Washer, Paul. Gospel Assurance & Warnings. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-60178-294-6.
Overview & Recommendation
Some years ago, perhaps, a man asked you, “If you died tonight, are you sure you’d go to heaven?” You couldn’t answer “yes” but did indeed want to go to heaven, so you accepted the man’s offer to tell you how you could be sure. You were told you needed to admit you were a sinner, needed to repent of (be sorry for and wish to turn from) your sins, and needed to call out to Jesus Christ to save you while believing certain essential things about Christ (that he, God’s only son, himself God the Son, lived a sinless life and died a sacrificial death on your behalf, then rose again in vindication of his claims and validation of his sacrifice). In proof of your sincere willingness to do these things, you were invited to say a “sinner’s prayer” that stated as much. You believed that Jesus was indeed who he claimed to be and that he had indeed done all that Christians and Scripture said that he had done, so you said the prayer as directed, believing yourself sincere, and were assured you could now be certain you’d go to heaven when you died.
This past experience alone, Washer would have you know, is not a sufficient basis for believing yourself a true Christian, certainly saved and bound for glory. If you are truly a child of God, your life since that initial profession will show objectively discernible signs proving you are indeed saved. It is these tokens of true faith, not reflection on your conversion experience, that will grant you whatever degree of assurance your case merits. Alternatively, it is the absence of these tokens, or too great a dearth of them, that should cause you to doubt your faith and seek the Lord in prayer and repentance that he might grant you true faith and the objective evidences that follow it. Such is the hard, but scripturally sound, message of Gospel Assurance & Warnings. Though the last in a trilogy, the text stands well on its own (so it seemed to me, and I have yet to read the prior two titles). Readers seeking biblical Christian material of substance that prompts serious reflection will find the book at once highly edifying and troubling (as uncomfortable truths are always troubling). Readers seeking light and encouraging “devotional” fare may prefer to look elsewhere.
In part one, “Biblical Assurance,” the bulk of the text, Washer surveys tests of true faith set forth in 1 John. In skeletal form, those tests, twelve in number, are as follows.
- From 1 John 1:5-7: “upon careful examination of our lives [over time, not in isolated moments], we see a real and growing [though never in this life perfect] conformity to God’s nature and will” (26).
- From 1 John 1:8-10: owing to an “altered heart…and…altered affections,” the maturing true believer will “develop a more acute understanding of the holiness of God and a keener sensitivity to sin in his life,” so that “his sorrow for sin and the depth and frequency of his confession” will grow greater over time (31, 35).
- From 1 John 2:3-5: “Although his progress will often be three steps forward and two steps back….Over the full course of the believer’s life and through the continuing and sanctifying work of God, his attitude and conduct will reflect greater and greater submission to the will of God revealed in His commands” (49).
- From 1 John 2:5-6: “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” the true believer will be “learning to walk as Christ walked”; there will be “observable, practical evidence” that the true believer is “seeking to imitate Christ” so that his “daily conduct manifest[s] more of Christ and less of the world” (54).
- From 1 John 2:7-11: The true believer will manifest “love” for other Christians, “love” that “is foremost a matter of will, which manifests itself in right and selfless [perhaps better: benevolent] action” (60). (I tend to prefer the term “benevolent” over “selfless,” since it is willing and acting for the good of one’s brethren, not devaluing or disregarding one’s own good, that qualifies one as “loving.” Even sacrificing self for the good of others is not precisely “selfless,” since such sacrifice, if rightly undertaken, is in service of God’s broader plan and purposes and so in fact serves the most “enlightened” interests of the Christian opting to make the sacrifice.) In case this test might not be entirely clear, Washer offers four sets of questions he believes will clarify whether one “loves” other Christians in the manner required: “First, whose company do you most enjoy? Do you seek fellowship with other believers and delight in conversations about Christ?….Second, do you publicly identify yourself with Christ and His people?….Third, although you are aware of the church’s many weaknesses and moral failures, are you committed to her improvement?….[After all,] the true believer….cannot abandon the church or the fallen saint regardless of how many times they stray” but must commit himself to their “restoration and improvement….Fourth, are you a committed and contributing member of a local, visible congregation of believers?” (70) Admittedly, it requires some effort to see all these questions as valid expressions of Christian benevolence. For instance, seeking the fellowship of other Christians is only an act of benevolence if one’s goal is to benefit those with whom one fellowships; seeking simply to “enjoy” oneself through such associations may not be benevolent at all. Upon reflection, however, most of these questions do seem to invite “yes” responses from one who is truly benevolent toward fellow Christians.
- From 1 John 2:15-17: “one of the great proofs of conversion is the focus of a person’s life….If we strive for the things of this world, if we pine away because of the carnal rewards we are not able to procure, and if we covet the worldly attainments of others, then we are very far from the kingdom of heaven” (78). If, oN the other hand, we do not do these things, or do them less and less, refusing to live “at peace with sin, the flesh, and the world” (76), we may thereby feel assurance that we are indeed born again.
- From 1 John 2:18-19: in simple terms, one passes this test so long as one does not fall permanently away into apostasy, since this passage teaches that none who are genuinely saved could do so. In a day when not every “Christian” church preaches a biblical gospel, and when many church services tailor to carnal desires for entertainment, the mere fact that one remains a church member in good standing with consistent attendance does not mean one passes this test. To determine whether one passes, Washer suggests the following questions: “What would we do if the church was no longer about us and our felt needs but about the glory of God and His Christ? How would we respond to biblical preaching aimed at our conscience?” (What if the sermons upon which this book is based were preached at one’s church, for instance?) “What would be our reaction if entertainment were dethroned and simple, heartfelt worship was set in its place?….What would we do if everyone decided that being relevant and contextual were not as important as just pleasing God?” (95-6) If one would embrace these changes, one may consider this test passed.
- From 1 John 2:22-24, 4:1-3, and 4:13-15: “a person is not a Christian unless he believes and confesses that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Son of God; that He laid aside His heavenly glory and was conceived by the Holy Spirit in a virgin’s womb; that He was born in Bethlehem as God incarnate; that He was fully God and fully man; that He was the Christ foretold by the law and the Prophets; and that He is the Savior of the world” (99). Correct belief, thus, is an additional evidence of true conversion.
- From 1 John 3:1-3: “those who profess hope in Christ for salvation and future glorification at His coming will evidence such hope by the pursuit of purity, a striving after holiness, and a genuine and observable desire for conformity to the image of Christ. To the degree that these things are evident and growing, we may increase in assurance that we have truly come to know Him” (113).
- From 1 John 2:28-9 and 3:4-10: “the person who has been regenerated cannot live in habitual sin any more than a fish can live for long out of water,” but is prompted by the Spirit of God within to pursue “personal righteousness…conformity to the nature and will of God as revealed in the entirety of Scripture and foremost in the person of Jesus Christ” (125, 116).
- From 1 John 5:4-5 and 4:4-6: “one of the great marks of true conversion is that the world will not overcome the Christian so that he denies Christ and returns to it. Neither will the world prove successful in hindering God’s work in the believer’s life so that he becomes fruitless” (128); “in spite of our failure, we continue….we simply go on with Christ and persevere in faith until the end” (136-7).
- From 1 John 5:9-12: “We know that we are Christian because we believe the things that God has revealed concerning His Son” (153), having accepted God’s testimony through Scripture and gospel preachers (149), and having experienced and accepted both “the inward testimony of the Spirit who dwells within us” and “the reality of eternal life within us” (150-1).
In part 2, “Gospel Warnings, or Warnings to Empty Confessors,” Washer builds upon these tests and the picture of true faith and its implications so far described. In chapter 15, “Gospel Reductionism,” he contrasts the “gospel” widely promoted among contemporary Christians (which often lacks even such mention of repentance as found in this review’s opening illustration) with that taught in Scripture and historically (such as in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, from which Washer draws throughout part 2). Whereas contemporary Christians may seek merely to elicit admission that one is “a sinner,” Washer emphasizes that “we must be careful not to deal superficially with sin in either preaching the gospel or counseling seekers. It is not enough to ask them if they are sinners based upon their definition of the term or their opinions of themselves.” Rather, “We must exhaust every resource in Scripture until seekers gain a biblical understanding of sin, comprehend something of their own sinfulness, and show evidence of a new disposition toward it. Only then can we leave behind discussion of sin and advance to other matters of the gospel” (160). The contemporary tendency to ask if seekers want to go to heaven also misses the point: “The question is not whether a person wants to go to heaven but if he wants God.” In other words, “Has God so worked in your heart through hearing of the gospel that there is now a real and definite longing for Him?….Has love for God been awakened in your heart?” (163) It is affirmative answers to these questions, joined to previously established awareness of (and repentance for) one’s own sinfulness, that suggest genuine conversion is underway. Still, this is not the time to simply lead the seeker in a sinner’s prayer and declare permanent assurance earned; rather, the new believer should be both “encouraged by the truth that if he has genuinely repented and believed, he is saved” and “instructed that if his conversion is genuine, it will be further validated by his continuation in the things of God” (164) (enter the tests laid out in preceding chapters).
Remaining chapters continue to build upon the corrective theme, with special emphasis on relevant statements in Matthew 7 (with supportive cross references). As in the earlier tests, the central point here is that true conversion is evidenced by tangibly changed behavior: “We enter into the kingdom by passing through the narrow gate [Jesus Christ], but the evidence that we have passed through this gate is that we are now walking in the narrow way” (189), AKA “the way of the Lord, the way of the righteous, and the path of righteousness. This path,” Washer emphasizes, “is marked out by God’s commands, and it is a great litmus test of genuine faith” (191). As Washer understands matters, Scripture is clear: “the genuine believer will bear fruit that remains. For this he was chosen and appointed, and by this he proves that he is truly Christ’s disciple. Even though he will pass through times of apparent barrenness due to some besetting sin and the Father’s pruning, the work of divine discipline will serve to make him more fruitful” (216). Thus, true believers will find, for instance, that over time their conduct and affections more readily pass the tests set forth in part one of the text. A “gospel” that suggests otherwise, Washer would assert, is not the biblical gospel.
In his closing chapter, “The Dangers of an Empty Confession,” Washer gives special attention to how corrupted gospel preaching endangers souls (by making unsaved professors think themselves secure) and calls upon his fellow preachers to correct the problem. He writes: “We are inundated with a gospel without demands or costs, that not only does not oppose the flesh but often caters to it. Ministers who ought to know better preach a God-dethroning, man-exalting message that can be received with the repetition of a prayer. Then, after only a few minor adjustments, the ‘convert’ is allowed to continue upon the same broad road as before” with a preacher-endorsed “convenient faith” that “anesthetizes enough of the conscience to make it nearly impervious to the truth” (234). The fearful result of this is that many who now think that they are Christians discover they are mistaken only when it is too late: “Our evangelical churches are filled with individuals who confess Christ and yet do not hear His Word so as to obey it. Their Christianity,” Washer relates, “can be summed up in a past transaction they made with Christ by praying a prayer, but they do not go on with Him into any noticeable depths of devotion and obedience.” Having “merely done what they were told to do in order to gain entrance to heaven,” they now “sit in our pews with their consciences anesthetized and hear no warning and see no contradiction between what they do and what they claim to be—between who they are and Who[m] they confess” (251).
Washer pleads with his fellow preachers to repent of having failed to present the full truth of the gospel. To all teachers of the Word, he writes: “Will we hide these things from our hearers? They will curse us in the end! Will we tell them even though they think us mad? They will bless us on that day! We must throw away all desire for the accolades and approval of men and seek the approval of Christ. We must preach the hard sayings of Christ, even though we are accused of being loveless, angry, morbid, and morose. We must be willing to suffer the temporary wrath of men if it will save them from the eternal wrath of God. We must prepare them to meet their God!” (244) How many will heed Washer’s call?
Such is my overview. This is certainly a text I recommend reading. Giving copies to pastors you know might also be worthwhile, if you have the funds.
Since a review without criticism would have limited value (I, at least, have never found purely positive reviews all that useful), I cannot end there. Offering criticism of this particular book is not easy, however. It is soundly biblical and does make an effort to portray the complexity of the issues involved: Christians are new creations, yet what they were before remains with them, almost as though two beings with contrary purposes inhabited the same physical form. Throughout the text, Washer carefully points out that sinless perfection and “total sanctification” are fantasies and that none of the tests he describes should be taken to suggest otherwise. He is also careful to emphasize repeatedly that ability to pass these tests is the result of being saved, not a means of obtaining salvation: salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, he never ceases to make clear. Thus, one may not accuse Washer of either perfectionism or legalism.
