Today’s post is taken from a letter to an individual who is struggling with assurance of salvation.
I am so sorry to hear about your struggle with the assurance of your salvation. Seasons of doubt can be some of the most difficult valleys we walk through. Maybe you’re doubting God’s love (“Could he really love someone like me?”), the reality of your conversion (“I don’t think I’m regenerate because I___”), the possibility of certainty (“Can I even know for sure that I’m saved?”), or something else. Whatever the case, know that this is a common battle. You are not alone.
I understand a bit of what that is like as I battled with the darkness of doubt for a time in seminary. The source of my doubt was multi-faceted. On the one hand, it arose from a sudden realization of previously unseen sin. I claimed to believe in the gospel, but my “new” sin seemed to eclipse the cross. My excessive self-analyzing exacerbated the problem. The deeper and longer I beheld my thoughts, the more assurance fled (as it often will). Maybe you are experiencing doubt for those reasons. Or maybe it’s Satan, your natural temperament, or something else. I don’t know.
So, I want to share with you a few things that I have found helpful in battling the darkness of doubt.
- A quick-fix approach probably is not helpful.
Certainly you are aware that there is no pixie-dust solution to doubt. If you’ve been like me, you’ve probably tried them. And more dangerous than trying them is taking comfort in them. Steer clear of the pixie-dust.
As difficult as it may be, the goal here is not to swiftly soothe the discomfort of doubt. Rather, the goal is to please Christ by understanding and embracing truth. Perhaps your assurance will be quickly restored. Perhaps not. Either way, avoid worshiping the “not-feeling-doubt” god. He’s an insufficient savior.
Also, some may counsel you along the lines of, “Oh, quit doubting. Of course you are a Christian! Remember back to moment A or B, when you did Y or Z? Just look at all the great Christian things you have done in your life.” Resist the urge to settle there. Looking at ourselves is not the best approach.
Perhaps because you are looking at what you have done, you are doubting. I know it was that way for me. And that advice was not helpful because I needed to do the exact opposite; look outside, not inside, myself. On the topic of God’s work in assurance, Burk Parsons writes, “He assures us not by giving us confidence in ourselves by bringing us to the end of ourselves so that we might know and love him.” This brings up the next point.
- Our assurance is first outside, not inside, of us.
I am not going to encourage you to look to your decisions or deeds in the past. Instead, let’s look to something outside of ourselves in the present. I am going to spend extra time on these since I have found that the lack of assurance can be the product of not bathing our souls in gospel truth; the bedrock of our faith.
First, consider Luke 18:9-14.
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Notice, it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who is in right standing (“justified”) with God. But in what did the tax collector trust? To what did he appeal for acceptance with God? To something outside of himself; to the mercy of God. More specifically, he asks God to be “propitious” to him, which means, to withhold wrath that he deserves for his sin. On the basis of confidence in God’s mercy, not his works, he is in favorable relationship with God.
Further, it’s likely that, though the tax collector had right standing with God, he may not have felt like it. His demeanor is one of conviction and sorrow over his sin. You may have experienced this. Perhaps it triggered a lack of assurance. Even so, what stands is Christ’s objective declaration of the tax collector’s standing, not his subjective demeanor. For you and me, this means that insofar as our hope is in God’s mercy, not our works, we must believe Christ’s commentary, not our feelings, for assurance.
Do you trust in your works for right standing with God, or God’s mercy? If the latter, then the issue is settled.
Consider another verse:
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
Often we doubt because we wonder about certain sins in our lives: “If I am saved, how could I think/commit sin X or Y?” In some sense, that is OK. We are grasping that God’s moral requirement for humanity is absolute perfection in nature and deed (Matt. 5:48). To be sure, it is healthy for us to feel the crushing weight of God’s colossal moral standard.
So, how will you deal with your great and small violations of that unachievable standard? The answer is, “You cannot.”
Dealing with great sins and small sins is not up to you. God deals with them through Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross. Right standing results from Christ’s work of bearing our sins to death. The grounds of our assurance then, can no more be altered than Christ’s sin-bearing death can be reversed.
Please do not commit the error of thinking that your great sins of X and Y have more power to condemn than the cross of Christ has the power to atone. Because of the cross, our abounding sin only means a more-abounding grace (Rom. 5:20).
So, how would you answer the question before God: “In what do you trust for the full removal of the penalty for your sins? Your works or Christ’s substitutionary work?” If your answer is the latter, then God assures you of right relationship with him.
Here is one final passage for consideration:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
Often we lack assurance because we doubt that we possess sufficient moral merit (aka, “righteousness”) to be accepted by God. And please know that we should and must doubt that. We possess no righteousness for favorable relationship with God. In that sense, I am glad if you doubt in this way, for then you are ready to look outside yourself for assurance.
Notice where the Apostle Paul looks for righteousness. Do you see it? He says, “…not having a righteousness of my own…but that which comes through faith in Christ.” He looks solely to Christ, to the point that he repudiates the idea of his contribution.
