The Assurance Gap

“It’s no more difficult than walking along a plank” said the climbing instructor. I was on a week’s walking and scrambling holiday on the Isle of Skye, attempting to climb all of the Munros on that most dramatic of all the Scottish islands. (I didn’t manage them all by the way, but that is a story for another day!) A thin rocky ledge, with a breath-taking drop on either side stood between us and the final ascent to one airy mountain summit. The group stood anxiously waiting to see who would go first. We were all seasoned hillwalkers, but none of us had done much climbing, and we all stood motionless. That was until the instructor cheerily added, “but don’t worry, I’ll go first and you’ll all be roped”. At once the situation changed completely. We all went from picturing ourselves falling to certain death, to merely imagining the embarrassment of dangling from a rope for a few minutes if we lost our footing.

In terms of the adventure of sharing our faith, the same picture applies. So many of us are stuck motionless, because we feel afraid. In this series of articles, we are looking at many of the things which provoke fear-based responses in us, but in this piece, I would like to turn our attention to the safety rope. That is the precious, and much neglected Christian teaching about ‘assurance of salvation’.

Christian Assurance is the deep, unshakable confidence that God loves you, that Christ died for you and rose again, that your sins are forgiven, that you will be with The Lord forever, and that nothing can take that away from you. In other words, you are completely, totally safe in the love of God. The reason that that is liberating in evangelism is that it removes the fear of failure, of abandonment, or of losing your faith – if you lose an argument. Most significantly it means that when we are rejected by people, for Christ’s name, we will still be OK, held safely in the love of God.  Evangelism always feels risky, knowing that we are undergirded by a Divine safety–net is liberating!

There are three elements to Christian Assurance that we need to grasp, which will help us go joyfully and confidently into God’s mission God in this world.

The first is that assurance comes by believing the gospel of Jesus. The Christian faith is categorically not a matter of saying, “I have done enough, so God will accept me, I am basically OK”. Rather we enter God’s family when we understand just how deeply flawed and sinful we are, and find no relief for that condition other than the forgiveness won for us on the cross by Jesus. If the gospel was about making ourselves worthy recipients of God’s favour, assurance would be a presumptuous conceit! Who could possibly claim to be acceptable to God on that basis, never mind be securely in His love? Even if someone could possibly do enough to earn God’s favour, surely no-one could ever remain pure enough in thought, word or deed to stay there! If this ‘pelagian’ view of salvation was true, it would mean that there could be no safety-net, and that mortal danger would be around every corner. The only response to this would be to hide from the world, avoid unbelievers, and never engage with the arguments of sceptics!

But the New Testament insists that, “nothing in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.[1]” How is that sort of confidence possible? The answer is that the Bible is not commending self-confidence, but confidence in Jesus to save us. Paul later wrote, “ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast[2].” In other words, real assurance is not based upon ourselves; but begins by fixing our eyes on Jesus himself. If you are struggling to deeply and profoundly know that you are loved, saved and secure in the love of Christ, start by taking your eyes off yourself and ask Jesus to forgive you. Not because you deserve that, but because He promises it. Shift your understanding from the instinctive impulse to think that in order to be loved you must become ‘lovely’, and become grounded in the truth that you are loved by God, because He Is Love[3].

Secondly though, there is a place for looking at ourselves – if we handle this very carefully. The truth is that while we receive the grace of God, not on the basis of our record, but because Jesus shares his righteousness with us; (and that is God’s work, not ours), this does demonstrably begin to change us over time! When we encounter God, by His sheer, free grace – He puts His Spirit in us; and we cannot help but begin to change. Ask yourself some questions. Do you love the Bible more than you used to? Do you love meeting together with God’s people for worship? Do you want to tell others about Jesus? Are you instinctively more generous, and compassionate to the poor and vulnerable than you once were? Are you less enamoured with sin that you used to be? Do you love the name of Jesus?!

I remember once overhearing a conversation in our local hospital, between two nurses.

