The doctrine of eternal security, or preservation, or perseverance of the saints, is the Spirit-revealed, objective fact that salvation is forever, while assurance is believers’ Spirit-given, subjective confidence that they truly possess that eternal salvation. Though the Old and New Testaments speak much about assurance (e.g., Job 19:25; Isa 32:17; Col 2:2; 1 Thess 1:4-5, NKJV; Heb 6:11; 10:22), many who profess Jesus Christ struggle to experience it. That raises the obvious question of why some Christians lack assurance. There appears to be a complex of several reasons that believers doubt their salvation.
First, some lack assurance because they sit under demanding, confrontive, convicting preaching of the law that upholds a high standard of righteousness, forces people to acknowledge their sinfulness, and causes them to feel the weight of sin and God’s displeasure. Such preaching may greatly disturb some listeners and cause them to waver concerning their spiritual condition.
Second, some people feel they are too sinful to be saved, and thus they have difficulty accepting forgiveness. There may be two basic causes for this. First, the human conscience can be relentless in some sensitive souls, and it naturally offers little forgiveness, grace, and mercy to relieve conviction and guilt (cf. Ps 58:3; Prov 20:9). Second, holiness, the law of God, and divine justice do speak strongly against sin (cf. Isa 35:8; 52:11; Rom 6:13,19); the law itself contains nothing of forgiveness (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:21; Heb 10:28; James 2:10; cf. Jer 9:13-16; Acts 13:39).
A third reason for lacking assurance is that some do not accurately comprehend the gospel. They have an erroneous notion (Arminian) that maintaining one’s salvation requires their effort as well as God’s. Salvation, they think, is secure as long as the believer keeps believing and avoids sinful patterns. But assurance of eternal salvation can be very elusive for the person who believes it depends partly on his own “free will” cooperation with God. Such people need a true understanding of the gospel, namely that salvation is an utterly sovereign, divine operation in which sinners’ redemption (from justification to glorification) depends solely on God (John 6:37,44-45,64-65; 15:16; Rom 8:31-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 1:4-5; 2 Thess 2:13-14; 2 Tim 1:9; Jude 24-25).
Scripture teaches that God sent His Son into the world to completely pay the price of all sins—past, present, and future—for all who believe (Isa 43:25; 44:22; 53:5,8,11; 61:10; John 1:29; Rom 3:25; 5:8-11; Eph 1:7; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10; cf. Isa 1:18). Furthermore, Christ’s resurrection affirmed God’s acceptance of that total payment (Rom 4:25; 8:34; 1 Cor 15:17). An accurate understanding of the completeness of forgiveness is foundational to believers’ assurance.
Fourth, some people lack assurance because they cannot remember the exact moment of their salvation. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism have wrongly placed too much emphasis on a dramatic event—the so-called decision for Christ. They have so emphasized praying a prayer, raising a hand, walking an aisle, or signing a card, that when people cannot remember such an event they may wonder if their salvation is genuine. The only legitimate basis for assurance has nothing to do with a past event when one “made a decision,” but is based on the reality of present trust in Christ’s atoning work, as evidenced by one’s present pattern of faith, obedience, righteousness, and love for the Lord (cf. 1 John 1:6-7; 2:6).
Fifth, some believers still feel the strong influence of their flesh or unredeemed humanness and wonder if they truly are a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). One day all saints will experience complete deliverance from the flesh when they enter the heavenly realm (Rom 8:23; 1 John 3:2; cf. 1 Cor 15:52-57). But as long as they feel the power of the flesh warring against them (Rom 7:14-25; Gal 5:17), they may doubt if they are really Christ’s.
But one must read Rom 7:14-25in a balanced way. The passage does explain the reality and power of the flesh, but it also speaks of the believer’s desire to do what is right (vv. 15,19,21), his hatred of sin (vv. 23-24), and delight in the Law of God (v. 22). The battle Paul refers to is indicative of the regenerated spirit contending against the flesh (cf. Rom 8:5-6), and therefore is reason for saints to be confident they have new life in Christ. Unbelievers have no such struggle (Rom 3:10-20) and no confidence in Christ.
Sixth, other Christians may lack assurance because they fail to see God’s hand in all their trials. They thereby miss the strongest proof of assurance, which is a tested faith. Paul instructed the Romans…
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:1-5; cf. Heb 6:10-12; James 1:2-4)
Peter earlier wrote,
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Trials test believers’ faith, not for God’s sake but theirs. He knows if their faith is truly saving faith because He gave it to them (Eph 2:8-9); however, they learn their faith is real because it triumphs in their trials. In God’s sovereign providence, He ordained that believers’ trials and difficulties constitute the crucible from which assurance derives (cf. Job 23:10; Rom 8:35-39).
Seventh, others lack assurance because they do not know and obey the Word and, thus, fail to walk in the Spirit, whose ministry it is to assure obedient Christians (Rom 8:14-17). He does so first by illuminating Scripture for them (1 Cor 2:9-10). The very process of illumination means the Holy Spirit is confirming to believers that they are children of God. Second, the Spirit testifies through salvation itself, as He reveals to saints that Jesus Christ is indeed their Savior (1 John 4:13-14). The Spirit’s work in the hearts of the elect causes them to love Christ and dwell in the love of God (Gal 4:6). Third, the Spirit’s testimony draws believers into communion with God, as the expression “Abba! Father!” in Rom 8:15and Gal 4:6 indicates. That term of intimacy connotes a Spirit-generated petition of praise and worship offered to the Father.
Finally, and perhaps mingled through all the previous issues, some believers lack assurance because they are willfully sinful. Clearly, one who walks in the flesh and fulfills its desires (Gal 5:16-21) will not know the blessing of spiritual fruit or the joy of assurance (vv. 22-23). Purity and assurance go hand in hand, as Heb 10:22points out: “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” When believers fall into sin, they may fall into doubt, as happened on various occasions even to the psalmist (e.g., Ps 31:22; 32:3-4; 77:1-4,7). Whatever the causes for lack or loss of assurance, the reliable cure is to walk in the Spirit and thereby obey God’s commands (Ezek 36:27; John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor 2:12-13).