Now, I did once hear John Robbins of the Trinity Foundation assert, in a lecture the title of which I do not recall, that the good and bad “fruit” Christ has in view when speaking of good and bad “trees” in Matthew 7 is the fruit of doctrine rather than, as Washer assumes, the fruit of conduct. This reading might fit well with the reality that bad, meaning non-Christian, trees can and do yield morally good fruit, at least insofar as merely human observers can distinguish good moral actions from bad. But, since Washer rather than Robbins sets forth the view most commonly held and taken for granted by believing readers of Scripture, I will not go so far as to claim Washer’s view weakens the book.
Nevertheless, reflection does prompt, if not strong criticism, at least concern about some of Gospel Assurance & Warnings‘ contents. For one, while I believe the proposed tests will powerfully and rightly lead many false Christians to doubt their professions, I am not so sure true Christians will derive great assurance from them. My own experience and reflection have led me to believe that assurance, like fundamental faith, is a gift God gives to whom he will, when he will, as suits his sovereign purposes. Neither analysis of your initial confession for tokens of sincerity, nor inference from reflection upon the various objective markers of true conversion in Washer’s text, nor the favorable testimony of outside observers of your changed behavior over the years, will give you assurance God has not sovereignly determined to grant you. Even if you do well on Washer’s tests, the fact that you are imperfect will leave you doubting, even though Washer is rightly emphatic that perfection cannot be expected this side of glory. You might well give special attention to Washer’s repeated reference to how the various tests only favor assurance “to the degree” that one passes them; since one never in this life passes them perfectly, one must always remain at least a little in doubt about one’s salvation, mustn’t one?
Trying to find assurance from such objective tests is far from easy, one finds upon reflection, and it might be argued that Washer does not do full justice to the difficulty. Throughout the text, he rightly emphasizes that no Christian is ever “wholly sanctified” in this life, that “The flesh will not be fully eradicated until…final glorification,” so that “There will always be, even in the most devout life, a constant battle against sin and moral failure and need for repentance, confession, and restoration” (15). How, then, is one to distinguish with certainty between the truly saved Christian and the non-saved but professing Christian, who strives to improve because morally aware (due to common grace and Christian associations)? Washer asserts: “there will be a great difference between the weakest sincere believer who struggles against sin and makes only minimal progress in sanctification and the false convert who professes faith in Christ yet lives in a near-constant state of worldliness with little offense to his conscience, brokenness over sin, or heartfelt confession.” These are, he maintains, “distinguishable differences between the true and false convert” (Ibid.).
Is the situation really so cut-and-dried? Do the unregenerate who believe themselves Christians in fact have consciences little offended by the moral errors of worldliness? Do they not often feel what they would call “brokenness” over their moral shortcomings? Do they not confess (to God or to themselves) their failure in a way they would deem “heartfelt”? There may indeed be differences in the subjective experiences of regenerate and unregenerate “Christians,” but it is not at all clear that unregenerate individuals striving through fleshly effort to live up to moral principles derived from their God-given (if fallen) moral sense and Scripture’s moral teachings (which they are helped to understand by regenerate Christians with whom they fellowship), will necessarily be able to tell by observing their own affections and actions that they are not in fact growing under the Holy Spirit’s influence. Such a one might ask: Is my progressive change over time the work of God’s Holy Spirit as I am remade in Christ’s image, or is it the result of my own efforts to discipline and train myself in accord with moral convictions my God-given human nature (and perhaps the aid of others who are regenerate) has permitted me to discern? Is God changing me because he has saved me, or am I changing myself in order to convince myself God has saved me? So far as I can see at present, there is no way (barring belief-coercing mystical experiences, perhaps) to be certain of one’s salvation based on these sorts of objective tests. It seems one could always imagine that one has in fact deceived oneself; one would always have to retain a certain degree of doubt, always entertain the possibility that one might in fact be self-deceived and unsaved, however much one had changed and however many good works one had done.
Even the objective test that asks whether one is chastised for bad behavior or not seems subject to false positives: what I perceive as chastisement could simply be the negative consequences of my actions, no (special) divine action required. Or, since not every bad thing that happens is necessarily chastisement, it could be that I’m simply one of the many people to whom bad things happen “by chance” (providential reasons having nothing to do with me or my actions directly). Granted, being able to sin as a way of life while continuing to profit, achieving wealth and other forms of worldly success, does seem good objective evidence that any Christian status one claims is bogus. The test does, thus, seem helpful on the negative side, revealing false professors. It seems less helpful as a means of assurance for true professors, however, since not everything one might like to identifying as chastisement confirming one’s regenerate status can be certainly identified as such. In this realm of objective tests, reasons for doubt seem much easier to find than reasons for assurance. Of course, as Washer notes, John himself seems to have expected objective tests to grant believers assurance they lacked prior to applying them (1 John 5:13), so perhaps these “reasons for doubt” will prove unjustified upon further reflection and analysis.
