by John de Witt
What does a pastor think about assurance? By assurance here I mean the certainty that through Jesus Christ one is a child of God: forgiven, renewed, having eternal life. I cannot speak for others, but I can give my thoughts on the subject based on more than thirty years of ministry.
As a pastor I am committed to the welfare of the congregation I serve and want the people to whom I minister to be in good spiritual health. This means, of course, that the whole matter of assurance is very important to me. If people lack assurance they will not be whole and they are bound to lack the joy and peace which are so essential to a mature Christian experience.
I have to say at the same time, however, that I am far more concerned about some other matters than I am about assurance, or an absence of it. There have been times in the past when a want of assurance among serious, spiritually-minded men and women was pervasive and widespread. Generally speaking, that is not the case now. The truth is that if I were to begin to encounter people genuinely troubled by doubts about their salvation, I should regard it as a healthy sign.
Problems with respect to assurance may arise for any number of reasons.
It should be said at once that personality differences play a considerable part here. Optimistic, positive, confident people are far less prone to introspection and doubt about themselves than are those whose inclination it is to look on the dark side of things and who are by nature introspective. It is essential that we understand this, and that we do not regard everyone in the same light. One who has struggled much and has gone through very deep valleys will be much more liable to questions in this area than another who has known little or nothing of the kind. I do not suggest, of course, that the one type of personality is more spiritual than the other personality; only that people are different.
Further, a very large number of folk within as well as outside the church have no right whatsoever to assurance. The reason for this is that they are not believers, they have not been born again, they have never experienced true conversion. They may suppose that all is well, but it is not, and we do them no favor by allowing them to continue in their delusion. Some in this category may be “awakened,” but not yet “converted.” By that I mean they have perhaps come to grasp something of the seriousness of their position outside of Jesus Christ, but they have not yet come to faith in him. To try to rush them out of conviction and into an easy assurance would be to commit a grievous error.
Then, in my experience, people who have been grievously tempted and have fallen into sin are often troubled by a lack of assurance. They may be led by a sense of defeat and guilt to question their relationship to God; or they may even begin to doubt the very existence of God and the truth of the Gospel. It is, for many, easier to deny that God is than to acknowledge failure and to repent.
Sometimes physical or emotional illness may be the reason for spiritual uncertainty. Again and again I have observed this to be the case. Those who are not well, whose physical or mental constitution is under attack by illness, are prone to depression and often experience uneasiness about their relationship to God. They may lose hope and even begin to believe that God has abandoned them. These folk are frequently helped by being reminded of the connection between illness and feelings. In certain cases a pastor can do great good by referring a troubled person to a skilled physician. People with healthy bodies and healthy minds have far fewer problems about assurance than those who are sick.
In other instances people may be in difficulties with respect to assurance because of bad teaching in the church. The doctrine of predestination is not set forth in the Bible in such a way as to produce spiritual anxiety. On the contrary, it is intended to strengthen, to edify, to encourage. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). In the event that this great truth is distorted and people are thereby led to wonder whether they are elect or not, problems will certainly arise about assurance. If one cannot know that one is elect, how can one know that one is a child of God? Clearly the answer here is to gain an understanding of what the Bible actually teaches.
It is also the case, however, that under very different circumstances, with a radically different kind of teaching, people may be led to think that nothing more is involved in becoming a Christian than to “make a decision for Christ.” All across the Christian world the whole matter of spiritual rebirth and conversion has been placed almost on the level of a mathematical formula. “When the invitation is given, go forward. If you go forward and sincerely repeat the words of a prayer of confession and faith, if you sign the commitment card, then—so we are told—you are a Christian. You may not feel like one, or act like one, or have any substantial ground for considering yourself one. Nevertheless, if you have made a decision for Christ, that is all you need do. And beyond that, you have the right to regard yourself as a fully assured child of God.
At the present time I am much more concerned about easy believism (notion that one can be a Christian even though one displays no vital signs of spiritual life) than I am about an absence of assurance. One cannot know Jesus Christ as Savior and not know Him, at least in some emerging way, as Lord and Master of one’s life. Our objective must be to return to the teaching of Scripture, to be faithful to the Word of God in setting forth the plan of salvation without cutting corners and giving people false grounds for assurance.
Pastors, and others who are called upon to give spiritual counsel, must be very wise and faithful, attempting to discern what the situation is in individual cases. There is always the temptation to give the same answer to a diversity of questions. Anything of that sort is quite wrong. We should resist the temptation to resort too quickly to a simple formula which ignores the differences among people and the diverse causes of spiritual anxiety. Pastors must seek to be wise physicians of the soul at all times, never content with mere formulae which treat all cases in the same manner. It is altogether wrong to treat intricate matters of the soul by prescribing easy answers.
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