29 June 2010

The Struggle for Assurance

by Dan Phillips

We get letters

I have a general (and well-known) rule of thumb for a wide variety of questions that folks write to me. My first question is, "What did your pastor tell you?" Because while I may be a pastor, I'm not your pastor, and you need to be personally involved in a local church and under toe-to-toe pastoral oversight. I'm not that guy. When I don't get a response, that is usually the end of the conversation.

One letter came to me from someone in great despair, struggling with depression and lack of assurance. As I would always do in such a case, I pointed him to his pastoral leadership

Thank God, and bless his heart, he followed that counsel, contacted his church leadership, and began getting some help. I continued praying for him, and followed up, asking from time to time how he was doing. It's not an easy road, and in one particular email he shared that he struggled badly with assurance of salvation.

In this correspondence, I realized that I haven't said much about my own struggles, beyond an allusion here and there. The causes of reluctance are many. Largely, there's a level of transparency we do, and do not do, here, tempered by what is to God's glory and our readers' good. Nobody comes (nor should come) here wanting to hear more about me as an individual, what I'm feeling, and blah blah blah. It ain't American Idol.

Yet, writing this person, I thought of what encouragement I've received in reading Spurgeon's candid words about his own bitter battles with depression, in particular; and how richly he is able to speak to me (and countless masses), as a result. I recall hearing an excellent sermon of Phil's, in which he mentioned how he responded when depression crossed his path. I could go on, but it's heartening to find such a point of connection with someone, when you might imagine otherwise. The 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 principle forms a motivating imperative, which pressed on me as I thought about it, overcoming my reluctance.

So I thought it might be helpful to share one of my edited emails with you, as an opening sally on the subject. Then we'll see how it goes.

_____, as I alluded, what you lay out actually has been a huge struggle for me, at one time or another, for my entire Christian life.

While the same grounds of assurance are provided to all Christians, it seems to me that the degree to which one emotionally enjoys assurance varies from person to person, as temperaments vary from person to person. Some people hear the word of promise, accept it, are saved, know it, and never look back. Blessed souls! Wish I were one of them.

Others, not so much. Like Thomas, they hear the same joyous news; but like Thomas, they are slow to believe. It isn't a virtue, but it's their reality, our reality.

Then other people are absolutely assured, without the least doubt... and they really, really shouldn't be.

I spent the first months, perhaps years, of my Christian life in terror that I'd fall away. It was a wrenching struggle. The Holy Spirit had so revealed my sin to me that I knew I was capable of anything, apostasy not the least. I saw myself in every "soil" except the fourth, in every warning in Hebrews, and of course in the unpardonable sin.

I still don't always feel the sense of assurance that I believe is a Christian's birthright. But I strive for it. I know from experience how hard it can be to feel that you can't do anything, if you don't have Square A settled: can I, or can I not, assuredly call God my Father?

Here's some of what I've come to see, though.

Assurance is a matter of faith, as is everything else (at bottom) in the Christian life.

Think it through with me: God tells me I'm a sinner. I believe Him. God tells me Christ is my only hope. I believe Him. God tells me I must repent and trust in Christ. I believe Him in that, too. God tells me I must trust Christ alone, and not lean on works or any other false hope. I believe Him in that, and I do it.

But Christ also tells me that if I come to Him, He will not cast me out (John 6:37). He tells me if I believe in the Lord Jesus, I will be saved (Acts 16:31). He tells me no power in heaven or on earth can part me from Him and doom me (John 10:28-29; Romans 8:38-39).

Now, my attitude has sometimes been, "I will believe that when I feel assured of it" — but do you see the trap in that thinking? Jesus told Martha that, if she believed, she would see the glory of God (John 11:40). Not the reverse.

So, _____, my game plan is to bank on Jesus' word of promise, regardless of my feelings, with no Plan B. He said come (Matthew 11:30-31). By grace, I came. He said, if you come, there's no way I'm casting you away (John 6:37). I plan to take that one to the Throne. He said. Is there a better basisHe said!

And then I saw Romans 15:13 — "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." God gives joy and peace. Thank God. How does He give joy and peace? In believing. But wait — I'll believe when I feel joy and peace! That will tell me I'm really a child, an elect child of God!

