by J. C. Wenger

It is perfectly evident from a reading of the New Testament that the apostles of Christ possessed the happy assurance that they were the children of God and that He who began a good work in them would also enable them to persevere to a happy end in Christ. This type of assurance is possible only for those who understand the plan of salvation: that it is God who moves the sinner to repent, that it is God who bestows upon those who accept Jesus the gift of eternal life, that converts enjoy the forgiveness of their sins not through any merit of their own but alone through the redemptive death of Jesus, and that God is able to keep, and intends to keep, every one of His children. It should be noted that Christian assurance is not built upon a particular type of conversion; nowhere in Scripture is salvation made to depend upon any particular experience in connection with conversion, such as weeping, seeing a vision, or participating in an ecstasy. Christian assurance is also not based upon feeling. Certainly good health, physical, mental, and spiritual, tends to promote an attitude of optimism and euphoria, but the assurance of salvation is not dependent upon "feeling good." Least of all is salvation dependent upon any sort of merit; the notion that any human being can approach God through personal merit is absolutely unscriptural and untrue. The only way any believer throughout history has been able to stand before God is through the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a certain sense in which evangelical theologians even speak of Christ "keeping the law for us" (Menno Simons, Complete Works, I, pp. 44, 113, 154).

The causes of doubt are undoubtedly numerous. In some cases doubt is occasioned by ill health, especially that due to nervous and emotional difficulties. Doubt may also be occasioned by what could be called emotional trauma; that is, one calamity after another befalls a given individual in quick succession so that the person feels forsaken and crushed. At that point doubt is apt to come as to whether God loves the individual, or even as to whether there is a God who would permit such experiences to happen. Doubt is also commonly associated with the emotional instability of adolescence, particularly being a part of an intellectual awakening that frequently takes place in the latter teens or early twenties. Unfortunately human beings are also so constituted as to be capable of escape mechanisms; that is, when one has good reasons for dreading to face a certain situation or truth, the mind tends to subconsciously persuade one that the situation must be avoided through sickness, or that the truth can be escaped by the very "fact" that it is not the truth but falsehood! Consequently if one is living in sin one is inclined to rationalize that after all no one has ever seen God and it is altogether probable that He does not exist! This fact of escape mechanisms must be cautiously kept in the background in any attempt to help an individual who is plagued with doubts, for there are many other reasons for doubting besides this moral occasion.

As a matter of fact when an individual is worried and distressed by his doubts it is sure evidence that he really is a believer, otherwise he would have no particular concern about his intellectual problems. Doubt is therefore a disguised form of faith, or faith manifesting itself in the life of one who is emotionally insecure or troubled.

Christian Assurance

What then are the factors which make possible Christian assurance? These factors are two: the Spirit and the Word. Ordinarily the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to bring assurance to the Christian believer. The serenity of faith on the part of the Christian varies from person to person, depending undoubtedly in part on such factors as physical health, devotion to the means of grace, maturity of life and experience, and perhaps also temperament. In other words, the cure for doubt is not simple; each case must be treated as to its individual nature. Least of all dare one assert that doubt is necessarily an evidence of sin; on the contrary it is frequently found on the part of those who most earnestly desire to live a winsome Christian life.

Basically the only approach to the believer who lacks Christian assurance is to take the Scriptures and point out the clarity and simplicity of the promises of God to bestow salvation as a free gift on everyone who puts his trust in Jesus Christ. Statements to this effect run throughout the New Testament. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. " (Matt. 11:28-30; cf. John R. Mumaw, Assurance of Salvation, Scottdale, Penna.: Herald Press). Mark quotes Jesus thus: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses" (Matt. 11:24-26). Luke quotes Jesus as stating that the very purpose of His incarnation was redemptive: "For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). And John quotes the Saviour as saying: "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24). When the Philippian jailer cried out to Paul and Silas: "Men, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30), the apostolic reply was: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31). The promise of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans is: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved. The scripture says, No one who believes in him will be put to shame.'. . . For, 'every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Rom. 10:9-13). And one must not forget the promise of the Saviour: "And him who comes to me I will not cast out" (John 6:37).

