Assurance: When and How Are We Sealed By the Spirit?

When and how the believer is sealed with the Spirit is the question.

Many of the Puritans and certain of their contemporary disciples, agreeing that sealing is the assuring of the sealed of their salvation, contend that the sealing is a work of the Spirit that follows faith in Christ in time, often after many years. Therefore, it is common, if not the norm, they insist, that believers lack assurance of salvation.

With reference to sealing, or witnessing, as the Spirit’s work of assuring the believer of his salvation, Thomas Brooks wrote:

Though the Spirit be a witnessing [that is, sealing— DJE] Spirit, yet he doth not always witness [that is, seal—DJE] to believers their adoption, their interest in Christ, etc. There is a mighty difference between the working of the Spirit, and the witness of the Spirit. There are oftentimes many glorious and efficacious works of the Spirit, as faith, love, repentance, holiness, etc., where there is not the witness of the Spirit (Isaiah 1:10)…Though the Spirit of the Lord be a witnessing and a sealing Spirit, yet he doth not always witness and seal up the love and favor of the Father to believers’ souls…[14]

Thomas Goodwin, whom J. I. Packer praises highly as the best of the Puritan exegetes of Paul and whose doctrine of assurance, according to Packer, “represent[s] the main current of Puritan thinking,”[15] is clear and emphatic that the sealing with the Spirit taught in Ephesians 1:13, 14 is a work of the Spirit distinct from faith and a work following the gift of faith in time. The necessary implication of Goodwin’s doctrine of sealing is that it is reserved only for a very few believers. “The work of faith is a distinct thing, a different thing, from the work of assurance.” Basic to Goodwin’s insistence on this difference between faith and assurance, or the sealing with the Spirit, is Goodwin’s denial that faith in Jesus Christ is assurance of salvation. Faith in Christ is merely a confidence that the promises of the gospel are true. It is not a confidence that the promises of the gospel are true for oneself. Faith in Jesus Christ, faith in Jesus Christ from the heart, leaves the believer doubting whether he himself is the beloved object of the promises of the gospel. “It must be granted, that in all faith there is an assurance; but of what? Of the truth of the promise…But the question here [that is, concerning being sealed with the Spirit—DJE] is about the assurance of a man’s interest; that is not always in faith.”[16]

The sealing with the Spirit follows the Spirit’s work of giving faith to the elect child of God in time. Goodwin suggests that this is usually a long time, for the believer must wait and work for the sealing that gives assurance:

You that believe are to wait for this promise [of being sealed]…Serve your God day and night faithfully, walk humbly; there is a promise of the Holy Ghost to come and fill your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to the day of redemption. Sue this promise out, wait for it, rest not in believing only, rest not in assurance by graces only; there is a further assurance to be had.[17]

The line, “Rest not in believing only,” incredible in one who claimed to be furthering the Reformation, is fatal to the Puritan doctrine of assurance, and damning.

Although Goodwin does not expressly say so, he puts assurance—personal assurance that one—(a believer in Jesus Christ!) – is saved – forever out of the reach of most believing children of God. For the sealing with the Spirit, that gives assurance, is an immediate, extraordinary, mystical experience:

There is an immediate assurance of the Holy Ghost [the sealing with the Spirit], by a heavenly and divine light, of a divine authority, which the Holy Ghost sheddeth in a man’s heart, (not having relation to grace wrought, or anything in a man’s self,) whereby he sealeth him up to the day redemption…One way [of assurance] is discoursive; a man gathereth that God loveth him from the effects…But the other [the sealing with the Spirit] is intuitive, as the angels are said to know things…There is light that cometh and overpowereth a man’s soul, and assureth him that God is his, and he is God’s, and that God loveth him from everlasting.[18]

This is the unbiblical, “sickly” mysticism of the Puritan doctrine of assurance. This mysticism is fundamental to the Puritan doctrine. The dependency for assurance upon strange experiences by the people in churches committed to the Puritan doctrine of assurance is not an unfortunate aberration. It is the inevitable, necessary effect and fruit of the Puritan doctrine. The result is two-fold. First, assurance, or the sealing with the Spirit, is forever beyond the reach of most
of the people. They never experience the “light that cometh and overpowereth a man’s soul.” They live and die in the dreadful misery of doubt—doubt that God loves them, doubt that Christ died for them, doubt that their sins are forgiven, doubt that they will go to heaven. The Puritan divines, past and present, will answer to God for the souls of these people.

