By John Angell James, 1846


My dear friends,
The subject on which I address you this month is of great importance to your spiritual enjoyment, and, indeed, you cannot enter deeply into the consolations of the Spirit, without an experimental acquaintance with it—I mean, the Assurance of Hope. A Christian is, or might be, the happiest man upon the earth; but in order to this, he must have some satisfactory reason to conclude that he is a Christian. Christianity is intended to make us happy, it is the overflowing of the felicity of the blessed God, into the soul of man; the reflection of his smiling countenance from the redeemed, regenerated spirit; and the communion of the finite mind, in the fullness of the grace and glory belonging to the infinite one—but then we must know that we have religion.

There are three kinds of assurance spoken of in the Word of God–

1. "The assurance of understanding," Col. 2:2; which means, a clear, comprehensive, heart-establishing acquaintance with divine truth.

2. "The assurance of faith," Heb. 10:22; which signifies an entire persuasion of the truth of the gospel.

3. "The assurance of hope," Heb. 6:11; which imports a confidence of personal saving interest in Christ. It is of the latter I treat in this address. They are all three intimately related to, and grow out of each other. In proportion as we fully know and are spiritually taught the doctrines of the gospel, we shall be fully assured of their truth, and have the assurance of faith. And in exact proportion as we are fully assured of the divine person, mission, and work of Christ, we shall be fully assured of our personal interest in them, faith being based upon knowledge, and hope upon faith.

The assurance of knowledge and faith has reference to the gospel in itself; the assurance of hope to the state of our heart in reference to the gospel. The assurance of faith is called for in a man's first profession of the gospel, in order to his being acknowledged as a Christian. The assurance of hope, again, is an enjoyment proposed to those who believe, and have already begun the Christian race, which they are called to follow after, and to give all diligence to obtain.

It does not appear to be necessary to this state of mind, that we should have such a persuasion as utterly and continually excludes every shade of doubt; and which is so absolutely perfect as to admit of no degrees or increase; for that is not the sense in which it seems to be understood by the sacred writers, but rather as importing a prevailing and satisfactory conclusion; a state in which the mind sees no reason to question its sincerity and safety. Nor is it necessary to this blessed condition that the person who enjoys it, should be able or disposed to use bold, strong, confident affirmation, such as, "I am as certain I am a child of God, as if a voice from heaven declared it; and as sure of arriving safely in glory at last as if I were already there."

Many a modest humble believer, if the question were put to him, "Are you a child of God?" would, perhaps, under the influence of meekness and self-abasement, shrink from the positive, "I am! I am sure I am!" and content himself with saying, "I hope and believe I am, having no serious reason to doubt it, for I am deeply convinced of my fallen, sinful state; I renounce every ground of dependence, but the righteousness of Christ, and rest my hope of salvation on him. My faith has given me peace, and led me to love God. And, conscious of this, I doubt not I have passed from death unto life." This latter is the language of Scriptural assurance.

Such a prevailing and satisfactory conclusion as to our state may be obtained. Had no injunction in reference to it been given in the Scripture, nor any declaration made concerning it, still it might have been fairly presumed, that a change so great as that of regeneration could not have taken place without being its own evidence, to him in whom it is wrought. The old and the new nature—the work and image of Satan and of God—are not so like each other as not to be easily distinguished. But, in fact, we ARE commanded to give all diligence to obtain and preserve the full assurance of hope; and evidences are laid down by which we may ascertain whether we are the children of God or not. Every one of us may know this; the means of judging are within the reach of us all.

If, then, we may know it, we ought to know it. Assurance is in one sense our duty, as well as our privilege. If it is our duty to believe, it is our duty to hope, and if to hope at all, to hope even to assurance. Every man ought to know his spiritual condition. It is a matter of too great importance to be allowed to remain undecided. We ought not to be content to remain another hour in ignorance of our spiritual state.

HOW is assurance to be obtained? This is a most momentous question. May God preserve me from error in giving an answer to it. It is said by the apostle, "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." Rom. 8:16. Now as it is witnessed, or testified by the Spirit, that we are the children of God, we naturally ask, in what manner is this testimony borne? This must either be in the way of a direct revelation to our mind; or by enabling us, on a comparison of the Spirit's work in the heart, with the description of the Spirit's work in the Word, to draw the conclusion that we are truly born again.

Some believe that there is granted to each regenerated soul a direct witness, in the way of suggestion, or impression, of its spiritual birth. This, however, does not appear to me to be the meaning of the apostle. It does not accord with the context, which is obviously practical, and speaks of the influence of the Spirit as received for mortification of sin, and for the productions of all the dispositions and habits of the Christian life, especially the Spirit of adoption; it is unsupported by any other passage where assurance is spoken of; it would, if this were its meaning, come under the head of a revelation from God, and seem to require something else to authenticate it; it would open a door for mistake and self-deception; it has never been received by multitudes who have been sincerely and eminently godly, and it is unnecessary, because, without being supported by the inferential evidence, it is not to be trusted.

It is much safer and more correct to consider the witness of the Spirit as purely inferential. The case stands thus—"The Holy Spirit speaks in the Word. The same Spirit operates in the heart. There must be a correspondence between his testimony in the WORD, and his operation in the HEART. The evidence lies in this congruity. We take the divine Word as dictated by the Spirit, and containing a declaration of his mind—we see there what he testifies—we see especially the description which he there gives of the faith and character of God's children—of the principles and dispositions, the affections and desires, the hopes and fears, and the peculiar walk and lifestyle by which they are distinguished. If our spirits in the court of conscience, and before the Father of our spirits, bears witness to a correspondence between this description, and what has been effected in us by the same Divine Agent, then there is a concurrence of the testimonies; the testimony of God's Spirit and the testimony of our spirits agree; the one witnesses with the other. What the Spirit of God has wrought in us harmonizes with what the Spirit of God testifies in the Word; and in proportion as our spirits have the inward consciousness of this harmony, do we possess the witness of the Spirit to our being the children of God." (Wardlaw on Assurance)

This is in strict accordance with what is said in other places of Scripture. "These things," says the apostle John, "have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." 1 John, 5:13. We are to know that we have eternal life, by the evidence of what is written, and of course by the comparison of our heart and life with it.

In reply then to the question, how you may know that you are a child of God, I answer, by a consciousness, and a comparison of your state with the Word of God. The apostle says, "We are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ," Gal. 3:26. "I am conscious," says an assured Christian, "that I do believe, and therefore I know I am a child of God." And suppose he were in any doubt about the reality of his faith, he pursues the subject and says, "The Word of God says, in whom believing we rejoice—I have peace and joy. To those who believe he is precious; Christ is precious to me. Faith works by love—I love God, Christ, his people, and holiness. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith—I have overcome the world. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren—I love the brethren, therefore I conclude I am a child of God. The fruits of my faith which I discern in myself, answer to the description of them given in the Word."

It is not, then, by any such methods as by dreams, or the suggestions of texts of Scripture to the mind, or visions, or impressions upon the mind, or strong persuasions of our eternal election—that we are to obtain this blessed hope of personal interest in the mercies of redemption, but by comparing our hearts with the Word of God. I will here quote the beautiful language of the celebrated Ralph Cudworth, in a sermon preached before the House of Commons during the Commonwealth—"The way to obtain a good assurance of our title to heaven, is not to climb up to it by a ladder of our own ungrounded persuasions, but to dig as low as hell by humility and self-denial in our own hearts—and though this may seem the farthest way—yet it is indeed the nearest and safest way to it. We must 'ascend downward, and descend upward,' if we would indeed come to heaven, or get any true persuasion of our title to it. The most triumphant confidence of a Christian rises safely and surely on this low foundation, which lies deeper underground, and there stands firmly and steadfastly. When our heart is once turned into a conformity with the Word of God, when we feel our will to concur with his will, we shall then personally perceive a spirit of adoption within ourselves, teaching us to say, Abba, Father. We shall not then care for peeping into the hidden records of eternity, to see whether our names be written there in golden characters. No! We shall find a copy of God's thoughts concerning us written in our own bosoms. There we may read the characters of his favor toward us—there we may feel an inward sense of his love to us, flowing out of our hearty and sincere love to him. And we shall be more undoubtedly persuaded of it, than if one of those winged watchmen above, who are privy to heaven's secrets, would come and tell us that they saw our names enrolled in those volumes of eternity."

In this way, and, as it appears to me, in this way only, is our personal interest in the blessings of salvation to be ascertained. It will be evident then, that our assurance will be more or less full, according to the measure of our piety. It admits of degrees of certainty, and these will be regulated by our degrees of vital, experimental godliness. Hence the force of the apostolic exhortation, to give all diligence to make our calling and our election sure—that is, sure to ourselves, as a clear and well-attested fact, that we are called according to the purpose of God.

It is an unquestionable fact, that many professors have not yet attained to this comfortable persuasion of their personal saving interest in Christ. Various reasons may be assigned for this. Some ought not to have it, for they are professors only, and not partakers of divine grace. In them it would be only a lie in their right hand; and crying peace, peace, when they have no right to peace.

Others are kept in doubt by physical obstructions to joy and hope—they are constitutionally gloomy and dejected. Little can be said to them but to encourage them, if they are walking consistently, to endeavor to distinguish between disordered nerves—and destitution of piety; to hope against hope; and, if possible, to increase their joy by the improvement of their health. It is dangerous advice, in most cases, to let our friends judge for us of so important a matter as our spiritual condition and safety; but in the case of those to whom I am now alluding, the opinion of enlightened and judicious Christians, who think favorably of the state of the dejected, should have weight.

