Have you ever doubted your salvation? Have you lain awake late at night wondering if you would be left behind? Maybe you partook in a horrendous sin, and the resulting shame pummeled your soul with waves of guilt and insecurity? To make matters worse, when you go to church the people there do not seem to struggle. During the message you don’t catch them looking at their watch, getting bored, or even lusting and coveting for someone else. They seem to have testimonies of God’s victory, and peace. And then you begin to wonder, why do I feel so terrible, why can’t I have victory, am I really saved?
The struggle of assurance of salvation is probably one of the biggest and most ill-defined struggles of the individual believer. The struggle is often aggravated by shallow and unbiblical answers. The urgency is also heightened because of the enormous stakes that are involved, “What if I died tonight, and I wasn’t really saved?” There are many reasons that cause people to doubt salvation but primarily these reasons can be narrowed down to a few categories in which we should never place our faith.
We doubt because we have too much faith in ourselves, in our feelings, or in our goodness.
Before taking a look at those categories, we must take a brief look at what “being saved” truly means. Many years ago, I listened to a preacher rightfully call sinners to salvation. In his message, however, he never defined what “Get Saved” meant. Another time I overheard a youth worker mention after a youth conference that the preaching was good, but inapplicable for the saved, since it was only on salvation. Both examples clearly show that the church sadly does not understand salvation.
Take a few moments and answer these two questions. What is salvation? How do you get saved? How you answered those two fundamental questions will dictate the areas of assurance that you may be struggling.
So what is salvation? The clearest and most concise definition of the Gospel is found in I Corinthians 15:1-4. There Paul defines the Good News as Christ being slain to pay for mankind’s sin, and the promise that as Christ rose from the dead, so shall all who believe. So what are we saved from? We are saved from living under the wrath of God and the curse of sin.
The wrath of God is the default position of every person because we are born sinners. Jesus told Nicodemus (a teacher of the Bible) in John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” When we recognize that we deserve God’s wrath because of our sin and rebellion against God, we must then submit our way to God. The recognition of our guilt before God, and the realization of our inability to rescue ourselves should lead us to call on Christ’s mercy to rescue us. God then applies His Grace and saves us because of the payment Christ made.
Once an individual transfers the deed of his life over to God, he is saved from the destruction of His soul that God would bring because of rebellion. Salvation is the deliverance from living under God’s wrath. At salvation, an individual is transformed from a rebel enemy at war with the Almighty, to a loved child wrapped in peace. Paul explains the idea further when he instructs believers to stand up against the doubts of the Devil. “And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” (Ephesians 6:15) He tells believers to remember to firmly plant themselves on the fact that they stand at peace with God.(1)
Secondly, those who are saved are freed from the curse of sin, which is death. “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Romans 6:6. We are free in Christ to be able to do what Christ would have us to do (Gal 5:1). The very fact that the Epistles (written primarily to believers) are filled with admonitions on how to live show that Christians will fail, but through Christ are able to serve and overcome.
That brings us to the second fundamental question, “How do we get saved?” Paul makes it very clear that I am not working my way to Heaven by any cosmic scaling system, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Ga 2:21) The entire history of religion is replete with examples of mankind trying to build a tower that would allow them to reach Heaven. Biblically that does not work. As Paul points out, if we could be good enough to get into heaven on our own, we have an even bigger problem to deal with. God killed His Son for no reason, and we have made God the worst pedophile in history. So God is not waiting for me to be good enough to earn or keep my salvation. The only person who was good enough to keep His salvation was Christ, and He is the very one offering it, free of charge. Anything else maligns the character of God and confirms mankind’s rebellion against Him (John 10).
That is why Peter calls the very same group of people who crucified Christ to repent in order to receive pardon from God’s wrath (Acts 2:38). Once a criminal is pardoned, they will not face double jeopardy in God’s courtroom. Since I cannot earn it, that means I am saved by grace. As Paul brings out in Galatians 3:3, “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” So not only am I saved by grace, I am kept by grace, because any amount of works to keep salvation, would actually be bribing God.
God has made salvation very simple. In response to a Roman soldier on the verge of suicide, Paul answered his question. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? 31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31) Even though it is simple, because of our rebellion, it is very hard for mankind to entrust the keeping of their souls to God. It seems too easy.
This brings me to an area that I especially struggled with. I believed the truth of Scripture that salvation was by grace, and salvation was all of God, but the one who I questioned was not God, but myself. Did I do it right? Did I really mean it? Was my prayer sincere enough…. John Piper puts it well in his blog on assurance, “The most agonizing problem about the assurance of salvation is not the problem of whether the objective facts of Christianity are true (God exists, Christ is God, Christ died for sinners, Christ rose from the dead, Christ saves forever all who believe, etc.). Those facts are the utterly crucial bedrock of our faith. But the really agonizing problem of assurance is whether I personally am saved by those facts.” (2)
One well-meaning answer that I was given was, “Did you call on Christ to save you? Does God ever lie? Then quit doubting God.” Even though it is very possible to doubt God, my main tension wasn’t a doubt of God’s ability or even God’s promises, it was a question of if I had really trusted God in the first place. This is especially true of those who were saved at a young age, as it is difficult to remember what exactly you said or what you confessed.
