Hebrews 11:1-2 tells its readers that, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.” Most people I know, and this includes pastors, need people and promises they can count on. We also know that in the church, however, are two kinds of people: promise keepers and promise breakers. Preachers generally embrace the former and avoid the later, however un-theological it may be. After all, preachers are human too. We want to deal confidently with folks who are in ministry with us. Yet, we all know the all too human shortcoming of forgetting what we promise—or simply refusing to do things that we had committed to earlier.
When I attended the University of Texas, I had a wonderful professor named Dr. James Kinneavy. Rhetoricians generally recognized Kinneavy as one of the world’s leading authorities in the academic discipline of rhetoric. I loved to meet with him and soak up all the wisdom and knowledge that he dispensed without even realizing it. He knew Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Augustine backwards and forwards—and so many other great rhetorical scholars as well. The problem was that although he could cite any text in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or The Rhetoric by both chapter and verse, he could not remember lunch dates he made with me to discuss my reading assignments. We would make a lunch date and three times out of four he would fail to appear. He always apologized, but after a while anyone might get gun-shy when setting plans for lunch with him. We all want to count on promises made by others. This is perhaps most especially true about the promises God makes to us.
John Wesley was one of those great souls who spent much of his life looking for assurance or what Hebrews might call the “things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He searched scripture, church history, church doctrine, and the minds and hearts of all he respected. Yet, the peace and inner calm he sought continued to elude him. Finally, as Methodist lore tells the story, Wesley found that peace of mind in the assurance of God’s love at a little church on Aldersgate Street, as he listened to someone read Luther’s preface to the commentary on the book of Romans. The United Methodist Book of Worship puts it this way: “On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced his “heart strangely warmed.” This Aldersgate experience was crucial for his own life and became a touchstone for the Wesleyan movement (United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, p. 439).
Generally, the feeling of assurance is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Some people get it immediately upon conversion; while others, like Wesley, search for it for many years. My guess is that assurance is like the missing remote control for the television. About the time we stop looking for it, then it finds us.
Assurance is the calmness people sense and feel when they know God has sent Jesus to save and redeem us. It is an inner testimony by the Holy Spirit that God loves us and offers us salvation in Jesus. But assurance is not an equivalent to knowledge. Rather, assurance is more like a promise that we completely and fully believe, accept, and trust. This “faith” then gives us the confidence to lead lives that befit the gospel. As Paul himself says, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
As believers, the bedrock of our ability to live abundant lives is to have confidence or assurance that God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is our ultimate anchor. Every other idol, whether in nature or even in our own success, is a chimera. These objects of false confidence are fleeting and untrustworthy. Faith in Christ is the only trust in abundant life that we believers can grasp.
As people of faith we live between two alternatives. One alternative leads to countless questions that eventually bring us back to where we began. The other alternative is to live in faith until the Holy Spirit grants us that inner peace with God we call assurance. I grasp at this second option because, after all, hasn’t God already given us everything else?