Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Recently The Gospel Coalition posted an outline from a 1994 book by Don Whitney called "How Can I Be Sure I'm a Christian: What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation". To be fair, there are a few things in the outline that the author gets right. But the take-home message in the outline is this: None of us can really be sure that we're saved. And that's ironic, since it's a book about assurance of salvation.

Remember that the metaphor for this blog uses a skydiver to illustrate something important about trust. A smart skydiver always packs a reserve 'chute. But the reason he does is simple: He doesn't trust his main 'chute. If the main 'chute fails to open, the skydiver can cut the main 'chute loose and deploy the reserve 'chute, and the skydiver lives to tell the tale.

The gospel is different, however. It requires no reserve 'chute. In fact, it demands no reserve 'chute. In the gospel, God has invited us to jump out of the plane with one 'chute, Jesus Christ. Those are the terms. When we bring a reserve, we have failed to trust in the main 'chute.

So, I'm going to take a closer look at this outline and see how many reserve 'chutes it contains.

I. Assurance of Salvation: Is It Possible?
  1. It is possible, indeed normal, for Christians to experience assurance of salvation
  2. It is possible, indeed normal, for a non-Christian to have a false assurance of salvation

Now, it's not that I disagree with the author's two sub-points here… but it's curious that he's left out a category: It's also possible, indeed normal, for people to have no assurance. Anyone who isn't Christian in the broadest sense of the word would fall into that category. And this is interesting, because by focusing here on non-Christians with false assurance, he reveals that Christians can't really have assurance. After all, maybe the assurance you think you have is actually a false assurance and you're not really a Christian. How would you know?

Of course, we would expect, since this is a book about assurance, that the author will give us a way to know. But what we'll discover is that, well… he doesn't. In the end, the author does more to create doubts than he does to squash them.

II. Having Doubts about Your Salvation: It is possible, indeed normal, for Christians to have occasional doubts about their salvation. Doubting assurance is not unbelief. The causes of doubt are many:
  1. Spiritual immaturity may contribute to doubts about assurance.
  2. Sensitivity to sin may cause confusion about assurance.
  3. Comparison with other Christians may cloud assurance.
  4. Childhood conversion affects the assurance of some.

I agree with this group of points as well. All those things can contribute to a Christian's doubts about their salvation. But here's an interesting question: "Why?" And the answer is very simple. Because many Christians are taught that if they are failing to grow spiritually, they might not be saved. And because many Christians are taught that if they sin too much, they might not be saved. And if they aren't as good as the next guy, they might not be saved, and if their conversion happened during childhood, they might not be saved. And oddly enough, this very book will teach exactly those things. So why should we be surprised that having doubts about your salvation is normal? We are typically taught (quite erroneously) to be skeptical about our salvation. And the author of this book only makes that worse.

III. The Basis of Assurance: The assurance of salvation rests primarily on
  1. the character of God 
  2. the works of Jesus Christ
  3. the truth of God’s promises

Ahhh. Yes. Absolutely right. Now, let's see if the author sticks to these three things as the basis for assurance.

IV. An Inner Confirmation: Assurance may be experienced partly through the inner confirmation of the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit give Christians this assurance?
  1. He opens our minds to understand the Bible in ways that give us assurance.
  2. He guides our thinking about the biblical marks of salvation in our lives.
  3. He brings Scripture and its truths to our minds in various ways that assure us.
  4. He causes an inner sense of assurance without words.

This is an interesting point because it seems eerily similar to what Mormons teach. They claim to receive an "inner witness" or "inner testimony" that, for example, the Book of Mormon is true. This, for obvious reasons, makes me a little uncomfortable. It's very subjective, isn't it?

Having said that, because the Holy Spirit inspired the words of scripture, we can say that the HS gives us assurance because there are verses of scripture that are intended to give us assurance. So, I'm on board with that.

