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.]
57 thoughts on “On Faith's Crumbling Edge: Restoring The Uprooted Assurance Of The Ordinary Christian”
“Revivals, youth camps, youth revivals, testimony meetings, Christian concerts, youth ralliesâ€¦.all of these events were likely to feature the uprooting of any semblance of assurance a Christian happened to be carrying around.”
My mom converted from catholicism to protestantism because in protestantism, she finally found assurance. She felt like she could finally relax and stop worrying about her salvation. I’m the opposite; I never was able to feel secure and assured the way she did. So I guess protestant or catholic or whatever the denomination, it doesn’t matter.
Just to clarify. You can actually be a Southern Baptist and be a follower of Jesus Christ. I know that is kind of off the thread, but it seems like I read a large amount of SBC bashing on the net nowadays.
We aren’t perfect, but there are some of us who haven’t gotten on the bus just yet. =)
—The New Testamentâ€™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 â€œtrue Christian.**—
This (especially the starred part) sums up what I was groaning about over at the “Dangerous Grace” thread.
You are correct. I need to write an update on that essay…or drop it. I’ll do one or the other soon. It is over 2 years old and was written when I was an enthusiastic Calvinist.
Hi, Michael. This is my first visit to your blog. I wrestle with the issue you address here. Many of your statements in this article seem directly at odds with your statements in a previous article: https://internetmonk.com/articles/r/race.html I actually found both articles helpful, in different ways, and wonder if you might make some attempt to synthesize them?
My wife once confessed to a wise Christian leader that she constantly feared committing the unpardonable sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The leader replied that the very fact she was concerned about it suggested that she was unlikley to commit the sin, since her conscience was alert to the Holy Spirit.
Many of the greatest leaders in the Bible, and since, have wrestled with personal weakness and outright sin (someone already mentioned Romans 7). In the early days of The Salvation Army (of which I am an Oficer) John Wesley’s “entire sanctification” was seen as a goal. It was often couched in the terms of total surrender to the Holy Spirit. However, I’m not aware of any suggestion that struggling with bessetting sins suggested a person was not saved, and therefore going to hell. It was simply an acknowledgement that God had more work to do, in which he needed our co-operation.
The Salvation Army has always taught that “continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ” – that is, losing your salvation is *possible*. This happens not because you are struggling with sin, but because you *give up* struggling. In the end, Christ justifies us in response to our faith, and sanctifies us as much as were are willing to acknowledge our frailty and sin. We desire it, he does it.
It will only bother the sensitive and the hardened don’t care or listen for sure…but there is reason for it. To build our faith and teach us how to combat the enemy.
Great article and I have back tracked.
I want to respond to Cultural Savage, here.
“So, what happens on the days when I feel this strong pull to throw it all away and be “normal and happy” like the rest of the world. I do have days like that, days when I see the immediate ease of godlessness and some part of me (if not all of me) just doesent want to fight the good fight any more. On those days am I not “saved” (if I ever was), or have I only lost heart because I have forgotten the assurance of the hope of Salvation?”
Every one of us knows temptation. Every one of us has probably been in a situation where we have wanted to deny our faith in order to live an easier life. Saint Peter denied Christ three times, after being warned by Chist that he would do so, and affirming his commitment never to deny Jesus. Why did he? Because being a Christian seemed like a whole lot of trouble, right then.
Feeling like chucking the whole thing is an honest and dangerous temptation. I don’t blame you for having it. I don’t know what the solution for you is going to be, but beating yourself up every time you don’t toe the line (or getting all worked up about whether God will still love you if you want to drive a famcier car instead of putting an actual 10% into the collection basket) is only going to be a bad thing.
What did Jesus say are the two most important commandments? Love God and love your neighbors. Do you spend every day constantly concerned with whether you love your mom enough? Do you question whether your love for your sister is adequate to qualify for a proper definition of sibling love? Or do you love them the way that most people love their families? I love my wife and kids and I would do anything to keep them safe, but I don’t have to spend each day asking myself if I love them enough. If I know that they are more important to me than my own life, then I know I love them enough. And it is okay. I also love God. I don’t ask myself every day if I am truly saved, elect, or assured. That’s in God’s hands, not mine. Instead, I live as the sort of person this world needs. Not wretchedly urget about converting every heathen, but I pick up litter, I enjoy God’s creation, I raise my children to be the sort of people who will make a better world. I try to avoid temptation and I thank the Lord for every day He gives me. When we call ourselves children of God, are we loving Him as children? My kids don’t spend their days asking themselves if they are good enough to be my kids. They do come to me when they need something that a father should be able to give his kids, though. Because they love me and know that I love them. If God is our Father, how do you think He really wants us to show our love?
