AssuranceTom J. Nettles
God the Father wants His children to have assurance. God has one natural Son. Jesus Christ is “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). As natural Son, Jesus enjoyed the assurance of His relationship with the Father. Knowing who He was, He could humble Himself for the sake of sinners and go to the cross even under His Father’s wrath on the full strength of that knowledge (John 13:1-4). God also has many sons by adoption and the new birth. John tells us, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). It is God’s will that we also, as His children, know the joy of knowing who we are in Christ. As I hope my own children would find joy and security in knowing whose they are, with infinitely superior reason God has made it possible that His sons by redemption might know that He is their Father. He wants them to experience all the strength and support that comes from saying confidently, “Abba, Father.”
The Dangers of False Assurance
Salvation is a very popular issue. In cultures greatly impacted by a history of Christian preaching, and particularly the revivalistic tradition, concepts of heaven and hell hover ever near the consciousness of large groups of people. The ever-present reality of death makes the Christian hope of heaven an easily popularized, and consequently misleading, idea. A life filled with human relationships, conversation, humor, pain, sympathy, hard work, play and genuine friendship comes to an end in death. The magnetic mystery of personality has suddenly halted. Wonder infuses its power into the affections and demands the judgment that all those delights, and irritants, of personality that once accompanied the physical presence cannot have ceased. Though the body is here, the space it occupies no longer pulsates with the traits that gave pleasure, aggravation, exuded confidence or hovered about dependently. Surely the personality, either maturing or declining, must transcend the body and continue beyond this life.
This intuition, of course, is correct, though clouded, and demonstrates the irrepressibility of the image of God in all humanity. Human personality does continue to exist. It takes on infinitely greater strengths of perception in its sensory, intellectual, spiritual, emotional and moral dimensions. When expanded by false confidence it leads to the assertion that the one departed is now “in a better place” and looking down on all his or her earthly friends smiling, somewhat amused at our grief, and having a good round of golf or perhaps giving the performance of their [eternal] life in the celestial stage.
We see how easily, therefore, correct intuitive perceptions cause great confusion. If relied on as sufficient for confidence in eternity, they will turn on their bearer with a mocking vengeance. This kind of confidence betrays a most lamentably low view of the divine character, particularly in terms of holiness, justice and wrath. The view of personal sin and its repugnance to God and one’s liability to immutable justice, if it exists at all in any form, is checkmated by divine goodness. Unclarified by divine revelation in the context of redemption, those comforting insights will give testimony of our rebellion and godlessness and will shut our mouths to any protest when a verdict of eternal condemnation comes from the divine throne of eternal justice.
Religious certainty, moreover, can be much more evangelical and just as false. The various religious substitutes for the new birth and unalloyed trust in Christ alone go by the name Legion. I will mention only two fallacious sources of confidence in God’s favor.
First, perhaps, the most common, comes from the theological roots of revivalism. A belief that the new birth arises from the matrix of human decision gives many an assurance of being in God’s favor when they have no experiential sense of repentance unto life or believing in the heart. Misleading appropriations of God’s promises are urged upon those who had fulfilled the physical or verbal instructions provided by the evangelist. The spiritual wreckage this produces stares us down whenever we read the membership roll of virtually any Southern Baptist church.
Second, ostensible demonstrations of spiritual power delude some into a false security of salvation. Simon Magus believed on the basis of the demonstrations of power (Acts 8:13), but when he revealed that his “belief” stemmed only from an infatuation with power (8:19), Peter warned him that he was still in the “bondage of iniquity” (8:23). Often recipients of special blessings such as answered prayer for healing or financial crisis or personal relations feel that God’s caring for them in that way constitutes their salvation. If they have been protected from some calamitous event, the providential intervention shows God’s general favor toward them for here and eternity. Much about our church culture as well as American culture prods us to cherish comfort and to view God as the one whose job it is to provide that for us.
A generalized identification of temporal beneficence with eternal salvation is a dangerous thing (Romans 2:4–5). A careful evangelist will work to kick the props away from anyone that finds security in anything other than Christ Himself. “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 4:1; NASB updated).
The Grounds for True Assurance
While false security runs rampant, this must not discourage us from seeing that the Bible gives abundant reasons for genuine assurance. The writer of Hebrews, in addition to giving warnings to those whose acquaintance with the gospel was not “united by faith in those who heard,” states it as a certainty, for we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:2–3). Paul told the Thessalonians that God has “loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). Love constitutes God’s sovereign benevolence toward His people, eternal comfort consists of the actual procurement of all the eternal covenantal blessings granted us in Christ, and good hope attests to the firm confidence that the saints have for the future eternity.
The writer of Hebrews desired his hearers whose diligent life indicated a foundation of saving faith to attain to “the full assurance of hope until the end.” Also he desired that those who already had “taken refuge” in Christ’s complete priestly work to have “strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:11, 18). In addition John wrote his first letter with the explicit purpose of laying a groundwork so that true believers could “know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Since God desires that His people have assurance, and to have it through means that increase their sanctification, He established a fabric of truth through which the Holy Spirit operates to work assurance in the hearts of Christians. At its most basic level, assurance may be stated in a syllogistic form. The Scripture says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” I have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. I am, therefore, saved.
