October 28, 2020

Lost, False or Real?: A Closer Look at Assurance

22197088.jpgUPDATE: Some of my pastoral thoughts on assurance are here: On Faith’s Crumbling Edge.

Mark Shea is a sharp thinker and commenter. His daily “Catholic Exchange” podcast is always provocative. In a recent podcast contrasting evangelical (Shea is a convert to the RCC) and Roman Catholic views on spiritual security and assurance, Shea made a unique comment about a common area of disagreement.

There isn’t a transcript, but here’s the quote:

“I became more secure in my relationship with God once I was no longer certain I was going to heaven.”

Shea is skewering the common conception that evangelicals believe in easy salvation with instant assurance, but produce millions of believers who get “saved and resaved” with regularity or care so little about the possibility of hell that they never consider actually following Christ. It’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s also based in some truth. Many conservative evangelicals make it difficult to discuss the topic reasonably because they prefer to run to extremes that aren’t helpful to anyone except people wanting to make stupendous numerical claims for their evangelism.

Let’s talk about the evangelical doctrine of assurance for a moment. It’s one of my favorite topics- having spent many hours wrestling with the Bible and Methodist friends over the question- and it is one of the most misunderstood, distorted and pastorally damaging of evangelical teachings.

First of all, what are we talking about? Most usually, we seem to be discussing “Can I know for certain now that I am going to heaven?” Some call the subject “assurance of salvation,” but that gets into the area of what a person feels at a given point and not into God’s work of salvation itself. Most Protestants call this subject “perseverance,” and by that they mean that quality of faith that continues through life to heaven.

On that question of “Can you know that you know that you know?” I’ve heard at least a thousand Baptist preachers shout “Yes!” based on what we grew up calling “once saved always saved.” “Real Baptists” tend to like OSAS, while more reformation influenced Baptists prefer perseverance, but all of them agree that the elect, the people of God individually, those who belong to Jesus, persevere to the end, do not finally fall away and cannot lose this salvation.

Of course, many Protestants, following, but going far beyond, John Wesley, believe that Christians may, at any moment, move into a state of unbelief, and therefore into a loss of salvation which must be recovered. Depending on the group one is dealing with, this may take the form of only losing salvation through actual, explicit rejection of the faith- apostasy- or go all the way to the views of some Holiness groups that there isn’t enough security in the Gospel to last out the morning worship service. “Born again….and again….and again….and…” is not a joke.

The strength of the doctrine of eternal security is that struggling, failing Christians hear the good news that God is on their side and has not abandoned them. Pastorally, it is a powerful doctrine, and when you work with young Christians, it is important. They are frequently overwhelmed with guilt and failure, and without a strong, Biblical promise that those stumblings and departures from obedience have not disqualified them from God’s gift of salvation. Christians that haunt young disciples with the threat of a God who will abandon or give up on them do little good, despite good intentions. Fear of hell produces something entirely different from transforming grace.

In terms of language, eternal security and perseverance are preferable to the deceptive and misleading “once saved, always saved,” a phrase explicitly tied to certain evangelical evangelistic practices, like the “praying the sinners pray.” OSAS is not the view of any mainstream, historic Baptist doctrinal statement. For example, here’s part of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement 2000 on God’s Purpose In Grace.

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

Many who reject eternal security ridicule the idea that those persons who lived as Christians in some respect, but don’t finally go to heaven, were, in fact, not ever “true” or “real” believers.

Of course, we all have our examples.

A few years ago, our school had a student who was a religious fanatic. Hardcore zealot in every way, but seemingly completely sold out and sincere in his faith. We even gave him a special “Christian character award.” Shortly after graduation, he abandoned the faith. Later he embraced an apostate variety of the faith. He’s young, but the trajectory isn’t encouraging.

Some who knew this young person would speculate about what had happened: is this an example of lost salvation? Was he actually never saved? Still a Christian? Satanic counterfeit?

