It's a heartache to me as a pastor to realize that so many Christians lack the assurance of their salvation. They lack the confidence that their sins are truly forgiven and that their place in heaven is eternally secured.
In 1654 the Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote, "Assurance is the believer's ark where he sits, Noah-like, quiet and still in the midst of all distractions and destructions, commotions and confusions.... [However] most Christians live between fears and hopes, and hang, as it were, between heaven and hell. Sometimes they hope that their state is good, at other times they fear that their state is bad: now they hope that all is
It doesn't have to be that way. The apostle Peter said, "Be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you" (2 Peter 1:10, emphasis added). The prophet Isaiah said, "The work of righteousness will be peace, and the service of righteousness, quietness
It's true that someone can be saved and doubt it. One may go to heaven in a mist, not knowing for sure he's going, but that's certainly not the way to enjoy the trip.
Incorrect Assumptions About Salvation
All of us as Christians have times when doubt makes us question if we're saved. For some, those times are but fleeting moments; for some, they last a long time; and for others, they seem like a way of life. Before we explore the reasons so many Christians lack assurance, there are two issues we need to consider.
Some people have assurance who have no right to it. The old slave spiritual put it simply: "Everybody talkin' about heaven ain't going there." Some feel all is well between them and God when it isn't. They don't understand the truth about salvation and their own spiritual condition.
People often ask me why I speak so frequently about salvation and spiritual self-examination. It's because Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you'" (Matthew 7:21-23). Many people are deceived about their salvation. That's why the apostle Paul said, "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!" (2 Corinthians 13:5).
How did those people get their false assurance? By receiving false information about salvation. Much of our modern-day evangelism contributes to that through what I call "syllogistic assurance."
A syllogism has a major premise and a minor premise that lead to a conclusion. Let's consider John 1:12: "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name."
- The major premise: anyone who receives Jesus becomes God's child.
- The minor premise: the person you just witnessed to received Christ.
- Conclusion: the person must now be a child of God.
That seems logical, but the problem is, you don't know whether the minor premise is true—whether the person truly received Christ. Beware of trying to assure people of their salvation based on an untested profession. Assurance is the reward of tested and proven faith. It is the Holy Spirit who gives it, not a human being.
Another preliminary issue you need to be aware of is that some think no one has the right to assurance—not even a true Christian. They think it's presumptuous to think you can be spiritually secure. That's the historic Arminian view. It asserts that if a person thought he was secure forever, he would do whatever he wanted and be spiritually negligent.
That is also the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Council of Trent in the mid-1500s declared it anathema to say "that a man who is born again and justified is bound [of faith] to believe that he is certainly in the number of the predestined" (can. 15 on justification). Modern Catholic teaching upholds that position.
G.C. Berkhouwer's The Conflict with Rome explains that Rome's denial of the assurance of salvation is consistent with its conception of the nature of salvation (pp. 118-19). Since it conceives of salvation as a joint effort by man and God, something that's maintained through the doing of good works, it concludes the believer can never be absolutely sure of his or her salvation. Why? Because if my salvation depends on God and me, I might mess up.
When you have
With that understanding, let's get back to our basic question, Why do people lack assurance? One obvious reason is that some aren't saved, but let's go beyond that. Why do Christians lack assurance? There are eight basic reasons.
Eight Reasons for Shaken Assurance
Some lack assurance because of being under strong biblical preaching on God's holy standard. Such preaching forces people to see their sinfulness and acknowledge that the holiness of God calls them to a lofty standard of living. Is that bad? No, the pulpit should be the creator of anxious hearts. How else can it unsettle those who have false assurance? However, the consistent call to righteousness may unsettle some Christians, particularly those who are frequently succumbing to temptation.
But that kind of preaching is rare. Churches across our country are filled with smug people who don't feel particularly insecure because nothing in their life is ever confronted. Rather than leading their people to examine themselves and make sure their assurance is valid, many preachers feel it's their duty to make everyone feel good. However, those who preach as they should
Dear John, I've been attending Grace church for several years. As a result of a growing conviction in my heart, your preaching, and my seeming powerlessness against the temptations which arise in my heart and which I constantly succumb to, my growing doubts have led me to believe that I'm not saved.
How sad it is, John, for me not to be able to enter in because of the sin which clings to me and from which I long to be free. How bizarre for one who has had advanced biblical training and who teaches in Sunday School with heartfelt conviction! So many times I have determined in my heart to repent, to shake loose my desire to sin, to forsake all for Jesus only to find myself doing the sin I don't want to do and not doing the good I want to do.
