It’s not uncommon to hear comments such as “Don’t suppress your feelings—get in touch with them.” And a popular modern theory is “If it feels good, it must be right—do it!” Identity issues today are argued based on feelings—that is, what you feel about yourself determines your identity. One reason people check their smartphone hundreds of times a day is because doing so produces a brief “feel good” moment, a dopamine shot. Some people even choose their religion based on feelings and emotions. Our culture is one that follows feelings. But what are feelings? One dictionary says that a feeling is “an emotional state or reaction; the emotional side of someone’s character.” Feelings also have to do with opinions and beliefs. For example, we say, “I feel like you’re being cruel.” Another meaning of this term is related to the sense of touch: we talk about an object feeling hot or cold. We all know what feelings are, but it isn’t easy to define the concept in a short sentence.
Holy Scripture doesn’t have a word for “feeling” that is exactly like ours. However, the Bible does talk about the inward parts (bowels) being moved or stirred (cf. Song of Sol. 5:4; Isa. 16:11). In John 11:33, Jesus was deeply moved in spirit (NASB) which means something like feeling “intense indignation.” One Greek dictionary says that the term for “bowels” or “kidneys” metaphorically refers to “the psychological faculty of desire, intent, and feeling.” More could be said, but it is safe for us to say that feelings are part of what it means to be human.
As Christians we have feelings too. When God powerfully breathes new life into our dead hearts, giving us repentance and faith, we don’t become unfeeling creatures. Rather, when God regenerates and sanctifies us, he renews even our feelings and emotions. No doubt “godly sorrow” has something to do with our feelings (2 Cor. 7:9–10 NIV). Christian joy is also related to our feelings (1 Thess. 3:9). Instead of feeling delight in sin, the Christian begins to feel delight in the things of God, such as his law (Ps. 119:174).
At the same time, Christians are not yet totally sanctified, so they will still have sinful feelings. When Christians are at a low point, they may feel like doing something wrong. Or they may not feel like doing what they should do, such as being kind to their neighbor. When the prophet Elijah was depressed, he didn’t even feel like living another day (1 Kings 19:4)!
We should note that our feelings fluctuate quite frequently. If I’m tired and hungry, I might not feel well. If my favorite baseball team won in the bottom of the ninth and five minutes later my boss texted that I got a raise, I’d feel really good! If my diet is poor and I get little or no exercise, my feelings will be affected. When my friend calls and says he’s getting a divorce, I feel badly for him. Though we all have feelings, not many of us experience them in the same way at the same time or circumstance, since we’re all quite different.
Sometimes our feelings affect our spiritual life. If I yell at my son and say something terrible to him, I don’t feel very strong in the faith afterwards. During a busy week, I might look back and painfully realize I didn’t pray very much. That fact would make me feel miserable, like a pathetic Christian. On the other hand, when I obey God and show genuine love to someone, I feel good about it. After I finish memorizing a portion of Scripture, I feel like I’ve accomplished something worthwhile. The list goes on. Our feelings and spiritual life are related.
So what about feelings and assurance of salvation? What do my feelings have to do with my assurance? I believe it’s helpful to talk about subjective assurance and objective assurance. By using this terminology, I’m not suggesting there are two different assurances. Instead, I see these as two sides of the same coin or two aspects of a Christian’s assurance.
The Subjective Aspect of Assurance
“Subjective assurance” is what I call assurance based on internal factors. We can know we’re Christians by the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. When the Spirit gives new life to a person, that person has faith, repentance, obedience, hope, joy, and so forth. The apostle John said that we can know that we know the Lord if we keep his commandments (1 John 2:3; see Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 86). He also wrote that we know we have been given new life when we love fellow Christians (1 John 3:14). In Reformed theology, we talk about the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. This is when the Spirit witnesses in us and to us that we are children of God (Rom. 8:15–16).
Here’s the problem: sometimes Christians don’t feel like they have joy or hope. Sometimes I feel like my obedience is pretty dismal. I repeatedly sin and feel miserable about it. We can’t always “feel” the Holy Spirit at work in us. When going through a trial, we don’t always feel God’s love. When these things happen, our assurance sometimes wanes and weakens. Abraham Kuyper said this is like winter coming to the soul, bringing heavy layers of ice. The subjective aspect of assurance often falters when our feelings falter.
Here are two things to remember when struggling with the subjective aspect of assurance. First, our feelings are not always stable, nor are they always trustworthy. I may feel like God doesn’t love me, but my feeling doesn’t mean that’s true. It’s not good when I don’t feel like praying today, but that doesn’t mean I’m reprobate. Puritan Thomas Brooks put it this way:
Though there is nothing more dangerous, yet there is nothing more ordinary than for weak saints to make their sense and feeling the judge of their condition. . . . If you will make sense and feeling the judge of your state and condition, you will never have peace or comfort all your days. Your state, O Christian, may be very good, when sense and feeling says it is very bad.
Second, we need to remember that when we struggle, our response to the gospel is not the gospel. My emotions and feelings about the faith don’t define the faith. How much I treasure Christ at a particular moment in life is not the “good news.” The truth of the empty tomb doesn’t depend on how it makes me feel. When we mix the truths of the gospel with our feelings and emotions, our assurance loses stability.
The Objective Aspect of Assurance
“Objective assurance” is based on external things like Jesus’ saving work and the gospel truths of Scripture. To use the words of the Westminster Confession, this assurance is “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation” (18.2). I can be assured of my salvation by remembering the historical and biblical fact that Christ died and rose again to save me from my sins. Assurance comes when I look to Scripture and see the precious promises of God sealed by his Spirit: he will forgive all my sins through Christ’s blood, he will never leave me, he will take me to glory, and so on. These are objective truths, and they are outside of me. They are certain promises of God that have to do with historical facts. These truths and facts don’t change when my feelings do.
I would argue that objective assurance has priority over subjective assurance. They do go together, like faith and repentance; they cannot be separated. But as Charles Hodge said, “The grounds of assurance are not so much within, as without us.” In critiquing seventeenth-century Pietism, Louis Berkhof said that the movement focused far too much on the “subjective experience of believers.” The emphasis was within, which was divorced from the word and ended up in “morbid introspection.” It caused doubt, uncertainty, and despair, since it was primarily focused on the subjective aspect of assurance.
If we want a firm place to stand when it comes to assurance, then we need to stand on the gospel. Our anchor holds in heaven even when the storms of life rage and make us feel miserable (Heb. 6:19). For example, when Job’s life completely crumbled around him, he said, “I know that my redeemer lives . . . even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26 NASB). Or in New Testament terms, we walk by faith in God’s truths and promises, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). William Cowper, who suffered bouts of depression, put it this way in his 1774 poem “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense But trust Him for His grace Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face
The “frowning providence” may be hard to bear, but based on biblical truth, we know behind it is the fatherly “smile” of God.
We all have feelings. It’s part of being human. But as Christians, we understand that our feelings are not always reliable. They should not rule us, nor should they be the primary thing on which we ground our assurance of salvation. Instead, as we consider the work of the Spirit in us, we’re directed outside of ourselves to the firm promises of God. “This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life” (1 John 2:25 NASB).
Shane Lems is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin.