dependence—the material depends on the spiritual—though Plato famously waffles on the precise language we should use to express this relationship. He generally calls it “participation”; the physical and temporal participates in the spiritual and eternal. The spiritual and eternal comes to bepresent in the physical as things change over time. So a pile of lumber, when acted upon by an agent with the knowledge to bring about the change, can be transformed into a house. “House” comes to be present in the wood through the activity of the homebuilder. What a house is imposes limits and constraints on how the builder can build it. A house can only come into being if it fits in with what it is to be a house, something that is eternal and unchanging. The spiritual structures the physical, and the physical is what it is only through its incomplete though genuine participation in the more than physical realm.

The spiritual world is the rational world. The nymphs and centaurs of Greek mythology were spiritual beings present in the Greek imagination. Plato, like philosophers before him, rejects these mythological entities in favor of rational, organizing structures. Without the spiritual and rational, the physical world would be disorganized chaos, with no structure whatsoever. In his dialogue Gorgias, he says it would be a “world-disorder,” rather than a “world-order.”[1]

Christians can appreciate this insistence upon the spiritual, while still recognizing that Plato’s view is ultimately unsatisfying. That there is a pervasive spiritual aspect to creation, present everywhere, is certainly true, but because Plato does not have an adequate theology, the complete nature of the spiritual world is unknown to him.[2] Compared with materialism, this view is attractive. But it is a long way from a recognition of the true Creator.

In Christianity, there is room for both angels and natural laws, but always derived from the sovereign hand of their Creator. At creation, God made everything out of nothing, by the word of his power. Creation is the manifestation of the glory of God’s eternal power, wisdom, and goodness. That it is structured rationally and orderly is implied by its being caused by wisdom. Platonism, in its insistence on the reality and fundamentality of the nonphysical, concurs with this part of Christian truth. There is an orderly, rational world, which consists of more than the material and which is ultimately comprehensible only when we see the eternal, yet imminent, source of that order.

Later philosophers will question whether Platonic forms are the only way to explain the rational structure of the universe. Aristotle, for example, agrees that there are forms, but he disagrees that they exist in a separate realm or world. For Aristotle, the forms are real and nonphysical, but are only immanent in physical things. There is an essence of beauty, but that essence only exists in beautiful things—it does not and cannot exist anywhere else.[3]Aristotle also draws a distinction between essential forms, which tell us what kind of thing something is, and accidental forms, which tell us an attribute of a thing, but not what kind of thing it is.[4] So “red” and “book” are both forms, but they are not quite the same kind of forms. If something is a book, we know what category of being it falls into, since being a book tells us about its essential nature. But if something is red, we don’t yet know its essence. There are red books, red cups, and red dresses. Each of those is a different kind of thing, though each is red. Furthermore, there are not only individual things and forms, but also different kinds of forms: essential ones (which are necessary to the object and are what the object is) and accidental forms (which are not part of the object’s nature but are still truly present in the object). Plato himself seems to be moving toward this distinction in his later dialogues.[5]

David Talcott’s publications have appeared in numerous outlets including Public Discourse, Eikon: A Journal of Biblical Anthropology, Human Life Review, and First Thingsonline.

David Talcott (PhD, Indiana University) is fellow of philosophy and the graduate dean at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is a program manager for truthXchange and a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church of America.

[1] Gorgias 508a. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Plato in this book are taken from The Complete Works of Plato, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1997).

[2] See chapter 8 for additional discussion of Plato’s theology.

[3] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.6, for one example of this argument, which is present in a number of places in Aristotle.

[4] See Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book VII, for one place where he discusses this distinction. Aristotle’s discussions of these issues are notoriously dense and difficult.

[5] See, for example, Sophist226b–231d.

The Self-Testimony of Jesus by O. Palmer Robertson

Central to the whole of the gospel, the “good news” of Christianity, is the person of Jesus. Apart from Jesus, there would be no Christian religion. At the same time, a person’s view of Jesus will inevitably define the character of the “Christianity” that he propounds.

Essentially two basic views of Jesus may be proposed, although these two opposing views will come to expression in multiple ways. Jesus in his person and work may be viewed either from a naturalistic or from a supernaturalistic perspective. Either (1) God the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of this cosmos has intervened in a miraculous manner through the person of Jesus or (2) Jesus, his teachings, and his actions are analyzed from the perspective of the boundaries imposed by the naturalistic realities commonly used to distinguish the “credible” (the believable) from the “incredible” (the unbelievable). Unless, of course, a person is quite happy to base his religious faith on mythology.

Without question the four Gospels—the Synoptics and particularly John—represent Jesus as a supernatural person manifesting supernatural powers. This man walks on water, stills the storm with a word, multiplies five loaves and two fishes to feed five thousand. He even raises the dead. He regularly functions well beyond the limitations of normal, natural reality.

Even beyond these testimonies of the miraculous works of Jesus, the most thoroughly supernaturalistic affirmations regarding the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, are the statements that attest his preincarnate state. Jesus Christ had an existence as God himself in all divine glory before he took on the nature of humanity. But how could this affirmation be regarded as reality in a naturalistic worldview? From a naturalistic perspective, only as myth and no more could the man Jesus have existed before the world in which we live from day to day.

Yet the united testimony of Scripture repeatedly affirms his eternal preexistence before his appearance in mortal flesh and blood. Reading no further than the opening verses of John’s Gospel makes that fact apparent:

In the beginning [!] was the logos, and the logos was face to face with God, and the logos was God. . . . And the logos became flesh. (John 1:1, 14)

What is this logos? The logos is the divine personhood that gives purpose to and makes sense out of the whole of reality in this world. Jesus is this same eternal logos embodied in human flesh and spirit, situated in time and space. He resides eternally in inseparable unity with the essence of God the Father, he came from the Father, and he returned to the Father. This concept of the eternal logos who is the Son of God testifies to the true nature of Jesus and the Christian gospel as supernatural to the ultimate.

