"Assent" is a popular word in many Christian circles. It is used to speak of propositional agreement, of self-conscious intellectual accord, of belief in Jesus. In confessing membership vows we "assent to the following declarations and promises". We assent to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and to other creeds and confessions. So important is "assent" to us Reformed types that when I searched "book of church order assent" this usage by a church in Chicago appeared: "the membership process culminates with your public assent to faith in Jesus Christ."
To assent is to agree to or approve of something, often after careful thought. Where consent shades toward "agree with", assent is a little more active, shading toward "agree to" or "agree at".
To assent to declarations and promises is a mighty fine thing, and I have in fact vowed the vow that that particular phrase comes from. But the idea of assent, of intellectual lining-up, has leaked out of polity and into expressions of faith and belief. Which is why someone could say "assent to faith in Jesus Christ" when they mean "confession to/of faith in Jesus Christ". Confession is not even profession; confession is almost involuntary, we can't help but do it, we are forced to do it, we admit to it, we acknowledge it.
Now, no self-respecting Reformed Christian would emphasize our own will and deeds over against God's, but in our sneaky intellectual little way, we begin to think that we are saved because we assented. Because we agreed to God's propositions.
We forget that God threw us down on our knees and broke our wills until we acknowledged what was already true. Only then did we believe it. Only then did we admit it. Only then did we confess it: Jesus is Lord.
This has been on my mind over the past couple of days because of my pastor's sermon on Romans 11:11-24 on Sunday. This is the passage about the olive tree into which the Gentiles have been ingrafted.
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.We all know why the natural branches, "those who have fallen", were cut off, right? Sure. Not bearing fruit. Israel was the fig tree that Jesus struck. Israel didn't do what she was supposed to do. And what Israel was supposed to do, the fruit she failed to bear, was to believe on Jesus as their Lord. Right?
I was struck by the phrase "they were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith." Were the branches cut off because they refused to assent to the proposition that Jesus was the Messiah? No. They were cut off because they did not bring in the nations. They did not love justice and mercy. They did not believe. Which doesn't mean that they failed intellectually. They failed to bear the fruit of the Spirit. They failed to know God. They failed to have faith.
Unbelief and faith here are contrasted as opposites. Not unbelief and belief, not negation and assent, but unbelief and faith. And this is important, because this faith is not our own, it is a gift. A kindness. And St. Paul makes that point in the passage above. God has been so kind to us, but we must continue in his kindness, lest we be cut off. We must bear fruit, for that is what faith does. What does belief do?
To assent that Jesus is Lord means nothing. Even the demons assent, and shudder. Let the word "assent" remain in its logic classes and its church polities.
Let us instead confess that it is all by God's mercy, whether we understand it or no. Let us admit that any intellectual agreement that we have with the Creator of the Universe only exists because the Lord Jesus beat us down to our knees with his scepter. We do not assent to salvation. We submit to it. We confess it.
And let us always keep an eye out for the wolf of salvation by works. For the Pentecostal is saved by his tongues, the Catholic by his prayers, and the Presbyterian by his assents.
P.S. I know that much of this is about semantics, and that the misuse of assent by the church in Chicago is simply a semantic misuse. But surely our semantic choices are significant, and can show us how we think.