Assurance through Experience by Tyler Thayer
February 19, 2009, 8:00 am
Filed under: Thought Initiative


by Tyler Thayer

For the next month or so I have decided to pose questions to get at our souls.  Many of the next few topics will hopefully help us men question our allegiance to Christ.  It is good for us to discuss theology and culture; however, I strongly believe it is more important for us to think about our salvation and the roots of our desires.  Philippians 2:12 calls us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul clarified that this salvation is from God, but that we must apply ourselves to it and do so with fear of God with trembling. So to begin, let’s think about our assurance.

Should assurance come through religious experience?  Spiritual experience is often highly regarded within charismatic churches.  Usually the experience manifests itself in one of the spiritual gifts as described in 1 Corinthians 12.  On the other side, we have cessationists who don’t believe the gifts have continued. However, even cessationists will claim some sort of experience or feeling when speaking of salvation or assurance.  Most Christians, no matter what their beliefs, will claim some sort of feeling or experience during their Christian journey, and rightly so.  To say other wise would be saying that God is not active and not present. (And that is another topic.)

So the question at hand must be about the importance of experience in our faith. Should an experience with God the Father, Jesus, or the Spirit be the keystone of our Faith?  Do you long for an experience with God, and if you don’t have it, do you question your salvation? Where do you go to find an experience? Does experience inform faith or should something else inform our assurance?

These should be essential questions to any Christian, where does your assurance come from?

Here is an article that presents at least one side of the argument on experience.


13 Comments so far
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I think that charismatic experiences do not and will not answer the assurance question. Read Jonathan Edwards. I think that only a changed life, increased faith, and the increased presence of the spirit can lead to assurance. It requires grace for assurance is a grace.

Comment by Dave M

Assurance is something that plagued me for the longest time. Growing up in the church, I heard from many of my peers of stories of “how they got saved” which included everything from where they were to the exact time down to the very second. I personally didn’t have this recollection of details. This bothered me for the longest time. So I would pray multiple times for “Jesus to come into my heart” (that phrase opens up a couple different can of worms) and then look at the clock to force myself to remember the times. I still remember multiple times: January 6, 2001 at 10:45 pm while I was in my upstairs playroom, or February 13th the same year.

Even with all these, today I would say I probably wasn’t a Christian until possibly my freshmen year of college.

So I would like to question: What do you mean by “religious experience”? Remembering dates/times/locations? baptism?, confirmation? Emotional experiences at church camps?

I witnessed many of those things growing up; unfortunately most of the people I knew that had those aren’t Christians. Personally I think emotional experiences can be dangerously deceitful (not that I’m writing them off completely).

Matthew 7:21-23 says “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This breaks my heart that on the last day people are going to be sentenced to Hell because they deceived themselves because “they once said a prayer.”

Just before the text I just quoted, Jesus said in Matthew 7:16-20

“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Genuine salvation produces good fruit!

So one way can look for proofs are assurance is by looking for good fruit. Now for me this is sometimes hard to do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Most of the times, I’m just being legalistic and concentrating more on my sin than on the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. I’m looking towards my “works” for proof instead of looking towards Christ.

I so often, and I quote from a book Assured by God edited by Burk Parsons, “place my own sanctification before my justification, my works before my faith, and therefore seek my assurance by looking for proofs of holiness in myself instead of redemption at the cross of Christ.”

No wonder I can get so hung up! Not only am I making myself feel condemned (which in all reality I’m not) I’m functionally nullifying grace and saying that Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:21)

Now, I think I have said enough (probably even too much) on how I can trip up on assurance.
Then how does Scripture say we should look for assurance.

Well for one thing in John 3:3, Christ said “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Do you have new desires? New passions? New goals? Do you hate sin and have a “fire in your soul” to put it to death?

Or are you content living in your sin?

Those who truly love God love what God loves, and hate what God hates, and Scripture is very clear that God hates sin.

1 John 3:4-10
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

John is not teaching perfection. Earlier in the book he said “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

The key word is “practice” which implies an unrepentant attitude that strives and plans and orients their whole lifestyle around.

Those who are genuine have been adopted as God’s children.

Galatians 4:4-6 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!””

If you one of God’s children, you have received the Spirit, and the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Romans 8:14-17
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Ultimately, for any others who are out there that struggle with assurance, they should first seek God and pray to Him to assure them. God wants us to be assured of our salvation. And if you’re like me, test yourself: where are you looking to yourself or to Christ and His finished work?

I hope I didn’t get too often topic, obviously this is something that I’ve wrestled with for a while.

Looking back at the original post you asked “Does experience inform faith or should something else inform our assurance?”
Experiences and feelings are subjective and can deceive us. We should first inform ourselves of objective truth and let that inform our subjective feelings. God’s word is truth. That is what should inform our faith which should then inform our assurance.

Comment by Nathan Simmons

Very great topic! I know people who struggle with their longing for an experience. My ex-roomate had a discussion with me where he voiced his complaint that he’d never talked to a burning bush.

C.S. Lewis touches on this in Mere Christianity (cool read):

“I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F, an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, i’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds of thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.

In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.”

-Mere Christianity “Making and Begetting” p. 154

Comment by James Baby

^ the rest of what he says, comparing experiences to doctrine, is extremely good stuff to read about, I suggest it to anyone interested on the subject (just continue reading where I left off typing).

