True and False Assurance

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One of the most soul-searching parables of Jesus is that of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1—14. In it, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a banquet prepared by a king for the marriage of his son. Some are invited, but when the time for the festivities comes around, they abuse their opportunity and fail to show.

As a consequence of this, these first-invited guests forfeit their privilege, and the invitation goes out to others. The banqueting hall is filled with guests, and all seems to be going well, until the king himself comes in. He sees one man there who is not wearing a wedding garment, and he throws the unprepared guest out.

The particular doctrine this parable represents is highlighted in Matthew 22:14: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” There is a generous and free invitation. But not everyone who receives this invitation will finally partake of the feast. As B.B. Warfield reminds us in his essay “Are They Few That Be Saved?”, Jesus is not here speaking about the eternal number of the elect and the reprobate; He is pressing home to His hearers the need “to see to it that they both respond to the invitation of the gospel and live according to it.”

The point of the parable and its warning is to remind us that there is such a thing as a presumption of salvation, a sense that all is well with our soul, when, in actual fact, the opposite may be true. Thus, to be sure we are saved requires a consideration of the possibility that we may not be.

The Hope That Will Never Prosper

In chapter 18, titled “Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” the Westminster Confession of Faith takes false assurance as its starting point. Outside the circle of saving faith are “hypocrites and other unregenerate men” (18.1). Both within the church and outside of it there are those who are content to believe that all will be well for them at last: hypocrites, who play-act at Christianity but whose faith has no substance, and other unbelievers, who have no interest in Christianity at all.

The possibility of being lost through a false assurance is a regular note in Puritan preaching and theology. The words of Thomas Brooks from his book Heaven on Earth are typical:

That assurance is but presumption that works men to play with sin, to be bold with sin, to make light of sin, to walk on in ways of sin. Such assurance will never bring a man to heaven, it will never keep him from dropping into hell, yea, it will double his damnation and make him the most miserable among all damned, miserable, forlorn spirits. Ah Lord! from such an assurance deliver my soul, and give me more and more that divine assurance that makes sin to be more hateful than hell, and that makes the soul to be more careful to avoid the one, than it is fearful of falling into the other.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress carries the same warning. On the journey to the Celestial City, Christian and Hopeful reach the Delectable Mountains, where they meet shepherds who give them an insight into their pilgrimage. In a valley by the side of a hill, the shepherds open a door and ask the pilgrims to look in. All is dark and smoky, and the cries of the lost are heard.

This,” say the shepherds, “is a by-way to hell, where hypocrites enter in.”

I notice,” Hopeful comments, “that every one of these put on a show of going on a pilgrimage just like we are doing. Is that so?”

Yes,” the shepherds reply, “and they traveled for quite a long time, too.”

The warning that it is possible to travel far along the road with nothing but the show of a pilgrimage alerts us to the real possibility of self-deception, the carnal presumption with which we assure ourselves that we are in favor with God when we are not. This echoes the terrible words at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21).

The “Lord, Lord” of theological knowledge is not a ground for believing we shall be saved. The demons believe but are still demons (James 2:19). To know that there is a wedding feast, and that there is an invitation to it, is not the ultimate qualification. Indeed, if we take the nature of sin seriously, it could be the ultimate disqualification; for to know the truth and not act on it is a greater sin than not having known it at all.

The “Lord, Lord” of Christian experience is not a ground for assurance. There is an inseparable connection between the promises of the gospel and Christian experience. When the gospel impacts our lives, we will feel and experience certain things. But, as Jonathan Edwards reminds us in his Religious Affections, there is a real distinction between the exercises of grace and the evidences of grace; and to make evidences out of our experiences without any real love of Christ, which alone comes from the exercise of grace, will lead to a false assurance. Apparent evidences of piety there may be, but these, in Edwards’ words, may be nothing more than “the common influences of the Spirit of God, joined with the delusions of Satan and the wicked and deceitful heart.”

Nor will the “Lord, Lord” of Christian service serve as a ground of assurance. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, that is what the Lord drives home in particular. People will appeal to the fact that they prophesied, exorcised demons, and did mighty works in Christ’s name. He will not deny that they did these things, only that, in the doing of them, they did not know him.

John Murray, in his essay “The Assurance of Faith,” reminds us that assurance, like every grace, “is liable to perversion and abuse, and truly the perversion of the best is the worst.” For this very reason, we are to heed the duty that the New Testament impresses on us over and over again—to make our calling and our election sure (2 Peter 1:10).

The Hope That Will Never Fail

How are we to do so? In the face of such apparent discouragement, can we ever have a genuine assurance of salvation? Indeed we can, and the evidence of the New Testament suggests that it is our greatest privilege to know that we are the children of God. We are able to say, “We know that he abides in us” (1 John 3:24).

To begin with, we recognize that assurance of salvation belongs to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. As John goes on to say in the verse just quoted, “we know that he abides in us by the Spirit whom he has given us.” This echoes the great words of Paul in Romans 8:16 that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here is a supernatural ministry in the theater of the believer’s own consciousness: the Spirit of the living God leading us to the realization that we have the blessing of sonship in Jesus Christ.

So what does the Spirit do for us? First, He makes Christ the only ground of our hope and confidence. He magnifies Christ in our estimation, removes anything other than Christ and His work as the ground of our salvation, and leaves us satisfied with what Christ has done for us. Christ is our final assurance, not ourselves. The first body of evidence of our sonship is in the Sonship and Servanthood of Jesus: who He is and what He has done for us.

That is why the Westminster Confession stresses that true assurance belongs to those “who truly believe on the Lord Jesus” and who “love him sincerely” (18.1). They are those who build on the rock, as Jesus describes it in Matthew 7:24–27.

Second, the Spirit gives us a desire to be like Christ. It is His work to renew the image of Christ in us and to transform us into that image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). That includes a hatred of everything that is un-Christlike. Christ came to save us not from hell alone but from our sins (Matt. 1:21). To be in Christ is to hate sin in the present, not merely to hate the thought of hell in the future.

Those in whose hearts such a work has begun are conscious of the daily battle they have with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16). Sometimes sin gets the upper hand, and Christians lose the battle. Such moments may eclipse our assurance even if they cannot rob us of our salvation.

Third, the Spirit gives us a desire to obey Christ. We know that we obey very imperfectly, and disobey too easily. We know what we ought to do, but too often do what we know we should not (Rom. 7:7–24). But God works in us the will to do His will and work (Phil. 2:13). If we long to obey Him and to serve Him, “to live in all good conscience before him” as the Westminster Confession puts it, that evidences our relationship to Him. Such works are the evidence of our salvation and not its cause (Eph. 2:10).

There is a close relationship between the Spirit’s working assurance in us and our working out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12). The child of God is animated by the desire to please Christ and not to be deceived into thinking he has Christ when he has nothing. Ultimately, the hypocrite is never afraid that he might be a true Christian. But the Christian is afraid he might actually be a hypocrite. Sometimes that fear—which drives us constantly to examine our relationship with God—is the most healthy emotion that God has implanted in our souls.

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