I frequently receive letters from people asking me all sorts of questions. I am unable to answer all the requests but try to reply to as many as I am able. I have picked out some of the questions I have been asked and over the next few months will post them and my responses as blogs. I hope my replies will help you in your own journey of faith and, if the question is relevant to you, be of help to you.

Question: I am in a huge faith crisis. I am wondering if I am really saved. I have wondered for many years and every now and then it creeps up on me. And the huge terror of perhaps not being saved is bringing me to the end of my strength and tether. I feel like I’ve never had a ‘moment’ of true peace and assurance. And then I get angry at God because I just want to know. I am trying not to always be filled with fear when I think of God; I know that there is huge grace but for some reason I feel like it rarely goes from my head to my heart. I was reading St Augustine yesterday and he seems to have had a moment where he had to bend his will to do the thing he really wanted, which was to follow Jesus, and I feel like perhaps that’s me. But I have prayed for salvation/assurance so many times that I feel like God is never going to reply/listen and give me peace. Not sure what to do!

Answer: Sympathies! You may think that you are alone in this problem but it is in fact something that recurs regularly in the Christian life. Actually I’m more worried by people who glibly announce that they know they are assured of eternal life (and often lead careless lives) than by those Christians who doubt their assurance. And you are in very good company: off the top of my head, Luther, Bunyan and Spurgeon come to mind as fellow sufferers.

Now part of the issue here is untangling various things and of course this is not easy. One helpful place to begin is hinted at when you say that you have prayed for ‘salvation/assurance’ many times. Now although salvation and assurance are related they are different things. Let’s try to unpack these.

Although we could juggle with the words, to be saved is surely to realise who Jesus is and what his death achieved and, after confessing and rejecting wrong deeds, to put your faith in him. It’s a one-off act of the will: a decision to take Christ as Saviour or Lord. So looking at the Bible – the only safe basis for thinking about these things – I would say that at conversion you become one of Christ’s people, are freed from the power of the devil, are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and become adopted as a member of God’s family. That decision of the will or the intellect is normally confirmed at some point by an act of baptism and is, if you like, reaffirmed on a regular basis by taking communion and saying the creeds or something like them. Now if you have done these things then you are a child of God. Being such a child of God is an important matter. I read in my Bible a lot about children being adopted into the family (see Romans 8:15–16); I read nothing about them being cast out. What father would say to his daughter, ‘Actually, I’ve decided to disown you’? Now the important point about this for you in your situation is that this is an objective fact. To become a believer is very clearly to shift from darkness into light, from being an enemy of God to one of his friends, to go from being a stranger to a beloved child of God. It’s not about emotions but about a real change of status.

Now I think that what you and many people refer to as assurance is actually an experience or an emotion. Objective facts are one thing but we human beings rely very much on subjective feelings. The fact is that feelings are fickle things and they can come and go based on some minor change in body chemistry. So someone catches a flight and has not the slightest fear of flying; then, on the connecting flight, for no obvious reason they are plunged into agonies of fear. The objective statistics of flying have not changed but for some obscure reason their mood has. And, in my experience, people who are susceptible to depression often find themselves doubting their security in Christ and, once the depression is dealt with, go back to having a happy, confident relationship with God.

So the very key to the concept of assurance is not what we feel but what Christ has done for us. The reality is that you can have a great deal of assurance simply on the basis of God’s Word. God has made promises and if you have held on to them then surely assurance lies in having enough faith to say, ‘God I trust you and your word. I believe you and I am confident that you will keep your promises to me.’ Romans 8:1 is a great encouragement at this point: ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus . . .’ Another useful verse is 2 Timothy 1:12: ‘Because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.’

So let me make three practical suggestions.

  1. Rather than worrying about your feelings of assurance, concentrate instead on the promises of God. Read his Word, copy out promises, listen carefully to what you are singing in church and put your faith in him. What he has promised he will do! He will leave no child of his behind. What you may well find is that, in the course of doing things, you become aware of the reality of God’s love to you in Christ by his Holy Spirit.
  2. You don’t mention anything about your church fellowship but, if you haven’t got one, find one. I would urge you to look for one that teaches solid truth and with someone in leadership who is full of Christian wisdom. Many of these problems can be resolved in a 10-minute chat over coffee with someone who knows you and the way you think.
  3. One other thought. I notice that you use the word ‘fear’ when you talk about God. Now I’m making a total guess here but sometimes people struggle with the Christian idea of God because they think that God is just like an earthly father and, all too frequently, they find problems with that idea. If you have had problems with your human father, then what you need to do is ‘recalibrate’ your idea of fatherhood. So, for instance, if you always referred to your father as Father and it was a far from satisfactory relationship then you want to try to modify that word in the context of God. He is, after all, the perfect father. Under such circumstances I think it might be perfectly permissible to, at least mentally, begin the Lord’s Prayer with ‘Our loving heavenly and perfect parent . . .’

Very finally, ironically – and be encouraged here – these concerns occur most commonly with those people who are seriously trying to walk closely with God. After all, let’s face it, if you’re not serious about the Christian life why would you even worry about assurance? So let me say at the start that it is a general (but not infallible) rule of thumb that those Christians who worry deeply about whether they are saved probably are.

For reasons best known to himself, God sometimes lets us walk in darkness. Under these circumstances you must walk forward by faith, rather than sight. But continue to walk forward! If you do that you may well find that, sooner than you think, God will bring you out into the light and grant you a delightful knowledge of himself!

Press on in faith!

Revd Canon