The assurance of salvation is a God-given confidence that a person has been forgiven of sin and accepted by God. Though assurance is a grace of God, it is not an essential part of saving faith. It is given by God through the means of grace, and may be lost through neglect, sin, etc.
When reforming evangelism, people always want to know how to “close.” Someone hears the Gospel, wants to respond – what do we say? The simple answer is we tell them to repent and believe and let them do it. But here's a bit more of my thinking on the subject.
One of the problems in our Convention is that many like to pass out “assurance” like acid at a Pink Floyd concert. It’s free for everyone who wants it. You don’t even have to ask for it. I understand this, because for many the idea that we would leave someone hanging, waiting, wanting assurance but not having it is almost cruel. But the exact opposite is true. If we wind up giving someone false assurance (what the Puritans called presumption) the danger is both to their souls and the health of the church.
Though my experience has been that most new converts experience assurance at, or around, the time of their conversion, it is not always this way. And more importantly, it is not an essential part of saving faith (1 Jn. 5:13). Thomas Brooks wrote that being in a state of grace (saved) means heaven later, but knowing that you are in a state of grace (assurance) is heaven on earth! He argued that assurance is not an essential part of being a Christian, but is an essential part of a Christian’s well-being.
So as we are guiding people to Christ, as they seek, we should be careful to let God do his work (regeneration and assurance) while we are doing ours (law/gospel). Some of the danger is found in an unconverted person’s change. One may begin seeking, clean up their lives and begin to look religious. But none of this should be confused with conversion. As I have used the diagram with seekers, they usually remain clear about were they are spiritually. Sometimes confusion comes and we have to guide them back to the simple commands of Jesus.
After worship one Sunday a woman came up to me and said, “I’m ready.” She and I previously had long discussions about becoming a Christian, following Jesus and the need to respond while she had the chance. She said, “I’m ready to respond.” I replied, “That’s great Michel! If you are ready, then believe, and follow Jesus.” I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted to do something. That she almost expected us to walk through a ceremony/sacrament that would seal the deal. Instead I gave her a more simple, biblical encouragement, and said we’ll talk more about it later. The way she tells the story today, as a young Christian, she remembers not being ready, not being a believer at that point. She did want it, but was not humbled enough. She is grateful for being allowed to hang there for some time, because it forced her to be honest with herself, seek God and the assurance she has came from him. It did not come from a preacher or a sacramental prayer.
The means of grace are critical here. Mark, Michel’s husband, was also seeking. Experiencing heavy conviction over sin, embracing the truths of the Bible, praying, attending Bible study and worship and the gradual reformation of his life could have lead many to assume he was a Christian. We met weekly, read books together and became friends. His was a drawn out process lasting over a year. During this time he knew to put himself in the way of the cross – to expose himself to the means of grace because that is how God speaks to us, changes us. He continued and found assurance while on vacation with his family. Now he believes he was converted a couple months prior to the time when he was given assurance by God (not uncommon in earlier generations prior to the invitation of the altar call).
But it is different for everyone. Another couple was experiencing conviction, coming to church, cleaning up their lives (literally throwing away their pot because there was too much to flush down the toilet), praying and seeking God. No sinner’s prayer, no assurance from man, and they were converted within a year, and only a few months apart from one another. Neither of these couples can tell you the day of their conversion, but they know the season, perhaps the month, and they can give a credible account of a conversion. There was a time when they were not what they are now. Yet another man who went through this process can recall the minute he believed while driving his truck. What these people, and others have in common at Grace is that they heard the Gospel, began to seek, and found salvation in Jesus Christ. They all had similar experiences in being prepared for the kingdom, yet each is unique. Every one of them became a part of our community, and understood where they stood before God before believing (future post coming on unbelievers in church as a good and necessary thing).
What I am driving at here is that we should avoid the rituals that give people a false sense of security. God does give assurance, and he doesn’t ask us to do it for him. For reading on the doctrine and practical application:
Reading on assurance: The Westminster Confession, Article 18 Second London Confession, Ch. 18 (almost identicle to the WCF, but different enough to warrant a look) Heaven on Earth by Thomas Brooks (the best work on the topic by far).