Others, though not constitutionally depressed, are timid, hesitating and anxiously cautious; and even in common matters, find it difficult sometimes to decide an important question. This timidity they carry into their religious matters, and are afraid of coming to the conclusion that they are Christians, lest, after all, they should deceive themselves. To their timorous minds it seems a kind of presumption for them to conclude that they are the children of God—a rash and unauthorized decision, from which they shrink back with trepidation and alarm. They view it merely in the light of a privilege which is granted to a favored few—but not an attainment within the reach of all; or a duty, the obligation to which all ought to feel. How mistaken a view is this of the whole subject.

It might surely be presumed that in every case of real scriptural piety, the subject of it would be able to ascertain his condition; that no child in the family of God need be ignorant of his divine relationship. It must strike us as very strange that a renovation of character so great as that effected in regeneration, should take place, and the recipient of it be unable to certify it. It cannot, therefore, be an unauthorized state of mind for any real and consistent Christian to arrive at, to know his heavenly birth, but what he should attain.

Some, I fear, actually nourish doubts and fears as a 'mark of grace', and an evidence of humility—and consider themselves in a more secure and salutary state for questioning their safety, than concluding upon it. If, indeed, they have not the evidence of true conversion, they ought to doubt, or ought rather to be assured that they are not Christians. But I am now supposing the case of some good people, who, with the marks of true grace, and a consistent walk—are cherishing the error that it is safer to doubt than to decide. This is a sad mistake and a proof of deplorable ignorance of the Word of God.

Others are engaged in a microscopic analysis of their feelings, and vary their opinion of their state with every vicissitude of their feelings. A little more or a little less fluency in prayer; a greater or a less degree of enjoyment of a sermon; a higher or lower measure of elasticity of their emotions, produced by physical causes—raises or depresses their hopes, elevating them to confidence, or sinking them to despondency. Their opinions of their state are, therefore, in a state of perpetual vacillation. Their religious enjoyment is at the mercy of circumstances, over which they can exercise no control, and they are strangers to settled peace. If such people would look less to themselves and more to Christ, they would be far happier. In some instances this propensity to be ever poring into the heart, is the remains of self-righteousness, leading them to look for comfort in themselves, rather than to Christ. Let them, by a calm, sober, impartial examination of their habitual past conduct, come to a conclusion of their state, and not allow that conclusion to be disturbed by every little variation of their feelings.

Neither our character nor our safety is altered, or endangered, by all those minute changes of emotion which are ever going on in the heart of a believer. A man does not doubt that he is alive, or in general good health, every time his appetite is less keen, or his sleep less sound than usual; nor does he doubt the sincerity of his affection for his wife and children every time there is a less vivid sense of it, than at other seasons. If in either case the symptoms of declension remain or increase, and are attended with other signs of decay, he has cause to take alarm. Thus should it be with believers as to those passing varieties of frame which occur in the experience of the holiest and the best of men. Permanent and increasing declension is alarming and should awaken doubts—but not the occasional interruption of what is denominated, by not a very felicitous expression, "sensible comfort."

There is, I am persuaded, often a neglect of acknowledged duty, or the indulgence of known sin—at the bottom of those doubts and fears with which some professing Christians are troubled; some secret, beloved, and unmortified corruption, against which conscience is raising its protesting voice, but from which the subject of it refuses to part. It may be laid down as a settled point that willful sin must lead to spiritual darkness. No sentiment can be more unscriptural, none more irrational or more shocking, than that sin should never make a believer doubt of his state; that whatever be the evils into which he falls, doubts and fears are only additions to his guilt; that all his iniquities have been atoned for in the blood of Christ, and that therefore no sin should at any time trouble his spirit, or darken the light of his joy. This is the most monstrous and miserable of all delusions. The man who comes to assurance, and maintains it, while his conscience testifies of him that he is habitually declining in religious affections, living in the habitual neglect of known duty, or in the indulgence of actual sin, is one of the most fearful instances of self-deception in our world!

But there is still another class of professing Christians, who must confess, if they are asked, that they are strangers to this assured hope of eternal life, and it is a very large class too—I mean those whose piety, if admitted to be sincere, is so low and so lukewarm, as to yield but equivocal testimony to the reality of their heavenly birth. Swallowed up in business, personal or public; immersed in politics, national or municipal; or devoted to worldly ease and domestic enjoyment—they are living sadly below their principles, privileges, and professions. Who can wonder that they know little of the blessedness of a persuasion that they are interested in the great salvation. As a general description of their state of mind, I would say they take it for granted they are Christians; assume that they are born from above, and with this vague, unsustained, and careless conclusion, pass on to the eternal world. But as to the sweet and consolatory influence deduced from premises cautiously examined, that they are the children of God, and have no reason to doubt the momentous and delightful fact, they know nothing of this; and hence when taken off from their usual pursuits, and shut up in the chamber of sickness, or laid upon the bed of death, how dark is their mind, how numerous and agitating are their doubts and fears, how distressing their solicitude!

It will not do, in such circumstances, to take it for granted, and assume, without examination, that they are Christians; they must have it proved, and they now call for evidence, and alas, how little can they find! They pore into their hearts, they scrutinize their conduct, and sometimes hope they can discern the marks of the Spirit's work, the characters of regeneration, but, like a worn-out inscription, they are scarcely discernible, much less clearly legible. Habitual worldly-mindedness has almost effaced those holy and heavenly dispositions which are the superscriptions of God's hand upon the human heart.

Now then, my dear friends, let me earnestly admonish you to comply with the apostolic injunction, and give all diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end. It cannot be obtained without diligence. There is a faith so strong, a love so fervent, and a hope so lively, that they prove their own existence, both to those who possess them, and to those who observe them. Shining substances need no other evidence of their existence than their own radiance. A man in full health needs no examination to demonstrate to him that he is alive and well—he is conscious of it, for he feels it. So should it be with a Christian. Self-examination for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not he is a Christian, should be unnecessary for a child of God. But then, in order to this, his religion must be in a high state of vigor and prosperity. He must ever remember the great design of the gospel, which is to establish a God-like frame and disposition of spirit, which consists in righteousness and true holiness in the hearts of men.

"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." Titus 2:11-14. From this passage it is evident the design of Christ in coming into our world, was not only to cast over us the purple robe of his righteousness, and hide our wickedness and deformity from the eye of God's avenging justice; but also, like a good physician, to cure our moral diseases. And then may we be assured of our being in a state of salvation, when we are at once conscious of a simple faith in his righteousness, and equally conscious of the spirit of holiness in our hearts, and the beauties of holiness in our character. "The least inward lust, willingly continued in, will be like a worm gnawing at the root of the gourd of our confidence. And though we strive to keep it alive, and continually besprinkle it with some dews of our own, yet it will be always dying and withering in our bosoms. But a good conscience will be always a cordial to a Christian's heart—it will be softer to him than a bed of down, and he may sleep securely on it in the midst of raging and tempestuous seas, when the winds bluster, and the waves beat around him. A good conscience is the best looking-glass of heaven, in which the soul may see God's thoughts and purposes concerning it, as so many shining stars reflected from it." Hereby we know Christ—hereby we know that Christ loves us—if we keep his commandments.

The end of the gospel is to make us holy, happy, and useful—and assurance contributes to all these. Hope is a purifying grace, while despair is unholy, both in its nature, and in its tendency. He who has the most confident persuasion of his being a Christian now, and of his going on to heaven hereafter, and whose confidence rests on good ground, will be the holiest man. His assurance, sustained by holiness, will increase that which supports it.

Need I prove to you that assurance is the means of happiness? The gospel is a system of joy, as its name imports—it was thus announced by the angels at the birth of Christ, "behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy!" It is thus recognized by the apostle, when he says, "the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." This is implied, when we are so emphatically called upon "to rejoice in the Lord always," which seems to import that the genuine right temper and frame of a truly Christian mind and spirit, may be evidently concluded to be an habitual joyfulness, prevailing over all the other sources of human delight, and all the temporary causes of sorrow that occur in the world. I want you to enter deeply into this view of Christianity. I am anxious for you to be made happy by your religion. I am desirous that, as you travel to heaven, you should go on your way rejoicing—that in prosperity you should have a higher and holier source of enjoyment than providential favors; and in adversity a spring of happiness, when the cup of earthly comfort has been dashed from your lips. This is to be found in assurance. Blessed state, to be a child of God, and to know it too! to be going to heaven, and know it too! to be an heir of glory, and have evidence of the fact! Well might the poet say–

When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.

What sorrow need depress us; what care need waste us; what danger need daunt us; what loss need distress us—if assured of an interest in the blessing of salvation! The man assured of heaven may look at poverty, sickness, and persecution, without dismay, yes, may smile in the face of death. Assurance has enabled the dying Christian to step without shrinking, into the cold dark waters of Jordan; confessors to sing in their dungeons, and martyrs to exult at the stake.

Be, then, diligent to make your calling and election sure. If you are Christians, you may know and ought to know it. Be satisfied with nothing less. Pray for it, pray earnestly, constantly, believingly. Beseech the Spirit of God to work all his works in you, and then to shine upon his own work, and enable you to draw the conclusion, that you are indeed a child of God, an heir of heaven!