A Defense of Reformed Orthodoxy
against the Romanizing Doctrines of
the New
Auburn Theology (5/5)

By Rev. Brian Schwertley

Part 5 of 5

The Issue of Assurance

An analysis of the Auburn paradigm would not be complete without a discussion of assurance.[1] The reason the doctrine of assurance is important is because the new Auburn theology alleges to be the answer to desperate assurance problems in the Reformed community. These problems relating to assurance supposedly flow from a faulty view of baptism and the covenant. What are these terrible problems relating to assurance? What is their root cause? The Auburn lectures discuss three main problem areas. First, there is a discussion of the New England Puritans’ attempt to have a regenerate church membership and the disastrous consequences of such an attempt (e.g., the halfway covenant, Unitarianism, etc.). Second, certain small Reformed denominations from a Dutch background are mentioned which have a serious problem of assurance among the congregants (e.g, in a Netherlands Reformed Church, out of a congregation with 700 church members only about 30 people on average will partake of communion). Third, modern conservative Presbyterians are accused of inciting a crisis and spiritually starving their covenant children (this accusation is related to the Auburn “theologians” [except perhaps Schlissel] acceptance of the false, Romanizing doctrine of paedocommunion) because they don’t accept or believe in baptismal regeneration and thus expect a conversion experience in their children before they become communicant members.

Before we examine the unbiblical and irrational proposals of the Auburn “theologians” to the supposed crises in modern Reformed thought regarding assurance, we must point out the utter irrelevance of the examples set forth by these men to the situation of modern conservative Presbyterianism. In other words, the big “crises” add up to nothing more than a straw man. This point is easily established by briefly examining their examples.

It is true that the New England Puritans attempted for a time to have a regenerate church membership. People were required to keep spiritual diaries and jump through many burdensome hoops before they could become communicant members. It is also true that such practices contributed to the destruction of biblical Christianity in New England.[2] Such practices, however, are explicitly rejected by the Westminster Standards and were never a problem among conservative Presbyterians. Confessional Presbyterian churches do not attempt to read the heart and determine if a person is truly regenerate or not. Rather, they ask for a credible profession of faith (25:2). While there may be a “Reformed” Baptist church here and there that has a similar problem, the peculiarities of the New England Puritans (who were Congregationialists) have absolutely nothing to do with conservative Presbyterianism.

Also, it is true that some small, strict, Reformed denominations with a Dutch background do indeed have a problem in their congregations with assurance that causes many believers to wrongly avoid the Lord’s Supper. Such a problem, however, (once again) has nothing to do with modern conservative Presbyterian churches. Perhaps the reason that Presbyterians have not encountered the problems of some of the small, strict, experimental Dutch Reformed groups is that the Westminster Standards deal with this very issue in such a clear biblical manner (e.g., see the answer to question 172 in the Larger Catechism).

What about the accusation that modern Presbyterians are no different than Baptists because they expect a conversion experience before their covenant children are admitted to communicate membership? While there may be a Presbyterian church here and there (of which this author is unaware) that has been influenced by evangelicalism with these procedures, such a practice is clearly unconfessional. The Confession requires a credible profession of faith, not a conversion experience. The reason for this requirement is obvious. Many or most covenant children cannot discern a time when they did not believe in and love Jesus Christ. If there are conservative Presbyterian churches that require some type of conversion experience for communicant membership, then they need to repent and return to confessional orthodoxy. This author (who has been a member in the PCA, OPC, RPCUS and RPCNA churches) is unaware of any requirement for a conversion experience in conservative Presbyterian denominations.


