Can I Have Assurance Without Joy?

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Puzzled Faith: You put a lot of emphasis on new spiritual affections in people who are born again. In fact, as far as I can see, you treat them as essential to salvation, not peripheral. Doesn’t that make the experience of Christian assurance more difficult?

Christian Hedonist: More difficult than what?

Puzzled Faith: Well, I’ve always thought that faith in Jesus, rather than new spiritual affections, is the way we become Christians. Wouldn’t that make assurance less difficult?

Christian Hedonist: No. I don’t think so.

Puzzled Faith: Why not? It seems to me that treating spiritual affections as essential to being a real Christian creates instability, because these affections go up and down. Sometimes it seems like they’re not even there.

Christian Hedonist: That’s true. They do go up and down. Sometimes our thankfulness to God, and the pleasure we have in knowing Jesus, and the intensity of our treasuring him are weak. But here’s the catch: sometimes our faith is weak too.

Puzzled Faith: I don’t think of faith that way. I think of it as something constant — either you have or you don’t.

Christian Hedonist: Well, if you mean by constant that you either have it or you don’t, that’s true. Genuine believers don’t become unbelievers, and then become believers again. You don’t get saved and unsaved over and over. Saving faith is never finally destroyed. Romans 8:30 is pretty clear about that. But do you think that faith has no ups and downs — no variations like strong faith and weak faith?

Puzzled Faith: I’m not sure. I suppose I have thought about saving faith as either you have it or you don’t, and the variations as something else.

Christian Hedonist: Hmm. Something else? Like another kind of faith?

Puzzled Faith: I suppose. I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about the ups and downs of faith. Aren’t there different kinds of faith?

Christian Hedonist: Well, there’s the spiritual gift of faith mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9 along with gifts of wisdom, knowledge, healings, and miracles. That kind of faith is something that not all Christians have all the time. It’s given for a specific purpose, and then may not be given for a while.

Puzzled Faith: Right. But I wasn’t thinking about that. That’s not what I would have in mind if I thought of faith going up and down.

Christian Hedonist: Right. Neither would I.

Puzzled Faith: I just meant that I tend to think of saving faith as fixed and unvarying, and then there’s this other experience of faith — like trusting specific promises. Maybe that’s the kind of faith that can be up and down, weak or strong.

Christian Hedonist: I don’t think you are going to find that distinction in the New Testament — saving faith versus the faith that trusts God’s promises.

Puzzled Faith: Really? So you think saving faith goes up and down? It’s sometimes strong and sometimes weak?

Christian Hedonist: Yes.

Puzzled Faith: Where would you go in the New Testament to support that?

Christian Hedonist: Actually, my first response is that I think the burden of proof lies with the one who says that believing the promises of God and believing in Jesus for salvation are two different kinds of faith. That’s what would need to be proved, it seems to me. It just seems obvious to me that trusting Jesus means trusting what he says. And if you don’t trust what he says, you don’t trust him.

Puzzled Faith: I’d still like to see it in the Bible.

Christian Hedonist: Right. Me too. So I would go to the texts that point to variations in faith, and see what they are talking about.

Puzzled Faith: Like?

Christian Hedonist: It seems to me that the New Testament points to the variability of faith in at least four ways.

  1. First, there’s a reference to growing faith: “Your faith is growing abundantly” (2 Thessalonians 1:3).
  2. Second, there’s a reference to little and great faith: “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28).
  3. Third, there is a reference to different measures of faith: each Christian should think of himself “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).
  4. And fourth, there is a reference to weak and strong faith: Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body . . . but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (Romans 4:19–20).

Puzzled Faith: And you are saying that all of that is referring to saving faith?

Christian Hedonist: Yes. When Paul celebrates the Thessalonians’ faith by saying, “Your faith is growing abundantly,” he doesn’t create a special category of faith so there can be two categories — one static, and one that grows. And when Paul says that Abraham grew strong in his faith, he follows it up by saying that he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:21–22). So this is justifying faith! Saving faith. And, Paul implies, it can be weaker or stronger.

Puzzled Faith: Okay. But is this supposed to be encouraging? Is it supposed to help my assurance of salvation?

Christian Hedonist: Well, it is what it is. We don’t decide what a text means by whether we find it encouraging. We see what it means, and then, because we know God is good, we try to understand how to use his word to become stronger Christians.