But how did Jesus view himself? What may be discerned in the Gospel records that define the self-consciousness of Jesus? The progress of revelation from the earliest stages of new covenant realization to the promise of the consummation encourages an exploration of Jesus’ testimony concerning himself. Before considering the distinctive witness of the writers of the four Gospels, it is necessary to explore Jesus’ self-testimony to his own personhood. Indeed, except for the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures (a witness that must be given its full weight), the testimony provided by the four Gospels is the only “Jesus” that can be known. Yet a careful analysis of the Gospels may enable us to uncover Jesus’ self-testimony concerning himself. His person, his teaching, his miracles, his death, resurrection, and ascension as perceived by himself must be explored if Jesus is to be rightly understood for who he actually is. Later the effort will be made to examine the distinctive witness of the various Gospel writers. But first, the self-testimony of Jesus concerning his person and work must be examined.

Jesus’ Self-Testimony regarding the Witness of the Old Covenant Scriptures concerning Himself

One aspect of the self-testimony of Jesus should not be overlooked. It is Jesus’ own assertions regarding the witness of the old covenant Scriptures concerning himself. This witness concerning his person as found in the old covenant Scriptures would have preceded his own appearance among humanity. He confronts his adversaries by saying:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. Yet these same Scriptures are the very ones that testify about me. (John 5:39–40)

In this same discourse Jesus declares, “If you were believing Moses, you would be believing me [ἐμοί], for it was concerning me [ἐμοῦ] that [Moses] wrote” (John 5:46). By these words Jesus claims a unique role in relation to the Scriptures of the old covenant. What other person could so boldly and convincingly claim that these old covenant writings speak so specifically and holistically about himself? Indeed, in generalities a claim may be made. Occasional prophecies about John the Baptist and Judas become evident. But in terms of prophetic words in the old covenant Scriptures that anticipate all the major elements of a person’s life and work, only Jesus can make this claim with any degree of credibility.

Is this witness of Scripture about Jesus, given five hundred, seven hundred, a thousand, fifteen hundred years before his appearance in history, to be regarded as a naturalistic phenomenon? Or is not this written testimony, by its very nature of anticipating persons and events centuries before their occurrence, to be viewed as supernaturalistic in its essence? Does not this phenomenon provide clear testimony to its divine origin by unfolding the eternal plan of God for the redemption of fallen humanity hundreds of years before the actual occurrence of these events?

Jesus goes one step further in defining his relationship to the old covenant Scriptures. People who do not genuinely believe the writings of Moses will not be able to believe Jesus’ words. As he says, “If you are not believing in the writings [of Moses], how will you be able to believe in my words [τοῖς ἐμοῖς ῥήμασιν]?” (John 5:47). In other words, anyone not truly believing in the old covenant Scriptures will not be able to believe in Jesus. Contrariwise, anyone truly believing in the old covenant Scriptures will inevitably believe in Jesus once the person hears of him.

These claims of Jesus regarding his relation to the old covenant Scriptures are indeed noteworthy. No other person could make these comprehensive claims with any semblance of authenticity. As this current study of progression within the New Testament proceeds, numerous particulars of the direct relation of Jesus to the Scriptures of the old covenant will be explored. But these generalized testimonies about Jesus’ own self-consciousness regarding his relation to the old covenant Scriptures may serve as an appropriate introduction to the subject. By this testimony, Jesus may clearly be regarded as unique.

If you have not done so in the past, do so now. Search the Scriptures of the Old Testament. If you truly desire to know God and understand his plan for delivering this world from its self-destructive inclinations, see for yourself what these writings say about Jesus. In them you may find fullness of life in relation to God the Creator and Redeemer.

Jesus’ Self-Testimony by His Earliest Recorded Words

Jesus spoke his first words about himself when he was twelve years of age, according to the Gospel records. Although normally treated as a sweet story for children, this incident provides clear insight into Jesus’ self-consciousness. Even with this early utterance, Jesus’ consciousness of himself as unique becomes apparent.

After anxiously searching for Jesus across three days, his distraught mother gives vent to her frustration:

Young child, why have you done this? Ahh! Your father and I have been searching for you in a state of deep distress. (Luke 2:48)

Though only a boy, Jesus replies in a way that provides profound insight into his self-consciousness. He responds to his mother’s frustrations:

Why were you searching for me? Did you not know it was necessary for me to be in the house of my Father? (Luke 2:49)

The contrast between Mary’s reference to herself and Joseph as Jesus’ earthly parents (“your father and I”) and Jesus’ response by identifying his intimate relationship to his heavenly Father (“the house of my Father”) dramatizes his first self-revelation. Completely ignoring his mother’s appeal to his earthly father, Jesus identifies himself with reference to his true and ultimate Father. In addition, he specifies that the temple where he has felt himself to be completely at home is the house of his Father rather than our Father. Jesus’ statement has the effect of excluding his parents from this same intimacy of relationship with the Father. Though only a boy, Jesus affirms his unique relationship as Son in his Father’s house. In New Testament times, people simply did not normally speak about God in such familiar fashion. To personally claim God to be “my Father” went well beyond the accepted mode of expression.

In this context, quite amazing is Jesus’ ongoing relationship to his earthly parents. He returns to Nazareth and lives in submission to them. It may be assumed that this situation prevailed until the beginning of his public ministry when he reached the age of about thirty (Luke 3:23). So even after a clear indicator of his unique personhood as Son to God his Father, Jesus submitted to earthly parents from age twelve to age thirty (2:51).

A later incident clearly displays before a larger audience Jesus’ inherent inclination toward recognizing a more central relationship to God the Father than to his earthly relatives. As Jesus teaches with a large crowd pressing against him, his mother and brothers seek to approach him. Culturally, it would have been expected that special audience would be granted to his immediate relatives whenever they requested it. But Jesus responds by indicating that his disciples—those who do the will of “my Father in heaven”—are his brother, sister, and mother (Matt. 12:46–50; cf. Mark 3:31–35; Luke 8:19–21). Once again, Jesus reveals his distinctive role in relation to the Father in heaven. The self-awareness of sonship to God as manifested at twelve years of age remains with him, even though he practices appropriate respect toward his earthly parents. This unique consciousness of sonship to the heavenly Father provides a foundation for understanding his self-consciousness as Son to the Father as it unfolds throughout the remainder of his life. Consider with all seriousness this affirmation of Jesus while still a young boy. The naturalness with which he speaks of God as “my Father” provides a pure attestation of an innocent but naturally mature young person.