Having established that there is no crisis in conservative Presbyterian theology with regard to assurance, let us turn our attention to the bizarre Auburn remedy for the non-existent problem. The great answer to the “problem,” we are told, is a new paradigm which sets forth the objectivity of the covenant. Reformed people need to understand that baptism really saves. That is, people who are baptized are regenerated, united to Christ, forgiven, loved by Christ and are elect. Christians (we are told) should not doubt or lack assurance because we can look to our baptism and the objectivity of the covenant. Since baptism is efficacious, and we really are partakers of the covenant of grace, assurance is ours. There is no need to worry whether or not we are truly regenerate or not. If the Auburn “theologians” stopped at this point, then there could be no question that assurance belonged to everyone baptized because everyone baptized is really saved and united to Christ. The problem with the Auburn view at this point is that it teaches both sacramentalism and universalism (if consistent) with regard to all those baptized.

The Auburn “theologians,” however, do not stop here but go on to discuss the sad fact that real Christians who are truly united to Christ can fall away, apostatize and go to hell. There are people we are told who are saved but who do not receive the gift of perseverance. What is the problem with this view? Aside from the fact it totally contradicts the doctrine of the atonement (as noted above), it also destroys the Auburn solution to the “problem” of assurance. How does it destroy assurance? First, the idea that real Christians can fall away explicitly contradicts their own idea that baptism is always efficacious. The Auburn “theologians” must either return to the traditional Reformed view that baptism is only efficacious in the elect (i.e., those for whom Christ died, who receive the gift of faith and repentance) or they must admit that baptism is not really efficacious after all. The confessional view (that the non-elect are baptized and become members of the visible church but are not regenerated or united to Christ by the Holy Spirit) cannot be avoided without holding to absurd contradictions. The idea that we must look to our baptism for assurance when baptism guarantees nothing (if we do not receive the additional gift of perseverance) is ludicrous. How (we ask) does a denial of the Reformed understanding of election and perseverance strengthen assurance? How does a real union with Christ that does not actually save in all cases strengthen our assurance? Why should we look to our baptism for assurance when most people who are baptized apostatize and go to hell?

Second, the Auburn teaching that only people in the church who receive the additional gift of perseverance are truly saved and go to heaven, renders all their talk about the objectivity of the covenant and assurance superfluous. To tell people not to worry about assurance because their baptism really unites them to Christ and saves them; but then to qualify such a promise with the statement: “well you might be eternally saved only if you receive the additional gift of perseverance” is not reassuring at all. Further, how are a series of irrational contradictory teachings supposed to eliminate a crisis related to assurance? The idea that baptism is efficacious in all cases yet many baptized people apostatize and go to hell is not reassuring. The doctrine that everyone baptized is united to Jesus and is forgiven by His precious blood, yet many or most baptized forgiven people go to hell, is not reassuring at all. A baptism that is both efficacious and non-efficacious is not a solid foundation for assurance. An atonement that only temporarily forgives, that doesn’t get the job done for most baptized people, is not reassuring. The idea that many or most people in the church who are united to Christ have the ability to successfully resist the saving power of the Holy Spirit and thus end up in the lake of fire is not comforting. If salvation is dependent upon our own ability to persevere because the Spirit’s application of redemption to those united to Christ is truly resistible, then folks, it’s nail-biting time. The Auburn “theologians” attempts to solve a non-existent problem have resulted in one of the most unbiblical, irrational and absurd theological systems to come out of the Reformed camp in decades.[3] What they have accomplished for Reformed theology is akin to what the Three Stooges have accomplished for plumbing or baking. The Auburn “theologians” have proclaimed a new, improved theology, a reforming paradigm, yet what they offer is a crossbreed of an old defective sacramentalism, aspects of Arminianism and a Romanizing concept of salvation. What is particularly dangerous about their system is: (a) These men claim to be faithful to the Reformed system of doctrine. (b) Their heretical teachings are mixed with orthodox Reformed doctrines. (c) Many people in Reformed churches do not have the theological training to readily identify perversions of apostolic doctrine. We can only hope and pray that the small, conservative Presbyterian denominations will have the courage to discipline anyone who spreads these Romanizing doctrines in their churches.


