The Greatest of all Protestant Heresies: A refutation of Sinclair Ferguson’s article.
“A moment’s reflection explains why. If justification is not by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone — if faith needs to be completed by works; if Christ’s work is somehow repeated; if grace is not free and sovereign, then something always needs to be done, to be “added” for final justification to be ours.That is exactly the problem. If final justification is dependent on something we have to complete it is not possible to enjoy assurance of salvation. For then, theologically, final justification is contingent and uncertain, and it is impossible for anyone (apart from special revelation, Rome conceded) to be sure of salvation. But if Christ has done everything, if justification is by grace, without contributory works; it is received by faith’s empty hands — then assurance, even “full assurance” is possible for every believer.”
The above quote is from Sinclair Ferguson’s article here. Ferguson in this article quotes St. Robert Bellarmine, one of the great Counter-Reformation saints and theologians who had stood against the Protestant revolt. Ferguson notes that St. Robert had said that the greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance. The above quote then highlights the Reformed theology that Ferguson draws on, as well as how Ferguson compares that theology to the theology of the Church. I shall start from the above quote and give my critique of Ferguson’s article from here.
Ferguson highlights three “ifs” that are supposed to be the counters the above ‘Solas’ of Protestantism, which provide this assurance to Protestants. To pair each up, faith alone is contrasted by Ferguson as “faith need[ing]to be completed by works”, Christ alone as “Christ’s work is somehow repeated”, and Grace alone as “grace not free and sovereign”. Now, as for the second and third statement, the Church agrees completely that it is Christ alone by grace alone that we are saved (CCC 1460, 2011). It is the first statement, “faith alone”, which is ultimately false. Ferguson has said that “if faith needs to be completed by works…then something always has to be done, to be ‘added’, for final justification to be hours”. While I object to the word “added” (for the works which we do are God’s works, Philippians 2:12-13), I will agree that the fact that faith alone cannot suffice is why the Protestant teaching of assurance cannot stand. While of course Ferguson will not agree with me that faith alone failing is not a fact, I would then reference St. James (no, not verses 2:24-26). St. James says this:
“Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:20-23).
The Scripture itself is quite plain; Abraham’s saving faith was completed by the works which he did in obeying God; these works due to the grace of God complete faith, and therefore the Scripture was fulfilled which says “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). This verse is used to describe justification in Romans (Romans 4:3), and it is likewise doing the same thing in James 2:22. Because of what the Scripture says, I would argue that a Protestant must realize that faith alone does not belong in the realm of biblical truth. And because of this, Ferguson is correct that one cannot have this assurance about salvation. We do have the hope of salvation, which is a far more biblical teaching.
No wonder Bellarmine thought full, free, unfettered grace was dangerous! No wonder the Reformers loved the letter to the Hebrews!
This is why, as the author of Hebrews pauses for breath at the climax of his exposition of Christ’s work (Heb. 10:18), he continues his argument with a Paul-like “therefore” (Heb. 10:19). He then urges us to “draw near … in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). We do not need to re-read the whole letter to see the logical power of his “therefore.” Christ is our High Priest; our hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience just as our bodies have been washed with pure water (v.22).
Christ has once-for-all become the sacrifice for our sins, and has been raised and vindicated in the power of an indestructible life as our representative priest. By faith in Him, we are as righteous before the throne of God as He is righteous. For we are justified in His righteousness, His justification alone is ours! And we can no more lose this justification than He can fall from heaven. Thus our justification does not need to be completed any more than does Christ’s!
This is where I must protest against Ferguson. St. Bellarmine did not reject “free, unfettered grace”, but had actually stood for it. What is dangerous is the man-made teaching of assurance; there are far more CDs, articles and podcasts which are dedicated to how converts to Catholicism had seen the “fruit” of assurance, leading people into apathy and sin. I agree with Ferguson that Christ is our High Priest. I will point out, however that Ferguson adds to the text quoted after, where Ferguson says “Christ is our High Priest; our hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience just as our bodies have been washed with pure water (v.22). While these words seem small, the actual text says “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” The difference between the two is that in Ferguson’s version, the heart is sprinkled clean just like (as in, analogous to) our bodies being washed with pure water. Whereas the biblical text is that both are actually occurring; the pure water is related to the washing of the heart, because it is baptism. Perhaps this is a tangent, but this is a point I wished to make.
I agree with all of what Ferguson says in the last paragraph above, except where Ferguson jumps from our faith making us righteous before God to this justification not being able to be lost and not needing to be completed. This is clearly false according to the Scripture. With justification not being able to be lost, this is proven false in the book of… Hebrews! Yes, the book which Ferguson loves is a Catholic book (as is the Scriptures). In Hebrews, we see in chapter 10, verses 26-31 this:
“For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The above verses show clearly (and I note that these are the verses written just after what Ferguson quotes) that the author of Hebrews is warning those Hebrew Christians not to sin, because if they do they shall deserve a far worse punishment than the one earned by those who break the Mosaic Law. And these who do sin are not pagans or nonbelievers, but are thsoe who have “spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”. Ferguson quotes the previous verse in Hebrews which says that we have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore confident to enter into the sanctuary. As you can see, Ferguson does not show this verse because he fully knows that it destroys the false notion that there is an assurance that a Christian can have about his salvation that excludes any chance of apostasy or unrepented sin. Again, from the Bible (and from the same book Ferguson quotes from), we see that assurance is a false teaching.
As noted in the previous argument that I made with the first quotation, St. James makes it clear that our faith is completed by works. This is what we are judged on at the Second Coming (Matthew 25:31-46). Because this is essential, our final justification does not occur until either we are dead (or until the Second Coming occurs if we are still alive to see it), because our works must be judged. As a result, justification must be completed by works; to say otherwise is to reject biblical teaching.
“With this in view, the author says, “by one offering He has perfected for all time those who come to God by him” (Heb. 10:14). The reason we can stand before God in full assurance is because we now experience our “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and … bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
“Ah,” retorted Cardinal Bellarmine’s Rome, “teach this and those who believe it will live in license and antinomianism.” But listen instead to the logic of Hebrews. Enjoying this assurance leads to four things: First, an unwavering faithfulness to our confession of faith in Jesus Christ alone as our hope (v.23); second, a careful consideration of how we can encourage each other to “love and good works” (v.24); third, an ongoing communion with other Christians in worship and every aspect of our fellowship (v.25a); fourth, a life in which we exhort one another to keep looking to Christ and to be faithful to him, as the time of his return draws ever nearer (25b).”
Ferguson first does not realize that we do not stand before God with assurance, but with hope. This is shown in what Ferguson then quotes verses 23-25, which says this:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
As you can see, we can hold to the confession of our hope without wavering not because we have been cleansed entirely for sin and are unable to have sin attributed to us again, but because of who God is. God is the one who promises, and God is faithful. Therefore, we can trust in the power of God to save us from our sins, including the ones we commit here now. This is why we can hold to this confession of hope, not “assurance”. The above verses do not say that because we have this assurance, we will not waver in faithfulness, but that we should (“let us”) hold to the confession without wavering, because of who God is and because of his faithfulness.
We then are told to consider how to spur one another to good works, which Ferguson chalks up as being to assurance, though again, the phrasing is not “we can do this now because of this assurance”, but “let us do this because of our hope in God’s promise”. And then in verse 25 we see Ferguson trying to say that according to the verse, those who have assurance have an ongoing communion with Christians in worship and fellowship, even though the verse says that we are not to neglect meeting together, as some have the habit of doing. Here we see that the verse is not saying that “because you have assurance, you can meet together in worship and fellowship”, but it is saying that “you must not neglect meeting together, as some Christians have the habit of doing”. And again, the same is true about the last point that Ferguson makes; it is not a “we can do this because of assurance”, but “we must not neglect to meet together, and we must encourage one another as the Day (the Second Coming) occurs.
It is the good tree that produces good fruit, not the other way round. We are not saved by works; we are saved for works. In fact we are God’s workmanship at work (Eph. 2:9–10)! Thus, rather than lead to a life of moral and spiritual indifference, the once-for-all work of Jesus Christ and the full-assurance faith it produces, provides believers with the most powerful impetus to live for God’s glory and pleasure. Furthermore, this full assurance is rooted in the fact that God Himself has done all this for us. He has revealed His heart to us in Christ. The Father does not require the death of Christ to persuade Him to love us. Christ died because the Father loves us (John 3:16). He does not lurk behind His Son with sinister intent wishing He could do us ill — were it not for the sacrifice his Son had made! No, a thousand times no! — the Father Himself loves us in the love of the Son and the love of the Spirit.
Those who enjoy such assurance do not go to the saints or to Mary. Those who look only to Jesus need look nowhere else. In Him we enjoy full assurance of salvation. The greatest of all heresies? If heresy, let me enjoy this most blessed of “heresies”! For it is God’s own truth and grace!
Again, I first agree with Ferguson that we are saved for works; works are our purpose as a Christian; and that we are God’s workmanship. However, note that the good fruit is what determines the good tree. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, as the Lord says. Therefore, the Lord will inspect our fruit. As He did with Israel, when he saw that the tree bore no fruit, He cursed it to never bear fruit again. And the Lord says that “every tree that does not bear good fruit shall be thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Unlike what Ferguson claims, the Bible actually says that the fruit is what makes the tree. If the tree does not bear good fruit, it is not a good tree and it is cut down. Again, while I am sure that there are many Protestants who do act as Ferguson says, doing good works and living with charity while accepting this teaching, at the same time there are those who do live a life of antinomianism because of this teaching.
Finally, I agree with Ferguson that God is not hiding behind Christ, waiting to strike at us with anger, but that the love of God compelled the Lord Jesus to give His life for our sake, so that we can be set free from our sins and rise to new life with Christ. However, (though this is a tangent and a discussion to be had later), the Protestant emphasis on Penal Substitution directly contradicts what Ferguson claims. How he fits his statement with Penal Substitution is lost on me. The jab at the Communion of Saints is ironic, as this is what Ferguson says “full assurance” is capable of producing. However, because it is not capable of doing anything, those who accept it do not choose to participate actively in the Communion of Saints (such as with the Blessed Virgin or with the other saints). Ultimately, what Ferguson claims is “God’s truth and grace” is a non-biblical heresy which does not belong with Christian doctrine. What is biblical and true is the hope of salvation,where we follow St. Paul who says this:
“Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
Lest we become disqualified from the good fight of faith, from the race in which we run to win an imperishable wreath, we must not have this false assurance of salvation, but we must follow St. Paul, who had hope in the promise of the Risen God and subdued his body so that he would not lose his salvation.