Okay, here’s the part that worked for me but might not for you. Depends on a lot that is different from me and you. I have had some habitual sin issues (no, I am not going into details) that I never managed to lick until recently. Last Easter, I was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to the Easter Vigil, I went to my first Confession. I bared my screw-ups to a man who I know won’t tell anyone, naming my “demons”, and asked for forgiveness. My confessor spent some time figuring out why particular things were recurrent problems, then directed me to find a different outlet for the energy then being wasted on sin. We decided that spending a little more time on making music was a good thing. Less than a week later, I recieved Eucharist for the first time. Here’s the part that still blows my mind: I don’t have any strong temptations to return to my particular besetting sin. None. Minor habit-related thoughts, but no strong temptation at all. No, I am not giving advice, but I am sharing what worked for me.
In the end, you will either find a way to deal with this or it will become a wedge between you and God. Love God, love your neighbor, and don’t sweat the details too much. More grows out of love than out of fear, and I think it pleases God a whole lot more, too.
I can say with confidence that it is not silly to be concerned about people who are too grieved over their sin. It is not unbiblical to care for people who are hurting. From my own experiences I know that it can be a very dark and lonely place to be in and I thank God for the people who cared about me when I struggled with overwhelming feelings of guilt and inaddequacy. One thing that has encouraged me many times is reading John Donne’s “A Hymn to God the Father,” which concludes:
“I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.”
Well…there are plenty of Christians who believe everyone who hasn’t had their particular experience or who belongs to a different tradition is not a Christian.
Then point is to preach/live/teach Christ as mediator for everyone. Assurance isn’t something we “have” so much as either we are “in” Christ by grace through faith or not. Constant harassment about things like works, emotions, altar calls, surrender, experiences, etc. is what I oppose.
http://www.adherents.com/largecom/com_christian.html — 85% of Americans think they are Christians —
I agree with you that WE don’t have to give or uproot assurance, but I think we as a church need to make it clearer what is a Christian and what is not.
the main difference as you said is what they believe; the assurance comes from Holy Spirit:
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” Rom 8:16
I remember what some Eastern Orthodox priests said when protestants sent their missionaries in a country with 95% “Christians” … they said our country does not need missionaries we’ve been Christians for the last 2000 years.
I don’t know if the term “uproot their assurance” can be applied here. I realize that your article did not directly touched on this.
>saying a short prayer to make their parents happy?
if they come to you for advice, is it right to give them an assurance that they are indeed saved?
Since they haven’t indicated that they believe in Jesus at all, I wouldn’t have any assurance to offer them. They just told me they just did something to make their parents happy. That’s certainly different from “I don’t live like a Christian ought to live.” The person you are describing needs to hear the Gospel and respond to it in faith or unbelief.
Now…if you have an agenda of things that ought to be true about people who made professions of faith as children (4 is a bit early isn’t it? Even for Baptists?) then I would say to you that God calls little children to himself in revivalistic churches all the time, and if you tell every young person who says “I just DID “IT” because my friends did, etc.” that they aren’t Christians, you will likely make some errors. I’ve learned that we need to be careful about despising small beginnings, because JESUS SAVED people who didn’t even know who he was. Abraham knew almost nothing about whatever God was telling him to leave home, etc. So a small first step by a small person is exactly that, and the question is really about NOW, not then. But don’t despise then too quickly.
I get kids who were baptized as infants all the time. I don’t GIVE them assurance or UPROOT their assurance. Neither is my job. The Holy Spirit gives assurance. I share the gospel with them. I tell them that we believe in a savior who saves. Our belief doesn’t save, Jesus does. If their belief started small, or is imperfect now, it doesn’t matter. What do you believe about Jesus NOW is all that matters.
What do you do with kids raised in Christian homes who “accepted Jesus” when they were 4 years old , saying a short prayer to make their parents happy?
if they come to you for advice, is it right to give them an assurance that they are indeed saved?
Jeremiah 6:14 “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter oy my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace”
it is imposible to know a person’s heart, only God can know that, that’s why i think we need balance in aproaching this matter
I noticed that iMonk referenced Christ The Lord, edited by Michael Horton. I agree that it’s a great book and one that I found fairly cheaply a while back, here:
Thank you for another excellent post.
I know that I am incapable of following God perfectly. Many times I am not even sure I want to follow God, even if I could.
How refreshing it is to know that because of Christ there is hope, even for me.
This is sort of on topic, but… can someone explain the Calvinist position on Matthew 25:31? Isn’t Jesus telling us to love one another? Isn’t that what separates the sheep from the goats?
I’m a goat, trying very hard to be a sheep.
Michael – you did a good job on this. Don’t know if you have seen it, but I’ve been writing a bit about assurance myself. I have had some of the same experiences as you. I was in a college group one time where Ras Robinson (remember him – he was one of the old Fullness guys with Jim Hylton, Peter Lord and a few others)came to do a retreat. Fortunately I missed the retreat because all of my friends, and my college minister found out they weren’t saved on that retreat and came back home and got saved again and baptized again. It was just as you said, they were all checking themselves to see if they were sincere enough. It occurred to me that they confused faith in faith with faith in Christ. In other words, they were doubting their salvation because they didn’t know if they had believed sincerely enough, they were in effect turning faith into a work, basing their salvation on their own work of faith, not on Christ’s finished work.
