Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation — Part III: The Doctrine of Assurance in Contemporary Theology

[Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]

The New Context for Assurance

Except for the question of inspiration of Scripture and its infallibility, few theological doctrines are of more direct concern to the individual believer than the basis for assurance of salvation. Here the fundamental issues of the deity of Christ, the work of redemption, and the experience of divine grace meet. The rise of neo-orthodoxy has introduced a new context in the discussion of the historic doctrine of assurance of salvation. Neo-orthodox theology has raised many questions. In almost every aspect of important Biblical truth neo-orthodoxy has provided a strange blending of the old liberalism and the old orthodoxy, and has provided its own explanation of the basic concepts of systematic theology.

In the doctrine of assurance of salvation neo-orthodoxy has also provided a new approach. Like the old liberalism, neo-orthodoxy has delivered itself from dependence upon the ipsa verba of the Scriptures and has transferred the authority for assurance from the exact wording of Scripture to the experience of the believer.1 Like the old orthodoxy, the neoorthodox view has given to spiritual experience a supernatural quality in which the natural and the supernatural meet and combine in creating a valid experience of knowledge in the believer. The resultant doctrine of assurance of salvation, however, raises grave doubts, at least among conservative scholars, as to the validity of this new assurance. There is good cause for questioning whether the neo-orthodox doctrine of assurance is a solid ground on which the believer can trust the certainty of his eternal salvation.

Characteristics of False Assurance

In the contemporary situation as well as in the historic church many false bases for assurance may be observed. Among those uninstructed in Biblical truth the tendency to trust in a relative morality sometimes expressed in the standard of “doing the best one can” is frequently observed. This has been encouraged by affirmations of the more learned that God always deals in love and that this is a supreme principle overruling any standard of absolute righteousness. In like manner, the tendency to trust in religious works or in religion itself as embodied in acts of ritual, morality, or worship is another common area for false assurance of salvation. Many rely on church membership, acts of benevolence, or other good works as a ground for their eternal salvation. This common misapprehension was embodied formerly in Jewish orthodoxy where salvation consists of having more good works than bad. To these general areas of false assurance of salvation may be added confidence in the worship of Mary as a Mediatrix, in the value of prayers for the dead, and the general approach of modern liberalism that moral reformation and character transformation constitute the real basis for assurance for salvation. Some have found assurance in the denial that man is spiritually lost and view the problem of salvation as relative rather than absolute.

Into this milieu of conflicting opinions as to the ground of assurance of salvation, neo-orthodoxy interposes a new context. Unlike the old liberalism which questioned the evil nature of man, neo-orthodoxy emphasizes his sinfulness and depravity, viewing man as finite and God as infinite with a chasm between them humanly impossible to bridge.2 Salvation from the neo-orthodox point of view is made possible only by the experience of crisis which is defined as the meeting of the finite and the infinite in a supernatural revelation of God to the darkened heart of man. In this revelation God reveals Himself as Redeemer and Savior. As to the exact character of the way of salvation, however, neo-orthodoxy gives a variety of opinions which are difficult to reduce to a norm. On the right is Karl Barth, approximating in many ways the definition of redemption as found in the creeds of the historic church.3 On the left is Paul Tillich whose definition of salvation is vague and abstract, quite removed from the definitive terms of Biblical theology.4 On one point, however, all truly neo-orthodox theologians agree, that is, that the absolute authority for divine truth and therefore the ground for assurance of salvation is not the precise words of the Bible but is rather the divine revelation of truth experienced by the believer as he reads the Scripture. The authority or ground of assurance is transferred from the Bible itself to the experience of the one seeking assurance. It is this faulty basis for assurance which raises grave questions as to the effect of modern neo-orthodoxy as it relates to the efficacy of gospel preaching. It suggests that neo-orthodoxy has no more valid ground for assurance than the old liberalism which it tends to supplant. What are then the proper grounds for assurance of salvation?

The Biblical Ground for Assurance

The promise of God: The authoritative Word. It should be evident that assurance of salvation just as assurance of any other fact can be no more sure than the authority upon which it rests. Just as ownership of a given piece of property depends upon the precise wording of its title deed and the recognition of that title by a proper human government, so the title deed for salvation rests upon the promise of God. Because of widespread confusion in contemporary theology on the precise definition of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the character of the authority which is based upon it, there is a tendency observable, particularly in liberal and neo-orthodox theology, to by-pass the question of authority and transfer the basis of assurance to human experience.5

The dangers of building doctrine upon human experience have been often pointed out and are demonstrable by the variety of opinions which human experience has engendered. The difficulty is that human experience may be far from a norm, may be inaccurately analyzed, and may be made the basis of an induction which in the last analysis is based only on fragmentary evidence.

The fact that a person has assurance of salvation therefore is not in itself an infallible evidence that he is truly saved in the Biblical sense. The only sure basis for salvation is the promise of God in the inspired Word of God which properly accepted by faith gives validity to assurance. One clear promise sustained by “Thus saith the Lord” is better than a thousand testimonies of human conviction without a specific ground. A proper doctrine of assurance of salvation is therefore inseparable from a belief in the inspired Word of God. This is not to say necessarily that no one can be saved apart from acceptance of plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, but it is rather that assurance based on anything less is open to serious question.

