The axiom, “all roads lead to heaven” is weighed and found wanting at the foot of the cross, where heaven and earth converge in the last place we’d expect. However, we might say (although with less certainty) that, “all roads lead to assurance”. In whatever flavor of Christianity or confession of faith one might find themself in, the question always becomes, “how do I know that I’m saved?” This is not only a theological question, it is a pastoral issue, and a very important one at that.
Where does the faithful pastor, priest or friend point the despairing soul who is looking for assurance and answers to their deepest doubts? First of all it’s important that we understand where this individual should not be pointed. Too often the discouraged saint is pointed inwardly to a decision they made “to follow Christ” or “to give their heart to Jesus.” Obviously this decision made in the past is no source of comfort for them in the present. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doubting their salvation in the first place. For how are they to know that they truly meant it and since they were the ones who decided for Christ maybe they’ve now decided against him by their behavior and lack of faith. Here the doubter is often given the opportunity to make another decision to “recommit their life to Christ” or to be re-baptized. I have known people who have made dozens of decisions to follow Christ, in fact one person told me that they’d been baptized 8 times! Certainly one of these will stick. Unfortunately if the onus is being placed upon our sincerity or our commitment, then no amount of decisions or baptisms will bring us what we’re looking for.
Another way the anguished Christian is pointed back into themselves is by searching for good works and fruit that will demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is at work in their life. If you want to know that you are one of the elect then “look at your fruit” for even if your fruit is little and sparse it still indicates the work of Christ. But how is one to know that they’ve done enough? If fruit is the evidence of God’s redemptive work then how I am to know when what I’ve accomplished is sufficient proof? This kind of searching puts the despondent Christian on a never-ending scavenger hunt desperately hoping to find the golden egg within that will assuage all their doubts and fears. In fact this type of searching actually becomes a zero sum game because all the focus upon myself is actually the very essence of sin (what Augustine and Luther called the Incurvatus in se – man curved in upon himself) for while we’re looking for assurance and hope all we come away with is more doubt and despair.
The person who is questioning their salvation and struggling with assurance should not be directed inwardly but away from themselves toward Christ and his promises. Paul tells us in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ.” The doubting Christian is a faithless Christian and faith is not dredged up from its burial ground in our heart, it is created by the very Word of Christ who makes promises to sinners and is faithful to keep them even when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). God’s Word is a creative word, he speaks things into existence apart from any help from us. Herein God doesn’t look for things to be so, he creates what he’s looking for and says, “it is good.” In regard to our salvation, God doesn’t look for righteousness in us, he gives us his own righteousness and declares us to be so. God speaks promises to us, “I forgive you all of your sins, you are my child, you will be with me forevermore.” While many over-promise and under-deliver God delivers exactly what he promises. He does this apart from any work of our own (even belief) and it’s his promises that create faith. A faith that produces assurance apart from anything we can see, “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). While we are looking for demonstrable proofs in our life God reminds us that faith is not something we see, it’s something we hope for and are assured of, because he promised to bring it to pass. Therefore the means by which he creates this faith exist outside of us in his word spoken over water where he puts us to death and gives us new life and his word spoken over bread and wine where he promises to be present for the forgiveness of sins. God creates faith by his promises and these promises are delivered to the sinner from another sinner. These are the keys that God has placed into the hands of every Christian; keys that unlock the mysteries of grace and redemption. However the key ring we’ve been given does not resemble a Middle School janitor’s. We don’t have dozens of keys to try to fit into the keyhole in hopes of finding just the right words to bring comfort and hope. In fact our keychain only has two keys on it…the key of the law to diagnose the sin (in this case unbelief) and the key of the gospel to deliver the sinner (where you are faithless Christ is faithful to you).
The next time a fellow sinner begins to confess their unbelief to you please hear it as such, a confession and then proclaim to them the promise you’ve been entrusted with. “On account of Christ I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” If you’re of the Evangelical persuasion this might be uncomfortable for you, but remember when Christ called you to make disciples he gave you the authority and the keys to forgive sins,
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23)
Go therefore and make disciples, proclaiming to them the promises of Christ and watch his Word create what you and the confessing sinner never could.
“I did nothing; the Word did everything.” — Martin Luther