Update 6/10/05: Those reading this essay and disagreeing with me might want to check out two other iMonk pieces: When I am Weak and Our Problem With Grace. Both cover my views on sin in the life of the Christian and the Grace that brings assurance in Jesus.
I’ve been thinking about the subject of the Christian’s assurance of salvation. To put my cards on the table, I don’t struggle with assurance of salvation personally at all. I’m far more inclined toward the “wider mercy” view of God’s love than I am toward any apprehensions about whether I am among the elect. My struggles are over entirely different subjects: Does God exist? How can I face death without losing my sanity? Check in with me on those topics and I’ll buy your joe.
I’m interested because I spend a significant amount of time counseling students and adults on the subject of assurance. These are people who are unsure whether or not they are Christians at all. Some feel they never were, but most feel they’ve somehow started, and now failed, in their Christian faith. I rarely have anyone come to me doubting that God exists or questioning whether the Bible is true- both questions I would expect to hear frequently given the student population that I minister to at a boarding school. Instead of these fundamental questions, I continually have a conversation something like this:
“I used to think I was a was Christian, but I don’t think I am any more.”
“What has convinced you that you’re not a Christian?”
“I don’t live like a Christian. I do a lot of things that I know Christians don’t do. I rededicate my life to Christ all the time, but I just go right back to the same old things, and I don’t see how a Christian would be so hypocritical. I’m lazy, and I really don’t live the Christian life.”
[Insert at this point my standard outline on the subject: Christians are sinners. That’s who Christ died to save. That’s what the Holy Spirit convicts us about. We’re sinners throughout life, and because the Spirit is in us, we are unhappy about our sin. Instead of doubting out salvation, which is what the Devil wants us to do, we need to continue to believe the promise of God that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness for Jesus sake. We trust Christ for forgiveness of what we do wrong, but also for the gift of His righteousness so we know we are accepted by God for Christ’s sake, and not because we lived up to our intentions or promises to Him. Remember that only Christians struggle with the issue of assurance, and that is because the Holy Spirit in us constantly brings us into to the light of the Father’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ. Accept what Christ has done for you and apart from you. Meditate on the promises in the Gospel: they are yours and are always all true for you. Read about Jesus’ tender love for sinful people. Rest in the finished work and gracious righteousness of Christ. If you go through a time of being unsure, expect your assurance to return as you focus on Christ, and not on yourself.]
“Yeah. I know all that….I just don’t think I’m a real Christian. I need to get baptized again or something.”
That’s the usual student version. I’ll pass on replaying the transcript of the adult, recently and inadequately exposed to Calvinism version, which includes things like, “What if I’m not elect?” and “If I am predestined to go to hell, it doesn’t matter if I think I’m a Christian- I’m just fooling myself because I’m a reprobate.” Answering these concerns is a different matter that has more to do with the character and decrees of God than with assurance itself, but make no mistake: there’s a lot of true agony going on with these people.
One of the first things that ever occurred to me as a young preacher boy predestined to wander from the fundamentalism of my youth was a feeling that much of what I saw going on around me was meant to plow up any kind of assurance on the part of anyone who wasn’t a Texas youth evangelist. Yeah, we learned all the “assurance verses,” but someone was busy blowing up whatever we thought we believed before we had any real chance to be “grounded.”
For instance, it was entirely common in my circles to hear preachers deliver a sermon that, despite varying texts and titles, could simply be called “Are you sure? Are you really sure? Are you sure you’re sure? Are you absolutely sure?”
Sermons on death and the impending end of the world were frequently spiced with searching questions on whether we were absolutely sure we’d be in heaven should these events occur. Or would we, as Jesus predicted, find ourselves surprised to be in hell with millions of other Christians who “weren’t really saved” after all?
Another round of sermons and testimonies were all about folks who had “thought” for years they were saved , but weren’t really saved at all. After one particular “Layman’s Revival,” everyone who ever taught me in Sunday School or witnessed to me at my church got “re-saved.” (Except for my mom and the pastor. I remember the pastor being rather unenthusiastic about rebaptizing a busful of people he’d baptized years before, including most of the deacons and many of his family.) It became a badge of honor to say that you’d spent years assuming you were a Christian, teaching Sunday School, singing in the choir, knocking on doors to witness- and then had discovered you weren’t saved and had never “accepted Jesus” at all.
Revivals, youth camps, youth revivals, testimony meetings, Christian concerts, youth rallies….all of these events were likely to feature the uprooting of any semblance of assurance a Christian happened to be carrying around. Questioning your salvation was a way of life. Announcing repeat customers as new converts was the predictable result.
