This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
The enduring struggle of believers of all walks of life continues to be a longing for assurance. I can recall several of my peers confessing to wanting an assurance of their faith growing up — a verification, of sorts, that their salvation was real, genuine, honest. Perhaps this was due to a flawed teaching of God’s salvation or their own faulty understanding of it, and wherein one’s grounds for confidence in it lied. Regardless, if you’ve spent any amount of time in church, I think you’d have to agree that among the most popular prayers uttered in sanctuaries across the country are prayers appealing for assurance of faith. Interestingly enough, much of what we hold dear as Protestants results from another believer’s quest for assurance, too. The impetus, in large part, behind Martin Luther’s campaign against the Roman Catholic Church in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation is, essentially, a recovery of biblical assurance.
Luther was a student in law school when during a journey home one night he was nearly struck by lightning (so the story goes). It was in the midst of that terrible storm that he vowed to enter monastic life if he was allowed to survive. Of course he did survive, and soon entered an Augustinian monastery, much to the chagrin of his father. Luther was ineradicably religious. He understood the the unflinching heights of God’s holiness and felt so strongly his inability to reach those required heights that he confessed every single sin. Stories say that his priest actually barred him from confession unless he had a grievous sin to confess. You might say he was “righteous over much.” (Ecc 7:16)
Luther’s ascribed school of religion, though, was not able to give him the assurance he craved. The severity of God’s righteousness, as he understood and studied it, would not permit the smallest offense to slip through the cracks. But for all his confession, he could never confess enough or pay enough penance to quiet his restless soul. He was fearful and even resentful of a God who demanded such unflagging righteousness. It wasn’t until Luther began lecturing through St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, however, that he was made to rest in an “alien righteousness,” in a holiness that was given to him. He stumbled at the phrase “the righteousness of God” in the apostle’s opening chapter in Romans. He was especially struck by the concept that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” (Rom 1:16–17) The Scriptures were not an agenda whereby one is made to accomplish one’s own righteousness. Rather, it is God’s message of his righteous advocacy on the cross, on behalf of sinners, which accomplishes righteousness for all.
And so it is that Luther’s drive wasn’t necessarily to overthrow the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, his verve remained absorbed in recovering where assurance of righteousness was found. That is, not through an institution or tradition or human mediatorship, but only through the gospel of God’s grace. “This monstrous doctrine of doubting God’s grace and favour,” Luther writes, “passeth all other monsters.”1 It was his contention that a right understanding of the Word of God would imbue one with a resolute assurance of the righteousness that is granted in faith. This is precisely because God’s grace is an objective fact that cannot be doubted. To doubt it would be to deny Christ himself.
I think this quest for assurance is still very much at the forefront of spiritual needs for the average churchgoer. Whether admitted or not, having the assurance that perfect righteousness has already been gifted to you is, perhaps, the leading spiritual scuffle in which every believer is entangled. In a germane passage in Charles Bridges’ commentary on Psalm 119, he expounds, delightfully so, on this ground for the believer’s hope. It is a passage of boundless eloquence and enrichment. He writes:
But on what ground is this hope for the Lord’s salvation built? On his faithfulness, not on our sincerity; on his promises, not on our frames; on his unchangeableness, not on our constancy. It is built, not on the work of grace in us, but on the work of Christ for us; a work which has satisfied every claim, provided every security, and pledged all the Divine perfections on our behalf; a work so finished and complete, that all the difficulties of salvation on the part of God are removed; and the sinner, finding no hindrance in the way but himself, is warranted, though covered with guilt and defilement, to apply for full, immediate, and unconditional forgiveness . . . The fulness of Christ, and the promises of God in him, are the only basis of a full assurance of salvation: and this basis is equally firm at all times, and under all circumstances . . . Your title at this moment is as perfect, your interest as secure, as ever it will be at the day of “the redemption of the purchased possession.”2
There is no ground or room for any of my own abilities — however spiritual, religious, or well-intentioned — to form the foundation of my faith. It is entirely a structure built and framed and solidified by Christ and his work for me. My religious efforts vacillate with all the emotional ebbs and flows of life. Christ’s work for me does not. It is a definitive truth of history. His “once for all” death is an unquestionable certitude that pledges to me unredactable, unretractable mercy.
When I am tormented by fear and shame and regret, the way is free and clear for me to run to the cross because Jesus has cleared it and freed me to run. Notwithstanding the heinous, hideous sins Satan conjures in the hopes of shipwrecking my faith, I only need to remind him of who shouldered all that horror for me and my faith stands on the assurance of solid rock. (Heb 10:19–22) Like Dan Price has said, “I’m fine with you looking up the sins of my past . . . just make sure you go 2,000 years back. That’s where they all are.” Your assurance is found as you recognize in faith that your sin, every last speck of it, was already paid for by Jesus’s blood. Righteousness is given. Heaven is satisfied. On Christ the Solid Rock I stand.
Martin Luther, Select Works, translated by Rev. Henry Cole, (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1826), 1:511.
Charles Bridges, Psalm 119: An Exposition (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2002), 441–42.