The Assurance of Faith

People ask God to give them an experience which will confirm their faith, which will give them power, which will make them bold, which will, as some say, release the Spirit's energy into the world.

Today, through the impact of postmodernity, there is a new focus. It’s not as though the intellectual problems have disappeared or that the problems of guilt and sin have gone away. But the focus has shifted, and Christians now sense that they are weak, vulnerable, and powerless. They are being asked to hold on to a faith that the vast majority do not have. The question today is not so much “Where is the true God?” or even “Where is the gracious God?” but “Where is the living God?”

 

Doubtless, every Christian minister has various defining moments. For me, one of those moments was a conversation that I had with a young student who was attending my church. I can remember sitting on the front steps of the church chatting to her about her problem of doubt. In trying to discover her particular difficulty, I mentioned to her several causes of doubt, such as the miracles of the Bible, or whether or not other religions will save people, or the problem of suffering. But to all these suggestions she answered “No.”

Her doubt was whether God would accept her. Although she was a Christian, she was deeply concerned about her acceptability to God. She was in despair about it. I myself had been troubled with intellectual doubts, but the question of whether or not God would accept me hardly crossed my mind. I realized then that there were people who had different doubts. My question at that stage in my life was, “Where is the trueGod?” But her question was, “Where is the gracious God?” In her experience of the Christian life, she was conscious of sin, she was conscious of guilt, she was aware of the judgment that lay ahead. And she had responded to her doubt with attempts to be good.

Plenty of people are in exactly that situation. Their consciences are very tender and sensitive, and therefore their joy flickers on and off. They feel themselves to be failures as Christians. Although they know that they belong to the Lord Jesus, they worry about their continued acceptability to him. A Christian psychologist once said to me: “In your preaching, you certainly afflict the comfortable. But I wish you would also comfort the afflicted as well, for after you preach the lines outside my room on Monday mornings are doubled.” The fact of the matter is that many of our people are indeed the afflicted.

Today, through the impact of postmodernity, there is a new focus. It’s not as though the intellectual problems have disappeared or that the problems of guilt and sin have gone away. But the focus has shifted, and Christians now sense that they are weak, vulnerable, and powerless. They are being asked to hold on to a faith that the vast majority do not have. The question today is not so much “Where is the true God?” or even “Where is the gracious God?” but “Where is the living God?”

I suspect many believers have this problem. But I would say that it is those who minister the Word of God and their wives who are most conscious of the weakness of the church, of the powerlessness of the Christian, and who know something of the despair of being in an institution in decline. From their hearts comes the cry, “Where is the living God?” To minister for years in a small congregation and see nothing happening makes one ask, “Where is the living God?” Such people ask God to give them an experience which will confirm their faith, which will give them power, which will make them bold, which will, as some say, release the Spirit’s energy into the world.

The Search for Divine Assurance

For over a hundred years now, through books and conferences, one suggested answer is that by following certain rules or taking certain steps, our weakness can become power. We have become involved in what I call the quest for assurance.

Of course, some observers do not have my view of the way things are in the churches. They are buoyant and optimistic about the state of Christianity and would point, as evidence for their optimism, to the renewal of Christian music and to the megaconventions. To my mind, however, as I try to analyze what is going on, it seems that a lot of the excitement has to do, not so much with the idea that God’s great power is being released in the world, but rather with a quest for personal assurance. What we are seeing is not a huge outburst of spiritual energy and revival throughout the world, but a renewal of confidence that God does love “me” despite the experiences “I” have had. People are looking for their weak faith to change to an assured confidence that God does love them, longing for the boldness and freedom that will bring. But are they looking in the right place?

In the seventeenth century in England, there developed amongst English-speaking Christians a sharp distinction between Christian faith and Christian assurance. It was understood that saving faith need only be a mustard seed of faith in order to be saving. But it was also suggested that between such a saving faith and assurance there could exist a gap, perhaps of some years. It followed from this that the Christian life was largely made up of the move from faith in God to assurance that God was indeed the gracious and accepting God. So, for many, the Christian life became a quest for assurance.

The reality of one’s faith could be shown by keeping God’s Word. A person could demonstrate the reality of faith and therefore possess assurance as long as he was obedient to the Lord. So the move from faith to assurance ran along the path of the good works which demonstrated the reality of one’s faith. This idea was strangely parallel to, although not the same as, the Roman Catholic belief of salvation by God’s grace and human good works. And, interestingly, there was a substantial interest in those days in Catholic devotional literature to help people move from faith to assurance. True, they removed the references to the Mass and other obvious blemishes, but the heart of this devotional literature remained. In particular, there was an interest in the various techniques that people could use. One example was meditation, by which a person, when reading about the life of Jesus, could, by so concentrating on the life of Jesus, move his affections on to the next stage and release himself for various good works.

This type of Christian literature resulted in an impressive flowering of devotion that was extraordinarily legalistic and burdensome. But it was not a growth in the understanding of the Christian faith. Instead, it was a shift away from the Reformed doctrines which had cleared away such burdensome things and left individuals face-to-face with the law of God in all its strength and power. In this new movement, the law of God was being continually split up into tiny parts, so that people could keep this element or that element. Why was it necessary to do that?

The answer is that any system which incorporates human obedience as a necessary element will fail to reassure. It may give assurance for a little while, but the more human elements there are in any system, the more sensitive consciences will recognize that even the smallest amount of human effort is flawed by sin. Assurance can never be gained by such efforts. They will lead either to Pharisaism, in which people think they have actually obeyed the law, or to despair even more profound than that with which they started.

I was interested in the light of this to read a reflective book called Charismatic Renewal, by Tom Smail, Andrew Walker, and Nigel Wright (who, I understand, have all been touched by the renewal). Nigel Wright tells how, during his university years, he was challenged by some who had already entered into the experience, and he discovered “the gift of tongues.” Wright’s comment on what happened is significant: “On reflection I see that this experience had more to do with assurance of salvation than with spiritual power.” I think he is absolutely right. The “charismatic blessing” which he is talking about is only one of a number of possible routes to seek reassurance. Wright goes on:

I am of the opinion that the experiences which are often called Baptism of the Spirit might properly be understood within the context of the doctrine of assurance. They are heart warming moments when the knowledge of salvation wells up within the heart. To know that I too was not excluded from God’s grace but made its object, did a lot for me, giving me a spiritual importance which was to lead me to a vocation in the ministry on completing university.

Wright has pinpointed what seems to be happening in so many lives. People may tell us they are looking for power to serve Christ, but the underlying issue is a matter of assurance. However, that leads us to ask if they have understood assurance properly.

The experience-based assurance of today has these features:

  1. It is understood as confidence before God and power before the world.
  2. It is gained through the taking of special steps, perhaps a prayer, a discipline that one enters, a meeting that one attends, a technique that one employs.
  3. It is experienced in a direct touch from God, a dream perhaps, an ecstasy, a speaking in tongues, a miracle, an exaltation, some special touch from God, reassuring the person that there is a living God and that he is loved by this living God.
  4. It is exemplified in Christian leadership through books, videos, television programs, and through personal ministry by the leader.
  5. It is very anecdotal.
  6. It results in boldness, enthusiasm, love for Christ, obedience, Scripture reading, and prayer. Often it has great results in the life of the person who seeks for an experience-based assurance.

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