THOMAS: The chapter on assurance in the Westminster Confession of Faith is probably its most theologically thought-out chapter because the issue of assurance greatly troubled seventeenth-century Christians. They thought a great deal about it. Clearly, the Puritans believed that it was possible to experience doubt: “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief!”
It seems clear to me that the Apostle John was writing late in the first century in the face of fairly severe persecution. They were living in the second or third generation of Christians who had never seen the Lord Jesus with their physical eyes. They were about to face the second century with all its opposition to the Christian church. John was writing in order that they might believe as they faced a wave of doubt for a variety of reasons.
Doubt can come from the devil, doubt can come from physical and mental disease, doubt can come because we’ve taken our eyes off Jesus, and doubt can come because we’re not walking steadfastly in the faith; we are not reading the Scriptures or listening to Jesus as He speaks to us in the Scriptures. There are a variety of reasons that people may experience doubt, but the experience of doubt in and of itself is not evidence that someone is unconverted. What doubt demonstrates is that we need to run to Christ and ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the assurance that we once had.
PARSONS: What you just said reminds me of Hebrews 12:1–2, which talks about looking to Christ. The author of Hebrews encourages Christians in their struggle against sin to take off every weight and everything that entangles itself around them. He tells them to take off the old version of the sin that so easily besets them and lay it aside.
Too often, especially as younger Christians, the reason we fall into doubt about our salvation is that we fall into doubting ourselves because of our sin. We get fixated on the sin such that we wallow in the filth and mire of the guilt and shame of our sin. What’s amazing about the passage in Hebrews 12 is that the author of Hebrews acknowledges the reality of the sin that they need to lay aside. It is sin that clings closely, like a vine or a weed that entangles itself around our ankles in an attempt to trip us up and make us fall. However, the author of Hebrews doesn’t say to focus on the sin; He says to focus on Christ.
The author of Hebrews tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus because the only way we can mortify sin in the flesh is by resting on the truth, not our feelings. Feelings within our hearts can deceive us. They can lie to us. Feelings are real. Feelings are genuine. God gives us feelings. The Spirit gives us feelings. We shouldn’t ignore our feelings, but we shouldn’t listen to them when they’re lying to us against what we know to be true. Some of us wrestle with our sins and wonder: “How is it that I can really be loved by God? How is it that I can really be saved when I am such a miserable wretch? How can I really be a child of God?” When you read the Bible and feel scrutinized, examined, and convicted by it, you can sometimes come away saying: “Am I really a believer? Do I really know Jesus?”
It is also important to differentiate sin and true repentance that comes when we’re convicted by the Spirit of God. True repentance means not only being broken over sin, not only being contrite over it, not only being humbled by it, but also confessing that sin. Further, it means striving to live in a different way and consecrating ourselves to a different pattern of living. That’s true repentance. It’s not just feeling sorry for our sin. Sometimes we think that if we just beat ourselves up enough about our sin, that acts as our penance. However, true repentance looks like contrition, confession, and consecration to a new way of life. In his first epistle, John deals with the practice of sin. He deals with walking in sin and the unbroken pattern of practicing sin without true repentance.
There are times when I’ve come across folks over the years who have come into our congregation and really struggled with their salvation. There are people who struggle with their salvation because they’re struggling with their sin. They’re not actually repenting over their sin. They’re not really confessing their sin. They’re not striving for a new way of life in dealing with their sin. They’re not mortifying sin in the flesh. The truth of the matter is this: I’m not going to rush to give people assurance of their salvation if there is not real conviction, real brokenness, real confession, and real consecration in their lives. I think we need a word of warning when it comes to assurance so that we don’t just dole it out to anyone who says, “I am wrestling; I am struggling.” There might be a reason you’re struggling, and it might be because you don’t know the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is a transcript of Derek Thomas’ and Burk Parsons’ answers given during our If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Escondido 2022 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.