After my fiance and I broke up I memorized Ephesians as part of an all-out effort against sin, only to find myself weaker and more painfully aware of my sinfulness, more prone to sin than ever before, and grabbing cheap thrills to push back the pain of lost love. This occurs mostly in the heart, John, but that's where it counts and that's where we live. I sin because I'm a sinner. I'm like a soldier without armor running across a battlefield getting shot up by fiery darts from the enemy.
I couldn't leave the church if I wanted to. I love the people and I'm enthralled by the gospel of the beautiful Messiah. But I'm a pile of manure on the white marble floor of Christ, a mongrel dog that sneaked in the back door of the King's banquet to lick the crumbs off the floor, and, by being close to Christians who are rich in the blessings of Christ, I get some of the
Is the author of that poignant letter a Christian? One thing that jumps out at me is his desire to do right, which sounds more like Paul in Romans 7 than an unbeliever. The pulpit is the creator of anxious hearts, but it is also to give comfort and assurance to those who love Christ.
Other people lack assurance because they can't accept forgiveness. They are tyrannized by their emotions and feel they are too bad to be forgiven. There are several reasons for that. First, conscience speaks against forgiveness. The only thing your conscience knows about is guilt and conviction. It knows nothing of grace and mercy. Also, holiness and justice speak against forgiveness. They focus on sin and know nothing of excusing it.
Be warned: Satan is the accuser of the brethren. He will do all he can to obscure the love and graciousness of God. One Puritan wrote,
He that lacks assurance of God's
The truth is, beloved, this lack of assurance of God's love, or interest in Christ, is an inlet to many sins and miseries; for first a man doubts of his own salvation.
Another Puritan draws us back to Scripture, saying,
Manasseh is saved. O despairing souls, the arms of mercy are open to receive a Manasseh, a monster, a devil incarnate; he caused that gospel prophet Isaiah to be
Paul was full of rage against Christ and his
If you allow Satan to crush your head with the holy requirements of God stripped of the love of God, you will doubt.
Many people lack assurance because they do not understand that salvation is an utterly divine, totally sovereign operation. Assurance is built on the historical reality of what Jesus Christ accomplished. It is not a feeling without reason, and you will never have the subjective feeling of assurance until you comprehend the objective truth of the gospel.
You must realize that God knew you were a sinner, which is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world to completely pay the price for all your sins—past, present, and future. The salvation Jesus offered was secured forever by the omnipotent power of God. It is irreversible. As Romans 11:29 says, "The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."
In the Old Testament, God said, "Come
When Israel was preparing to leave Egypt, the last plague, the death of the firstborn, was about to fall on the land. God instructed His people to slay a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the front door of their houses. The angel of death passed over every blood-sprinkled house. Inside the
So it is today. We can't see the blood shed on Calvary for our redemption, but God does. He doesn't look at the believer and say, "Hey, he cheated"—or lied, or lacked kindness, or acted like a hypocrite. Your security from divine judgment doesn't depend on living a perfect life, but on being sheltered by the blood of Christ.
There's one element of gospel truth I want to mention specifically because of its major role in the issue of assurance: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It proves that the Lord's work on the cross brought about
Jesus Christ bore a world of sin—all the guilt of all who would ever believe—in His body on the cross. God can gaze upon a sinner who bears much less sin than the crucified Christ and exalt that sinner to His own right hand, even as He did to His own Son (Ephesians 1:19—2:1).
A young convert once said, "If anyone is ever to be kept out of heaven for my sins, it will have to be Jesus, for He took them all upon Himself and made Himself responsible for them. But He is in heaven already, never to be turned out, so now I know that I am secure" (Ironside, p. 75). The matter is settled for those of us who trust in Christ. God "has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:9-10).
Assurance is an inextricable part of saving faith. The apostle John said, "I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13, emphasis added). The Christian faith is a secure faith. As one hymn triumphantly declares, "How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word."
Some Christians lack assurance because they don't know the exact time of their salvation. They can't remember when they believed. Some can't remember ever not believing. Because they can't pinpoint the exact moment, they doubt whether the moment actually occurred. But if you didn't know the date of your birth, you wouldn't wonder if you were alive. Far too much has been made of isolating the moment by some little formula, whether it be praying a prayer, signing a card, raising your hand, or walking down an aisle.
Many Christians—especially those reared in a Christian environment—can't identify the exact moment they were saved. I can't. I don't know when I passed from death to life, but I know I did. There were times as a little child when I prayed special prayers. I specifically remember praying with my father on the steps of a church in Indiana when he was holding a revival meeting. His sermon convicted me because I had done some things that week that
I don't look for a past event to make my salvation real to me. I look at the present pattern of my life. Some people have a false assurance because they can remember a past event, but their life doesn't follow a righteous pattern. So don't worry if you can't tie in a specific time or event with the moment of your salvation. Focus on your lifestyle instead.