"No," Paul would say to me, to you: "you have it backwards. You don't get joy and peace, and then believe. Believe, and then you will know joy and peace."

I hope those truths are of some help to you. They've been lifesavers to me. Maybe take it to your counselor, who (unlike me) knows you. See if he finds something there he can use in encouraging you.

I hope so!

In Christ,

In future posts, I may focus on some of the threats to or enemies of assurance, and how Biblically to do battle with doubts.

Dan Phillips's signature


Russell said...

Galatians 3:5 (English Standard Version) Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—

I praise God for providing men who can help me hear.

Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nash Equilibrium said...

It's greatly encouraging to read this. For me personally, intellectually I am absolutely certain that I'm saved, and I know that the blood of Christ is powerful to save sinners no matter how vile; but, on an emotional basis I struggle with the reality of how disobedient I know I can still be at times, how arrogant, how rebellious, unkind, etc., and the guilt factor creeps in. Maybe we can never stop feeling that way on an emotional level?
Satan loves to convince people who are saved, that they aren't; he also loves to convince unsaved people that they are.

DJP said...

Thank you Phil

Phil's a great writer. I love his stuff too.

James Scott Bell said...

That's a tremendously helpful post, Dan. Thanks for being transparent. I think all Christians who strive to serve God can relate to your experience. Torrey was helpful to me in this regard. One is saved by faith, and one is assured by faith. Do you believe in Jesus? Then by the authority of the Word (not your feelings) you are assured.

One's theological system does come into play here. The Calvinist might ask, How can I know that my faith is genuine? How can I be assured that I am not a false sheep? What if, at the end of my life, it turns out I'm not really elect?

The Arminian might ask how can I be sure that I will hold my faith to the end? What if down the line I lose my faith and reject Christ?

The practical answer in both cases, it seems to me, is to do those things the Bible says strengthen your faith and keep you "in step" with the Spirit--involvement in a local church being primary.

Jamie said...

Sorry bout that.

Thank you Dan, your point is well taken that assurance is of faith not feeling. This is something I need to rest upon and "have as frontlets between my eyes." I mean God's word and work is what is operative here not my feelings which ebb and flow.

I wonder however, how to distinguish between my feelings which are suspect at any given time and my conscience which would rightly accuse me since (and especially) everyone maintains a sinful life to one degree or another.

Again thank you,

DJP said...

Strat - Satan loves to convince people who are saved, that they aren't; he also loves to convince unsaved people that they are.

There's the misery of it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Dan.

How often I have wished that I could be done with this struggle...and just when I think I am, I start wondering all over again.

I thank God often for my wife, who almost always recognizes what situations give rise to these kinds of questions for me, and reminds me to "don't think about that now, you're way too [fill in the blank] to think the was you should about this."

This post was a huge encouragement to me.

Chris said...

While it aint American Idol, Dan, today's post is pure Gospel Gold!

Thanks for your encouraging words to all of us who find ourselves in the "swamps of despair" more often than we'd like to admit.

This post is a good example of biblical, constructive and appropriate "transparency," like Spurgeon's anecdotes and David's psalms, and very much unlike the defeated, discouraging, doubt-ridden laundry-list rants of liberal skeptics and those of the emergent ilk at the height of their shipwrecked movement-- calling what they do transparent as well.

DJP said...

Daryl, my dear wife has also been a help and encouragement to me in this, God bless her.

DJP said...

I spilled hundreds of words on transparency in that series, Chris. But maybe it all could have been summed up like this:

Transparency that serves the Gospel, glorifies God, and urges folks to greater faith and holiness = good

Transparency that serves oneself, glorifies one's doubts and sins, and urges people to feel good about complacency and apostasy = bad

Chris said...

Well said; I agree!

FX Turk said...

That last comment by DJP is the money comment. It's one thing to doubt -- even to doubt deeply and suffer for it. It is another to see your doubt as insurmountable, and parade it around as if that's your mark of transparency.

The mark of Christian transparency is that Jesus Christ is the only hope you have. May he save us all from our unbelief.

Alen Basic said...

Thanks for the post. It has come at a particular good time for me. As you mentioned the comfort you got from Spurgeon's experiences I cannot help but feel the same. There's comfort in knowing "Hey, other people are going through the same thing!" whatever the case may be.