The work of God in the act of redemption. The assurance of salvation is not only based on the promise of God that He will bestow salvation on those who qualify, but it is sustained by the act of redemption of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As stated in orthodox theology, this consists in the work of Christ in dying on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinful man. This work of Christ is represented in Scripture as first of all an act of redemption, or purchase, in which Christ by His death on the cross pays the price demanded by divine justice for the sin of the human race. It is defined in Romans 3:24 as “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Because of the death of Christ, the sinner who participants in its benefit is declared righteous or justified by God without any payment on the sinner’s part. This transaction is made possible by the grace of God released through the act of purchase accomplished in the death of Christ. The Greek terminology expressing the action of redemption includes not only the basic idea of purchase (Gal 3:13; 1 Tim 2:6; 1 Pet 1:18), but embraces also the idea of deliverance from slavery and bondage in that the sinner is set free (Gal 4:4-5; 5:13 ; Rom 8:21).

The redemptive act of Christ is also revealed as constituting a propitiation or satisfaction of God meaning that the death of Christ fulfills the righteous demands of God for judgment upon the sinner. Accordingly, in connection with divine redemption Jesus Christ is referred to as the One “whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God” (Rom 3:25). This satisfaction of the righteousness of God is described as satisfying the principle of divine justice in the forgiveness of sin in the Old Testament as well as sins committed subsequent in time to the act of redemption. The act of propitiation therefore is “for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The work of Christ on the cross according to Scripture provides a solid basis of assurance of salvation in that the redemptive act has satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God as it relates to judgment upon a sinner.

The work of Christ in salvation is further described as a reconciliation of the sinner to God. This has reference to the effect of the death of Christ upon the sinner himself in removing him from his former state and condition of condemnation to his new estate in Christ. It is therefore especially related to the work of God in the believer based upon the death of Christ and describes the complete change that is thereby wrought. This is described in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 in these words: “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God” (cf. Rom 5:10; 11:15 ; Col 1:21). The work of God in the act of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation as provided in the death of Christ and applied to the true believer is a solid basis for assurance for salvation. Apart from this work of God there can be no sure ground of assurance of salvation. The confidence of the modern liberal in the attribute of divine love as being sufficient in itself or the assurance of the neo-orthodox believer who rests in his own experience is inadequate ground for true Biblical assurance.

The terms of salvation. Though such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 seem to justify the conclusion that God has provided salvation for all, nothing is plainer in Scripture than the conclusion that all are not saved. The death of Christ in itself saves no one except as it is applied to the particular individual according to the terms of salvation provided in the Word of God. Scripture revelation makes clear that there are both human and divine conditions which must be met before a lost soul comes into the place of safety in Christ. On the divine side, there is the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11) and the gift of divine grace which enables one spiritually dead, enslaved by sin, and opposed by Satan to understand the terms of salvation and believe. The human terms of salvation are summed up in the word believe as defined in the Scripture. The Philippian jailer, desperately seeking to know the way of salvation, was informed in words of beautiful simplicity by Paul and Silas: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Such belief is not described as mere intellectual assent nor as an emotional response, but an act of the whole man involving intellect, will, and sensibility or emotion. The terms of salvation are limited to faith in Christ because of the inadequacy and insufficiency of any other approach. Salvation is pictured therefore as a gift (Rom 6:23), as obtained by those “dead through…trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Salvation is therefore not a work of man for God or a work of God assisted by man, but rather a work of divine salvation effective on those who are willing to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. Assurance of salvation, then, comprehends both the authoritative promise of God and the effective work of redemption. As far as the individual believer is concerned, the certainty of assurance is also dependent upon his own decision in meeting the terms of salvation.

The application of salvation. The ground of assurance as stated in Scripture is something more than an intellectual comprehension of the theology of salvation and more than a conviction that the terms of salvation have been met. Scriptures make plain that there is a corresponding experience of transformation which attends the work of salvation in a believer. Some aspects of this are nonexperimental, but the new life in Christ is manifested in many ways. The believer in Christ possesses eternal life and a new divine nature which tends to change his whole viewpoint. He is indeed “a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new” (2 Cor 5:17). The believer in Christ is indwelt by the Spirit of God, which opens a whole new field of spiritual experience. He now knows what it is to have fellowship with his heavenly Father and with His Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. His eyes are opened to spiritual truth, and the Scriptures take on a true living character as the Spirit of God illuminates the written Word. He experiences a new relationship to other believers as he is bound to theme by ties of love and common faith and life. The believer is relieved from the load of condemnation for sin and experiences hope and peace such as is impossible for the unbeliever. His experiences include deliverance from the power of sin and from opposition of Satan. He enters into the joy of intercessory prayer and experiences, answers to prayer. The new life in Christ, therefore, provides a satisfying and Biblical new experience which is a confirming evidence of the fact of his salvation and a vital and true basis for assurance. Unlike the faulty basis of experience as contained in liberal and neo-orthodox theology, the true spiritual experience of a believer in Christ is according to the Biblical pattern confirmed by Biblical promises and in keeping with the whole work of God for the newborn child of God.