I'm concerned, however, about these "Biblical marks of salvation in our lives." This is another area where doubts are created, not destroyed. A "mark of salvation" is a sign; an indicator that a person is actually saved. But if we were to base our assurance on such indicators (assuming they exist) then these indicators would need to be reliable, unmistakable. If, for example, it's possible for unsaved people to exhibit any of the same indicators, then it could not be said that such indicators are "reliable." A "reliable" indicator is one that can't and won't lead you to a false conclusion.

V. Signs of Eternal Life: Assurance may be experienced partly through the presence of the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation [1 John].
  1. Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?
  2. Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the word and love of God?
  3. Do you live in conscious obedience to the word of God?
  4. Do you despise the world and its ways? 
  5. Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ and to be made like him?
  6. Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?
  7. Do you love other Christians sacrificially and want to be with them?
  8. Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?
  9. Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?
  10. Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?

And here the author begins to reveal some of these indicators, these "Biblical marks" of salvation. And while all of these things are good, desirable, admirable… only one of these can actually provide assurance, only one of these is actually a reliable indicator. Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ? If the answer is "Yes," then all the rest is superfluous. And the other points--all nine of them--are reserve 'chutes. For example, I might ask myself (as the author suggests):

"Do I live in conscious obedience to the word of God?"

And if I answer "Yes" and if I take that as confirmation that I am saved, then I have just donned a reserve 'chute. I'm no longer relying or trusting on the main 'chute.

And what's the main 'chute? Well, the author himself told us in Point III what the "primary basis of assurance" consists of. The author said those three things were 1) the character of God, 2) the works of Christ and 3) the truth of God’s promises.

But now the author wants me to base my assurance on whether or not I live in conscious obedience to the word of God. He's actually telling me to trust in something other than the three things he said form the basis of assurance!! And not just one thing, but nine other things!

VI. A Spiritual Mind-set: Only those who are spiritually minded are Christians. You are spiritual minded when you think about the things of God:
  1. spontaneously and without external causes
  2. more than anything else
  3. with more delight and enjoyment than anything else.
  4. You are not spiritually minded if “God is not in all [your] thoughts.”

This entire category is not only ambiguous and subjective, but it's one big, giant reserve 'chute. Why should I stake my salvation on how "spiritually minded" I am if I'm really relying on the one thing that can really give me assurance? (Point III again) The truth is, the only reason I would need to make such an assessment is if I was not relying on God's character, promises and Christ's work. And that means I'm packing a reserve.

VII. Things That Erode Our Assurance: A true Christian may lose a sense of assurance of salvation because…
  1. he or she refuses to deal with known sin
  2. of spiritual laziness
  3. of satanic attacks 
  4. of trials or harsh circumstances
  5. of illness or temperament
  6. God seems to withdraw a sense of his presence and blessing.

I could add something like:

    7. Books like "How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?" by Don Whitney

Seriously, though… the refusal to "deal with known sin" may, in fact, erode a person's assurance. But only if they haven't fully comprehended the magnitude of God's grace and only if they've failed to understand the gospel. What does 1 John 2:2 say? It says that if anyone sins, we have an advocate in Jesus Christ. Jude 24 says Jesus Christ presents us faultless before the Glory of God.

This is what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ, and remember that believing what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ was the one thing from Point V that can actually give you assurance!

The person who has jumped out of the plane with one 'chute (Christ) has no reason to think that sin theaters their relationship with God. This person understands and believes that Christ has taken care of that completely, and so it's no longer an issue when it comes to salvation. This person understands Romans 8:1 when Paul says "There is no condemnation to those are in Christ Jesus," and they understand John 5:24 when Jesus Himself says "…he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment."

In other words, the person who relies on Christ, believes and understands that their sins are forgiven. Period.

VIII. Common Problems with Uncertainty
  1. Those converted as children may experience special difficulties with assurance.
  2. Those who remember little else besides following Christ sometimes have doubts that those with adult or dramatic conversions do not.
  3. Concrete childhood thinking differs from more abstract adult thinking.
  4. An awareness of the Lordship of Christ must expand to cover all the ever-expanding circle of life that comes with maturity.
  5. Stay-at-home mothers of young children may experience special difficulties with assurance.
  6. True assurance won’t lead to spiritual carelessness.
  7. Those worried about the unforgivable sin have not committed it.