At the risk of sounding like a presbyterian I do think the confession is helpful in its chapter on assurance – it gives a threefold means of assurancde – reliance on the promises of salvation in the gospel, the evidence of Christian graces in the heart and the inward testimony of the Spirit. I think it is in that order – when doubting our assurance we need to look first to Christ and the promises of the gospel. Then we can look at the evidences of Christians graces in our heart and finally the inward witness of the spirit confirms this. I like this formulation because it gives proper weight to all three. And, I really think you were saying something pretty close to this.
Also, have you seen A. A. Hodge’s article on Humility and Assurance. It’s a good one – he relates our assurance to our lack of self-concern. What I took from his article is that our assurance can grow to the extent that we quit worrying about our assurance and focus on Christ.
Sorry for taking up so much of your space!
Excellent article 🙂
I’m not a TULIPite, but for those only believe that Christ died only for the elect, how can you be certain that Christ died for you? It seems to me that one is continually forced to look to one’s own works and obedience as the grounds for assurance, which seems to me to be a little bit shaky. I mean, even on our best days there are times when we disobey God – how can any of us be confident on the day of judgment based on our own actions? How obedient do we have to be to be sure that we are saved? Indeed how do we even know that we are one of the one’s God has chosen?
(I have my own ideas about what will actually happen at the last judgment, but that’s for another day)
I can’t see how given universal disobedience anyone can have assurance apart from Christ himself. There is of course a subjective element to the atonement, but I think Piper goes too far – or at least doesn’t make the point very well. Here’s a quote from Martin Luther on the subject of certainty of one’s own election from his sermon ‘Preparing for Death’, it has encouraged me at times when I have doubted my own assurance:
Â“Look upon the heavenly picture of Christ who for thy sake descended into hellÂ…see in that picture thy hell is conquered, and thy uncertain election made sureÂ…Seek thyself only in Christ and not in thyself, so wilt thou find thyself eternally in him.Â”
Amen to that.
So, what happens on the days when I feel this strong pull to throw it all away and be “normal and happy” like the rest of the world. I do have days like that, days when I see the immediate ease of godlessness and some part of me (if not all of me) just doesent want to fight the good fight any more. On those days am I not “saved” (if I ever was), or have I only lost heart because I have forgotten the assurance of the hope of Salvation?
I am sorry I can’t get into a lengthy debate. I’ve written on the subjects you are concerned with.
I agree totally with Rosenbladt.
I didn’t offer a “lengthy” critique of “Piper’s Words.” I offered a Piper sermon as an example.
If there is some problem that I am not aware of, I apologize.
imonk, after my last post you responded to me saying you simply were saying that we should “offer Christ and Christ alone to sensitive consciences”, altho I think you go farther than that in your essay and previous posts here. But taking that at your word, would you be willing to break down a bit what you mean by “offering Christ alone” in the interest of some clarity where so much ink and consternation has already been invested?
No one is telling anyone to go round “continually testing themselves”; IÂ’ve not heard it taught in any pulpit or modern writing (altho for argument’s sake I’m not convinced it would be detrimental to test oneself a the end of each day for evidence that I am what I claim to be would be a bad practice). But what is “offering Christ and Christ alone”.
In the subject we are talking about, assurance, I think this vague comment is saying “to someone who seems concerned about the fact that there conscience is bothered by some lack of character or action that the Bible says should be present in true Christians, I would tell them take their minds off of those tests and focus on the objective truths of what Christ has done for them and promised for ANYONE who believes and trusts that.”
I would instead say to such a person:
It is a GOOD thing to have a sensitive conscience to sin. Its silly to be concerned about people who are TOO grieved over their sin, too bothered about it, its an unbiblical concern for people with sinful natures who instead have hearts that naturally tend to justify rationalize and harden and accustomize themselves to sin rather than aiming for perfection and holiness. We can erroneously, however, be too sensitive in judging ourselves as lost because of sin in our lives which will always be present. Instead, we are called to make sober mature judgments about some BASIC levels of growth in fruit of the Spirit, genuine love for the saints, love and obedience for God, and the lack of some more heinous sins in one’s life that the Bible says are inconsistent with a claim to being saved (habitual homosexual practice or a general character of unforgiveness toward others as examples). If someone is sensitive about sin that falls in the latter category, I would gently and lovingly tell them that they are absolutely on point to be concerned about their salvation, that I can offer them no ASSURANCE, but that I know that Christ offers them Himself, his atonement, and full forgiveness if that day they will cling to his work in faith and truly repent from these things. If the sin does not reasonably fall into the latter category, I would review and emphasize the other truths of Scripture that we shall always struggle with the sin and sin nature, that the struggle and “being bothered” by the sin are always good while questioning the power of God to forgive the sin and overcome it are greater sins themselves that one should repent over and cling to the finished work of Christ.
