Assurance: Obtaining, Regaining and Retaining It
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (First John 5:13, ESV)
“This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it; yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of the ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3)
We Orthodox Presbyterians confess that true believers in Jesus Christ are totally secure in their salvation, both now and forever. Through Christ’s death and resurrection our eternal salvation is absolutely, irrevocably secure, for Christ’s saving work on behalf of His people is perfect, complete and effective! That is why God’s Word teaches that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), that no one can snatch Christ’s “sheep” out of the Father’s hand (John 10:28-29), and that absolutely nothing can separate us believers from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). But while the true believer’s salvation is objectively secure, many believers struggle with doubts about whether or not they are in a saved condition.
Just as it is possible for a hypocrite or unbeliever to feel or think that they are saved, even though in reality they are not; likewise it is possible for a true believer to feel or think they might be unsaved, even though in reality they are actually saved. If you are a professing believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with doubts about your salvation, how should you go about obtaining peace of conscience and a sense of assurance? If you once enjoyed assurance of salvation but feel you have lost that assurance, how should you go about regaining that lost assurance? And if you are a believer who is currently experiencing the comfort, joy and peace that comes from a full assurance of eternal salvation, what must you do in order to retain that joyful sense of assurance? Below I want to offer some Bible-based suggestions for cultivating the blessing of assurance in your Christian life:
1. Search your heart and repent of all known sin.
If you are lacking a sense of assurance of salvation, it may be because you are clinging to some willful sin in your life that you need to let go of. We Christians do indeed fall into sin, and God in His amazing grace continues to forgive the sins of believers through the blood of Christ. However, when the Holy Spirit convicts you of sin and you harden your heart against that inner conviction by refusing to repent, your loving heavenly Father may withdraw a sense of His comforting presence until such time as you confess and forsake your sin.
Although King David was a true believer and a saved man, when he fell into the scandalous sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, and hardened himself in that sin for a time, God’s chastening hand fell heavy upon him. When the Lord finally brought David to repentance he cried out to God in his famous prayer of repentace, recorded in Psalm 51: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” (vv. 11-12, ESV) While David did not lose his salvation or cease to be a true believer during the time of his sin, the words of this psalm seem to indicate that during the time of his fall into sin he lost the joy and comfort of his salvation, and it was only restored through genuine, heartfelt repentance. Dear reader, could it be that you lack a full sense of assurance of salvation because you are clinging to a known, willful sin in your life? Your Father in heaven will not allow you to feel at peace with Him so long as you continue in your rebellion. Confess and forsake your sin, that He may restore to you the joy of your salvation!
2. Do not mistake suffering for the loss of God’s favor.
Let us say that you have prayerfully searched your heart and are not aware of any unconfessed or willful sin, yet you still struggle with doubts about your salvation. If you are facing struggles, trials, persecutions or other suffering in your life, it is possible that your doubts may arise from these sufferings. It is very easy for us to fall into the error of mistaking suffering in our lives for the loss of God’s favor. If you are a believer but are facing some unusual or pressing struggle in your life, you may start wondering if God is mad at you, perhaps even punishing you for some unknown reason. This was the reaction of the Old Testament character Job, a righteous man whose life was suddenly invaded by a number of horrible tragedies and extreme suffering. While Job was a godly man, a number of times in the Book of Job he wondered aloud if God had abandoned him, and he even felt that God viewed him as an enemy. Of course, in reality God had not abandoned Job, nor was He punishing Job for his sin. But Job’s pain clouded his thinking and led him to an incorrect conclusion about his own relationship with God. The same thing can happen today. Dear believer, if you are facing suffering in your life, understand that your suffering is not a sign of God’s abandonment, though it may feel that way. Trust God’s Word and the objective promises of the gospel, not your feelings. May you take comfort in the good news of the Christ who has suffered for you, and who fully understands the suffering you endure.
3. Focus on Christ, His finished work, His salvation victory, and His gospel promises; don’t focus on yourself and your failures.
