The Difficult Issues of Assurance
by Pastor Jimmy Buehler
When I am not pastoring or teaching high school students, I co-host a podcast called Theocast. We receive weekly emails and phone calls of people asking questions about the Christian life and faith. Perhaps more than any other topic, assurance of salvation is the most asked about issue. Specifically, the question “why don’t I feel saved?”
Assurance is of utmost importance for the Christian. When a believer does not “feel” saved it can cause severe anxiety. In full disclosure, I have struggled deeply with this issue. At times it has been almost crippling. I have spent countless hours pouring over the Scriptures and various books in my quest of what it means to be assured in Christ. The “I never knew you” verse from Matthew 7 often kept me awake at night as I battled deep and dark thoughts in my soul. If the number of questions we receive at Theocast is evidence of anything, it is that I was not alone. So, what do we do when we don’t “feel” saved?
Understanding Subjective and Objective Realities
When somebody is struggling with assurance, they are struggling in the deepest recesses of their own heart to know whether or not they are a Christian. Frequently, their underlying assumption is that their assurance is intrinsically connected to their feelings and emotions. In other words, the belief is “if I don’t feel saved, then I must not be saved.” An issue with approaching assurance in this manner is that it allows subjective realities, which shift and sway almost daily, to govern what’s true. As people, we are far more fickle and frail than we like to believe. Our emotions and feelings can change on a dime. In light of this, why would we allow what we feel to shape what we believe about our status in Christ?
As we consider Christian history, the Church has used the word sacrament. The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are the gospel made visible before our eyes. Meaning, that we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4); and, as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). It’s in these places that we are reminded and pointed toward the objective realities of the gospel. Ultimately our assurance lies in the promises of God in Christ, not in our particular feelings that day.
Saint and Sinner
Other than feelings, the believer’s indwelling battle with sin is the greatest cause of a lack of assurance. How many times have you promised yourself that “I will never sin in this way again,” only to fall once again the next day? You’re not alone in the battle. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19) about his battle with sin. It can be so disheartening to one day find delight in obedience, only to then find pleasure in sin the next. This experience can open up a flood of inner turmoil: “Am I genuine?” and “Would real Christians struggle this much?”
Romans 7 tells us that as Christians we are simultaneously saint and sinner. As we pilgrim through the Christian life, we continually struggle with sin and failure. But in all of our battle with our flesh, Romans 8:1 brings us great gospel hope: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. These two realities provide a great tension that we live in as believers. “No article of faith is more difficult to believe than ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins,'” preached Martin Luther. But the good news of the gospel is that our status in Christ is not contingent upon our best days of obedience or worst days of failure, but rather upon the perfect work of Christ on our behalf.
Outward and Upward
There’s a great Latin phrase that brings comfort to a weary heart and soul: extra nos. It means, “outside ourselves” and serves to remind us where our salvation truly lies. Often, what can cause a great deal of personal anxiety in terms of assurance is constant navel-gazing and introspection. Certainly, there are times to look within, but when we long to find security in ourselves we will constantly come up short. Assurance of salvation will never be found in measuring your obedience, the amount of sins you have overcome, or how holy you think you are. God’s moral standard in His Law is far too high (i.e., perfect) for us to think we can find comfort in our works.
Our assurance lies extra nos; namely, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone (Titus 3:4-7). When we long for the comfort of being assured that we are saved, looking at our good works (or lack thereof) is like a mirage in a desert—it always promises but never delivers. Instead, the posture of the Christian life is outward and upward. When our souls are troubled and begin to doubt, comfort lies outside of ourselves in the grace of God given in Christ (Psalm 42).
In the end, the great hymn writer Horatius Bonar gives us great words in the hymn Not What My Hands Have Done.
“Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin
Thy blood alone O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee
Can rid me of this dark unrest, And set my spirit free!”
Article originally posted at ChristCommunityMN.org