Six Ways to Give Your People False Assurance
As a pastor, I interact with a lot of people who struggle to have confidence in the authenticity of their conversion. To their mind, their sin clings closely and their failings are always at hand. Most of the time, I find that these are faithful brothers and sisters who need comfort and reassurance.
But there’s another group of people in many of our churches that are much more worrisome: those with a firm but unfounded belief that they are genuinely converted. Perhaps you know the type. They know the right words. They stay free from scandalous public sin. And they are moral people. But they have no true fruit, no evidence that God’s converting Spirit is at work within them. And oftentimes there is an untreated area of secret sin.
SIX WAYS PASTORS FOSTER FALSE ASSURANCE
These people are hard to reach—it’s like they’ve been inoculated to the gospel. They think they already have what they most need, and so they aren’t looking for anything more! And if there is an area of hidden sin, they’ve long made peace with it.
Sadly, our churches are at least partly to blame for their presence in our midst. Allow me to suggest six ways that we pastors may inadvertently help to foster false assurance in people like this.
1. Assume the Gospel
It’s easy to assume that the people in our churches understand and believe the gospel. After all, they are in church on a Sunday morning. But the fact is, many of our churches have taken the message and the congregation’s understanding of it for granted. As a result, our churches are full of people who may understand some of the implications of the gospel (e.g., how to be a better husband; how to manage your anger) and live moral lives without appropriating the gospel for themselves.
This is spiritually deadly because moral lives might be the evidence of someone’s faith in the gospel, but they also might be the evidence of self-righteousness and Phariseeism. It’s surely right to emphasize that the faith which justifies is never alone, that works always accompany true faith. But we must first emphasize that we are justified by faith alone, and emphasize this over and over again, else the works which you see will not be the works of a saving justification. When the gospel is not made clear, when the Way to heaven and the highway to hell are not clearly pointed out by the preacher, then people will assume that their morality or their church attendance gives them grounds for assurance.
In short, don’t preach moralism. Ever. Preach the gospel every week. And then, with the indicatives of the gospel firmly in place, preach the imperatives that necessarily follow.
2. Give Them a Superficial View of Sin
The Bible teaches us that sin is not just something that we do, it’s who we are in our fallen state. The Scriptures teach us that we are all spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-2), slaves to sin (John 8:34), guilty of breaking the entirety of the law of God (Jas. 2:10), and condemned to experience God’s righteous wrath (Rom. 1:18). We are sinners through and through.
People with unfounded assurance often misunderstand sin. If sin is merely a matter of external and observable behaviors, then with some effort and discipline they can solve their own problems. But if we can compel them to wrestle regularly with the biblical teaching about their sin, then they will be forced to see their need for the new birth and a salvation that comes from outside of their own person.
3. Treat Church Membership and Discipline Casually
Membership in a local congregation is meant to give believers assurance of their salvation. It’s a corporate seal of approval on someone’s claim to be a Christian. When a congregation examines someone’s profession of faith and way of living and then baptizes that person and admits them to the Lord’s Table, the church is saying, “As far as we can tell, and with the power and wisdom given to us by Christ, you are one of us.” On the flip side of the coin, when a church excommunicates someone, they are taking away that seal of approval. The congregation is telling the individual that his or her actions have undermined the credibility of their profession of faith and the basis of their assurance.
But when a church is promiscuous with its membership, when it allows people who do not attend the church to maintain their membership, it fosters false assurance. How many people are going to hell because their lazily-overseen church membership gave them false confidence?
4. Teach Them to Base their Assurance on a Past External Action
As we’ve already noted, the gospel demands a response from us. And churches and evangelistic programs have sometimes found it helpful to present some method for people to express their newfound commitment to Christ. Some offer people with the chance to say a “Sinner’s Prayer.” Others offer them with the chance to walk the aisle on Sunday or fill out a response card. And those external actions may indeed be a genuine response to the converting work of the Spirit.
But they can also be deceptive. It is possible to pray a prayer, walk an aisle, and sign a card and still be completely lost in your sins. So if we encourage people to have assurance based on some sort of external activity that can be performed quite apart from the new birth, we put them in grave spiritual danger. How many people are walking around completely lost, but sure they are going to heaven because they prayed a prayer once as a child?
5. Don’t Connect Justification and Sanctification for your People.
In a well-motivated effort to magnify the free grace of God, it is possible to teach the truth of justification by faith alone through Christ alone without connecting all of the dots for our hearers. But the teaching of Scripture is that the justifying work of Christ will always produce the fruit of righteousness in the lives of believers, as I said earlier (for just one example, see the logic of Romans 6:1-14).
A disconnect between justification and sanctification is very dangerous for believers. It undermines their understanding of the need for personal holiness and their motivation for loving God with their obedience. But it is doubly dangerous for those who have false assurance, because it encourages them to think that it is possible to live in open rebellion against God and still be righteous in his sight.
6. Teach Them to Ignore the Bible’s Warnings.
The Scriptures are full of dire warnings to those who would embrace sin and/or leave the faith (e.g., Matt. 5:27-30, Heb. 6:1-6). In our efforts to clearly teach God’s sovereign care for his people, it is possible to undermine the force of these warnings by giving the impression that they don’t apply to believers.
But those warnings are in the Scriptures for a purpose. They are true and they are one of God’s ways of keeping his people from wandering away. A wise pastor will press home the gravity of sin and apostasy and call all of his hearers to endure in the faith.