It happened one Thursday morning. It would have to be a Thursday morning when I was supposed to be leading a Bible Study at 11am. It was now 10.45. Two men, both with leather brief cases strode purposefully towards my door.
Why couldn’t they have come an hour ago? I spoke to them at the door, Bible in one hand, car keys in the other. They began their well-rehearsed spiel. I had to rudely interrupt: could I please hear the abridged version?
There was only time for one comment in response, so I asked them a question. Not an original question, but a good question. You know the one: “If you were to have a heart attack on your way to the next house this morning, would you be absolutely sure you would be with God?” I long ago learned that you won’t get anywhere talking about heaven to a Jehovah’s Witness. They both answered “I hope so”. To avoid a lengthy theological conversation, I countered with my own absolute confidence that I was acceptable to God right now.
When I finally got to the Bible Study I shared what had happened. The men I met with wondered about the approach. Yes, it lacked finesse. Yes, some would say it smacked of arrogance. But the problem is that under a religious system built on human performance, there can be no assurance.
The problem may not be peculiar to the sects. A couple of years ago, I read about a group of Christians in the Scottish Highlands who, for generations, have refused to go to Communion because, although they recognise Jesus as Lord of all and Saviour of the world, they are not completely convinced of their personal salvation. Uncertainty, doubt and despair are integral parts of their Christian experience.
Theirs is an extreme case, but perhaps we can detect the same root problem behind the furious activity of some Christians. For some, being busy in Christian activity is a way of fighting off nagging doubts about whether or not they are really saved. Doesn’t Martin Luther himself fit this picture? Uncertain of his standing before God, he threw himself tirelessly into the activities of the monastery in a vain attempt to be sure that God would accept him.
Can we also find the same motivation behind the modern obsession with the mi- raculous? The call to walk by faith is an unwelcome one. It is much easier to walk by sight. Surely if I ‘speak in tongues’ or experi- ence ‘the healing of the Spirit’, I must be right before God. Such suspicions are reinforced by the frequent suggestions that those who don’t have these or similar experiences cannot really call themselves Christian.
Four underlying causes
What then could be the cause of this modern (or not so modern, if we take Luther as an ex- ample) ‘crisis of assurance’? I suspect there are a number of causes, and not all will be operative in every case. Four of them stand out.
The first is simply the lack of conversion itself. Some have no right to assurance of eternal life because, despite all the outward signs, they have never been converted. For such people, the crisis of assurance is a gracious gift of God. For Martin Luther, such a crisis led to his discovery of the only real basis of Christian assurance—the full and complete work of Jesus on behalf of the believer. His restlessness was part of the way in which God worked to bring him into the kingdom.
Yet it is not only the unconverted who are sometimes troubled with uncertainty about their standing before God. What kind of things might cause someone who is converted to lose their confidence? Some have no assurance because they are persisting in behaviour which they know to be thoroughly inappropriate for the follower of Christ. With warnings such as Galatians 5:19-21, is there any wonder that those who will not repent may lose all confidence before God? It is an expression of God’s kindness to disturb such people in order to bring them to repentance.
A third reason for lack of assurance is the emotional make-up of the person concerned. Some people are in turmoil about almost eve- rything. Even deciding what they are going to wear to work creates a minor crisis. Their uncertainties about their standing with God are part of their fundamental uncertainties about everything else.
I want to focus on what is perhaps the most neglected reason. Behind the uncertainty of many may well be a failure to understand just where our assurance is anchored. The Puritans of the 17th century created real problems for themselves and others by directing people to their own lives for proof of their salvation. “Do you want to know whether God has saved you? Then check your prayer life. Is it regular and rich? Check your Bible reading. Is it systematic, regular and meaningful? Check your relationships. Do you really love others as yourself?” The Puritans even published ‘spiritual checklists’, so you could see whether or not you displayed the evidences of election. No wonder Christians all over the place were plunged into despair! Which of us can measure up in all these areas? Is this sort of despair really part of Christian living? Is this really where the New Testament points us?
You do not have to know too much about the New Testament to know that its writers are concerned about the Christian’s assurance of eternal life. Romans 5-8 is all about assurance. This section of Paul’s letter begins: “Therefore having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. It ends “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
In between those two great statements Paul deals with many of the things that can undermine our confidence.
“But I’m still in Adam.” Paul deals with the problem of our solidarity with Adam in Romans 5:12-21.
“But what about the sin in my life?” Paul tackles that problem in Romans 6.
“The law?”—Romans 7.
In Paul’s great climax in Romans 8, he deals with suffering and temptation as we wait for Jesus’ return. And all the way through, he grounds our confidence in what God has accomplished for us in Jesus.
In Ephesians, Paul prays twice for his readers. In Ephesians 1:16-22 he prays that they might “know what is the hope to which he has called you”. How are they to know it? Paul’s answer is: “according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ”. The second prayer, in Ephesians 3:14-21, asks that they might “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge”. And in between these two great prayers of the Apostle is his great statement of the salvation that has come in Jesus.
Without hope, beyond hope, we have been given hope by the gracious intervention of God. It is not as if we were once without certainty and now we can be certain. As far as Paul is concerned, there is certainty on both sides of the fence. Apart from what Jesus has done, we can be absolutely certain that the only thing that awaits us is the holy anger of God. But because God has acted, because Jesus died and rose again, the situation has been reversed. The person who has put their trust in Jesus has a new certainty. When he died, it was in my place. When he rose, I was raised with him. My life has been secured because of God’s im- measurable and undeserved kindness.
Only at that point is there any certainty. Look at yourself and you’ll soon be discour- aged. None of us has a record that can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. Look at the miraculous now and you can be easily duped. The God who rules over all things is not confined to the areas of the supernatural. And how can you be sure of the veracity or source of any particular miraculous occurrence?
To follow Christ is to walk by faith, relying on what Jesus has done, not on what I can see or what I can do. Don’t be fooled into living by sight. So often all we see is a mirage. For all the great things Paul was able to do, he said in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus did not die and rise again from the dead, he might as well pack it all in. The only ground of assurance is Jesus Christ and what he has done.
Do we need to be sure?
What is the importance of knowing you have eternal life? In one word it is ‘freedom’. Only with this certain knowledge of your stand- ing before God as a forgiven child can you enjoy—really enjoy—the four-fold freedom of the Christian.
1. Freedomfromfearandanxiety.Becauseof Jesus we can know that whatever happens around us, the face of our heavenly Father is turned towards us in love.
2. Freedom from legalism and ‘Christian workaholism’. All that we do is a response to the incredible kindness of God. It is not a matter of trying to impress him or make the grade.
3. Freedom from sensation-seeking. All the miraculous signs in the world cannot add one iota to what Jesus has done. What he has done for us does not need to be sup- plemented; rather, we need to trust him who has done it all.
4. Freedom for evangelism. Like Paul, with certainty we are freed up to take part in God’s great plan for the universe; “to bring all things under the lordship of Christ”. We have a message worth sharing. The assurance of our own standing before God frees us to get about the job of sharing it. After all, don’t you want those around you to have the same confidence?