Monday, July 28, 2008

Assurance: Presumption or Promise?

The notion than a person can know with certainty that he is saved and will join Jesus in heaven upon death has long been a fixture of Protestant and especially Evangelical theology.

Today, though, there are many voices who say that this is the height of presumption. How can we suggest that we know for sure what will happen to us after we die? Am I God? I don’t even know what I had for breakfast last week – how can I know my heart well enough to say I am surely saved?

Isn’t it dangerous to suggest that people can know they are saved – wouldn’t they take that knowledge and rest on their laurels rather than being about the work of the kingdom?

What if people think they’re saved and are wrong – isn’t it better for people to wonder and search rather than be wrongly assured of their safety?

You know, those are all good questions. The one problem is that assurance is totally biblical.

Confidence in our salvation is sprinkled throughout the Bible, but one apostle makes it particularly clear. “I write these things … so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13, emphasis mine).

But this isn’t what our friends worry so about; it’s not the easy-believism, pray a prayer and go on with your sinful life kind of assurance that, frankly, is rife in Evangelicalism today. Reading 1 John is like standing in front of a mirror. It will ask you to test how you live, how you love, and whom you love before it lets you walk away with assurance – and that is how it should be.

Assurance is biblical, but it's only for the believer who is willing to ask himself the hard questions. To that believer the Bible offers hope, security, and support through sickness, trials, and even his final moments on this earth – no mean treasure.

Still, though isn’t it presumptuous of us to suggest that we know what God thinks of us? Hardly. “It cannot be wrong to feel confidently in a matter where God speaks unconditionally, to believe decidedly when God promises decidedly, to have a sure persuasion of pardon and peace when we rest on the word and oath of Him that never changes” (JC Ryle, Holiness).

It is not presumption to rest on the promises of God.


Vinny said...

How do you feel about Christians who leave the faith? Does it prove that they were never really saved in the first place? That seems to be a common response from many evangelical Christians.

Over at Debunking Christianity, several of the atheist bloggers are former ministers and seminary students who were quite sure at one time that they were saved. If they really weren't, then could anybody really be all that confident?

I was only a Bible believer for a couple of years as a teenager so I don't blame anyone who might question the sincerity of my faith. Still, I sure thought I was saved at the time and, if I wasn't, I cannot imagine that I could ever be certain of it again.

ChrisB said...

Vinny, this is a question that Christians have been trying to sort out for some time. There seem to be three approaches.

1) Some say that passages like the one above are talking about committed Christians who are afraid they'll fall short somehow; these folks think apostasy is different, that if a person chooses to walk away from Christ they can.

2) Taking the complete opposite approach, some say that if a believer decides they don't believe anymore and walks away ... they're still saved. The emphasis is on God's grace and promise as well as sovereignty -- you don't belong to you and have no right to leave. To these people, apostate Christians will die, go to heaven, and be pleasantly surprised to find out they were wrong about atheism.

3) As you say, a common response is to say these folks were never saved at all, and that's probably where I'd fall. As I pointed out above, this assurance isn't for everyone who parrots a prayer but for those who have subjected themselves to some pretty serious testing. Every NT author who talks about assurance also talks about evidence that you belong to Christ.

I've never known anyone well who was a devout Christian and then left the faith. I know Dan Barker, etc, would say they were the most devout of the devout, but I don't know anyone like that who's left. Those I know who've left the faith (and they are few) were people with an inherited "faith" -- it was never really their belief so much as it was their tradition.

There have been people who've gone to church for decades -- even been decons or more -- and then at fifty realized that they'd been going through the motions. Sometimes these folks get saved at 50. Sometimes they walk away from the church. Sometimes they keep pretending (or don't realize they're pretending) to the day they die.

I'm not sure this is what you were looking for. Unfortunately this is a question without an easy answer -- like most important questions.

Spherical said...

Can someone lose their place in heaven? I believe it is possible. In Revelations 2, Jesus says to the church at Ephesus, "Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and reomove your lampstand from its place." I know that there are different interpretations to this verse, but one possible is that yes, you can walk away from your salvation.

As far as assurance is concerned, I believe that grace is a state that is the Christians only hope. If we didn't need grace, there was no need for the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Assurance is granted to those who live in that relationship. That does not mean that all who believe they have that assurance really do.

Read Matthew 25:31-46. Some who thought they would partake of the inheritance were told "Depart from me, you who are cursed..."

In the parable of the 10 virgins, 5 of them leave to get more oil, and are left on the outside with the words, "I don't know you."

I believe I have an assurance of salvation, but I am motivated to keep that because I believe that if I get complacent, I could lose it. My assurance is not my guarantee, my relationship is my guarantee. I believe that many who hold onto the assurance as a guarantee will be surprised come judgement day. I hope that I am wrong, because that is not my desire. But this belief motivates me to strengthen the relationship.

Vinny said...


When does the assurance come? I can’t imagine that any honest Christian could look in the mirror of 1 John without being aware of how far short he falls of those standards

Spherical said...

The assurance comes through faith. I John 1:7 "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin."

It is not about me and what I can do for him, it is about him and what he has done for me.

David was a man "after God's own heart." David pursued having a heart like God. He failed at times because he was human, but he never gave up the pursuit. I believe God's grace can cover whatever inadequacies I have, as long as I am walking in the light, as long as I am pursuing God's heart.

John goes on to say that if we say we are w/o sin, we deceive ourselves. No one is perfect, except Jesus. But our goal is the pursuit of perfection, even though we will never reach it in this life.

ChrisB said...

Vinny said: I can’t imagine that any honest Christian could look in the mirror of 1 John without being aware of how far short he falls of those standards

He sets the bar pretty high, I'll admit. But I'm sure it's not accidental that he starts out saying, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (v9).

It's not perfection but a growing Christ-likeness that is the goal -- and the standard.

Spherical, here's the short version of my thoughts: I think it's all about grace. If we're saved by God's graciously imputing Christ's righteousness to us, how can we then screw up Christ's righteousness?

Nancy said...

It is very much the same in marriage. We fall in love and join our lives not really knowing or understanding the fullness of the commitment. The questions that follow are often difficult as two lives are melded into one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say there are no doubts, no challenges to belief in promises shared?? That just isn’t the human condition. What we can say, is that as we get to know our loved one, and choose daily to recommit and lay our lives down for each other, we are reassured of love’s endurance, if we will let it be so.