Over the years Christian friends have come to me with all sorts of questions and problems. Of all the personal problems they share with me, perhaps the one that comes up most often is the problem of assurance. And it’s also one of the most difficult problems to address.
The problem of assurance
What do I mean by the problem of assurance? I mean the case of a person who has heard the gospel, has made some response to the gospel, but still is not certain that he or she is saved and will be safe for ever.
The problem of assurance comes in many different shapes and forms. Some of the people who want to talk to me about the problem are new converts: it’s been just a few weeks or months since they responded to the gospel. Others are folk who have been counted as Christians for many years. Some have never had any assurance of their salvation. Others had been sure but then lost their certainty. For some, the problem is, ‘I don’t know for sure that I’m saved now.’ For others the problem is, ‘I’m sure I’m saved now, but what if I fall away and lose my salvation?’ For some, their lack of assurance springs from the fact that they’ve fallen into some persistent sin and fear that there’s no way back. With others, their lack of assurance is largely a matter of feelings that they can’t explain: ‘I just don’t feel any assurance. I don’t feel that God loves me. I don’t feel secure.’
I’m not going to try to deal with all the different cases in this article. I’m just going to talk about the one that I encounter most often. Perhaps if I were pastoring a different church with a different theological outlook, I would come across the other cases more often. But if I write about the one I know best, maybe what I write will be a help to others too.
Was I ever truly saved?
The type of person who approaches me most often to talk about their lack of assurance is someone who has heard the gospel as it really is, has understood it clearly, has responded to it.
I listen to their story. It seems from what they say that at some point, maybe as a child, maybe later in life, he – or she – understood that he was a sinner, guilty in the sight of God. He believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for sinners. He had been told that he must repent of his sins and trust in Jesus Christ to save him. And he had responded.
Perhaps there was a particular moment when he prayed, asking God to forgive his sins; asking Jesus to save him. Perhaps there was no particular moment, but over a period of time his thinking and his life had changed. From being somebody who lived without God, he’d become a person who feared God and wanted to please him. From depending on himself and believing that he could make himself good enough for God, he realised that he had to rely on Jesus. One way or another, he had been converted, changed in his attitude to himself, to God, to the Lord Jesus. When someone asked him, ‘Are you a Christian’, he answered ‘yes’. When someone asked him, ‘Has God forgiven you and accepted you? Are you saved?’ he answered ‘yes’ again. Because he knew that the Bible said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.’
What happened next? Well, let’s give our new convert a name. Let’s call him Terry. I should say that Terry is not a single individual. His story is a composite from the experiences of many friends.
After the great change – conversion – many changes followed in Terry’s life. He was baptised (happily, the Christians who first told him the gospel also showed him the importance of being baptised). He joined a church and started living the way that he was told Christians should live. He tried to read the Bible and pray regularly; he witnessed to his non-Christian friends; aimed to follow Christian standards in his family life, in his work, in the things he did and the things he didn’t do.
But he knew that being a Christian meant more than just those outward changes. As he read his Bible and listened to serious preaching, he was taught that he must be holy as God is holy. He knew that he must be filled with the Spirit. He learned that he must desire the glory of God above everything else. He took seriously the two great commands: that he must love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and that he must love his neighbour as himself. He prayed that the fruit of the Spirit would grow in him: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
And now five years on, or ten, or thirty, Terry was writing, or emailing, or asking to talk with me – because he had no assurance that he had ever been truly saved.
Once saved, saved forever – but…
Terry was a well-taught church member. So he knew that anyone who had truly been saved could never be lost. He knew that Jesus said, ‘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 my Father’s hand’ (John 10:27-29).
He knew a host of other Bible passages which make the same promise. But he also knew that there were many passages which warn that there are people who make some response to the gospel, believe that they are saved – but aren’t. His worry was that he might be one of those people.
Let me show you just a few of the passages that troubled Terry. We could add lots more, but here is a sample.
Jesus told a parable about a sower who scattered seed on the ground (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). Some fell on the hard-trodden path. Some fell on shallow soil that covered the rock beneath. Some fell among thorn bushes. And some fell on good, fertile soil. In the case of the seed that fell on the path, there were no results. The seed was simply carried off by the birds. In the case of the seed that fell on the shallow soil, there were results, but they were temporary. Plants sprang up, only to die as the sun beat down on them. In the case of the seed that fell among the thorns, again there were temporary results – plants grew, only to be choked by the stronger thorn-bushes. But in the case of the seed that fell on fertile ground, the plants that grew up lived and thrived, and produced plentiful fruit.
Jesus went on to explain his parable. The seed is a picture of the word – the gospel. The sower – the evangelist – scatters it in all directions – and it reaches all sorts of people. Some are like the hardened soil of the path – they don’t take it in at all. It bounces off them. Some on the other hand are like the fertile soil. The message goes deep into their hearts, produces true repentance, true faith: they believe and are saved. They produce fruit and the fruit lasts.