Puzzled Faith: Does that include stronger assurance?

Christian Hedonist: Absolutely. Our Father in heaven is not eager to keep his children off-balance, wondering if we are in the family. He wants us to have assurance. But on his terms, not the ones we would make up.

Puzzled Faith: So how do the ups and downs of saving faith fit with assurance?

Christian Hedonist: The key thing to keep in mind is that our justification does not go up and down. Our union with Christ does not vary in the slightest. There is an infinite, qualitative difference between new life in Christ and no life in Christ. Life is life. You are not mostly alive, or mostly dead. You are absolutely alive or absolutely dead. So it is with union with Christ and justification, and adoption, and perseverance. That’s the point of Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Puzzled Faith: So your point is, I think, that I am no less united to Christ, and no less justified, and no less adopted if my faith is weak and small than I am if my faith is strong and powerful?

Christian Hedonist: Exactly. And the same is true when I say that spiritual affections are essential marks of those who are united to Christ and justified and adopted.

Puzzled Faith: So we are back where we started?

Christian Hedonist: Yes. The question we’ve been trying to answer is whether making spiritual affections essential aspects of salvation (not optional ones) destabilizes our assurance. Your main objection, I think, was that these affections are variable — sometimes strong, and sometimes weak. So that would make our assurance of salvation go up and down.

Puzzled Faith: Right. And I thought we could avoid that variableness by saying faith is the key to assurance, not affections. And you showed that that doesn’t avoid the problem, since our experience of faith is variable, just like our experience of the affections.

Christian Hedonist: Yes. And one of the reasons the variableness of faith does not equal variableness of salvation is that union with Christ and justification and adoption are not a matter of degrees: we are totally in or totally out. And any degree of true faith in Christ makes the difference — even a mustard seed.

Puzzled Faith: So you are saying that, since saving faith goes up and down like our spiritual affections, the battle for assurance is not jeopardized any more by our variable affections for Jesus than it is by our variable faith.

Christian Hedonist: Right. In fact, I think it’s the same battle.

Puzzled Faith: Really? So you think spiritual affections are essential to salvation the way faith is because saving faith and spiritual affections are the same thing?

Christian Hedonist: No. I didn’t say they’re the same thing. But I do think spiritual affections are essential to what saving faith is.

Puzzled Faith: I don’t know what you mean.

Christian Hedonist: I think that for trust in Jesus to be authentic trust, it has to involve spiritual affections for Jesus. For example, I think that saving trust has to be thankful trust, and admiring trust, and treasuring trust, and pleased trust. In other words, if you say you have saving trust in Jesus, but you don’t experience Jesus as the most desirable, admirable, valuable, enjoyable person in your life, you should question whether you have true saving faith.

Puzzled Faith: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone say that.

Christian Hedonist: How about Jesus? I don’t think Jesus was teaching anything different from justification by faith when he said: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). And notice this love for Jesus that we must have is what you feel for your most precious family members.

Puzzled Faith: So you are saying that love is part of what faith is?

Christian Hedonist: Be careful. I’m not saying love for people is part of what faith is. That’s a fruit of faith. Paul says, “The aim of our charge is love [for people] that issues from . . . a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). But, yes, I am saying that love for Jesus is part of what faith is.

Puzzled Faith: Does anybody else say that?

Christian Hedonist: Yes. For example, Jonathan Edwards said, “Love is the main thing in saving faith, the life and power of it, by which it produces its great effects” (Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, 448).

Puzzled Faith: I might have known it would be Edwards.

Christian Hedonist: Actually, he’s part of a glorious tradition of pastors and teachers who push through the words of Scripture into the complex reality of Spirit-created human experience behind them.

Puzzled Faith: I’m going to have to think some more about this. But let me see if I can repeat what I’m hearing. You are saying that assurance goes up and down with stronger and weaker faith as much as it does with stronger and weaker affections. And the reason is that spiritual affections are part of what saving faith is. And so, when the Scriptures tell us to pursue full assurance, they are calling us to fight for growing faith in God, and for growing affections for God. Because they are the same fight.

Christian Hedonist: I’m happy with that.

Puzzled Faith: If I want to read more about this, do you have any suggestions?

Christian Hedonist: I would suggest a deeper dive into Edwards’s claim that the main thing in saving faith is love, and an article called “The Agonizing Problem of the Assurance of Salvation.” Perhaps we can talk again.