Monday, March 17, 2014

Book review: "Blessed Assurance" by Eric Douglas

I'd like to thank Eric Douglas for sending me a review copy of Blessed Assurance. He may not have known it when he sent me the copy, but I'm probably fairly far from his intended audience, which makes it a good test for whether his writings have appeal outside of his denominational circle. Douglas is a pastor with an education that is thoroughly Baptist, and he writes from a recognizably Calvinist perspective. His background is in the revivalist tradition, where people often speak of a particular conversion experience and spend much time agonizing over whether they are saved. So what does his book say for a Christian from a different tradition, a Lutheran like me?

He writes for those asking the question, "How can I know that I am saved?" What follows is a readable booklet that can be comfortably finished in one sitting. Using the framework of John's first letter, he structures his writing around three tests (no spoilers here but I'll say he stays Biblical in choosing his tests). He does a good job of walking the reader through the reasons to trust in God and to hope in Christ. While he addresses the people who have false security, I thoroughly welcomed the much-needed words for people who have false doubts. There are many people who should truly have more confidence in Christ's promises than they do. His may be the clearest words of comfort and assurance they have heard. He does a capable job of directing people to Christ for their hope. He also does a solid job of tackling the confusion that causes some people to avoid their own questions. He lays to rest their fears that acknowledging their questions or seeking the answers will undermine their faith. Those who have never given themselves permission to address their doubts may find boldness here, and may find their faith grow deeper and surer as they pursue understanding. He strikes a good balance when talking about the tension between faith and doubts. He addresses how we can make sense of a changed life and and still struggle with the remnants of sin. He makes a calm case for the work of the Spirit in spite of the roller-coaster of human emotions. In one of his strongest contributions, he strikes a balance on all of these without going wishy-washy, as is far too common among authors dealing with those topics. Instead, he retains the sense of having a clear direction forward, along with grace for our weaknesses.

The book's best pull-quote, in my opinion, is Douglas' comment on faith and works. He sums up many Bible passages memorably and vividly when he says:
A change in your life is never the cause of your salvation. But it is a reliable reflection of your salvation. (p.27)

As with any human work, this book is not perfect. I found the occasional grammatical problems to be easy enough to overlook, and did not materially interfere with the author's point. My larger areas of discomfort come from my different Christian background: Lutheran rather than Calvinist or Arminian. I could not help but shake my head in sadness at the tale of the seven-year-old child having sleepless nights in fear of what eternity would bring him. What unhealthy or unwise things would lead up to a tragic situation like that? And I could not help but be angry when God was portrayed as the problem: "Unless we are saved from Him, we will perish" (p.2, emphasis added). I wrote the author and asked if he'd really meant it; he doubled down on how he believes that God is in fact the problem ... and the solution. (Too often I have heard that exact viewpoint from ex-Christians who have lost their faith, who have stopped believing that He is good and trustworthy if He is the problem in the first place.) And I should caution the reader that the author sows seeds of doubt rather than faith again when he repeats the Calvinist preaching that God's promise is not really for all. That teaching is an underlying cause of why certain groups tend to doubt their own salvation so often, and why they need so much reassurance. If they do not believe God's promise is for all the world, how can they believe it is for them?

Still, Douglas spends more time focusing on Christ and building faith, rather than tearing it down. "How can I know that I am saved?" Lutherans like me are not, in general, angsty hand-wringers over this question, on the view that enough Christ-centered preaching will put our minds at rest. Those who are prone to doubt may find hope here as we are directed to Christ. Those who are not prone to doubt may still find cause for gladness. As the author reminds us, the disciple John wrote his letter so that our joy may be complete. Douglas' book should be a solid help and true comfort to those who are in fear for their salvation (or over-confident of it) for all the wrong reasons. And it can be a cause for renewed thankfulness to God, even for those who are at peace.


Metacrock said...

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Martin LaBar said...

"There are many people who should truly have more confidence in Christ's promises than they do."

Good point.