Comment by James Baby

I guess now we are getting to the heart of the issue. Thanks guys for posting and being so thorough!

I brought up this topic because, like you Nathan, I used to long for an experience more than just the word of God. I wanted to hear His audible voice(though not fully understanding that if I did, I would probably not be able to withstand it in this earthly form). I hope that we, as men called to leadership as servants, can rest assured through Christ.

There are churches in Christendom that seem to encourage and put an emphasis on experience over scripture, whether it be through worship, alter calls, healings, prophecy , etc. It happens all the time, even I find myself pursuing an experience. Now I don’t want to say that experience is unbiblical or even bad. Actually a genuine experience is awesome, think of all the people Jesus healed and baptized! But should our Christian faith and life be lived seeking an experience? I don’t think it should.

What we have is the very Word of God found in scripture. He often choses to speak to us through it. He breathed it (2 Tim. 3). There are dangers of riding the highs created by experience, feelings, and moods. (Nathan hit this well) When I look for an experience or pray to God for some kind of confirmation, I should immediately turn to scripture. Scripture builds a foundation that can withstand the test of fire, where nothing else can. The map illustration by C.S. Lewis is great, because it gives a glimpse of the truly amazing miracle it is that we should have the written word of God! It is truly kind of God to reveal himself in clarity through scripture.

“The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick.” (Jeremiah 17:9) We can be easily deceived by emotions and feelings, yet we can always rely on the Rock found in scripture. He is objective and true and it is within the conversation through scripture that we can rest assured through Christ.

I must constantly fight for trust in God. But where I find it most often is when the very Creator of this universe speaks it to me through His written Word.

Here’s a question. What are the implications on a man if he is not confident in his assurance? What results when he seeks experience? What results when he seeks scripture?

Comment by Tyler Thayer

Oh, in addition to the questions at the end of my last post here are three more to think about in response to Nathan’s post:

Can someone not be saved, and yet appear to bear fruit? If so, what are the implications? Are there tells for the man who is bearing false fruit?

Comment by Tyler Thayer

I dont think people really come to God without experiencing Him in someway. I believe the experience is a huge part of conversion. Whether it is Thomas sticking his hands in the side of Christ, or Paul being struck down on the road, or myself feeling His awesome presence, I think an experience is generally coupled with conversion.

To answer the new questions. We know that a bad tree produces bad fruit, and a good tree produces good fruit. We know that a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So it is safe to presume a tree that is producing good fruit must be a good tree. Likewise, a tree that is producing bad fruit, must be a bad tree. This is what it means when we will “know them by their fruit.”

If I find a person who is bearing good fruit, yet is not a Christian, I must presume he is well on his way to being called into Christ. That God is pulling Him out so to say.

Comment by James Baby

I would say in my experience, i would have to assume that, yea, good fruit equals saved, or as you said, on their way to being saved(in other words, the holy spirit working in their life). I could see that, and it makes sense.

However, how do we reconcile with Matthew 7:22-23? “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

It seems that this verse implies that these people appeared to have good fruit: after all they were prophesying and casting out demons. So in response to this verse alone, I think even the most “Christian” guy should question his salvation and thoroughly examine his heart. We can’t afford to be fooled.

Even Jesus, in Mark 13, tells his disciples to “be on guard” many, many times. And I have to wonder what the implications of these verses are. I don’t want to trivialize things, or mysticize them either, but it seems that to some degree our faith and assurance is important.

Comment by Tyler Thayer

My main assurance is that God understands me better than I do because He has been there and done that. Being fully human, Jesus knows our struggles. He knows why we needed Him to die, and why exactly we couldn’t solve our problems ourselves. It is because we are pathetic on our own to overcome sin.

Matthew 7:22 is pretty ambiguous. We do not know whether these people were faking their prophesy. We do not know if their prophecy and demon casting outage was real at one point, and they had since then faded. The words “did we not” could mean before they stopped repentance or even if they never did stop. And as you’ve stated, they simply could have been producing what seemed like good fruit (say prophecy that was actually untrue), but their hearts were really turned from God.

And this is why the bible informs us that our salvation is somehow done between God and us as individuals. Fruit will give us a glimpse into another’s heart, but only that person and God really know it. What might seem like tiny insignificant fruit to us, may be huge to God. It is really unwise for us to judge another’s salvation even with the evidence of fruit. All we can really do, and are charged to do, is explain truths about God’s nature to people who we believe may be falling, and pray that God convicts them if needed.

Comment by James Baby

I love you Nathan. Thanks for taking time to articulate your post!

Comment by Jonathan Kelfer

I think the problem comes in when one says “I have to have religious experiences in order to be saved”, meaning, that they require FEELINGS of being saved in order to be secure/have assurance.
I will not say that feelings are bad, or that they are not helpful, but I think we are given both intellectual AND experiential faculties so that both can be used to glorify and experience God.

In my travels and questions, I’ve encountered lots of people who say “God doesn’t feel real, therefore he’s not real.” This relativistic (and commonplace) mindset and way of thinking is not altogether helpful.
While not downplaying experience, let’s also not make it an absolute.

Comment by Maverick

[…] a month ago, in my post Assurance through Experience, I told you that I would be doing a series of posts that will dig down to get at our souls.  […]

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[…] a month ago, in my post Assurance through Experience, I told you that I would be doing a series of posts that will dig down to get at our souls.  […]

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