Last week I received a moving email from a reader of this site. She revealed that she has wrestled with the issue of doubt and assurance and often wonders if she is truly saved. “I have prayed the salvation prayer numerous times because I thought that maybe I was not saved. I just prayed today and I know that I am saved. I know that Jesus saves. I know that all doubt has been removed.” And yet she knows that this assurance may be short lived. “Now I am worried. Exactly how do I know whether I am saved or whether I am lost. I prayed to receive Jesus. I have backslidden and I do not know if now if I have accepted Jesus by backsliding or by faith. How do I know? I do not know for sure. Would someone unsaved have those doubts?”
I’d like to address this issue today and tomorrow, though it is something I have written about in the past. I will mostly summarize what I’ve written in five or six previous articles. First, though, I’d encourage this reader and anyone else who struggles with this subject to turn to the local church. This is exactly the kind of issue that should be part of a conversation with a pastor or elder. It is in the local church that this issue can best be addressed. Still, there are some principles I’d like to share today that may prove helpful.
I’d like to begin with three important affirmations regarding assurance.
First, it is possible and even normal for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation. Based on his studies of the Bible, John MacArthur calls assurance of salvation “the birthright and privilege of every true believer in Christ.” This assurance is not only possible but should be the normal experience for any believer in Christ. Romans 8:16 teaches that assurance of salvation is part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…” 2 Peter 1:10 goes so far as to command us to pursue this assurance. “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
Yet even more clear than these verses is 1 John 5:13. As John closes this epistle he reveals his purpose in writing it. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” God has seen fit to provide us an entire book in the Bible that will teach us to know that we have eternal life. Surely, then, we can agree that God intends that we have assurance that we are His children.
Having seen that it is both possible and normal for the Christian to experience assurance of salvation, we now turn to a point which seems nearly contradictory.
Second, it is possible and even normal for the non-Christian to experience a false assurance of salvation. A foreshadowing of one of the most terrifying scenes the world will ever experience unfolds in Matthew 7, in a section often titled “I Never Knew You.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” When the final judgment comes, there will be many who will be shocked to learn that they are not true believers. They will go to the grave confident that they are saved, but come to the judgment and find that they are to be cast out of Jesus’ presence. This ought to be sobering for all who consider themselves Christians. No wonder that Paul sought confidence in his salvation, declaring in 2 Timothy 1:12 “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” Clearly assurance of salvation is a very important issue.
We’ll now turn to our third affirmation, which should provide great comfort to those who struggle in this area.
Third, it is possible and even normal for Christians to have doubts about their salvation. There is nothing unusual about occasionally doubting one’s salvation. The only thing unusual about doubt would be to experience it and not deal with it, wrestling with it, until it has been quelled by the power of the Spirit. A survey of many of the great believers of our day or of days past would prove that it is common to deal with some level of doubt. This is usually not a consuming doubt that drives a person to constant depression and despair, but a more occasional doubt that can be overcome by the ministry of the Spirit. So some level of doubt is normal, but overwhelming, consistent doubt is not typical.
Don Whitney has listed several important understandings about this type of “normal” doubt. First, doubting assurance is not the same as experiencing unbelief. A person can have a strong, vibrant faith in Jesus Christ while still feeling some level of doubt. We must not make doubt and unbelief synonymous terms, lest a person feel that his brief periods of doubt indicate serious unbelief in his heart. Unbelief presupposes a denial of many important points of doctrine where as doubt is mere uncertainty about them. Second, there are many causes of doubt. We can doubt because of the attacks of Satan, because of trials or difficult circumstances, because of sin in our lives or even a mental or physical condition. Doubt is not necessarily brought about by overwhelming sin in our lives. Third, spiritual immaturity may contribute to doubt. With greater maturity comes a greater understanding of God and our position before Him through Jesus’ atoning death. Thus we would generally expect doubts to decrease as a person grows in spiritual maturity. Fourth, sensitivity to sin may cause confusion about assurance. Believers, through their reborn hearts, are blessed with a greater sensitivity to sin. This heightened understanding of the gravity of sin may lead young Christians to doubt. Yet it should be noted that this increased understanding of sin is actually a mark of the Spirit’s work with a person’s heart. Fifth, comparisons with other believers may cloud assurance. Comparing oneself to other believers may emphasize the immaturity of a person’s faith. We must understand that people mature only with great effort and over a great amount of time. It is often unrealistic to compare oneself with a believer who is far more mature. Finally, childhood conversion may affect assurance. A person who was converted as a child may feel that he was deceived when he made the decision. He may feel that his decision is somehow less meaningful because Christianity is all he has ever known.
We see, then, that there are many possible reasons that may lead Christians to lose their assurance of salvation. Some of these are internal factors and some are external. Some of them may, in fact, be given by God Himself to test and sharpen us. So the believer can have confidence that some doubt is common to the Christian life and that, while doubt is a symptom of living in a sinful world, it is not necessarily sinful to struggle with it.
By way of brief review, we have seen that assurance of salvation is possible for the believer, that false assurance of salvation is possible for the unbeliever and that it is normal for Christians, from time to time, to experience doubt about salvation. I’ll wrap this up tomorrow with an examination of the true basis of assurance.