Since the focus of my fundamentalist, revivalist, Southern Baptist upbringing was the all important sacrament of the altar call, we were particularly called upon to frequently examine whether we really meant it when we’d “come forward.” Had we sincerely, really, honestly, truly, “asked Jesus into our hearts?” Were we sure? Was Jesus really there? Did we ever doubt our salvation? Did we know, absolutely and unshakably, that we belonged to God?
Living in this kind of tortured environment never really shook my personal assurance, but it made me cynical about what I was seeing and hearing. Frankly, it annoyed me before and after I made my own profession of faith, and has increasingly offended and concerned me as a minister. It smells like a way to generate false conversions and brag about the numbers at your last meeting. I’ve since decided that believing any Southern Baptist reports on number of professions of faith at any revivalistic event or subsequent baptisms is an exercise for the gullible and the stupid. The number of people born again, and again, and again, and again is truly staggering.
This is contempt for the average, ordinary, struggling Christian and their most basic sturggles. Make no mistake about it. These are people who, besides their commendable zeal, are quite content to destroy the certainty of heaven, forgiveness and God’s constant love for His children.
So assurance is regularly fried up in the atmosphere of revivalism, but one doesn’t have to live in such a circus to find the assurance of the ordinary Christian under assault. Much of evangelical preaching today is focused on moralism of various kinds, constantly pointing the Christian to what he/she ought to be doing. Serious preaching on discipleship often directs the Christian to a variety of duties, ministry needs and pressing obligations for any true follower of Jesus. For sensitive consciences, it can seem that the Christian life is about being a “good” person, doing “good” things in a hurting world, imitating Jesus so others can see Jesus in you.
Many contemporary preachers are busy describing the Christian life as a life where the Christian finds his/her destiny and fulfills his/her dreams. Follow the principles for success and purpose, and experience God’s best for your life. But what if you are failing? Suffering? Constantly falling short? Such emphases can undermine assurance when the Christian is told the outcome of the Christian life is practical, real-world results.
(I find it extremely interesting that Joel Osteen has combined the success and prosperity message with a strong, almost unrelenting emphasis on the Christian’s constant awareness of God’s love and acceptance. Osteen has wisely perceived that assurance is being undermined in many churches with emotionalism and a Word-Faith, prosperity and health message. He has repaired this by talking about a God who is always on the side of everyone, all the time. What Osteen fails to do is clearly relate this message of assurance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.)
Among many churches with a serious emphasis on the Biblical Gospel, there is the danger of an over-emphasis on evidence that one is truly converted, or in some circles, truly elect. The New Testament’s proper and plain concern for evidence of the reality of the Holy Spirit can become a cause for much doubt that the evidence is ever adequate or convincing. Again, when the sensitive conscience is put on the witness stand, it rarely feels that the evidence is sufficient to clear the bar of judgment as a “true Christian.”
Strong Biblical preachers who press texts and applications upon the conscience often create an unceasing atmosphere of personal doubt about salvation. By holding the demands of the Law and discipleship up for unmistakable consideration, many Christians come away convinced they are not true believers, but quite possibly among those Jesus will finally reject. There is a pervading notion of false faith in many serious, Biblical churches; a notion that buys into the Bunyanesque notion of a door to hell at the entrance to heaven itself. (I have often heard reformed preachers wrestle with the implications of this for their own pastoring. Would that more reformed leaders would urge the preaching of assurance in Christ alone upon their hearers and not send them seeking assurance in Christian experience.)
Such preachers are well aware that this is a hazard. They know the scriptural texts that enjoin making calling and election sure. They know the texts that recommend self-examination. Some of these preachers are constant in preaching the Gospel to bring assurance. Others are less concerned with the promises of the Gospel, and are content to let an extended “law-work” overturn false assurance in the church.
As an example of my concern, I want to look at a sermon on assurance by Dr. John Piper. In a May 2, 1982 sermon on election and assurance, John Piper used an illustration of a couple whose diligent efforts to swim against the tide kept them from being swept away and drown. Using the illustration as an application, Piper says.
I’ve said before and will again: we do not judge a person’ s genuineness by how close he is to heaven but by how hard he is stroking. The evidence that God’s power has been given to you by faith is that you are now making every effort (as 2 Peter 1, verse 5 says) to advance in the qualities of Christ.
Earlier, Piper used an illustration about marriage to show how assurance of love brings effort in a marriage relationship.
