One common refrain I hear often is “are you sure you’re going to heaven?” But how can I even ask this question if I question whether or not that answer is yes for myself. Evangelicalism has not reflected deeply on its theology of assurance and of faith and how that theology has related to the historical views of Christians across time. How can I, who often doubts the reality of the gospel answer this question in the affirmative? It must be recognized that the assurance of our salvation is at once sure, and again something that must be fought for, tooth and nail, so that we may hold fast to our hope forever.
Assurance is not an immediate thing; it must be fought for. This idea of assurance, though exceedingly uncommon in Evangelical literature, is a view that has been held throughout Christian history and it reflects the nature of our heart’s natural inclination to doubt the realities of the gospel. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the common Evangelical view of assurance has done irreparable damage to our treatment of those faithful whose minds afflict themselves with the struggle of incredulity and those who struggle with issues of mental health. However, I take heart in these words which we find in one of the historic confessions of the reformed tradition, the Westminster Confession:
yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.
. . .
This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it
This is the nature of assurance. It is not something that is at times immediately attainable, and some of those who think they have assurance are in fact actually lost (Which is why, in Matthew 7.23 people are turned away at the gates of heaven itself, an act reflected in the great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress by Ignorance being cast out from the gates of heaven).
Why is assurance so . . . unsure? Jonathan Edwards answers this in one of his greatest works, Treatise on Religious Affections when he writes “Men in a corrupt and carnal frame, have their spiritual senses in but poor plight for judging and distinguishing spiritual things.” Our body and spirit are not the same, and our bodies through which we continue to live this life is immediately unable to properly reflect on its state. Edwards later says in the same work,
It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace. . . —And although self-examination [is] of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet it is not the principal means, by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination, as by action.
Our minds, trying to view our own state of being in grace, is ultimately not the source of our assurance of salvation. This is our error, we assume that salvation means that one needs to have immediate and full assurance of our salvation. However, this is never the case. Our feelings of assurance come and go and are indeed something to fight for. The Puritan Reverend Richard Baxter said in a sermon “You may believe immediately, (by the help of God’s Grace,) but getting assurance of it may be the work of a great part of your life” and anyone who struggles with doubt knows this to be true. Doubt as a whole may never be eliminated but it may, by the help of God be subdued.
In the first paragraph I did, however, offer this other line that assurance is at once sure, even as it is something that we must struggle for. Our salvation is the most sure thing that there is for those with a true, saving faith, though perhaps this assurance is not in the same sense as people often take it (which is a feeling of security in the arms of God). This other firm assurance is seen in another one of the great reformed confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism:
True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an [assurance], which the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
A true faith is equated with assurance. This is echoed by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
Certainly, whenever God thus recommends his word, he indirectly rebukes our unbelief, the purport of all that is said being to eradicate perverse doubt from our hearts.
Very different is that feeling of full assurance (πλεροφορία) which the Scriptures uniformly attribute to faith—an assurance which leaves no doubt that the goodness of God is clearly offered to us. This assurance we cannot have without truly perceiving its sweetness, and experiencing it in ourselves.
We are saved by faith through grace and our faith is our steadfast assurance. As Hebrews 11 says, faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Assurance is a sure thing in Christian theology, all those who have a true faith can be sure that they are saved and will be counted among the church in the last day.
It may at first seem as if this is talking about a different assurance than the Puritans I quoted in the first part. However, I believe instead that this looks at two very different but related parts of our assurance of salvation. The Heidelberg Catechism and Calvin correctly point out the true form of our assurance: a faith rooted not in ourselves, but in the word of God and person of Christ. In contrast the Puritans reflect upon the subjective nature of our hearts in feeling this truth. Thanks be to God that our salvation is not rooted in our fickle hearts which are so prone to wander and instead in the assurance of the reality of Jesus Christ himself. In those days where I cannot bring myself to believe the truth of the Gospel, I can look to the cross which I continue to find impossible and rest in a knowledge that it is Christ who will carry me through my doubts, and not my own strength. Finally let us remember these words from Paul when our minds assail us with doubts and we struggle to believe in the realities of the gospel or rest in a knowledge that Christ has indeed saved us and each of us individually and corporately as his body, “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection from the dead] or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
I can be sure that I am saved but it is also true that I may never feel that I am saved. It is always time to continue to fight the good fight of faith and this shall always be my prayer:
Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning;
grant that we may in such way hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that by patience and comfort of your holy Word, we may embrace, and firmly hold,
the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given to us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.