“What has happened to Judy?” one asked.
“I don’t know”, said the other, “but she went to that Christian event at the football stadium; I think she’s had some kind of religious experience”.
“What on earth…?.”,
“I don’t really know what’s going on, but she doesn’t say “Oh My God!” anymore, and gets upset if anyone says “for Christ’s sake”.

This lady had been a Christian for only a couple of days, but God had started to change her. I know that you and I are not perfect – there is still plenty of sin and corruption lurking in your heart; but are you aware also of a power in you which has begun a good work in you, changing you?  You can be absolutely certain that the world, your sinful nature and the devil do not want you to glorify Jesus, enjoy fellowship. love the Bible or care for the poor. This is demonstrably the work of the Holy Spirit in you  – the outworking of the new life in Christ that God has given you. But note this. If you are not aware of any changes that the Holy Spirit has made in you, don’t try to work harder, do more, or get to work to fix this – that’s missing the point because what we are talking about here is a gauge not an engine.

When I was a kid, I had a tour of Concorde, in its hanger at Heathrow Airport. At the front of each compartment there was a display which showed how fast the aircraft was travelling. It would sit for a long time at Mach 0.9, tantalisingly just below the speed of sound. Passengers would apparently get up and in frustration tap the display, wanting it to reach the magic “Mach.1”. Of course, fiddling with the gauge wouldn’t actually affect the speed of the plane! To do that, would require going into the cockpit and pushing back the throttle. If today you find no evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit changing you, then go back to the source of the power: Jesus himself. Seek Him, find Him, trust Him, and ask Him to come into your life with his renewing power.  If on the other hand, you can say for certain that the Spirit’s power has done some work in you, then take great courage. The wonderful gospel of Jesus is yours. You are in Christ and He is in you. He is yours and you are His. You are utterly safe in his love.

Thirdly, there are precious times in the life of the believer when the Holy Spirit bears direct witness to us of our assurance of salvation.  The New Testament says

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[f] And by him we cry, “Abba,[g] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.[4]

That is, that while we begin with trusting Jesus (not ourselves) for salvation, we then observe the effects of this upon us – there are also times when we experience the love of God too. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh preacher, was fond of quoting the Puritan writer Thomas Goodwin on this point. Goodwin asked us to imagine a father his young son walking down the road together, when spontaneously the father picks up the lad and hugs him. The boy was no more or less a son of his father before the hug; but there was a moment when that relationship was especially enjoyed. So it is with us. We are the children of God, yet there are times when the Holy Spirit seems to help us enjoy that relationship to its fullest extent. The Holy Spirit makes us first grateful worshippers, who then become natural evangelists.

Jesus said these words: 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”[5]

The application is far from complex… !

The end point is this. Processing doubts, and questions about the gospel, and our salvation is an important and inevitable part of the Christian life. However, the more we grow in confidence in the gospel and its work in us, the less we will be hampered by insecurity. Just as we will take fewer risks without the assistance of a climbing rope, so we will never be able to take the risks needed for evangelism, if we do not know the treasure of assurance. That comes in three ways as we have seen: Firstly grasp the gospel firmly. It’s about Jesus, about grace, and is about forgiveness for your sins and adoption into God’s family; not about you or your moral performance. Secondly look honestly and see if there is any evidence in you that you have really believed it. Thirdly ask God to fill you with his Holy Spirit, to witness to your spirit that you are a son of God.

The experience of the most winsome and quietly effective witnesses for Jesus, is that it is when they are secure in Christ, and know His Spirit upon them, that they are bursting with love; and able most naturally to speak of their Saviour.

Further reading;

Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Whole Christ”, esp. ch9
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Sons of God” Exposition of Romans 8: 5-17
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Final Perseverance of The Saints” Exposition of Romans 8:17-39

[1] Romans 8:39

[2] Eph 2:8-9

[3] 1 John 4:8

[4] Romans 8: 11-13

[5] Luke 11;11-13