Assurance and Ecclesiology

BIBLE 1JohnThe local church is a “factory of assurance” (Strachan and Sweeney, True Christianity. 98). That is to say, the local assembly of believers and particularly our place in that assembly is a means by which we can find assurance of our salvation. All Christians experience doubts about their salvation at various points in their lives. How we respond to those doubts is important. One specific way to find confidence of our salvation is to look at our place in the body of Christ. Assurance of salvation can be found in our ecclesiology.

We don’t tend to think of the church as a means of building up our confidence of salvation. The church might have many roles in our theology, but encouraging our faith when we doubt is not usually one of them. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century Puritan pastor, saw this value and commended it to his own people. In his 1741 text Distinguishing Marks of a True Work of the Spirit of God Edwards wrote:

If the Spirit that is at work among a people operates as a spirit of love to God [and] man, ‘tis a sure sign that ‘tis the Spirit of God. This sign the Apostle insists upon from the 1 John 4:7 verse to the end of the chapter: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love, etc.” Here ‘tis evident that the Apostle is still comparing those two sorts of persons that are influenced by the opposite kind s of spirits; and mentions love as a mark by which we may know who has the true spirit. (quoted in True Christianity, 92)

Edwards points to love as a mark of true conversion, and the church as one of the primary stages for the demonstration of that love.

If we’re honest enough to think carefully about it the church can be a difficult people to love. After all, the church is not composes of identical people. We are many and diverse. We come from different background, with different temperaments, interests, and experiences. We are of different ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Anything and everything that sin and the world use to create divisions we may find in the people of God, and yet we are one. The Bible calls us a family, one body, a building. We are all together despite our differences. So, we readily recognize that loving the body is difficult, and yet the Apostle John, as Edwards points out, we are called to love one another. It is a sign then, that God is surely at work in our hearts if we can truly say, “I love the church.”

In their book on Edwards historians Owen Strachan and Douglas Sweeney do a great job of highlighting Edwards doctrine of conversion. Their they look particularly at Edwards’ doctrine of assurance which finds roots in a Biblical ecclesiology. Their work reminds us of the lost value of the church in our assurance, they write:

This is not a common standard by which people measure salvation today. If you ask a number of Christians how they know that they are saved, very few of them will reference the church and describe how they love people of all types now because of their unity in Christ. Edwards’s words, however, direct us to closely involve the church in our doctrine of assurance. The way one cares for one’s fellow members says more about our testimony of conversion than we might initially think. True Christians serve their fellow members out of love. This is a crucial mark of a saved soul and a missing element in many of our assemblies. (True Christianity, 94)

When we doubt, then, we ought to look not only to our profession but to our love. Does your love for the church testify to God’s work in your soul?

Often when a believer doubts their salvation they are inclined to try to plumb the depths of their motivations. They look back to their initial profession of faith. They ask questions about the sincerity of the prayer they prayed, the earnestness of the faith they possessed. They try to ascertain from that one moment in history if they are truly converted. Such pursuits, however, will rarely comfort us. After all, how do you ever really plumb the depths of your own motivations? That is a bottomless pit of uncertainty. We may, however, follow the Apostle John’s path to assurance by looking at the love we possess for the church. John wants to “reassure our heart” when it doubts (1 John 3:19), and he aims to do that by encouraging us to look at our love for the saints. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). We can find confidence in the face of doubt by looking to the love we have for the church.

It’s not perfect, of course. There is only one place of absolute confidence: Christ died for my sins and was raised for my justification. But when I doubt I may look to my relationship with the church. There I can find great confidence that God is at work in me because I love His people. Again, Strachan and Sweeney write:

A common argument of many nominal Christians is that they love Jesus but don’t care for the church. The teaching of 1 John exposes the flaws of this argument, revealing it to be an unbiblical dichotomy. All who are saved by God possess the Spirit, which links them to all other people who possess the Spirit. The local church, of course, is not perfect, and some have had difficult experiences with churches they have attended. But when God saves a person, He gives them a love for His people. His people are the church. (99)

Do you doubt your salvation? Look at your relationship to the church. Ask other believers if you demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Ask them if you demonstrate love and service. Ask them to help you believe what you cannot feel at that moment. Or ask them to help you experience what you have not yet experienced: true conversion. In either case the church is a means of giving us encouragement when we doubt. Assurance of salvation and the local church belong together. The church is a factory of assurance.

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