O. Palmer Robertson is the author of Christ of the Consummation: A New Testament Biblical Theology. Volume 1: The Testimony of the Four Gospels.

O. Palmer Robertson (ThM, ThD, Union Theological Seminary, Virginia) is the founder of Consummation Ministries. Previously, he was director and principal of African Bible University in Uganda and taught at Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Knox Theological Seminary. He has also served for many years as a teaching elder in various pastoral roles.

The War between the Seeds by Owen Strachan

The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:2)

It was a tree that damned us. It was a tree that redeemed us. And it will be a tree that heals us in the age to come—time beyond all time.

Trees are not the central motif of the Bible. But trees figure directly in the grand story of Scripture, and we do well to keep our eyes on them in theological terms. Where we find the three great epochs of all time, we find trees. I do not mean that we spot a tree, somewhere in the background, visible only to the especially alert. I mean that we find trees in the very middle of the metanarrative. It is not too much to say that the great shifting plates of biblical history turn on trees. God makes trees. God, we can fairly say, loves trees. He is the original forester. And wherever God has history on a hinge, turning according to his divine will, he places trees front and center.

But we have run slightly ahead of ourselves. Before the trees even take root and flower in all their glory, the Bible begins with peace—peace that we can scarcely imagine in our fallen world. All around us war rages, people fight, and nations rise and fall. We ourselves are little centers of war as well: as Christians, though made into a new creation by the grace of God, we wage daily war in a self-contained sense (Gal. 5:24–25). Knowing the truth, we nonetheless battle false thoughts. Re-created by the Spirit, we nonetheless experience the surge of ungodly desires from within. Remade emotionally, we yet feel powerful but wrong emotions. War goes on out there, absolutely. But war also rises and falls in here, in our own soul.

The creation knew no such conflict in its earliest days. In six days the Lord God made the heaven and the earth. The Spirit played midwife to creation, aiding in the execution of the Son’s sking unto God. He lived and ruled under the divine regency of his Maker. His wife, Eve, came into existence from Adam’s own body. God made the first couple, married in the flowering garden of Eden, to unite in marriage and carry out a mission of dominion on the earth (Gen. 1:26–28).

From the start, the existence of man was a purposeful one. God the working God made the human race to fill the earth with children, steward the creation, and honor his great name by living under his perfect rule. Man did not chart his own course or determine his own fate; from the beginning, man was under rule, the rule of God, and a glad obedience it was.

The Beautiful Beginning

The first chapter of Genesis is the beginning of a glorious adventure story. The second chapter of Genesis is a love story between Adam and Eve. The third chapter of Genesis is a horror movie, at least much of it. To understand the tragedy that unfolds in chapter 3 of Genesis, we should briefly consider God’s mandate for Adam specifically.

We read this mandate in Genesis 2:15–17. First, we hear that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (v. 15). Adam had a charge from God to cultivate Eden as a garden, showing that he had to work unto God as a constitutive element of his manhood. Eden was made well by God; it was “very good,” as with all the earth, per Genesis 1:31, but the garden called for tending, stewarding, and care. Adam was in truth a priest-king of creation, and as such had to cultivate and protect Eden.

G. K. Beale helps us understand Adam’s priestly role here: “The two Hebrew words for ‘cultivate and keep’ are usually translated ‘serve and guard [or keep]’ elsewhere in the Old Testament.”[1] As priest of Eden, Adam had to tend the garden in terms of getting his hands literally dirty; he also had to guard this terrain. Eden was unspoiled, but Eden needed protecting.[2] Beale nails this down: priestly service “in Israel’s later temple included the duty of ‘guarding’ unclean things from entering (cf. Num. 3:6–7, 32, 38; 18:1–7), and this appears to be relevant for Adam, especially in view of the unclean creature lurking on the perimeter of the Garden and who then enters.”[3]

Eden at this time had no marring or pollution from sin. But this does not mean that Eden was perfect in the sense of being impenetrable by evil. In fact, the man himself was warned of the possibility of falling away from God, as Genesis 2:16–17 shows: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” Eden was a paradise, but Eden had a real danger in it: apart from the snake that we soon meet, it was the danger of Adam’s own heart wandering from God and eating of the forbidden tree. From the start, God sought faithfulness on the part of his people through testing. He gave them a forest-garden overflowing with beauty and gladness, trees spilling unblemished fruit, but he also gave them a prohibition—one delivered under the starkest terms: death from disobedience.

In giving this warning, God taught Adam about his gracious and holy character. In truth, the first word spoken here is a generous one, steeped in kindness. Too many trees to count existed to feed Adam.[4] Here is a God of tremendous love, filling the life of his image-bearer with delicious goodness.[5] But here too is a God of real moral solidity, dictating terms to his creation. Before we know the name of God the Father, we witness the nature of a father here: directing his loved one toward blessing, but also warning him of real danger and peril. Joy would not come from moral autonomy (via eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Joy would come from moral submission, living under the rule of God by rightly exercising self-rule.

The Lord gave Adam yet another gift: a wife. The Lord made the man and the woman equal but distinct. She was of his flesh and bone and as such deserved great cherishing and care. She was made to partner with Adam in fulfilling the dominion mandate, and her role was vital: to bear and nurture children in a distinctly maternal way. For all time to come, the man would pursue a woman of beauty like Eve, leaving father and mother to make a new family. She would be his “helper” (Gen. 2:18) and would demonstrate that role in too many ways to count, aiding and strengthening him by her wisdom, grace, and skill. He would “hold fast” to her, counting her life dearer than his own, leading her and their children to know the Lord by divine grace (v. 24).

