Moving From Paralyzing Doubt To Rock Solid Assurance

Every Christian I know has struggled, at some point, to feel certain of his or her salvation—including me. We have all walked through a season where terrifying doubt has assailed the blessed assurance we once possessed about our spiritual state. For some of us, “season of doubt” isn’t strong enough terminology to describe our experience—we’ve continually questioned the legitimacy of our faith since the moment we began to follow Jesus!

I think it’s biblically safe to say that God wants his children to know they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). He didn’t go through all of the trouble of becoming human, suffering his own wrath for our sin, dying, and resurrecting, just so that those for whom he did these things could spend their lives anxiously wondering whether or not they are really his. God is a Father to his people, and he wants them to know that they are secure in his love. But how are we to know? How can we know that we are tightly and irreversibly tethered to Jesus by the saving love of God? How can we be assured that we have actually been born again and will persevere to the end? The answer to that question varies greatly, depending on whom you ask.

If you run in Baptist circles, you may be encouraged to remember the day you walked down the aisle and asked Jesus to come into your heart. If you run in Lutheran circles, you may be instructed to find your assurance in your baptism. If you run in Pentecostal circles, you may be told your private prayer language is the rock solid evidence of your regeneration. But what does the Bible actually have to say? If we were all to remove our denominational goggles and soberly examine the plain teaching of Scripture, I think we would find that assurance of salvation has two main layers:

  • “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” – Romans 8:16. There are Bible teachers I really respect who have argued that simply feeling like you are known and loved by God is not good grounds for assurance. They [ever so slightly] acknowledge verses like the one above, but they emphasize the fact that there are also evil entities whispering all sorts of deceitful things into the ears of our souls. And they’re right—there are! Satan, demons, and even our own deceitful flesh are always uttering lies, attempting to hinder us from entering into the freedom that genuine faith in Christ brings. I’m sure, at this very moment, there are ungodly forces working to assure scores of unconverted people that they are safe in the arms of Jesus—when they aren’t. However, the plurality of voices influencing human thoughts and feelings doesn’t change the fact that the Spirit does actually testify to the believer’s spirit that he or she is a child of God. There is biblical merit for gleaning confidence concerning our salvation from the feeling, in the very gut of our souls, that we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”- Romans 8:15. However, I don’t think an unshakeable sense of assurance can rest solely on the inner witness of the Spirit.
  • “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” – 1 John 3:4. I work double-time trying to avoid oversimplification (which is why my blog posts are longer than those of most bloggers!), but this biblical theme is truly simple: people who love God obey God (John 14:15). Men and women who have been made alive by the Spirit cling to Jesus in affectionate dependence and bow to him in humble submission. They don’t do it perfectly, obviously. But if a person is indwelled by the Spirit, their life will be marked by 1) sorrow concerning their sinful shortcomings, 2) a resolve to pursue godliness, and 3) growth in godliness. Progression in faith-driven obedience is the objective evidence of salvation that strengthens the more subjective experience of the Spirit’s witness. The internal testimony of the Spirit coupled with observable growth in Christlikeness is the biblical recipe for rock solid assurance.

But what about those of us who feel like we have received the Spirit, yet our life is currently such a sinful mess that we can’t draw any sense of assurance from it? What if, in times past, we have seen more objective evidence of our faith, but over the last six weeks or six months or six years, fruit seems to be scarce? What if we have actually regressed and find ourselves pulling away from God and swimming in all the same sins from which he plucked us when we initially professed faith? How can those of us who think we know Jesus but also doubt we know Jesus grow in assurance that we do, in fact, know Jesus?

In early 2013—two years into my relationship with Jesus—I was making massive shipwreck of my faith. I was regularly abusing alcohol, indulging in sexual sin daily, and was even dabbling in a gay relationship. I was miserable in my sin and desired to break free from it. But I didn’t. Why? Well, partially because I was paralyzed by the possibility that I wasn’t actually a believer.

During the first year of my walk with Jesus, life was fantabulous. You couldn’t have convinced me that I was anything less than a blood-bought child of God. But year two—not so much. In the nine or ten months leading up to this shipwrecky season in 2013, my assurance had steadily diminished as I gradually gave myself over to various sinful vices. Though I made a connection between my sins and my doubt, I didn’t make the right connection. I thought my doubt about my spiritual state was the reason I was failing to fight the flesh. I didn’t think my sin was exacerbating my doubt; I thought my doubt was exacerbating my sin. And I was beyond frustrated with God because he didn’t seem too bothered about the terror plaguing my soul! Though I never would have said this, I did, in some sense, blame God for my sins. I thought that if he would just assure me that I was saved, I would stop!

I wanted, and thought I needed, a strong sense of assurance to precede my obedience. But that assurance didn’t come, and in early 2013, I snapped. I threw my Bible under my bed in a fit of unholy rage and more or less told God that I was done until he showed me I was his. I was done seeking, done fighting (not that I had been fighting much, anyway), done apologizing. Shipwreck officially commenced.

Oh, how utterly backwards did I have things! In his epistle, Peter instructs believers to make their calling and election sure by pursuing virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:3-10). He doesn’t tell wayward, doubtful Christians to wait around for some mystical spiritual-emotional experience through which they’ll finally find some sense of eternal security. He tells us to pursue assurance by pursuing obedience—by putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:17-24)!

I would never have a strong sense of assurance while I was running from God and submerging myself in sin. I didn’t need some spiritual-emotional experience; I needed to draw near to God and repent of my sins.

