The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us.
The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since.
Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.
One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.
In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works.