The Attack on the Image-Bearers

First came peace; then came war. In the mysterious appointment of God, a cunning snake entered the garden. God placed the first couple under the reign of his inerrant word, but the snake—Satan in slithery form, per Romans 16:20 and Revelation 20:2[6]—offered a counterrevelation and a counterrule. The serpent targeted the woman, bypassing the man, who had been constituted the “keeper” of Eden. Creation order mattered nothing at all to this devilish snake. As we see in Genesis 3:1–5, the serpent upended everything that God had established to this point:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This was no ordinary animal. It could both talk and exercise shrewdness. The devil in his first manifestation is no bumbling fool but a very “crafty” twister of words. His first question implicitly accuses God of ungenerous stinginess, which is the opposite of what is true about the character of God. The woman does not answer with full specificity here, and she adds a detail about touching the forbidden tree that is not recorded in the original prohibition.

The passage truly explodes with audacity, however, when the satanic snake directly counters God’s own word: “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). The serpent entices the woman to make the very mistake he made: to put herself on the level of God, and judge God, and go against God, seeing herself as the rightful authority of her existence. Here is the creature rebelling against the Creator, trying to jump the gulf between them. God made Satan and invested him with great power and agency. But Satan could never stand in heaven on the level of God. Satan was, is, and always will be a created being. Satan found no comfort or peace in this truth. Satan despised this truth and rebelled against it. He wanted to “be like God” (v. 5).

Eve’s temptation proceeded from Satan’s fall. Hating his natural state and wanting to be like God, Satan convinced the woman—and the passive man by her side—to make the very same decision and enact the very same fall from grace. Commenting on the human rebellion here, Henri Blocher says it nicely: “what is at stake is independence from the Sovereign Father. To seek to have it meant revolt for mankind.”[7] Emulating the fall from grace of Satan, the woman believed the wicked snake over the wise Creator. She rejected divine revelation and embraced the devil’s antirevelation. She trusted the wicked promises of a malevolent being over her gracious Father. She took the fruit, ate it, and gave it to Adam. He ate it without a word recorded in the biblical text, offering no rebuke to the snake, no protest, and certainly no head-crushing response.

Immediately, the curtain fell. The man and the woman acquired self-knowledge that was not theirs to unlock. They felt shame instantaneously about their nakedness, and undertook a physical remedy—leaf coverings—for a spiritual malady (Gen. 3:7). All this transpired because the serpent had waged war. We talk today about culture war, but that is a distant fragment of the conflict that rages beyond: it is cosmos war, which began in earnest in Eden. All history to come will unfold as a great battle between God and the devil, a clash impossible to overestimate in spiritual measure.

As the book of Revelation will unveil, Satan has become “the deceiver of the whole world,” a description that helps us unearth a great truth about his accusation: it is a deception as well (Rev. 12:9). God gives truth, but Satan brings only deception. Instead of the reign of reality as defined by God, Satan ushers sinners into a shadow realm, an empire of lies built on crafty counterrevelation. As in heaven, as in Eden, so now: the war of the worlds is truly a war of words.

When the Lord Comes Around

In Genesis 3, the snake spoke first. But the snake did not have the last word in Eden, just as the devil will not have the last word in history. The God of heaven and earth came down and spoke second. He showed something vital about his character: the biblical God is the God who is there. This God judges the earth, just as he said he would; he does so by coming close. This God is transcendent but hair-raisingly immanent.

The true God sets up a courtroom in the garden. He does so, though, by engaging his image-bearers in a series of questions and answers—a process by which they retain their dignity and return to moral responsibility. There is no escaping this; God will have justice whether Adam wants it or not. Indeed, Adam did not want it, for he hid with his wife from the Lord, fully aware of his transgression. So God called Adam to the stand, not letting him shirk responsibility any longer: “Where are you?” The “you” here is singular in the Hebrew, and the Lord issued this call “to him” (Gen. 3:9). This matters theologically: though both Adam and Eve sinned, Adam was held to account in a representative sense. This mirrors creation order: Adam was made first by God, and Adam was the “head” or authority of his wife, as the New Testament will substantiate (Eph. 5:22–33).

Adam could not hide from God. He responded to the Lord by indicating fear and shame over his nakedness (Gen. 3:10). The Lord then asked two more questions, asking Adam who had told him of his nakedness and whether he had eaten of the forbidden tree (v. 11). Adam answered by blaming the woman and the Lord himself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). A more shameful sentence we can scarcely imagine. The man who had relinquished his divine call to protect his wife and his home was still, even in the presence of God, relinquishing it. It was the woman’s fault, first, and God’s own fault, second, and only at the end of the sentence did Adam’s role in the whole awful affair emerge.

The Lord next addressed the woman, asking what she had done. The woman blamed the serpent, putting his action first and her action second, though she spoke truly—far better than she knew, in fact—when she said: “The serpent deceived me” (Gen. 3:13). Yes, deception won out, and has been advancing ever since. It was just one scene in Eden, but the dynamics of sin that played out in that garden have yielded nothing less than an entire cosmos under bondage, every living thing affected, every square inch now fallen.

Owen Strachan is the author of The Warrior Savior: A Theology of the Work of Christ.

Owen Strachan (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is provost and research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. He is the former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, the former director of The Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a senior fellow of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. He has authored books on a wide range of topics; his works include Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of MankindThe Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (coauthored with Kevin J. Vanhoozer), and The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian (coauthored with Douglas Allen Sweeney). He is married and the father of three children.

[1] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 66–67.

[2] Raymond Ortlund Jr. suggests that the sense of “keep” here is best understood as “guard.” Raymond Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 100 (see chap. 2, n36).

[3] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 69.

[4] R. Kent Hughes addresses the richly kind nature of this word to Adam: “God’s word to him was first permissive: ‘And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden”’ (v. 16). Adam was to partake of everything in the garden to his heart’s content, which included the tree of life. This is lavish, extravagant abundance, and Adam could take from the tree of life if he wanted it. Everything was there for him—everything he could possibly want.” R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 54–55.

[5] Henri Blocher concludes, “All the trees of the garden represent all the riches of the earth, placed at mankind’s disposal.” The God that the biblical text reveals is a God of great kindness: “God reveals himself in this first provision as the God of superabundant grace, the opposite of the castrating father of our pitiful fantasies, the bestowing Father who rejoices in the happiness of mankind.” Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 121.

[6] These texts read: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20) and “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:2).

[7] Blocher, In the Beginning, 137.