But there are also people like the shallow soil and the thorn-infested soil. These are people who hear the word, believe it, respond to it – but in whom there is no lasting result. Jesus said, ‘As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful’ (vs. 20-22).
Jesus made it clear that there would be some people who would listen to the gospel, believe it, even ‘receive it with joy’. And yet they would still be unsaved. The word would never really have reached their heart to produce true repentance or faith.
In another passage Jesus warned that there would be people who would call him ‘Lord’ and believe that they were saved. But on the Day of Judgment, they would find themselves rejected: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day [the Day of Judgment] many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness”’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
So it is possible for a person to hear the true gospel, respond to it joyfully, seem to have a changed life, even seem to be serving the Lord, and yet not truly be saved.
We have in the New Testament examples of people who seemed to be saved, but weren’t. Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5); Simon the Magician (Acts 8: Philip thought he had genuinely repented and baptised him), and most frightening of all, Judas Iscariot who followed Jesus, was appointed as an apostle, preached the gospel to others, did the same mighty works as the other apostles, but whose heart was unchanged all along – ‘it would have been better for that man if he had not been born’ (Matthew 26:24).
James in his letter warns that a person may have a sort of ‘faith’, but that faith may be a dead faith which produces no works and is worthless (James 2:14-26). Peter, in his second letter, urges his Christian readers to ‘be all the more diligent to confirm [i.e. to make sure of] your calling and election…’ (2 Peter 1:10). Clearly he feared that there might be some among them who thought they had been called and chosen – but hadn’t been.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote, ‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God…’ (Hebrews 3:12). Paul urged the Christians who made up the church in Corinth, ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless, indeed, you fail the test!’ (2 Corinthians 13:5). He was not suggesting that these Corinthians were conscious hypocrites. They had all made a response to the gospel, declared faith in Jesus Christ, been baptised, become part of the church. Yet he feared that some of them might not truly be ‘in the faith’.
Everywhere Terry looked in his New Testament he found passages like these: passages which warn that there would be people who would respond to the word, believe themselves to be saved, and yet would be lost. So the question that haunted him was simple. How could he be sure that he was not one of those people? How could he be sure that his repentance and his faith were true saving faith? How can he be sure that he’s ever been truly saved?
Now, if you look again at the New Testament passages we’ve just quoted, you will realise that the implication of each one is that there are signs by which a person can assess whether their faith is real. According to Jesus’s parable, the seed which falls on good soil produces fruit and the fruit lasts; likewise a man or woman who is truly saved, produces good works and goes on doing so. The point about the people who are told on the Day of Judgment that Jesus never knew them though they called him Lord is that they didn’t obey his commands – he calls them ‘workers of lawlessness’ a few verses further on. Ananias and Sapphira were deliberately and consciously continuing in sin: they were secretly living lives of deceit and hypocrisy. Simon the Magician had no desire for holiness: he wanted only to use the power of the Holy Spirit to make himself rich and powerful. Judas Iscariot was a secret thief and was ready to sell Jesus for money. The dead faith that James spoke about was a faith that never produced any deeds of love or mercy. And so on.
So, of course, I urge Terry to use the tests which the New Testament gives us to distinguish between people who have false, dead faith and living, saving faith.
Maybe I show him the words of Jesus in John 14:21: ‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me…’ And then I say, ‘Tell me, when you find a commandment of Jesus in your Bible, do you want to keep it? Do you willingly keep it, just because it’s his commandment? And Terry looks dejected. ‘Well I try. But when I examine myself, I can’t always say that I do it willingly. Sometimes I really wish he hadn’t given that commandment because it seems so hard. And sometimes I find myself breaking one of his commandments. Or I force myself to keep it, but not in the right spirit. I’m not sure I do it out of love for him. I only do it out of fear.’
You see, Terry is someone who examines himself far more deeply than most of us do. He’s examining his own motives, his own feelings, he’s remembering every time he’s failed to obey one of Jesus’s commands. And as he examines himself, he can always see some way in which he’s fallen short. And that something makes him fear that he’s failed the test and he can’t truly be saved.
Perhaps I take him to John’s first letter. John gives a whole series of tests by which we can know whether we are truly saved. Here’s one. ‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers’ (1 John 3:14). I quote it to him and ask, ‘Well, do you love your Christian brothers?’ And again his face falls. ‘I try. And I think there are some Christians I love. But I don’t know if I’m loving them with a real, godly love. Maybe I only care about them because they’ve been good to me. And because they’re the sort of people I get on with naturally. And there are some Christians I really dislike. I still try to pray for them and help them, but it feels as if I’m just pretending…’
And so it is with every passage I quote. I take him to the simplest tests of all. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Jesus!) shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13). ‘Have you called on the name of Jesus? Do you still call on his name?’ ‘Well yes,’ he replies, ‘but I don’t know if I’m doing it from my heart. I don’t know if I’m doing it with real faith.’