A brief examination of many of the peculiarities of the Auburn system reveals a new paradigm in theology that is a radical, heretical departure from the Reformed faith. By way of summary, note the following departures from Reformed orthodoxy. (1) The Auburn system perverts the doctrine of the atonement by rendering the blood of Christ non-efficacious in most cases and by separating the foundation or ground of salvation (the active and passive obedience of Jesus) from its application. Further, a number of statements at the Auburn conference can only be interpreted as a denial of justification alone. The attempt of the Auburn speakers to wed sacramentalism, medieval concepts of mother church and Arminian-style concepts of perseverance to the Reformed doctrine of atonement has resulted in a mass of contradictions and great confusion.

(2) The Auburn speakers repeatedly violate standard orthodox principles of biblical interpretation. Parabolic or allegorical sections of Scripture are used to overturn many explicit, didactic passages in the Bible. Further, the idea that our exegesis needs to be directed to some extent by systematic theology and simple principles of logic is rejected in favor of adhering to blatantly contradictory positions. To assert that orthodox Reformed pastors are rationalists, Gnostics or guilty of “orthodusty” because they refuse to make Scripture contradict itself is ad hominum rhetoric.

(3) The Auburn paradigm destroys the biblical understanding of assurance by placing man’s hope in a baptism that “regenerates” but does not really save anyone unless they receive the additional gift of perseverance. People are simultaneously taught that everyone baptized is elect and truly united to Christ, but most people baptized go to hell because they do not receive the additional gift of perseverance. Anyone with a little common sense is left wondering if they have the added gift of perseverance. The Auburn system leaves people with a far greater anxiety than any overemphasis of the Puritans. Further, the dozens of passages which teach the perseverance of the saints and thus strengthen our faith in Christ’s saving power are rejected in favor of an Arminian type of interpretation.

(4) The Auburn “theologians” adhere to a non-Reformed (i.e., Lutheran, high church Episcopalian style) understanding of baptism. These men would say that they totally reject an ex opere operato understanding of the sacraments. Nevertheless, their position places them squarely in the Romish camp because they repeatedly assert that baptism is efficacious apart from faith. The Auburn system asserts that the sign of baptism and the reality it symbolizes are always coterminous. However, since many or most baptized people will end up in hell, one could say that for the Monroe four, baptism is simultaneously efficacious and non-efficacious in most cases. This assertion (of course) is utter nonsense. But when developing a new paradigm in theology, little things like logic, coherence and systematic theology should not intrude on such superior intellectual pursuits!

(5) The Auburn theology rejects the orthodox distinction between the visible and invisible church in favor of the idea that everyone baptized is saved, forgiven, elect, and united to Christ; but many of the loved, forgiven saints end up in the pit of hell because they are not given the gift of perseverance. This position contradicts Scripture which repeatedly teaches that people who apostatize were never really saved (Mt 7:23; 1 Jn 2:19; 2 Pet 2:22), that God hates and hardens the non-elect who are in the visible church (Rom 9:11-13, 18ff.; 11:5), that God has a remnant according to the election of grace (Rom 9:17ff.). Indeed, the biblical doctrine of the church is incomprehensible without such a distinction. Bannerman’s comments on the invisible church reveal the fidelity of the standard Reformed view. He writes:

The church invisible stands, with respect to its members, in an inward and spiritual relationship to Christ, whereas the Church visible stands to Him in an outward relationship only. In so far as the Church invisible is concerned, the truth of this statement will be readily admitted by all. There can be no difference of opinion on the point. The proper party with whom the covenant of grace is made, and to whom its promises and privileges belong, is the invisible Church of real believers. It is this Church for which Christ died. It is this Church that is espoused to Him as the Bride. It is the members of this Church that are each and all savingly united to Him as their Head. The bond of communion between them and the Saviour is an invisible and spiritual one, securing to all of them the enjoyment of saving blessings here, and the promise of everlasting redemption hereafter. None but Romanists deny or ignore this.[4]

