Dear Church Family,
Many believers struggle with assurance of their salvation. And, we struggle in our assurance of salvation for many reasons. While assurance of one’s salvation ought to be pursued by every Christian, it is not uncommon for those who have been saved to struggle with assurance. In fact, this is one of the key problems with the way in which many Christians think about assurance. Christians will sometimes tend to believe that assurance of one’s salvation is necessary for salvation; in fact, some churches and individuals even teach this erroneous way of thinking: if you doubt your salvation, then you are probably not a Christian (so they say).
The truth be told, however, I have never met a Christian who has never doubted or, at least at some point, struggled with assurance of salvation. If you have never doubted or struggled in gaining assurance of your salvation, then something might be amiss. You may not understand the depths of your sin, and you may not understand the depths of God’s love and grace. In the end, you may not understand the gospel.
I am not advocating for doubt. Doubt and struggling with assurance of salvation ought not to be our goal. In fact, as Christians mature in the faith, these doubts and struggles, by God’s grace, often begin to ebb. At the same time, we must recognize that it is not abnormal for Christians to doubt. When we doubt, however, we ought to do all that we can to pursue assurance of our faith.
Faith and Assurance
Here’s where the distinction between faith and assurance is helpful. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC 86). That’s it. Faith is receiving and resting upon Jesus Christ for salvation. Assurance, on the other hand, is one of the benefits which flows from saving faith. Or, as the catechism puts it, “The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end” (WSC 36).
Though the Westminster Standards are sometimes derided as archaic or impractical, they are very helpful in very practical ways for every Christian. Here’s one way. Let’s just consider what chapter 18 of the Confession of Faith (“Of Assurance”) teaches us, as it summarizes the teaching of Scripture on this topic. [You may read or download a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with Scripture proofs online here: http://www.pcaac.org/resources/wcf/.]
Of Assurance (WCF 18)
Here’s how I would summarize the teaching of this chapter:
WCF 18:1 – What assurance isn’t and what it is
Assurance is not self-deception, false hopes, or carnal assumptions of the favor of God.
Assurance is certainty of being in a state of grace, rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God.
WCF 18:2 – The basis of assurance
The believer’s assurance is based upon God’s promises, inward evidences, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit with our spirits (more on these below)
WCF 18:3 – The relationship of faith and assurance
True believers have faith, and ought to strive for assurance by use of ordinary means: Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. These use of these means will then lead to a sincere love of God and the duty of obedience.
WCF 18:4 – Causes of a lack of assurance
Lack of assurance is caused by our own sin and neglect, as well as by God’s sovereign purpose. Yet, true believers will not fall into utter despair.
The three places to look for assurance
Too often, Christians look in the wrong place in order to find assurance. Christians often look at their emotions. Sometimes there is a strong love of God and others, sometimes there is not. And so, a person begins to think, “Real Christians don’t fluctuate like this in the way they feel; perhaps I’m not a Christian.”
Here are the three places that the Westminster Confession of Faith (18:2) tells us to look for assurance. Note that the first is objective, the second is both objective and subjective, and the third is subjective:
(1) God’s Word (“The divine truths of the promises of salvation”)
The first place to turn in times of doubt is to the Scriptures. Just as a pilot in the midst of a storm with zero visibility needs to trust his instruments and the instructions of the air traffic controller, in times of doubt Christians ought to seek the voice of their Savior in the reading and the preaching of his Word (WSC 89). This is the objective truth of the Word of God; He is unchangeable in His purpose, keeps His oath, and does not lie (Hebrews 6:17-19).
(2) Loving Obedience (“The inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made”)
Here, the WCF points to Scriptures that speak of particular evidences in our lives by which we may know that we are saved: if we keep His commandments (1 John 2:3), love the brethren (1 John 3:14), and conduct ourselves in holiness and godly sincerity (2 Corinthians 1:12). This ground of assurance is both objective (others may see our good works) and subjective (only we may know the sincerity of our hearts).
(3) The Witness of the Holy Spirit (“The Testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God: which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption”)
This is the most subjective ground of our assurance of salvation. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are the children of God, and we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15-16). Sometimes I will ask believers who are struggling with assurance, “Where do you think your motivation to cry out to God came from? Where do you think the conviction of your sin came from?” The obvious answer is this: it could only have come from the Holy Spirit.
It is important to differentiate between saving faith and assurance of saving faith. The difference becomes very clear when we examine the basis of each. The basis of saving faith is the substitutionary death of Christ for our sins and His being raised for our justification, which we embrace by faith. The basis of assurance of salvation is God’s promises, loving obedience, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.
Very simply, in speaking of faith, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And, in speaking of assurance, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch