There are some sermons that get more feedback than others. That is often because they touch a pressing need or concern. My hope is that this will be one of those talks. I want you to be able to sing with confidence, ‘I am my beloved and he is mine’ (Song of Songs 2:16). I know how terrifying it can feel to be unsure of your relationship with Jesus. I know that some of you doubt the reality of your faith. My desire is that you would be set free from such worries.
Why do many genuine Christians lack assurance?
Maybe you grew up in a home that excelled in criticism. Your parents might have been impossible to please and no one ever delighted in you. Perhaps you have been let down by friends. You are painfully aware of your failings and flaws. You can’t see how God could accept people who are not perfect. In short, grace seems too good to be true!
Many people struggle with a sense of assurance because they grew up in a Christian home and can’t remember a time when they came to faith. They might have prayed, ‘the sinner’s prayer’ but don’t know if it was real thing. They envy those who can point to a dramatic conversion. They might have professed to be a Christian at such a young age that their teenage rebellions happened after they were supposed to be a Christian rather than before. They fear that they may only have accepted the gospel because it was what they grew up with.
For some the problem lies in issues like temperament or mental health. Some struggle with such levels of clinical anxiety that they can’t access the truth that God desires to be gracious to them. One of the roles of medication and counselling is to bring such people to a place where they are able to hear the gracious promises of God.
There are three grounds upon which we are to base our assurance. The first is the promises of God, the second is the fruit of God’s presence within us and the third is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. But do not think that these three grounds of assurance are of equal power. Instead think of one of those tricycles with a large front wheel and two small back wheels. The large front wheel, that drives the whole thing, is the promises of God.
The promises of God
One of the Puritans said that the promises of God were like golden coins in a large bag that God pours at the feet of the needy and then says, ‘take whatever you will’. The same Puritan also said that they are like the stars in the night sky. When you first go out into the dark you notice only a few of the stars. However, the longer you gaze upwards and your eyes focus, the more stars you see. Until you see that the whole night is littered with too many stars to count. The Bible contains a multitude of promises to comfort the anxious.
The great thing about God’s promises is that they are rooted in God’s character. As a result it gives him great honour when his children claim them for themselves. Holding fast to God’s promises has the advantage of taking our eyes off ourselves and placing them on Jesus. Look at your own life and you will see things that cause you to doubt. Look at Christ and you will see things that comfort you. Robert Murray McCheyne said that we should take ten looks at Christ for every one look at self.
‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). There are only two options here. You either believe or you don’t. You either looking to him for his forgiveness or trying to claim your own righteousness. You either want to become like Jesus or want to live as you please. Remember that the only reason you desire God is that his Spirit has caused you to want him (Romans 8:7).
The Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said that more people came to him worried about ‘that one sin’ in their past than about anything else. He would direct them to the promise of first John. ‘If we confess our sins he is faithful and just, and will cleanse of all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). Where is the small print in that promise? There is none. This promise is greater than your sin.
John Bunyan, the author of the Pilgrim’s Progress, took great comfort from Jesus’ promise, ‘that all that the Father gives to me will come to me, and I will in no way drive them away’ (John 6:37). God delights to show mercy (Micah 7:18). Could you ever imagine the father of the prodigal driving away his returning son?
In the Pilgrim’s Progress, which is an allegory of the Christian life, Christian finds himself locked in Doubting Castle. Giant Despair beat him and threatened to kill him the next day. Then he remembers that he had ‘the key of promise’ in his pocket. He took that key and escaped. May God grant us the strength to hold God to his promises and so lead us to freedom!
Assurance from a transformed life
Jesus said that we would be able to recognise his people by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). What does this fruit look like? How much fruit do you have to see before you can be sure that you are a Christian?
This fruit is about showing things that don’t come naturally. Even those who hate God love their family and friends (Matthew 5:47), but only those who have the Spirit are willing to humble themselves and cry, ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling’. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. The Christian no longer needs to pretend that they have it together. They are happy to admit that they are a failed wreck. They are not trying to deceive you with their supposed goodness but acknowledge their sin.
Everyone wants to do good when people are watching. But God makes us want to do good to please him. Not that we are ever free from mixed motives. We simply desire to desire Jesus more. We want to want him. Joel Beeke says that ‘even the yearning to know God better is already, at least implicitly, an act of faith.’
Do you want to know Jesus? Do you grieve at the fact that you so often fail to be like him? Are you willing to accept that only the cross of Jesus could make you right with God? Even traces of these fruit demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit in you! Remember that the natural mind resists God’s gospel and his call (Romans 8:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:3).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that whenever anyone came to him worried about their salvation, he would always say, ‘you are a believer, for you would not be worried if you were not.’ ‘If ever a man wants to believe this truth it is always a work of the Holy Spirit.’
But what about our struggles with sin? There is not a man in this room that doesn’t struggle with lust (for that matter many of you women also struggle in the same way). Your troubling sin may be overeating, gossip, discontentment, jealousy or obsession over your image. Sometimes your battles against you sin seem to overwhelm you. You feel helpless. It feels like you experience more defeat than victory. How can you be sure you are in Christ when your life is in such a mess?
Well, what do your non-Christian friends think about a sin like lust? They laugh it off! Christians struggle with sin. Yes, they struggle! That struggle against sin says that they are no longer dead in sin. They are never content with sin. When they fall God lifts them up. As much as they enjoy sin, they also hate it. The non-Christian may grieve the consequences of their sin, but they never grieve the fact that their sin saddens the heart of God.
The witness of the Holy Spirt
The third means of assurance is the witness of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes that ‘the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:17). I am cautious about depending on this evidence because we are easily deceived by our feelings. The Holy Spirit is not witnessing to us if we do not love the gospel and desire to be made holy. If we do love the gospel and desire to be made like Jesus, then we are Christians even if we can’t feel the Holy Spirit witnessing to that fact. God has graciously given us his Spirit so that when we get to thinking that God is our judge waiting to condemn us, we see that he is our Father delighting in us. He wants us to know that reassurance. But often we are too troubled to hear the Spirit’s whisper.
Joel Beeke tells of how the Holy Spirit gave assurance to him through driving home the truth of the gospel. His grandfather had long suffered from doubts about assurance. The one day their new minister visited. What the new minister didn’t realise was that young Joel struggled with assurance just like his granddad. The minister looked at the granddad and assured him, ‘for you, too, my friend there is a way of escape in Jesus Christ.’ I don’t know how those words affected grandad, but Joel started to rejoice in this truth. The Holy Spirit enabled his to see that this was true for him.
God wants you to know that you are his child. What sort of parent would adopt a child and not tell them that their adoption is secure? Imagine a parent hiding the adoption papers and letting the poor child wonder if they are going to be taken from home. God is not a bad parent. He wants his children to be secure in his love.
But make sure that you base your security on the right things. I know that none of you are foolish enough to think that you are a Christian simply because you were baptised and go to church. I hope none of you think you are a Christian simply because you prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’ many years ago. I assume you realise that you are not a Christian if you won’t accept what Jesus teaches or don’t take seriously his call to a holy life.
The key to assurance is in who you put your confidence in. The non-Christian places their confidence in themselves. The Christian puts their confidence in God. This is seen as they hold on to the promises of God and seek the testimony of the Holy Spirit. This is also seen in how we look for fruit of God’s work in our lives. You see we recognise the fruit because we have no confidence in ourselves. We know that by nature we run from God rather than run towards him. We know that by nature we will try to justify ourselves rather than acknowledge our guilt. As one hymn-writer declares, ‘if I love thee, thou must have loved me first.’ Indeed, even if I long to love the God of the gospel that is evidence of his Spirit at work in me.