May 27, 2015

When Assurance is Lacking

by Eric Davis

Today’s post is taken from a letter to an individual who is struggling with assurance of salvation.

DoubtDear ____________:

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.

  1. 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.

pixie dustAlso, 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.

  1. 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).

Golden Gate BridgeSo, 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.

  1. 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.

  1. God gives us the local church community as a means of our assurance.

Christian and HopefulAt 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.

  1. 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, 

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • acha648

    hmm how do I apply this
    sometimes I think I must not really be believing in God, considering most christians have a different view of Gender to what I do?
    Surely I must be wrong when most educated, Godly Christians come to different conclusions
    which means I must not really be saved if I am coming to a different conclusion?

    it has made me question myself and actually lead to depression at times ( Gender issues are a personal struggle)

    • Eric Davis

      Acha- I am not sure that I understand your question, but I will attempt to address it. I would encourage you to focus the question of your standing less on a gender issue and more on the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ. That is not to say that gender issues are unimportant. It is to say that our acceptance and assurance before God are not about gender issues, but Christ; righteousness of Christ, the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, all to accomplish the work of salvation for us.

      I am sorry to hear about your depression. That is certainly not easy at all. While I am not aware of everything going on in your life, it is possible that your depression could be caused, in part, by a lack of understanding or focus on the Person and work of Christ, especially as mentioned in point #2 above. I hope that helps.

      • acha648

        is there anyway to contact you I really want to talk to someone about this…

  • tovlogos

    Thanks Eric — Perfect rudiment for successful Christian living — Assurance.

    “…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;” it’s as simple as that. I insist that “bathing our souls in gospel truth,” in faith, and in love for Jesus, always gets the right results.

    Assurance is the absence of doubt. What is more basic to pleasing God than no doubt?

    “Now He who establishes us with Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit
    in our hearts as a pledge.” 2 Corinthians 1:21,22.

    All believers must come to the point in which they just believe what God said. That act of belief activates
    the gift from heaven, as In John 3:3. The over thinker, seems to dig himself into a hole where the truth
    never is — he doesn’t let the Spirit minister to him.

    • Eric Davis

      Thank you, Mark. Great point.

  • fundamentals

    Eric, this is a beautiful article. Thank you so much! Wow!

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  • Matthew

    Thanks for the excellent article, very encouraging.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    Eric, thank you for this merciful and gentle approach to encouraging assurance. May all who read this come to rest in the finished work of Christ.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Jane. And amen.

  • dave

    Good article Eric. Many people struggle with this daily and this will be an encouragement to them. I just preached this past Sunday on #3 from John 8:31-36. In 8:31 Jesus speaks of those who “abide in my word” he then contrasts that with those in 8:34 who “practices sin” and are a “slave to sin.”
    Many confuse the issue – that we are all slaves to sin before Christ and set free by the truth with the power to overcome through the grace of Jesus. (Eph 2:1-10, Phil 2:13) Yet the struggle to serve the King goes on. Your mention of Phil 2:12-13 is key for many to press on. So much good stuff to digest here.

    • Eric Davis

      Great point, Dave. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Todd Trebuna

    Well done.

  • bmchoo

    I’ve been wrestling with this for the past few years as a college graduate, 3 years working.

    AW Pink on Guarding your Heart
    JC Ryle on Holiness – (Chapter on Assurance)

    Re-reading those and this, this morning are GREAT. Two things which are applicable to me under Ryle/Pink that Eric Davis hasn’t mentioned here are.

    1) Harbored sin is often cause for lack of assurance.
    2) Lack of diligence is often cause for lack of assurance.

    These are tricky since they can lead to further doubt but the way Pink & Ryle handle it is VERY skillful. Hence why we’re reading these dead old men today!

    • Eric Davis

      Bmchoo-good points there. Those 2 areas are certainly contributors to a lack of subjective assurance. Thanks for that.

  • wiseopinion

    I think if we were all honest, we would admit (and confess) times of doubt and unbelief (especially when confronted by those in the church who believe no one can be “assured” of their salvation). Because we live in such a conditional society where honesty, integrity, loyalty and commitment to anything for longer than 5 minutes is so rare and often ridiculed when practiced, unconditional love, mercy, grace and assurance of all that is within our salvation and sanctification process is pretty hard to believe…and yet we cry sometimes like the father in Mark 9:24 “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” One of the greatest scriptures for me when I was a young new believer was (and is) John 10:27-30
    My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” The world offers nothing that can assure us…our feelings are never to be trusted….the Truth found in God’s Word is the only assurance that can be trusted and believed. I pray for dear ones like acha648 who struggle with trying to reconcile feelings with truth…depression strikes us all at one time or another…and going to the Word, to the Cross, to the Christ found only in Scripture (not the willy nilly ineffective Christ found in so many pulpits today) and believing…it is a choice…and sometimes has to be an intentional, deliberate act on our part…moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month…daily to combat the lies of the evil one that NEVER wants us to totally believe and trust the One who saves us. Mark 9 is a great chapter to read…

    • Eric Davis

      Amen to that. Thank you

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  • 4Commencefiring4

    You know what has bothered me more in recent years than the assurance of my own salvation? It’s the assertion by many of us that others could NOT be saved.

    Millions upon millions of people leave this world daily who, if you had challenged them, could not have located Ephesians or Judges in a Bible without looking in the contents, but who had also never denied for a moment that Christ is the Savior of the world, that He came to give His life a ransom for sinners, that the God of the Bible rules the world.

    No, they didn’t own a Bible with dog-eared pages and notebooks full of scribbling from all the seminars and weekends they had attended over the years. They were Methodists or Lutherans or Catholics or whatever. They didn’t have a “personal testimony”, they weren’t able to describe what their life was before Christ and after. But again, they may have been taught–and confessed to believing–the basic gospel message from an early age but had not ever shown blatant evidence of a life devoted to Christ in adulthood. And so we conclude, sadly, that they are going to their graves unsaved.

    As someone who has been exposed to, and studied in some detail, historic, orthodox christian theology, and who trusted Christ as my Savior as an adult, and can explain the Gospel message pretty clearly, I know the “book answers” pretty well: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Repent. Love Him and serve Him. Old things have passed away; new things have come. Got it. Did it. Perhaps even a few times. And have never turned from it.

    But do I know, as certain as I am that I know Him, that someone else never did just because they couldn’t distinguish between 1 John and the Gospel of John? I can find as many verses as the next guy that say that salvation is a very limited thing, that few will be saved, that unless one evidences a transformed life and loves the Lord supremely above all others, that they are not saved. Surely if one cannot explain the notion of sanctification, salvation is not theirs.

    But I also find that “he who is not against us is for us”; many who had approached Jesus and believed little more than that He could do for them what they could not do themselves, were told “your faith” had saved them; or that the thief on the cross–whose life was a complete mess and who never attended any theology classes or ever cracked his Old Testament open–was assured by Jesus of everlasting life just because he said, as the lights were going out, simply “remember me.” The thief didn’t devote his life to serving the brethren, he never memorized verses, didn’t know anything about positional truth or his Adamic nature, and couldn’t have recited the 23rd Psalm. But we’ll see him in heaven.

    Kinda makes me wonder if we see the universe of “the saved” as God does. Perhaps more than a few surprises await.

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