It feels good to look at early enthusiasm and announce that we have a real Christian in the house. The problem is, the Bible isn’t as easily convinced. At each stage, “reality” and “final reality” are different things. A young zealot may, from every human perspective, be “real,”, and prove out, at the day of judgment, to be false. Our preference for the word “saved” has its own problems, because without eschatologically finally and safely arriving home, we’re not fully saved yet, in every normal sense of the word.

The language of the Baptist Faith and Message says that being a Christian and beginning to be a Christian are not the same thing. That’s the problem with “once saved always saved.” Christians are marked by perseverance, not just beginnings. Perseverance in what? Not in sinlessness, but perseverance in imperfect faith in Christ and imperfect obedience to Christ. We can say that “those with true faith” persevere to the end, despite certain failures in faith along the way.

A real beginning is, however, only one aspect of true faith. Jesus plainly taught in the parable of the four soils (Mark 4) that the beginnings of those who have true faith and those who turn out to not have true faith may appear identical. (In fact, the true believer’s “beginning” may not look “true” or be very impressive at all.) What a person does now may indicate that they belong to Christ. If you abide in Christ through simple faith, the obvious conclusion is that you belong to Christ and have the Holy Spirit. But those who do not have true faith may also confess Christ, be baptized, join the church, do good works, pray, and have subjective experience, etc. Hebrews 6 says all this and more may be things that “do not accompany salvation.”

In other words, there are “proofs” in the moment, and there is the ultimate proof: persevering faith.

What this means is that we have to have a way to talk about assurance in the present, and in the future. In both cases, we need to talk about the faith and the promises of God. In both cases, we need to retain Biblical realism about the importance of perseverance. (The Bible is never as anxious to pronounce an individual beyond apostasy and certain for heaven as some evangelicals are.)

A good illustration is marriage (which is also a bad illustration, because marriage isn’t “moving” toward a goal like the Christian is moving toward a goal.) There is a current description of any good marriage, but would we say that the describedf “good” marriage will last until one spouse dies? We simply don’t know. If a completed marriage is a marriage in the full sense, then at any moment we can say “Yes, this is a marriage,” all the while knowing that the spouses must “abide” in their marriage covenant to the end for the marriage to be complete.

So at any moment a professing, baptized Christian is, from our perspective, a true Christian. But what about in the fullest, persevering-to-the-end sense? We know what God says about those who belong to him, and we can confidently say that all of God’s promises to those who believe are true, but we cannot predict the future or what may be revealed about our misjudgments.

So we are really faced, in many opinions, with a choice between two positions: Do we use the language of “losing” salvation, or do we use the language of a salvation that wasn’t, ultimately, “true or real?”

In their 2001 book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Preserverance and Assurance, Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Canneday, both Baptist Biblical scholars, suggest that there are other choices. Their book presents a full view that salvation is always past, present and future, the many warnings and commands of scripture work exactly as their were meant to work, providing the path of past, present and future faith a disciple travels to a completed salvation. (I examined the book and its claims in this early IM essay.)

In other words, “once saved, always saved” isn’t the confessional Baptist view, and doesn’t need to be the view against which other Christians react. At the same time, Baptists and other evangelicals could do much to end the abuses of invitationalism, stop the pragmatic pronouncements of automatic salvation to anyone who makes a profession and stress things like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership with integrity, public worship, growth in grace, etc. that mark the life of the true believer. Defending the salvation of those who have no part in the people of God or desire to walk in the way of discipleship isn’t ever wise. We don’t undermine anyone’s assurance by saying “This is the road we’re walking.” We increase assurance and make the discussion and supposed appeal of “losing” salvation less likely.

Comments

  1. It seems like the real failure here is that churches don’t really teach their people how to “maintenance” themselves. By that I mean, they don’t teach new converts (and old ones) the Spiritual Disciplines — biblical meditation, prayer, fasting, study, confession, silence, simplicity, etc., etc.

    I’m a PK and I was never even taught any of this; I only just recently discovered that there is a whole legacy of methods that have been handed down to discipline us and keep us in the faith. I mean, how more beneficial would it be to keep people on the narrow path if we told them that being a Christian disciple is more than going to a service on Sunday, singing CCM choruses, and giving up ten percent of their paycheck!

