Of all the blogs of the last few years, the one that has received the most comments is “Salvation Doubts,” from September, 2015. It seems to have hit a nerve. It dealt with a young woman with OCD who, upon attending a new church, had heard the pastor preach, “Anyone who is not certain of their salvation probably isn’t saved at all.” She was devastated, because she couldn’t attain such certainty no matter what she did. The harder she tried, the more uncertain she became. Indeed, the obsession “Am I certain I believe?” can cause exceptional difficulties. I want to address it one more time, because of the many responses to the blog, and because I continue to get calls from people who live in the terror of it.

This particular obsession strikes primarily subgroup of evangelical Christians. Most all evangelical pastors encourage people to become certain of their faith—that is, in a self-reflective manner, being able to say with conviction that I believe in the Gospel and am destined for eternal life. This is sound reformational doctrine. It makes people examine their personal commitment and grow stronger in it. The problem arises when the doctrine is stretched further to the point of implying that certainty of belief is no only desirable, but also necessary for salvation.

To say this to an OCDer with salvation doubts is to put her in an impossible bind. She cannot make herself believe through exerting greater effort. Nor will reassurance help. The well meaning pastor may say, “All you need is faith as small as a mustard seed.” The OCDer will soon doubt she has that. He may say, “Your desire to be saved shows, in itself, that you have great faith.” This is an excellent point, but the OCDer will doubt that, too. “How do I know for sure I have the desire?”

From where comes this idea that certainty is necessary? One might think it is from Calvin, but I cannot find it in his works. I do find where he says, “Faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.” That seems to imply that those who are saved are often uncertain. Perhaps someone can enlighten us all on the genesis of the notion. In any case, it is not accepted by the most respected evangelical preachers.

Charles Spurgeon differentiated between having faith and having the “assurance” of faith (i.e., being certain that we have it). “Assurance,” he explains, “is not essential to salvation…You may get to heaven with a thousand doubts and fears.” The “Prince of Preachers” concludes, “There are some of God’s saints who do not get assured until even the last moment, and some who are put to bed in the dark.”

Billy Graham, in the Christian Workers Handbook, writes “It is not unusual for one to experience doubts, for it is to Satan’s advantage if he can lead one to believe that he was never saved.” Graham wisely notes that doubt may come as a result of disease (OCDers take note). Even R.C.Sproul, who emphasizes very strongly the importance of assurance, writes that a person can be “saved and know it not…It is quite possible to be in a state of grace while being unaware of that fact.”

Lastly, consider what Luther had to say about tormenting salvation doubts. After all, he knew more than anyone else about them. In Works on Psalms, The Great Reformer emphasizes that fearful doubt actually plays a critical role in God’s plan for our salvation. Its function is to destroy our incredibly obstinate sense of self-reliance, preparing us for the grace of true faith. The people with the most fear and doubt, Luther even suggests, are those who are most ready for God’s grace, and closest to Him.

“The weak and infirm conscience may say, ‘But suppose I cannot believe?’ I will answer: You are not even then to despair…it is only the trial and temptation of hope, though it is certainly by far the most heavy of all temptations….And I will say one thing more in my free and bold way. There are none nearer to God.”

At a very minimum we can say this: If you suffer from the obsessional fear, “Am I certain I believe?” the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you. You simply must move past it. The trial of salvation doubts is a sign of God working in us for our good, purifying us so that we will come to trust in Him more than ever by his grace.

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13 Response Comments

  • Tara turner  February 1, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Dr. O….so very thankful for your wisdom. I struggled so much with doubting my salvation. Read book after book to reassure myself. Researched but none of which gave me that feeling of certainty. All it did was put me in a pit of deepening doubt where I started questioning everything I believed and was “certain of.” I became obsessed with proving other religions were false living in pain and fear of “what if Christ won’t catch me after I die?, etc etc” I am slowing coming out of this deep dark pit but obsessions that go for a long time do not die easily. And I know for me I struggle so much with security in the love of God. Struggling to move past feelings of guilt allllll the time

    Reply
  • Frances Melvin  February 7, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    I have religious ocd and have (sincerely) accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior more than once, as ocd-ers are prone to do. (Ihave virtually stopped this behavior.) Does this show lack of faith? Some say so, others, not. I still cling to Jesus as my Savior and his finished work at the cross. Spurgeon says a clinging faith is a genuine faith.
    I am depressed most of the time. Am I to take it that I might have to live with uncertainty all my life–this is miserable. But I cling tenaciously to Jesus (except I may occasionally have doubts about this, they are temporary). I might have to face this and live in God’s will to not have my own way about certainty and control. I do hope to some day have assurance, though. Would you please addresss all questions? Thank you.

