Self-Examination, Obedience, and Assurance

Obtaining and enjoying the assurance of one’s salvation is something that alludes many Christians. Get past all the spiritual jargon and start asking some difficult questions, and you might find that a lack of assurance, whether it occurs occasionally or frequently, is a feeling that dogs many sincere Christians.

In these situations, those who tend toward introspection can make the mistake of Religious Affections Edthinking that assurance primarily comes from rigorous self-examination. “If I just can find some sincerity in my heart and in my affections—some love for Christ, then I will be assured. If I can find just one pure motive, then I will know I have the Holy Spirit.” This approach, however, is nothing more than a vicious circle, or, rather, a vicious spiral—heading nowhere but down. Someone who is this insistent on finding assurance is usually not going to be satisfied with what they find in their heart; this, in turn, causes more doubt and we are back at the beginning of the problem.

One of the most important truths I have learned from Jonathan Edwards’ The Religious Affections is that Scripture does not encourage us to find assurance primarily by self-examination, but by obedience. Edwards writes,

It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it. And although self-examination be a duty of great use and importance, and by no means to be neglected; yet, it is not the principal means by which the saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination, as by action. The apostle Paul sought assurance chiefly this way…He obtained assurance of winning the prize more by running than considering [I Corinthians 9:23-26; Philippians 3:12-14, emphasis added].

This is not to say that we ground our security in our obedience. Our security is rooted in the finished work of Christ and his promise to keep us. Our obedience, however, testifies to our conscience that we have been the recipients of a secure and everlasting salvation. The objective truths, “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:29), and, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life. He has not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24), are subjectively felt as we walk in faith and obedience.

Those of us who tend toward introspection can easily drift into intense soul-searching as the means to finding assurance. What we need to hear is the summons to obedience. Until we start acting on the truth was know, we may not find the assurance for which we are desperately searching, no matter how much reading and heart inspecting we do.

[For more on this topic, please see my article, 8 Lessons Learned from a Long Battle with Spiritual Depression at The Gospel Coalition.]

4 thoughts on “Self-Examination, Obedience, and Assurance”

  1. I appreciated this post because it reminds me of the wise counsel my boyhood pastor shared with me more than 75 years ago. He encouraged me to immerse my mind in God’s Word by memorizing verses of scripture, especially those great verses in John’s gospel on assurance. As I read this post, I recalled sitting with that man of God who wrote down over 25 verses I should “hide in my heart” and obey leading to a “full assurance of understanding.” Looking back to that occasion this morning has made my day!

    I have a son who lives in Santa Clara, not far from your place of ministry. The next time my wife and I visit him, I look forward to visiting the church where you serve our Lord. I believe I learned of your blog from seeing it mentioned on the Christian Coalition website. Keep the good things coming!

  2. Thanks Derek. The importance of this issue can hardly be overstated. Our assurance and joy go hand in hand.

    One of the most important truths I have learned from Scripture (especially 1st John) is that there is a biblical *recipe* for assurance, which includes our ongoing confession of sin, ongoing confidence in the promise of the cross, ongoing pattern of obedience, ongoing love (especially for believers), ongoing victory over the world, and right doctrine about Jesus, etc.

    Evangelicals, in my lifetime, have fallen into thinking that saving faith is something we do once in a moment of time instead of over a lifetime, after coming to Christ.

    Thanks to Jesus, salvation is free for the asking but assurance has a blessed cost.

  3. D,

    Good post brother. Have you thought of how John Frame’s triperspectivalism applies to this question? The self-examination and feeling of assurance is the existential perspective, the finished work of Christ is the normative perspective, and our obedience is the situational perspective. I agree that we should not overemphasize self-examination and feeling saved. I love how you’re saying to hold all 3 perspectives. I find myself counseling many to look to Christ while I point out evidences of grace and encourage continual repentance and faith applied to all known sins.

    In Christ,
    PJ

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