The idea that Christians can have assurance of their salvation has deep roots in the theology of John Wesley. Though he struggled with his own assurance from time to time, Wesley preached and taught that it was the privilege of every believer to know that they were forgiven and accepted by God when they came to faith in Christ. Though distinctive in Wesley’s day, this doctrine is not now peculiar to Wesley’s Methodist heirs, but is widely shared among other Christian traditions.
In Wesley’s day the doctrine of assurance was challenged by those who thought it was presumptuous or “rank enthusiasm.” In my years of ministry I almost never heard the doctrine attacked as an instance of enthusiasm, but I often heard it challenged by the charge of presumption.
The argument went something like this. The Bible is full of commands. Even if we drop the commands that were specific to the people of Israel, we’re left with a large number. We see in the Bible that there are so many ways to go wrong. We can do the wrong thing; we can fail to do the right thing. Our wrongs might be done in the open or even in the recesses of our thoughts and attitudes. We can sin and no one around us will even know. In light of how easy it is to go wrong, how can we possible imagine that we’ve done well enough to find acceptance with God? We see our awesome moral and religious performance and think we have an in with God? What presumption!
Some people I encountered didn’t argue against the doctrine of assurance. Instead, their lives testified to their own insecurity. One of my men used to ask me every Sunday, “Preacher, am I good enough to get in yet?” He was a good guy. Everyone loved him. Yet he knew there was a gap between his performance and God’s expectations. He felt it would be presumptuous to claim to know he was ok with God. My standard answer to his question was, “No, you’re not good enough to get in. But it doesn’t matter, because no one gets in on the basis of their own goodness. We get in on the basis of trusting Jesus.”
That’s some of the good news we find in scripture. Getting in a good relationship with God, being forgiven, being saved – whatever terminology we use – is not a matter of what we do. It’s a matter of what Jesus does. Our faith is in Jesus, not in ourselves.
In recent years the argument against the possibility of assurance has shifted. While most would still think it presumptuous to claim acceptance by God, the surge toward soteriological universalism has made claims of assurance passé. What’s the point of claiming assurance when everyone is going to be saved anyway?
Both challenges to the doctrine of assurance – the argument from presumption and the argument from universalism – are not merely mistaken about the possibility of assurance, but also about the nature of salvation. Both work from the assumption that salvation is something we have, or some future state we achieve: “going to heaven when we die” has been a common way of putting it. The biblical picture of salvation, however, is very different. Instead of referring merely to a status “headed toward heaven” or “in with God,” the salvation depicted in the New Testament is much bigger. It is a life with God that starts now and, because of who God is, goes into eternity. When one has assurance on this model, one is not primarily assured about one’s eternal destination, but about one’s current life with God.
Is it presumptuous to claim to have a “current life with God?” As I’ve already noted, this life with God is not something we accomplish on our own. Life with God only happens through Jesus.
If people today know any of the claims Christians make about God, they know that “God is love.” God loves everyone, we believe. Is it a matter of love to let the one you love know about your love? If you love someone and you know that person is in doubt about your love, would it not be an act of love to bring clarity? This is the Wesleyan take on God’s motivation for giving us assurance. God loves us enough to let us know. In the next installment I will discuss some of the ways that God provides for us to gain assurance.