“I just want to know that I’m saved,” Bella sniffed, dashing tears from her cheeks. “Everybody talks about ‘assurance of salvation’ as if they’re so sure. I feel like I’m on the outside looking in, never really a part of the ‘in-group’ of the saved. I try so hard to have enough faith, and I’m constantly policing my life to check for anything that might not please God. But I never feel totally sure!”
Have you ever felt like Bella?
About one in a hundred people sitting in your church (1.2%) have obsessive-compulsive disorder, a complex mental health condition that can sometimes affect the way we relate to spiritual realities. The obsessive urge to know things beyond all shadow of doubt, combined with the chronic, looping doubts that are so characteristic to the OCD experience, can create a perfect storm for our assurance of salvation.
In this article, I’d like to discuss assurance of salvation for believers who have a chronic anxiety disorder.
Preconceived Ideas About Assurance of Salvation
We all grow up with preconceived notions about God, salvation, and what it means to live in this world as a Christian. Certainly, we have beliefs–either examined or unexamined–about what “assurance of salvation” actually means.
Some of us believe that assurance of salvation is a feeling, a deep, secure, unshakeable confidence that should operate seamlessly and continuously for the believer during all life circumstances.
Others might reference Romans 8:16 to say that assurance of salvation involves a mystical sort of inner voice from the Holy Spirit, bearing witness in the quiet chambers of our mind to confirm that we are indeed saved. As it is written,
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.Romans 8:16
At some level, those who chronically struggle with assurance of salvation are stuck on the belief that “assurance” is something tangible and constantly accessible to our emotions, like a precious pearl hidden in our pocket that we can reach in and touch whenever we’d like.
However, one of the issues with this interpretation of Romans 8:16 is the idea that if we are truly saved, the Holy Spirit will never allow us to feel insecure or doubtful. Those who follow this line of thinking may suggest that any and all spiritual doubt is a sign of not being saved.
This, of course, can’t be true. Even people like Elijah, John the Baptist, Thomas, and Job experienced major doubts about God and their own experience with Him.
Others might escape the pit of waiting for the Holy Spirit to deliver unshakeable confidence onto their doorstep. Instead, they replace this passive, tortured waiting with intense personal effort. They may believe that assurance of salvation is something produced through our own hardworking faith, strained to a high pitch of belief so solid that we feel we could move mountains. One of the verses they may call to mind is,
But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.
These people feel that faith and doubt are complete polar opposites, and that any tiny grain of insecurity–about anything–could spell spiritual disaster. Thus, they feel it is up to them to work very hard to have the right kind and quantity of faith. If they don’t feel 100% sure of their salvation, they may experience guilt and fear, thinking they have failed in their responsibility to “have enough faith.”
Are these appropriate ways of understanding assurance of salvation? Or did God have something different in mind–something more restful?
What is assurance of salvation, according to Scripture?
Biblical Truths About Assurance of Salvation
I would like us to read the following verses clearly and plainly, just as they read. Try not to impose your own interpretations or obsessive-compulsive fears on them. Just read in a straightforward way, like a child would read.
And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.John 10:28-29
Notice in this passage that my security is contingent upon the efficacy of Jesus and the Father. No one can snatch me out of His hand. My eternal salvation is safe, but not because I was able to rein my mind up to a high-frequency pitch of uber-faith. It is safe because Jesus holds onto me.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.1 John 5:13
Here we see that eternal life is for those who believe in the name of the Son of God. This is so comforting to tortured, anxious souls who feel that they must do this and do that to be “enough” for God.
There is one thing, and one thing only, that we must do–believe in the name of the Son of God.
He has already done everything to secure our salvation. Assurance is never meant to be self-referential. Assurance of salvation is not to be found in a mirror, but through a skylight towards the heavens. It is based entirely upon what Jesus did for me on Calvary and what He continues to do every day as He imparts the beauty of His character to me.
Think about this: do you feel less assurance on days when you struggle with your sins and mistakes? Then it is probable that you are looking to yourself to fill your heart’s desire for assurance. If we are keeping our eyes properly fixed on Jesus and His unmoving, unrelenting love for us, our confidence will not dip and soar in tandem with our good and bad days. It will remain fixed and constant, externally anchored in Christ rather than our faltering selves.
This is not to say that we can toss our hands in the air and live a life of hedonistic vice. Certainly, good works are the fruit of salvation. But good works should never, ever form the basis of my eternal confidence. (Think of the thief on the cross and how many good works he had the chance to do!)
If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”Romans 10:9-13
Here we are reminded, once again, that my salvation is meant to be a very simple thing. I believe with my heart and confess with my mouth. God, because He is rich in mercy and because of the great love with which He loves us, saves me when I call upon Him.
Many people with religious OCD have a tendency to complicate this very simple experience. Typically, we obsess over the quality of our faith or the presence of it, perhaps bemoaning the fact that we don’t “feel” our faith. We may hyper-analyze our confession of faith, wondering if it was truly sincere enough, informed enough, or pure enough. We wonder if we said the words “just right.”
For those struggling with your confession of faith, let me remind you that the Bible gives us no creedal formula for confessing our belief in Christ. Centuries after the time of Christ, Christians came up with nice, compact confessions, but keep in mind that these are manmade, formulaic prayers that are not essential to the salvific experience.
You might be thinking about the Sinner’s Prayer. Maybe you prayed it when you gave your life to Jesus. But where did that prayer actually come from?
Well, let’s go back in time to the revivalist era of American and European history. Remember the First and Second Great Awakenings, when spiritual revival swept across the western world? During that time, John Wesley introduced a piece of furniture in the church called the Mourner’s Bench (also called “the anxious bench”). This was a wooden bench in the front of the church where people would kneel for hours and hours in anxious prayer. It was taught that one could be sure of their salvation if they prayed long and hard and anxiously enough. (Doesn’t that sound rather scrupulous!) This was the historic period in which terms like “altar call” were popularized, as people were called forward to kneel at the Mourner’s Bench and receive a new life in Christ.
However, as time went on, this approach was seen as too time-consuming. In the early 1900’s, as preachers began using voice-enhancing technology like microphones, they were able to preach to larger and larger crowds. Having mourner’s benches was impractical when hundreds and thousands might be brought to Christ in one evening. So preachers simplified the process by inventing short, formulaic confessions like the Sinner’s Prayer. It was, in part, invented to meet a logistical need on the frontlines of evangelism.
But that doesn’t mean it is “the” divinely inspired way to experience salvation.
If you prayed the Sinner’s Prayer when you came to Jesus, that’s fine. But if you’re one of the obsessional ones who has been praying the Sinner’s Prayer 400 times per day for the last decade of your life, trying to get the words and feelings and motives just right, it might be a good idea to permanently file this prayer away and search for a more authentic, non-scripted way of relating to God.
When you call on the name of Jesus, He immediately and gladly covers you with His blood. You are saved–rescued from this dark world–and your name is registered in the Book of Life.
You might have mixed motives, weird feelings, stuttering speech, or distracted thoughts. But yet, you chose to call on His name. That’s what matters. No one forced you at gunpoint. It was your decision, even if it was a pitiful little peep for help.
Jesus responds to our pitiful little peeps. He moves mountains to get to us. And once He has us, there is nothing that can snatch us out of His hand.
But Why Don’t I Feel Saved?
I’m sure you’ve read these verses and many others. We could include a dozen more if we had time. But maybe you’re not looking for more verses, you’re wondering why they don’t seem to sink in.
What is it that makes you keep coming back again in mind-numbing loops, like rats on a wheel, trying to figure out if you’re really saved?
I believe that certain segments of the population–such as those with obsessive-compulsive disorder–are particularly vulnerable to the effects of our emotions. We take our feelings way too seriously. In a culture where therapists and social media stars tell us to “validate our feelings” and always “listen to our gut,” let me be that one lonely voice telling you not to jump on that bandwagon too quickly.
Sure, some of our feelings are valid. But some are totally off the charts nutty. It is possible to feel anxious when nothing bad is going on. (For people like you and me, that could happen a dozen times per day.) Chalk it up to messed-up brain patterns or too much negative self-analysis–either way, our brains have the ability to manufacture bad feelings that have zero foundation in reality.
That’s why I’m careful with the whole “validate your feelings” thing.
(Though, to be fair, there’s a place for that. Especially if you’ve survived toxic, gaslighting, abusive, or narcissistic people, you might have a compromised ability to listen to your own emotions when they really ARE important. So keep that in mind. There’s balance to be sought here.)
If we think assurance of salvation is something we are supposed to feel, but yet our feelings change every few hours, we’re headed for trouble. This is why it’s important to recognize that assurance of salvation should never be self-referential; my assurance is not related to what I’m feeling or how well I’ve performed today. My assurance is anchored in the work of Jesus Christ on my behalf. This is what gives me confidence, or “assurance.”
“Yes,” you might be half-agreeing, “but how can I know that I’ve done what I’m supposed to do to receive His work in my life?”
That’s where I come back to my “Theology of the Pitiful Little Peep.” If at any point in your life you have uttered even the most awkward and pitiful prayer–or less than a prayer, just a string of confused words, spoken from trembling and uncertain lips–you’re safe under His wings. He has started a chain of events–no, even before your pitiful little peep–that cause Him to be eternally interested in your welfare.
“Even if I was calling on His name from selfish motives?”
Yes, even if.
“Even if I’ve sinned over and over again since then?”