The Biblical ground of assurance therefore rests first in the promise of God in the authoritative and inspired Word of God; second, in the work of God in the act of redemption in that Christ died for the sinner upon the cross; third, in the meeting of the terms of salvation as revealed in the Scripture; and fourth, in the experience of the fruits of salvation, the new life that is in Christ Jesus. Apart from this solid basis for assurance of salvation there can be no human certainty in respect to eternal salvation. Properly understood and apprehended, however, the believer in Christ need not remain in agonizing uncertainty as to this all-important question, but may have quiet assurance and confidence that God has saved his soul and has begun a good work which will be consummated in eternity.

Problems of Assurance

In the practical outworking of the doctrine of assurance in the life of a believer in Christ many problems exist. These, however, are all clearly related in one way or another to the four major grounds for assurance as outlined in the preceding section. Failure to apprehend the promise of God, the work of God, or to enter fully into the meaning of the terms of salvation or to experience the fullness of life in Christ Jesus frequently breed uncertainty in the matter of assurance of salvation.

Resting in the promise of God. Much of the confusion that exists in the matter of assurance of salvation may be traced to a failure to rest in the written promises of the Word of God. Those who tend to introspection, to examination of feelings, and are unwilling to take the promises of God at their face value have a corresponding loss in their experience of assurance of salvation. Just as assurance rests upon God’s promise, so lack of assurance inevitably stems from a failure in this area. Ultimately the question is not what a person feels, but what the Word of God states.

Misunderstanding of the work of God in salvation. Another area of confusion in the matter of assurance of salvation is the failure to understand that salvation is a work of grace based on the work of Christ for man, not on supposed acts of righteousness of men before men. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states clearly: “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.” Assurance of salvation that is based upon ritual, administration of sacraments, membership in a local church, acts of benevolence or worship, or any other supposedly good work reveals a basic failure to comprehend that God’s work of salvation is sufficient in itself and cannot be supplemented by human works of any kind or character. Those who are trying to be good enough to be saved will never achieve a true Biblical assurance and in fact may miss the way of salvation completely. The assurance of salvation can be no more certain than the confidence that is derived from a comprehension of the complete work of Christ on the cross in our salvation.

The experience of belief. Another intricate problem in the doctrine of assurance is the question as to what constitutes true faith in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures make clear that a mere intellectual faith or assent to the theological proposition is not what is meant in the Scriptures when we are exhorted to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those given to introspection and to psychological analysis of their own emotions and mental attitudes may often have difficulty in achieving assurance of salvation. The problems inherent in the question of whether one has met the terms of salvation, however, can be dissolved by a frank facing of the issues. One who has any question as to whether he has actually received Christ should decisively settle this issue before God. Often the indecision that is reflected in such an attitude is born of an unwillingness to accept all the implications of the deity and lordship of Christ. There is a corresponding holding back from a true resting in the divine promise and the divine work. Such individuals need thorough grounding in the doctrine of salvation as revealed in the Scripture and careful teaching as to the extent and implications of salvation in Christ. Some have found relief from nagging doubt by following the simple formula of offering the prayer: “If I have never trusted in Christ before, I do it now.” Ultimately the rest of faith embodied in assurance of salvation does not come from self-analysis or introspection, but from full confidence in the plan of God for the salvation of those who will put their trust in Christ.

Experience as a ground of assurance. Though a faulty assurance of salvation sometimes results from dependence upon experience, the Scriptures make clear that the true child of God may expect certain confirming experiences. The child of God who is filled with the Spirit and manifesting the fruit and normal experiences of the Spirit-filled life has little difficulty with the question of assurance. Christians, however, who are unyielded to God and in whose life there is sin grieving the Spirit of God may often come under a cloud in which their assurance of salvation is subject to question. Often a lack of assurance is an indication not of an unsaved condition but rather the evidence that the believer is out of fellowship with God. There is no ground of assurance more satisfying than that of intimate fellowship with the triune God which is the supreme fruit of Biblical salvation. The God who intends that every believer should rejoice in His presence throughout all eternity in glory intends also that the child of God even in a sinful world should know the joy of constantly beholding the Father’s face. The assurance of salvation is therefore not only the result of meeting the theological conditions, but is the normal and joyous estate of the child of God walking in the will of God.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 According to Barth, revelation “takes place as an event, when and where the word of the Bible becomes God’s Word, i.e. when and where the word of the Bible functions as the word of a witness, when and where John’s finger points not in vain but really pointedly, when and where by means of its word we also succeed in seeing and hearing what he saw and heard” (Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God-Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, Part I, p. 127; cf. also pp. 111-35; Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason pp. 3-57).

2 According to Emil Brunner, “sin has not destroyed all freedom, but the central freedom, the freedom to answer God as He wills it. Therefore before God everyone is a sinner, and all that one does, says, or thinks is sinful” (Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Dogmatics, II, 39; cf. also Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 50-57).

3 Barth, op. cit., pp. 457-533; Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 101-7.

4 Paul Tillich, The New Being, pp. 92-100, 175-79; Systematic Theology, I, 168-82.

5 Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 10-11.

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