Assurance by Mark Jones

“I am not at all surprised at this strange and absonous language; it is a false and dangerous conclusion, yet such as naturally results from, and, by a kind of necessity, follows out of their other errors.” —John Flavel[1]

The doctrine of assurance has received copious attention from Reformed theologians.[2] The debates within the Reformed world on this subject have also been examined.[3] Therefore, this chapter will not simply rehash the basic issues that relate to the assurance of salvation. There is the curious fact that theologians have typically missed an important aspect of this subject, namely, the matter of Jesus’ own assurance. The manner in which Christ received assurance of his messianic calling is not unrelated to the manner in which we receive assurance of our salvation. So in assessing the basic points of contention between Reformed and antinomian theologians, we will attempt to advance the discussion in a Christological direction. We will see that the objective and subjective aspects of assurance are not only necessary, but also complementary to each other. They were for Christ, and they should be for his people.

Antinomian Assurance

Scholarly works on seventeenth-century antinomianism all give attention to the problem of assurance.[4] The antinomian reaction to orthodox Reformed views on assurance was not, of course, an isolated topic of disagreement. Antinomianism, considered in its seventeenth-century context, whether in England or New England, showed that disagreement on one vital doctrine inevitably led to disagreements on other doctrines. The nature of systematic and confessional theology made this inevitable. Because their view that God sees no sin in the elect was a core belief, the antinomians had to formulate their doctrine of assurance in accordance with it. Their rejection of the idea that God can be pleased and displeased with his people, based on their obedience or disobedience, also had implications for their doctrine of assurance. And their aversion to the necessity of good works, as well as their rejection of the orthodox view of the moral law, caused them to understand assurance of salvation in a manner that was essentially opposed to the Reformed view. One of the major issues was whether sanctification provides evidence of justification.

By and large, the antinomian theologians rejected the idea that believers may be assured of their justification by the evidence of their sanctification.[5] As noted earlier, the New England elders during the theological controversies in the 1630s rejected as “unsafe” the antinomian view that to find evidence of justification in sanctification savors of Rome. Regarding the situation in England, Stoever notes that John Eaton held to the view that sanctification was in itself repulsive to God, but nevertheless assured men of their salvation. Eaton “denied . . . that sanctification is such an evidence to the justified, who rely for their assurance solely on the persuasion that the ‘main proposition of the gospel’ is effective for them.”[6] Moreover, Stoever claims that for Tobias Crisp, “the only adequate ground of assurance is faith in Christ.”[7] At bottom, the solution to the problem of assurance was to believe in our justification more. Those who have the strongest assurance are not necessarily those who are most righteous, but those who most strongly believe they are justified. As Como notes, the criticism that emerged from antinomian pulpits and pens was that mainstream Puritans, “instead of promoting justification by faith, . . . instilled a deep dependence on legal works of sanctification. . . . The result was rampant legalism and formalism.”[8]

These claims made by antinomians were not entirely untrue. Sometimes well-known Puritan ministers did in fact preach legalistic sermons. Even Thomas Watson was guilty of this. In Heaven taken by storm (London, 1669), he explains how Christians must press into heaven with the utmost vigor, but he fails to mention the person and work of Christ. Nonetheless, the antinomians overreacted, and in so doing they committed their cardinal error of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As will be shown, the Puritans almost always grounded assurance principally in the promises of God. And they did not see such a discord between the works of believers and God’s promises. As Joel Beeke notes, “Scholars who assert that assurance is essential to faith in Christ and that sanctification cannot forward assurance in any way are guilty . . . of separating Christ and His benefits.”[9]

So averse were the New England antinomians to the idea that good works are evidence of being justified that the New England elders had to condemn the idea that believers know they belong to Christ, not because they mortify the misdeeds of the flesh, but because they do not mortify them, and instead believe that Christ crucified their lusts for them. Rutherford refers to this precise issue in New England and sums up the various ways of stating that position as “to be rich in works of sanctification is to be poor in grace.”[10] John Saltmarsh gives a typically antinomian view of assurance in Free Grace. He is an example of how the radical substitution of Christ in all areas of the Christian life has deleterious consequences for the doctrine of assurance. Saltmarsh writes: “Christ has believed perfectly, . . . repented perfectly, . . . obeyed perfectly, [and] mortified sin perfectly.”[11] Thus, with regard to assurance, we must “believe more truth of our own graces than we can see or feel . . . so we are to believe our repentance true in him, who hath repented for us.”[12]When this view is understood in relation to assurance, Saltmarsh affirms that a Christian must “see everything in himself as nothing, and himself everything in Christ. . . . All other assurances are rotten conclusions from the Word; and such things as true legal Teachers have invented.”[13] More than that, the Christian who looks to his habitual graces, such as repentance, love, and obedience, and not to the blood of Christ, “must needs believe weakly and uncomfortably.”[14]Again, this is a classic example of the either-or fallacy. As far as Reformed theologians were concerned, to look at habitual graces as a ground (not the ground) for assurance of salvation was not necessarily anthropocentric, but could in fact be Christocentric (Eph. 3:17–19).

The debate between the antinomians and the orthodox Reformed over whether a man may evidence his justification by his sanctification was complex. The issue, as Samuel Rutherford states, is whether we may evidence to ourselves, in our own conscience, our justification by our sanctification.[15] Formally speaking, faith evidences justification. The debate is not whether sanctification formally evidences justification; that is, “Love and works of sanctification do not so evidence justification; as if justification were the object of good works.”[16] Reformed theologians did not make sanctification a cause of justification; rather, sanctification inseparably follows justification.

In relation to this point, as noted in chapter 4, the manner in which we speak of justification as the “cause” of sanctification must be carefully understood, especially given its significance for the doctrine of assurance. The antinomians gave a priority to justification that went far beyond what Scripture teaches. That had a number of consequences, to the point that justification essentially swallowed up sanctification. In light of this, we cannot deny that our experience of having been justified will assist our sanctification. The fact that the sentence has been passed provides a great motivation for our sanctification and great assurance of our salvation (Rom. 5:1). The existential experience of the believer does not always match up with the order of salvation. Union with Christ is the ground of both justification and sanctification, and Christ is the meritorious cause of both. Just as sanctification does not cause justification, so justification does not cause sanctification, understood in terms of the order of salvation. Sanctification would be utterly impossible, apart from having been justified. But that does not mean that justification, as an applied benefit, can cause another applied benefit. Rather, the peace that we have with God because of our justification enables us to live out the sanctified life as a child of God.

