Washer, Paul. Gospel Assurance and Warnings (Recovering the Gospel). Reformation Heritage Books, 2014.
I am writing this review as someone who is outside the Reformed/Evangelical community, namely as a pastor in the confessing Lutheran tradition, but also one who is keenly aware of the need to challenge much of what passes as the Christian faith.
There are many things to like about this book. Washer takes on the current evangelical emphasis of “salvation prayer and asking Jesus into your heart” theology. In Washer’s words: “Churches reduce the gospel message to a few creedal statements, teach that conversion is a mere human decision, and pronounce assurance of salvation over anyone who prays the sinner’s prayer” (p. ix). He points out the extended problems with such an approach: 1) “hardens the hearts of unconverted,” 2) “deforms the church,” 3) “reduces evangelism and missions to little more than a humanistic endeavor driven by clever marketing strategies,” 4) “brings reproach to the name of God” (pp. ix–x).
Such an analysis of the problem facing much of the Reformed/Evangelical is sadly accurate. Even more so, those trends, especially #2 and 3, have had significant influence beyond the Reformed/Evangelical strain, extending also to Lutheranism. So, Washer’s book is a wake up call for any Christian, and especially preachers who have been led astray by such short-sighted, and worse, wrongheaded approaches. As Washer writes: “Thus, men have traded their mantles for methodologies, prophecy for pragmaticism, and the power of the Holy Spirit for cleverly devised marketing strategies” (p. 4).
As per the title, the book is arranged in two parts: Biblical Assurance (chapters 1-14) and Gospel Warnings (chapters 15-19). The first part presents the positive side of salvation, the second the negative side, namely false assurances of salvation.
There are some excellent chapters in the first part of the book, particularly chapter 10 “Confessing Christ.” He states: “We will begin with a declaration that might be considered somewhat radical or even avant-garde to many in the evangelical community—Christianity is about the person and work of Jesus Christ” (p. 100, emphasis in original). In chapter 14 “Believing in Jesus” Washer clearly identifies critical problems with what is “faith” in contemporary evangelical circles.
The Not-so Good
For all of Paul Washer’s spot-on identification of problems in the Reformed/Evangelical movement, there is a serious flaw in the entire book. His solution is not any more helpful than the problems he identifies. The problems are based on a poorly stated law, and yet he offers only another version of the Law, namely Law-based performance in one form or another. The problem is even in the title of the book, Gospel Assurance and Warnings. If the Gospel is what God has done for sinful humans through the work of Jesus Christ, then it is free of any kind of condemnation (warnings). Yet, repeatedly he offers the “gospel warnings” as the solution. In reality, that is only Law compounded upon problem he is trying to fix, namely poorly presented Law.
Even in the first part, “Biblical Assurance,” Washer presents 14 criteria for looking upon the person’s life to determine whether he/she is saved. Notice that each of them, while good to explore, lead the person to performance, based on the Law. Yet, the Gospel invites the person to see how Jesus Christ has met all those requirements for us sinful humans.
Washer’s statements lead to a contradictory approach: “Understand that this is not a call for ministers or lay people to become judges of others, but to put away the belief in and proclamation of a superficial and powerless gospel…” (p. 17). And yet throughout his book, Washer is indeed judging others. Of course, if the entire book is really based on the Law, then judging is the expected result.
This confusion of Law and Gospel is highlighted in one section of “The Small Gate” (chapter 16). In one sentence he clearly gives the gospel foundation, yet contradicts that very clear word at the end of the same sentence. “Our assurance of salvation should not be founded upon a comparison of our sanctification with that of other believers, but upon our relying on the merits of Christ alone and our recognition of God’s providential sanctifying work in our lives (p. 184, emphasis added). So, is it Christ’s work alone? Or is it our contribution in sanctification that is the foundation of our assurance?
And then, he offers this muddled advice to preachers: “After the evangelist preaches the gospel, he must make a passionate call for all to come to Christ. However, he must give this call in accordance with the Scriptures. He must not compromise or tone down the demands that Christ places upon those who would enter the kingdom…” (p. 185). On the next page he continues, “When the demands of the gospel become part of the gospel presentation, then the gospel will once again be a scandal…” (p. 186). Note that if there is a “demand” in the gospel, then it is no longer gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). The scandal of the gospel is that God became flesh and took upon himself the sins of the whole world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), not that there is additional demands on the person.
The further I read in Part 2, the more discouraging was Washer’s presentation. The law was not only prominent, it was oppressive by the end. Note how he applies the “bad tree-bad fruit” analogy. “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and an unregenerate heart cannot fulfill the righteous requirements of the law” (p. 224). That is a half truth; he should continue with this: “And neither can a regenerate heart fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.”
The worst part is that Washer does not point to the true solution to the errors of the church. That is, the gospel of Jesus Christ in the written Word, in baptism (baptism now saves…through the cleansing of the consciences, 1 Peter 3:21), in the Lord’s Supper (“body of Christ given for you” and the “blood of Christ shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” 1 Corinthians 11:23-28) in the absolution (Matthew 18:18-20). The places where Jesus has promised to be, where he remembers us (that is the Gospel, not us remembering him) are neglected. Each of these is external to the Christian (extra nos), and because they are true Gospel bring the very thing that Washer desires. And none of it is tainted with our feeble attempt at keeping the Law.
Paul Washer identifies critical problems in the contemporary Christian Church. For that we can thank him. But sadly what he offers is Law based approach that will fail in the end. I can not recommend this book to the people in my church, because of the confusion regarding Law and Gospel. What offers the Christian assurance is that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law entirely for every person, and he suffered death as payment for the sins of every person—that is the assurance of the Gospel. Nothing more, nothing less.
Thanks to Cross Focused Reviews (A Service of Cross Focused Media, LLC) for a copy of the book for an unbiased review.