The problem with the “Quit doubting God” answer is it does not take into effect the paradigm that maturing believers begin to see that they cannot trust themselves. Continued failed attempts at holiness, and verses such as Jeremiah 17:9 (on the wickedness of the heart) cause the believer to question his sincerity or the effectualness of his prayer. Because after all doesn’t James 2:17-20 tell us that faith without works is dead? (3)
Ironically, one of the great comforts for the doubter is that they are incredibly wicked. And the realization of this wickedness should lead them to depend more on the Savior who bought them. As a high school basketball coach this principle was vividly portrayed by the starters. Those on the team that were the best, were the most acutely aware of their failures and weaknesses. They did not question if they were on the team, they systematically worked on their errors because they were mature enough to see them. For a dramatic example of this principle see Isaiah 6:1-10 where the righteous prophet of God falls to his face begging God for cleansing.
I don’t have enough goodness to be in Christ. That is the very reason I need to be in Him.
When Jesus called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and told us to look at their fruit in Matthew 7, they would not admit their errors, so much so that they felt justified in rejecting and crucifying the Savior. Rejection of Jesus is the sin that condemns people to Hell. Saved people, have an acute sense not only of what they were saved from, but Who saved them. They realize they cannot begin to rescue themselves and that condemnatory belief, through God’s grace, causes them to continually call upon the name of Christ.
But what happens when I still feel guilty? After all, doesn’t God say to examine yourself to see if you really are in the faith? A verse commonly used to support that idea is 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.” In this passage, Paul has defended his own salvation and Apostleship and then asks the Corinthian church to see if they are growing spiritually. Dr. Constable explains this verse well, “He told them to examine their works to gain assurance that they were experiencing sanctification, that they were walking in obedience to the faith.”(4) When you think of it, if they were dead and unbelieving, according to Paul’s writings in Ephesians 2:1-4 they would be far too dead to determine if they were saved or unsaved.
Paul is responding to those who are questioning the authority Paul has to command the church. As Hodge points out, “After twelve chapters in which Paul takes their Christianity for granted, can he only now be asking them to make sure they are born again?”(5) Nowhere in Scripture is a believer commanded to search his own heart. We are commanded throughout Scripture to submit our hearts and actions to God and His Word. “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14) The Word of God is the powerful Sword that cuts away the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12).
But our feelings still gnaw at us, and cause doubt (particularly after sinning). How do you know when guilt shows up if it is Satan or the Holy Spirit? Guilt is a natural result of walking away from God and His commands. Satan has twisted physical love (designed to bring couples closer to God) and turned it into lust (which drives a wedge between man and God). In the same way, Satan can take guilt and turn it into a barrier to meet with God. Guilt is designed to bring the believer back to Christ. But Satan has hijacked man’s operating system.
So how do we know if guilt is from God or Satan? If we take a look at two examples of guilt, the answer becomes clear. Judas and Peter both denied Christ (in fact Peter denied Christ 3 times as many as Judas did). They both fled Christ, they both went out and wept bitterly, but they did not both have the same end result. One felt guilty and ran to death, the other felt guilty and ran to Christ. Are you running to Christ for assurance or man and systems?
So how do we now if the uneasiness and sense of guilt and insecurity is from God or Satan? We know by where we run to in our guilt. If our guilt causes us to run to Christ, it is from God. Paul made the Corinthians feel terribly guilty for partaking in sin. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Cor 7:10) Paul rejoiced that the Corinthians felt guilty because they ran to Christ!
Satan wants you to feel guilty about forgiven sin, God wants you to feel guilty about unrepented sin.
This is why most of the doubt of one’s salvation comes associated with some sin of a believer. Proper guilt should cause me to run to the feet of my Savior and confess that I tried to do it on my own again and failed. The only place I will “feel” forgiven is in the presence of the all forgiving Savior. Satan knows that he cannot stand before God and he cannot reach us in God’s presence, so his best diversion is to make me think God can’t stand the sight of me. This has been Satan’s strategy from day one. After Adam and Eve sinned, they ran from the very person they walked with. They hid, and covered themselves in scratchy leaves. Their actions resulted in two common traits, fear, and guilt. Those two traits turn off the faucet of God’s love because they cause us to run from the very God, who is willing to clothe us in His righteousness.
Satan was able to cause our ancestors to fear God, so that they would not experience God’s love. He tries the same trick on us today by causing us to run from God’s love. We have nothing to fear. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (I John 4:18) Because Christ drank the whole drought of God’s wrath, there is nothing to pour out unto believers, but God’s love. Which is exactly Paul’s argument in Romans 8:32, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?”
Could it be that the reason you are doubting your salvation is that you are not currently trusting in Christ? There are two ways for believers to express their doubt of Christ. The first is in outright rebellion by choosing sin. If a believer is continually partaking in willful sin, it should be no surprise that they are struggling with feelings of assurance, because God cannot give perfect peace to those whose eyes are not fixed on Him. The lack of assurance will be a result of discipline (Hebrews 12:7).
The other expression of doubt is much more subtle, and therefore much more common. That is the idea that after salvation, we have the ability to make ourselves holy. Many Christians live like God bought the ticket, but they have to land the plane. Paul addresses this mentality in his epistle to the Galatians, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel…. Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal 1:6, 3:3).
We must remember, that the power that saves us is the exact power that sustains us (Eph 5:18). Far too many Christians try to live the Christian life on their own. They seek through self-discipline, Bible study, prayer, sacrifice, and other forms of evangelical Penance to make themselves acceptable to God. (6) Their actions may be good, but in truth they are living in direct rebellion against the commands of God, and robbing Him of the glory of finishing His vessel (Jer 18:4, Eph 2:10).
The lack of assurance when we are living such a life of self-propelled Christianity are the mercies of God in disguise that will not allow us to have peace, when we are in actuality running from God.
Jesus loves us too much to allow us to continue to try to lift the burdens of sin on our own.
I am not so vain as to think that I could answer every question relating to assurance in this brief post, but I would love to help you see the beauty and joy of walking in the fullness of Christ’s Love.