09 November 2009

Settled Certainty

by Phil Johnson

f our postmodern friends are correct and all certainty is arrogance, wouldn't personal assurance of one's own salvation be just about the ultimate conceit?

Many post-evangelicals avoid that uncomfortable question by backing into some form of universalism—because, you know, the only way it doesn't seem arrogant to be certain I'm saved is if I'm pretty sure everyone is ultimately going to be saved.

Others avoid the issue altogether because, after all, that's a doctrinal conundrum and post-evangelicals aren't really into doctrine.

Of course, the correct answer to the question is succinctly distilled a familiar statement the apostle Paul made in a context where he was encouraging Timothy not to be timid. "I am not ashamed," Paul wrote; "for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day" (2 Timothy 1:12).

I love that statement. It is an absolute manifesto of settled certainty—with a note of holy triumph that, frankly, I find contagious. And I hope you do, too.

Certitude. It probably wasn't popular in Paul's time, either. But frankly it's never been more out of vogue than it is today. The fashionable thing today is to question everything. The visible church is overrun with bad preachers and weak-willed people who are convinced that the very epitome of humility is never to state anything with too much conviction.

Everything nowadays is supposed to be carefully qualified with lots of ambiguous expressions and weasel-words like "perhaps," or "possibly," or "It seems to me . . . " or "maybe." Everything (including the gospel itself) gets prefaced with, "I could be wrong, but to the best of my knowledge this seems reasonable—although I know other people see it differently, so I don't want to be dogmatic."

Doubt has been canonized as a virtue and renamed "epistemological humility"—as if doubting what God says could be excused by labeling it "humility."

Personal assurance is an inevitable casualty of that value system.

Paul's statement of assurance is deliberately of the opposite style: "I know," he says, and then he strengthens it even more by a second expression of firm conviction: "I am convinced." He emphatically eliminates every hint of doubt or uncertainty.

Notice: Paul is not the least bit concerned about how that might sound to someone who holds a different opinion. He doesn't preface it with any apology for his "tone." He doesn't soften it in case someone who is more timid or less certain than Paul might think he sounds arrogant. He doesn't qualify it with a lot of self-effacing disclaimers about how he might be wrong because he is, after all, merely human and therefore incapable of fully comprehending everything perfectly. There's nothing like that anywhere in Paul's epistles. Why?

Because Paul really was that certain. And he wanted Timothy to have a the same kind of settled assurance—absolute conviction; a bold heart that refused to waver from the truth.

The further implication is that you and I are supposed to have the same kind of assurance. Certainty is not something to be ashamed of—no matter how loudly the voices of postmodern skepticism squeal.

Phil's signature


Daniel C said...


thanks. Excellent post.

DJP said...

The fashionable thing today is to question everything

True. I question whether that's wise.

Doubt has been canonized as a virtue and renamed "epistemological humility"—as if doubting what God says could be excused by labeling it "humility."

Dovetails nicely with CHS' meditation for the evening of 11/9, to wit:

"Think it not a light matter to doubt Jehovah. Remember, it is a sin; and not a little sin either, but in the highest degree criminal. The angels never doubted him, nor the devils either: we alone, out of all the beings that God has fashioned, dishonour him by unbelief, and tarnish his honour by mistrust. Shame upon us for this!"

The Bible Christian said...

I'm frequently describe by some folks as to much bible, to much implication from the bible, to much of this is what the word says. There are times while I'm teaching I'll say I'm confident this is what it means, it just blows people away that I can have such confidence in what the word of God says.

For that I'm labeled, I'm OK with that. thanks Phil for the post.

Call to Die said...

Contrary to the reasoning of those who hold to the kind of "epistemological humility" that you descibe, biblically grounded certainty also leads to true compassion toward others. For example: it is only if I am CERTAIN that there is a Heaven and a Hell, and I am certain that Jesus is the only Way by which we may gain access to Heaven and avoid Hell, that I will regularly forsake self-focus and personal comfort in order to plead with those around me to be reconciled to God through Jesus.

Chad V. said...

Certainty is arrogance they say.... I wonder if they are certain about that?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil, just what I needed this morning. Especially as I'm entering into teaching a study of the epistle of Jude, which states emphatically that there are for certain apostates, that they are for certain condemned, that those who follow them certainly are headed for hell, etc. Offensive stuff in these days of question everything, accept everyone, etc.

James Scott Bell said...

Brings to mind this lament re: uncertainty.

Anonymous said...

With this crowd it's a certainty that one cannot be certain. It's all about works and how we live - but how can we know if we do not have a source that we can trust? It really seems like a marketing scheme to me. These circle of authors have replaced the Word of God as the center.

Nash Equilibrium said...

I'm certain that certainty is faith. Uncertain certainty is weak faith; certain certainty is strong faith. I say that with certitude.

JG said...

Good word. Reading this post I realized how many times I have unnecessarily used those caveats in discussions about the things of God (I say unnecessarily, because truth be told there are some thing I am not sure about, not because the Word isn't clear, but because I haven't studied those issues in the Word for myself yet). Good reminder to watch my tongue.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Phil Johnson: "Doubt has been canonized as a virtue and renamed "epistemological humility"

Recent example: "Life is extraordinarily complex. My experience is different from your experience. We are not the same person. I can only be honest with you about what I believe to be true and then accept that you may disagree with me. Absolute truth belongs to God alone. My grasp of truth will always be partial, filtered through the lens of my own prejudices, conditioning and confusion. Humility requires that I be honest about the profound limitations of my ability to understand. I need you and your different understanding in order to stay honest and open to further truth and light."

Shaun RW Little said...

"The fashionable thing today is to question everything"

What do you really mean by that?

Anonymous said...

Without certainly in the absolute truth and veracity of the Word of God, I am sunk.
I'm just not smart enough to figure out the world and how I fit into it without God telling me exactly how I should see things.

We may not know everything in the Bible, but as long as we remain committed to believe it all, without reservation, and to change our beliefs as Scripture dictate, I think we'll be fine.

As I say, I'd be lost without it.

donsands said...

"..you know, the only way it doesn't seem arrogant to be certain I'm saved is if I'm pretty sure everyone is ultimately going to be saved."

That brings in Inclusivism as well.

I noticed that teachers like McLaren are very dogmatic about not being dogmatic.

Dogmatic has gotten a bad rap methinks. I mean dogma is a good word, isn't it?

I I was listening to Greg Boyd and man was this guy ever dogmatic. I guess he is one of the postmodern teachers we are discussing.

Thanks for another good word for the Church.

Anonymous said...

Very nice thank you =) makes me wanna say "Yeah??! So what?!!"

Stefan Ewing said...


You have certainly and absolutely hit the nail on the head.

Can our assurance waver? It can. We can go through ups and downs. We can stumble, and we can wander. But we are never out of His grasp.

And consider the certainty of such foundational verses as Romans 10:9 or 8:29-30. (Oops, maybe it's because of that certainty that I used to doubt the authority of Paul.)

God alone is the Guarantor of the covenants He makes with man, and He has fulfilled, can fulfil, and will fulfil them all, no less so the one that is sealed in the very blood of Christ.

(And I write this who spent the first 36 years of his life desparately searching for truth, yet doubting the existence and authority of the author of all truth, the triune God YHWH.)

Rachael Starke said...

I've been thinking about how I now so love preaching that is actually authoritative instead of merely contemplative. "Thus saith the LORD", instead of "we invite you to consider the possibility that Jesus might be who He said He was..." I don't want to place my eternal destiny, and base all my earthly choices and pursuits, on a possibility!!! I haven't given up a career and all the stuff that goes with it to stay at home with my girls and raise them to be worshippers of a likely, probable God!!!

I've had some of the most profitable discussions with our brilliant, God-hating friends when I've looked them in the eye and said "I know what my future holds." And it's been interesting that the way they know I know is the choices I've made that have cost me, like turning down sixty-hour-a-week job offers and being willing to be thought a fool and a bigot for Jesus' sake. I wouldn't do any of that if I wasn't sure that God really keeps His promises...

But sometimes I'm weak, and preaching that doesn't actually anchor my faith, but kind of bouys it, doesn't help!!!

You're right - certainty really is contagious! Thanks for sharing! :)

slave4Christ said...

Hi Phil
Thank you for this article. Perfect timing for us, as just recently my husband was told he was being condescending for quoting scripture to someone who disagrees with his boldness when he preaches and teaches,on certain Christian doctrine. I know this post will bless him immensely!

Mike the Bible Burgh Host said...


Love that angle of reasoning/apologetics . . . to turn their own arguments back on them so their own words and "doctrines" contradict themselves.

I love John MacArthur's last message in the book of Jude that impresses upon us our "guarantee" of salvation . . . eternally secure . . . "settled certainty" as you call it!

It is so interesting, and even more so, SAD, that the "uncertain" post modern emergents really fail to grasp the DEFINITIVENESS with which Jesus spoke . . . about being the ONLY way, about coming back for us, etc.

May God OPEN the minds of the wheat, and SHUT COMPLETELY the minds of the tares . . . not to mention their mouths!

bassicallymike said...


Don't you just hate those!

Solameanie said...

And what's really great about the Apostle Paul's words is that his certainty is in Someone Else, not himself. God gets the glory. And that probably makes the critics maddest of all.

Lisa said...

Couldn't stay quiet... this was excellent. Thank you!