John said...

I imagine this topic comes up frequently in Spurgeon's writings, but do you have any links or titles of writings by Spurgeon that would be helpful?

DJP said...

It runs throughout a great many of his writings. One devoted chapter is The Minister's Fainting Fits, from his Lectures to My Students.

GrammaMack said...

Thank you, Dan. If you and/or Phil would write sometime specifically on depression and Christians, I'd very much appreciate it.

donsands said...

Thanks for the edifying post.

The Word keeps us strong in our assurance. If we are not reading the Word, we can certainly dry up, and think the wrong thoughts.

The more we read, study, and ponder God's Word, the more confidence we shall have in His everlasting love.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."

John said...

Thanks for the link Dan.

Anonymous said...

I do not boast to have attained perfection, however, what works for me is to claim the Word of God as the source of my beliefs, and to start my thinking from it - the exact direction you went for the answer to "The Struggle for Assurance".

bp said...

my game plan is to bank on Jesus' word of promise, regardless of my feelings, with no Plan B.

With no plan B..I love that! This is an on/off struggle with me. What complicates this is that I do sometimes drift into spiritual laziness and apathy. My question is: Should I have assurance during these times or is my lack of assurance meant to drive me back to faithful obedience?

In the other thread, I said (and believe) that true obedience comes from a heart of love. I know deep down that I cannot be satisfied in anything other than God, there is peace and JOY and satisfaction ONLY when I am abiding in and treasuring Him! Yet, sometimes I just get so weary, physically and emotionally, because of all the trials I face, that I just want to coast for awhile, you know? But coasting always turns into a gradual slipping away, and all of a sudden I find myself setting my heart on "things" and I find that I'm in a place of apathy toward the things of God, and then fear sets in that I may (in the end) prove to be an Esau and find that I cannot find repentance even if I try! And I begin to wonder if I'm even chosen!

I'm not in that place now, but it is definately a fight! :O

bp said...

Btw, thanks Dan. :o)

Robert Warren said...

This kind of reminds me of when I was under the philosophy of Easy Believism / Decisional Regeneration. But my lack of assurance then (which was well-placed) was nothing like the depth of thought displayed here. I mainly worried that I didn’t say the exact words of the Sinner’s Prayer correctly. Sheer superstition.

Anonymous said...

Robert Warren - Must one acknowledge doubt or anger with God in order to have depth of thought? It is my experience that neither helps me.

Barbara said...

Dan, your early battle sounds mightily familiar to me. I spent hours upon hours through the nights begging God to not let me have seen what I had now seen and experienced what I had now experienced and be brought to where I had been brought to and it be all for nought, oh, PLEASE, I would pray, Please, whatever it takes, no matter how much it hurts, grant me roots, make the soil rich, make the fruit plentiful, You know me, God, so You know I don't have any stick-to-it-iveness in me, yet You called me anyway...You're all I have, my only hope, and if You don't keep me then I can't be kept. You are worthy, so whether I live or die, I am here in service to You. Because I stand with Peter and say, 'Lord, to whom else would we go? You're the One with the words of eternal life.'"

There's great comfort just in having been given a heart that prays that. They say, the closer you get to the light, the more dirt you can see. And that comfort is greatest when the One you run to is the One who IS Light, and Who provides the means to cleanse that dirt in order to bring you to Himself.

Spurgeon's June 28 Morning reading has been a great comfort and support to me ever since it first rocked my world too, and I've been given many opportunities to simply point people to the beauty of Christ and to rest in Him through that one short devotional:

Bobby Grow said...

I struggled with this for years too. The only thing I found comfort in was God's Word and promises in scripture; as Dan has mentioned here.

I think this though is where "theological frameworks" play a huge and real life role. Some frameworks make assurance a real issue (by way of method); so I wonder if the psychology behind this question has more to do with scripture or the frameworks that we think out of and bring to scripture. I wonder if a whole Christian culture hasn't been created so that questions of "assurance" come to the fore; when in fact issues like this shouldn't be issues at all.

