A man and a woman stood hand in hand on the beach. For a time, the only sound was the crashing of waves. Then the man asked, "What are you scared about?" She answered: "I want to marry you more than anything on earth. But I keep thinking that you'll change your mind and leave me just like. . . ." Her eyes fell to the ground. "Just like your dad left your mom?" he asked gently. Hesitantly, she nodded.
"Don't you trust me?" he asked.
"Oh yes," she said. "You are the most trustworthy man I have ever met." She paused, then said, "But I'm afraid that you'll realize that I'm not what you really want."
His hand grasped hers more firmly as he said: "I've known you since we were little kids. I know your faults. But I love you. I chose you, and there's no one else I want."
"I do trust you," she told him, "I just need to learn to trust you more."
Christians may find themselves in a similar position with their Lord. As believers, we trust God and know He is trustworthy. But doubt, guilt, and fear can eat away at our assurance that we are His and always will be. We can sometimes fear that we might be forsaken.
Assurance of salvation is both profoundly personal and deeply doctrinal. It was at the heart of the Reformation debate. The Roman Catholic Church said a Christian cannot have assurance without first having an extraordinary direct revelation from God. Reformers such as John Calvin said that assurance is the birthright of every believer, though it can be experienced in varying degrees.
We must first understand the relationship between faith and assurance. Assurance arises from the essence of faith, just as apples naturally grow on apple trees. Assurance is the cream of faith. The essence of faith is trust. Faith grasps the covenant God and finds Him sufficient. As Psalm 18:2a says, "The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust" (KJV here and throughout).
Therefore, believers may rightfully have assurance of their salvation. David confesses, "The LORD is my shepherd" (Ps. 23:1). Paul declares, "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (2 Tim. 1:12).
The essence of assurance is knowing that I am saved—that my sins are forgiven and I belong to God—and therefore I know and experience communion with the triune God. In Ephesians 3:11–12, Paul writes of God's eternal purpose "in Christ Jesus our Lord: in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him." He describes this access in Trinitarian terms: "For through him [Christ] we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father" (Eph. 2:18).
Each person in the Trinity is involved in the assurance of faith. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lead us to approach God boldly as our merciful and glorious "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15; see also Ps. 103:13; Gal. 4:6). We have this boldness toward God through Christ's work of dying on the cross and drawing us near to God in peace (Eph. 2:13–14). The Holy Spirit enables us to experience the joy and peace of knowing that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16; Gal. 5:22). As we trust in Christ, the God of hope fills us with joy and peace by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:12–13).
However, assurance is not automatic. The Westminster Confession of Faith tells us that true Christians may pass through much conflict without assurance (18.3). Assurance is the fruit of saving faith. Just as an unseasonable frost may prevent a living tree from bearing fruit for a season, so assurance may be wanting where there is true faith, and it may even be lost to a believer for a time.
A child of God may walk in darkness (Isa. 50:10). Think of David, who pleaded, "O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath. . . . For mine iniquities are gone over mine head" (Ps. 38:1, 7). Likewise, Heman the Ezrahite cried, "Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves" (88:7).
Peter exhorts us to "give diligence to make your calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10). His words imply that a Christian can find assurance that God has chosen and called him to salvation in Christ. Such assurance is ordinarily inseparable from walking with God in faith.
The Westminster Confession says,
An infallible assurance of faith [is] founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (18.2).
Let us examine each of these means of attaining assurance.
The way to pursue assurance is, first, to strive to know God experientially through His great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:2–4). The gospel promises that Christ is freely given to us in all His sufficiency. If you view these promises as God's "Yes" in Christ, you will be strengthened to give your "Amen" to them (2 Cor. 1:20). Anthony Burgess, who was one of the Westminster Divines, wrote, "Trusting in God and in Christ, when we feel nothing but guilt and destruction in ourselves, is the greatest honor we can give God."
Second, we should pursue spiritual growth by acting on the promises. Peter said God gave us His promises "that by these ye might become partakers of the divine nature," that is, be conformed to the image of God (2 Peter 1:4). Giving all diligence to increase in virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity (vv. 5–7) is the way to "make your calling and election sure" (v. 10). As we grow in our capacity to keep God's commandments, we can be assured that we belong to Him (1 John 2:3). Those who persist in low levels of obedience will experience, at most, low levels of assurance.
Obedience increases assurance because it is evidence of a living faith and proves that we are not hypocrites (James 2:14). Good works do not save us (Eph. 2:8–9), but a life of righteousness and love is strong evidence of having been born again (1 John 2:29; 4:7). William Ames wrote, "He that doth rightly understand the promise of the covenant cannot be sure of his salvation unless he perceives in himself true faith and repentance."
Third, when we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to walk by faith in Christ, we will experience His witness as the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:14–16).
All three of these means of attaining assurance identified by the Westminster divines are inseparable from the ministry of the Spirit. He leads us to embrace God's promises, shows us the outward evidences of grace in us, and co-witnesses with our spirits that we are God's children.
A woman may grow in trusting her husband's love by walking closely with him through life and learning by experience that she is his and he is hers. May God bless the bride of Christ so that she, too, walks more closely with her Husband, Jesus Christ, and grows in the assurance of His unchangeable love for her.