Often the claims of the multitudes of self-professed “sensitive consciences” are those who do not want to submit to a yoke of obedience in an area of their life that the Holy Spirit is trying to convict them on, and when God or his Word attempt to do the work described in the Westminster Confession of godly discipline or withdrawing some, or all, of the grace of assurance there is always a pastor waiting around the corner in counseling or a sermon to tell them they are simply too sensitive and must simply believe the objective doctrines of justification by belief and trust alone (rather than a well-rounded biblical view of faith) and move on!
When Christ “simply offered” himself it was a gospel simply offered with a continuing call to “repent” when the kingdom was offered, to take on a yoke, to sell all your goods and then come follow Him at times. Offering Christ also requires explaining how receiving Him requires receiving a hard road to walk ourselves, a cross, a beating our bodies and making them our slaves to help assure we ourselves are not disqualified, a not being worthy of it if we looked back or turned back, a working out our salvations with fear and trembling, or as Peter put it at 2Pet1:5-10 “Make every effort to (really believe and trust? no…) supplement your faith with virtue… self-control… godliness… love… For IF you posses these qualities in increasing measure… Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election SURE, for IF you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
If you say “I agree with all that” then what do you mean exactly by “simply offering Christ” and another long critique of Piper’s words?
Brian P: thanks for your very honest comment. God bless you. You speak for a lot of people trapped in condemnation.
I agree. Being called, even commanded to live in the reality of Christ’s Lordship does not make those efforts the source of our assurance. Christ is, and Christ alone.
Are we talking about motivation? Are we talking about witness? Are we talking about service? Or are we talking about assurance?
Back to this issue of preaching, I am far from the first one to raise this issue. The puritans debated it. They have whole titles on assurance. Spurgeon faulted Bunyan – his hero!- on it. Horton gently corrected some very respected Calvinist brothers on it. Ryle wrote the link above because these two related doctrines must be kept seperate for the matter of assurance.
I am always astounded that someone will say, in effect, “Well…if we don’t shake up their assurance, they will just go out and live however they please.” And that’s the Gospel?
Amen! What else shall we rest in? For if Jesus Christ (God incarnate) has not completed Salvation in His death and resurrection… well then I’m S.O.L. because God knows how flawed I be. But still, we do live in a difficult reality of paradox: By grace we are saved through faith (period, end scene, the fat lady has sung), and still we are called to make every effort to live in that reality, for it is not enough to say I believe, I must actually believe (1 John 1:8-2:17).
I will repeat what I wrote about four inches above your post:
“I want to be very clear: THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT SOME TEXTS TELL US TO EXAMINE OURSELVES, ABSTAIN FROM SIN, RUN THE RACE, ETC. The problem comes when ultimate assurance is supposed to rest in things like surrender, certainty, effort, Christlikeness, delight, progress, Godliness and so on. There IS a measure of assurance in sanctifiaction, but the assurance that needs to be offered to sensitive consciences is Christ and Christ alone.”
In my 33+ years of reading the Bible, I have noticed the doctrine of sanctification and perseverance in the New Testament.
But if I close the book, and ask what is the Bible telling me, I do NOT believe it is saying, “You may believe, but you may be wrong. Continually test yourself to see if you are elect.” I believe it is saying REST IN JESUS CHRIST ALONE PERIOD.
You have made repeatedly clear that you do not beleive in “shaking false assurance” (which in my varied experiences through evangelical churches, PCA, etc. is not being done today for the most part but is instead deeply frowned upon).
But the main issue suggested by others here is, do you believe the BIBLE teaching leads one to shake false assurances if one is faithful to its teaching?
I think you know the long list of Scriptures that does that, and you anticipate a defense a few posts above by saying we need to be careful of being “too expositional” and get away from preaching too much Law rather than Gospel. I am one who on the issue of both sanctification and the separate biblical teaching on how I can know that the Christian doctrines I believe have truly impacted MY soul and heart believes we just need to teach what the Bible repeatedly teaches… that we must look to whether we have the fruit of the Spirit rather than the weeds that lead to destruction, whether we are living as sheep rather than goats, whether we are passionately calling the Christ of the Bible “Lord, Lord” without a general (never near perfection but always improving) pattern of obedience in our lives. Teaching anything else such as unbiblical trite truisms like “if you are concerned or sad about your sins at all that proves that you are saved” in a biblically unprecedented and historical-Church homiletically unprecedented attempt to protect the Bible from the Bible is dangerous. Your readers and hearers deserve honesty from you about what the Bible really says, and I believe one of the most dangerous things a minister can do is euthanize the deceived unsaved nominal Christian that all is peace/ok, or in the other instance to be fighting against the Holy Spirit in attempting to convict saved Christians about sins in their life through use of the conviction and godly sorrow over sin to repent. The Old Testament warned another generation of teachers of the LORD’s Word that blood would be on their own hands if they fail to warn the people who look to their teachings the warnings of Scripture.
I’m not talking about preaching this every week or every other week. I’m saying there needs to be biblical balance against the idea of the large majority of orthodox preachers I’ve heard, and you, when you seem to say there’s no place for this type of teaching that the Bible demonstrates over and over again.