    Sure seems like E’s could do a better job at this if they were willing to have more dialogue with the RCC and EO churches and learn from their traditions on spiritual disciplines. Maybe we wouldn’t have to be having these conversations about being born again and again and again if people were taught how to walk with the Lord. I’ve been a Christian for 13 years now (from where I mark my faith as being my own) and I’m just learning about these practices that help keep me in the faith. Where were they all my life? Maybe we wouldn’t have to guess on assurance if we were taught to walk with the Lord instead of give mental or creedal assent.

  2. I currently believe once saved always saved, but I take issue with the average Christian’s sloppy definition of “saved.”

    I have heard way too many sermon where the pastor said, “Do you want assurance you’re saved?” He’d then lead us in some variation of the Sinner’s Prayer, then tell us, “Write down the date” (in our bibles, on a tract, or someplace important) “and every time the devil tempts you with, ‘You’re not really saved,’ you go find that date and say, ‘Get thee behind me Satan, I am too saved.'”

    That’s just one example. I could point out many others. The trouble is that people are looking to the point in their lives when they said what I call the “magic words” — they confessed Christ — but they cannot point to a lifestyle that exhibits fruit of the Spirit, or the love for one another that Jesus said would indicate His disciples. Scripture indicates time and again that the evidence of salvation is spiritual fruit, not a personal epiphany. The magic words don’t save; God saves. Too much evangelism is fixated on the magic words, and not on developing the necessary Christian lifestyle that must follow.

  3. Thinking out loud… very uncertain… but one concern I have with stressing “things like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership with integrity, public worship” is that if the new follower of Jesus isn’t growing in his or her love for God and they do these things out of a legalistic I’ve got to follow the rules, it will not last. There is no way of really knowing another human’s heart, but unless they have believed the Truth of God’s love and responded in love thereto, I’m just not sure we can know.

    At the same time I say that, I think it is no mistake that God says to make disciples. To raise up younger believers in the faith. That is a picture of discipline and patience and first rules, later freedom. Perhaps.

    I do think it would be good to be able to articulate these issues better.

  4. Thank you very much for this posting. Perhaps, if the churches where I worshipped, and served, had had more of the spiritual disciplines, especially the more contemplative ones, I might not have crossed the Tiber.

    One of the things that I fought for, to the best of my ability, was the teaching and maturing of the younger believers. It wasn’t there, the main emphasis was saving them.

    I write this with sadness even though I would not change my journey. I suspect that for every one who trys to find what they need spiritually, there are many, many more who don’t even know that they are hungry, and if so where to seek.

  5. J.K. Terberg says

    I’m another PK. My Pastor/Dad expended a lot of mental energy assessing which of his flock’s salvation experience was genuine. In cases in which he deemed it was not (usually due to a lack of exhuberance for the faith), the salvation experience was repeated, and so was water baptism.
    I’ve also heard it said that water baptism could be held as your proof of salvation. We breathe a sigh of relief when our teens get baptized before they go out independently into this heathen world. (even though some baptized teens soon become part of it.)
    Sometimes I feel like baptism complicates the whole thing. I believe in baptism, but sorry, I’m just being honest, that sometimes we rely on it for assurance, rather than our relationship with Christ.
    I’m thinking more and more that, simply, he who believes in Christ shall be saved.

  6. I think that Evangelicals tend to either be so concerned to avoid works righteousness that they will not talk about spiritual discipline or any of the behavioral implications of following Christ (witness the “Lordship Controversy” a number of years ago between JMcA and some Dallas Seminary types) or else they are caught up in defining exactly, in a very legalistic manner, what is evidence of regeneration (don’t drink, smoke, dance, play cards, etc).

    I am not sure which if these approaches is worse but I am convinced that both of these lead to a neglect of teaching young Christians those things which will help them grow and persevere and thus are behind a lot of the pastoral problems with lack of assurance.

