Assurance of Salvation

A fellow pastor tells the story of two devout senior saints in the church he serves. These are two women who are similar in a number of ways. They both read the Bible daily and pray regularly; they are involved in the life of the church; they give and serve sacrificially when needs arise. And yet when it comes to the assurance of salvation, they are miles apart. One woman lives with complete confidence in her salvation, and the other doesn’t. Instead, she constantly questions whether or not God looks favorably upon her. She struggles to believe she will go to heaven when she dies.

Any pastor or close friend to this woman would want to love and support her. As I heard about this story, I asked myself: What would I say to this dear woman. (For interested readers, I’ve made some brief comments on this issue before.)

First, I would say: Yes, we are encouraged to engage in self-examination, but remember to look to Christ in the process. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul exhorts us, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” Yes, therefore, it seems reasonable to ask whether we have entrusted ourselves to Christ. Yes, we should ask ourselves if we see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23). But we must look to Christ in the process! As Sinclair Ferguson helpfully remarks, “There is no assurance derived simply by examining our sanctification.”[1] Rather, ask yourself: Have I looked to Christ to save me? Am I banking on his life, death, and resurrection for my right standing before the Father? If you can say yes to these questions, then rest in him. Does our faith oftentimes feel weak? Yes, but we call to mind that “The efficacy of faith does not rest upon the intensity with which we believe, but the reliability of the one in whom we believe. It is not the greatness of our faith, but the greatness of God, which counts.”[2]

Secondly, I would ask the question: Is there some area of disobedience in your life that is causing you to lose assurance? Yes, we all sin and fall short (Rom. 3:23), but I’m asking a more pressing question: Is there some besetting sin in your life that keeps rearing its ugly head? I’m not asking this question to pile on the guilt. The point remains, however: Disobedience to God’s commands results in a lack of assurance. If this happens to be the case, my counsel is to forsake your sin and run to Christ and be assured of his glad welcome. Christ receives sinners (Matt. 11:28-30; 1 Tim. 1:15).

Third, recognize that a person’s temperament may play a part in this matter. Some people are by nature overly introspective; they have overactive consciences; they are tender souls whose consciences are easily pricked. To quote Ferguson again: “A melancholic disposition de facto creates obstacles to the enjoyment of assurance—partly because it creates obstacles to the enjoyment of everything.”[3] This is one of the reasons why we can’t always trust our feelings; we can’t build our doctrine of God based upon our experiences. It’s simply not a strong enough foundation. Thus, when we lack assurance of salvation (and this could be applied in various contexts) we must do theology. We must look to our doctrine. Why? Because, as Alister McGrath rightly notes, “Our doctrine must interpret our experience in order to transform it.”[4]

If we have entrusted ourselves to Christ, we can be assured that he has received us. God is a good God whose Word is reliable. He does not lie (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). He will complete the work he started in our lives (Ps. 138:8; Phil. 1:6). He’s always faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Rest in him.

 

[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 214.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 1999), 112.

[3] Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 219.

[4] Alister E. McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 262.

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