Thanks for the link above. I, like many here, struggle with this problem. Ryle’s article is great help in understanding it.
Memorize J.C. Ryle’s short article defining Justification and Sanctification
The most helpful book for me on the subject of assurance is a book I am afriad is out of Print: Christ the Lord, edited by Michael Horton. The Rosenbladt piece linked in the essay first appeared in that book. It was the book where Horton offered helpful Reformation insights to some involved in the “Lordship Salvation” discussion.
I want to be very clear: THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT SOME TEXTS TELL US TO EXAMINE OURSELVES, ABSTAIN FROM SIN, RUN THE RACE, ETC. The problem comes when ultimate assurance is supposed to rest in things like surrender, certainty, effort, Christlikeness, delight, progress, Godliness and so on. There IS a measure of assurance in sanctifiaction, but the assurance that needs to be offered to sensitive consciences is Christ and Christ alone.
The idea that we need “shake false assurances” is the problem I have with many of my past (and presents) friends and influences. I no longer believe that good seed grows out of soil that is turned over every day.
Has anybody here ever read Ron Julian’s “Righteous Sinners: The Believer’s Struggle With Faith, Grace, And Works” ?
Rob from Discerning Reader sent me a free copy about a year ago, when I was REALLY (and still am, since the age of 15 or 16…I’m now 22).
How can I possibly make the claim to call myself a Christian, with as often as I fail, and how little the Bible seems to describe me? That’s the question.
I think that the problem starts when we don’t have a clear understanding of justification and sanctification. They are not the same thing.
our assurance comes from justification not from sanctification.
I think preachers use this threat ( that you’re not a real christian ) to stimulate christians to a more holy life. The problem is that the end result is exactly the opposite.
It is only when you know who you are that you can act as who you are.
I think, however, that there are a lot of “christians” who have a false assurance, but were never saved.
The solution: We are saved by faith alone, but by a faith that never comes alone.
Ok, so I have a question: As I stated earlier (or at least tried to) I think that compassion toward our humanity (and thus our weakness) is vital to drawing people into maturity in Jesus. However, sin and ungodliness cannot just be swept under the rug, after faith without works is dead, and thus is not faith and with out faith it is impossible to please God… so here is the question that has been rattling around in my skull for a good couple of hours (and years): If sanctification is truly at work in my life why do I still find my self falling to the same fleshly desires and into the same traps over and over and over and… well, you get the idea. At what point am I not “baring fruit keeping with repentance”? I ask this personally because I need to have some clue of the answer if I ever hope to help others grow in Christ while battling their flesh and all the temptations the world, the devil, and ourselves throw at us.
“Are you SURE? Are you SURE you’re SURE? ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY SURE YOU’RE SURE YOU’RE SURE YOU’RE SURE YOU’RE SURE?”
And after a while (usually after you’re a notch on a dozen or so “Wretched Urgency” Bibles), you just burn out and forever after wonder if it’s all been a crock of BS.
Mix with a big dose of Worm Theology and Hal Lindsay’s proto-Left Behind Fever, and that’s what happened to me. (Did you know there are 63 1/2 books in the Bible other than Daniel, Revelation, the “Nuclear War Chapter” of Ezekiel, and Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth?)
When you’re evangelizing out of “Wretched Urgency” and your Gospel says that Christ only rewards you in eternity for the number of “Decisions for Christ” you’ve “led” others to, there’s a vested interest in tearing down your “mark”s assurance of salvation so you can re-save him and get another notch on your Bible for J-Day. I’ve not only observed this in action, I used to be on the receiving end of it.
“When we see that the whole sum of our salvation, and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ, we must beware of deriving even the minutest portion of it from any other quarter. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that he possesses it; if we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in his unction; strength in his government; purity in his conception; indulgence in his nativity, in which he was made like us in all respects, in order that he might learn to sympathise with us: if we seek redemption, we shall find it in his passion; acquittal in his condemnation; remission of the curse in his cross; satisfaction in his sacrifice; purification in his blood; reconciliation in his descent to hell; mortification of the flesh in his sepulchre; newness of life in his resurrection; immortality also in his resurrection; the inheritance of a celestial kingdom in his entrance into heaven; protection, security, and the abundant supply of all blessings, in his kingdom; secure anticipation of judgment in the power of judging committed to him. In fine, since in him all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter. Those who, not satisfied with him alone, entertain various hopes from others, though they may continue to look to him chiefly, deviate from the right path by the simple fact, that some portion of their thought takes a different direction. No distrust of this description can arise when once the abundance of his blessings is properly known.”
John Calvin, *Institutes*, Bk 2 Ch 16 Paragraph 19
Your comments are on target. You’re addressing what I call “neo-Puritanism.” Neo-Puritans follow their forebears more closely than they ought, for they reject the idea that assurance is integral to faith. They tend to over-read biblical passages, too. For example, they tend to expound the statement “love the Lord with all your heart, etc.” as if “all your heart” were an expression that borders upon perpetual perfection. It is an idiom that we use to express romantic or marital love. Yet no one who uses the idiom for this presumes to think that one’s love is perfect. It is an idiom that expresses real human devotion that is fundamental and irrevocable, though varying with our Christian experiences. It is a devotion that is not always equally full in every aspect.
The Reformers–Calvin and Luther–saw faith and assurance much more integrated. For your readers, they may find the view that sees assurance as integral to faith in “The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.”
When the Internet Monk talks about sensitive consciences, he is talking about me.
I am going to get a little heated in this, but it’s not personal, so please take no offense, okay? Please? Here goes…
I have been in church since I was born. I accepted Jesus at age 8, really thought I first understood the gospel at age 21, gave my life to him completely at that same age. I have tried my best to live for him ever since.
And yet, for most of that time, I have had no joy whatsoever. Why? Because every day I come up against my shortcomings. I spend too much time on the Internet. I play too many video games. I don’t write people I should be writing. And every time I fail, I think the same thought: Without holiness, no one will see God. That I am not fighting the good fight hard enough, and therefore I am stepping into rebellion and away from God.
Every day and in every way, I am under threat. Grace? What the heck is that? All I know is that every day I sin, often knowingly, and every day I repent — but what happens the next day? I know I’m going to fall again. I think of the servant who had his talent taken and thrown out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The promises don’t mean much to me, because I’m always falling short of pursuing the holiness I should be pursuing. And I remain in it, even though I should do better. The weight of things that I need to tackle becomes more and more –and when I tackle one area, I slip back in others. Eventually I just collapse under the weight of a load I cannot carry.
I don’t need to be told I’m a sinner any more, okay? I KNOW. I don’t need to hear about how God is holy, right? I KNOW. I am very familiar with the God of holiness, righteousness, and justice, before whom all men are condemned. THe God of grace and mercy I hardly know at all.
I don’t need to be told any more about how righteousness is needed or anything about what *I* need to do. Because I know in my heart that I cannot keep even the simplest, elementary standards. If there is any sort of bar in heaven that I must pass to get in, I will never get there. If I cannot receive my wedding garments as a free gift from Jesus, I will not attend the wedding at all.
Being convinced of sin will not persuade me back to the altar — right now the question is whether I’m going to continue to follow at all. For to me when I read verses like the above it seems like a call to works, works, and more works. A weight I cannot carry and I’m tired of carrying. I’m about at the point where I’m willing to give myself up for lost, and spend the rest of my life willingly destroying all of God’s works, because being outcast I have nothing to live for but my hate.
I need to stop being threatened, okay? If God would promise me that he would keep me safe, I am willing to follow him wherever he leads. I will strive with all my might to conform to his image — not because I want to be saved or because I’m worried about my assurance, but simply because I, being the child of my father, want to be like my father. I want to conform to Christ’s image, to be holy, not because it saves me from Hell, but because it is what I was made for. It is the very fulfillment of my being, without which I will be forever empty.
I don’t need to be threatened anymore, okay? So stop threatening me! I have heard so much about Hell I’m nearly at the point where I’m willing to chance it, rather than suffer through this fear of it day in and day out. I have lived all my life in fear of Hell, and I’ve had enough. I want to start living in the Hope of Heaven.
And for those of you preachers — remember that for all your loud angry rhetoric for reaching the hard-hearted lost, that you are putting a horrible burden on the sheep who aren’t so hard. Do you really think a hard-hearted man will be persuaded by any words you use? It takes the spirit of Christ to do that. Meanwhile the sheep suffer under undeserved condemnation. And for some of us, it won’t drive us back to the altar — it will drive us away.
This was really needed by me. I am grateful. Because I fight this all the time, as I am sure the people around me do as well; wondering if someone like “me” can be saved.
Well, God said I was. I have to remind myself of THAT constantly, because I could fall easily into the trap of “working harder”, instead of thanking God for every moment, some of which I “haven’t used well”, according to the world.
I find myself returning to God as I return to my living space each evening. Just as I am sure my key will work in my own front door, I know God is building my faith to know His great Key, given to me by my belief in Him, will always work in His.
Great post. I’ll track it for my blog, if you don’t mind. 🙂
Probably the best sermon I have heard on this subject was given to a youth camp by Leighton Flowers (Youth Evangelism Consultant 214-828-5121 Leighton.Flowers(at)bgct(dot)org http://youthevangelism.blogspot.com/ ) . He showed me (and many others) that if your sin bothers you then you are saved (among the elect).
I wish I had taken better notes. If you get a chance to hear him speak on this subject do. the best I remember the main emphasis was “does it bother you that you donÂ’t live up to the Lord’s standards and that you do things that would displease Jesus? If you are then you are saved because if your heart was hardened against God and the gospel it would not bother you.
iMonk… an encouraging post. you took me back 14 or so years to my own experiences with this in high school (are you saved? are you sure? are you sure you’re sure? –that’s precisely the kind of thing we ‘youth leaders’ were taught to teach other youth… it was a disaster).
as ever, thanks for the encouragement.
