The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph. 3:17)
Even for believers, it can be hard to believe the gospel. I read the words of Zephaniah, and I marvel. Imagine it! The everlasting, ever-flowing, ever-glowing fountain of joy, rejoicing over you. The voice that spoke the stars into being, singing over me. I marvel at the love of God. Yet I also wonder: How can I be sure such wondrous love as this truly rests on me?
Valley of the Shadow of Doubt
I grew up in a Christian home, and I don’t know the date of my conversion. Over the course of my life, my Christian upbringing has been a source of so many significant blessings. But in my case, as in the case of others, it has also raised a very serious question: How do I know that Christian experience is real within me, and not just around me?
Walking Toward the Dawn: Finding Certainty in Our Christian Experience
The experience of assurance is a troublesome area of the Christian life for many. Jeremiah Montgomery is one who knows how difficult the struggle can be of finding certainty in one’s relationship to God in Jesus Christ. Walking Toward the Dawn is aimed at helping others come to a full assurance of the reality of their Christian faith and salvation.
For more than 25 years, I’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of doubt, haunted by two things. The first is the fact that since childhood I have prayed to Jesus Christ with the honest desire to be saved. In light of this reality, the second is all the more puzzling, namely that since my teenage years I’ve struggled to find certainty about my relationship to Jesus Christ.
Yet I also wonder: How can I be sure such wondrous love as this truly rests on me?
I’m now convinced that these two facts are not that difficult to reconcile. I have indeed known Jesus since childhood; how else could I have called upon his name (Rom. 10:14)? Yet just as children can spend many years relating to their parents existentially—without understanding who these people really are, and without having any substantial grasp of how relationships actually work—so I have spent many years relating to my Lord in a way that was childish, immature, and uninformed. The result has been a deep, persistent insecurity.
For a long time I didn’t think there were any clear answers. Then, a little more than a dozen years ago, I received help from a friend which set me on a path out of doubt’s shadowed valley. Since that time, through Scripture, through the wisdom of saints past and present, and through many hours of prayerful reflection, the Lord has given me even more lights leading toward the dawn: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov. 4:18).
Three Tests for Assurance
Is such full assurance really possible? Chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us that it is: “[Those who] truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace.” The Confession gives us three practical tests: Assurance may be reached through a biblical examination of one’s faith, one’s love, and one’s life.
The most straightforward of these three tests is the third. A Christian is one who seeks to follow and obey the Lord Jesus Christ in real life. Transformed living is a direct result of a transformed heart: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we do not even try to follow Christ, then it’s evident we have no real faith in him. Our lives reflect our Lord. Because this test is the simplest and most obvious, I won’t unpack it further.
Assurance may be reached through a biblical examination of one’s faith, one’s love, and one’s life.
The first and second tests, the questions of our faith and of our love, are more difficult, because the sensitive soul is well aware of its capacity for hypocrisy. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). In the face of such capacity for self-deception, how do we discern answers to questions of the heart?
Thankfully, the Confession also reminds us that in these matters we have help. Christian certainty is not an educated guess, “not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope.” Rather, we have sure, solid assistance from “the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.”
Go Forth in Hope
Both the Confession and experience suggest to me that Christian certainty requires two things: sound theological instruction and clear practical guidance. I explore both in my booklet Walking Toward the Dawn: Finding Certainty in Our Christian Experience.
Let’s go forth in hope. Assurance of salvation “doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it.” To experience doubt does not mean that one is damned. Moreover, “being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given us of God, we may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain [assurance of salvation].”
One may wander long in the valley of the shadow of doubt. But we need not despair. Not all who wander are lost.