Many Christians are afflicted by doubt. I’m more and more convinced that the church helps feed this doubt by how we talk about assurance.
Assurance is almost always spoken about in terms of how you experience victorious Christian living. At least, that’s how it has seemed to me. People pull a verse or two from 1 John, and say that if you are really saved, then your life needs to show it. You should have ever-increasing good deeds and ever-decreasing sinful behavior. If that is going on, then you can possibly have some semblance of being sure you’re going to heaven (hence “assurance”).
If your life doesn’t show that clear advance, you are right to doubt, and to work on showing good fruit, so that you can possibly feel less in doubt that you really are saved.
I knew there was something missing there, but it was hard to get to. Works can certainly be faked, so it seems incongruous to use them as essential proofs. I tried bringing up cases, you know, like the thief on the cross. He didn’t have good works, but he knew he was going to heaven! Yes, I was told, a “deathbed” conversion could be true, but if he would have lived, it would have been very important for him to “show” his salvation.
On the one hand, I get the concern. If you have been regenerated, if you are united with Christ, if you have been astonished by the gospel, if you believe in Jesus, you will surely show some change, right? There is no possibility that a person who is really alive won’t bear fruit. Not of themselves; it is the fruit of the Spirit, and by being alive and connected to Jesus, that fruit comes.
But I’ve come to see that this “practical syllogism” of united-to-Christ believers bearing fruit which is assuring actually skips the main part of assurance. And not just because fruit can be hard to evaluate and sporadic. It is also, more importantly, that the main part of assurance is closer to faith and closer to the gospel than the downstream fruit-production which we tend to focus on.
Faith itself has to have a strong strand of assurance built in. That’s because our belief is in Jesus and what he has done, rather than in what we do. So faith is believing that what Jesus has done and what he has said is actually true… which is the very message that he by his work and action has secured our salvation.
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his son” (1 John 5:11) Well, has he given it, or not?
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 15:31). If you believe, that’s trust, then it isn’t about downstream works at all (even though they will come), it is about the nature of the agent (that’s Jesus).
I live by faith, not in my fruit, but in my Savior (Galatians 2:20). My faith is the assurance of what Jesus said is true, and this is my hope (Hebrews 11:1). Over and over the clear statement of Jesus, that he is our only hope, our rescuer, our redeemer, that his sacrifice is what counts—the main part of assurance is that he has said it, and he has done it, and he is faithful.
Jesus reveals a loving Father with a plan to rescue us, if we will trust him. I rest in that finished work, which has yet to come to sight for me. I live by trusting in his plan, revealed by Jesus, that I am adopted into his family and united with my savior forever.
Seeing little downstream effects, like joy, patience, or kindness (fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22) is really encouraging. But those encouragements should never take the place of (or really hold a candle to) to the incredible reality that my assurance hung on a tree and shed his blood. His word is sure, his promise is true, and I can stand on Him with certainty every moment of every day.
May you find your assurance in the truth of Jesus Christ. Trust that he really has you, now and forever, as you turn from your own self-righteousness to the perfect righteousness of the Son.
(n.b. this post was inspired by our church’s morning men’s group, which is discussing Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ, a treatment of the controversy over the Marrow of Modern Divinity. Wonderful read.)