The gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly the message of the entire Bible. Any honest reader of Scripture, who has a basic understanding of God’s Word recognizes that Christ is the focus of the Bible, and the gospel itself, the good news of what God has done in Christ for sinful men, is the only remedy for a lost world. But the gospel and its implications to all of life have often been used only evangelistically. The church has often failed to see the many applications of the gospel to the Christian in all areas of life and growth. The truth is that the gospel is the basis of everything in the Christian’s life. We must be “gospelized”– gospel-centered, gospel-focused, and making the gospel the central reality in all our living.
There are various applications of the gospel relative to the ministry, such as the worship life of the church. Christ himself must be the focus in our singing, prayers, and in all preaching and teaching. Any church that departs from keeping the gospel central in its ministry, that ministry will cease being effective. There are also other areas where the church must remain gospel-centered, such as missions, social work, personal evangelism, and our relationship with government and society. But I want to focus here on a more specific and narrow application of the gospel, that being the pastoral counseling and shepherding of those who lack or struggle with assurance of salvation.
The doctrine of assurance is greatly neglected in our day, in terms of both understanding it biblically and in gospel preaching. We do not have time here to address the issue of assurance more deeply, only to say that Christians and Christian leaders must make a distinction between a person’s possession of salvation and the possession of assurance. These two things are not the same. One does not always follow the other. There are people who are converted and who possesses assurance of their salvation, and there are people who are converted who have very little assurance, and in some cases, no assurance.
What is the answer and the means of helping them? There are various issues involved relative to assurance, but at the heart of the issue is the gospel itself and our believing it. I would argue that a clear understanding of the doctrinal truth of the gospel and a person’s acceptance with God through Christ is the only certain remedy for a lack of assurance. This has great implications for effective pastoring counseling. This is often neglected or forgotten, but may be the most important issue in pastoral counseling. Here’s why.
When a pastor deals regularly with a person who lacks assurance, what is he to point them to? Here is a man or woman who makes a clear profession of faith in Christ, is consistent in worship, has a tender heart, loves the preaching of the truth, and loves to be with other Christians, but they cannot gain personal assurance. What will help them the most? When they pour out their heart to you, desiring guidance and counsel, where do you take them? Do we have them focus on their own struggle and inward need, to get them to analyze their condition? Or do you take them to the cross, outside of themselves, to freshly see what Another One has done perfectly for them? This, and this alone, is where they can find assurance—the gospel.
The battle for assurance is one of the most significant battles Christians often face. One of the hardest trials any Christian can go through is to have little or no assurance of salvation. It is also one of the most challenging areas of pastoral counseling. The difficulty is what approach to take in trying to help such a person without trying to give them assurance yourself. They may have inconsistent assurance, little assurance, or no assurance. The reason for the lack of assurance is also often very difficult to discern—are they living in some unconfessed sin? Are they just battling besetting sins and are being condemned by the devil or by themselves? Are they laboring under unbelief that they are not good enough for God to love them? Are they basing their acceptance with God on their works or their performance? Are they physically or emotionally exhausted, chemically deficient, or battling physical sickness? Or the greater question may be, have they ever been truly converted at all?
There are many reasons that can be the root cause of the lack of assurance. It is, at times in some cases, virtually impossible to know the root cause. For one person, it may be purely spiritual reason and another person’s struggle may be completely different. A prolonged experience of no assurance is one of the most discouraging and difficult experiences a true believer can go through. I have often said that, in some ways, it would be much easier to face a physical sickness than to be a true Christian who lives with the agony of having little or no assurance of their acceptance with God, feeling or believing that God doesn’t love them.
Pastorally, here is what often happens with such persons. Picture such a person coming over and over again to their pastor or elder. One day, they come and say, “I need to talk to you; I just don’t think I am saved.” Discussion begins and then ends. The next week it happens again: “I know what you said is true, but I have no feelings about God being with me or loving me.” And the statements continue in different ways, even for months.
“How can I know Christ died for me?”