By God’s grace, I finally came to the point where, though I still wasn’t sure if I was a child of God, I knew that I wanted to be a child of God. Though I couldn’t say with rock solid certainty that I knew Jesus, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to know Jesus. So I dug my Bible out from under my bed (where I had fitfully tossed it) and resolved to prayerfully saturate myself in it every day. I knew that the Holy Spirit fills and strengthens the faith of believers as they look to Jesus as he is revealed in the gospel. So I decided to do my best to turn my mind’s attention away from the paralyzing “Am I even saved?” question and set my eyes in the direction of Christ.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this—a simple yet serious pursuit of God—is the very foundation of Christian obedience! Yes, I needed to quit committing the sins that were strangling my soul. But I would never access power to subdue my sinful nature if I wasn’t actively abiding in Christ. I needed to seek him! As I hit the floor and sought the Lord every morning and evening, the Holy Spirit fanned my joy into flame and energized my efforts to repent of sin. Day after day, week after week, month after month, my heart grew increasingly tender toward Jesus—and my outward life reflected that. Sins that had dominated me began to lose their power over me. I was not (and am not) perfect. I was still (and am still) stumbling into sin. But I was no longer on the verge of giving up; I was resolved to follow Jesus. I was no longer static or regressing; I was growing. And seeing this resoluteness and growth in my life greatly solidified my confidence that I am, in fact, a child of God. A strong sense of assurance didn’t precede my obedience; it grew alongside my obedience.

If you have stopped seeking the Lord, all but ceased your fight against sin, and are terrifyingly unsure about your spiritual state, please hear me: the only way you are going to escape this prison of doubt is by growing in obedience. Don’t wait around for some mystical assurance-inducing experience—that kind of experience isn’t coming. Do you want to know you are God’s? Then pursue God. Position yourself before him. Gaze upon Jesus in the Scriptures, commune with him in prayer, and strive to keep his commandments. This is the only way you will grow to be certain, deep down in your soul, that you are truly His.

  • Lyle Nelson

    Matt, I have not had a “massive shipwreck”, but it feels like I have had more “minor mishaps” than I should have had. But we all sin to some degree, so how much is too much? I do see that there are areas of my life where I am doing better than I once did, so perhaps progress is the key here. Am I “repentant enough” when I do sin? Hard to measure. Do I love and want more of Jesus “enough”? I know that He is more important to me than the things of this world, and more important as time goes on, so that may be the best I can do in answering that question.

    Unfortunately, I am wired to be an analytical person, and these are questions that don’t lend themselves well to these types of analytical answers.

    But this is the most important question in each of our lives, so it is critically important to do all we can to make sure we can answer it positively, while keeping in mind that our salvation is not works-based.

  • Lyle Nelson

    This is by far the most important question for all eternity for all of us, so it’s very critical that we be as sure as we can be that our salvation is completely secure.

  • Bradley Joel Morton

    I had been poisoned by the lie that I would no longer be gay if I became saved. The Lord had taken away my depression literally overnight, but I was still gay. The incident happened at the church where I was attending that caused a LOT of self doubt (all gays go to hell) (Satan does his best work from the pulpit!) I speant twenty years, while believing in God, wondering how I could still be gay and how no one else could be (I was under the erronious delusion that I was the only one). It was a stumbling block that kept me from truly knowing the Father.

    • Mary

      Dear Bradley….you are not ‘gay’. You are a man of God who struggles with SSA. You are his creature. HE defines you, not your sinful proclivities. I would absolutely suggest that you stop framing your life around sexual impulses. There is a much greater power than them. Do not refer to yourself as ‘gay’ Refer to yourself as God’s child. Blessings on you! 🙂

      • Bradley Joel Morton

        Thank you Mary. You are right, I am a child of God. Part of my problem is my own self doubt and having to reconcile how the Father views me. He sent his only Son to die for me. My sinful past was crucified with Him. I need to let go and let the dead bury the dead.

        • William Okc

          Jeremiah 29:13 is one of my most comforting verses: “You will seek Me and find Me; when you seek Me with all your heart.” This to me is the essence of Matt’s post, which is brilliant. The desire to know God is the key. Pursuing that desire is the next step. And if you do that honestly, you can’t go wrong, even if you make some mistakes, because God wants you even more than you want Him! Just keep on truckin’, as they used to say 🙂

      • gay not ssa

        Your comment just shows how little you really understand or respect gay people if you think it’s just about sexual impulses. And it’s telling that that’s the part of Bradley’s comment you choose to focus on rather than everything else he said. So many anti-gay Christians say they only object to the word gay because it defines people by their sexual identity and yet I don’t hear you guys complaining when fellow anti-gay Christians use the word “homosexual” even though that defines gay people by their sexual attraction just as much, if not more so. Obviously your real problem is that gay is a word that gay people chose for themselves.

  • cryptical

    This is really really good. I just started following your blog, hi! Just wanted to say that as someone who’s had experience of the miraculous work of the Spirit in my conversion (deliverance from the demonic, physical manifestations, tongues, all of that), that does indeed tend to wipe away any temptations to doubt. However, I struggled for years because I thought I was supposed to “feel” more loved by God before I really could live for him (a not-so-good result of the charismatic environment where I was saved). I came to a point where I stopped waiting for the miraculous and like you said, just started faithfully pursuing Jesus. Made all the difference.

  • Brian Westley

    “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” — Voltaire

  • cairo

    A book I highly recommend with the theme of “Not I, but Christ” — about our “position” vs “condition” — The Complete Green Letters by Miles Stanford.

    • NLB

      I picked up that book over 40 years ago and still read it daily…