On Assurance and Obedience

ministry spot

It’s easy to think you believe something until someone states it in rather bald terms. For example, if I were to say that assurance is a good thing for a Christian to have, I imagine that you would agree. But what if I were to say that it’s every Christian’s duty to be as assured as possible about their own salvation. Might you then say, “Hang on a minute. Isn’t that overstating things a bit? Might there not be some real kind of danger with talking about assurance like that?” Perhaps, we might say, a person so fixed on gaining assurance would be a little self-centred, more concerned with their own salvation than the things of God. Might it not be that seeking assurance like that would lead to complacency? Isn’t a little doubt, a little uncertainty, something to keep you on your toes and to stop the Christian from drifting into a security which would not stimulate Christian obedience and concern about sanctification?

If we were to think along such a line, unwittingly we would have taken up the very criticisms of the Reformers’ understanding of Christian assurance that were made by their opponents. And the statement that it is the Christian’s duty to seek as much as assurance as possible (Westminster Confession of Faith Ch 18.3) is formulated against those who saw assurance as something breeding a lackadaisical attitude to Christian obedience.

Indeed, it is not just Reformed confessions but the Scriptures themselves which make the very opposite connection between assurance and Christian obedience. Frequently they portray security around one’s status as a member of God’s people, and certainty about a future with God in blessedness that awaits the believer after this life, as the very grounds on which Christian sanctification and obedience are built.

For example, Paul speaks to the Colossians of the reality that his hearers at Colossae really do belong to Christ, and that soon Christ will appear, and they will appear with him in glory (Col 3:2,3). It is in these realities that he grounds his “therefore” when he appeals to them to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col 3:5). In a similar way the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the confidence that his readers had in the opening stage of their Christian life, a confidence that meant they were willing to obey Christ and suffer loss for his name’s sake and in loving and sacrificial solidarity with his suffering people in myriad ways: facing public shaming, having their property confiscated. The reason for this confidence the writer of Hebrews grounds in the assurance that his hearers had known in the first flush of their Christian faith when they heard the gospel. That because of all God had promised them they were willing to give up earthly possessions “since [they] knew that [they themselves] had a better possession and an abiding one.” In these verses, and throughout the Scriptures, it is because of what Christians know about their present standing with God, and their future life which is coming at Christ’s return, that is, about their own assurance, that grounds real, costly and sacrificial obedience in the Christian life and motivates the Christian to wage war against sin. Nor is this knowledge something only available through a Christian maturity of many years, or after some special experience. Rather in both Colossae, and with the hearers of Hebrews, real and warranted assurance came to them simply by hearing God’s promises to them in the Gospel.

So, if we would obey God more, and see others in our churches grow in their own sanctification and obedience to God, then a Scriptural thing to pray for, and to seek, is the greatest degree of assurance possible for us and for others. That with the Colossians and the Hebrews we would grasp from God’s promises in the gospel, sealed in the blood of his Son, that our present standing with God is resolved, that the judgement of the last day has already been given in our favour, that we really are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, and headed for our glorious appearing with Christ in glory when he comes, and so be willing to trace the logic of the apostles, the “since”s and the “therefore”s of Scripture, in our own lives, moving from a certain knowledge of our peace with God to the sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving and obedience which those secure in the love of Christ are enabled to render.