Thursday, October 14, 2004

Without a doubt

My maternal grandfather was a minister in the Church of God (Anderson). A long time ago the Church of God underwent a crisis over “the necktie controversy,” as it was called. For many years, Church of God ministers had preached against the wearing of neckties as a mark of worldliness, or as they put it, in the quaint King James phraseology, a “superfluity of naughtiness” (Jas 1:21).

This sort of thing will strike most Christians, not to mention most unbelievers, as the height of absurdity, as indeed it was.

Yet it goes to a perennial issue in the life of the church, and that is the assurance of salvation. Can I know that I am saved? And, if so, how can I know it?

Many distinctives of many denominations, sects, and cults function as strategies that map a short-cut to the assurance of salvation. Indeed, the list is almost endless, viz., glossolalia, snake-handling, tradition, apostolic succession, auricular confession, the altar call, sacraments and sacramentals, perfectionism, antinomianism, asceticism, the secret rapture, the regulative principle, the King James-only, the Filioque clause, the five fundamentals, creationism, literalism, inerrancy, papal infallibility, the Tridentine Mass, &c.

From this list we can all pick out some things we agree with, or disagree with, some things we can make fun of, but to the extent that we can find ourselves somewhere in the list, those we poke fun at can make fun of us in return.

Despite their superficial variety, all these things share one thing in common, which is how they can be deployed to supply the assurance of salvation.

A reader might object that some of the items I’ve listed are important, even all-important, to the faith. I don’t deny that. Certain beliefs and rituals are essential in their own right.

But the problem occurs when what is right and true is put to the wrong use. When men vest their assurance of salvation in the wrong object, it fosters a false assurance. It may or may not be a valid object of faith, but even if otherwise valid, it may not be valid as a form of assurance.

What all these differing strategies try to achieve is to eliminate the subjective dimension of assurance, and, instead, anchor it in something public, statable, datable, addressable, ordoable, in some external form of words or deeds; in sum: to achieve a state of certainty by process of eliminating any ambiguity.

But there are several things wrong with this:

i) Even if one or another of these strategies were to succeed, religious certainty, if it takes a false object, is of no avail to the believer.

ii) Many of these strategies merely swap objective for subjective uncertainties. When is a sacrament valid? Is apostolic succession unbroken? What are the criteria? Even if the criteria are objective, their application remains subjective.

In Scripture, our assurance of salvation comes from faith in Christ. It’s really that simple.

But many do not feel that it’s so simple. What about sin? What about doubt?

We must remember, though, that grace is subjective as well as objective, that God is sovereign over our heart no less than he is over the world around us. The God is whom we vest our faith is the God of faith--as object and origin in one.

A believer may sin, but his sins are the sins of a believer. A believer may doubt, but his doubts are the doubts of a believer.

Both believer and unbeliever sin, but although an unbeliever may regard his transgression as an evil, he does not regard it as a sin--a sin against God Almighty. And for that same reason, he doesn’t regard some sins as even an evil.

A believer may doubt, but his doubt normally takes the form, either of self-doubt, or of a faith perplexed. His doubt is parasitic upon his faith.

There is a difference between doubting your salvation simply because you can, and doubting because you ought. To doubt for the sake of doubting, just because you can imagine yourself to be self-deluded, is not a good reason to doubt.

This is a spiritual form of paranoia, like a man who suspects that he’s being followed. When he turns around, or glances at a store front window, he never sees a pursuer. Ah, but that may only be because his stealthy pursuer always manages to duck for cover just in the nick of time, right?

He enters a house, goes out the back door, and swings right around to prove that no one is following him. But maybe his pursuer backed out the front door and hid in the bushes, or maybe his pursuer went through the back door as well, and is circling around the house. Should he peek around the corner?

As you can see, constantly looking over your shoulder is an unhealthy state of mind, and can, spider-like, spin a sticky web out of its own substance. You become hopelessly entangled in the threads of your overheated imagination. But, of course, the way to become unstuck is to put your imaginary doubts back into their toy box.

Like a little boy who is deathly afraid of a monster lurking under his bed, his father may take him by the hand and show him that there is no monster under the bed. Ah, but what if the monster disappears every time his dad enters the room, and reappears as soon as he leaves? There is no answer, except to outgrow his childish fears. {


  1. Your comparison, "like a man who suspects that he’s being followed," well describes the approach of the Puritans:
    how to attain assurance

  2. Dear Steve,

    This is very pastoral, thank you for writing this piece.

    I enjoy your discussions and blogs on RC theology and practice.

    Keep up the good work...

    God bless you,