With all due respect, I am suggesting Piper could preach the Gospel clearer when he is going to use the law. Law and Gospel folks. Walther. Law and Gospel.
I could preach the Gospel a lot clearer. So could most preachers. It’s a danger of expositional preaching. Lots of law, not enough Gospel. I know he believes the Gospel, but I also believe saying we need to ask if we are making “every effort” to be Christlike is not the way to get assurance….joyful or otherwise. At least for me and the people I counsel. I need Christ as mediator for my failures and my efforts.
If we preach the law, we must preach the Gospel even clearer.
“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.”
I think your post is very thoughtful and helpful. Also, I do not wish at all to “carpetbomb” you. But this quote above is troubling. It is almost as if you are saying, “Piper is right, he has examined the biblical text well, but we should not use messages like this because it can make some people feel unsaved.”
Humbly I would say that if it is clear in the Bible, then it is ultimately helpful, even if sensitive consciences are struck by it temporarily. Perhaps their sensitivity is a sign that the Lord is breaking them (at least in some cases).
I have to admit that its hard to write ten pages and then have to explain yourself.
To my Reformed friends: I am not attacking Piper. I am not saying he doesn’t believe in justification. I am showing how assurance is- in my opinion- uprooted in that exposition.
Your response indicates you believe that uprooting assurance is a good thing, and I respect your opinion. I disagree, but I respect it. Now give me a break on Piper, folks. I’m not after your hero. I appreciate and benefit from him.
Jason: Read the Rosenbladt article at the end. Christans are sinners. We never obey sufficiently or perfectly. We don’t make every effort. We are lazy.
Ditto the first comment.
I’m not doubting. I never was. You’re not reading the words behind the words. 🙂
Again, it’s the personal struggle of coming to terms with Justification by grace alone through faith alone. A personal struggle. One that can be uttered into your head a thousand times, but again, what actually moved one to deeply imbed those ideas into a lasting imprint upon one’s own heart mind and soul? Piper’s words are good – I agree with his sermons in general consensus, but there’s a point where even the works of Christ must transpire across the darkened and long-etched line that marks the division between our mind and soul rended.
Blah, it’s past midnight and I have some [CpCr(CN)3] to synthesize in the morrow. Gnight. 🙂
Strong evidence here from a sermon at http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/92/030192.html of Piper’s balance in his teachings and sermons on assurance; here Piper repeats the safe common view that the emphasis is to be put on the objective works of Christ to find assurance rather than examining our lives and fruit, but at least he gives clear exposition to what I think is the more scriptural emphasis (on this limited subject) of a balance tilted more toward actually looking to one’s own fruit and life and love for evidence of a past application of that salvation:
For more overwhelming evidence of Piper’s balanced biblical treatment of assurance see also his 8 sermons on “foundations for full assurance” he did in 1992 available at http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/92/030192.html or his very practical, complete, and biblical “Helping People Have the Assurance of Salvation” at http://www.desiringgod.org/library/fresh_words/1999/080599.html or another example of the succinct and delicate biblical balance in addressing this issue in “The Agonizing Problem of Assurance of Salvation” at http://www.desiringgod.org/library/fresh_words/1998/042898.html .
I’m afraid you’ve missed the point of what he is saying. It is exactly this is what he places his disclaimer on. His mention is the caution that Piper’s words could me interpreted to enhance a works-based-salvation rather than justification by grace alone through faith alone.
I don’t see him disagreeing with you in the most of your points – but again, it’s the reconciliation between works and faith that is the struggle that people have and continue to hold. You draw IMonk into a mere caricature of his words; that seems hardly his intention.
Although, now I am still curious as to how IMonk did show the balance between the two lines as I mentioned in the post above. 🙂
As a 40 year old Reformed minister, I find your long critique of Piper’s rare biblical clarity who suggest a man indeed test HIMSELF in regard to his ASSURANCE of being saved(not in regard to how one objectively IS justified or saved of course) the sadly cliched response of 98% of Reformed teachers today. The objective doctrines and truths of the gospel and Jesus Christ and his work can never be evidence for anyone that it actually HAS BEEN applied applies to oneself personally for the simple reason that no matter how strongly one believes with fullest conviction those truths of what Christ did, mere head knowledge and “positive thinking” and “naming it and claiming it” that “he died for me” doesn’t make it so if you do not have anything more than the head knowledge and conviction without a BIBLICAL concept of faith and regeneration as described in Scripture which, as Piper so wonderfully describes in many of his other writings and teachings, includes some sense of a new and supernatural born again love and joy in the light of Christ that will lead to growing fruit and good works EVERY TIME. But forget my longwinded logic… look at the Scripture itself, and it seems to me that whenever the issue of ASSURANCE or testing to see if one personally is in the faith and one of the elect, the bible always points us (e.g. most of 1John) to our own fruit and good works at least as much as every Reformed evangelical AND fundamentalist will point us to the mere objective truths and say “you believe, therefore be assured!” and never “you beleive (pisteuo), good… even the demons beleive (pisteuo)” You yourself can not find any fault with Piper’s repeated use of the bible which you youself quote, as you wrote:
“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.”