That people who don't "convert" until adulthood might have more dramatic conversion experiences than people who accepted the gospel as children is a reality… but it shouldn't be a source of doubt because everyone should understand that it's not about the experience.

The final point about the unforgivable sin is worth commenting on as well, but it's hard to do so without getting into the controversy over just what the "unforgivable sin" is. I'm going to avoid that, however, and just say that if his statement is true, then whoever is worried about the unforgivable sin is saved. Belief in Christ isn't necessary… just make sure you're worrying about the unforgivable sin. Then you'll be alright.

I analyze a similar argument in Assurance by Works; A Reserve 'Chute Case Study.

IX. False Assurance of Salvation: Sources of a false assurance of salvation
  1. A public commitment or outward response to the gospel
  2. Baptism
  3. Involvement with church
  4. A strong Christian family heritage An abundance of good deeds
  5. An extraordinary experience
  6. A dramatic personal or lifestyle change
  7. Material blessing and financial security
  8. A false understanding of God
  9. A false understanding of sin and hell

I agree completely that the first eight indicators listed here are unreliable indicators of salvation. In other words, just because someone has been baptized doesn't necessarily mean they're saved. That someone's involved with church doesn't necessarily mean they're saved. That someone has an abundance of good deeds doesn't necessarily mean that they're saved. That someone had a dramatic lifestyle change doesn't mean that they're saved. But we'll see very shortly that the author recommends that you do some of these very things if you're still not sure. We're almost there.

X. Characteristics of the falsely assured
  1. They are either unconcerned or angry when warned about false assurance.
  2. They are either legalistic or loose with spiritual disciplines and duties.
  3. They are either very weak in or very confident of their Bible knowledge.
  4. They have either a vicarious Christianity or an overly independent spirit.
  5. They may be constantly resisting the truth or never able to come to the truth.

This is an interesting list of characteristics. Notice the contrasts… on one end of the spectrum you might be apathetic when warned about false assurance, and on the other end you might be angry. You might be legalistic, or you might be sloppy with spiritual disciplines. You might be very insecure about your knowledge of Bible doctrine, or you might be overly confident. You might depend on other's too much, or you've gone off on your own.

Makes me think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If your porridge is too hot or too cold, you might be falsely assured. But if your porridge is "just right" then I guess you're okay. Either way, your experience with respect to assurance now depends upon your performance in the categories put forth by this author. If you set off this author's alarm bells, then you should have doubts.

But should we have doubts? Is Christ trustworthy or not? In Point II of the outline, the author wrote:
"Doubting assurance is not unbelief."
Hmmm. Let's take a look at it: What is "assurance," exactly? Assurance is an abstract noun which refers to the state of being assured, is it not? What does it mean to be assured of something? Or, what does it mean to assure someone else of something? Is that not synonymous with making a promise?

"I assure you, I will be there to pick you up at 10:00." Would the expectation be any different if I said "I promise you" instead of "I assure you?" No, it wouldn't. Would it make any difference if I said "Verily, verily I say unto you, I will be there to pick you up at 10:00." Or maybe I would say "Most assuredly…" or "Truly, truly." Makes no difference, does it? These are all PROMISES. And what did Christ say in John 6:47 and about a dozen other places? He said:
"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life."
If I've promised to pick you up at 10:00, and you have doubts about whether or not you'll be left stranded, why wouldn't we call that "unbelief?" If you believed my promise, how could you have doubts?

Is Christ trustworthy? If He is, then why not just believe Him? He said that if you do, then you have everlasting life. What's to doubt?