We labor for virtue because God has already labored for us and is at work in us. Don’t ever reverse the order, lest you believe another gospel (which is no gospel). Never say, “I will work out my salvation in order that God might work in me.” But say with the apostle Paul, “I work out my salvation for it is God who works in me to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Never say, “I press on to make it my own in order that Christ might make me his own.” But say with Paul, “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). There is a world of difference in a marriage where the husband doubts the love of his wife and labors to earn it, and a marriage where the husband rests in the certainty of his wife’s love and takes pains joyfully not to live unworthily of it. Peter’s point is: God is for us with divine power. Of that we may be sure. Now, in the confidence of that power, take pains not to live unworthily of his love.
Yet, Piper makes it clear in the sermon that assurance is conditional.
It is possible to make a start in the Christian life but then to become indifferent and unfeeling and careless in using the means of grace, and to drift into destruction…If the knowledge of God’s glorious promises does not spur us on to strive against the tide, then we will be barren and fruitless and drift to our destruction.
Then Piper gives an extended explanation of the text “..make your calling and election sure.”
Verse 10 makes crystal clear what is at stake in such blindness and powerlessness and fruitlessness: “Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election.” The danger described in verses 8 and 9 (as an incentive to advance in the fruits of faith) is not the danger of slipping into the kingdom with no rewards. It is the danger of not being saved at all. When Peter says, “Be zealous to confirm your call and election,” he means that our lack of diligence in Christian graces may be a sign that we were never called and are not among the elect.
However you have been taught on this matter of election, please give very close attention to this verse. The assumption is that the whole world lies under the righteous judgment of God because of sin. But because of his great mercy, God ordained that a people for his own be saved by grace. These are his elect, his chosen whom he has predestined to be conformed to the image of his son. And Paul explains in Romans 8:30 that those elect whom he predestined to Christ-likeness he also called, and whom he called, he also justified and whom he justified he also glorified. None of God’s sheep will ever be lost. They are eternally secure. But from our side the most important question of life is: am I among the elect who God predestines to be like Christ and then calls and justifies and glorifies forever? If we are, God wants us to know that we are. He wants us to have joyful assurance, for out of that assurance flows tremendous power for sacrificial service that gives him glory.
Therefore Peter says, “Confirm your election! Make sure of it!” How? By standing in your faith and pressing on to virtue, knowledge, self-control, patience, godliness, brotherly affection and love. John said (in 1 John 3:14), “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (cf. 2:3). The confirmation of your election is your progress in sanctification. God predestined all the elect to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Therefore, the reassuring evidence of our election is Christ-likeness.
It is undeniable- and anyone who reads Dr. Piper knows this presentation of assurance is not dated in the least- that the reality of personal assurance here comes from obedience. According to Dr. Piper, we are to make every effort toward obedience in every way, and these efforts will provide us with the “joyful assurance” that we are among the elect.
What does this message do to those who struggle with assurance? It seems to me that the effects will be varied. Some will genuinely be helped. Some will be motivated toward sacrificial service. But this type of preaching has an undeniably despairing effect upon sensitive consciences. Notice the words in the closing paragraphs, words not particularly different from the kind of “doubt creating” preaching I heard growing up.
So here’s the application: Are you making every effort toward moral excellence? Are you making every effort to increase your knowledge of God’s character and his will? Are you making every effort to strengthen your power of self-control? Are you making every effort to enlarge your capacity for patience? Are you making every effort to cultivate godliness to develop a heart for God? Are you making every effort to grow warm in your affection for your fellow believers? And are you making every effort to stir up love in your will for the person you dislike the most? If these things are in you and increasing, you will not be fruitless (v.8), you will never stumble (v. 10) , and you will enter the eternal kingdom of Christ (v. 11). But if these things are not your earnest concern then it is because you have shut your eyes to the beauty of God’s promises and have forgotten the humble exhilaration of being forgiven.
Therefore, the word of God warns us against being lazy in your faith and drifting away from Jesus Christ our only hope. And the Word encourages us to fight the good fight of faith and take hold on eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12,19); to lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and run with perseverance the race before us (Heb. 12:1); to press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14); to advance and grow and go forward in virtue and knowledge and self-control and patience and godliness and brotherly affection and love (2 Peter 1:5-7), and in this way to reassure our hearts and make our confidence firm that we are indeed called to share in God’s glory and excellence (2 Peter 1:10,3).
I want to be very careful to say that I have no particular disagreement with the general unfolding of this text, but I believe honest, sensitive consciences will be driven to doubt and a loss of assurance by the emphasis that we look to the evidence of our lives rather than to Christ alone as the ultimate ground of assurance. All the efforts and kinds of obedience that flow from a passage like this will ultimately be an inadequate ground for assurance.
