One of the beauties of the Heidelberg Catechism is that much of its language is found in the first person — “I” believe this to be true or that applies to “me.” Unlike many of the other Reformed Catechisms and Confessions, this makes Heidelberg stand out as a very personal and intimate profession of belief with rich pastoral overtones (a testimony to the pastor’s heart of Ursinus and Olevianus, its principle drafters).
Question 21 illustrates the importance of this approach in first person as it asks about the nature of true faith. And here, one of the statements is that the person with true faith believes not only that forgiveness, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are possible and worked by Christ for others, but the person who confesses this answer of the Catechism professes that these things are worked for him or her personally. More simply, it affirms that with faith comes the assurance of salvation. And, pastorally speaking, assurance is one of those questions that people struggle with the most.
What is interesting is the question of how and where people seek to find their assurance. In pentecostal circles, assurance is rooted in experience and feelings, hence worship services are built around seeking to generate that experiential faith in the person. The problem with this, of course, is two-fold. First, experiences can be created and manipulated — lighting, hands in the air for prolonged periods, and music are all designed to artificially create in a person a sense of euphoria which is then equated with the work of the Holy Spirit. The second part of the problem is that when a person bases assurance on their experience of God’s presence (no matter how genuine that experience might be), that sets them up on a kind of spiritual roller-coaster because for every height of experience there will be lows as well. This leaves a person with no ongoing assurance of salvation.
In Arminian circles outside of pentecostalism (Methodists, Freewill Baptists, etc…), assurance tends to be rooted in the decision the person has made to be a follower of Jesus. Not only does this make salvation God’s response to man’s action (something not testified to in the Bible), but once again it establishes a theological context where people can lose their salvation. Indeed, what if one, due to a series of events, “chooses” wrongly and loses assurance. Hence, in churches such as these, much more emphasis is placed on the “Altar Call” and on constantly renewing their commitment to Christ. As one person who grew up in the Free Methodist movement recently shared with me, “I felt like I had to be re-converted every service.”
In Reformed circles, assurance is not seated within man, but it is found within God where it belongs. Assurance is based on God’s promises to those who come to him in faith. And, since God is unchanging and eternal, those promises are such that they can be relied upon. Truly, that does not neglect the place of experience — Paul writes that the Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God — but our assurance is not based on that experience; it is based on the humble reliance upon God to fulfill his promises to us (personally and individually) as he has done so in others. Such is the nature of God’s assurance and such is the importance of this statement about faith. Faith is the assured knowledge that the things promised to believers in Christ belong to me personally just as they have been given to others — all through faith and because of the completed work of Christ. Thus, in Christ, all of the promises of the Old Testament are yes and amen.