“What if I only think I’m saved and I deceive myself and go to hell?”
“What if I did not have pure motives when I thought I believed in Christ, and I was a false convert?”
“What if I come to Christ and he won’t receive me?”
“I regret so much the horrible things I’ve done in the past; I can’t get over it and it haunts me so much; how could God ever forgive such bad things?”
“I don’t really think I repented deeply enough for God to save me.”
“I have tried to come to Jesus, but it doesn’t seem like I can get saved.”
“I don’t know if I have truly believed or not.”
“Won’t I feel any different when God really saves me?”
“If I was truly a Christian, I don’t think I would doubt God’s love for me.”
On and on it goes. How do you counsel such a person? It can drive a pastor to discouragement if he is trying to find some new or innovative thought or way to give help to such people. Over the years, I have found there is only one truth such people must be brought back to, and that is the death of Christ for them and his free offer of salvation to them. Regardless of their questions, doubts, or struggle, the issue is always the same—will they believe that Christ died for them, and will they come to him, and in coming, will they believe he receives them freely? Christ is freely offered to them in the gospel, and they are invited and commanded to come to him without delay and without excuse. This is the gospel’s answer to a lack of assurance. The objective redemptive work of Christ is the only basis of assurance. They will never gain assurance by looking within themselves; in fact, that often is the cause of the lack of assurance in many people.
The gospel is always the answer in the battle with assurance. It can boil down often to one of several causes: 1) they are yielding to specific sins that are robbing them of assurance; 2) they are trying to be accepted by God on the basis of their own works or performance; 3) they have a physical, psychological, or chemical imbalance illness that is the root of their spiritual struggle; 4) they are in pure unbelief, not believing that God has forgiven their sins; 5) they are not a believer at all, and will not have assurance until they come to Christ.
In such cases, the person should see a doctor and get a full physical exam to eliminate the possibility of a physical problem. Spiritual struggles can be rooted in physical problems. But once that is dealt with, the answer is always the gospel.
If a person is a believer, it is the gospel they need to be reminded of. They do not need to be told to look inside their own hearts; they do not need to be convinced by a sincere friend that they are a Christian; they do not need to rack their minds to find out where they are wrong, etc; the propensity toward introspection for a weak-minded believer who cannot gain assurance is very real, and no one facing this battle should be directed to look inward to find relief.
The only answer is to direct the struggling soul, over and over again, to the objective unchanging standard of Christ and what he has done for sinners. If a person is condemned for their sins, if a person believes God could not love them, if a person is convinced God is willing to save anyone except them, if a person is convinced they have committed the unpardonable sin—the only reply to any of those scenarios is to set before them the perfect work of Christ on their behalf that makes and keeps us right with God.
It is only in believing the gospel that they will gain peace and assurance. If they are a true believer, but are yielding to specific sins, the gospel is also the answer. They must see that Christ died for those sins, and the sins are robbing them of their relationship with the Lord and robbing them of assurance. If they are trying to gain assurance based on their works, performance and goodness, then the answer is the same. Nothing can make us accepted by God except the gospel. The perfect atoning work of Christ is the only basis of our acceptance with God. This is why at times the best thing a person could do who lacks assurance is to take a deep and long look at the doctrine of justification by faith, and the doctrine of the death of Christ in the place of sinners.
This is the wisest path and approach to take for pastors in helping weak saints with their battle for assurance. We cannot tell them they are saved, we cannot simply give them assurance because it won’t last, and we cannot somehow talk them into a logical gaining of assurance. The gospel itself must become very clear in their minds, and only the Holy Spirit can apply it. So in pastoring people who lack assurance, pastors need to be a broken record. We have one and only one message to doubters. If they are lost, the gospel is the answer; if they are a believer, the gospel is still the answer. Point them to flee to the Savior and believe the work he did for them. The gospel itself is the greatest tool in pastoring the doubting Christian. This, and this alone, can bring peace to the doubting soul.
– Mack Tomlinson