Absolutely Sure. By Steven J. Lawson. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1999. 190 pp. Paper, $12.99.
This could have been a shorter book. Lawson (author and pastor of Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, AL) early on states that “the assurance of our salvation rests upon the impregnable rock of God’s Word. Our confidence about heaven is based solely upon what God says in Scripture regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is on this basis alone that we may be absolutely sure that we belong to Him” (p.23). After this sound statement, he spends the rest of the book contradicting himself.
It soon becomes apparent why. His gospel is that of Lordship Salvation and includes turning from sins, abandoning one’s life to Christ, humbling oneself, and submitting or committing one’s life to Christ as Savior and Lord. He promotes Lordship to the point of sounding polemical, a sure clue that he is aware of the controversy and is declaring his stand. But as many Lordship advocates have a habit of doing, he also blithely promotes faith alone in Christ alone, saying “Not relying upon your own goodness, you have put your faith in Christ alone to save you” (p. 26); and “Salvation comes as we rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ upon the cross-and so does assurance” (p. 29).
But such statements are washed away by the flood of subjectivity spouted in the rest of the book, which is a sermonic commentary on First John. Of course, his interpretation views the epistle as a list of tests to see if one is truly saved. He finds nine “vital signs”: 1) Communion with Christ (1:1-4), 2) Confession of sin (1:5-2:2), 3) Commitment to God’s Word (2:3-6), 4) Compassion for believers (2:7-11;3:14-18; 4:7-21), 5) Change of affection (2:12-17), 6) Comprehension of truth (2:18-3:10), 7) Conformity to Christlikeness (2:28-3:10), 8) Conflict with the world (3:11-13), and 9) Confidence in prayer (3:19-24; 5:14-15).
At least his list is shorter than that of John MacArthur, Jr. (who writes one of the forwards along with Adrian Rogers) who has eleven tests from First John in his book Saved Without a Doubt: How to Be Sure of Your Salvation (Victor Books, 1992; reviewed by me in JOTGES, Spring 1993). Robert Law only had three tests from First John in his well-known commentary The Tests of Life (Baker Book House, 1968).
Compare the following statements by Lawson with his contrasting statements about faith and assurance above: “We know that our faith is real as we see the evidence of a changed life” (p. 33); “If one’s walk does not match his or her talk, such a confession [of faith in Christ] is a lie” (p. 64); “Assurance of salvation becomes real when love gets real” (p. 88); “Acceptance by the world would cause the assurance of our salvation to waver” (p. 136); “Until we suffer for our faith, it will remain suspect” (p. 158).
Such an emphasis on one’s behavior does not give assurance but doubt. Indeed, life-change is an evidence of salvation, but not adequate as assurance of salvation. I think that many cult members could pass Lawson’s nine tests on the basis of their subjective evaluation. Salvation rests on the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection and our faith in that truth. This would distinguish us from the cultists’ false assurance.
Even as a popular level commentary on First John, the book is very weak. It does not deal in depth with the purpose of the epistle. Crucial interpretive issues are treated superficially. Lawson defines fellowship with God in 1 John 1 as salvation. There is very little exegesis. This is due to the fact that the book is obviously a transcript of a sermon series, and as sermons, detail and exegesis are usually avoided. But this is inexcusable in a book that goes to a wider and more critical audience. Lawson should not assume that he has the trust of an unknown reader in the same way he might have the trust of one of his church members. Thus explanation becomes necessary. (We could even criticize his sermons as containing too many archaic and dated illustrations.)
Besides the faulty theology, the other lamentable fact about this book is that the beautiful truth of First John about a Christian’s fellowship with God is virtually ignored by Lawson’s view of the epistle as a list of tests of salvation. Fellowship with God becomes only another of these tests.
The book has no value to a Christian. It will throw many into confusion. In light of the other similar books mentioned above, one wonders why it was printed at all.
Charles C. Bing
Director, GraceLife Ministries