When Christ saved me from legalism and led me a saving knowledge of Him, tendrils of legalism remained wrapped on me. Every sin I caught myself in was further ammunition I used against any assurance of salvation I had. As I stood worshipping alongside my friends at my Christian university, I put on a smile, but inwardly wondered if I was righteous enough to sing any kind of praise to God. I wondered if any of the promises we heard, any of the words we sang, even applied to me. At times, I tried to make deals with God. If I do better, will I feel your love then? If I try harder, will I feel secure? Will you take note of me if I somehow force away these sins? I felt choked by doubt because I couldn’t will away these sins.
I am not writing this article as a professional, experienced counselor striving to teach other counselors—I am nothing of the sorts. I am writing this as a believer who has battled her way through the thorns of doubt, and who has discerned both the good and poor counsel given from others. I also come with humility, recognizing the times I have given the same gut-wrenching, doubt-inducing counsel that was once given to me. If there is anything to be taken away from this, I hope it is this: let’s counsel those who doubt with the gospel—not their works.
There are two primary forms of doubt-inducing counsel: (1) the Conversion Story and (2) the Fruit-Bearing Checklist.
The Conversion Story
The young girl sits in front of you, tears streaming down her face. She hides her face in hands, and her muffled answer is, “I don’t think I’m saved.”
You tell her to lift her face from her hands and look at you. She does, and you look her in the eyes and say, “I know that’s not true. Do you want to know how I know? Because I was there that day you went forward to the altar, and I heard you pray that sinner’s prayer. That day, you were saved, and I know it. You need to mark that date in the front of your Bible, and whenever the devil starts tempting you to doubt your salvation, you need to point him to that date and tell him you were saved.”
Her tears stop, and she takes a tissue to dry her cheeks. “Are you sure?”
You quickly reply, “Did you mean it that day? Did you make Jesus Lord of your life?”
“I think so,” she sniffles.
“Then you are saved.”
Does this sound familiar? Maybe you were on the counselor side, or maybe you were on the counselee side. At the moment, this sounds so comforting. That’s it—simple as that, you’re saved, no questions asked. We have a date and witness to prove it.
But this is far from comforting counsel. This counsel sets our friends and counselees up for further doubt as it places our hope and assurance in our own flaky, meager works. Assurance (in this model) is now based on whether or not I said a “good enough” prayer or my heart was in the “right place”, or if I truly “made” Christ my Lord that day. If we are relying on our own feeble works or our memory of a particular day, our assurance will always be unstable.
The simple words of Ephesians 2:8-9 put it well: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV). Even our faith is a gift of God. If our assurance is based on a story where we mustered up enough faith, we have placed our hope in a false gospel. “You see, it is not the strength of your faith that ultimately matters for your salvation; it is the strength of the object you place your faith in.”1
The Fruit-Bearing Checklist
All believers will bear fruit. James wrote:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (James 2:19-26 ESV).
But our fault comes when we seek to place a believer’s assurance solely in their works. Like the previous scenario, we are turning the gospel into works-based salvation. The reality is, though, we as believers will continue to sin and fall short of God’s law. That’s why we need a Savior, and that’s why we need Him to presevere us in Christ so that we can persevere by the grace of God.
Like Paul, we often lament, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
But with Paul we likewise rejoice, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh, I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:21-25 ESV). Christ has freed us from our slavery to sin, but we do still feel it’s temptation in our flesh.
The Problem of Simplistic Counsel
Another problem that often comes with poor counsel of any sort is simplistic answers. We create a “one-size-fits-all” program for the struggles and sins people face and then seek to apply them to each person we counsel. Yet every person is unique and comes with a lens that shapes them based on their experiences. We need to listen to these stories and strive to know these people. A true counselor loves the person they are counseling, and because of that love, they don’t want to hand out generic advice. Instead, they come alongside to know the story behind the sin or problem.
Before trying to “fix” someone’s doubt, we need to listen and understand their doubt. Asking the following questions of ourselves can be a helpful spiritual diagnostic:
- Why are you doubting your salvation?
- Why do you fear that you are going to hell?
- When did your confidence shift? Why?
- Is there a sin that you think is unforgiveable? Why do you think that?
- Do you believe you are not good enough? Why do you believe that?
The coiling weeds of doubt are often grounded with thick roots. A parent that showed affection only when they performed well in school and extracurriculars. A husband who cares more about work than spending time with his wife. An unshakeable sin. An upbringing in a legalistic church or system. A shameful sin of the past that can’t be forgotten. Feeling damaged and dirty from abuse. Doubt is often only a fruit of a much deeper problem that needs to be dealt with before we can find relief from it.
Gospel Counsel for Those Who Doubt
Those who doubt their salvation must be counseled by the gospel. We must bring them back to the old, old story of the cross.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:4-9 ESV).
We lead our anxious doubting friends to the foot of the cross and remind them of what Christ has done for them. We tell them of Christ’s forgiveness and his gift of grace so that, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10 ESV).
When we repent and believe the gospel, our hearts are radically changed through conversion and continue to be radically changed by the Holy Spirit in sanctification so that fruits such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control are produced. While these fruits give evidence for such a change in our lives, they cannot be the assurance of it. Our assurance must rest solely in the finished and sufficient work of Christ on the cross, that it was enough for every sin we have ever committed and will commit. We can have assurance knowing God’s grace saved us and sustains us to the end because of the finished and sufficient work of Christ alone.
“For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30 ESV).
As those who are justified by grace alone, we can trust that we will also be glorified by grace alone. This is the hope we must instill in our brothers and sisters who doubt. As we counsel our siblings in Christ, especially those who come filled with anxious doubts, let’s not heap further burdens on their shoulders. Instead, let’s come alongside and remind them of the grace we are saved and sustained by. Let’s counsel them with these words from Hebrews (10:19-23, ESV):
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
- Michael Horton, Dr., 9 Ways to Know You Are Really a Christian, PDF, Core Christianity, p. 9.