Yes, even if.
“Even if I didn’t fully understand what I was committing to when I said that pitiful little prayer?”
“Even if I’ve made promises to God and broken them, and cursed His name, and had horrible thoughts about Him, and doubted His existence, and failed to read my Bible for a year because I’m too anxious to approach Him?”
All these questions are a way of reversing the focus back onto ourselves and our performance. It is a false view of salvation, one that depends on ME ME ME instead of our merciful Savior Jesus Christ. Remember Paul’s reason for having assurance of salvation? He chose to use the word “confidence” to express his outlook on eternal realities. What gave him confidence for the future?
Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;
No, you’re not perfect right now. Neither am I. Let’s not kid ourselves.
We need massive amounts of sanctification and growth in grace.
But this is the point I’m trying to hammer home: the amount of work needed in my life doesn’t have anything to do with my name being in the Book of Life.
I’d like you to think of salvation in this way.
Imagine that God is an investor and He has bought a thousand plots of land for development. You own a few acres of miserable, undeveloped swampland that’s basically good for nothing. God-the-real-estate-investor comes and asks if you’d like to sell Him your swampland. He offers you a billion gazillion dollars plus an everlasting home in glory if you give Him the land.
After thinking about it for awhile, you agree. You give Him your ugly, stinky swamp.
God is elated. He begins work right away. He starts draining the swamp, working the soil, and removing rotten logs.
But you start strolling through town to take a look at the other plots that God is working on. Near the middle of town is the pastor’s plot. There’s a shiny church building on it, with a golden bell tower and sparkling stained glass windows.
“Did God build this on your land?” You ask the pastor in surprise, your mouth hanging open. “Everything is so perfect. God could never make my land investment turn out this good.”
“Well, don’t be deceived by how things look on the outside,” the pastor winks. “God’s not done here yet. He’s still working on some wiring issues in the basement and a few foundation cracks that I caused with some unfortunate DIY attempts. It’s been taking us some time. I don’t know why, but it seems like that final fixes always take the longest.”
You meander down the street and see all the other plots. Everyone’s buildings seem new and beautiful. Some are clearly in progress, with open window frames and unpaved driveways. But everywhere you look, you can see God’s development.
You begin to feel discouraged. Your plot of swampland seems so puny in comparison. You’ll never measure up to what you see in everybody else! Maybe this is just a useless endeavor. You go back to find God on a backhoe on your plot.
“God, we need to talk,” you call out.
He shuts off the engine and the swamp goes quiet.
“God, I don’t think this is going to work. I can’t live up to my end of the bargain. My plot of land is hopeless.”
“Why don’t you stop looking at the swamp and just let Me work?” He asks gently. “You gave me the land. I’m going to give you eternity and a beautiful building. The only thing you need to do is let Me work and stop worrying so much.”
“Yes, God, but I just don’t feel very secure about this whole thing. Isn’t there anything I should be doing to ensure that the building project will go well?”
“Why?” God asks. “Do you think you can build as well as Me?”
“Well, umm, it’s not exactly like that…”
“Your efforts are to be placed in trusting Me. ‘Fight the good fight of faith,’ not the fight of works.”
“Yeah, but it’s really, really HARD to trust You when I don’t feel secure about how everything is going to end up.”
God revs the engine on the backhoe again. “I didn’t say trusting Me is easy,” He smiles. “I just asked you to trust.”
I hope my analogy isn’t too hard to follow. We give our swampy, worthless hearts to God and He gives us the riches and immortality of heaven. Then He works in our lives “to will and to do of His good pleasure,” building characters that reflect Him in the world around us. All of us are at different stages of that journey, and all of us are vulnerable to self-doubt, insecurity, and worries.
But God asks us to trust.
He never promised that we are going to have a constant, tangible “feeling” of assurance. Our assurance rests in His unchanging promises, not our own frail emotions.
We can say, “today I woke up anxious and I don’t really feel so sure of my salvation. But I’m confident that God is who He says He is and He’s going to take me all the way to heaven.”
Some days–the really bad days–our doubts might be so strong that we aren’t even sure we believe in God. We aren’t sure He is who He says He is. On those days, we can say, “I’m not sure of anything today, and that’s still fine. My intellectual attempts to figure things out are not what save me. Jesus is the only One who can save me. I choose to trust Him–to just say the words ‘I choose to trust You’–even though my thoughts and feelings are in complete, chaotic rebellion.”
“I choose to trust You, Jesus.”
This is how we experience deep and lasting assurance of salvation. It is by reversing the focus and by not expecting assurance to be an emotional experience. As we learn to do this consistently, we will begin to experience the peace and stillness of true rest.
What about you? How have you learned to be less worried about your salvation? Share your comments below!
Best wishes on the journey,