ROBERT N. WILKIN
Associate Editor Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Irving, TX
There are many people today who say that assurance of salvation is possible, but that certainty is impossible. Unless one is very familiar with that way of thinking, this argument is puzzling. How can one have assurance and yet not be certain? Isn’t assurance certainty?
As we shall see, the answer for many is No. Assurance is not certainty.
II. Various Ways of Explaining
an Assurance Which Is Not Certain
A. Uncertainty with Jesus Is Better than Any Other Option
Dr. R. C. Sproul is a very articulate spokesman for the view that assurance is not certainty. A few years back he described his own struggles with assurance, and in so doing he explained his view of assurance:
There are people in this world who are not saved, but who are convinced that they are. The presence of such people causes genuine Christians to doubt their salvation. After all, we wonder, suppose I am in that category? Suppose I am mistaken about my salvation and am really going to hell? How can I know that I am a real Christian?
A while back I had one of those moments of acute self-awareness that we have from time to time, and suddenly the question hit me: “R.C., what if you are not one of the redeemed? What if your destiny is not heaven after all, but hell?” Let me tell you that I was flooded in my body with a chill that went from my head to the bottom of my spine. I was terrified.
I tried to grab hold of myself. I thought, “Well, it’s a good sign that I’m worried about this. Only true Christians really care about salvation.” But then I began to take stock of my life, and I looked at my performance. My sins came pouring into my mind, and the more I looked at myself, the worse I felt. I thought, “Maybe it’s really true. Maybe I’m not saved after all.”
I went to my room and began to read the Bible. On my knees I said, “Well, here I am. I can’t point to my obedience. There’s nothing I can offer. I can only rely on Your atonement for my sins. I can only throw myself on Your mercy.” Even then I knew that some people only flee to the Cross to escape hell, not out of a real turning to God. I could not be sure about my own heart and motivation. Then I remembered John 6:68. Jesus had been giving out hard teaching, and many of His former followers had left Him. When He asked Peter if he was also going to leave, Peter said, “Where else can I go? Only You have the words of eternal life.” In other words, Peter was also uncomfortable, but he realized that being uncomfortable with Jesus was better than any other option!
According to this way of thinking, certainty is not an option. The very best option available is “being uncomfortable with Jesus.”
B. Assurance Includes Doubts
Dr. Richard Belcher, author of A Layman’s Guide to the Lordship Controversy,2 spoke a few years ago on a Dallas radio talk show. I called in and asked a few questions about assurance. The following is a transcript of my questions and his answers:
BW: Is it possible for any Christian to have 100% certainty that they are saved and that they can’t lose it if the quality of my lifestyle has something to do with my assurance? In other words, can I be absolutely sure that I’m saved?
RB: Well, the question is, can anyone have 150% definite, positive you know [assurance].
BW: Right, that’s my question.
RB: Well, my question is, can even the one who is walking with the Lord and knows the Lord and is submitted to the Lord and is full of God’s Spirit [have such absolute certainty]?–He will have an assurance but that is not to say that there will never be any questions of doubt. But the Spirit of God overcomes the questions of doubt and grants assurance. See, what you’re doing is putting assurance in the category of percentages and I don’t like to do that.
BW: Are you 100% completely sure that you are going to Heaven?
RB: I have an assurance that I am saved, but I am still in this body and I am human and in the passing of time there can be some questions in one’s mind, but the Spirit of God witnesses to my spirit that I’m saved.
BW: Is it possible that you’re not saved?
RB: Well, there are various means whereby I look at my life to see if I give evidence of salvation. Not only the witness of the Holy Spirit, but there are other means whereby I look to see if I’m saved, like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13: “Examine yourselves whether you’re in the faith.” And I seek to do that as well as the witness and testimony of the Holy Spirit.
If good works are indispensable for assurance as Belcher believes, then certainty is indeed impossible. No matter how godly one is today, he is not, as Belcher acknowledges, perfect: “I am still in the body and I am human.” We are left with assurance that includes doubts.
C. Assurance Is Subjective
In the September 1993 issue of Dispensationalism in Transition, Dr. Kenneth Gentry wrote:
Assurance is subjective, rooted in the heart of the believer. If we say assurance is essential to saving faith, then we are ultimately saying no man is saved in Christ until he has come to believe that Christ has saved him forever. This would not involve faith in Christ for salvation, but faith in faith. R.L. Dabney rightfully notes that this requires a revelation beyond the Scriptures because the Bible does not specifically speak to the individual in question. Nowhere in the Bible do we learn, for instance, that Ken Gentry is among the elect (emphasis added).