Another reason Christians lack assurance is they feel the pull of their unredeemed flesh and wonder if they have a new nature. As Christians dwelling in this fallen world, we are new creations incarcerated in unredeemed flesh. In fact we "groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for ... the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:23) at our Lord's return, when it "will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (v. 21).
However, until our liberation comes, we will occasionally be drawn into the Romans 7 battle between flesh and spirit, doing what we don't want to do and not doing what we want to do. If sin is overwhelming and overpowering you at any given point, you will lack assurance. You'll wonder, Did I repent enough? Am I sorry enough for my sin? Do I have enough faith?
It's easy to read Romans 7:14-25 in an imbalanced way. If you see only the parts that say, "Nothing good dwells in me" and "wretched man that I am," you'll become overly introspective. Focusing on the flesh will warp your perspective and lead you to overstate your spiritual condition. However, if you see only the parts that say, "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man" and "the willing [of doing good] is present in me" you'll fail to deal with the reality of the flesh.
You need to keep a balance. Here's a helpful suggestion:
Test yourself in this way. You once lived in sin and loved it. Do you now desire deliverance from it? You were once self-confident and trusting in your own fancied goodness. Do you now judge yourself as a sinner before God? You once sought to hide from God and rebelled against His authority. Do you now look up to Him, desiring to know Him, and to yield yourself to Him? If you can honestly say "Yes" to these questions, you have repented ... And remember, it is not the amount of repentance that counts: it is the fact that you turn from self to God that puts you in the place where His grace avails through Jesus Christ.
Strictly speaking, not one of us has ever repented enough. None of us has realized the enormity of our guilt as God sees it. But when we judge ourselves and trust the Saviour whom He has provided, we are saved through His merits. As recipients of His
Do you see the impulses of the new nature in your life? If so, that's indicative of salvation. If God's will has become your highest joy, and submission to His lordship your greatest delight, you are indeed a child of God—no matter how strong the pull of sin.
Some Christians become spiritually unstable because they can't see the hand of God in all their trials. They say things like, "How could God love me and let me go through this? How could He take my husband—or wife or child? How could He not hear my prayer and deliver me? Where is God when I need Him?" People who think like that not only sentence themselves to doubt but also miss what's actually the strongest source of assurance: proven faith.
Romans 5 says, "Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ... and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (vv. 1-5). We're to rejoice in our trials because they produce hope and assurance.
"Consider it all joy," says James, "when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (1:2-4). Rather than causing you to doubt, the trials of life are to prove God's love and power
Through all you must endure in life, remember this: "God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints... [therefore] show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (Hebrews 6:10-12, emphasis added). Handle your difficulties by being diligent and patient. The reward is a full assurance of hope.
Trials are the crucible in which assurance is formed. Remember Paul's great statement that nothing could separate him from the love of God? Note the context of his assurance: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, 'For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered'" (Romans 8:35-36). Paul had experienced all that, yet he was certain of his relationship with God. What convinces you of your salvation?
One of the most important ways the Holy Spirit ministers to believers is by assuring them of their salvation. A believer who's not living by the Spirit's power forfeits that important ministry. Let's look again at Romans 8: "You have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" (v. 15). ("Abba" is the Aramaic equivalent of "Daddy.") We have been adopted into God's family and are on intimate terms with Him. How do we know that's true? Because "the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ" (vv. 16-17).
How does the Holy Spirit bear witness that we are God's children? In a number of ways. The first is by illuminating Scripture so we can understand it. First Corinthians 2 says, "It is written, 'Things which eye has not seen and ear
The second way the Spirit bears witness is through salvation. First John 4:13-15 says, "By
Another way in which the Spirit bears witness is by drawing us into fellowship with God. Galatians 4 says, "Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (v. 6). The Spirit produces prayer, praise, and worship—a crying out to God as our Father.
Yet another way He bears witness is the fruit He produces in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The flesh certainly doesn't produce those things. It knows lust, but not true love. It knows momentary happiness, but not settled joy. It knows a moment of calm, but not a deep inner peace. The fruit of the Spirit is evidence that you belong to God. So is the outworking of His mighty power in us through evangelism and other Christian ministries (cf. Acts 1:8).
The Spirit's witness is not some little voice that says, "Yes, yes, you really are a Christian." It's so much more. The Holy Spirit illuminates the Word of God for us, leads us to
Thomas Brooks concludes the matter: "The Spirit is the great revealer of the Father's secrets, he lies in the bosom of the Father, he knows every name that is written in the book of life; he is best acquainted with the inward workings of the heart of God towards poor sinners; he is the great comforter and the only sealer up of souls to the day of redemption. If you grieve by your willful sinning he that alone can gladden you, who then will make you glad?" (Heaven on Earth, p. 152, emphasis added). If you grieve or quench the Spirit by walking in the flesh, you short-circuit His ministries to you and will lack assurance as a result.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for lacking assurance is
Listen to the testimony of Charles Spurgeon:
Whenever I feel that I have sinned and desire to overcome that sin for the future, the devil at the same time comes to me and whispers, "How can you be a pardoned person and accepted with God while you still sin in this way?" If I listen to this I drop into despondency, and if I continued in that state I should fall into despair, and should commit sin more frequently than before; but God's grace comes in and says to my soul, "Thou hast sinned; but did not Christ come to save sinners? Thou art not saved because thou art righteous; for Christ died for the ungodly." And my faith says, "Though I have sinned, I have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and though I am guilty yet by grace I am saved and I am a child of God still." And what then? Why the tears begin to flow and I say, "How could I ever sin against my God who has been so good to me? Now I will overcome that sin," and I get strong to fight with sin through the conviction that I am God's child.
Here's a practical way of dealing with sin: deal with a major sin in your life and the rest will follow. When the general is killed, the troops scatter. By the means of grace available to every believer, slay the sins you find most compelling and familiar—your pet sins—and the others will soon disappear. And when you fall into sin, quickly set out to conquer that sin and be aware that Satan will try to make you doubt your salvation. Fall back on the forgiving grace of God, and it will strengthen you for battle.
If you're lacking assurance—if you're plagued with doubts and have lost your joy, become useless in Christian service, empty in worship, cold in praise, passionless in prayer, and vulnerable to false teachers—whatever the problem, know there is a cure: obeying God's Word in the power of the Spirit.
Let's take the first step toward doing that by applying an ancient technique—a question-and-answer process known as a catechism—to help us think through what God's Word teaches about assurance. The Greek word
- Question: What is the essential duty a person has in this world? Consummating a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, which is to recognize His work on the cross and His resurrection from the dead as the satisfying atonement for sin, and to walk in accordance with that relationship.
- Question: Don't all members of the church have a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? No, only those who are truly saved.
- Question: How can I be certain I have that saving relationship? The Lord will have done in your soul His own sovereign will—that of calling you to Himself through a work of conviction and humiliation so you will have discovered your sin and misery, and, being so seriously agitated and threatened by it, you long for the Savior.
- Question: How can I know if I've made sufficient discovery and admission of my sin? By taking salvation to your heart above any other pursuit in life. It will make Christ, your Redeemer, very precious to your soul. It will make you fear sin, repent, and seek to be saved on God's terms.
- Question: What's another way of discerning a saving relationship to Christ? A strong and serious affection that reaches toward Christ as He is progressively revealed to you in the gospel. Such love is the product of saving belief.
- Question: Are there other marks of a relationship with Christ? You are truly saved when you have been made a whole new person, graciously changed and renewed. That is best evidenced by a desire to shun sin and pattern your life in obedience toward God's righteous demands.
- Question: What if I find
sinprevailing over me? Although every sin deserves eternal vengeance, if you regularly confess your sins with unhypocritical repentance and shame before God—fleeing to Christ for forgiveness for all known and unknown iniquities—He will grant you mercy and pardon because you stand in grace, and your salvation is forever secure.
- Question: What if my sins are serious and repeated? Whatever they are, Jesus Christ has paid the price for them so that if you sincerely and earnestly have turned to Him in repentant faith, you will never enter into condemnation. Moreover, His gracious provision for those who believe includes
powerto overcome sin and live righteously.
- Question: Is faith alone the requirement for salvation? Yes, it is the only basis upon which God offers peace and pardon to mankind. However, faith—if it is genuine—will not be alone in the soul, but will always be accompanied by true repentance and an eager desire to conform to God's will and way.
- Question: How can I be sure I've settled my eternal destiny with the Lord? Express with your mouth to God what the Holy Spirit through Scripture has led you to believe in your heart.
- Question: What are the results of a relationship with Christ? Union and communion with God here, and blessed fellowship and glory hereafter.
- Question: How can I come to full assurance that I have such a relationship? By affirming the promises of God as revealed in Scripture by the internal witness of the Spirit, and by manifesting real and righteous fruit born out of love for the Person of Christ and the desire to bring Him honor and glory.
Don't continue to live with doubts about your eternal salvation. Rather, live with the blessed assurance God wants you to enjoy as His child.
©1990 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise identified, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.