Assurance of salvation is possibly the hardest thing to counsel because to some degree you don’t know what you are counseling when you begin. There are four basic reasons someone may doubt their salvation. Not all of them can be fixed in one session or even one week of counseling.
The first and most obvious reason people may doubt their salvation is they may not actually be saved. This doubt in their mind is a merciful work of God revealing to them their lost state. Many sit in pews across the world believing they are the Lord’s, but God will gaze upon many of them at the end of time and say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:23) What a mercy of God to arouse doubt in minds in order to bring people to Himself. A good question in this instance may be: “Have you ever made a decision like this before?” or “What do you believe will get you to heaven?” Both are good questions and many can be added to these in order to give the counselor the most complete view of what is going on in the counselee’s heart.
The second reason people might doubt their salvation is due to a faith focused on an event in their life instead of Christ’s work on the cross. These people are normally asking, “What if I don’t remember getting saved?” or, “How do I know I said the right words?” There is debate among good men on this one as to whether or not the person is truly saved. Some say they are simply over-emphasizing the “event” or “prayer,” while others would argue that if one is putting one’s faith in one’s own prayer or sincerity, one cannot be putting one’s faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross. Whether this person is saved prior to getting counsel or not, it is our responsibility to teach what the Scriptures say about salvation. It is never the work or prayer of the individual (in fact, in many places in Scripture a salvation prayer is not even mentioned – Mark 16:16, John 3:3,16,36; 5:24; 20:31, Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5 ) but the work of Christ.
The third reason people may doubt their salvation is because of reoccurring sin in their lives. God makes it very clear throughout I John, as well as James 2:14-20, that salvation always results in a changed life. It is impossible for a person to be impacted by the largest, most powerful Being and remain unchanged. When someone has sin that seems to be ongoing without any form of victory, they begin to question if they have truly been “made new” by God. This is a legitimate concern and should not be taken lightly, but we must realize that God uses the insecurity about our relationship with Him to encourage us to repent and come back to Him. In a sense, God is able to use the doubt of one’s salvation to bring about a change in someone’s life in this case. Some would simply reassure someone of their salvation and be done with it, but if the lack of assurance stems from sin in their lives then what is truly the root issue? Dealing with the root will always affect the fruit. This is a spot where the counselor can almost forget that he is talking about assurance of salvation for a while, because the root is sin. When someone repents of their sin and sees God’s response to their sin (forgiveness) (Romans8:1) and the power we have against sin when we are in Christ (Romans 8:33-39), the doubts about their salvation will usually dissipate.
The last reason people may doubt their salvation is because they don’t understand the doctrine of eternal security. If you are not looking at Scripture as a whole, it is easy to believe that every time you sin you must repent and believe all over again. This is an opportunity to teach further about salvation. (John 1-:28-29) The counselor should explain to this person the differences between justification (God frees us from the penalty of sin – Romans 8:1), sanctification (God frees us from the power of sin – Philippians 2:12-13), and glorification (God frees us from the presence of sin – Romans 8:16-18). This is really a fantastic opportunity for the counselor to engage in the first steps of discipleship with someone and give them a greater understanding of the gospel and how God chooses to work in the lives of men.
After seeing the four basic reasons people doubt their salvation the counselor could be more intimidated than ever by this problem. The counselor does not need to fear, however. The rest of this pamphlet is meant to be a resource that will help the counselor to understand the specific problem as well as to give the most God honoring counsel. The first thing in any counseling session is questions, questions, questions! This one is no different. The simple question, “Why do you believe you may not be saved?” should be one of the first questions you ask. Their answer will help you narrow the reason for their doubt. If it is sin, then ask them if it is a specific sin. If it is a specific sin then perhaps you are looking at the fourth reason for doubt listed above. If they don’t believe they are saved because they don’t think they are doing enough good things, perhaps it’s the first reason for doubt listed above. If they are struggling because they can’t remember when they got saved, or are not sure if they were “sincere enough,” then you are looking at the second reason for doubt. Questions are the best tool for understanding the root issue.
Once you have in your mind what the reason for their doubt is, you can then give correct counsel. There are some fallacies that many fall into when counseling assurance of salvation that must be cautioned against. Here are two suggestions to guard against fallacies.
1. Say only what the Bible says.
This may seem like a very obvious statement, but many are surprised at how often they find themselves going against this. It is an easy thing to tell someone “I really think you are saved.” The problem with that is only God knows the heart. It would be a shame if someone who was somewhat moral in their life, and knew a few right answers walked away from a counseling session thinking they were saved because a counselor said, “I think you are saved.” The best way of counseling any subject (but especially salvation) is simply reading Scripture. When a counselor tries to explain what someone needs to do/believe without an open Bible, they tread on dangerous ground. There is so much “spiritual jargon” in churches that typically if the counselor just explains salvation, many people will not understand. It is the Word of God that is promised to be quick and powerful. (Hebrews 4:12) There are no better words to use than those one can read from God’s Word. Read a verse and ask the person being counseled, “So what does this verse say?” Let God’s Spirit do the interpretation. Sometimes He allows the counselor to help by answering questions or explaining something that the counselee truly does not understand. The key here is that the Word of God is what changes lives, not a counselor.
2. Have the counselee write a statement of faith.
Many well meaning preachers and counselors have had counselees write down dates and times in their Bible so they can remember when they got saved. This may be helpful for remembering an event, but it has also proven to be a hindrance to others. It is somewhat due to this practice that reason number two for doubting salvation is such a widespread problem. There is no question with what motives counselors use such instruction. That is not the issue whatsoever. The intention is to be a reminder of the great work that Christ did in their lives. The problem arises when one looks back to a date to find assurance of salvation. When that is presented as the source of comfort for eternal security, one is left wondering if he said the right words, or if he was sincere enough, or if it really worked. The comfort for all those with such struggles is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not in a date written in the front of their Bible. The solution to this problem is to have a counselee write in their Bible a statement of faith. This should consist of a few sentences all beginning with the words “I believe.” The date does not need to be written because it is irrelevant. The only thing relevant is belief in the truth. With this written in the front of a Bible, a person doubting salvation can go back and read what he wrote and be pointed back to Christ’s work on the cross. Remembering the gospel is the best blessing anyone can receive when beginning to doubt.