Yes, there are places where the Bible encourages a solemn self-examination of one’s spiritual state (for example, 2 Cor. 13:5). However, such passages are usually intended to address the careless believer or the professing believer flirting with apostasy, not the serious-minded or sensitive believer who may simply be weak or immature in the faith. Such warning passages are intended to shake up the complacent, not to terrify the serious-minded-but-struggling. While there is a place for healthy, biblical self-examination, remember believer that God does not want you to be consumed by introspection. Fundamentally Scripture points us away from ourselves and our own failures (which, admittedly, are many!), to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2)!
The faith by which we gain not only salvation, but also assurance of salvation, is a faith that looks outside of itself to Christ and Christ alone as the only hope of salvation! Believer, it is the devil who wants you to be absorbed with hyper-introspection and navel-gazing. The devil is the “accuser of the brethren,” and he wants you to be focused on your religious performance, and thus on your failures, that he might drive you away from the faith to despair and defeat. God in the gospel points you to Jesus, His omnipotent grace, His victory over your sin! Look unto Jesus, not unto yourself!
4. Diligently use the means of grace.
The means of grace include the Word, the sacraments and prayer, used in the fellowship of the visible church. Even when you do not “feel” like it, and even when you feel like you are not getting anything out of it, continue to persevere in using these means of grace!
We all go through spiritual dry spells at times in our walk with Christ when Bible reading seems dry, church seems stale, prayer seems to bounce off the walls, and God seems distant. These spiritually-dry times can expose us to doubts about our salvation and standing in grace. I am convinced that sometimes this is a test from God. I believe that sometimes God allows us to experience these doubts and go through these spiritual dry spells to see if we are going to continue to be faithful, to continue trusting Him to bless His means of grace even when we feel like God is distant. It is at times like these that we need to redouble our efforts and be even more diligent to be active in both private and public acts of devotion. Continue to read your Bible and pray. Continue to attend church. Continue to sit under the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Continue to receive holy communion. Continue to fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Keep pressing on even when you feel like giving up, always looking unto Jesus!
I remember reading somewhere that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, who often wrestled with doubts about his salvation, would battle his fequent doubts by declaring out loud, “I have been baptized!” To evangelical and reformed ears this might sound strange. We might wonder why Luther, the great preacher of justification by faith alone, didn’t just declare, “I have believed!” As I understand it, Luther would often question or doubt his own faith. His faith seemed so uncertain to him. But God’s objective gospel pledge signified by baptism was sure and certain, even if his faith wasn’t. So Luther “hung his hat” of faith, not on his weak and faltering faith itself, but on God’s sure, objective promise of grace in Christ which is signified in the sacrament of baptism.
Like Luther, we might at times wonder whether or not we truly believe. We might feel like our faith is weak. But God’s Word is certain, and the gospel promises conveyed in word and sacraments are sure and certain, even at times when our own faith seems uncertain. While we must not turn the means of grace (like baptism) into the objects of our faith (the only worthy Object of our faith being Jesus Himself and Jesus alone!), or turn them into superstitious idols; nevertheless God uses these means to strengthen our weak and faltering faith, for these means of grace direct our faith away from themselves to Jesus Christ as our only hope!
5. Seek godly counsel.
If you continue to experience doubts about your salvation, and especially if your doubts are severe and are leading you into a state of despair or spiritual depression, do not seek to go it alone. Get help! Seek godly counsel from a mature and trusted Christian friend. Arrange to meet with your pastor or another trusted leader in your church. The worst thing you could do if you are facing painful doubts about your state of grace is to isolate yourself and try to go it alone. Remember that Christ connects His people to His Body, the church. You need your brothers and sisters in Christ! Don’t let your pride isolate you from the help you could receive from others. Don’t try to be a lone-ranger Christian! Remember that Christ not only ministers His grace and assurance to us personally; He also does so through His Body, the church.