The first and basic reason why people arrive at a false sense of assurance is that they have a false understanding of salvation. They think that they are saved by their good works. Other people believe that they are saved automatically through the sacraments of the church. In this view, the classic Roman Catholic view, the gifts of God are communicated ex opere operato, “by the working of the works,” through the sacramental ministry of the church. There are literally millions of people whose confidence rests on the ministrations of the church. This mentality is not restricted to Roman Catholics but is shared by many Protestants who think that if they are church members, that is all it takes to be saved.
Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation (which hope of theirs shall perish): yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 18:1)
This section teaches that unregenerate people may possess a false sense of assurance but that genuine believers may attain a true sense of assurance. Assurance must be considered for the four kinds of people in the world.
The first group of people are not saved and are aware that they are not. They are unregenerate and they know it. They have no interest in becoming Christians.
The people in the second group are in a state of grace, but they are not sure that they are saved. The confession, as we will see, says that assurance of salvation is possible and indeed should be sought. Nevertheless, not everyone who is in the state of grace has yet arrived at the conclusion that he is in that state. Such people may think or hope they are saved but may not have full assurance that they are. Their degree of assurance vacillates from firm to shaky. During our study of the perseverance of the saints, we indicated that they can fall seriously and radically, but not fully and finally. When people are in the midst of a serious fall, they can have grave questions about the state of their soul.
The third group of people is easy to explain. They are in a state of grace and are assured of their salvation.
What complicates the whole question of assurance is the fourth group: those who are not saved but think that they are. There are two groups who possess assurance of salvation, but only one of those groups actually has salvation. So if someone has assurance of salvation, how can he be sure that his assurance is genuine, and not the false assurance of the hypocrite and the unbeliever? And how can people who are not saved nonetheless have full assurance that they are?
The main way that people acquire a false sense of assurance of their salvation is by having a false understanding of the way of salvation. Many people hold to justification by death, which is the creed of the universalist. The reasoning goes like this: “All people are saved by a loving and merciful God. Since I am a person, it follows that I am saved and cannot lose my salvation.” Our purpose here is not to debate the claims of universalism, which cannot be substantiated from the Bible, but to show how people can come to a false sense of assurance by being universalists.
Probably the most prevalent doctrine of justification in modern culture is the doctrine of justification by works. Most Americans, including those who call themselves evangelicals, believe that people will get into heaven if they live a good life. They think: “I am pretty good.I do the best that I can, and haven’t done anything terribly wrong. God will be satisfied.” Christians may think: “I look forward to the day when I will be welcomed into heaven. After all, I’ve gone to church for forty years, I have been a Sunday school teacher, I’ve given money to the church and other good causes, and I’ve never murdered anyone or committed adultery.” The confidence of such people is based upon their own goodness, which is not the biblical understanding of salvation.