(6) The Auburn paradigm makes continued faithfulness to the covenant an instrument of justification along with faith. According to the Auburn theology everyone in the visible church (my term, not theirs) who is baptized in the name of the triune God is saved (i.e., united to Christ, forgiven, receives the Holy Spirit, etc.). But only those Christians who continue in faithfulness actually go to heaven. The rest apostatize and go to hell. Therefore, according to the Auburn paradigm the main issue in laying hold of the merits of Jesus is not faith but continued faithfulness to the conditions of the covenant. (Keep in mind that Wilkins speaks of the passages which discuss a mere temporary, historical, non-genuine, non-saving faith as signifying real genuine saving faith. He does this to support his contention that genuine Christians can fall away and go to hell.) The Auburn speakers’ adoption of a Romanist interpretation of James; their rejection of the traditional view of perseverance; their doctrine of baptismal regeneration coupled with their Shepherdite perversion of justification has left them with a Romanist-style doctrine of salvation.

The Bible does teach that only those who persevere will go to heaven. However, it also teaches that faith is the sole instrument of our justification; that good works are evidence of saving faith and that everyone for whom Jesus died will persevere because progressive sanctification and perseverance are inseparable from our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Perseverance is applied by the Holy Spirit to believers on account of the merits of the Savior. Once a person believes, he is really saved (i.e., he is justified and has eternal life); such a person will persevere because of what our Lord accomplished. He cannot fall away. People who fall away were never justified to begin with. For the Auburn “theologians” the main issue is not false versus genuine faith but rather who continues to live in faithfulness to the covenant. Like Romanism the Auburn teaching confounds justification with sanctification and makes man’s activity the ultimate deciding factor in salvation.

The orthodox doctrine is that we are not justified because we persevere. We persevere because we are justified, because the merits of Christ are ours. Christ is the author and finisher of our faith. R. Scott Clark writes:

“To add an element to sola fide is self-detracting. Faith is simple, it is pure, it is alone, because it looks only to Christ who is our only righteousness. To add obedience to faith as an instrument is to corrupt it by changing the instrument and its object. If there are two parts, faith and works, then there are two objects Christ and my own obedience. This seemingly minor modification is fatal to our entire faith.”[5]

Reformed believers need to be made aware that the Auburn paradigm is a radical departure from the Reformed faith. It is not a refining of Reformed doctrine but rather a rejection of confessional orthodoxy in favor of sacramentalist, Arminian and Romanizing concepts. It is heretical because it strikes at the very heart of Reformed theology: the doctrines of the atonement and justification by faith alone. May God protect his precious church from this vile theological poison. Ω

[1] “The true church is the church in history, the gathering or throng of all professing households assembled in the covenant around the word in Christ’s sacraments whether they understand that or not. Okay, they are not saved by works, they are not saved by passing a test. They are saved because of their connection to Christ and if they have that connection to Christ they’re saved. And if that connection with Christ is severed and he is the one who severs it...” (Doug Wilson, “The Curses of the Covenant,” tape 7).

[2] The New England experience seems to have been somewhat unique even among Puritans. Edmund S. Morgan states: “I know of no instance in which a Puritan minister, before the founding of New England, actually did attempt to test the faith of communicants” (Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,1963), 76. The attempt to have a regenerate church membership, rather than being an established and widespread practice, seems to have begun in New England and spread back to England. “My contention is that the practice came, not from Plymouth to Massachusetts as initially supposed, nor from England or Holland as presently assumed, but that it originated in Massachusetts among the nonseparating Puritans there and spread from Massachusetts to Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven, and back to England” (Ibid, 65).

[3] Note that the first epistle of John, which has as one of its central themes a believer’s assurance of salvation (e.g., 1 Jn. 5:13, “that you may know that you have eternal life”) does not mention water baptism or baptismal regeneration even once. The apostle is apparently unaware that the way to deal with problems of assurance is to point believers to their regeneration at baptism and the objectivity of the covenant.

[4] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1960 [1869]), 1:29-30.

[5] R. Scott Clark, The Danger of a Falling Church, internet article originally published in The Outlook 50 (July/August 2001): 21-2.