    The first approach won’t encourage the teaching of disciplines because they could be mistaken for works, and the second approach leaves people convinced that they must qualify for heaven under their own steam.

  7. Pelagaianism in disguise…gnosticism in disguise… the modern evangelical seems to have lost it?

  8. Robert Encinitas says

    We tend to enjoy “re-inventing wheels”. I find the following 400 year old 3 point confession still beautifully and most succinctly answers most of the questions related to assurance of salvation. (be blessed by taking the time to lookup and truly investigate the scripture references):
    Chapter 17: Of The Perseverance of the Saints THE BAPTIST CONFESSION OF FAITH with Scripture Proofs. Adopted by the Ministers and Messengers of the general assembly which met in London in 1689

    MODERATOR EDITED: This site does not reprint lengthy citations. You are welcome to link them off site.

  9. I may be ignorant in posting this. But I have always found the discussion of eternal security to be troubling because to me, if it is true that the believer is eternally sercure, then the only person who has any business knowing that fact is God. It seems that once the discussion crosses the threshold into human discussion we give ourselves license to speculate about:
    who is saved?
    what is their real “status”?
    etc…

  10. I guess I’m a bit confused, along with Gary. Are we talking about whether an individual can know he is saved; or whether that individual can lose that salvation; or whether we can look at an individual and tell them (or ourselves) whether they have saved or not, or are still saved or not?

  11. I guess a personal illustration might help clarify my question. After I was saved, I pretty quickly fell back into my particular besetting sin. My life from that point on has pretty much followed this pattern:

    -Sin
    -Feel guilt
    -Ask forgiveness
    -Have a few good weeks/days/hours
    -Repeat from top several times

    -Get sick of the whole thing and quit trying for a long time
    -Eventually get sick of the sin (or just sickened by it), and come back to God for a while
    -Sin again
    -Go back to top, losing at least as much ground as I just gained

    And this in spite of a plethora of sermons on how I’m in fact not a slave to sin and have the Spirit in me empowering me to do right and now I can live the Victorious Christian Life(tm) right now! I know all of those things are facts (well, minus the brand name), but that doesn’t change the other fact that I still sin. A lot. All the time. And preachers discussing our newfound freedom from sin usually sound an awful lot like they believe we can be “sinlessly perfect,” even though they make a token attempt to say “I’m not teaching we can achieve sinless perfection now, but…”

    And that kind of Christian isn’t me. I have serious doubts about whether I ever can or will be the Victorious Sin-Conquering Demon-Slaying Satan-Stomping Intercessory-Prayer-Warrior Christian. My constant plumbing of the depths of my depravity and the endless vicious cycle seem to confirm that. Even now, just newly returned to the “sick of sin” stage, I’m disgusted by myself, by the fraud I’ve pulled over on those around me. I sincerely desire (at least in this stage) to do right, not to atone for what I’ve done, but because it’s right; but I have plenty of history to suggest that it just won’t last. I sincerely desire to know God anew, to focus on Him, to be close to Him; but it is always overcome by self-hatred for my failures. In the end, I always leave Him because I can’t be like Him.

    In spite of that, I never have had doubts about my eternal fate. About “where I would go when I die.” If my works couldn’t please God enough to let me into Heaven, how could they disgust Him enough to kick me back out? They really aren’t any better or worse than before. What could I do now to offend Him beyond what Christ already paid for on the cross? I’m not stating that as an excuse for my sin, or an excuse to sin; I’m saying that Christ paid for all of my sins up front, and my falling yet again back into repeated sin doesn’t change that fact. He was already aware how pitiful I’d be when He died for me the first time. (Yes, I’m one of the elect. If you’re not sure, I’ll show you the certificate proving it. What, you don’t have one?)

    So, what are we discussing here? Whether I keep getting saved and unsaved and saved and unsaved, ad nauseam? (I can’t buy into that lose-your-salvationism.) Whether I really was saved in the first place, because I keep sinning? Are we saying I would have gone to Hell if I died during a sin spree because I wasn’t continuing in the faith? (Where exactly do we draw the line? When I stop tithing?) Are we saying perseverance is a prediction that I will eventually get it and stick with it? (That is about as practical as knowing I was saved while I was sinning–so what? I need help now! Don’t tell the drowning man you had a vision that he’ll make it–throw him a rope!)

    I’m saying take all that and chuck it. The grace I see in the Bible forgave the crap I was before I was saved and will continue to do so now. Maybe I can eventually find God’s grace to move beyond my failures and keep the desire for a relationship with Him in spite of them.

  12. I think Shea is on to something. I bet what made him feel more assurance in the Roman system is that one does not constantly look within oneself to test whether one has authentic faith or authentic fruit. In the Catholic approach one believes the creed, is baptized and seeks to live as a Christian. This person is in a state of grace now based on the objective declaration of the Church. Whether or not that person will persevere is a secondary question. Hence, why one cannot say whether one will go to heaven or not.

    There is something to the outward look for assurance. Assurance comes when I look to the cross and the truth of scripture. As an Anglican I would add that assurance comes through the pledge of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Through that sign God tells me I am his.

    Cheers!

  13. Patrick Kyle says

    J.K,

    In Baptism we have Christ’s promises to us. Why not trust what Christ did in your baptism and don’t call Him a liar, regardlees of how we feel subjectively?

  14. J.K. Terberg says

    Patrick,
    I’m not talking about how someone feels about their baptism, I’m talking about how someone acts.

    What about the teen that is baptized and then leaves the faith? ‘By the fruit you will know’ brings some questions. If a duck clucks instead of quacks and can’t fly and hates water, well, is it really a duck?

    Does baptism define a Christian, or does evidence of Christian (Christlike) characteristics?

  15. On thing that needs to be said is that assurance of salvation is a personal matter. As a pastor I can have a look at someone and generate an answer to whether or not I think they are saved. However, that is my opinion and my opinion does not matter when we are judged by God. We need humility when addressing these issues. Creating a hard and fast rule (like once saved always saved) denies God His divine position.

    A good post keep it up.

  16. More of your thoughts on the assurance question, please, Michael! For me, as interesting as this post was, it didn’t “really scratch the itch.” HA, as if you had written it purely for this reader! 🙂 (Matter of fact, it was just kinda gauzy in its overall effect [that’s not a critique, just a sigh of disappointment].) I kept anticipating a “clincher,” but nothing materialized. The hoped-for answer never seemed to really “land.” But maybe that’s just because you and I are different spiritual temperaments or something.

    On a previous post somewhere, Brian Pendell (sp?) wrote an extended confessional comment in this regard that really resonated with my own struggles, and also was a variation on Matt’s above description of his own wrestlings. It seems like the whole issue boils down to: how do we know that we have enough “fruits” (or perhaps, better: the type of fruit) that God would recognize as adequate evidence of the new birth? Because couldn’t anybody who genuinely hopes in the atonement/resurrection and yet honestly assesses themselves agree with the “ROMANS 7 Syndrome”: 2 steps forward, one step back?

    Other complication: if before one became a believer, one wasn’t one of the “gross sinners” (fornication, drugs, booze, cussing, and such), then after conversion, one feels like perhaps one has to be an “Olympic Christian” to prove that there’s been an authentic new birth. (Complication footnote: one was christened in the Lutheran church as an infant, so was one already an “inchoate” Christian, even if one didn’t come to faith or regularly attend services until adulthood? AAACK, too many variables!!!!)

    And even though overall I truly “delight in my inward man in the Law of God,” (sadly) that doesn’t mean I always rejoice at following it when it comes down to certain areas. I’m not here alluding to immorality, but rather things like “love your enemy,” or even just “love your neighbor.” For me, those 2 are killers in themselves, never mind stuff on top of that like “hand over your duplicate cloak,too, when you’re asked for one,” etc. So then, the inner accusation hounds me: “If you REALLY truly loved God [a la “our faith makes the commandments doable”—letter of JOHN], you wouldn’t have these resistances in certain areas.”

