In a recent article in Christianity Today (“Should We Stop Asking Jesus Into Our Hearts?” Posted 7/13/2012), pastor J.D. Greear writes about his struggle to attain assurance of salvation.
Greear recounts how his assurance was lost after a Sunday school lesson on Matthew 7:21-23, that pointed to the possibility of false professors. The lesson caused Greear to question whether he was a false professor, and led him to wonder whether he had ever truly done the things that one needed to do in order to be saved, namely be sorry for his sins, or pray the sinner’s prayer sincerely, or effectually ask Jesus into his heart. Fearing for his salvation, Greear found himself asking Jesus into his heart, over and over again. He was even re-baptized four times, all in the hope of finally attaining assurance:
So I prayed the sinner’s prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it. I would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I’d question it all again. And so I’d pray again.
Unfortunately, nothing helped. Greear discovered that doubts, not Jesus, had wormed their way into his heart: “I could not find the assurance of salvation no matter how often, or how sincerely, I asked Jesus into my heart.” But why?
Greear began to suspect that his lack of assurance was tied to the clichéd ways evangelicals have learned to speak of salvation. The ‘sinner’s prayer’ method of evangelism, and the call to ‘ask Jesus into our hearts’ were prime culprits. So he looked for a Biblical alternative. His conclusion? That assurance depended upon a genuine saving response to Christ, which in turn involved both “repentance” and “belief.”
Greear defines belief as “acknowledging that God told the truth about Jesus, namely that he is Lord and that he has finished forever the work of our salvation.” And he defines repentance as “acting on that belief.” Hence, belief necessarily includes repentant actions. One cannot be had without the other: “Repentance is not subsequent to belief; it is part of saving belief, like two sides of the same coin.” Together, repentance and belief amount to taking a certain “posture” towards Christ:
“Salvation is a posture of repentance and faith toward the finished work of Christ in which you transfer the weight of your hopes of heaven off of your own righteousness and onto Jesus Christ. It does begin in a moment, but it persists for the rest of your life.”
However, he adds that salvation also depends on a continuous posture of faithful repentance: “The apostle John almost always talks about “believing” in the present tense because it is something we do continually, not something we did once in the past (e.g. John 3:36; 20:27-28; 9:36-38; 1 John 5:13). The posture begins at a moment, but it persists for a lifetime.” Without such lifetime persistence, we apparently cannot have salvation, let alone assurance.
Such is Greear’s answer. But does it help? Is this the way to finally have assurance? I believe not.
A Dead End
Although Greear has correctly pointed out a serious problem with certain evangelical approaches to evangelism and assurance, he does so, only to lead us down another dead end. In effect, what he does is substitute one form of performance-based assurance for another, compounding the problem he seeks to solve.
Put simply, however hard it may be to know whether we have felt sorry enough for our sins, or said the sinner’s prayer sincerely, isn’t it infinitely harder to know if we have repented sincerely?
And isn’t it just as impossible to know whether we will assume a “repentant posture” for the rest of our lives?
If “asking Jesus into our hearts” leaves us with nagging doubts about whether or not our invitation was properly made, received, or accepted, won’t the very same doubts arise if we wonder whether we are correctly “seated” with (in? on?) Christ, assuming we even understand what that means?
Greear’s solution, is no solution at all. It will just as surely chew our assurance to gristle.
What he fails to recognize is that his proposal is simply another attempt to base assurance upon one’s own performance. Greear’s theory, like all anthropocentric spiritualties, bases assurance on current experience: “The way that you know you made the decision, however, is not by remembering with absolute clarity the moment you made it, but because you are seated there now.”
The trouble is, we don’t know if we are seated there now. As sinners, we will have ample reason to doubt it. Whenever we look to ourselves for proof that we have been saved, we will be met with what Lutherans referred to as the monstrum incertitudinis, the monstrous uncertainty created by an introspective spirituality. What Greear recommends is no solution at all, but a spiritual trap. Turning inwards can only lead us to despair.
Assurance Extra Nos
So what is the answer? Greear comes very close to it in his section entitled “The Moment It Made Sense to Me.”
There he explains how he read Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans and came across the following passage: “We obtain the true righteousness of God by believing sincerely the promises of God.” Reading that, Greear finally thought that salvation made sense.
To be sure, Luther correctly points to the one requirement for receiving eternal life, and the only real ground for assurance of salvation: faith in God’s promises.
Still, we must be more precise than Luther, who, despite his boasting justification by faith alone, came to think of salvation ultimately in terms of sacramental works. What I would want to clarify, is that salvation and assurance are based solely on understanding and believing in Christ’s promises to give everlasting life to everyone who believes in Him for it, such that, once we believe, we will never perish (c.f. John 3:16, 36).
Rather than look inwards, we must look outwards, extra nos, away from our hearts, our minds, our postures. We must look outside of ourselves, to Christ, and His unconditional promise. That is the proper object of our faith. That is the only grounds for assurance. How so?
To see why, we must first understand what Christ has promised believing sinners. A failure on that score will forever doom us to doubt. If, for instance, one believes that Christ’s promise of everlasting life was held out to us, not as unconditional gift, but as a conditional reward, something to be won in the future provided we have assumed an unfailing posture of repentance for the rest of our days – if we believe the gospel promise could be retracted at any time, based on our failure to meet some condition, then doubt rather than assurance will be the norm, and will haunt us the rest of our days.
But that is not what Christ promises.
Christ makes no conditions. He does not base everlasting life on our feelings, behavior, or postures. There is no sitting or resting involved. Rather, Christ promises to unconditionally give us everlasting life, and guarantees that we will never perish again, if only we believe that His promise is true. One act of faith, one sip from the well, one look at the brazen serpent, and Christ says we will have everlasting life, here, now, and forever. Believe, and we shall never perish. That is what He promises us, and nothing less than that.
In other words, assurance is of the very essence of believing Christ’s promise, because in a way, Christ’s promise itself is about assurance. It is a guarantee. You either believe it, or not. And if you believe it, you will have it.
Until Greear understands that, until he believes that, he’ll never have assurance. He’ll always be plagued with doubts. The ultimate object of his faith will either be himself, or a garbled promise, and not Christ and His glorious gospel.