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 a 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 not 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.