    And yes, I read your post on the Prodigal, which, if that were the only picture painted of God, then, absolutely, we’d be able to do cartwheels 24/7. But there are so many other different pictures of Him (and of the Judgement), so how does a poor agonizing sinner put all these together in one equation and get it to balance? “God is love; our God is a consuming fire; Behold the mercy and the severity of God…”—all N.T. verses, no less. (And connected with that: does the verse in the O.T. “God is angry with the wicked” still apply? I’ve heard various pastors say yes, and another one insisted no, Christ’s work did away with that. Which sounds like universalism.)

    One thing that I keep wondering: in your pastoring, have you found believers reared in perfectionist homes more prone to endure anguish over the whole assurance issue? Because I, for one, grew up in an environment where imperfection/failure spelled ignominy and caused severe rejection.

    One of the comfort-verses is where Jesus says that there’ll be those who yield 10-fold, others 30-fold, and [the Celestial Celebs] 100-fold. That gives at least SOME hope to those of us who seem to be limping along—in the spiritual marathon, we’ll just come in 3rd place…

    Eager for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4…,

    Jazzki

    PS: Unlike what one of the commenters above said, for me, taking communion doesn’t serve as a deterrent to the self-doubts. An encouragement, yes; a once-n-for-all doubtbuster, no.

  17. Brian Pendell says

    Three questions:

    1) If we know people by their fruits, what do we say to those pagans, JWs, Mormons, etc., who exhibit them more clearly than Christians do?

    2) If we have to have the right confession as well as the right action, how do I know my confession is the right one? To a large percentage of the Christian world, Baptists are heretics whose faith is worthless because it isn’t united to the One True Church. How do I know they aren’t telling the truth?

    3) Some of us do not have and never have had assurance of our salvation because we struggle with guilt and condemnation. How do I hold onto that without latching onto a false assurance?

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  18. Brian Pendell says

    “stop the pragmatic pronouncements of automatic salvation to anyone who makes a profession and stress things like Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership with integrity, public worship, growth in grace, etc. that mark the life of the true believer.”

    Sorry, second comment I forgot to make …

    … are you saying that these are works that a Christian must do in order to be saved, and someone who doesn’t do them is committing a mortal sin? Then how is your position different from the RCC? Where does Sola Fide fit into this?

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  19. Brian said, “How do I hold onto that without latching onto a false assurance?” Brian, this was confusing: are you saying “hold onto the guilt and condemnation”? I greatly share your concern about false assurance, but I’d give anything to plunge my guilt and condemnation into the Lake of Fire. Have you found any encouragement in reading Ryle’s collection of quotes about wobbly assurance? Also, from what I’ve read, Wordsworth never had abiding assurance, either.

    As for those who think that “baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership with integrity, public worship, growth in grace, etc.” will increase assurance, all I can say is, would that this were true. A person can do all that (out of genuine love for God, not as opposed to Sola Fide) and still battle self-doubts. You can apply all kinds of “poultices”—spiritual and psychological—to diminish the doubts, but like the ocean, they persist—with high tides and low. Unlike the Salton sea, they never dry up.

    Nor is this lack of assurance (in my case) from “looking inward too much.” It’s mostly from verses in the Scriptures as well as utterances from Christians (not directly me-ward, but what they preach/write in general about the Christian life and walk).

    Also, I have a question: what is the difference between a hypocrite and someone afflicted by the “ROMANS 7 Syndrome”? Where do we draw the line between those two? How do we know that a “hypocrite” isn’t simply a bad case of “et justus et peccator”?

    Thanks again, Michael, for this essay of yours.

  20. I guess my point was this:
    I am sure of my salvation and believe that once I am “saved” God holds me in His care and that nothing that I do, for it is not based on my works or actions, can separate “me” from God…

    however…I don’t want to get in the business of pronouncing that belief on other people (although I hold it to be true because of God’s grace) because that puts me in the seat of judgment. Which is by the way, a place I need to avoid at all costs!!!