The second result is that those elite few who suppose they have received the light that overpowers a man’s soul and therefore are certain that they are saved lean on a broken reed. Their state is worse than that of those who, true to the Puritan doctrine, honestly doubt. For they deliberately “rest not in believing only.” God does not assure His children of His love by immediate, mystical experiences. He assures His children by “believing only.”

With an honesty that shames those who like to leave the impression that the Puritan doctrine of assurance is faithful to Calvin, Goodwin frankly admits that his, and the Puritan’s, doctrine of assurance differs radically from that of Calvin. “Calvin,” says Goodwin correctly, taught that the sealing with the Spirit is “the work of faith itself…In believing, in the work of faith, the Holy Ghost did seal up the truth of the promise unto their hearts.” That is, Calvin taught that when a man believes the gospel the Spirit seals him in such a way that “there is an assurance of a man’s interest in those promises [of the gospel].” Goodwin rejects this doctrine of assurance. Calvin’s teaching is “what it [the doctrine of assurance] is not.”[19]

The influential English preacher D. M. Lloyd-Jones promotes the Puritan doctrine of sealing and thus the Puritan doctrine of assurance. Lloyd-Jones rightly understands the sealing with the Spirit in Ephesians 1:13, 14 as a work of the Spirit that “authenticates to us the fact that we are the sons of God, truly His people, and heirs, joint-heirs with Christ, of a glorious inheritance,” that is, the work of the Spirit assuring the believer of his salvation.[20] But he makes a “sharp distinction between believing (the act of faith) and the sealing of the Spirit…Sealing with the Spirit does not always happen immediately when a man believes…There may be a great interval…it is possible for a person to be a believer and…still not know the sealing of the Spirit.”[21] “`Sealing with the Spirit’ is something subsequent to believing, something additional to believing.”[22]

This something “is an experience; it is something experimental,” indeed, “the highest, the greatest experience which a Christian can have in this world…an overwhelming experience.”[23] According to Lloyd-Jones, this “experience” is the most desirable feeling that a Christian can have, short of
heaven. The truth of sealing in Ephesians 1:13, 14, in Lloyd- Jones’ judgment, is “one of the most vital statements for us as Christian people at the present time.” The failure to understand sealing (as Lloyd-Jones explains it) has been the “chief trouble [with the Christian Church] for a number of years.”[24]

Since the experience is the Spirit’s assurance of the believer that he is saved, it is extremely precious. But Lloyd- Jones does not tell us what this experience consists of. He admits that he cannot. The best he can do is describe the experience in the words of Goodwin, Wesley, Flavel, Edwards, Moody, Evans, and Whitefield: overpowering light; overwhelming experience; ravishing tastes of heavenly joys; “ecstasy”; an extraordinary view of the glory of Christ; a flood of tears and weeping aloud; such an experience of God’s love as caused Moody to ask God “to stay His hand”[25]; relief of mind; rejoicing in God.[26]

Because the all-important sealing follows faith in time, Lloyd-Jones too sets all believers seeking for sealing, that is, assurance of salvation consisting of an indescribable experience: “Are we to seek this sealing? My answer, without any hesitation, is that we should most certainly do so.”[27]

The people must seek the sealing by working, and working hard: “Prepare the way…mortify…cleanse yourselves]…put into practice the virtues…labor at it…pray for this blessing…be desperate for it.”[28]

