Guthrie’s book is a Christian classic which is available from Banner of Truth, Amazon, and can be read online at the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland’s website (although not on a Sunday.) God-willing, I hope to review the whole book in a way that gives a summary and an overview of each chapter.
Guthrie’s book is part of my preparatory reading as a ministry candidate for the Free Church. I was encouraged that Guthrie’s book was one of the options because it is a real spiritual classic.
Guthrie’s book is essential and a much-needed corrective to today’s evangelical easy-believism. The one down side is the fact that its archaic language will mean that it will be largely inaccessible to many modern readers. A modern revision would be of great service to the church, if such a revision could maintain the theological depth and riches of the original whilst making the truths more accessible to contemporary readers.
The book begins with a note from the author “to the reader”. Here the author gives a brief rationale for his book. He opens with the observation that the people of his time are pursuing many “low and base” interests, and neglecting the “chief of interests” (or “the Christian’s great interest”). This chief interest is the most important thing. What is it? The note doesn’t define it, but the remainder of the book as an attempt to unpack the meaning. However, it would seem to be the case that “the Christian’s great interest” is the author’s way of speaking about genuine, saving faith in Christ, and the evidences that a person has attained this saving faith and the assurance that comes with it. In other words, this is a book about the marks of genuine Christian conversion. It wrestles with key questions such as, how can a person know that they are saved? How can we be sure that our profession of faith is not misplaced?
Guthrie introduces us to the two major questions that he will tackle in the first chapter. The questions are:
How a person shall know if he hath a true and special interest in Christ, and whether he doth lay just claim to God’s favour and salvation?
The other is,
In case a person fall short of assurance in this trial, what course he shall take for making sure God’s friendship and salvation to himself?
In other words, the first question is concerning the marks of a genuine conversion. How can a person know that they are a true believer? The second question relates to what a person should do if they do not meet the criteria set out in the first question. What should a person do if they lack basic marks or evidences of Christian conversion? Guthrie frames the question concerning the first chapter in the following way.
Quest. I. HOW SHALL A MAN KNOW IF HE HATH A TRUE AND SPECIAL INTEREST IN CHRIST, AND WHETHER HE HATH, OR MAY LAY CLAIM JUSTLY TO GOD’S FAVOUR AND SALVATION?
Chapter One: Five preliminary matters
Guthrie explores what he refers to as ‘Five Preliminary matters’, these are as follows:
1. A man’s interest in Christ may be known.
2. It is a matter of the highest importance.
3. It is to be determined by Scripture.
4. Reasons why so few come to the clear knowledge of their interest in Christ.
5. Some mistakes concerning an interest in Christ removed.
1. A man’s interest in Christ may be known.
Guthrie takes great pains to make clear that assurance of salvation is possible. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that this is one of the essential doctrines that separated the reformation churches from Roman Catholicism. The RC churches considered it a grave sin of grave presumption for a person to claim that they know for certain that they are saved and found to be in such a state of grace.
Regarding this, Guthrie writes:
A man’s interest in Christ, or his gracious state, may be known, and that with more certainty than people conjecture; yea, and the knowledge of it may be more easily attained than many do imagine: for not only hath the Lord commanded men to know their interest in him, as a thing attainable…but many of the saints have attained unto the clear persuasion of their interest in Christ, and in God as their own God.
In other words, Guthrie argues that assurance of salvation can be known, and it can be known with a greater depth of reality than people realise, and it easier to attain than people realise. Further, he argues that assurance is a commandment of God and argues that many believers have experienced this assurance.
Guthrie continues to develop scriptural references to assurance, and then argues that assurance is essentially a matter of taking God at his word. Put simply, if we accept God’s testimony in his word regarding being saved by grace through faith, we will enjoy an assurance of salvation.
2. It is a matter of the highest importance
Guthrie argues that the pursuit of assurance of salvation is the most important thing in the world. He observes that very few show any interest in it and he also notes that there are many who falsely presume to be saved when in fact they deceive themselves. In other words, there are two pit falls, one is to neglect the pursuit of assurance, and the other is to neglect rue assurance by settling for a false assurance.