  21. Brian Pendell says

    “Brian said, “How do I hold onto that without latching onto a false assurance?” Brian, this was confusing: are you saying “hold onto the guilt and condemnation”? ”

    Erm, no. I meant ‘get rid of the guilt and condemnation without falling into a false assurance’. Being smugly, absolutely sure I’m going to Heaven and getting the surprise of my life afterwards would NOT be fun at all.

    Part of it is the legacy of abuse I struggle with. I find it very, very difficult to believe I’m loved, and very, very easy to believe I’m hated. It doesn’t take hardly anything to convince me I’m in trouble and going to get a whuppin’. To believe that I’m loved and NOT destined for the flames takes a lot of effort on my part … and it doesn’t take hardly anything at all to put me back.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  22. Oops! Brian, my reading skills are declining with age. 🙂 Thanks for clarifying. I appreciate your candor in various posts around this site, because it is encouraging to know that there are others (besides those deceased who’re the subject in Ryle’s list of quotes) who love the LORD, yet lack consistent assurance.

    Long ago, exhausted from this perennial battle, I concluded that what we have to do is follow the example in ROMANS 4: “In hope against hope he believed.” Not let go of Him just like Jacob wouldn’t let go of that angel! 🙂

    Blessings2U,

    Jazzki

  23. Mairnéalach says

    Seeing new fruit on your branch is cause for praising God, but it’s not the first place to go for assurance.

    “Not sinning” is possible, but not by you. Only Jesus. Therefore, it might have been a good place for Jesus to look for assurance ;-), but not you.

    There is a sole, single criterion which our Master gives us for knowing where we are.

    By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. -Jesus of Nazareth

    That’s it. Nothing else. Zip, nada, bupkus.

    John confirms.

    By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. -John, the beloved disciple

    We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. -John, the beloved disciple

    Love is assurance.

    Love is assurance.

    The love of God for us, reflected in us for the ones he purchased with his blood.

    This is assurance. Praise God.

  24. For a good (and very compassion-filled) read on assurance, John Piper has written a few pages on the topic, “When a Child of God is Persuaded that He is Not”. You can read it online by going to:

    http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/OnlineBooks/ByTitle/

    and selecting the book When the Darkness Will Not Lift. The section I’m referring to begins on pg. 40 in the book (pg. 41 of 82 in Adobe Reader).

    I think sometimes we are so afraid of doubts, like they are the proof that our salvation is not real. Doubts become the ultimate enemy to be slain and put in the ground, or else we can have no assurance of salvation or spiritual victory or whatever. Something about that seems fake.

    Sometimes doubt just IS. The perspective I come from is what is the direction I am looking with my doubt? Am I hardening my heart and turning away from God in hatred and refusal because of the things that don’t make sense? Or am I turning to God in my anguish and doubt and uncertainty, flailing out, crying, angry, worshipping, whatever, from the place of my doubting?

    So many times when I hear someone express agonizing doubt, I see and hear a heart that is earnestly seeking the Lord, with face and heart turned towards Him, desperate for answers and hurting from confusion. Doubt like that is not hard-hearted unbelief or lack of faith or rejection of God and His will for us.

    I’ve realized that some of the times when my words looked the most despairing and full of doubt and uncertainty, were also the times I was clinging most tightly to the Lord in that place of doubt, even while I was (and still am) questioning so many things about God, His word, my faith, etc. Those words of doubt were the context of my deep-seated clinging to God and affirmation of what it meant for me to trust at that moment in time.

    I hate it like everything when I go through doubting times. But I refuse to use the presence or absence of doubt itself (no matter how strong) as an evaluation of how I’m doing spiritually.

    Brian:
    You may never this side of heaven get rid of feeling guilty and condemned. But that just makes Satan (relatively speaking of course) even more defeated that, from that place, out of the abuse, he STILL cannot get you to stop trusting, believing and choosing God. Even if you never feel safe and secure and protected this side of heaven. Satan doesn’t win because he concocted the abuse you experienced. Satan doesn’t win because of doubts you can’t seem to step out of. Those are means to an end–to keep you from trusting God. You experience victory because of how your faith shines through the doubting and despair you are walking through.

