Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Search for Assurance - Part 3

The previous two parts represent a rather pessimistic side of my musings on assurance. Despite those, I do have reason to hope and I do have some positive reflections to make on the subject. Indeed, part of the problem is that I easily forget about them (which is one reason for solidifying my thoughts here!).

Doubting God’s Character

It’s interesting to note that in Genesis 3:4-5, Satan seems to be trying to undermine the character of God:

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

The serpent sounds like he’s suggesting God is somewhat stingy and is withholding something good from Adam and Eve by forbidding the eating of the fruit. It was only after Eve had been deceived about the reasons for God’s command that she disobeyed (I don’t want to speculate about the devil’s current possible activities in this matter, but I don’t think they call him ‘the accuser of the brethren’ for nothing).

In a similar example, notice how in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) it is the servant who thinks that his master a hard taskmaster who ends up doing nothing with the money entrusted to him. Is God a hard taskmaster? Surely not – his ‘commandments are not burdensome’ (1 John 5:3), ‘his yoke is easy and his burden is light’ (Matt 11:20), and even the simple act of giving a child a drink does not go unrewarded by him (Matt 10:42). This parable seems to show what can happen when you doubt the nature God’s character.

In relation to assurance I have found that it is doubt in God’s mercy that leads to despair and hopelessness – after all, you’ve got nowhere to run from a bad God. I believe this can be combated by surveying scriptures that demonstrate God’s mercy.

I want to highlight three examples from Luke’s gospel:

Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

This is a parable I keep having to come back to again and again and it merits being copied in full here:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

The Pharisee commends himself to God, focusing his own religious activities and despises those who seem unrighteous. The tax collector, however, knew that he had nothing good of himself to offer to God, knowing all too well of his own sinful state. Rather, he cast himself on the mercies of God and as a result went home ‘Justified’ (dikaioo - ‘rendered as righteous’). – PS I wonder if the use of dikaioo here is at all relevant to the current debates concerning Paul and justification. It often goes unmentioned in such discussions.

Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32)

So much has been written and said on this parable and it can be debated exactly who the sons are supposed to represent, but for now I just want to highlight what this shows about God’s character.

‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’(v20)

This shows that God is eager to accept those that turn to him with a repentant heart. It doesn’t even have to be perfect repentance with exactly the right motives - note that the son only decided to turn back after life was getting pretty rotten for him. There is also much that could be said about the Father/son relationship here.

The Dying Thief (Luke 23:40)

‘But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."’

This is the only account of a ‘death bead conversion’ that appears in scripture. In the few words he says, the dying thief acknowledges his rightful condemnation, recognises Jesus as the messiah and appeals to him for mercy.

The Cross

Of course the most important place where God’s love and character is displayed is on the cross. ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’(Romans 5:8) .I have to keep reminding myself that the gospel by its very definition (euangelion) is ‘Good News’. Good news that the creator of the universe wants to save people from their sin and reconcile us to him through Jesus. After all, It’s not because God so hated the world that he sent his only son (as some presentations of the gospel almost imply), but because he loved it (John 3:16). It must be noted that this isn’t some kind of westernized sentimental ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of Love. It is a powerful, divine, sin - hating love that brings life to the spiritually dead and is rejected at one’s peril.

The writer of Hebrews mentions how the blood of Jesus gives us confidence:

‘Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.’ (Heb 10:19-22)

David DeSilva makes the following comment on this passage:

‘The believer should be confident that Jesus has achieved the cleansing of the whole person of the Christian, fitting him or her for this final approach to the unshakable realm, as well as be fully assured of the reliability of God who promised the believers an abiding homeland in the divine realm.’[1]

Later on in the letter the writer says ‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith’ (Heb 10:2). It is interesting to note that the moral exhortations come within the framework of running towards Christ.

It is in the love, mercy and benevolence of God as shown and demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that it seems any positive notion of assurance must be rooted. This is not simply a ‘mental assent’ or some kind of syllogism, but an utter casting of oneself on the mercies of God as if one’s life depended (as it indeed does!) on it.

Licence to Sin?

It may be asked - won’t this trust in God’s mercy lead to antinomianism and a ticket to just go on sinning? (Indeed, some Christians seem so afraid of this that they seem to remove any grace from their preaching). I personally think the opposite is the case. When you start to believe that Christ has accepted you and is merciful to you, you actually don’t want to sin, but want to do what pleases him. The story of Zacheuss is a case in point here (Luke 19:1-10). It was after Jesus had accepted him (notice how the onlookers grumbled at Jesus going to eat with a ‘sinner’) that he reformed his ways and made restitution for those he had cheated. Conversely, I have found that believing that God is nothing but angry towards you actually leads you to sin. In my experience I get selfish, grumpy and rude towards others (not to mention indifferent towards prayer, bible study and serving) when I have been under introspective condemnation.