3. It is to be determined by Scripture
Here, again, Guthrie makes the clear case for the fact that assurance of salvation is a consistent testimony of scripture. He argues that we need to allow scripture to settle the matter. If scripture sets forth the means of salvation, and if we qualify on the basis of scriptural requirements, it is sinful for us to contradict scripture.
4. Reasons why so few come to the clear knowledge of their interest in Christ
Guthrie again returns to the point that very few people attain a true assurance of salvation, he then goes on to spend some time unpacking the reasons why very few attain assurance.
Firstly Guthrie informs us that that people have a tendency to overlook the fact that “it was free love in God’s bosom, and nothing in man, that moved him to send a Saviour to perfect the work of redemption.” Instead, confidence in the work of redemption is misplaced – people, Guthrie argues, are “seeking some ground for that work in themselves.” In other words, looking to self rather than Christ is one of the foundational hindrances to assurance.
Secondly, Guthrie argues that ignorance of the way in which a person comes to a place of assurance is also a hindrance to assurance. Guthrie reminds us that the usual way to receive assurance is to be convicted of sin, to see that Christ’s righteousness is needed to make us acceptable to God, and that true faith is evidenced by a work of God changing our hearts and desires – there should be new desires for God, His word, his law, and worship with his people.
Thirdly, Guthrie reminds us that God alone is the hope of his people. He reminds us that this should not lead to licentiousness – but he also comforts believers who may be struggling with sin. Regarding these, he writes, “If they intend honestly, and long seriously to be like unto him, many failings should not weaken their hope and confidence.” However, Guthrie’s key point is that God alone must be the ground of our hope, “Now, when men place their hope in any other thing besides the Lord, it is no wonder they are kept in a staggering condition.”
Fourthly, Guthrie, argues that many “are ignorant of the different ways and degrees of God’s working with his people.” This is a great section. Guthrie reminds us that God works differently in different people. There is no one way in which a person is brought to Christ. Further, whilst all genuine conversions involve conviction of sin, progressive sanctification, and an assurance of God’s love in our inner being – Guthrie helpfully reminds us that the degrees to which these are experienced vary from person to person. Consequently, we shouldn’t expect God to deal with us in the same way that he has dealt with others.
Guthrie then lists and explains many other factors which can be a hindrance to assurance. Guthrie mentions
• sloth and carelessness (not making the effort to press in to God for assurance)
• An unrealistic view of assurance (some think that it includes victory over all and every sin i.e. perfection)
• An assumption that assurance means constant intense closeness to Christ and living in an uninterrupted state of prayer and 100% answered prayers
• A never ending ‘witness of the Spirit’ – i.e., a tangible and constant sense of God’s presence ministering to our spirit by the Holy Spirit.
5. Some mistakes concerning an interest in Christ removed
Here Guthrie, attempts to remove the obstacles – he goes over some ground he has already touched on, and explores additional issues.
• Not everyone who is saved, is assured that they are saved. It is possible to be in a state of grace, but to lack assurance of it.
• Not everyone who is in a state of grace has the same level of certainty. Some are more assured than others.
• We may receive a strong assurance of salvation from the Lord, but it is a mistake to assume that we will continue in that condition. In other words, assurance is not a fixed, and static state. We can be assured today, and feel abandoned tomorrow. The psalms are full of these situations.
• It is a mistake to assume that being assured of salvation means that you will be able to answer every objection against God and salvation. At the end of the day, like Job, all you may be able to say is, “I know that my redeemer lives” and that is enough.
• We must not think that just because some people have a false assurance that this does not mean we can have true assurance. True assurance is biblical.
Chapter One seems to be introductory, and the rest of the book will explore, develop and expand these issues surrounding true and false assurance.
God willing, I’ll cover the next few chapters in the days which lie ahead.