A brother came up to me after a sermon in which I walked through Jesus’ teaching on the new birth from John 3. Distraught is a word that could describe him— anxious, inquiring. At one point the desperation turned into these words: “Am I just being presumptious? I’ve always presumed I’m saved; I don’t want to presume anymore.”
How you council a brother in that scenario is crucial. Their wound is open, and how you treat the issue at hand could have profound effects. A wrong move could harden. A right move could strengthen a believer, or, perhaps, lead that anxious individual to Christ for the first time.
Recognizing the significance of the situation, I thought back to one of the most helpful tips I’ve ever read on the subject. It was from a book I read last summer, Princeton and Preaching. The book tells the story of Archibald Alexander’s conversion. His was accompanied with many struggles and pains. He wrestled deeply with assurance. Two men in particular were near to counsel him in these times, Dr. Smith and Mr. Mitchell. They both counseled him in different ways. The author writes:
We have here an instructive illustration of the two methods in which even good men and experienced Christians deal with anxious inquirers. Dr Smith undertook to judge of the exercises of the heart, and to decide whether or not they exhibited evidence of regeneration. He led the inquirer to refuse hope in Christ until he was satisfied he had experienced the new birth. He thus drove him to the borders of despair.
Mr. Mitchell pointed the wounded spirit to Christ, and bid him hope for acceptance on the ground of his merit and mediation. This brought peace. Had any one persuaded the bitten Israelites not to look in faith on the brazen serpent until they felt themselves cured, they too would have despaired. Our first duty is to receive Christ, and in receiving him, he brings convictions, repentance, and all the graces and blessings of the Spirit.”
Those two paragraphs have shaped my ministry to these kinds of people immensely. For a struggling inquirer, the worst place you could tell them to look for assurance is in the mirror. Self-examination does one of two things: it leads to despair or to delusion. One either becomes hopeless or self-righteous.
The better way is to point people to Christ.
Back to my friend, standing amid the Sunday morning after-service bustle, questioning his own salvation. I asked, “Is Christ able to save you?” Normally, such a rhetorical question would require no answer. Of course. But this time I let it sink in and re-asked the question signalling I wanted him to answer verbally: “Is Christ able to save you?” “Yes.” He said. “Is Christ willing to save you? Is his death enough to cover your sin? Is his righteousness enough to make you acceptable to God? Is his love strong enough to hold on to you?”
“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” This is great advice for the one seeking assurance. Point them to Christ. Show them Christ. He is much better at granting assurance than you.