Furthermore, Anthony Burgess, while vigorously opposing the antinomians, nevertheless suggested that the doctrine of justification, unlike any other, inclines God’s people to increased humility and self-emptiness, “for by this we are taught even in the highest degree of our sanctification, to look out of ourselves for a better righteousness.”[17] Thus, in the matter of assurance, the truth of Christ’s imputed righteousness is essential to Christian living, according to Reformed theologians such as Burgess.

Orthodox Response

A summary of the orthodox view on assurance may be found in chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is an excellent summary of how British Reformed theologians understood the difficult doctrine of assurance. In the first section of this chapter, the Confession notes that those who “truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace.” These words require some analysis and unpacking. Following the outline of questions provided by Joel Beeke,[18] there are a number of areas in the doctrine of assurance where the Puritans recognized the need to be specific. The first question considers whether the seed of assurance is embedded in faith. Faith and full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous. Our faith does not save; only Christ saves, who is the object of faith. Of course, there is always some degree of assurance in faith, but the main issue is whether full assurance is of the essence of faith.[19] As Beeke notes, “They differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (or evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”[20] The Westminster divines, by noting that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith (18.3), affirm the distinction between adherence and assurance.

The primary foundation for assurance is provided by the promises of salvation. As WCF 18.2 says, the certainty of assurance is “an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation.” The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) rewords this sentence by adding “founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ, revealed in the gospel,” which is more explicitly Christocentric than the Westminster Confession. If God makes a promise, it is yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). One of the “mainstream Puritans” who opposed antinomianism was Thomas Goodwin. He, perhaps more than any other English Reformed divine, gave copious attention to the doctrine of assurance.[21] He discusses a problem that afflicts so many Christians, namely, that they separate Christ’s benefits from his person. Christians are in no position to love Christ’s work without first loving his person. There is a priority of Christ’s person over his work. Thus, Goodwin argues that “whensoever we would go down into our own hearts, and take a view of our graces, let us be sure first to look wholly out of ourselves unto Christ, as our justification, and close with [him] immediately.”[22] Goodwin was not alone. The idea that the Puritans “botched” the doctrine of assurance by giving sanctification a priority over God’s promises is untrue, and is a claim typically made by those who have not done the requisite reading to be in a position to make such a claim. Goodwin opposed antinomian theology while at the same time giving a priority to the person of Christ as the immediate ground for our assurance. To be sure, the antinomians attempted to do that, but only by excising other means of assurance.

The Westminster Confession’s teaching on assurance does not simply end with the promises of God as the only ground for assurance. The both-and principle is affirmed, with the idea that God’s promises and inward evidences of grace are not opposed to each other (see WCF 18.2, “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made”). A practical syllogism establishes this point:

Major Premise: Those who keep God’s commandments love Christ.

Minor Premise: By the grace of God, I keep God’s commandments.

Conclusion: I love Christ.

Or consider how Theodore Beza puts it:

Qu. But how does a person know if he has faith, or not?

By good works.[23]

The practical syllogism, however offensive to some, fits perfectly with the teaching on good works in WCF 16.2, where we read: “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, [and] strengthen their assurance” (emphasis added).[24] In dealing with this point, Rutherford states that God has promised to cause his people to walk in his commandments. “So all the peace we can collect, for our comfort, from holy walking is resolved on a promise of free-grace, and the duty as performed by the grace of the covenant, may and does lead us to the promise and no wise from Christ but to Christ.”[25]

Besides the practical syllogism, the Westminster Confession also affirms what has been called a “mystical syllogism.” Beeke sets forth a type of mystical syllogism:

Major Premise: According to Scripture, only those who possess saving faith will so experience the Spirit’s confirmation of inward grace and godliness that self decreases and Christ increases.

Minor Premise: I cannot deny that by the grace of God I experience the Spirit’s testimony confirming inward grace and godliness such that self decreases and Christ increases.

Conclusion: I am a partaker of saving faith.[26]

This type of reasoning is also present in the Westminster Confession (18.2), where assurance is grounded in the promises of God and “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.” Thus, Beeke is surely correct to argue that the “best resolution of the objective-subjective tension in assurance is that both owe everything to Christ, receive all from Him, and end with all in Him. In Christ, objective promises and subjective experience are complementary.”[27] Christ is not only for us (i.e., objective), but also in us, the hope of glory (i.e., subjective). In connection with this, Richard Muller makes a number of important observations regarding Beza’s doctrine of assurance. He particularly contends that Beza, like Calvin, “did anchor assurance in Christ and, specifically, in union with Christ. Arguably the basic point made by Calvin and shared by Beza was that the basis for personal assurance is not Christ standing extra nos in the sufficiency of his saving work, but rather personal or subjective recognition of the effects of Christ and his work in the believer as the basis for assurance.”[28] Thus, a focus on good works as a ground for assurance of faith does not necessarily turn the believer away from Christ. Good works may enable the believer to subjectively focus on the work of Christ in him or her. Subjective assurance necessarily takes place in the life of the believer because Christ’s work is not only objective, but also subjective. Indeed, as we are about to see, even Christ’s own assurance was both objective and subjective, with both complementing each other in the most perfect way.

Christ’s Assurance

As noted above, the topic of Christ’s own personal assurance does not receive much, if any, attention in discussions of assurance. Obviously, Christ’s assurance and our assurance are not strictly the same. He is the Savior; we are the saved. But that does not mean that there are not parallels that help us in framing a biblically coherent doctrine of assurance.