Now, at this point I may start feeling frustrated. Terry seems, from all I know of him, to be a shining example of what a Christian should be. Every time he speaks and prays, it seems obvious to me that he loves God and wants God’s name to be hallowed and God’s kingdom to come. As far as I can judge, he grieves far more deeply over his sins than I do over mine. He’s humble, loving, generous to a fault. I see him living a life of sacrificial obedience to Christ and persevering in the face of real affliction and opposition.
But it almost seems as if he’s determined not to accept that he’s truly saved. Whatever test I point to in the New Testament to show that he’s a true Christian, he finds something in himself that means he’s failed it. Well, I mustn’t get frustrated with him.
Firstly, because he’s genuinely distressed. He would love to be able to say with certainty, ‘Yes, I’m sure I belong to Christ.’ But he can’t.
Secondly, because he’s trying so hard to be honest. He’s determined not to overlook anything as he examines himself. Where others refuse to take their sins and shortcomings seriously, he’s looking at every one under a magnifying glass and seeing how serious they are.
Thirdly, because I don’t know what’s at the root of this problem. It may be that his battle isn’t purely spiritual. It may be that there’s something in the personality which he inherited which makes it hard for him to believe that he’s accepted. It may be that he was brought up by parents who were never satisfied with anything he did. Perhaps they’ve turned him into somebody who can only see negatives and never positives. Perhaps if they had been gentler with him, he would be able to see the signs of grace in his own life, instead of focussing so much on his remaining sins.
Fourthly, because I have to remember that he – and I – have an enemy. A great enemy. One of his names is Satan, which means ‘the Accuser’. And another is ‘the devil’, which means the slanderer. Perhaps the reason why this poor man is struggling so much to find any assurance is because Satan is relentlessly accusing him – pointing out every failure, every sin, every shortcoming. Perhaps it’s Satan who’s injecting doubt into his mind. And only a fresh sight of Jesus and his grace will silence Satan’s accusations.
Fifthly, because I have to accept that he could be right. Everything I’ve heard about his past experience and observed about his life makes me believe that he’s truly converted, but there are things I can’t observe. I can’t see his heart. It may be that all the earnestness and zeal I’ve seen in him are purely natural manifestations of his personality, rather than the outworking of new birth by the Holy Spirit. It may be that I am talking to an unsaved man after all.
Where can we go?
So where shall I go with my friend? (And let me repeat, I’m not talking about just one particular friend – Terry’s picture is drawn from many folk who have talked to me over the years about their lack of assurance.) Whatever promise I quote, he feels that it can’t apply to him. Whatever test I show him, he finds reasons why he fails it. What more can I say to him?
Well, I must stop telling him to examine himself. And I must tell him instead to look at Jesus. Whether he’s a believer who lacks assurance, or an unbeliever who’s been deceived all these years, that’s what he needs most – to look at Jesus himself. William Bridge wrote nearly four hundred years ago, ‘…if you lack the assurance of the love of God, then yet you must and you may look on Christ… “Look unto me (says he) from all the ends of the earth and be saved.”’
So I must help him do that. I must help him to see clearly the character of Jesus who said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never cast out’ (John 6:37). And that’s what I’ve done with one friend after another who’s talked to me about their lack of assurance. I’ve taken them to the gospels and read to them the wonderful stories of Jesus and his dealings with people who came to him in their needs. We talk about Simon Peter who fell at his feet and said, ‘Depart from me, I’m a sinful man.’ And the woman with a constant flow of blood who didn’t dare speak to him, but secretly touched the hem of his garment. And the Roman centurion who sent messengers to him saying, ‘I am not worthy for you to come under my roof.’ And the father with a demon-tormented son who cried to him, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief!’ And the dying thief who called out, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom!’
And then here’s my question for Terry and for everyone who can see nothing but failure and sin in himself:
Tell me, how many people can you think of who came in need to Jesus, asked for his help, and were turned away?
And if my friend has really been listening, he’ll answer, ‘None.’
Tell me then, if someone came to Jesus describing himself exactly as you’ve described yourself, what would Jesus do? Imagine a man who came to Jesus saying that he feared that for years he’d been a false believer. He fears that he’s only got a dead faith, that he’s never truly loved God, that he’s never truly repented – and he doesn’t know how to! Would Jesus drive that man away?
‘No, I don’t think he would.’
And if that man pleaded with Jesus, ‘don’t send me away. Just take me as I am and please rescue me now. Please don’t let go of me,’ would Jesus refuse?
‘I don’t think so.’
I know he wouldn’t. He never turned away anyone who came to him, and told him they needed his help. So why don’t you do that now? It doesn’t matter whether you were truly saved before. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve had a dead faith or a living faith in the past. What matters is that you go to Jesus now, just as you are, and ask him to rescue you. He’s never yet turned away someone who admitted their failure and their need. And he never will.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you were truly saved in the past. Perhaps there’s no way you can be sure of that. Trying to analyse how much you understood or what you felt back then is futile. Which of us can remember infallibly the thoughts and the feelings we had years ago? What matters is that you come to Jesus now. He has not changed. The Saviour who welcomed every sinner when he walked on this earth will surely welcome you.
All Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport