From Atoms to Mustard Seeds: Assurance and Uncertainty

Religion — By on September 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

John Wesley insists we can have assurance of our salvation. Romans 8:16 states, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Wesley takes this to mean that we can be absolutely certain of our entrance into heaven:

“To secure us from all delusion, God gives us two witnesses that we are his children [his Spirit and our spirit]…Their testimony can be depended on. They are fit to be trusted in the highest degree, and need nothing else to prove what they assert.” (Standard Sermon Eleven, The Witness of the Spirit)

The problem with Wesley’s argument is that it is based on a feeling of conviction. The reverend does warn against deception by instructing his congregation, “Let every man who believes he hath the witness in himself, try whether it be of God; if the fruit follow, it is; otherwise, it is not.” Nevertheless, feelings can be misplaced. Mormons are some of the kindest, most sincere, and religiously pious people I know. Yet when they are presented with a difficulty in the logic of their faith, they ignore rationality and instead reply that they know their beliefs are true because of a “burning in their bosom.”

John Calvin capitalizes on this possibility of deception, insisting that faith may not be real, but only a false pretense. In other words, feeling an assurance of salvation is not a promise of that reality. According to Calvin, if someone turns away from his or her faith, they were probably not part of the elect, and never truly saved in the first place:

“The faith of some, though not true faith, is not mere pretense. They are borne along by some sudden impulse of zeal, and erroneously impose upon themselves, sloth undoubtedly preventing them from examining their hearts with due care.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter II)

If Calvin is correct, then I could believe that I have salvation through Christ, not realizing that I will fall away 20 years down the road and end up one of the reprobate. That is not a comforting notion.

Which of these two doctrines do I believe? Both Calvin and Wesley are well-known, well-respected theologians, whose texts are still read centuries after their deaths. They both present convincing arguments, defended with conviction. Yet the opposing arguments and objections seem equally convincing. How could God allow a single soul to slip through his fingers, once grasped? Yet how could God cling to and save a soul that does not desire salvation?

In all honesty, I do not have a final answer for this issue. It seems very important—not necessarily to the non-believer, but to every Christian. I would like to absolutely know that I am safe in Christ—that I will not fall away and find myself burning eternally after my death.

While I don’t know all the intricate details of how salvation works, I do know one thing—God is good. He sent his Son into the depths of hell to save us from our foolish decisions, which means that he desires our salvation. Jesus tells his disciples, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matt 18:12-14)

This issue of salvation is only one of many uncertainties. The more questions I have, the more unanswerable questions I have. I must rely upon my Creator to support me through the uncertain and unsolvable. That is extremely difficult. As humans, we want to have knowledge and certainty; we want a floodlight on our path, not a simple lamp. Yet if we did know all the answers, there would be no need to trust God. If a mustard seed of faith will move a mountain, I only have an atom. But more answers will only decrease my reliance on faith, not increase it. I pursue God more through uncertainties and trials than times of assurance and harvest, which is probably one of the reasons for testing. And while it is hard to suffer through uncertainty, if it will bring me closer to the Lord, I am willing to endure.


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  • Amy Mantravadi

    You are certainly right that we can’t rely on a simple “feeling” to confirm our deeply held beliefs. Human emotions are so volatile and flawed that it would be unwise to trust solely in this method of assurance. Even the greatest Christians have gone through periods where they did not feel the presence of God strongly. However, this does not mean that we can never be sure of our salvation. The “feeling” of assurance is only one component; there is also the standard of right belief. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15) This would rule out your Mormon example, because their beliefs about Christ and God the Father are not in sync with what is presented in scripture. But there is still another standard given to us by James, who says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:17) Thus, true saving faith results in obedience – not immediate perfection, but evidence that sanctification is taking place. Those who take the teachings of Calvin too far might say that even the firmest believer can never be sure of their own salvation, but I disagree. If we consider these different signs mentioned in scripture, we have no reason to be afraid.