Nate Pickowicz

Finding Assurance

In the face of stubbornness, the sinner must resolve to be comforted by the Lord. There is an awful pride that feigns distress that one’s sins are too great and too numerous to confess. Hooker attacks this bogus belief: “You think you speak against yourself now: no, no, you speak against the Lord. And know, this is one of the greatest sins thou committest, to say thy sins cannot be forgiven.”13 What is at the heart of the matter? How can a poor, doubting Christian come to Christ? By believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ.

In his magisterial history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather notes that, after finishing his time with Mrs. Drake, Thomas Hooker “in a little time . . . grew famous for his ministerial abilities, but especially for his notable faculty at the wise and fit management of wounded spirits.”1 The Puritan divine who would grow in stature both in England and America started out as a young college graduate called to a seemingly hopeless situation. As would soon become evident, his love for others and his skill in handling the Scriptures aided him in ministering to a woman teetering on the verge of heaven and hell.

The Troubled Mrs. Drake
About fifteen miles from London, the small parish of St. George’s in Esher, Surrey, called young Thomas Hooker (1586–1647) to serve as rector. Due to the congregation’s size, the wealthy Francis Drake, relative of the renowned English explorer Sir Francis Drake, served as Hooker’s patron and invited him to live in his home. However, Hooker’s presence would also serve another end.
Francis Drake’s wife, Joanna, struggled with severe spiritual and emotional affliction. Deemed to be “an invalid and hypochondriac,”2 she was known to have suicidal tendencies. On one occasion, Mrs. Drake woke up, screaming that “shee was undone, undone, undone, shee was damned, and a cast away, and so of necessity must need goe to Hell!”3 Gripped with constant terror, she feared that she had committed the unpardonable sin and was thereby consigned to eternal punishment. Two capable ministers were called upon for help, Rev. John Dod (1549–1645) and Dr. James Usher (1581–1656), but both would eventually step aside, frustrated in their efforts. However, Dod had heard of a young Cambridge lecturer named Thomas Hooker and recommended him for the task.
“New Answering Methode”
Upon moving into the Drakes’ home in 1618, Hooker began to minister immediately to the aged woman. Where the previous ministers failed, Hooker seemed to have great success. “For Mr. Hooker being newly come from the University had a new answering method . . . wherewith shee was marvellously delighted.”4 What exactly was his “new” method? One biographer attributes his success to his Cambridge training in “the new Ramist logic and rhetoric.”5 The scholastic hypothesis is that since he was trained in the art of logic, he would better be able to give Mrs. Drake well-reasoned answers to her objections to divine truth. However, this underestimates the inherent power of the Word of God applied to the heart of the believer.

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The Importance of Christian Biography

The blessings that come from reading Christian biography cannot be fully enumerated or overstated. There is a measure of comfort, joy, and inspiration that comes from beholding the hand of God in the lives of His flawed yet faithful servants. So inspiring are the lives of believers in history, in fact, that even the world often takes note and admires the remarkable fortitude and towering influence of Christian heroes. And while there is tremendous benefit from reading the many secular biographies available, I want to argue for the specific value and practice of Christians writing Christian biographies.
The Theological Reason
While it does not take any specific spiritual insight to retell historical events, it certainly takes a Spirit-filled person to understand and appreciate God’s providential hand throughout human history. Theologically, we understand that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 1:13–14.) and perceptive to the things of God. In fact, the Apostle Paul notes that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12). Further, he notes that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v. 14). Unbelievers cannot and do not accept the things of God.
We see this when we read biography and history written by secular scholars. While their research may be impeccable, their historical retelling brilliant, and their writing sublime, they lack the spiritual insight to understand the doctrinal convictions of their subjects, often treating them as anachronisms. I recently read a historian liken John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims, not to a shepherd but to a cult leader. However, the biographer was doing nothing more than trying to explain to a secular audience Robinson’s understanding of pastoral ministry.
This is common in the unbelieving world. To the Spirit-less mind, Jesus was merely an altruistic Jewish rabbi, the Bible is a collection of revered writings, the Holy Spirit is a mythical force, evangelism is religious zealotism, sovereign election is loveless and strange, complementarianism is arcane, the gospel is foolishness, and so on. However, Paul is clear that believers “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and therefore understand the basic Christian truths and beliefs that are common to all saints in history.
The Practical Reason
It seems axiomatic that biographers stand a better chance of understanding their subjects if they share common experiences. Who better to understand Christians than other Christians? While the events of a person’s life are unique, there are common realities shared by all Christian believers—common experiences to every Christian like regeneration, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the empowering by that same Spirit (Eph. 4:4–6).

Practical Applications of the Doctrine of Justification

Having a biblical view of justification should also produce overwhelming thanksgiving. Knowing that justification by faith is apart from works, that justification is a gift of God, and that we are pardoned, declared righteous, and adopted into the family of God should generate within us a heart of eternal thankfulness. This thankfulness then translates into a life of consistent worship of the God, who, in His infinite wisdom, devised a way that depraved sinners might be accepted in the Beloved.

The Reformer John Calvin (1509–64) ardently declared the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be “the principle hinge by which [the Christian] religion is supported” (Institutes 3.11.1). Known as the material principle of the sixteenth-century Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was at the epicenter of the battle to bring needed reform to the church. This biblical doctrine is central to preserving an accurate understanding of the gospel even as we find it so clearly taught in Paul’s letters to the churches of Rome and Galatia.

As we approach the Bible’s teaching on justification, it is vital that we comprehend the finer points of the doctrine. To put it bluntly, if we get justification wrong, we get the gospel wrong. Thankfully, we have a rich and faithful heritage of believers who have courageously upheld Scripture’s teaching on justification by faith alone. The Westminster Shorter Catechism presents a clear and succinct definition of justification:
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of God imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33).
In other words, justification is a legal act by God, based on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, by means of our faith (granted as a gift from God).
However, the practical nature of the doctrine of justification is often overlooked and dismissed. Sometimes doctrine can become so heavy with terms and concepts that we miss just how applicable doctrine really is. While there may be more that can be applied from an informed understanding, there are no less than four practical applications of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The first practical application of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is assurance. Frankly, there will be days when we simply won’t feel justified, when we won’t feel like a Christian. We will have off days, down days, shaky days, sinful days, days on which the question haunts our minds, “Am I even a Christian?” The doctrine of justification by faith alone proclaims loudly, through the fog of doubt, that we have been born again and are “in Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Christ has completed His redemptive work, satisfied the justice of God the Father, and sealed us with His Holy Spirit. Justification assures us that there is never a need for re-justification. Rather, God justifies us by His grace. Before the courtroom of heaven, God has declared us, depraved sinners, to be “justified and righteous.” Paul declares, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The doctrine of justification gives us the assurance to know that “[He is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).

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