The question of assurance is one that disturbs many genuine Christians. This is not a problem confined to those who may be pessimistic about life. It is clear from First John that lack of assurance was also a problem in the early church (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a spiritual blessing given by God to those who walk closely with him.
Assurance begins when we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, when we respond to the gospel message, confess our sins and commit ourselves to Jesus. But we react to salvation with different degrees of assurance, with some having great confidence and others not having it to the same extent. But it is not possible to have assurance without believing in Christ.
Barriers to assurance
When a person believes in Jesus initially, usually there is a sense of peace and joy. Sometimes believers continue in that vein, their Christian lives being a steady and continuous development of spiritual enjoyments. But with other Christians, this does not happen. Why is this? There are several possible reasons. I would mention four, with the first one being our own fault and the other three not our own fault.
(a) Carelessness about spiritual things. There are several examples of this in the Bible. We can think of individuals such as King David in the Old Testament and the apostle Peter in the New Testament. They enjoyed great spiritual benefits but because of their carelessness they became self-confident and indifferent to the warnings they received. When that happens to us, we will lose our assurance.
(b) Conflicts with the devil. Satan hates Christians with assurance because they are more bold for Christ. So he will do his best (or worst) to dampen their assurance by various types of temptations. These temptations can be a sudden attack or they can be of a prolonged nature. Fearsome thoughts, blasphemous suggestions, immoral images can be sent into our minds and we think, ‘How can I be a Christian and have these thoughts?’ Although they are are the whispers (or screams) of Satan, we can imagine they are our own. But if we hate their presence, it means they are not ours.
(c) Crisis experiences or dark providences. Times of trouble or ill-health come our way and we ask, ‘Why me?’ Dark clouds fill the horizon and perhaps we begin to think hard thoughts about God. We may imagine that he is against us or that he is punishing us for a sin. And so we lose assurance.
(d) Connected to (c) are the occasions when God hides his face. This can happen at surprising times. We may have had a mountain-top experience and everything is going well spiritually. Then suddenly instead of sensing the presence of God we sense his absence. What God is doing is testing us regarding whether we will remain loyal to him and continue to show love for him. The classic example of this is Job. But sometimes we imagine he has forgotten us and so we lose our assurance.
Bases of assurance
Generally it has been understood that there are three bases for Christian assurance. A model that has been used is that of a three-legged stool, with the seat signifying assurance and one leg being the promises of the Bible, the second leg being self-examination and the third leg being the witness of the Spirit. The first leg, that is the promises of the Bible, is objective; the second leg, that is self-examination, is concerned with our sanctification; the third leg, that is the witness of the Spirit, is connected to our adoption.
(a) The assurance that God’s Word is true. This is not the conviction that is reached by a process of assessment as to the veracity of the Bible by considering such features as fulfilled prophecy or its accurate descriptions of the human heart. Rather it is a supernatural conviction given by the Holy Spirit. It is similar to how a lover responds to a letter from his beloved. Another reading the letter may notice its accuracy, its details etc., but the lover knows it is for him and that the author penned it for his benefit. So we focus on the wonderful promises of the Bible concerning Christ and his salvation. This is an infallible assurance because it is a divinely-wrought conviction in the heart of a believer concerning an infallible book.
(b) The assurance that come from self-examination. The Bible tells us to search ourselves concerning our motives and desires as well as our practices. One such occasion is the Lord’s Supper, but it should not be limited to that event. This leg of the stool concerns our sanctification. What is self-examination? (1) it is not a search for perfection, but for direction, to discover in what way we are moving; (2) it is not a search for strong faith, but for real faith, to see if we love Jesus.
(c) The assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit. As I said earlier, this concerns our adoption. Paul in Romans 8 and in Galatians 4 refers to the role of the Holy Spirit in leading the believer to cry ‘Abba Father.’ The Greek verb that Paul uses means a strong cry, suggesting confidence. The Spirit works in this way. A believer has deduced his assurance from the change in his life, but it still feels weak. So along comes the Spirit and strengthens the assurance, so that even in the most difficult times we find ourselves crying, ‘Father.’
The three-legged stool can sometimes be used when one leg is broken. Similarly a Christian can struggle along with the two legs of the truthfulness of the Bible and self-examination. But just as the stool is most comfortable when the three legs are equal, so Christians are most comfortable and have most assurance when the Spirit is also strengthening their hearts. So we should pray for his presence.
Are there any means we can use to develop assurance? Probably there are many ways but I would suggest three. First, if it is sin that has caused the lack of assurance, then repent of it and stop doing it. Second, if it is providence or divine testing that had caused the loss of assurance, then think of the character of God and his purpose as revealed in his Word. Sometimes he is the gentle potter gently moulding our lives, at other times he is the refiner of silver, taking us through the fire to purify us of our dross. Third, we should argue prayerfully with God, not in a rebellious or sulky manner, but on the basis of his promises.
Blessings of assurance
In a sense, they are probably obvious. The inner life of such a Christian is marked by peace and joy, there is a kind of spiritual relaxing in the love of God, as the believer senses he is precious to God. The assured believer cheerfully perceives God’s care for him and interest in him. Worship becomes a spiritual encounter. His expectation of what God can do is enhanced. As Daniel put it, ‘They that know their God will be strong and do exploits.’ They will have the confidence to engage in witness as well as in worship.