Over the years, a dozen or so individuals have entered my pastoral study for counsel due to struggling with assurance of their salvation—they are not quite sure whether they are saved. Week in and week out they attend Sunday services. They read the Scriptures, they pray with their spouse, they seek to avoid sin, they strive for righteousness, but they doubt whether they are in the saving grip of Christ.
I try to help them sort through this struggle. And it is no small struggle. It keeps men and women awake at night. Fear and melancholy easily set in. Every warning regarding the fires of hell brings soul-terrifying thoughts and every promise of Heaven stirs apprehension. It is true spiritual warfare.
For many, this struggle with assurance is not due to being outside of Christ, rather it is evidence of their being in Christ. Contrary to popular belief, struggle is often one of the greatest signs of Christian salvation. Too many think the Christian life is a life absent of doubt, struggle, and fight. Yet, the Scriptures paint a different picture. Paul says to Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which made a good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1st Timothy 6:12). The Christian life is seldom one of ease. It is compared to a marathon race (Hebrews 12), a fight (1st Timothy 6), and warfare (Ephesians 6). It involves struggle (Colossians 1:29), suffering (Philippians 1:29), striving (Philippians 1:27), and discipline (1st Corinthians 9:27).
Why? Because we have true adversaries. Satan, sin, the world, and the flesh continue to assault. Doubt creeps in, sin stirs, and struggle persists. Many doubt their salvation because of this ongoing fight. The adversaries are real and they know it. The man or woman sits before me with tears in their eyes as they describe the fact that they are not what they think they should be in Christ. Their thoughts are not as pure, their actions not as holy, their desires not as sanctified as they would expect. If this is the case, they are in good company! Even the Apostle Paul was not what he desired to be (Romans 7:15; Philippians 3:12). John asserts that even though his readers are not what they shall be, they are God’s children now, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared: but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1st John 3:2).
Often struggle, rather than being a sign of unbelief, is the greatest sign of true belief. The reality is that only individuals engaged in the fight are those who find themselves on the other side of the battle lines from these adversaries. And one of the great schemes of our adversary is attacking the assurance of believers. He sows a seed of doubt and a lack of assurance leads to the conclusion that they aren’t saved. Yet, this is a fatal error. The fatal error of equating assurance with salvation. As the Westminster Confession helpfully states, “This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it” (WCF 18:3). Believers will possess differing degrees of assurance. Some will have a great measure of assurance from the day of their conversion and others will struggle for years with a modicum of assurance. And still others may live for some time without any assurance!
Surely, we must seek to discern whether we are actually in the faith (Matthew 7:21-23), but our salvation is not based upon our assurance (or feelings of assurance). Rather, we are kept in His hand (John 10:27-29). Our salvation does not rest upon our fleeting thoughts or internal assurance, but rather upon Him—His covenant love, His knowing, His keeping. It is secured in Him. He is the Good Shepherd who guards and keep His sheep. He knows His own and His own know Him. His steadfast love is our hope. “Fight the good fight of the faith,” Paul says. And in the midst of that fight, when your adversary whispers lies that your lack of assurance is evidence of a lack of faith, remind him (and yourself) that your salvation is not determined by your fleeting thoughts, but by Jesus’ steadfast love. In this you can stand secure.