July 26, 2013

Irenaeus on Assurance

by Wyatt Graham

In college I can remember questioning the sincerity of my faith. The conflict warred in my mind between being redeemed by faith in Jesus, while still sinning on a daily basis (cf. Rom 7:21-25). Thankfully, through prayer, Scripture reading and Martin Luther, I came to realize that the Christian life embraces the reality that we are simultaneously justified and yet a sinner. Reflecting back on that period of time in my life, I wish that I had read more of the second century pastor, Irenaeus. His pastoral ministry focused on helping believers gain assurance of faith. The sage wisdom of Irenaeus is only strengthened by a knowledge of the time in which he lived. Indeed, we first need to hear his story to truly hear the words of the man.

The narrative of Irenaeus’ public ministry begins with blood. In 177 AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius authorized a mass execution of Christians in city of Lugdunum (modern day Lyons, France). Although he lived there, Irenaeus happened to be traveling during the executions. On his return, he found the Christians of that city laid low, with key members decapitated or crucified. It was at this macabre time that Irenaeus became Bishop of Lugdunum, ministering to a persecuted, hurting and needy congregation. His difficulties only continued from here.

Irenaeus’ ministry was marked by constant conflict, ranging from Roman persecution encroaching from without the church to gnostic heresy spreading from within the church. In light of this, one would guess that his writing would focus on political solutions to the problems of persecution and polemical works against heretics. Granting that at least the latter is true about Irenaeus (cf. “Against Heresies”), we might be surprised to find out that he was a profound biblical theologian, who above all else desired to communicate the truth of the Gospel to redeem souls and strengthen the faithful.

This desire to strengthen believer’s faith finds expression in his pastoral work “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.” In it, Irenaeus writes to strengthen the faith of his friend Marcianus, or, in his words, “to show forth in brief the preaching of the truth for the confirmation of your faith”(13). What follows is a lengthy exposition of the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, as it leads to Christ.

By reading the Scripture in this way, Irenaeus teaches us to read whole Bible as pointing to and being fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. And to Irenaeus, this was not some abstract theology. On the contrary, he believed that big theology meant a strong faith: “And faith is produced by truth; for faith rests on things that truly are. For in things that are, as they are, we believe; and believing in things that are, as they ever are, we keep firm our confidence in them.” By studying the truth, which is located in the Bible, we “keep firm our confidence in them.”

Thus, even in the midst of intense persecution and aberrant teachings, Irenaeus elevates biblical theology as the means for granting assurance of faith. This is “fruitful to your own salvation, and you shall put to shame all who inculcate falsehood, and bring with all confidence our sound and pure teaching to everyone who desires to understand it”(14). It seems that Irenaeus took to heart Jesus’s words, when he said that we are sanctified by the true word (John 17:17).

If you struggle with assurance of faith, perhaps you should take to heart the lesson of an old pastor: study on God’s word to keep firm your confidence in it.


Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham.
  • Daryl Little

    Excellent article timed perfectly for me!!