Blessed Assurance… Coming From The Devil?
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine; Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Thus have Protestant Christians sung lustily about their salvation ever since the hymn was written by Fanny Crosby and appeared in Palmer’s Guide to Holiness and Revival Miscellany in 1873. Yeah, but how do you know that Jesus is yours? asks the rude skeptic. But, more than rude skeptics have raised the question. Christians of all traditions have raised the question and often with existential angst: What is the stuff of blessed assurance? How can I know that Jesus is mine? What should Christians run to and lean on for assurance that they truly do belong to Christ and are heirs of final glory? Christians of all communions have sought advice on this question from their respective theological authorities.
In the Reformed tradition that embraces a limited atonement, Jesus only died for the sins of those God elected in eternity to save. Maybe that includes you… but then again, maybe it doesn’t. Given this classic Reformed understanding of the cross of Christ, it was popular in American Reformed history to anchor an existential quest for blessed assurance in the conviction that God takes care of His elect in this life. He grants them eternal and temporal blessings, which in the words of Crosby can be taken by the sinner as a foretaste of glory divine. Thus what Max Weber coined, the protestant work ethic motivated many within this tradition to lives of hard work, discipline, and frugality to work out their salvation with fear and trembling and the desire to acquire the blessed assurance that glory divine is in their future.
But what if you are dirt poor, and tragic events punctuate your life?
In the Arminian wing of Protestantism, while universal atonement for all sinners is confessed in the cross of Christ, forgiveness and salvation come to sinners not as a gift bestowed, but as an offer for personal decision. Blessed assurance is to be found in a sincere commitment to Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior. If that commitment seems to have waned or grown weak, then so has your assurance. Often the formula to recover a blessed assurance has directed the alarmed doubting Christians to recommit their lives to Jesus. However, the question of what kind of criteria should be used to measure the adequacy of one’s sincerity has been met with various responses. Some have counseled that the Holy Spirit will assist in the matter of sincerity with internal testimony. Others have pointed to one’s zeal to put away carnal patterns of life and live obedient to the precepts of God’s holy law.
But, what if you are questioning your sincerity, and carnal patterns of sin in your life do not seem to be going away?
Lutherans, following Martin Luther, have always pointed to the external Word of Christ as the source of blessed assurance. It is the objective Word of Christ’s universal atonement which proclaims to all sinners that they are forgiven and God is not counting their trespasses against them (I Cor 5:19). Blessed assurance if found in the cross of Christ as the Gospel reveals it and bestows its saving gifts. But I do not feel forgiven!, many Christians have confessed. The Lutheran tradition would like to counsel all Christians that when it comes to the assurance of salvation, your feelings be hanged! Never look inside yourself for that assurance… well, almost never. (More about that exception below.)
God wrote His Law on the human heart and for all of us sinners, it just keeps convicting us of our wretchedness – sinful lives and anemic faith. That is what it is supposed to do. The blessed assurance of the cross for Christians is not so much that Jesus is yours, but that you belong to Him. (Isa 43:1) He joined you to Him in the blessings of the Gospel in your Baptism.
But now, here is the exception. Luther understood that there is also blessed assurance from the experience of the trials and tribulations of the Devil – even for the most mature in the household of faith. The Devil assaults the Christian with accusations that can make even the strongest Christian squirm. The Devil comes and accuses Christians of living lives that possess habitual sins totally unworthy of saving faith and being a child of God. With these in your life, the Devil chides: How can you confidently claim that you belong to Christ? Is this the way real children of God behave? On the contrary, the Devil want you to evaluate the presence of such wretched characteristics as proof that you do not belong to God. Real Christians do not have sins like yours. The Devil wants you to conclude that they constitute an unblessed assurance that Jesus is most certainly not yours.
But it is even in such indictments of the Devil that Luther counseled that Christians do indeed have a blessed assurance that they belong to Christ. The assurance of the Devil is in some of the details. First, Christians need to remember that the Devil assists us in really understanding that we do not live by a stability born of our own resources (Christian Life: Cross or Glory? 127). Secondly, as Luther pointed out, the Devil only vexes and assaults the faith and life of Christians, especially mature ones. With all unbelievers kept safe as citizens of Hell, he never assaults. He soothes. So Luther could refer to the Devil as the Doctor of Consolation – an instrument of our Lord not to provide here doubt, but confidence that Jesus is ours.
Soooo, in addition to the cross, blessed assurance comes… from the Devil. Think about it: The Devil providing a foretaste of glory divine! Kind of weird, isn’t it?
(For further reading about how God uses the Devil to provide Christians with assurance that they are truly children of God living in the cross and bound for glory, check out Chapter 7 on Tentatio in my work, Christian Life: Cross or Glory?)