Dear Church Family,
Just about every Christian that I have ever met struggles with feelings of doubt and a lack of assurance. In conversation and counseling, many believers wonder, “How can I know for sure that I’m saved?” Or, “How could I have sinned in such a way and claim to be a Christian?” Personally, it has been my experience that someone who never doubts their salvation hasn’t actually considered or recognized the seriousness of their own sin. For fallen and sinful human beings, the gospel seems too good to be true – so, it is understandable that every Christian will doubt or lack assurance at one time or another.
Yet, when those times come, it is important for one who professes faith in Christ to look to the Scriptures to find the proper foundations of assurance. Too often Christians base their assurance either entirely on the objective truths of Scripture (God’s promises in His Word) or entirely upon their own subjective experience. Helpfully, chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” summarizes the teaching of Scripture on assurance of salvation by pointing us to the three biblical pillars of salvation. But first, we begin with the reality of false and true assurance.
WCF 18.1 – The reality of false and true assurance
In its teaching on assurance, the confession begins by explaining that “hypocrites and unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God, and estate of salvation.” For example, the Lord rebuked the people of God in the old covenant in the midst of their false assurance and hypocrisy (Deuteronomy 29:14-21; Micah 3:11). Jesus also condemned those hypocrites who claimed to perform miracles in His name, but yet did not belong to Him (Matthew 7:22-23).
At the same time, true assurance is attainable. As believers grow in their faith, they will learn to exult in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2) – a hope that does not disappoint, but brings joy and perseverance (Romans 5:45). In fact, the fundamental purpose of the first epistle of John is to help those who already believe in the name of the Son of God to know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
In his commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, G.I. Williamson provides a succinct summary of how to tell the difference between true and false assurance:
As A.A. Hodge succinctly tells us, (a) true assurance begets unfeigned humility; false assurance begets spiritual pride (1 Cor. 15:10; Gal. 6:14), (b) true assurance leads to increased diligence in the practice of holiness; the false leads to sloth and self-indulgence (Ps. 51:12-13, 19), (c) true assurance leads to candid self-examination and to a desire to be searched and corrected by God; the false leads to a disposition to be satisfied with appearance and to avoid accurate investigation (Ps. 139:23-24), and (d) the true leads to constant aspirations after more intimate fellowship with God, which is not true of false assurance (1 John 3:2-3). It is not the strength of one’s conviction which proves the validity of his assurance, but the character of one’s conviction. A man may be fanatically sure that he is saved, but this may mean only that he is ‘sincerely wrong.’
WCF 18.2 – The Three Pillars of Assurance
And that brings us, to the three biblical pillars of assurance. For my part, it helps me to understand and remember these three pillars by thinking of them in terms of them being objective, objective and subjective, and subjective. Hopefully, this will make a bit more sense as we go along.
(1) God’s Word (objective)
This first pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the divine truth of the promises of salvation.” These are the promises of grace and salvation that we may clearly and objectively find in God’s Word. These promises include such things as the unchangeableness of God’s oath and His inability to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18); His promise to perfect (or complete) the work that He has begun in the individual believer (Philippians 1:6); the Lord’s promise to not fail or forsake His people (Deuteronomy 31:6).
(2) Loving Obedience (objective and subjective)
This second pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made.” These are the good works which God prepared beforehand for His people to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). I refer to these good works as both objective and subjective because others may see these good works (Matthew 5:16), but only we (and God who knows the heart) may know if these good works are done in sincerity and faith (Acts 15:8). Thus, if we keep God’s commandments and have a love for the brethren, we may gain assurance that we have come to know Him and have passed out of death into life (1 John 2:3; 3:14).
(3) The internal witness of the Holy Spirit (subjective)
This third pillar of assurance is described in the confession as “the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are children of God.” The internal witness is a very subjective thing that can only be observed and described by the one who experiences it – a sort of peace and joy that surpasses comprehension (Philippians 4:7). The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 5:15-16).
When seeking to find true assurance of grace and salvation, a believer ought to look to God’s Word and His promises, to his own life for a desire and ability to keep God’s commandments, and to his own heart for a peace and joy of salvation.
WCF 18.3 – Assurance is not of the essence of faith, but it is our duty to diligently seek it
Some Christians erroneously believe that a person who doubts or lacks assurance cannot be truly saved; however, the confession reminds us of the Bible’s teaching that assurance is not of the essence of faith. That is to say, a person may have true faith, but also doubt or lack assurance (Mark 9:24; 1 John 5:13). Yet, believers ought to diligently seek to make their calling and election sure, to grown in their hope, confidence, and assurance (2 Peter 1:5-11). And, the believer ought to pursue this assurance by attending to the ordinary means of grace: the word, sacraments, and prayer (WSC 88; Psalm 73; Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:42-47). The benefits (or fruit) of true assurance are peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, love and thankfulness to God, and strength and cheerfulness in obedience (2 Corinthians 7:1; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 1:17-19; 1 John 3:2-3)
WCF 18.4 – Four causes for a believer’s assurance to be shaken or diminished
Finally, the confession gives four causes for which a true believer may doubt or lack assurance: neglecting to persevere in assurance through attending to worship and the ordinary means of grace (Hebrews 10:23-25); falling into some special sin as King David did (Psalm 51:8-14); being confronted by some sudden or vehement temptation as the Apostle Peter was (Matthew 26:69-72); or God’s decision to withdraw the light of His countenance as He did with Job (Job 1-2).
These are important reminders for every believer as we seek to be more and more firmly planted in an assurance of grace and salvation. And, it is important to remember that though shaken, true believers will never succumb to utter despair. With Job, we declare, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). With the Apostle Paul, we confess to knowing the secret of contentment, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). For the LORD’s lovingkindnesses never cease, and His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; His faithfulness is great. The LORD is my portion; therefore, I have hope in Him (Lamentations 3:22-24).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch