How many Protestants are comfortable applying the label “righteous” to themselves? How many Protestants can sing or pray the Psalms with a clean conscience, appealing to the Lord to accept them because of their righteousness? How many Protestants instead experience an instinctive mental reservation when they speak of their justification?
“Of course, I’m still a sinner” comes immediately to our minds and lips. Ultimately, that instinct is unbelief, a failure or refusal to take God at His gracious word. But that unbelief is fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the “legal me” as righteous while consigning the “real, existential me” or “my nature” to the realm of sin.
Of course, Protestant theologians often defend dualism of status and nature in order to bolster assurance. We need something secure to rest in, and the changes in the “inner man” are too variable, incomplete, and difficult to discern to provide assurance. Only an “outer, wholly objective, wholly complete” justification can provide the assuring stability we need. A legal declaration is not like a way of life; a man declared innocent is innocent, and there is no double jeopardy.
Compelling as this may be in some ways, the implied dualism can only undermine assurance. Conceived strictly as a change of status, the stable and secure verdict is pronounced in a realm that touches the “inner” man only as relief of conscience and peace of mind. Yet peace of mind is no more constant than my faithfulness, and in other respects my “inner man” is not touched by the verdict of justification at all. A stable verdict that never enters my experience, or enters only the mercurial zone of my subjective self, is not much help to an anguished conscience.
For much of its history, some Protestants have answered the problem of assurance by resorting to some form of the “practical syllogism,” by which the Spirit-produced works within me form part of the basis for my assurance of salvation. In this perspective, I know that I am in Christ because I can see the fruits that Christ’s Spirit is producing in me. This too is a tenuous basis for assurance, since there is plenty in any believer’s life that self-evidently does not come from the Spirit.
If, by contrast, we renounce the dualism of inner and outer and take justification as a fundamental redefinition not just of my status but of who I am, then we have a stronger basis for assurance. The verdict of justification pertains to the whole person (as the Westminster Confession says), and it is as secure as the verdict of vindication that the Father passed on the Son through the Spirit at the resurrection. What assures me that I, the true I, am right with God is simply the promise of God to accept me in Christ, pronounced in the gospel, in the weekly absolution, and sealed in my baptism and my continuing participation in the Supper. God has promised to accept me in Christ, and His word is reliable. God has declared me His son in baptism, and renews that paternal gesture by inviting me regularly to the family table. Believe on Jesus and be saved.
Works, whether my “autonomous” works or the works that come from the Spirit of Christ, have no place in the “calculus” of assurance, just as they have no place in the declaration that I am righteous. I trust entirely on the fact that God has declared me in the right.
This, I take it, is the thrust of the Reformation doctrine of justification, and the very reason why the Reformation was greeted with such joy. Unfortunately, post-Reformation Protestantism, because of a doctrine of assurance built on an illegitimate dualism, has too frequently stolen that joy.