Saturday, July 12, 2014

‘Blessed Assurance’ (Book Review)

“Am I really saved?” Many Christians ask themselves this question at some point in their lives, and sadly, many never get a satisfactory answer. They continue to mull doubts over in their minds, wondering, “Do I hold the right beliefs?” “Have I done the right things?” They might seek out advice from a church leader or read their Bibles fervently for clues, yet never gain assurance of their salvation in Christ. They continue to live in doubt, trying to cope with the possibility that they might be facing eternal torment in the Lake of Fire.

So, can we avoid lying awake at night, worrying over whether God is going to send us to heaven or hell? In other words, is it possible to be absolutely sure of one’s relationship with God? Eric Douglas, pastor at Moreland First Baptist Church (Moreland, KY) and writer for Truth Matters Blog, has some answers. His Blessed Assurance: How to Know That You Are Saved (2014) encourages Christians to confront their doubts head-on. Using the First Epistle of John as a guide, Douglas identifies three “tests” by which we can know how we stand with God: (1) the “upward” test of faith, (2) the “outward” test of change, and (3) the “inward” test of knowledge. Each test is linked to a Person of the Trinitarian Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A passing score on all three means we can have “blessed assurance.”

This approach bothers me on multiple points. While his three tests might make a simple teaching tool, it doesn’t seem theologically sound. Douglas chops up 1 John, obscuring the proper context of each verse, in order to force his three-test model on the text. Digging deep into the author’s intent isn’t as important to him as prooftexting to support his case. I felt as though he did this rich letter a great disservice.

As for the tests themselves, rather than build confidence, I think they open up the possibility for greater doubt. The test of faith is whether or not you truly believe in God’s promises and His ability to keep them. Well, yes, God gave a promise of eternal life…but to whom? The problem may not be whether God keeps his promises, but whether He has made any promises to me! “Us” after all clearly means John and his readers. Douglas personalizes the text without any discussion about how – or why – it should apply beyond the original audience.

The test of change is whether or not your life is one of repentance and service, reflecting the influence of Jesus Christ. Douglas is primarily concerned with people who think they’re saved without showing any fruit, as he once did. Proof of salvation is that Jesus changed your life. This was a bit confusing to sort out. We’re not told how to distinguish between Jesus’ effect on us and change brought about by our own efforts. His view also doesn’t explain why the Bible is filled with instructions to do this and that good thing if righteous people under the influence of Christ will just naturally do them. In other words, why aren’t we automatically good? Is there a limit to the kind of changes that we should expect to see in someone’s life? Douglas’ view makes the salvation of any Christian who does any kind of sin suspect, a ridiculous standard to be sure.

As for the test of knowledge, this one clearly shows Douglas trying to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to reassure doubting Christians, but he argues that knowing that you are saved, through the influence of the Holy Spirit, is a necessary condition for salvation. In the end, his only recommendation for unsettled minds is for them to turn back to God. But surely that can’t resolve the doubts that haunt them at night. How can we seek comfort in God if we’re not sure He’s at all accepting of us? Douglas’ final advice might be summed up as this: ignore the problem.

These are the main issues I had with the book, but there were others. For example, Douglas misinterprets Jesus’ parable of the “Pearl of Great Price,” telling readers to value faith, rather than the kingdom of heaven. And in the introduction, he reveals his naïve expectation for Christians today to have the confidence of Paul, someone who claimed that Jesus appeared and spoke to him. I was left wondering if the real problem was a lack of serious guidance and editing available to the author in the early stages of his writing.

Now, you’re probably thinking I should talk about what did I like about Blessed Assurance? At 66 pages, many non-readers would find it user-friendly. Friends and family members who might shutter at the thought of reading a book on theology or apologetics may actually crack this one open, the first step towards progress. Inside, they’ll find Douglas reassuring them that their doubts are normal and even good, and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. That said, I still stand behind my statements about the weak theology and sloppy exegesis. Some readers might find the “blessed assurance” they’re looking for. However, I’m afraid that Douglas creates more problems than he solves. I suggest leaving this one on the bookstore shelf.

Disclaimer: I received a free manuscript edition from the author in exchange for an honest review.