Another aspect of the book that might merit concern is what some might call Washer’s “emotionalism.” In his description of the various tests of true conversion, Washer makes frequent reference to intense emotion as important to the tests as he understands them. For instance, concerning the need for true believers to prove imitators of Christ (1 John 2:5-6), he asks: “Does it pain us deeply when we observe the great breach that still remains between Christ’s character and our own? Do we long to be like Christ?” (54) “Does our manner of living reflect a real passion to be like Christ?” (56) Similarly, in speaking of the need for true converts to reject the world (1 John 2:15-17), Washer asserts that “man is to be smitten with God and driven by a passion for Him” (75). Concerning the correct belief test (1 John 2:22-24, 4:1-3, and 4:13-15), it is not only the case that “regeneration will always lead to right thinking about Christ”; it will also always lead, adds Washer, to “corresponding affections for Him” (104). And, concerning how the truly converted will not be able to live in perpetual sin but will be inclined toward conformity to God’s will (1 John 2:28-9 and 3:4-10), Washer asserts that the true Christian, in fact, “cannot practice sin without experiencing the greatest affliction of conscience and the nausea of its defilement” (125). (When Shinedown sings of learning to “sin with a grin,” the group thereby proves its unregenerate state…in case one was in any doubt.) Though one could hardly object to all of this, one might wonder if every one of these emotional responses is in fact required by Scripture. Might some of them be expressions of Washer’s own particular temperament? Should even persons of more coolly rational, unemotional temperaments judge themselves deficient if their Christian profession has not been accompanied by a sudden increase in emotionalism?
Concerning the specific case of revulsion toward sin (“nausea of its defilement”), one might wonder just how much revulsion must be found to merit assurance. If sins one formerly relished now raise in one only (1) duty-prompted avoidance and (2) mild distaste for and inability to derive enjoyment from them, should one take this as evidence that one really has been created anew (albeit not at the same time released from all ties to the “old man” one previously was)? Or should one see one’s lack of strong revulsion as evidence that one is trying to deceive oneself into believing one has been reborn when in fact one has not been? On Washer’s account, apparently, acceptance of the moral duty to avoid certain activities, joined to sincere and diligent efforts to fulfill that duty, is not evidence of genuine conversion unless accompanied and motivated by a discernible (and sufficiently strong) change in affect. The question those examining themselves may wish to see answered is this: how strong a change is sufficient? This analysis of one’s emotions does, it seems to me, risk losing the objective quality Washer proposes these tests should have, moving the focus from what one does (and how what one does changes or fails to change over time) to how one tends to feel about what one does.
A final point of concern, and this is indeed a minor one, is Washer’s attempt to draw a distinction between “propositional truths,” construed as “great laws, principles, and wisdom” or “instructions and commands” that are “communicated by statements and assertions,” and other things to be accepted such as “the person of Christ” (192). Washer’s writing here seems in line with a way of thinking I have found common. This way of thinking suggests that the “propositional truths” of Scripture comprise solely those truth that Scripture itself sets forth as propositions. This seems misguided. If we read of Jesus healing someone, the implied truth that “Jesus acts with benevolence and mercy toward those in need” is certainly propositional, even though the narrative description of his healing contains no propositions beyond those stating that he did in fact perform the healing. Some of us, in fact, would go so far as to say that all truths are propositional: if an assertion of what is (or was or will be) the case cannot be stated in propositions, it cannot be identified as true or false because truth and falsity are qualities of propositions alone. Truth is propositional; “propositional truth” is a redundancy. We might grant, of course, that there may be forms of genuine awareness the deliverances of which defy propositional expression; if direct mystical experiences of God actually occur, they might sometimes fall into this category. Nevertheless, the claim that one had such an experience (and that what one experienced defies expression in any propositional form one can manage) would itself be asserted as a true or false proposition. Similarly, though knowing the person Christ indeed seems to involve more than knowing truths about him, all the truths one does know about him must still be propositional.