When I became a Christian I was taught that I could know for sure that I was eternally secure in God’s love.
I was taught that assurance of salvation meant the certain knowledge that no matter what happened in the future I was a member of God’s forever family.
Today, however, some who believe in eternal security are promoting a different view of assurance. Now a number of preachers and teachers are saying that no one can know with absolute certainty that he is saved. Rather, what they say that we are to strive to obtain may well be described as “acceptable doubt.”
“Acceptable doubt” is non-obsessive concern and fear about whether or not one is saved. Dr. John MacArthur, speaking about assurance, puts it this way: “Doubts about one’s salvation are not wrong so long as they are not nursed and allowed to become an obsession. Scripture encourages self examination” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p.190). He goes on to note: “Because God is perfect, those in whom He dwells will move on in the direction of His perfect standard. If you are stalled, or if you are slipping in the opposite direction, it is right that you examine yourself” (p.192).
This view is anything but assuring. Every time one falls back or even stagnates in his growth, this is evidence that he may not be saved. Since no one’s works are perfect and since no one has an accurate way of gauging his own spiritual growth, according to this view no one can know with certainty that he is saved. One is left with the view that the best he can hope for is to achieve a level of doubt with which he can live without being too disturbed.
The famous rabbi Hillel anticipated this view when he said, “Trust not in thyself until the day of thy death.” He meant that one could never, short of the grave, be certain that he was obeying God enough to obtain kingdom entrance.
Any sensitive person in touch with his own shortcomings would be plagued incessantly with doubts about his salvation under this view of assurance. Many would be driven to despair and depression. Rather than leading such people to holiness, this theology pushes them away from God.
Fear of hell is the underlying motivation behind this view of assurance. While preachers and teachers promoting “acceptable doubt” say that no “true believer” can lose his salvation, this is merely a play on words. There is no practical difference between saying that a believer can lose his salvation and that a believer can come to the end of his life and find out that he never really was saved (i.e., that he never was a “true believer”) in the first place. In both cases there is no real assurance of salvation and the individual is terribly frightened of hell.
This acceptable doubt view does not grow out of the Scriptures. Jesus told His disciples that they would certainly be with Him in His kingdom (Matt. 26:29; Luke 10:20; John 13:10). Paul knew with absolute certainty that he was saved and he told his readers that they should know the same thing (Rom. 8:31-39). John likewise wrote his believers that they might know-not guess or doubt-that they had eternal life (1 John 5:13). All believers can stand on promises such as John 3:16, John 5:24, Romans 8:38-39, and 1 John 5:13.
God has given us absolute assurance of salvation. He does not want us to doubt His love and acceptance. Absolute assurance spurs us on, compels us, to please Him out of love and gratitude for what He has done for us (2 Cor. 5:14; 1 John 4:19). The teaching of “acceptable doubt” undercuts the powerful motivation of love and gratitude by stripping believers of their birthright, the certain knowledge that God accepts them.