It should be noted again that salvation is not promised on the basis of any particular type of conversion, it does not rest upon feeling, and it is not achieved by merit: salvation is God's free gift promised unconditionally to everyone who accepts Christ as Saviour and Lord. It is the function of the Holy Spirit to take the precious promises of God's Word and enable the Christian believer to rest upon them. He who is troubled by doubts will therefore need to pray that God's Spirit might enable him to simply lay hold by faith on the promises of God, being willing to walk by faith and not by sight, renouncing feeling as the touchstone of his salvation, and seeking to live close to the Lord: for where worldliness and spiritual coldness enter a life, Christian assurance departs. The old Gospel song is theologically sound:

    Trust and obey, for there's no other ways
    To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey (Church and Sunday School Hymnal, No. 454).

Even better is the doctrinal teaching of the poem of Edward Mote (1797-1874), "The Solid Rock," 1834:

    My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
    I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name.

    When darkness seems to veil His face, I rest on His unchanging grace;
    In ev'ry high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the vail.

    His oath, His covenant, and blood, support me in the whelming flood;
    When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.

    When He shall come with trumpet sound, O, may I then in Him be found;
    Clad in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.

    On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
    All other ground is sinking sand (Church and Sunday School Hymnal, No. 458).

As Christians become more mature, and in so far as they seek to follow Jesus in every area of their lives, there gradually grows upon them the quiet and happy assurance that they have been truly called by God into His kingdom, and they learn to rely in simple faith upon the blessed promises of His Word.

God's Keeping Power and Intention

Even to many sincere Christians, however, there come occasional periods of anxiety when fear is felt as to their ability to persevere in faith and holiness. This is where such believers need to be taught the New Testament truth of divine preservation. Divine preservation refers to the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer which, if not persistently resisted, brings him unto a happy end in Christ. This assurance that the God who has begun the process of salvation in the child of God, will also continue the same until death, is recognized throughout the New Testament. Paul, for example, writes thus in the Letter to the Romans:

    What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .

    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31-39).

The Corinthian church manifested what is perhaps the lowest state of spirituality in any church in the New Testament. And yet Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians that God "will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (I Cor. 1:8, 9). Similarly in his Letter to the Philippians the apostle wrote: "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6; cf. 1:19). And in reference to the spiritual dangers which the Thessalonian Christians faced Paul wrote by way of assurance: "But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from evil" (II Thess. 3:3). After referring to his own sufferings for Christ's sake Paul added: "But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me" (II Tim. 1:12). Again, "The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen" (II Tim. 4:18). The Apostle Peter speaks of the great mercy of God as having been manifested in the regeneration of. his Christian readers, and of their inheritance which is being reserved in heaven "for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I. Pet. 1:5).

It is perfectly evident from dozens of statements in the New Testament that it is the will of God to keep Christians from apostasy, and that He is able to do so. Jesus Himself said: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them Out of the Father's hand" (John 10:27-29). In other words, God has saved us, He is able to keep us, and He intends to do so. God promises eternal security to those who are in Christ.

Warnings About Living in Sin

The Bible does not teach security in sin, however. In the strongest possible terms the Scriptures warn against not only the possibility but even the danger of apostasy. This is not because of a lack of ability on the part of God, nor. a lack of faithfulness on His part to His promises. The possibility of apostasy arises from the fact that Christians are still in the flesh, still in need of the grace of God, and continually undergoing temptation and trial. The security of the child of God is in Christ and not in sin. The New Testament therefore warns against falling away. Jesus Himself said, in reference to the seed sown on rocky ground: "This is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful" (Matt. 13:20-22). Paul wrote to the Christians of Colossae that God had now reconciled them "in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him," but then Paul adds by way of a warning, "provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard" (Col. 1:22, 23). Similarly, the Letter to the Hebrews warns: "Therefore we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it" (Heb. 2:1). And again, "Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end" (Heb. 3:12-14).