    I see the glory of God shining through you when you choose to trust and cling through awful feelings of guilt, condemnation and worthlessness. When you choose to trust, even though the abuse and unpredictability of your life makes trusting God seem (every day even) like the craziest choice in the world.

  25. DMW, thank you for that URL. Piper writes, “While we have the light, let us cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.” Using the many comfort verses would be one of the “garden tools” applicable in that cultivation.

    But he is addressing something a lot more “black and white” than what I myself experience: the lack of assurance can be more of an “underground termite,” a spiritual miasma, a nagging “background uneasiness” that waxes more intense in the face of certain verses or certain types of utterances from pulpit or Christian book. In my case, it is rarely blackest despair (if only because I can’t handle utter despair, :)), but still seriously peace & joy-robbing.

    And the kinds of doubts you mentioned there in your post, OHHHHH, those are yet another category, for me totally distinct from the self-doubts (the former I can “simply” attribute to my puniness and His inscrutability [which makes them no less vexing in their own way], whereas the self-doubts I can’t keep at arm’s length so easily).

    Thanks for your comments; they were encouraging.

  26. Jazzki,
    Could you clarify what you mean by self-doubts? Is that things like, “Am I pushing God to lose patience with me? Am I too discouraged to really be a good Christian?” I’m trying to imagine what is included for you in that category of doubts.

    Is it more along the lines of doubting what you are to do, what the “right” or godly choice is in situations? Is God pleased with you kind of questions?

    My heart aches with people who doubt. Doubt just exists for me–it is part of being empathetic, I think, because you always KNOW there is another way of looking at things. So it is hard to be confident and assured that you are right, okay, on the right path, etc.

    Even more than doubt, though, I can relate to the “background uneasiness.” I am even more naturally anxious than I am doubting, I think. Over the past year, I have come to experience peace IN my anxiety. Joy IN my discouragement. I don’t think I noticed that or made space for it before, because the doubts and anxieties seemed to prove that I was NOT receiving God’s peace.

    But then I started to wake up and see that God was there with me IN the anxiety. I don’t have to fight it (or anything else) to be in relationship with Him. He was walking me through, carrying me through, growing me THROUGH the anxiety and doubt. In a mysterious way, He was and is sanctifying the thing I was trying to fight so hard to overcome. But it wasn’t about me having to overcome it in order to let Him be God. He’s God there IN my anxieties and doubts. And that makes a huge difference, even if it doesn’t magically make me peaceful and joyful and confident!

    I wonder if maybe you don’t have to worry about keeping the self-doubts at arm’s length. Maybe they will always be with you. But maybe God can be with you there in the doubts, and work through you there–a self-doubting person with God–in an amazing way. I don’t know. He’s pretty amazing what He can do in our not-so-overcoming lives, I think!

    Theologically, maybe this is shaky ground. I don’t know for sure. (I told you I doubt myself! It’s just I drive some people nuts, like my counselor, with not being bothered about being self-doubting–ha! ha!) I know I’ve heard that the doubts and the anxieties are signs I’m not trusting. But, experientially, I’ve seen that I can still trust deeply in the middle of doubting. Internally, on the deepest level, I know peace from God, even when I’m still in darkness and chaos.

    Does that make any sense? I’m not always sure!

    There are a lot of things I don’t understand about God, but I never saw Him rejecting someone for not being perfect or not getting it perfect! As a matter of fact, I LOVE how He answers Job’s brazen questioning and Jeremiah’s doubting and wanting to throw in the towel. (Jeremiah 15 is one of my favorite chapters). He, better than any one else, knows that the people He created and died to redeem are weak and but dust. I love how honestly, sharply, patiently, lovingly and forgivingly Jesus interacted with Peter even when Peter kept blowing it.

    He imputed His righteousness on you; He is sanctifying you and conforming you to His image. But, hey, if you could have done it on your own, and gotten “perfect enough” that He didn’t have to reject you, why should He have bothered to die, and then send His Holy Spirit to help you along?