Christ trusted in the promises of God (Isa. 49:1–7); he was, as Goodwin claims, “the highest instance of believing that ever was.”[29] As the faithful, obedient servant of the Lord, Jesus looked to many promises made to him by the Father. From the gift of the Spirit to the inheritance of the nations to the name that is above every name, Christ received assurance from his Father that the promises made to him would one day (after his resurrection) be his. Not only that, but Christ was obedient, and his obedience would naturally have assured him of his messianic calling as the second Adam. Whether reading as a young man the third servant song in Isaiah (50:4–9) or daily committing himself to the Father (Ps. 31:5), which culminated at his death (Luke 23:46), Christ was assured of his special task because of inward graces. Indeed, as John writes in his gospel, Jesus kept his Father’s commandments, and so abode in his love (15:10). In addition, Christ would have had a healthy fear of the Lord, knowing that if he shrank back just once, his Father would not have been pleased with him (Heb. 10:38). Assurance, for Christ, was not simply looking to the promises, but also looking to the inward graces communicated to his human nature by the Holy Spirit.

More than that, returning to the objective side, Christ received assurance at his baptism and at the Transfiguration (Mark 1:9–11; 9:2–8). The Father assured Jesus that he was God’s Son, and was well pleasing to him. But Christ would also have received assurance that he was God’s Son in the subjective realm as he prayed. Surely what is true of believers, namely, that the Spirit enables us to cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15–16), is true of the man who was endowed with the Spirit above measure (John 3:34). It was as natural for Jesus to cry “Father” during his times of prayer—indeed, the course of his life, even right before his death, shows this to be true—as it was for him to breathe. In addition, there can be little doubt that every time that Christ prayed, he was assured of his special relationship with his Father in heaven. As Sinclair Ferguson notes, the Spirit of sonship and assurance bore witness with Christ’s spirit that he was the Messiah: “The Spirit thus seals and confirms the bond of love and trust between the Father and the incarnate Son.”[30]

Believers are commanded to look to Christ for their assurance, and rightly so. If the foregoing has any merit, we may be assured of our salvation, not only because of the beauty and excellence of his person and work, but also by looking to his life as a pattern of how we may likewise be assured of our eternal destiny. To the degree that we look to Christ for us and in us, including his example to us in his earthly sojourn, we will find ourselves not only assured that we are the children of God, but also convinced that the objective-subjective approach to assurance is more Christ-centered than perhaps initially thought.

Multifaceted, Christocentric Assurance

Just as Christ’s assurance was multifaceted, so the believer will also experience assurance of salvation in many different ways. The promises of God, which are many (literally hundreds), assure Christians that, for example, nothing can separate them from the love of God (Rom. 8:31–39). The promises of God require, moreover, that his people look to the person and work of Christ. Some Christians lack assurance because they have an inadequate understanding of Christology. Not only that, but a failure to understand and love God’s attributes, such as his wisdom, immutability, power, and goodness, will also lead to a lack of assurance. These attributes, which are all harmonious with one another, so that, for example, his immutability is his goodness, and vice versa, should provide Christians with the assurance that God’s love for them cannot change because God cannot change. On the subjective side, obeying God’s commandments (1 John 2:3–6), which necessarily includes loving God and his people (1 John 3:11–24), cannot but aid a believer in the quest for full assurance. To deny this would be to overthrow the Christian religion. Connected with that, Christians who pray receive the Spirit of adoption, which enables them to cry—as Christ cried out on the cross (Matt. 27:50, where the same Greek word, krazein, is used)—“Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15–16). Christians who struggle with their lack of faith should also be reminded that their struggle with unbelief is a sign of belief (Mark 9:24). It may seem obvious to most, but unbelievers do not struggle with unbelief; Christians do, however, because they are concerned that their faith wavers. Moreover, the point should be made that our worship experience should incorporate all that has been said about how to attain assurance. Specifically, Christians should sing, not only good hymns, but especially the Psalms, for in singing many of the psalms you are left with little doubt whose side you are on!

There is another important aspect of assurance that is rarely touched upon by pastors and theologians. The person of Christ, in his heavenly ministry as our sympathetic high priest (Heb. 4:14–15), has much value to the Christian who seeks assurance of salvation. The incarnation of the Son of God enabled God to be compassionate and merciful in a manner that would have been impossible had the Son not assumed a human nature. As Thomas Goodwin remarks, “His taking our nature at first clothed with frailties, and living in this world as we, this has forever fitted his heart by experience to be in our very hearts and bosoms; and not only or barely to know the distress . . . but experimentally remembering the like in himself once.”[31] Because the Son has a true human nature, he had affections and experiences that were proper to that nature in the context in which he lived. He also remembers those experiences, even now in his exalted state in heaven (Heb. 5:7–10). But because Christ is exalted, having received the gift of the Spirit in the greatest measure possible for a human being, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) in his human nature are greater in heaven than they were on earth. These truths about Christ’s person in heaven are invaluable for the believer. As Goodwin notes, our sins “move him to pity more than to anger.”[32] Goodwin continues:

The object of pity is one in misery whom we love; and the greater the misery is, the more is the pity when the party is beloved. Now of all miseries, sin is the greatest. . . . And [Christ], loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but his bowels shall be the more drawn out to you; and this as much when you lie under sin as under any other affliction.[33]

Christians live with the ugly reality of their sin on a daily basis. In fact, in some respects, our sin is worse than the sins of unbelievers, for we have greater knowledge and greater powers to resist.[34] But believers must know, based on Christ’s office as priest in his exalted state, that Jesus feels more pity than anger toward us as sinners.

There are a number of “ordinary means” in which believers may gain infallible assurance of faith (WCF 18.3). God’s objective promises should always be uppermost in our minds, for without them the subjective elements of assurance would be impossible. But there is the real danger of making these two elements enemies, when in fact they are friends because Christ and his benefits are friends. All of this shows that the Christian life is complex. Calls to trust God, who justifies the wicked, are essential to the pastoral ministry, but if that is all that preachers speak about with regard to assurance, then they are preaching like antinomians. And, I would say, they are pastorally insensitive to the fact that God is gracious and has given his people many means by which they may have the infallible assurance of salvation, which God and Christ desire for all their people. More than that, preachers have a duty to preach the whole Christ. So many stop at his death, and remind their people that Christ uttered the words, “It is finished,” but the better way is to preach not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also his intercessory work as our merciful high priest. Again, the antinomian error is one of failing to do justice to the totality of Christ’s person and work. It is, above all, a Christological error.


