Many believers throughout the history of the church have experienced the ups and downs of the experiential assurance of salvation. There have been times when I have been overwhelmed by the nearness of God–when there were sweet “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-20) and there have been quite a number of times when I have felt far from God–when I have cried out with the Psalmist, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever” (Ps. 89:46)?
The Westminster Confession of Faith has a tremendously helpful chapter on “Assurance of Salvation,” in which the members of the Assembly explained:
“True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.”
The loss or diminishing of assurance of salvation is is a very real thing in the lives of believers–and something that weighs down the soul of a child of God. There can be a sense in which a believer may, for a time, feel as though he or she is walking in darkness without the light of God’s presence. What can be done for such a believer when this occurs? While there are several important steps that we can and should take (e.g. we could be more fervent in seeking to putting sin to death, giving ourselves to a greater use of the means of God’s grace and more purposeful seeking to surround ourselves with other strong and mature believers), there is one biblical truth to which our minds must constantly return–namely, that Jesus suffered the ultimate judicial punishment in the place of His people on the cross so that believers will never be forsaken by God. Jesus cried the last cry of abandonment that we find in Scripture, so that we can be definitely assured that we, who are in union with Him, will never be forsaken.
In the Old Testament, there are these great cries of abandonment. We find them throughout the Psalms and in the prophetic literature. The Psalmist often poured out his heart to God in agony on account of the fact that he felt abandoned. Jeremiah was termed the weeping prophet, in part, because he felt as though the living God had forgotten him. However, when we come to the New Testament, there are no more cries of dereliction, except for that which Christ cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, Why have You forsaken Me?”
We should find it to be a thing of supreme interest that the Apostles never cry out to God with a sense of abandonment in all the prayers that they pray in the New Testament epistles. They suffered many of the same trails and afflictions that they Psalmist had suffered. In fact, it may rightly be said that the Apostle Paul suffered more than the Psalmist. So why–if there is solidarity in the experience between the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Apostles regarding their suffering for Christ–do we not find a similarity in their cries and prayers of dereliction? There is one simple answer: Jesus cried the last cry of dereliction on the cross so that we might have the definitive assurance that the Covenant God will never leave us or forsake us. That great covenantal promise that God would not forsake His people (Deut. 13:6) is secured for the people of God by the Son of God being forsaken in our place at the cross (Heb. 13:5). The Old Testament saints could look forward in anticipation to this promise, but not with the same sense of the knowledge that it had been definitively secured through the substitutionary death of the Son at the cross.
Sinclair Ferguson captures so well the inner workings of that cry and the relationship that existed between the Father and the Son when he says,
“The story of that eternal Son is that in some time He is going to be given up to the cross, and He is going to cry out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” in a sense that He has lost His Father; and there is going to be an echoing cry in the heart of the Heavenly Father, much deeper than the cry of King David in the death of his son Absalom, “Oh Absalom, my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.”
Herman Witsius sought to explain the nature of Jesus being forsaken on the cross in our place when he wrote:
“Christ…because of the sins themselves which he took upon him, and because of the persons of sinners whom he sustained, was represented not only under the emblem of a lamb, inasmuch as it is a stupid kind of creature, and ready to wander; but also of a lascivious, a wanton, and a rank-smelling goat, Lev. 16:7. yea, likewise of a cursed serpent, John 3:14. and in that respect, was execrable and accursed, even to God. For this is what Paul expressly asserts, Gal. 3:13. on which place Calvin thus comments, “He does not say that Christ was cursed, but a curse, which is more; for it signifies that the curse due to all, terminated in him. If this seem hard to any, let him also be ashamed of the cross of Christ, in the confession of which we glory!”
When we see the enormity and heinousness our sin, we must again listen to the Savior–nailed to the tree in our place, with our sins imputed to him–crying out under the wrath and curse of God, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” As we do, we return to him in repentance and faith, knowing that He will never cast out the one who comes to Him. We begin to regain the assurance of our salvation when we come to the fountain of our assurance–the death of Jesus at the cross. While our sanctification plays a subsidiary part in the keeping and enjoyment of subjective assurance, it cannot ever be the grounds of such assurance. Because He was forsaken, we–who are united to him by faith–will never be forsaken.
1. Witsius, H. (1807). Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain. (T. Bell, Trans.) (pp. 44–45). Glasgow: W. Lang.