Assurance, Part 2
Now let’s consider another kind of assurance
II. Subjective Assurance.
You can reasonably conclude that you are a child of God by examining yourself for evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Now remember, you are looking for proof of life, not maturity. For progress, not perfection. Of course you still struggle with sin, you will your whole life. The fact that you are struggling with it and not just giving in to it instantly and constantly is evidence of grace. How do you feel about your sin? Do you hate it? Are you grieved by it and ashamed of it? Do you desire to be rid of your sins? That’s evidence of the work of the Spirit. When you are in distress you do find yourself praying to the Father? That’s the work of the Spirit. Do you find yourself thinking about spiritual things and desiring to read and understand the Bible? That hunger is perhaps the first and clearest evidence of the new birth.
But I am coming to believe that the Calvinistic Puritans by whom I have been greatly influenced, placed far too much emphasis on this subjective assurance. If you already have some measure of assurance of salvation, then seeing these fruits of the Spirit’s work in your life can be corroborating evidence for which you are truly thankful.
But I’ve never seen a Christian who was deeply struggling with his assurance ever come to a settled peace by looking at these subjective evidences of grace. And when the apostles speak of these evidences of grace, I don’t think they are counseling believers struggling with tender consciences. It seems rather that they call these subjective evidences to our attention when they want to warn high handed sinners who profess faith in Christ. To them they will say things like, “if you claim to love God but hate your brother, you’re a liar,” and “no one who is born of God continues in sin”. Verses like those are useful for, in the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 “admonishing the unruly” but not so appropriate for “encouraging the fainthearted”. I can’t think of any example in the Bible where a fainthearted person despairing of mercy is exhorted to comfort himself by looking to his own graces.
This Calvinistic emphasis on subjective assurance, looking for evidences of being among the elect, has led a lot of people to do a lot of unhelpful navel-gazing. I think we can learn something here from our Lutheran brothers. They put all the emphasis on
III. Objective Assurance
They would not tell a Christian doubtful of his assurance to look for evidence of grace in his life. They would simply tell him to cast himself of the mercy of Christ and believe the promises of his mercy.
Here’s one way the internet has really changed ministry for the better. It’s so much easier now to get exposed to the wisdom of people outside of your own tradition. I’d encourage you to read some Lutherans on this subject.
Here’s something I found this week online by a Lutheran pastor and seminary teacher who died in the 1950s named Carroll Herman Little. Anybody heard of him? Me neither. We don’t know any Lutherans, but let us learn from them.
“How are we to obtain such assurance? The sincere Christian, as he reflects upon his past life in the light of God’s Holy Word, is conscious to himself that he has come far short of the glory of God, and that, if the Lord should enter into judgment with him, he could not answer Him one in a thousand. He realizes that his own personal righteousnesses are but as filthy rags in God’s sight. He can see in himself nothing but sin and death, from which he can in no wise set himself free. He will say to himself, I deserve to be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power”. He can find no assurance in anything that he does. But this does not mean that no assurance is at hand. His reflection upon his life must constantly remind him that he is a sinner, and the more he thinks of this matter the more surely will he reach the conclusion that St. Paul reached with reference to himself, I am the very chief of sinners. But his consolation is this, that it was this very class that Jesus Christ came into the world to save, and that it is just such people, who feel the heavy burden of their sins, whom Jesus calls to Himself and to whom He gives assurance of finding rest for their souls. There is not the least assurance to be found in any virtue or good thing in us; but our only assurance is in the Lord Himself. If we would attain assurance we must look away from ourselves, from our sins, from our good deeds, from everything within us, and look to Jesus, who is our righteousness, “who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree,” “who took away the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, nailing it to His cross”. It is in God’s grace alone that we can find comfort. But, if like the Prodigal Son, we cast ourselves unreservedly upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, assurance can not fail us.”
Isn’t that a breath of fresh air? We must look away from ourselves and look to Jesus. Some of us are so self-destructively introspective. We’re like a gardener constantly pulling up the flower to see if it’s growing. Just water it and leave it alone! If you’re not sure that you’re saved then just cast yourself on God for mercy and believe the promise that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives forgiveness of sins. Even a prayer like “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief” is heard by the merciful Jesus. Don’t examine your character, examine God’s character and behold the mercy and the love shown in the fact that he would send his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Look away from yourself and place your faith wholly in Jesus Christ.
If you ask the question, “But how do I know if I am truly believing?”, Calvin might instruct you to examine your life for evidences of grace, but Luther would probably just slap you. “Knock it off!”, he might say, “You’re doing it again!” “What part of ‘Don’t look at yourself’ did you not understand?”
We sang this morning,
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.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame. In other words, even if I were experiencing perfect peace and joy in my heart, I dare not put my trust in that experience. Peace and joy are great, don’t get me wrong. We should long to experience the sweetest frame. You should seek it, you should pray for it. But you must not trust in it when you find it, nor despair because of its absence. We trust wholly in Jesus name and as we do so, the peace will come. But peace and joy do not last long under analysis. Peace and joy disappear when you stare at them. Peace and joy are only sustained when gazing upon Christ is sustained. Take your eyes off of Christ to examine the peace and soon it is gone.
So I conclude that I must stop speaking of this objective assurance of faith in the promises of God in Christ as the lowest level of assurance. For this kind of assurance is no less the work of the Holy Spirit than is immediate assurance.
It is the Spirit who opens our eyes to see the glory of Christ. It is the Spirit who works in us faith in Christ just as it is the Spirit who leads us to mortify our sins and it is the Spirit who immediately witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God.
So no matter which kind of assurance you think Paul is talking about in Romans 8:16, the clearest and most important point that Paul is making is that it is the Spirit who gives it to you. And that is a most comforting thought. If you are a Christian who struggles deeply with assurance, if you feel like you are always seeking and not finding assurance, let me give you what may seem like some unusual counsel: Stop seeking assurance. Seek instead to know and obey Christ. And the Holy Spirit will soon work in your heart the assurance you desire while you’re not looking. Assurance is, like everything else, a seek ye first issue. If you seek assurance with all your might, it will elude you. But if you seek Christ with all your might, assurance will soon follow. For the Holy Spirit himself will testify with your Spirit that you are a child of God.