Alas, however, “many Christian people have only known this just before their death.”[29] Thus, like a good Puritan (but a very bad pastor and theologian), Lloyd-Jones shuts up many Christians to an entire lifetime of doubt whether they are saved. And since the sealing is an undefined and indescribable “experience,” Lloyd-Jones sends all believers out on an uncertain, perilous quest—the quest for the will-o’- the-wisp of a feeling that they are loved by God.[30]

The translation of Ephesians 1:13 in the Authorized Version might lend credence to the erroneous and injurious doctrine that the sealing of the Spirit, and, therefore, assurance of salvation, follows the gift of faith in time, often after many years of working for assurance.The Authorized Version unfortunately inserts into the text the word “after”: “in whom after that ye believed, ye were sealed.” In the original Greek is neither the word nor the notion, “after.” Literally, the text reads this way: ‘in whom [Christ] ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation—in whom [Christ] also having believed, ye were sealed,’ etc.

The thought of the text is this: In the past (and for the Ephesian believers the not too distant past [31]) the elect saints at Ephesus heard the word of the truth, believed in Christ, and were sealed. These three things happened in this order, but all at the same time. The doctrine of the text is that when one believes in Christ, having heard the gospel, he is sealed with the Holy Spirit at this time and under these circumstances. Sealing, that is, the assurance of salvation, accompanies believing in Christ, as an integral element of the believing. Sealing follows believing in the order of the text as the effect of believing, just as believing is the effect of the hearing of the gospel, but as the effect that is simultaneous with the believing.[32]

What the apostle adds in Ephesians 1:14 about the “earnest” is related. An “earnest” is both the foretaste of something and the guarantee of the future, complete possession of that thing. An example of an earnest from earthly life might be the down-payment one receives on a certain property. The down-payment is both the first part of the full payment and the guarantee that the full payment will be made. A better example, doing justice both to the notion of foretaste and to the spiritual reality, might be the kiss of a woman who engages to become a man’s wife. The kiss is both the foretaste of the coming delights of marriage and the woman’s guarantee that she will marry the man.

In Ephesians 1:14, the earnest is foretaste and pledge of the inheritance of all those who believe in Christ. It is perfect salvation, body and soul, in the new world. As foretaste and pledge, the earnest is assurance of salvation. The earnest is the Spirit Himself. And we have the Spirit as earnest in our consciousness, that is, we have assurance (such is the relation of v. 14 to v. 13), when we believe in Christ, not years or even months later. We have the Spirit as earnest by believing in Christ, not some other way, for example, by working, striving, laboring, weeping, and what not more spiritual acts.

14 Brooks, 520. The emphasis is Brooks’.

15 Packer, 179, 180.

16 Thomas Goodwin, “An Exposition of the First Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians,” inWorks of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1861), 235; the emphasis is Goodwin’s.

17 Ibid., 248. In his book, The Object and Acts of Justifying Faith, Goodwin acknowledges that many who finally obtain assurance do so only after many years. To the statement “that though assurance may be vouchsafed to some of lower rank than apostles, yet it is to such as are of long standing Christianity, who after long experience have hope and assurance begotten in them,” Goodwin responds, “I grant it, that many not till then have had it” (Thomas Goodwin,The Object and Acts of Justifying Faith, Marshallton, Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, n.d., 357).

18 Goodwin, Works, 233. The Puritan Richard Sibbes’ doctrine of sealing is the same as that of Brooks and Goodwin. “Sealing is not the work of faith, but it is a work of the Spirit upon faith, assuring the soul of its estate in grace.” Sealing is an experience of “spiritual ravishings,” “the extraordinary feeling of the Spirit,” “superadded” to justification by faith and to sanctification. Many of God’s believing children lack assurance, not having been sealed with the Spirit. Therefore, Sibbes exhorts them to “labor…for this seal, to have our souls stamped with the Spirit of God” (Richard Sibbes, Works of Richard Sibbes, vol. 3, An Exposition of 2nd Corinthians Chapter One, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, repr. 1981, 442- 484).