[Folks who love Dr. Piper….PLEASE don’t carpet bomb me. This is not an attack on him, his ministry, or Reformed theology. The discussion of assurance as it applies to sensitive consciences has been going on since the Puritans, was a major issue in the writings of Luther, and was the reason Spurgeon counseled care when reading John Bunyan, whose theology was much like Dr. Piper’s. It’s a valid and fair issue and not an attack on Calvinism.]
If I were to return to my teenage counselee, and ask the questions in the last two paragraphs- “Have you made EVERY effort toward obedience and Christlikeness?”- I would reaffirm her conclusion that she is, indeed, not a true Christian; a conclusion based upon her disappointing performance in the Christian life. We would be back at the baptistery in no time.
Recently, Lifeway listed on their website the Ten Most Pressing Issues Facing The Church. The Gospel didn’t make the top ten. It doesn’t surprise me. A variety of political and social issues- all demanding Christian activism- made the list. I am wondering how many Christians are sitting in churches, hearing preaching and teaching, and leaving wondering if they are Christians at all? I wonder how many Christians believe the center of the Gospel is their own efforts at being “fully surrendered” or obedient?
The growing centrality of the Gospel in many churches and among many reformation-minded Christians is the most encouraging sign that there may, indeed, be a new reformation afoot. But in order for a new reformation to take hold, we must come to grips with the hundreds, thousands, even millions of Christians who do not yet see all the demands, all the promises, all the law and all the callings of a disciple met fully and completely in the person of Jesus Christ. If assurance is not based on the mediation of Jesus BEFORE it is evaluated in terms of the “efforts” and “evidence” of our own lives, we will eventually find ourselves at the mercy of the enemy and our own consciences. Christ first, then our own, imperfect obedience. Then Christ again, all in all.
The habit of many serious preachers is to put the Gospel focus on the person and work of Jesus, but to do so in a relationship to the obedience and faith of the Christian that undermines assurance for many sincere, yet faltering, Christians. I don’t believe these preachers reject the kinds of assurance the reformers taught were available to every Christian. I simply believe the agendas of activism, evangelism and even intense discipleship can displace- simply through emphasis- the mighty fact of a finished work and an infinitely worthy mediator. When every Christian looks to Jesus for assurance, and when godliness, obedience and perseverance all arise from and finally rest in the faithfulness of Jesus, the Gospel will do its work of placing our assurance totally in the heart of the good shepherd and the arms of the waiting father, rather than in our stumbling, imperfect, failing selves.
Can pastors, teachers, well-intentioned Christian parents and youth workers move away from the use of fear and threats to undermine assurance, and simply commend Jesus to each person’s conscience as our all-sufficient assurance? That is my prayer for myself and my fellow servants of the Gospel.
Let me close with some thoughts by Rod Rosenbladt that bear directly on the issue of assurance and how it is handled among Christians and in the church. Here is wisdom.
Did the reformers, then, have any doctrine of sanctification? Of course they did. We are all familiar with the biblical announcements as to what is involved in sanctification: the Word, the Sacraments, prayer, fellowship, sharing the gospel, serving God and neighbor. And the Reformation tradition acknowledges that there are biblical texts that speak of sanctification as complete already. This is not a perfection that is empirical or observable (as Wesley and others would have insisted upon), but a definitive declaration that because we are “in Christ,” we are set apart and reckoned holy by his sacrifice (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10, and so on). Anybody who is in Christ is sanctified, because Christ’s holiness is imputed to the Christian believer, just as Jesus says in John 17:19, “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” God sees the believer as holy. That means that Wesley should not have terrified Christian brethren with texts such as “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 [NIV] ). The Christian is holy, it is all imputed. What would the reformers have done with texts such as 1 Peter 1:16, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” ([NAS], cf. Lev. 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7)? They would say we are called to be holy. But, some may ask, why should we be called to holiness if we are already perfect in Christ? That question has been asked before, and Paul’s answer in Romans 6 is because we are saved unto good works, not unto licentiousness. Good works are done out of thankfulness of heart by the believer who has been saved, not by one who is trying to be saved by following the law…
What should the Christian do if he is reading the law and says, “This is not yet true of me: I don’t love God with all my heart, and I certainly don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor man on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian.” The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, “Surrender more!” or, “What are you holding back from the Lord?” The Reformation answer is different: “You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located.” After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey (thus fulfilling the third use of the law), and this is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey. The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ’s death saves even Christians from sin. There is always room at the cross for unbelievers, it seems. But we ought also to be telling people that there is room at the cross for Christians, too.
[Essential Reading: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Justification by Rod Rosenblatt.]