Gentry is not alone in this view. A seminary professor I debated agreed that there were people in the Bible who knew for sure they had eternal life because Scripture directly indicated that they were saved by name. But he said that unless your name were specifically recorded, you couldn’t be sure.
If assurance is subjective, as Gentry suggests, then he is right, certainty is impossible.
D. Only God Knows Who Is Truly Saved
Walter Chantry writes a small book which analyzes the gospel in light of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Ruler.4 One of the chapters is on assurance of salvation. Chantry argues there that no one can be sure that he himself is born again. Only God knows for sure. He begins by decrying the approach of linking assurance with God’s promises:
So many Christian workers feel compelled to do the Holy Spirit’s work of giving assurance in their evangelism, a sentence is added to the ‘salvation liturgy’ which is not so much addressed to God as to the sinner who is repeating the prayer. ‘Thank you for coming into my life and for hearing my prayer as you promised.’ Then the personal worker is to open his Bible to John 3:16 etc., and replace the word ‘world’ with the sinner’s name. Then the misguided counselor is to assure the sinner with all the authority of God that he has been saved. A warning is added not to sin against God by every doubting his salvation, for that would be to call God a liar.5
This heretical and soul-destroying practice is the logical conclusion of a system that thinks little of God, preaches no law, calls for no repentance, waters down faith to ‘accepting a gift’, and never mentions bowing to Christ’s rule or bearing a cross. The very practice of trying to argue men into assurance with a verse or two, and the ridiculous warning, ‘Don’t call God a liar’ shows that even ‘accepting the gift’ requires only an outward response and a verbal prayer…6
After discussing a number of things which may hint that one is saved, but which can’t prove it with certainty, Chantry concludes:
Few today seem to understand the Bible’s doctrine of assurance. Few seem to appreciate the doubts of professing Christians who question whether they have been born again. They have no doubt that God will keep His promises but they wonder whether they have properly fulfilled the conditions for being heirs to those promises. There is no question that God will give eternal life to all who repent and believe. But they are discerning enough to know that walking an aisle and muttering a verbal prayer does not constitute faith. The [Westminster] Catechism’s doctrine has raised valid questions concerning their personal experience of grace which cannot be brushed aside. They are asking a legitimate question, “Have we believed and repented?” “Are we the recipients of God’s grace?”
Since the human heart is ‘deceitful above all things’ (Jeremiah 17:9), this is a valid inquiry.
Since we read of self-deceived hypocrites like Judas, it is an imperative question. ‘What must I do to be saved?’ is an altogether different question from, ‘How do I know I’ve done that?’ You can answer the first confidently. Only the Spirit may answer the last with certainty.7
If it is impossible to be sure that one has done what is necessary to be saved as Chantry suggests, then certainty is clearly impossible.
E. Assurance Is a Lesser Type of Certainty
In an article entitled, “Some Thoughts on Lordship Salvation,” Dr. James Sawyer criticizes me for suggesting that assurance is certainty akin to the certainty that 2 + 2 = 4. His answer is instructive:
Certainty falls into several categories. (1) Mathematical certainty: In the abstract theoretical and ideal world, we can know things with absolute certainty. There are no contingencies to qualify a reality, thus, there can be certain knowledge in the truest sense. (2) Empirical certainty: This is demonstrated by the scientific method in the real world, as opposed to the ideal world of mathematics. (3) Legal certainty: This involves proof by evidence, given by witnesses. It, however, admits the possibility of error depending on the truthfulness and credibility of the witnesses. (4) Moral certainty: This is the realm of psychological certainty. It is obvious that nearly all human knowledge outside of the realm of mathematics fails the test of absolute certainty. Likewise, salvation is not something which can be analyzed in the test tube, thus it does not fall in the realm of scientific certainty. Salvation falls in the realm of contingent reality, the variety of which cannot be tested. Thus, it is impossible from a psychological perspective to achieve the mathematical level of certainty for which Wilkin seeks.
For Sawyer all “certainty” outside of mathematical certainty is less than “certain knowledge in the truest sense.” In other words, what he calls moral certainty is not really certainty at all.
Since all biblical truth falls into Sawyer’s fourth category, if he is right, one cannot be certain of anything reported or promised in Scripture. In that way of thinking, we aren’t sure that Jesus rose from the dead. Or that He is God. Or that the Scriptures are without error. Or that there really is life beyond the grave. Or that the gospel is true. The mathematician is lucky. He can be certain. The theologian, evidently, is not so fortunate. He is reduced to “the realm of contingent reality.9
III. Assurance Which Isn’t Certain Isn’t Really Assurance
A. Uncertainty with Jesus Isn’t the Best Option
There is one option better than uncertainty with Jesus. The best option is certainty with Jesus. When Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” he did not mean that he doubted his salvation and was hoping Jesus would tell him how he could have eternal life. Peter already knew he had eternal life (John 2:11; 4:10ff; 6:47). The Lord Jesus was teaching the disciples more about the life which He had given them. He wanted them to have life more abundantly (John 10:10). Peter’s point was that it makes no sense to leave the Messiah who was instructing them on the life within them.