Here is how Hugh Binning (a Scottish Theologian from the past) thinks through what the "ground of salvation" is:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Hugh Binning, “Scottish Theology,” 79)

If we see salvation grounded in God's triune life, as Binning did/does, then what we will begin to understand is that salvation is not rooted in what I do; but in WHO He is for us. That the both the objective and subjective aspects of salvation are grounded in Christ. More to be said, but just some thoughts . . .

The Blainemonster said...

Hey, good stuff, Dan. I, too, have been HUGELY encouraged by Spurgeon's journey through darkness, and also from reading of William Cowper's battles with anxiety and depression. If anything, because I have struggled so mightily with assurance in the past and even still do occasionally, these experiences have driven me closer to Christ and His cross. His election, His faithfulness, His mercy - all have become a mountain of refuge for me.

I've thought before, too, about others who seem to never struggle - and indeed many do not - but I don't think Jesus would be as precious to me as He is if I hadn't known His comfort in my darkest hours. Ya know?

The Blainemonster said...

Oh, and one more thing to ROBERT WARREN (above) - I must agree, lack of assurance seems to be found more among those who "get saved" over and over again. But I guess that would be obvious. Crazy stuff.

Unknown said...

A lack of assurance is one of Satan's greatest weapons in this battle, which is not always aimed at the unsaved, rather it aimed at those who have it in their mind to bring witness to others.

The best attacks throughout the history of warfare were not frontal assaults. They were focused attacks on supply lines and trade routes.


Barbara said...

The writers of the 1689 have good things to say on the matter:


It's all meaty, but especially the important reminder found in part 3:

It therefore becomes the duty of every one to be as diligent as possible in making his calling and election sure. By doing this he will experience greater peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, greater love and thankfulness to God, and an increased strength and cheerfulness in dutiful obedience. These things are the natural outcome of the assurance of salvation, and they constitute strong evidence that assurance does not lead men into loose living.

lawrence said...

Excellently said, my man.

Spitfire said...

I struggled greatly with assurance of salvation for a number of years. The Puritans had great insight into the theology and working of the Holy Spirit regarding assurance. Two books are well worth consideration on this topic.

J.I. Packer’s “A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life”. Chapter eleven, “The Witness of the Spirit in Puritan Thought” is worth the price of the book. This chapter describes the experience of doubt I (and others, I’m sure) went through many years ago, and God’s sovereign purposes for me in those doubts. Most insightful and encouraging.

Also, Sam Storms’ “Signs of the Spirit, an interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections” is excellent with regard to describing scriptural signs whereby genuine faith may be identified. A serious challenge to the rather superficial view of what constitutes the mainstream view of evangelical Christianity today.

Anonymous said...

Wow...Dan, this may be my favorite post yet. You don't know how much of an encouragement it is to me.
I've been wrestling with the issue of uncertainty for a few years now, and God has been slowly but surely revealing His love and Grace for me. Thank you for sharing this.
God bless.

dustinc said...

Am I ungodly? YUP! I can prove it.
Do I work for my salvation? NOPE! I've long since despaired of that.
Do I believe in God as my justifier? YUP, He said it!

Rom 4:5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

I'm a bad person: lust, pride, arrogance, greed, you name it; it's all lurking within me right now. All inwards pointers asure me of wrath, while the outward pointer of God's sure promise of never casting out anyone that believes in Him asures me of salvation. I'm like Abraham in a sense, I'm "as good as dead" in my flesh, yet "in hope I believe, against hope". Romans 4:18-19

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Phi 1:6 My lust, pride, arrogance, greed, glutonny, etc will be purged from me in due time; "at the day of Christ". The process has begun, though it seems to be just a drop in the ocean. My Lord will fill that ocean in due time. He said so.

I'm the "chief of sinners"... wait aminute wasn't the Apostle Paul too?! Call me Chief #2!

Part of this whole Christian experience is to be able to enjoy the excedingly excellent thought of having all your evil desires purged from you! YES! No more lust! YES! no more pride - My Lord has promised to remove it, I eargerly await!

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus' Name.

dustinc said...

stratagem, DJP,

RE: Satan loves to convince people who are saved, that they aren't; he also loves to convince unsaved people that they are.

Yes, but don't let that thought shake you. Satan will never convince any poor sinner to throw themselves entirely upon the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy and salvation.