19 Goodwin, Works, 228. With this candid, and accurate, admission by a leading Puritan of the radical difference between Calvin’s and the Puritans’ doctrines of assurance, compare Joel R. Beeke’s assessment:
“The Dutch divines [of the “nadere reformatie”]…did not misread Calvin and the Reformers [on assurance of salvation] but simply applied the teaching of the early Reformers to their own day” (Quest, 308). Hear Calvin himself: “There are two operations of the Spirit in faith, corresponding to the two parts of which faith consists, as it enlightens, and as it establishes the mind. The commencement of faith is knowledge: the completion of it is a firm and steady conviction, which admits of no opposing doubt…No wonder, then, if Paul should declare that the Ephesians, who received by faith the truth of the gospel, were confirmed in that faith by the seal of the Holy Spirit” (John Calvin, comment on Ephesians 1:13, particularly the sealing with the Spirit, in hisCommentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, 208).

20 D. M. Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Expostion of Ephesians 1:1 to 23 (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1979), 266.

21 Ibid., 249.

22 Ibid., 250.

23 Ibid., 267, 270, 275.

24 Ibid., 255.

25 It is ominous for Lloyd-Jones’ sealing that God gives it to Pelagians such as D. L. Moody. If the Spirit of truth had anything at all to give to a Pelagian like D. L. Moody by direct revelation, it would have been this warning, “Moody, repent of your sin of teaching the false gospel of salvation by the will of man, which false gospel makes assurance of salvation utterly impossible.”

26 Ibid., 274-278, 286.

27 Ibid., 294

28 Ibid., 294-300.

29 Ibid., 299.

30 The pathetic spiritual and emotional “desperation” of disciples of Lloyd- Jones and the Puritans to get the “overwhelming experience” that will signify their assurance of salvation, which they “desperately” lack, especially on their death-bed, is the direct result of Lloyd-Jones’ teaching: “Be desperate for it.” Lloyd-Jones will answer for this “desperation.” Desperation is a “loss of hope and surrender to despair” or “a state of hopelessness leading to rashness.”

31 I mention this in order to call attention to the fact that within a few years of the conversion of the Ephesians the apostle could say to them that all who believed the gospel had been sealed with the Holy Spirit. Altogether apart from the fact that the sealing was contemporaneous with the hearing and believing, the apostle, writing a very short time after the Ephesians’ hearing and believing the gospel, was confident, indeed affirmed, that all the believers had been sealed, that is, received the assurance of their salvation. He did not labor under the misapprehension that for many of the Ephesian believers many years must pass before they obtained sealing. Had a Puritan written the Ephesian church he would have said, “In whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom, having believed, you should now strive and work for many years to be sealed with the Holy Spirit, and here are the fifteen steps of striving by which perhaps you may obtain the sealing before you die. But then again you may not.

32 “The relation between [‘having believed,’ in Eph. 1:13] and [‘ye were sealed’] is not to be conceived as following in temporal order. There may be a logical order here; but as far as time is concerned, the [‘having believed’] and the [‘ye were sealed’] must undoubtedly be conceived as contemporaneous. ..As soon as they believed in Christ, it stands to reason that they also have the Holy Spirit; and as soon as they have the Holy Spirit, they are sealed” (Herman Hoeksema, unpublished exegesis of Ephesians 1 and 2, privately bound by the Protestant Reformed Seminary, Grandville, Michigan as “Chapel Talks on Ephesians 1 and 2,” 28). Also Herman Bavinck taught that the sealing work of the Spirit mentioned in Ephesians 1:13 occurs at the “moment” of believing: “When those who are preordained by God are called in time…then at that very moment they obtain faith and by that faith they receive justification and the adoption as children (Rom. 3:22, 24; 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 3:26; 4:5; etc.), with the assurance of sonship by the witness of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:6; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30)” (Bavinck,Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 50; emphasis added).