A Christianity Today online book review of the 2008 book, The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities, edited by Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart introduced me to a quote from David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, published in 1989:
“Whereas the Puritans had held that assurance is rare, late and the fruit of struggle in the experience of believers, the Evangelicals believed it to be general, normally given at conversion and the result of simple acceptance of the gift of God.”
Assurance: full confidence; freedom from doubt; certainty. Did I possess it as a newly baptised 12 year old? Did it come with my relinquishing of control over my own life and more mature understanding of Christ’s lordship at age 38? Or did I feel it at 43 when I came to grip with the consequences of embracing the authority of scripture?
My own experience in coming to “assurance” of my faith leads me to conclude that I am more “Puritan” than “Evangelical” in my theology, if Bebbington’s assessment is accurate.
I think it was there to some degree as a 12 year old. It was that modest and immature measure of assurance, a naive trust in the few promises to which I’d been exposed, that gave me whatever amount of hope I clung to in the many despairing times through the following 26 years before I finally gave over all of myself to Christ. At 12 there were many aspects of my life that had not yet appeared, therefore they had not yet been given over to Christ. But it was the experiences of those 26 years – and since – that have strengthened my assurance, bringing to full fruition through the testing to which it was subjected. So, I guess I have come to believe that untested faith leads us to an assurance of faith that is similarly untested. For most of us, the testing of our faith will bring forth a seasoned assurance that we can boldly proclaim and depend upon.
This topic of assurance, “knowing that you know that you know” with regard to one’s relationship with Christ, is one that we talk about in discipleship classes. I have told students that many of us, upon professing belief in Jesus, then proceed to live our lives at the foot of the cross being yanked back and forth across an invisible line of “assurance”, like a ball on an elastic line attached to a bolo paddle. Our enemy, satan, spends years unilaterally jerking us around, causing us to question whether or not we’ve really “gotten it” and feeling tremendous guilt and shame in the process. It’s only when we are finally well engaged in the process of santification that we begin to develop resistance to satan’s taunts and our own doubts and begin to develop real assurance. John Wesley experienced it. I experienced it. And I believe many Christians experience it as a “rare, late fruit of struggle”.