John Flavel on Assurance

Assurance is something that Christians used to struggle with. Am I really a believer? Is that thing I feel really saving faith, or am I just deluding myself because hell sounds scary? This sounds strange to our contemporary American ears. Where our ancestors questioned themselves and used doubt as a springboard for personal reflection and measurement against the standard of Scripture, we instead have become experts at asserting ourselves and simply refusing to hear anything less that a full celebration and affirmation of our own self worth.

As I’ve continued reading through a volume of John Flavel’s works, I came across the following ‘evidences’ of whether or not one is truly indwelt by the Holy Spirit. How can we know whether or not we are really saved, as all believers should occasionally (or regularly) ask? Flavel gives us some guidelines. As with the previous post, this is from a series of sermons on ‘the method of grace‘,  (This is from sermon twenty-four.)

“I shall next, according to promise, lay down the particular marks and trials by which we may discern whether God has given us his Spirit or no, by which grown Christians, when they are in a due composed frame, may, by the assistance of the Spirit of God, (for which therefore they are bound to pray), discern his indwelling and working in themselves.”

So we should notice that Flavel is writing for adults, rather than for children.

Evidence 1. In whomsoever the Spirit of Christ is a Spirit of sanctification, to that man or woman he has been, more or less, a Spirit of conviction and humiliation. This is the order which the Spirit constantly observes in adult or grown converts, … This, you see, is the method he observes all the world over; he shall reprove or convince the world of sin. Conviction of sin has the same respect unto sanctification, as the blossoms of trees have to the fruits that follow them: … Where there are no blossoms, we can expect no fruit; and where we see no conviction of sin, we can expect no conversion to Christ. “

In other words, if we are not driven to our knees in grief over our sin, we have no grounds for assurance.

Evidence 2. As the Spirit of God has been a convincing, so he is a quickening Spirit, to all those to whom he is given; … He is the Spirit of life, i. e. the principle of spiritual life in the souls whom he inhabiteth; for, uniting them to Christ, he unites them to the fountain of life, and this spiritual life, in believers, manifests itself as the natural life does in vital actions and operations. When the Spirit of God comes into the Soul of a man that was dead and senseless under sin, “O (saith he) now I begin to feel the weight and load of sin, Rom. 7:24. now I begin to hunger and thirst after Christ and his ordinances, 1 Pet. 2:2. now I begin to breathe after God in spiritual prayer”, Acts 9:11. Spiritual life has its spiritual senses, and suitable operations. O think upon this you that cannot feel any burden in sin, you that have no hungerings or thirstings after Christ; how can the Spirit of God be in you?”

In other words, grief over sin should lead to desire for Christ and for union with Him.

Evidence 3. Those to whom God giveth his Spirit bare a tender sympathy with all the interests and concernments of Christ. This must needs be so, if the same Spirit which is in Christ dwelleth also in thy heart; if thou be a partaker of his Spirit, then what he loves, thou lovest, and what he hates, thou hatest. … they that have the Spirit of Christ in them, cannot be without a deep and tender sense of the reproach and dishonours that are done to Christ: … If his public worship cease, or the assemblies of his people are scattered; it cannot but go to the hearts of all, in whom the Spirit of Christ is: … Those that have the Spirit of Christ do not more earnestly long after any one thing in this world, than the advancement of Christ’s interest by conversion and resonation in the kingdoms of the earth…”

Do we agree with Christ about sin and virtue? Do we long to see others come to know him? Do we love holiness and hate rebellion against God? If not, we ought to question whether or not we are really saved.

Evidence 4. Wherever the Spirit of God dwelleth, he does in some degree, mortify and subdue the evils and corruptions of the soul in which he resides. This Spirit lusteth against the flesh, Gal. 5:7. and believers, “through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body,” Rom. 8:13. This is one special part of his sanctifying work. I do not say he kills and subdues sin in believers, as that it shall never trouble or defile them any more: No; that freedom belongs to the perfect state in heaven, but its dominion is taken away, though its life be prolonged for a season. It lives in believers still, but not upon the provision they willingly make to fulfil the lust of it, Rom. 13:27. The design of every true believer, is co-incident with the design of the Spirit, to destroy and mortify corruption: They long after the extirpation of it, and are daily in the use of all sanctified means and instruments, to subdue and destroy it; the workings of their corruption are the afflictions of their souls… And there is no one thing that sweetens the thoughts of death to believers (except the sight and full enjoyment of God) more than their expected deliverance from sin does.”

In other words, the true believer will fight sin and no longer be dominated b y it. Which is not to say that the true believer will never sin, just that his or her life will no longer be defined by it.

Evidence 5. Wherever the spirit of God dwelleth in the way of sanctification, in all such he is the Spirit of prayer and supplication, … Wherever he is poured out as the Spirit of grace, he is also poured out as the Spirit of supplication… His praying and his sanctifying influences are undivided.”

