How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? What the Bible Says About Assurance of Salvation. By Donald S. Whitney. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994. 160 pp. Paper, $7.00.
I read this book with great interest, hoping to find a book on assurance that actually offered the readers 100% certainty of salvation based on the promises of God.
The tone of the book is warm and friendly.
Whitney begins fairly well. He writes: “The assurance of salvation rests primarily on the character of God, the work of Jesus Christ, and the truth of God’s promises” (p. 28). Shortly thereafter he says, “The first place to look for such assurance is Godward, not selfward” (p. 34). Unfortunately, the words “primarily” and “the first place” in those sentences shows that he does not consider the promises of God’s Word sufficient, by themselves, for assurance. In fact, the second sentence is immediately followed by a disclaimer indicating that our works do have a place in assurance, though they aren’t the starting place.
Whitney presents an excellent story of H. A. Ironside dealing with a man’s doubts about his salvation (p. 35). Ironside points the man to Scripture for assurance. Whitney then ends the chapter by asking, “Isn’t that enough to rest on?” I felt like saying a hearty “Amen!” Yet while that rhetorical question expects a Yes answer, the author goes on in the rest of the book to give a No answer.
The author goes on to say that assurance also depends on the inner witness of the Spirit (pp. 37-48) and says that “assurance may be experienced partly through the presence of the attitudes and actions the Bible says will accompany salvation” (p. 52). While that may sound similar to the GES position that good works may have a secondary, confirming value, that is not what is meant.
The author indicates that the purpose of 1 John, for example, is “to help believers gain the assurance of salvation” (p. 52). He then goes on to give ten tests including, “Do you share the intimacies of the Christian life with other believers?” “Do you have a deep awareness of your sin against the Word and love of God?” “Do you live in conscious obedience to the Word of God?” “Do you despise the world and its ways?” “Do you long for the return of Jesus Christ and to be made like Him?” “Do you habitually do what is right more and sin less?” “Do you love other Christians sacrificially and want to be with them?” “Do you discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within you?” “Do you enjoy listening to the doctrines the apostles of Jesus taught?” and “Do you believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus Christ?” It’s easy to see that only one of those ten questions involves our belief (faith) in the Word of God. Nine of the ten involve attitudes and actions.
Very telling is the author’s recounting of his experience talking with a seven-year-old girl who wished to be baptized. After asking her several questions about what she believed, he told her parents, “You see her every day and obviously know her much better than I. Have you perceived any changes since her profession of faith? In ways that only a parent might notice, have you observed more sensitivity to sin, or more of a hunger for spiritual things, or an increased desire to please God?” (p. 97).
Thus, despite earlier statements that assurance is primarily based on the Word of God, the author views one’s attitudes and actions as of at least equal importance in assurance.
The bottom line is that under such thinking certainty is impossible. One can’t be certain he is saved if he is focusing even in part on his own flawed actions and attitudes.
Standard Reformed understandings of passages like Jas 2:14, 2 Cor 13:5, 2 Pet 1:10, and 1 John 2:3 are found in this book. In addition, the author repeatedly indicates that there are two conditions for eternal salvation: repentance—which he defines as a change of mind which results in a change of behavior—and faith (cf. pp. 13, 31-32, 37). He does say on p. 31 that repentance is sometimes used as a synonym for faith and that they are two sides of the same coin. However, since he indicates on a number of other occasions that both repentance and faith are required for salvation, the overall impression is that repentance is an independent condition for salvation.
How can I be sure I am a Christian? Unfortunately, this book does not tell us.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society