I say, if people who FAIL the biblical tests for assurance aren’t assured, ALL THE BETTER! Isn’t that the point? Do you want to give people a ground for assurance that the bible does not? The “sensitive conscience” you are concerned about (if he exists as often as he claims he does today… perhaps all these “sensitive consciences” of modern times 95% of the time are merely people the Holy Spirit is fighting to convict against the efforts of Christian ministers to repent) would not be the target anyway of Piper’s admonition as you quote him yourself saying “IF these things (growing love and godliness) are not your earnest concern” then they have reason to be concerned.
It is also unfair to attempt to weave Piper into all the fundamentalists who attempt to get people back into the baptistry… or to come up for an altar call for numbers. Piper does no such thing, and that is evident merely from a reading of his message you have quoted that he simple wants people not to “come up and get saved” but to make a calling election to a salvation they already claim “sure” and heed the warnings throughout Scripture against shipwrecking of faith, drifting away and falling short of which Scriptures like Rom 11 and Hebrews 4 warn us to be fearful of.
Oh to find just a few more modern day ministers like John Piper to dare meekly state and believe what Scripture makes clear multiple times and what used to be the common Reformed and Puritan teaching on the subject of assurance of justification, which is a subject far removed from how we are actually to be justified. Oh for more Reformed teachers that would grasp more fully the distinction between the monergism of justification and the synergism and striving of sanctification in their own minds, and trust (as Scripture does) their hearers to make the same simple distinction and leave the phantom boogeyman of “legalism” in his soteriological place of justification.
My priest once told me a bit about his views on confession and reconcilliation. (Honest, I think this is relevant to the part about the counselee’s question on failed faith.)
His approach starts with an understanding that sin always involves messing up a relationship. That might be a relationship with God. It also might be a relationship with other people (which still displeases God, so still screws you up with Him).
Are you with me so far?
Pennance is not about being forgiven because you say these prayers or do these good deeds. Pennance is about re-establishing a good relationship. So, for example, if I go to him and confess that I take my wife for granted (there are many forms of this), his standard pennance is to tell me to buy my wife flowers, hire a babysitter, and take my wife out to dinner. It is meant to tell me to start getting my focus back on a good relationship in marriage. Sure, prayer is always a good thing. But what do you think makes God happier: more prayers or a husband and wife getting closer in their marriage?
If I ever have the burden of counseling someone who feels that he is not a Christian because he has not been living like one, I hope that I can do a decent job of advising him on how to start repairing the relationship that is damaged. If an altar walk didn’t do it the first time, maybe there is something else that will. For many of us, though, it really does take being told to do some specific thing in order to get headed in the right direction. Naming our demons gives us some power over them (identify the specific problems so you can face them, rather than a general feeling of there being problems). After that, a push in the direction of right relationship will do more to help than any debate about assurance ever could.
Well, that’s this Catholic’s take on it, anyway. It really does work for me.
We ALL have struggled with this question. And it’s SO insidious–we hear stories from other Christians of their VICTORIES and their VICTORIOUS Christian lives as proof of their salvation. My wife got to the point where she questioned her faith after hearing the women at her bible study go on with victorious-living talk. Dad Rod was one person who brought sense into our lives on this–and re-reading Romans 7. The key is the place of the Gospel and Law in our lives. Keep on talking about this!
I have at times struggled with this question as well.
I am reminded of John’s comments: “…I am writing this to prevent you from sinning but if anyone (or perhaps everyone??) does sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus the Upright. He is the Sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2). Question: are we calling people to a point of conversion or to a life of learning to live rightly in the lavish grace of God? Having grown up in church, the more I see we Christians placing aside the Gospel as something we have mastered the more I see us forgetting humanity and the divine call to love… for here and now we are the tangible body of Christ, and we are the agents of grace to wounded man, both believers and unbelievers. Perhaps we all should ponder a bit more the words of a blind man, “… Oh Lord I believe! Help my unbelief”. What does this mean to our humanity and to the humans around us?
Great post Michael. Keep thinking in the light! Grace and Peace to you all.
=) A well received response. Yet, I still question this – for the teenager who was unable to reconcile her faith and her life beyond that. Even as you explained the cross, the gospel and assurance of salvation, this teenager did not fully comprehend, as mentioned in your passage. They recognize that a faith that lacks in works is a dead faith – they live in a dead shell that represents their faith. It decays and smells of disease and shallow levels of maggots. They find that difficult to reconcile.
Perhaps it’s not really that “Am I really a Christian?” as more as “Am I a Christian who is dead in my faith? Am I no better off than one who is not a believer? As one who acts the same as the latter, would it be better off just to throw off that title which I blaspheme by my very being?”
How can you reconcile that when they are convinced that for all the gospel has done, they have changed from one with no faith to one whose faith is dead? Both lack life, and they realize they are lifeless in their shell of lies.
Perhaps I missed the answer in there, but where do these people lie? How exactly do these scenarios conclude in your sessions?