A few months ago, with a measure of frustration, I observed a social media debate between two Anglicans, one of whom is a staunch Calvinist, and one of whom is a staunch Arminian. As is typical in such debates, the main issue was whether or not one could every truly know if one is saved. Can we have assurance of our salvation? Can we lose our salvation? I found myself disappointed that the Prayer Book and other classical Formularies of our tradition were not cited in the debate. Indeed, the debate generated more heat than light, as is often the case. Perhaps the lack of citation is due to the Calvinist/Arminian distinction post-dating our Formularies. Nevertheless, the Book of Common Prayer, Articles of Religion, and two Books of Homilies do indeed address the important pastoral issue of assurance.
The Prayer Book, in particular, is a deeply pastoral resource. As the basis for our communal worship, whether in the Daily Offices, Holy Communion, or occasional offices (marriage, burial, baptism, etc), the Book of Common Prayer functions as the Church’s formal manual for interaction between God and his people. As such, its doctrine is often hidden within and behind its practical approach to sanctifying daily life. The Prayer Book brings Word and Sacrament into the ordinary. In the process, the Prayer Book teaches us both our duty before God and his promises to us. The late J. I. Packer famously observed that the Cranmerian pattern in the Book of Common Prayer is to regularly take the worshiper through a threefold cycle of confession, grace, and faith. This cycle will indeed convict us of sin by reminding us how we neglect our duty before God and neighbor, but it also provides robust assurance of God’s favor and forgiveness.
For most contemporary Anglicans, Holy Communion is the service with which we are most familiar. It is in this context that I have found the most explicit example of the doctrine of assurance. In the second post-communion prayer from the 1662 communion rite (the only post-communion prayer in the American 1928 version), we find this remarkable statement with regards to our reception of the Sacrament:
Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us, and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of the most precious death and passion of thy dear Son.
That is, the very act of receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion is an act of assurance of salvation. This is not surprising when considering the Sacraments as “certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.” That is, a primary function of the Sacraments is to assure us of God’s promises, to be a witness to our salvation! Or, as Packer observes, “Some talk as if the gospel were about the sacraments, but the Prayer Book position is rather that the sacraments are about the gospel.” It is significant that the Cranmerian pattern is to follow the post-communion prayer with the Gloria, in contrast to the pre-Reformation pattern, and most modern liturgies. Because we have been assured of our salvation in the Sacrament, we respond with the angels’ hymn of praise.
We see similar examples of assurance earlier in the communion liturgy. In the absolution we are told that God “of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him.” This is then followed by four “comfortable words,” four quotations from Scripture that focus on assurance, including the beloved John 3:16. To this, Packer would add the hearing of the Gospel reading and the recitation of the Creed. Indeed, for Packer, the “grace and faith” aspects of the threefold cycle function as assurance.
The astute reader (especially if he is of Arminian convictions) would hasten to point out that these assurances seem conditional. The post-communion prayer addresses those who duly receive. The absolution speaks of those who come with “hearty repentance and true faith.” Doesn’t this imply that any real sense of assurance is presumption? Doesn’t this imply that we must look to our motivations, sincerity, or the state of our heart if we are to have assurance? And if so, how can we have any true sense of assurance? Won’t there be lingering doubts that we are receiving worthily, repenting thoroughly, that God has indeed forgiven and saved us? The best answer to this objection is also to be found in the Communion service, specifically in the Prayer of Humble Access which begins, “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Assurance is not presumption because it is based on trusting in God’s promises and mercy rather than our own righteousness. Rather, to look to our own obedience or good works as the basis for our assurance would indeed be the height of presumption.
This is not, of course, to neglect the Prayer Book’s call to love of God and love of our neighbor. This is not to neglect our Christian duty as described in the Scriptures and Formularies. But this does put our obedience and good works into their proper place: the result of our trust in God. They are the fruits of our faith, not the seed for it, as Article 12 tells us:
Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith; insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
One could even say that our good works serve to be another witness in this quest for assurance.
The scrupulous reader may, however, object that one cannot know if one’s good works are good enough to be good fruit of faith. After all, since we all continue to sin, how can our good works be an adequate witness to our assurance? The answer is, of course, that our good works are not the only, or even the main witness. The Word of God and the Sacraments are much more objective than our own sense of the quality of our spiritual fruit. Indeed, the sadly-neglected Exhortations in the Prayer Book speak to this very issue. The First Exhortation details our need for humility and examination of conscience if we are to properly come before God, as well as the danger of coming to God presumptuously. But the final paragraph of the First Exhortation speaks to the scrupulous or unquiet conscience:
And because it is requisite that no man should come to the holy communion, but with a full trust in God’s mercy, and with a quiet conscience, therefore if there be any of you who by this means cannot quiet his own conscience, but requireth further comfort and counsel, let him come to me, or to some other discreet and learned minister of God’s word, and open his grief, that by the ministry of God’s holy word he may receive the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice, to the quieting of his conscience and removing of all scruple and doubtfulness.
This is, in fact, the Prayer Book’s primary context for private or auricular confession: providing assurance of God’s mercy to the scrupulous person. After all, just as our good works cannot earn God’s mercy, the sins of a penitent Christian cannot block his mercy. To think our sins are too big for God’s forgiveness is another act of presumption and lack of trust.
Again we are back to Packer’s triad of confession, grace, and faith, a triad that is indeed a progression. The assurance that comes from the Prayer Book’s expressions of grace and faith builds naturally on a good confession, not as an act of our obedience, but all as trust in God, his mercy, and his promises. I have focused on the Holy Communion service, but we find much the same in the rest of our Formularies. To paraphrase the Apostle, “And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me” to tell of the Homily on Justification, the Ninth through Eighteenth Articles, the Sacrament of Baptism, Ministry to the Sick, and the Daily Offices. I would, however, urge the reader to see our corporate prayers and liturgy through the eyes of faith, and follow Dr. Packer in exploring the Gospel and its promises of Assurance in the Prayer Book.
- Packer, J. I., The Gospel in the Prayer Book (Marcham Manor Press, 1966), 4. A recent republication of this collection of essays can be found at https://www.ivpress.com/Media/Default/Content-Articles/Packer-Gospel-in-the-Prayer-Book.pdf. ↑
- The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 265. Emphasis added. Throughout this essay I will be quoting from this international edition of the Prayer Book, as the 1662 is the baseline liturgical standard for the Anglican Communion, GAFCON, and most other Anglican bodies. ↑
- Ibid., 637-638 (Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion). ↑
- Packer, 6. ↑
- The Book of Common Prayer, 258. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Packer, 7. ↑
- The Book of Common Prayer, 261. Emphasis added. ↑
- Ibid., 632. Emphasis added. ↑
- Ibid., 253. Emphasis added. ↑
- Hebrews 11:32, KJV. ↑