So what does this mean, then? Does this mean I'm "unconcerned" about assurance? Or am I angry? Am I being legalistic or loose with spiritual disciplines? Am I being either weak or over-confident in my knowledge of Bible doctrine? Am I overly independent? Am I guilty of an offense by simply believing Christ's promises and being confident in them?

Simply put, doubting assurance (or salvation) is the very definition of unbelief. If you believe, then you have accepted Christ's assurance to you. End of story.

The final point in the outline is a list of things to do in case you're still not sure. Let's take a look:

XI. What to Do If You’re Still Not Sure
  1. Don’t take for granted that you understand the gospel.
  2. Think deeply about the gospel.
  3. Repent of all known sin.
  4. Submit everything to the Lordship of Christ.
  5. Meditate much on 1 John.
  6. Don’t doubt the promises of God.
  7. Believe as best you can and pray for greater faith.
  8. Practice the spiritual disciplines.
  9. If you really love God, take assurance because non-Christians don’t love God passionately.
  10. If you hate your sin, take assurance because non-Christians don’t hate sin deeply.
  11. If you’ve never been baptized, present yourself as a candidate in obedience to Christ.
  12. Don’t neglect the Lord’s Supper.
  13. Don’t compare earthly fathers to your Heavenly Father.
  14. Seek godly counsel if the doubts persist.
  15. Pray for assurance.
  16. Wait patiently upon God to give you a fuller experience of assurance.

Hmmm. Okay, I'll grant that it's possible to have a poor understanding of the gospel. But if I can never reach a point where I say "Yes, I understand the gospel," then how in the world can I ever have assurance?

Think deeply about the gospel? What does this mean? Repent of all known sin? Submit everything to the Lordship of Christ? How will what I do help give me assurance?

Meditate much on 1 John? I think he means "Meditate much on the way I understand 1 John." First John is a difficult book, and I'm convinced that it's widely misunderstood. It should be a source of assurance, because (the way I've come to understand it) it emphasizes our secure position in Christ. It emphasizes that God sees us as without sin. But the popular view of 1 John is a view which could be added to the authors list of things which erode assurance.

Number 6 is the only valid point among fifteen: Don't doubt the promises of God. In other words, believe!!

We began talking about reserve 'chutes. In Point 9, the author says that you should be assured if "you really love God." This is a reserve 'chute. Your love for God cannot provide you assurance. believing God's promises, however, can. Likewise, hating your sin cannot provide you assurance. But believing God's promises will.

The next point is very interesting, because earlier the author presented a list of sources of false assurance. And what was the second item in that list? It was baptism. Baptism, the author says, is a source of false assurance. And yet, here he offers baptism as a solution to doubts about assurance!!

He also says that not neglecting the Lord's Supper is a solution to doubts about assurance. So with respect to baptism and the Lord's Supper, we are supposed to rely upon rituals which we perform for our assurance? That's stuff that WE do. That's a reserve 'chute. How 'bout this instead: "Don't doubt the promises of God. Believe!!"

Alright, I'll give the author point 14 too… seeking godly counsel is not a bad idea. Hopefully that Godly counsel won't consult this book, however. Hopefully the Godly counsel will exhort the doubting person to simply believe.

Pray for assurance? In the Bible, God has already given us every assurance, has He not? I'm not opposed to prayer in general, of course… and perhaps if someone does pray for assurance, God will find a way to remind them of just what assurance is, and that if they'll simply believe His promises, they'll have assurance.

Don Whitney's "How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?" really adds up to one giant discouragement regarding assurance of salvation. It snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The sum total of the message is this: Assurance is really impossible, but we're going to pretend that relying on our own performance gives us some kind of assurance, even though we know it can't.

Almost all of Whitney's solutions amount to relying on things other than God's promises for assurance of salvation. In other words, he's telling folks to carry a reserve, and this just reveals (or requires) distrusting their main 'chute. And because we know that the fabric and thread that we use to sew our reserve 'chutes together with are inherently defective, our reserve 'chutes can never give us assurance. Only one thing can: Believing Christ's promises.

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