Sarah said...

Thank you for the encouragement and inspiration. I don't do this, nor do I want you to think I'm a nut wanting attention. But you inspired me to share my struggles on my own new blog, as we found out today that we have had another miscarriage. This is our third loss of a baby since November 2009. I decided to be open about my struggling with it and how I am finding strength and hope once again in God alone. I have no other hope. I'm not in the habit of plugging my blog in comment pages(this is the first time), but I wanted to share this with you, because you have shared so much and have helped so many with the wisdom God has blessed you with. I thank God for you all, and know that we've already spoken with our pastor, today :)
My blog post is at:
To God be all glory and honor forever!
Love in Christ,
Sarah W.

Robert said...


I am sorry for your loss and pray that you are finding encouragement from Scripture and the church. I was preparing to comment on how I find my greatest assurance during trials and found reading your post seemed quite the instance of God's providence.

Just as Sarah, I'm not seeking to shine light on myself, but I want to share how God worked through a trial to strengthen my faith and assurance in my salvation. Not too long ago, my wife and I were told that our son is autistic. We had some indications over time, but actually hearing the words was a shock. That night my wife and I knew that God would show us the grace we needed and supply us with the patience and wisdom to raise him biblically. The next morning I was listening to a sermon by John MacArthur addressing the question of why does God allow bad things to happen to His people. I think the first one, and the one that obviously struck a chord with me, was to give us assurance of our salvation. I know that as a sinner, I would not have turned to God and the Bible and looked for His strength and guidance. And I would not have been at peace, knowing that God would provide our needs (not our wants). I know that many of us struggle with assurance (I still do because of my sin), but I hope that you all will find the same encouragement and assurance as you endure through trials and lay your burdens upon Him.

May the grace and peace of God be with you all...and know that I love you all as my brethren in Christ.

Thank you so much for this post, Dan.

Robert said...

In my post I meant to say as an unrepentant sinner...I by no means think I am free of sin (one day in heaven, though, we will al be!)

Unknown said...

very encouraging as i struggle with the very same thing at times thank you

Sarah said...

Thanks Robert, that's exactly how we feel. And oddly, even to I think the astonishment of those around us, we have such peace and even joy right now, and there's no other explanation for it but God! God is good, and so is all that He does, this doesn't change just because we don't understand things. Romans 8:38-39: "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That includes my lack of assurance or my not feeling saved! Again, thank you Mr. Phillips, and God be glorified in you always!

Coram Deo said...

Very good, Dan.

Personally I think Spurgeon's struggles with depression contributed strongly to his frequent exhortations to get one's eyes off self and onto Christ; Him who was lifted up.

If I may I'd like to ask you a slightly off subject, yet topically related question.

In your opinion where is the line between "examining oneself" in a spiritually healthy manner as commended by scripture, and pietistic naval gazing?

To narrow the scope I'm specifically thinking of the Lord's Supper. It seems to me that quite often, at least in the theological circles I run in, the Lord's Supper can far too easily become an opportunity for pietism;

"Am I taking communion in an unworthy manner? Do I have unconfessed sin in my heart? Am I clean enough or am I eating and driking damnation to myself? Do I remember that my brother has something against me, or I against him"?

Obviously as often as we partake of the elements we "do this in remembrance", but isn't it in remembrance of Him and what He accomplished as opposed to remembering our sinful unworthiness?

I realize this is a broad brush, and not everyone's experiences are the same, but it seems to me that the Lord's Table ought to be as much an eschatalogical celebration of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb that's yet to come as it is a solemn remembrance of what Christ has done.

And if it's done properly isn't it about Him, and not so much about us? Please understand that I'm not diminishing my human unworthiness or sinful condition; but it's this very reality, and the sin consciousness the Spirit has wrought in my heart that makes His grace so very sweet and celebratory.

What say you?

In Christ,

Unknown said...

Wow! I thought I was the only so-called Christian on the planet that has gone through this torment. I say "So Called" because I have not had the confidence(assurance)to believe I am really one of His chosen. So,how do I get to the point of assurance at the level in which I can stop doubting my salvation? gregltegman@gmail.com

DJP said...

Beyond what the post says? I'd encourage you to talk with your pastor.