This is glorious news! Our acceptance with God is not grounded in our righteousness, but Christ’s. Our status before God the Father depends on Christ’s status before God the Father. God’s love for us is as secure as Christ’s standing. How secure do you think that is?
Assurance of salvation, then, is not about the stability or finesse of my feelings, but the stability and finesse of Christ. It’s not about my daily moral performance, but Christ’s towering righteousness.
So, as Sinclair Ferguson has written, “We are as fully justified before God as our Lord Jesus is. We are as finally justified as our Lord Jesus is. We are as irreversibly justified as our Lord Jesus is.” The reason that, in Romans 8:1, Paul can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” is because Christ is not condemned. He may have looked condemned by the actions of man. But God revealed the final, “Not condemned, but, righteous!” verdict when he raised Christ. By faith in Christ alone, not our works, God pronounces that same verdict on us!
So, the basis of our assurance begins with, “How righteous is Christ? How holy and accepted is he before God the Father?”
But how can I access that right standing which is grounded in Christ? It is by faith. I must believe that my righteousness is not what makes me right before God (for I have none), and instead believe that Christ’s righteousness is what makes us right with God (for he has all).
So, where are you looking for a sufficient righteousness before God? How would you answer if God asked, “Why should I accept you into favorable standing with me?” Your answer needs to be something like, “I should not be accepted by you God. But, I trust in the righteousness you supplied in Your Son, Christ. So, since he is favorable with you, by your grace, so am I.”
Consider the many bridges you have traversed in your life. Perhaps the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate, and, likely, countless others. Each time you drove on to those bridges, did you fret the structural integrity compared to your individual weight? Doubtful. Your relaxed driving onto the bridge demonstrated confidence that the latter compares nothing to the former. So it with Christ. How do you think his moral integrity compares to your individual lack thereof? Do you think that the former will crumble under the weight of the latter?
So, stop asking and wondering, “Have I done enough to be a Christian? Do I have enough merit?” Rather, ask, “Has Christ done enough?” and, “Does he have enough merit?” Look outside of yourself to the Person and finished work of Christ. Do not analyze how you felt or performed yesterday. Instead, focus confidence on Christ today.
- Though the grounds of our salvation is outside of us, that does not mean that is all there is to assurance.
Perseverance in the faith is also a key component to assurance. Like our salvation, this sanctification is a gift of God, but that does not mean our approach to the Christian life is passive.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
You will not find a “let go, let God,” approach here. Effort to grow takes work and is akin to running a long race.
I know that this has been such a battle for you. But remember that the battle is a good sign. It means you are alive and actually in the battle. It likely means that God’s Spirit in you is doing what he does; exposing and eradicating all that is contrary to the righteous standing which you have in Christ.
The whole story of our salvation is big. And there is a small chunk of it, from salvation until heaven, which involves fighting. It will not always be that way. A larger chunk is eternity in heaven. That is yet to come. But now we fight.
- God gives us the local church community as a means of our assurance.
At one point in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful are taken prisoner by the gruesome character, Giant Despair, and thrown in the miserable dungeon of Doubting Castle. During that time, a deepening doubt and depression sets in on Christian. However, two provisions are made to maintain endurance. First, the company of another believer. Having Hopeful there with him—to speak truth and keep company—enables his perseverance. Second, in somewhat of a veiled manner, is the arrival of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. Bunyan writes that they were in the dungeon from Wednesday until Saturday night. Gathering for corporate worship serves to pull us along in the darkness.
Avoid going at it alone. Continue to surround yourself with people who love Christ, love his word, are also fighting, and will keep you accountable.
Also, keep serving in the local church ministries. Stay busy for the King. Crowd out doubt with fruitful ownership in God’s kingdom. If you need help in how you could serve, let me know.
- Our peace and rest is in God and his glory, not feelings.
Our stability is not in a promise of doubtless days. We are not promised dark-free times as God’s children in this life. I have yet to find a Bible verse which says, “You will always feel wonderful and doubt will never cast itself upon you in this life.” Knowing this, we can rest in God, not feelings.
Also, we have to be careful about frustration from an inability to comprehend our lack of assurance. It’s possible to secretly shake our fist at God for not giving us satisfactory answers and pleasant feelings. Perhaps we might be unnecessarily analytical of ourselves. But, our power to wonder is not greater than God’s power to save and keep us in Christ. We may need to ask God’s forgiveness for pride of thought. Thomas Watson, “The jewel of assurance is best kept in the cabinet of an humble heart.”
Further, you may have a natural temperament that is more prone to doubt. If so, consider that God has made you this way for his glory. Receive it as a gift given so that you will learn greater dependence on Christ. Consider it as training for times when others will need to hear what you’ve learned in the battle (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Finally, keep the glory of God as the goal. Even if doubt fills our days till death, Christ deserves our worship. Regardless of how we may feel, he is the Sovereign Lord, the King of kings, worthy of our faith, obedience, and worship. And, by his grace, one day the doubt will turn to eternal assurance.
More could be said on assurance, but I hope this will set you in the right direction.
Photo credit: wallpapers111.com, h2.bp.blogspot.com, wikimedia.org, anesi.com/DoubtingCastle,