The true Christian prays and cries out to God for help. As a guide, Flavel explains what the assistance from the Holy Spirit in prayer looks like:

“There is a threefold assistance that the Spirit gives unto sanctified persons in prayer.

  1. He helps them before they pray, by setting an edge upon their desires and affections:
  2. He helps them in prayer, by supplying matters of request to then, teaching them what they should ask of God:
  3. He assisteth them in the manner of prayer, supplying them with suitable affections, and helping them to be sincere in all their desires to God.

It is he that humbles the pride of their hearts, dissolves, and breaks the hardness of their hearts; Out of deadness makes them lively; out of weakness makes them strong. He assisteth the spirits of believers after prayer, helping them to faith and patience, to believe, and wait for the returns and answers of their prayers. O reader, reflect upon thy duties, consider what spirituality, sincerity, humility, broken-heartedness, and melting affections after God, are to be found in thy duties: Is it so with thee? Or dost thou hurry over thy duties as all interruption to thy business and pleasures? Are they an ungrateful task, imposed upon thee by God, and thy own conscience? Are there no hungerings and thirstings after God in thy soul? Or, if there be any pleasure arising to thee out of prayer, is it not from the ostentation of thy gifts? If it be so, reject sadly upon the carnal state of thy heart; these things do not speak the Spirit of grace and supplication to be given thee.”

When we pray, we pray by the Spirit’s help with proper desires, proper subjects of prayer, and sincerity. We ought not pray as if it were a burden or a ritual imposition on our time, but rather with ‘humility, broken-heartedness, and melting affections after God.’

Evidence 6. Wherever the Spirit of grace inhabits, there is an heavenly, spiritual frame of mind accompanying, and evidencing the indwelling of the Spirit… By the mind, understand the musings, reasonings, yea, and the cares, fears, delights and pleasures of the soul, which follow the workings and meditations of the mind. As these are, so are we; if these be ordinarily and habitually taken up, and exercised about earthly things, then is the frame and state of the man carnal, and earthly: The workings of every creature follow the being and nature of it. If God, Christ, heaven, and the world to come, engage the thoughts and affections of the soul, and the temper of such a soul is spiritual, and the Spirit of God dwelleth there; this is the life of the regenerate…”

The true believer will be occupied by thoughts of God and of heaven, and concerned with the spiritual life of holiness as outlined in Scripture, rather than taken up with cares of the world. What’s more, this will not be a dour and miserable life, but rather a life of delight and joy where man meets his fullest pleasures:

“such a frame of heart is life and peace: A serene, placid, and most comfortable life. No pleasures upon earth, no gratifications of the senses, do relish and savour, as spiritual things do. Consider, therefore, which way thy heart ordinarily works, especially in thy solitudes and hours of retirement. These things will be a great evidence for, or against thy soul. … Yet it must be acknowledged, for the relief of weaker Christians, that there is a great difference and variety found in this matter, among the people of God: For the strength, steadiness, and constancy of a spiritual mind, result from the depth and improvement of sanctification: The more grace, still the more evenness, spirituality, and constancy there is in the motions of the heart after God. The minds of weak Christians are more easily entangled in earthly vanities, and more frequently diverted by inward corruptions; yet still there is a spiritual… inclination and bent of their hearts towards God; and the vanity and corruption which hinders their communion with him are their greatest grief and burthen under which they groan in this world.”

Not all Christians will meditate on God and heaven equally, but we all should somewhat.

Evidence 7. Those to whom the Spirit of grace is given, are led by the Spirit, Rom. 8:11. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God:” Sanctified souls give themselves up to the government and conduct of the Spirit; they obey his voice, beg his direction, follow his motions, deny the solicitations of flesh and blood, in obedience to him, Gal. 1: 16. And they that do so, they are the sons of God. It is the office of the Spirit to guide us into all truth; and it is our great duty to follow his guidance. Hence it is, that in all enterprises and undertakings, the people of God so earnestly beg direction and counsel from him. “Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness, (saith David) make thy way straight before my face,” Psal. 5:8. They dare not, in doubtful cases, lean to their own understandings; yea, in points of duty, and in points of sin, they dare not neglect the one, or commit the other, against the convictions and persuasions of their own consciences; though troubles and sufferings be unavoidable in that path of duty, when they have balanced duties with sufferings, in their most serious thoughts, the conclusion and result wily still be, it is better to obey God, than man, the dictates of the Spirit, rather than the counsels of flesh and blood.”

Ultimately the believer is the one who looks to God rather than to himself. The Christian should be always uncertain about his own thoughts and life, and certain about who God is and what He has done for us in the Gospel.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he doesn’t think nearly often enough about assurance.

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