Perhaps the most startling warning in the New Testament against apostasy is found in Peter's Second Letter, where he speaks of a person being overcome and enslaved to sin: "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them" (II Pet. 2:20, 21). Peter then uses two illustrations of regeneration and sanctification: a dog who has been delivered from his sickness, and a sow who has been washed clean of the mire. Every honest exegete must admit that the illustrations are warnings about what can happen to the Christian who has been spiritually delivered from his sin and cleansed of his guilt.

James in his practical Letter speaks also of a Christian wandering from the truth (Jam. 5:19). And Jesus Himself spoke of the trying days that were to come: "And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:12, 13). He also gave the following warning: "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (John 15:6).

It is only fair to ask the question whether these warnings are merely theoretical, or whether individual Christians ever do actually lose out. On this point Paul says: "By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (I Tim. 1:19, 20). In the same Letter Paul reports: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons" (I Tim. 4:1). And in his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul writes about the godless chatter of the wicked, "and their talk will eat its way like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by holding that the resurrection is past already. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: 'The Lord knows those who are his,' and, 'Let every one who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity' " (II Tim. 2:17-19). When Paul wrote his Letter to the Colossians he was able to say: "Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you" (Col. 4:14), but when he wrote his Second Letter to Timothy he regretfully reported, "Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me" (II Tim. 4:10). Judas himself is an example of a man whom Christ wished to transform into a mighty apostle but who allowed his love of money to transform him into a traitor, even "a devil" (John 6:70). Judas stooped so low in his thievery that he "used to take what was put" into the treasury of Christ and the apostles (John 12:6). Instead of allowing Christ to make of him a powerful witness to His resurrection, Judas clung to his weakness, allowed it to overcome him, and finally "fell away" from his apostleship. (Acts 1:25 ASV. The Greek implies a turning aside; here, an abandonment of one's trust (Thayer, p. 478).

Those who teach a doctrine of unconditional eternal security sometimes object to the possibility of apostasy by holding that a regenerated person would never wish to return to a life of sin and to become an apostate. This fact is of course altogether true. The answer to the objection lies in the fact that believers can grow cold little by little, and ultimately find themselves with but little desire to return to Christ in penitence and renewed obedience. The steps in apostasy undoubtedly are somewhat as follows: first of all, the individual becomes too busy or unconcerned to maintain a faithful devotional life of Bible meditation and prayer. This results in a certain state of lukewarmness in which it becomes easy to harbor, if only briefly, a sinful desire or attitude. This attitude may be one of envy, pride, hatred, sensuality, or avarice. The unsanctified state of attempting to cling to a "minor sin" for a time in turn promotes the very neglect of Bible reading and prayer which brought about the state of lukewarmness to begin with. As the individual becomes more and more cold spiritually his zeal for the Lord's cause slackens. After a time overt acts of sin begin to occur in his life. These falls into sin are accompanied by a decreasing concern about sin and its guilt. I here comes also a determination, and this is something new, to continue enjoying sin for the time being; the first intention was merely to indulge briefly. There is less and less interest in returning to a holy Christian life as time goes on and the apostasy becomes more severe. All this takes place in spite of fierce inner struggles of conscience, repeated chastisements of God, and generally the warnings of other Christians.

We are again reminded of Jeremy Taylor's (1613-67) description of the downward progress of the apostate: "First it startles him, then it becomes pleasing, then delightful, then frequent, then habitual, then confirmed; then the man is impenitent, then obstinate, then resolved never to repent, then damned" (Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 651).

From Introduction to Theology by John C. Wenger (pp. 301-309), © copyright 1954, renewed 1980 by Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pennsylvania USA. All rights reserved.

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June 22, 2000