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    • admin  February 7, 2018 at 5:18 pm

      Yes, I truly believe that you, as well as others with OCD in the same situation, do have strong faith. It is simply that faith is being attacked by doubt. What is important is to continue to hope, but leave the timing as to when assurance will be given up to God. It’s a difficult trial, but God knows what he is doing. He is growing you into the person he wants you to be, even though you don’t see how. Patient hope is what is necessary.

      Reply
  • Taryn  February 16, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Hey Dr, I was reading the word today. It’s talking about when you are saved, god gives you love for him and others through the spirit. And in 1 John the verse we all know, that if you love one another, this is how you and others know you are a child of god. I don’t really love others like that. I love them the same as when I was not a Christian. Grantit, it takes time to be more Holy, but I’m scared. My lack of love for others really makes me wonder if I’m saved or not, that’s like the number one sign. I can’t do any more asking god for salvation, so it’s a predicament. Most of my prayers are about myself and I’m really self centered with my spiritual life. Any help or advice? Is this common with relatively new Believers? I’m 20. Or if this sounds like someone who doesn’t have a change of heart please just say it. I have an extreme conviction to read the word and pray and God is always on my mind. There are fruits in my life that make me think I’m saved(desire to be holy, desire to be loving, throwing away all my past sins and wanting nothing to do with them, and trying to fight my scrupulosity). But that’s tough because any non believer can do those things, it is the sudden change in love for others that proves to be a genuine rebirth. What do I do?

    Reply
    • admin  February 16, 2018 at 3:43 pm

      Who knows the amount of love in a person’s heart? Only God, I think. The question about whether you are loving or not, or whether you are any more loving since you became a Christian, or whether it matters, is probably one to ask you pastor. There are different ways to answer it, I’m sure. My own opinion is that we can’t judge our own lovingness, and if we could we would be disappointed to find how unloving we are. Futher, for a person to think that he or she is especially loving would actually be a sign of spiritual pride. Other comments welcome.

      Reply
      • Austin  February 21, 2018 at 10:13 pm

        The true test of whether you love or not is in your actions. I’ve spent too much time myself convincing myself I don’t love the way I should, but when I’m around other people, the truth comes out, and Love takes over. Love isn’t in your mind alone, it’s in your heart and bears fruit through your actions and kind words toward others. A smile, hug, kind word etc. If the desire to love and to do good is there, my guess is you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t love, when really you do. It’s hard to not focus on yourself when you constantly doubt; you fell like you need to get yourself right before you can pray for others. Stop self-condeming and understand he loves you. Change can only come from him. You are where you are supposed to be.

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        • Donna  February 26, 2018 at 5:15 pm

          I agree that love is action, not feeling. I also agree that only God can know and judge a person’s heart.
          All we can do is pray to God to give us Grace to love and then have hope that He will give it to us.
          Sometimes I hate OCD so much because I think it blocks this Grace. OCD is a liar and tries to keep us confused about things like “Am I saved?” “Do I love?” And the culture today doesn’t help with this problem.
          Maybe for us OCDer’s one sign of love is ERP. Every time we choose to trust God over our compulsions, it is an act of Love and not just toward God, but to those around us as well.

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          • Steve  June 5, 2018 at 9:32 pm

            Donna, thank you for your comment. I almost cried when I read what you said about doing ERP as an act of love. Surely facing our fears and just depending on God is a great act of love and faith towards Him.

  • Dennis  March 1, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Thank you for thoughts on this subject Dr. Osborn. I have struggled for years with OCD, in particular the question of “am I truly saved?”. Just tonight I have been dealing with thoughts connected to anxiety regarding this. When you think of the horrible picture of everlasting torment in hell it is so desirable to want to know for certain where one is in this area. There are pastors/theologians who seem to make it hard to be certain because of there emphasis on showing your faith by your works and some even as you know teach that God chose some and not others to be saved, something both Luther and Calvin taught. I have gotten re-saved so many times over the years and the assurance doesn’t seem to last. It is so tormenting because it isn’t something you want to get wrong. And then I have tormenting thoughts because my efforts to make sure I am saved can be interpreted as trying to earn my salvation which would be considered by some pastors to be adding to my salvation and therefore my salvation is lost.