Reformed and antinomian theologians have significantly different views regarding assurance. However, the question of assurance spills over into Christology. Christology, including Christ’s own experience as God’s servant on earth, has much to teach us about the multifaceted nature of assurance. Besides that, Christ’s own role as a merciful high priest gives believers abundant reason to believe that Christ is even more merciful to his bride while he is in heaven than when he was on earth. These Christological truths are often completely missed by pastors with antinomian tendencies. In their desire to exalt Christ, they often fail to do just that. Antinomian preaching in the past and today often fails to extol the grace of the gospel extensively enough. They diminish the power of the gospel and vitiate the glory of Christ in large measure.

The debate between the two parties was never, as Rutherford notes, “touching the first assurance of justification”; it was axiomatic to Reformed theology that believers are first assured of their justification by faith, not by good works.[35]However, that does not mean, of course, that good works play no role in assurance. The antinomians could not give a role to good works in assurance, other than to say that they are frequently dangerous signs, because of their denial of conditions in the covenant of grace, their view that Christ repented, believed, etc., for his people, and their view that God sees no sin in his people. In doing this, they went too far. But Reformed theologians were sensitive to the dangers of their own “qualifications.” Nonetheless, that did not stop them from affirming that good works are a lawful means for attaining assurance. As Flavel says in his response to this particular antinomian error,

I will further grant, That the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul.

But all this notwithstanding, The examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work and duty. It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.[36]

The truth is, to the degree that a person fixes his or her eyes upon Christ, he or she will burst forth with gospel obedience. And obedience, if it is gospel obedience, cannot help but draw us back to Christ in faith, hope, and love. For this reason, the objective and subjective aspects of the Christian life are complementary and necessary. Indeed, by looking inward, Christians may trace the hand of God in their lives and return in thanksgiving and praise. To say “Just look to Christ” does not mean that we should not look inward, for Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17).

Mark Jones is the author of Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest?.

Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden University) is Senior Minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA) and Research Associate at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written and edited several books and most recently coauthored A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

[1] John Flavel, The Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (1820; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997), 3:590.

[2] See the massive bibliography in Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 311–79.

[3] See Michael S. Horton, “Thomas Goodwin and the Puritan Doctrine of Assurance: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Reformed Tradition, 1600–1680” (PhD diss., Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Coventry University, 1995); Joel R. Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 263–83.

[4] See Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), passim; David Como, Blown by the Spirit:Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), passim; William K. Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1978), passim.

[5] See Flavel, Works, 3:557, 589–91.

[6] Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way,” 141.

[7] Ibid., 146.

[8] Como, Blown by the Spirit, 136–37.

[9] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 593.

[10] Samuel Rutherford, A survey of the spirituall antichrist (London, 1647), 2:91.

[11] John Saltmarsh, Free Grace (London, 1645), 84.

[12] Ibid., 84–85.

[13] Ibid., 85.

[14] Ibid., 86.

[15] Samuel Rutherford, Christ dying and drawing sinners to himself (London, 1647), 108.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Anthony Burgess, The True Doctrine of Justification Asserted and Vindicated, from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially Antinomians, 2nd ed. (London: Tho. Underhil, 1651), 149.

[18] See Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 265–83.

[19] The connection between faith and assurance is wonderfully described in the Canons of Dort (V.9): “Believers themselves can and do become assured in accordance with the measure of their faith. By this faith they firmly believe that they are and always will remain true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

[20] Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 266.

[21] See Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D. (1861–66; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), vols. 4 and 8.

[22] Ibid., 4:4.

[23] Cited in Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 258.

[24] See also Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A 86 (Lord’s Day 32), “… so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits.”

[25] Samuel Rutherford, The Tryal and Triumph of Faith (London, 1645), 183.

[26] Beeke, “The Assurance Debate: Six Key Questions,” 274.

[27] Ibid., 276.

[28] Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 267.

[29] Goodwin, Works, 4:9. Goodwin also comments, “Christ thus trusted God upon his single bond; but we, for our assurance, have both Christ and God bound to us.” Ibid.

[30] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 47.

[31] Goodwin, Works, 4:141.

[32] Ibid., 4:149. James Durham rightly says that many Christians are ignorant of the value of Christ’s intercession. Taking a view similar to Goodwin’s, he writes: “We will find that this intercession and sympathy is not broken off and made less because of the believer’s sin; but is in some respect the more stirred and provoked, because this sympathy flows from the relation that is between Head and members, which sin does not cut off; and it is as with a tender natural parent, who cannot but be affected with the child’s straits, even though he has shamefully brought them on himself; yes, his very failings do touch and affect: so our high Priest’s sympathy, is not only in crosses, but it is to have pity on the ignorant, and compassion on these that are out of the way, Heb. 5. And thus the very sin of a believer affected Him so, that He cannot but sympathize and be provoked to sympathize with him. O what a wonder is this, the more sin, the more sympathy! which ought to make believers humble, and yet exceedingly to comfort them under a sinful condition.” A Commentarie upon the Book of the Revelation (Amsterdam, 1660), 411.

[33] Goodwin, Works, 4:149.

[34] Johannes Maccovius also points out that unbelievers sin more seriously insofar as they “rush into sin with great desire, [but] believers with a broken will; . . . the faithful feel sadness about their committed sins, unbelievers are pleased by them.” Scholastic Discourse: Johannes Maccovius (1588–1644) on Theological and Philosophical Distinctions and Rules (Apeldoorn: Instituut voor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009), 193.

[35] Rutherford, Christ dying and drawing sinners, 110.

[36] Flavel, Works, 3:590. Reformed divines typically speak of a “double act of faith.” The direct act of faith refers to the person’s act of relying upon the promises of God in Christ. The reflex act of faith enables the person to look at a subjective work (e.g., love for neighbor) and thereby gain assurance. As Flavel notes elsewhere, “The soul has not only power to project, but a power also to reflect upon its own actions; not only to put forth a direct act of faith upon Jesus Christ, but to judge and discern that act also.” Ibid., 2:330.