This syllogism is built on the clarity and certainty of the Word of God. Its major premise gives voice to the absolute efficacy of Christ’s mission to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) and the fitness of belief as the means by which that salvation consummates on individuals. This underscores what could be called the objective focus of saving faith. It is impossible that the work of Christ should fail to save sinners. His coming was for that purpose and His work of such merit that God would be unjust not to honor it by granting salvation to those for whom He died. Included in His labors for salvation is the gift of the Spirit whose operation of regeneration produces repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is pleased to give union with Christ to those who come to Him desiring precisely the benefits of His offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. The one who has come to see Christ as His only hope and has no confidence in any merit other than Christ’s has faith. The one who approves the way of salvation by Christ’s substitutionary death as magnifying the holy and loving character of God, and feels spiritual delight in this particular way of being accepted has faith. When such faith takes up residence in our hearts, driving us to Christ alone, we know God has saved us.
That objective focus of faith is primary in assurance and gives rise to what could be called the subjective aspect, or the spiritual texture of faith. Peter speaks of the subjective impact of saving faith in his second letter. The premise of his argument is that a faith that has come by the righteousness of Christ (1:1) has within it a love of all that is involved in His death and righteousness. The manifestation of faith assumes the presence of “everything pertaining to life and godliness.” Peter supplies a breakdown of those things, clearly asserting that their presence is certain since we have been made “partakers of the divine nature.” Diligence, therefore, in exerting the restored life brings usefulness and fruitfulness and is foundational to real Christian assurance (1:5-11). Christ’s objective work forms the centerpiece of assurance, therefore, and our desire to emulate and honor Him shows that our knowledge of Him is true.
Assurance and Faith
The fact that assurance follows and is built on the implications of faith makes us conclude that faith and assurance are two different things. While it is a property of faith that it has no doubt of one’s personal sin or of Christ’s ability to save, thus including a kind of assurance, confidence of one’s personal benefit from Christ arises in a discreet manner. It may come quickly, virtually on the heels of saving faith, or it might be long and tedious in coming.
From one viewpoint, true faith might include some influences that render assurance difficult. Repentance and loathing for sin are infused into saving faith. Increased awareness of indwelling sin and the heart’s deceitfulness flow effusively from faith. That spiritual knowledge could bring desperation to a sinner, not about Christ’s ability and worthiness, but about one’s own true repentance.
In addition, assurance is as much a function of hope as of faith. Not only does assurance come from contemplating the certain efficacy of Christ’s completed work, but from the joyful prospect of the eventual vindication of Christ’s glory before the entire universe. He is glorified in His saints in their full sanctification (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:10). The person that rejoices in that finds that it promotes real spiritual confidence (1 John 4:18).
In the past and in some present-day ministries, the false identification of faith with full assurance has led to grossly manipulative methods by some evangelists. This has caused great consternation and confusion among the saints and has engendered an attitude of false assurance on the part of many.
The Means of Assurance
In the Second London Confession, the article on “Assurance” follows articles on “Effectual Call,” “Justification,” “Adoption,” “Sanctification,” “Saving Faith,” “Repentance unto Life,” “Good Works” and “Perseverance.” In one sense, assurance is the fruit of all of those realities combined. It is what Spurgeon would call “spiritualized common-sense.” If I am fixed on Christ with full confidence in Him and none in myself, have a persistent awareness of and loathing for personal sin, and yet see the “good” of good works and consistently, though often falteringly, press toward such works, and desire to continue so all my life to the glory of such a great Savior as Christ, why should I not conclude that these desires have been given me by God and are not the fruit of my deceitful heart? Peter says diligence in unpacking the full implications of faith makes one’s calling and thus his election sure. John says that a true hope in Christ’s coming blossoms into purity of life. In short, the means of gaining assurance consists of the earnest appropriation of Christian truth and the sincere, cordial pilgrimage in Christian purity and practice.
The Blessings of Assurance
Since the Scripture urges believers to seek assurance in the right context, we must conclude that both the quest and the find are good. Spurgeon believed the “the knowledge that we are greatly beloved of God, instead of doing us harm will be a means of blessing in many ways.” A sinner that knows he is loved by God will “become very humble.” A sense of God’s love will excite great gratitude. It also serves as a fountain of obedience. Confidence in God’s love will consecrate us and forestall any trifling with sin. Assurance of God’s love gives strength for conflicts, great and small, punctiliar and progressive. “Moreover,” Spurgeon continues, “this assurance of God’s love will make us very courageous. Such a man “defies sin and death and hell. He will burn for Christ.”
To those who considered a state of doubt to be a state of discretion, Spurgeon responded “It is a state of folly.” “If thou art a believer in Christ, though the very least and weakest of believers, thou art a man greatly beloved. Believe it, and be not afraid to rejoice in it. It will have no influence over thee but that which is sanctifying and health giving” (Charles Spurgeon, “Daniel’s Band” in Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia, Baker Book House, 6:33-35).