There’s a video here of a conversation between Ligon Duncan and Derek Thomas, which for some reason I clicked on (I can’t normally be bothered watching videos – reading so much more efficient).
But they brought up an issue which bears thinking about: the lack of a ‘crisis of assurance’ in the experience of so many people in the contemporary church. The video references an article by Carl Trueman (here) where he goes so far as to say that “the whole notion of assurance, and the lack thereof, has become nonsense for most Christians.”
Why is this? What causes this? It’s not that doubting your salvation is a good thing. But a culture that takes salvation for granted – where you can casually mention that 17 people just “got saved” at youth group the other night – where you never really have to grapple with the possibility that maybe God doesn’t think you’re as great as you do – doesn’t have good grounds for its certainty about salvation. A well-founded assurance of salvation is something to aspire to, at the very least, and then value and preserve. But it’s not so much assurance that people have, sometimes, as unthinking complacency. Why is this?
According to Trueman, it’s because we’re living in an atmosphere where “the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin are no longer of any major consequence.” According to Duncan, it’s “because we do not believe in the holiness and justice of God, and because we do not have a fear of hell.”
These explanations must be true. The Christian church at large has allowed these doctrines – these realities – to fade from collective consciousness.
We have, largely, lost a sense of the enormity of salvation. If a person is saved, then they have all the blessings of salvation. Peace (of conscience), joy (in the Holy Ghost), the comfort of having the Lord as your Shepherd, the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God – all these are available to sinners, but they only belong to those who are saved – converted, regenerated, born again, united to Christ. And the ramifications are eternal: if we are not saved, what then? Thinking of Christianity as merely a solution for human-level problems (dissatisfaction, loneliness, feeling unfulfilled) makes salvation seem something not particularly important to have, and not something especially disconcerting to lack, and therefore there is no particular need to devote much care to examining whether you have it or not.
And we have lost a sense of the supernaturalness of salvation. Yesterday I read this by Thomas Boston. “See your utter inability to help yourselves, by yourselves. ‘O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself …’ Look to your crimson guilt, and you will see it to be of a deeper dye than tears of thy blood can wash it out – the cords wreathed so fast about thy neck as all thy utmost efforts cannot loose them. Look to the power of thy lusts, and see thy slender arms utterly unable to break them; thyself as unable to grapple with them as a little child with a giant, or a weak man with the leviathan, that will count his darts as straw, and his spear as flax.”
If we are so utterly unable to save ourselves, then someone else must do it for us. Now of course Christ is able to save us and will make a far better job of saving us than we can begin to know how to. He is perfectly able to keep that which we commit to him. But largely we fail to grapple with the terrible risk of committing our soul’s salvation to someone else. Thankfully, he is both willing and able, but we better make sure we are in fact safely committed into his keeping, and how can we know this? There is a huge contrast between how seriously this point calls for dedicated inquiry, and how easily we gloss over it.
But neglecting to be impressed by our total helplessness means that salvation becomes just an everyday thing. If it’s only a question of persuading yourself of some true things – even some difficult things, like trying to believe that Christ rose from the dead – then that’s only on a par with many of the other complicated things we need to understand in our lives. But this is not the nature of saving faith. What I can bring myself to believe is not the point. It’s not a question of what I need to do – it’s what needs to happen to me. ‘You must be born again’ – must even then be made a recipient of faith itself.
Which means we have also lost the sense of something else – of how completely out of our hands our own salvation is. Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? A goat can’t turn itself into a sheep. I can’t give birth to myself! But the wind blows where it pleases, and there’s nothing anyone can do to influence it. Thomas Goodwin speaks about how, when a sinner is to come to faith in Christ, all three persons of the Godhead must be actively involved at the same time. The Father stands in heaven and points out the sinner to the Son as one he loves, and the Son must love that sinner too, and recognise them as someone he has redeemed, and the Spirit must come and actually join their hands together. “Now,” he says, “to get all the three Persons thus joined at once effectually and actually to bestow Christ and the Spirit of faith upon a man, is not within any man’s command.” It is as far out of his power as if he was to order a conjunction of planets in the heavens. Canute was unambitious by comparison. The salvation of a sinner is such a vast work, and why should the Triune God go to such bother over any one of us? Why should I be saved? Why should I be saved?
Trueman: “the whole notion of assurance, and the lack thereof, has become nonsense for most Christians. And that speaks of a religious world where the bases for lack of assurance (the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin) are no longer of any major consequence. If assurance is not an issue, it is likely because you have a sub-biblical view of God’s holiness and a sub-Pauline view of human sin; and if this is the case, then the vanishing distance between Protestants and Catholics should not be a cause of comfort or rejoicing for either; rather, it speaks of the secularization and the worldliness of the Christian mind.”
Relevant section of the Thomas/Duncan video: approx 2:15 to 5:40.
Background to Trueman’s article: the doctrine of assurance as disputed at the Reformation.