I recently received a question about a book by a Calvinist author named Dean Inserra. That led to an internet search, and I came across a 2020 book by him, published by Moody Publishers, entitled Without a Doubt: How to Know for Certain That You’re Good with God. GES bought the book.
But then I read the book.
There are some Calvinists like David Engelsma who believe in the certainty of everlasting life. You can see an interview he had with Shawn Lazar in a blog here. Calvinists like Engelsma base assurance solely on the promise of everlasting life that the Lord Jesus makes to all who believe in Him. However, most Calvinists, including Inserra, are on a lifelong quest for assurance. Engelsma calls the evangelistic message of such Calvinists “a gospel of doubt.”
Inserra implies in the title and subtitle that it is possible to be certain of one’s eternal destiny. In several places in this short book (79 pages in a small five by seven size), Inserra says that believers can and should be sure. For example, the last sentence of the book reads, “Trust in Christ, repent of your sins, and never have to wonder where you stand with God again” (p. 75). As can be seen, Inserra does not mention believing the promise of life there. He mentions trusting in Christ and repenting of your sins. And he does not say that if you do those things, you will be certain. He says if you do those things then you never need to wonder. In the rest of the book he explains what you need to do to avoid wondering where you stand.
The first difficulty, as seen in the quote just cited, is that Inserra believes that trusting in Christ (faith in Christ?) is not enough to be born again. You must also repent of your sins. Of course, that raises questions of subjectivity. I did not know all my sins in the past. Nor do I know all my sins in the present. If turning from my sins is a condition of the new birth, then I will always wonder if I’ve turned from enough of them.
The second difficulty is that Inserra says, quoting another author (Menikoff) favorably, “Though this belief is more than intellectual adherence to sound doctrine, it is not less” (p. 38). Inserra says that one must intellectually adhere to the facts that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose bodily from the dead, and appeared to many (1 Cor 15:3-11). He is not clear what other aspects of “sound doctrine” one must be convinced are true. But faith in Christ is “more than intellectual adherence” to the facts. A few pages later he indicated what more besides faith is required: “While believing in Jesus and His gospel are essential, He also included the call to repent, to turn from one’s sin and follow Jesus and His teachings” (p. 42). How does one know if he is following Jesus and His teachings well enough?
Most Calvinists are not quite as clear as Inserra on degrees of assurance. He favorably quotes an author (Ferguson) who says, “high degrees of Christian assurance are simply not compatible with low levels of obedience” (p. 43). That is clever. But the point is disturbing. The more obedience one has, the higher his degree of assurance. The less obedience, the less assurance. The conclusion is unmistakable that the only way one could be sure is if he had perfect obedience. But wait. Even then, one could not be sure he would not sin in the future.
The last chapter before the conclusion is entitled “Marks of a Transformed Life” (p. 63). In this chapter Inserra says, “I believe it is important to give tangible examples of what a life lived by a saving faith actually looks like, rather than simply talk in theoretical terms” (p. 65). He then asks, “What are the fruits we should see in our lives that demonstrate a saving faith?”
Inserra gives seven evidences that one is truly born again: 1) manifesting “a life of repentance” (p. 66), 2) being “eternally minded” (p. 67), 3) believing “sound doctrine” (pp. 67-68), 4) practicing the “spiritual disciplines” (p. 68), 5) demonstrating “generosity” (p. 69), 6) having a “heart for those who don’t know Christ” (pp., 69-70), and 7) having “love for God and His church” (p. 70).
If those are the evidences that one is born again, then no one can be sure that he is born again until he dies. Of course, anyone who holds to a strong view of the perseverance of the saints cannot be sure since even if one was highly confident he met those seven standards now, he could not be sure that he would continue to do so until death. Remember you need “a life of repentance,” not a decade or two of repentance. You need all these seven criteria to be true of you until you die. If you fell away one day before you died, you would not find yourself with the Lord when you died.
The author gives his own testimony, indicating he was born again at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat, simply by “a belief in the gospel of Christ,” apart from any works on his part (p. 23). It sounds like he may well have believed in Christ for everlasting life and only later come under the teaching of Calvinism. Sadly, however, instead of proclaiming the message that he himself believed to be born again, he is proclaiming the message of Calvinism that he later learned.
I find it amazing that an author and a major publisher would put out a book that promotes the possibility of certainty that one is eternally secure when in fact that book teaches that certainty is impossible. I would think that anyone reading this book would feel he was deceived. The actual title of this book should be: Keeping Doubts Manageable: How to Have a High Level of Confidence That You Have the Marks of a True Christian.
I recommend that anyone lacking assurance ask God for it and then read John’s Gospel. That book will give assurance of everlasting life to anyone who is prayerful and open (e.g., John 3:14-18; 5:24; 6:35, 37, 39, 47; 11:25-27). (Both Shawn and I have books on assurance available at faithalone.org. However, while they are helpful, all that is needed to gain assurance is persistent prayer and God’s Word, especially John’s Gospel.)
I do not recommend Inserra’s book Without a Doubt.