B. Assurance Doesn’t Include Doubts
If you believe, as Belcher and others do, that assurance of salvation is not the certain knowledge that you are eternally saved, then assurance can include doubts. Assurance for such people is hope-so, not know-so.
Belcher’s comments are those of a man walking a theological tightrope. He is struggling to stay on the wire. On the one hand he doesn’t want to say that he isn’t sure he is saved. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to suggest that he is certain he is saved. Thus his comments go back and forth, avoiding the expression or absolute denial of certainty. Instead he has assurance with doubts.
The idea that assurance includes doubts is like saying that belief includes unbelief.10 Let’s say your boss promises you a raise but you doubt that he will follow through because twice before he has promised you raises and ended up not giving them for “unavoidable reasons.” Since you doubt it will happen, you will only believe it when you see it. That may be why Belcher appeals to the fact that “I am still in the body and I am human and in the passing of time there can be some questions in one’s mind.” Until he dies, he really can’t be sure.
Jesus promises eternal life to all who believe in Him. If someone is not sure he has eternal life, he plainly doesn’t believe Jesus’ promise. Assurance does exclude doubt.
C. Assurance Is Not Subjective
Since Jesus is completely trustworthy, assurance is as simple and as objective as simply taking Him at His word. Assurance is not subjective. It is not rooted in me at all. Assurance is rooted in the trustworthiness of the One making the promise, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jesus asked Martha if she believed Him when He said that whoever lives and believes in Him will never die spiritually, she responded with confidence, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). She knew she believed Him. There was nothing subjective in this whatsoever.
D. God Isn’t the Only One Who Knows Who Is Truly Saved
The idea that only God knows who is truly saved is foreign to Scripture. Jesus told the seventy to rejoice because their names were recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). Peter indicated that Cornelius and his household had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48). Paul indicated that the names of Clement and his co-workers were in the Book of Life (Phil 4:3). They all knew they were truly saved, as do all who believe the testimony of God (1 John 5:9-13). The only way a believer cannot know he is saved is if he stops believing the promise and loses his assurance (but not his life, which is eternal). Like Martha, all who believe know they have eternal life.
E. Assurance Isn’t a Lesser Type of Certainty
The Bible knows nothing of Sawyer’s four types of certainty. There is no degree of uncertainty in the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the guarantee that all who believe in Him have eternal life.
Scriptural promises and teachings, including assurance of salvation, are not some lesser type of certainty–whatever that might be! Martha was just as sure of the promise of Jesus as she was that 2 + 2 = 4.
Logically what would uncertain certainty be? How could you have certainty which was less than “certain knowledge in the truest sense”? This way of thinking casts doubt on everything in the Bible. What would you say in evangelism (or discipleship) if you believed that the Bible might not be true?
IV. You Can Be Sure
In spite of what many theologians and pastors are saying today, you can be sure. Certainty is found in taking God at His Word.
Jesus said, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life.” If you believe Him, then you know you have everlasting life. It’s as simple as that.
1 R. C. Sproul TableTalk (Nov 6, 1989): p. 20.
2 Richard P. Belcher, A Layman’s Guide to the Lordship Conroversy (Southbridge, MA: Crowne Publications, Inc., 1990).
3 Kenneth Gentry, “Assurance and Lordship Salvation: The Dispensational Concern,” Dispensationalism in Transition (September 1993).
4 Walter Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970).
5 Ibid., 67.
6 Ibid., 68.
7 Ibid., 75-76.
8 “Contingent reality” is an interesting choice of words. Contingent means something which is “a possibility, liable to occur but not certain” (Oxford American Dictionary, p. 138). A “contingent reality” is thus a possible reality.
9Support for this novel approach is sometimes found in Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” However, there is no true support there. The speaker there was the father of a demon-possessed boy. Jesus had just said, “If you can believe, all things are possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23). The man’s response, “Lord I believe,” shows that he believed that Jesus could heal the boy. That he believed this is confirmed by the fact that Jesus immediately healed the boy (v 26). The father’s plea, “help my unbelief,” was a request for Jesus to help him in the areas he did not believe. Believing God in one point does not mean that we believe God in all that He has said.