Think of it as similar to marriage vows (an analogy which is by no means without scriptural warrant). After hearing promises of love & faithfulness for ‘better or worse’ until ‘death us do part’ a spouse is hardly going to think of that as licence for being a terrible marriage partner.

Assurance, Works and Calvin

John Calvin maintained that the basis for Christian assurance is found in the promises of God and his mercy as displayed in scripture. He wrote ‘If you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation’.[2]

But what about works and fruit in the Christian life? Does not the bible insist that you cannot be a Christian without these things (e.g. 1 John)? Yes, and Calvin recognised this. He argued, however, that although works are a test of geniuses and can strengthen assurance, they should never be the ultimate grounds for it.

The argument from works may never be the primary ground of our confidence. This must be “God’s goodness,” “God’s mercy,” “God’s clemency,” “the free promise of justification ,“ the certainty of the promise,” “Christ’s grace”.’[3]

With this firm basis in place, it seems logical that good works and holiness will follow. It is interesting to note that in many of Paul’s epistles (e.g. Ephesians), he begins by reminding his readers who they are in Christ and then moves on to moral exhortation in the light of that (contrast Eph 1-2 with 4-5) . Even when Paul is warning the Corinthians against sexual sin, he refers to the indicative to exhort them by reminding them that they have been ‘bought at a price’. (1 Cor 6:19-20). It seems evident from this that works and fruit flow out of an assured faith – not the other way around.

What then of the ‘Witness of the Spirit?’ don’t I need some inner voice within me telling me that I’m a Christian before I can have assurance? Calvin confirmed the importance of the Holy Spirit in relation to assurance, but for him, it always had to be intimately connected with the promise of God’s word. I.e., it is not though private revelation that the Spirit assures us but by ‘testifying to us concerning the truth of God’s promises, by assuring us of the truth of the Gospel’.[4] Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen has a very interesting article on the witness of the Spirit in relation to Romans 8. His conclusions also seem to oppose a notion of the witness being an inner tangible presence.

That said, I wouldn’t want to deny the profound, tangible experiences of the Holy Spirit that many Christians claim to have had (including many of the ‘greats’ such as Charles Spurgeon, D.L.Moody, John Wesley and Hudson Taylor). Indeed, I long for such an encounter that would give me a glimpse of eternity, and radically effect the way I see things in this life. However, I think it is a mistake to base one’s assurance on such experiences (that seem few and far between).


All in all, it seems as if introspection is an enemy of assurance. Sure, there is certainly a necessary place for self examination in the Christian life, but to be constantly scrutinizing one’s own heart and deeds to ascertain one’s salvation (be it in the past, present or future sense) is like constantly digging up a seed you planted to see if it’s growing – needless to say it won’t grow at all if you keep doing that.

Tom Wright (who I once had the privilege of corresponding with on this subject) puts it nicely:

‘As long as you are looking inside yourself you will still have doubts. But as long as you are looking at Jesus on his cross, and seeing that event in the light of his resurrection, you can be assured that this was done for you too; the story of God which encompasses wood, nails and an empty tomb can become, indeed must become, the basis and ground plan for the story of your life as well.’[5]

So where does this all leave me? My attitude in this post may seem to contradict that of parts 1&2. They actually represent an almost dual reality – a struggle between faith and doubt, if you like. On some days one side is winning more than the other. The challenge for myself (and anyone with similar struggles) is to persevere in faith in Jesus and his goodness, and not be like a ‘wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind’ (James 1:6). I still have many unanswered questions regarding issues concerning soteriology, bible passages that scare and frustrate me, and writings from the early church that somewhat disturb me (such as those of the apostolic/ante nicene fathers). However, I must learn to not let these questions cripple my faith and cause me to run to a standstill in my walk. It’s all about living with the tension, I suppose, and trusting that more concrete answers will be given in time.

[1] DeSilva, David A., Perseverance in gratitude: a socio rhetorical commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 2000, p339.

[2] Calvin, Institutes 3.2.24 as quoted by Lane, A.N.S, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited’.

[3] Lane, A.N.S.,‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited’.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wright, Tom, The Crown and The Fire, London: SPCK, 2009, p125.