I’ve been working my way through G.I. Williamson’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. There so much I can write about (and probably will). But I was really struck by this section of the WCF on assurance;
True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it; by falling into some special sin, which woundeth the conscience, and greiveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation; by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness, and to have no light; yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart and conscience of duty, and of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance my, in due time, be revived, and by the which, in the mean time, the are supported from utter despair. (WCF 18.4)
Old language, I know. But listen to Williamson’s commentary
There is a great difference between believing in Jesus Christ (without which we cannot be saved) and believing that we truly believe in him (without which, important as it is, salvation is possible). The man who cried, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), surely had faith in Christ, but he was not sure of his own faith. Just as a man may be sure that he is saved and yet not be saved, so a man may be saved (by faith in Christ) and yet not be sure that he is saved. Infallible assurance in not the essence of saving faith…The Bible does not say that we must have infallible assurance to be saved, but only that we must have faith in Jesus Christ (Mark 5:36; John 11:26). We ought to have such assurance. We absolutely must have faith…There are many exhortations in the Bible urging believers to strive for, and attain unto, this assurance (Heb. 10:22; 6:11; 2 Peter 1:10). But if all true believers were required to have full assurance as the essence of saving faith, there would be no need to exhort them because, being believers, the would on this view already have it.
I don’t know how many times, in the course of my Christian life, I’ve heard that the way we know we are Christians is because of our assurance, “we know that we know that we know.” What I love about this part of the Confession is the reality that Christians may go through times that they don’t know. But this raises an important question, in whom or what are we placing our assurance? If it is in ourselves, that’s pretty shaky. Some can make false professions and have absolute assurance because they are convinced that they are of the elect simply because of reliance on that assurance.
But there’s something else important in Williamson’s commentary. Scripture itself gives us validation that lack of assurance in not only possible but it most likely at times, probable. That’s not to say that we should live in persistent doubt, but that reliance on ourselves is questionable. This is why we need exhortation from the Word! I’m often amazed when it is presumed that the people Scripture was written to ‘just got it’. Of course not. They, like us, were in persistent need of this means of grace, to ground their faith when it got off course and their doubt began to rise.
So when we doubt, question, get ensnared in sin or just get so beaten down by trials to the point where we question if we are really saved, what makes this determination? Faith in Christ. If we are turning to him, that is a sign of assurance. Williamson says it well;
The true believer may not be sure of himself. Yet even in his sore distress he cries unto God because he is a true believer.
Having gone through a 13 year rebellious period and a few mini faith crisis since repentance in 1999, I totally get that this may not occur right away. But eventually, those whom are called and justified (ala Rom. 8:29), will respond to the Spirit’s persevering work. But it’s not because of faith in ourselves that we have assurance. The true believer does not place faith in himself because it is appropriately placed in Christ, with a yearning for HIS righteousness, when it seems that ours has failed.