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    • Jt  May 2, 2019 at 3:28 pm

      I know this post is a year old now, but thought I’d comment anyway.
      This type of ocd dealings I too struggle with, for about a year now. For a while, I too got caught up in often saying “prayers for salvation”. But there’s an issue here, one cannot get “resaved” and “sinners prayers” asking for salvation are not biblically sound.
      God’s Word tells us to simply believe/trust, or rely upon the salvation that Christ, our substitute, accomplished for us 2000 years ago on Calvary. Eph. 2:8,9 Rom 5:6. 2 Corth. 5:21.

      It is written, Abraham believed, or trusted God, and it was counted to him as righteousness/salvation. Galatians 3:6-9. He simply took God at His Word, or in other words, he decided to rely on the promise of God. That’s simply faith all.
      Genesis 2:17 reveals the curse of our sin-death, eternal separation from God. We are all sinners, helpless to save ourselves, and works do not save. Gal. 3:11 Rom. 3:23,6:23. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals our ungodliness and total inability to make ourselves perfect to be accepted by righteousness God.
      God is perfect Matt. 5:48.

      The good news is that “while we were yet without any strength or ability, in due time Christ died for the ungodly!” Rom. 5:6. If we know we are ungodly, then we know Christ(God in the flesh) died(as a substitute) for the ungodly. He is our propitiation, the satisfactory payment for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world, 1 John 2:2. 1 Corth. 15:1-4. That’s the Good News, the Gospel! This is what we are to simply believe and rely on. Don’t look to sinners prayers, baptism, church, Bible reading, or an experience you had in the past as “proof” of salvation. Look only to the finished work, the finished salvation Christ did for us. John 19:30. The proof of our salvation is the blood that Jesus shed on the cross. Rom. 3:25 kjv. He was buried and rose again, proving He is God and the payment He made was totally satisfactory to God the Father. Our sins, guilt, and condemnation were put on Jesus. God’s righteous judgement for our sins, fell upon Him as our substitute.

      What must we do? Simply believe God, that Christ paid our debt in full. Making the finished work of Jesus our only hope for eternity. For us dealing with ocd, and anyone really, we cannot look to our feelings to necessarily line up with our belief in Christ, but that’s ok. When we make the decision to rely only on Jesus and His cross, God knows our hearts/decision and sees we have accepted the gift of grace/salvation of Jesus. He then credits to us His righteousness. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit for ever more. Eph. 1:13 John 6:40.
      So look to the fiiished work of the cross my friend. Anxious feelings, doubts, confusion…no matter, simply determine to take God at His Word, the Christ is your sin-bearer. Will you have Christ to be your substitute, your sin-bearer? Will you agree with God that you are a sinner and have no hope but in Jesus? Will you relinquish all faith in anything about you, and simply accept His blood as full payment for your sins? If that’s your decision, then God knows your heart my friend. This is the essence of repentance and faith in Christ.
      No sinners prayer needed, no asking for the free gift God offers. When anyone offers us a gift, do we ask or beg them for it? No, we simply believe/trust they want us to have it, and we claim it.

      After trusting only in Jesus as Savior, those old doubts may or may not stop. Especially for ocd’ers. But we can start to ignore as best as we can, know that God says our sin debt has already been paid!
      Those who reject Christ, who don’t trust in Him, are really refusing His payment and are then choosing to pay their sin debt themselves…in hell. God doesn’t want that for us though, but wants all to come to repentance. Choose to simply depend/believe only in Jesus for salvation…all who believe in Him are not condemned. John 3:16,18

      Reply
  • Stephen Stewart  October 17, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    Would you explain further your statement that “the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you”?

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    • admin  October 18, 2018 at 8:50 am

      Your question refers to this statement: “If you suffer from the obsessional fear, “Am I certain I believe?” the teaching that you are damned if you don’t does not apply to you.”

      The point I’m trying to make is that, according to Luther, we are not saved, or justified, on the basis of being certain of our faith. We are saved on the basis of Christ telling us we are. Here is the URL of an article that might be of interest to you: http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/carysolafide.pdf

      Reply
  • Katherine  January 28, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    I was wondering could you recommend any good books on scrupulosity and doubts about salvation and the love of God for someone who struggles with ocd?

    Reply

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